When I wrote this I was in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. What can I say? I had no idea what to imagine. I read Seven Years in Tibet on the 44-hour train ride here and that helped to prepare me a little. But truly, nothing could prepare me for this place.
One can’t help but feel that they are standing in an occupied nation. The city is divided in two: The traditional Tibetan side, and the new Chinese side. The Chinese side is an eyesore: a mess of lights, stores, escalators, tackiness. The Tibetan side is –well, HOLY. Pilgrims’ circuits, temples dating to the 7th century, Tibetan people in traditional dress, chaotic streets full of commerce and life. It breathes life, humility, holiness. Monks in saffron and deep red robes wander the streets muttering chants to themselves. Wandering through the Tibetan part of the city is a welcome assault on the senses.
However, despite the superior appeal of the Tibetan side of the city, one factor spoils the landscape: The hundreds and hundreds of Chinese soldiers with rifles that stand guard at every corner, atop buildings (snipers!) and patrol the alleys menacingly. Tibetans, as a rule, do not speak Chinese, and Chinese, as a rule, do not speak Tibetan. The hostility is palpable.
This place is a nation itself. There’s no denying it. The streets themselves are open markets of food, Buddhist prayer flags and beads, and rickshaws. But also of poverty: one man crawling on his stomach through the streets, naked from the waist down and revealing his pelvis disfigured and mangled, is an image I won’t soon forget. My German companion said, “We better get used to it before India.” It makes more sense that this land belongs to the triangle of Tibet, Nepal, and northern India than to China. It’s status as an autonomous region within China makes even less sense than Puerto Rico’s autonomous status in the US. The language, the flavors, the faith, the people–it’s not China. The Dalai Lama lives in exile in Dharamsala, India and has not visited his land since 1951. Our tour guide, a Tibetan named Lobsang, too lived for a time there and upon his return to Tibet, was jailed for fleeing the country illegally. I can’t wait to go see the exiled Tibetan community in Dharamsala.
We went out for a delicious Tibetan dinner (dumplings, tomato soup, yak stew, fried potatoes, yak butter tea were all shared) and then went down to the Potala palace, the rightful home of the exiled Dalai Lama, to see it by night. It was absolutely fantastic, all lit up and standing regally, as it has since the 7th century, overlooking the holy land of Lhasa. But… then, across the street, the Chinese have erected a massive monument to the 1951 “liberation” of Tibet and a tacky fountain and light show with blaring Chinese music overtakes the beauty of the Potala. It made me cry. Chinese tourists happily watch the light show and a few Tibetans wander around and attempt to sell prayer beads. Not many buyers.
We also visited the Jokhang monastery today, the most important of its kind in Tibet. I asked how monks were chosen to study there. Turns out it has more to do with social status than studiousness. We were privy to a rare treat: we walked in just as the monks were gathering in a common area to do morning chants. No photos allowed but I snuck a video. The billowing ovens of incense and burning yak butter gave the place an unfamiliar and intoxicating smell and the massive Buddha and other statues, all solid gold, were truly awe-inspiring. The pilgrims prostrating themselves outside the temple were mostly elderly Tibetans.
This part of the trip is exciting, educational and every second eye-opening. I can’t express how glad I am to be doing this. I just wish I knew how to fully process and appreciate every second of unfamiliarity and other worldliness. And, always, I wish I had someone to share it with–to point at the lighted Potala, the bustling streets, the Chinese guards and just say “LOOK!” I do love my companions here–three Dutch and two Germans, and we’re getting along well. But none of them are as great as all of you!