Monday, June 04, 2018

Tibet Journals : Onto Lhasa




...Flying from Kathmandu to Lhasa, you'll want to sit on the left side of the plane.  I don't believe I ever opened my book, as the Himalaya slide beneath me.  I played the name that peak, more from assumed geography than any familiarity with shape.  Everest was unmistakable this time, and remained with us for a good half an hour, its peak streaming with blowing snow.   Once over the hump, the land fell away and turned brown, eventually to be cut deep with rivers.  The plane did a wide U-turn over one of these, them cruised in to land in the middle of nowhere. 

Immigration was quick, but baggage took ages to appear, as we huddled in a cold airport.  The bags were scanned, but somehow they didn't notice the guide books.  I'd been warned that they'd be confiscated if found, a loss I was willing to risk.  I'd photo the maps and pages I thought crucial.  But luckily it was a moot point. 

We were met in the car park by our guide G and driver D.  They presented scarves as expected, and we returned the favor.  The Tibetan scarves were longer then I'd seen, even draped over our necks they hung to mid-thigh.  The van we'd have for the trip was big and comfortable.  My eyes immediately found the surveillance cameras, one affixed to the dash, another hanging from the roof like a turret.  As if on cue, we were immediately warned not to discuss politics, a vow I kept, though it would prove difficult at times.  Despite this, the dashboard was cover with statues and draped with beads, which surprised...

...It was an hour to Lhasa, across a dry lunar landscape.  The mountains were like those of Arizona, spiny and rocky, the colors drab against the bright blue of sky.  There was little else here, but for the odd view of the rail line cutting northeast.  Lhasa began as a typical modern Chinese city, of tall flats and hotels, with shops and restaurants on the ground floor.  Beyond this the Potala, marking the old town.  Kyichu Hotel was near the old town's center,  a collection of rooms horseshoed around a quiet garden.  We climbed to the roof to look over the old town, as cats dozed in the grass below...



...We start the day at Drepung Monastery, the drive up winding through forests where yaks graze.  It is a long trudge up the hilly steps to the temple, in the company of locals following suit, or undergoing the kora up along the hillside.  Kata scarves flow white like a waterfall from the base of Buddha statue above,A few older priests flick their beads as they walk, clad in maroon which covers their thick bodies.  We all move in the same direction through hills and courtyards stacked atop one another up the hillside. The wind is ever blowing, the yellow drapes in the large windows in constant motion. Each room is tainted with that sour smell of butter lamps.  Monks of all ages within, though quiet this Sunday morning.  A few of the older monks stand watching the rooms, though most are distracted by their iPhones.  (One monk talks on his phone on the roof, probably the place with best reception.) I catch one chanting a sutra read off that exact device.  Bills of small denomination are everywhere, stacked and falling off small plates, or from glass cases.  (I'll later change money in the carpark, to be doled out for the rest of the trip.)  It takes a good hour or more to wander this ancient fortress, reduced by the 40 percent destroyed in the 1950s...



...We drive across town to Sera Monastery, looping around the back of the Potala.  One car we pass has Che Guevara painted on the doors.  I have my first yak steak and fries (which will become my go to meal when noodles get tired), then we wander up through the halls. These are bisected by broad lanes and shaded by trees like a small suburban town, its gate welcoming as you step through to a large courtyard. Sera is known for its book, so we buy a couple of sutras wrapped in silk. After Drepung earlier, and a week already in the Himalayas, the statuary within begins to take on a certain familiarity, which allows the mind to stop grasping at facts, and the eye to focus then of the magnificence of aesthetics.   One Maitreya sits solidity upon a three story high thanka.  The courtyards here are more yellow than white, and far above, a hermitage glows almost a brilliant gold upon the rocky hillside.  Sera gets its name from the roses that bloom here, and besides these, the cherry trees were just filling in with pink.  Three hundred monks study here, down from a pre-1959 figure of 5000...

 
...the Norbulingka Summer Palace is today a park, occupied by young Tibetan couples or families, as well as tourists obviously mainland from China.   It is a pleasant stroll beneath the varied fruit trees and around the ponds.  Temples exist here instead of pavilions, their courtyards decorated with fountains and flowers.  I was surprised to find many references to the 13th Dalai Lama, including one temple that serves as a transport museum of sorts, filled with turn of the century bicycles and buggies.  One clever palanquin is built with rails at a 30 degree angle, to use when climbing the long flights of steps up to the Potala.  Not far away is the palace to the 14th DL, though nowhere is that stated.  It looks like it probably did when he left, though I can't imagine that to be possible, especially after the rampages of the Red Guards.  But it fun to dream so, of  he sitting beneath the large paintings, listening to 78s on the record player.  I remind myself that he fled from here in 1959, as hundreds of Tibetans were being gunned down in the streets beyond the walls... 


 ...the Winter Palace is better known as the Potala, familiar to anyone whose ever seen a photo of Tibet. Yet appears much smaller than it appears on film, (yet in finally climbing the steps, its size reasserts itself).  Yet it is an inspiring structure, even better than expected, in a way like I found with the Taj Mahal.   Rising majestically from the center of Lhasa, it can be seen from just about everywhere.  You'll find yourself looking for it as you walk the city, in a way that you look for Fuji when you hike the mountains of central Japan. We visit at an early hour, to beat the crowds.  There are already hundreds walking the kora around it.  One man chants as he does full-length prostrations.  He has two small girls with him, attached to ropes at his hips.  As he lays himself out, they run a few steps to keep from getting pulled off his feet.  The girls bring him a fair amount of attention, and it is they who receive the donations.  The snow lions are nearly invisible beneath the kata scarves.  We queue just in front of the massive doors, colorful tassels tied to their impressive knockers.  A few Chinese men smoke as they wait, which annoys as ever, though perhaps more at this altitude. I am intrigued by a trio of nomads in front of us, quite intricate in their dress and reminiscent of South American gauchos.  The doors open and we find ourselves at the head of the queue, leaving behind others to huff and puff up the steep steps.  Above, below, and around, all is a bright white.  To enter the covered passages that turn the steps back upon themselves is to temporarily blinded.  Finally we come to a large courtyard, and all becomes red.  The sky above bright and flawless, the mountaintops beneath busted with white flour.  An old woman is helped up a flight of steps so steep it is almost a ladder.  She, and many others like her, carries thermoses filled with butter in a way like Americans clutch their take-away coffee cups as they move around. The butter will be used to fill the lamps.  (One poor fellow broke his at the entrance, the floor made slick and dangerous.) The stupa here is a work of art.  A boy monk plays with a cat just inside.  As we wend around, it is refreshing not to jostle with the crowds.    In the main hall, a senior monk meets with uniformed government officials. I recognize the room from the sets of "Seven Years" and "Kundun." I find myself most impressed by the 14th DL's anonymous chambers. The thanka and statuary are as incredible as you would expect. There is a a small cave within, housing many of these great works of art  Most are probably original, and we have Zhou Enlai to thank, as he personally intervened to protect it.  That said, countless treasures have been looted over the years...        

 ... A cyclo wheels us over to the last of Lhasa's three UNESCO sites, the Jokhang.  There had been a fire at this 1400 year old temple two months ago, but incredibly there was no apparent damage.  This temple serves as the heart of the Tibetan religion, a fact supported by incredible queues.  G waited while I went off to a nearby shop to buy a Tibetan cowboy hat. Once inside we as foreigners had to circumambulate around the outer ring while the locals ducked in and out of the tiny chambers housing relics. It has almost reverse effect of the Potala, this large temple somehow compact within. The neat rows of cushions are topped with a triangle of red robes, like a sailing fleet.    The central image, of Shakyamuni, was the scene of the fire, and again, miraculously all was intact.  (An interesting metaphor for the Tibetan spirit.)   We exited out onto the second-story courtyard, filled with pushy Chinese tourists jostling for selfies.  (Over two weeks, I never encountered a pushy Tibetan.  Who's civilizing whom here?)   The courtyard had dozens of people prostrating, while armed soldiers patrolled the wider spaces and rooftops above, as they have since the 2008 protests... 


 ... These wider spaces define the Barkhor that serves as the central market.  It is mainly composed of a ring around the Jokhang, with smaller lanes radiating outward.  After lunch, I returned alone to wander the shops, and the stalls in the market, selling beads, statues, clothing.  There are a few temples around the outskirts, some art schools, and a tiny Muslim quarter which has monopolized the butcher trade in this land of Buddhistic carnivores. (Great band name!)  Passing a barber reading a newspaper, I pop in to give him some business.  Later I stuff my backpack with snacks for the upcoming drives.  Mainly I return tot eh central Barkhor and people watch, as a carnival of exotic characters and tropes spin round and round and round...
  

On the turntable:  John Coltrane:  Miles Davis and John Coltrane, "The Complete Columbia Recordings"
On the nighttable:  F.M. Bailey, "Mission to Tashkent"

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