Lhasa can be a magical place. You may read elsewhere that it has lost it’s soul, that it has sold out to Beijing, that you cannot find the “real” Tibet here. Don’t believe everything that you read. The reality is that there are two Lhasas. One has all the makings of a thoroughly modern Chinese city: wide, clean streets; glassy buildings; large public squares adorned with massive TV screens and statues; Nike stores and other bastions of 21st century global consumer culture; man-made lakes complete with kiddie paddle boats. The other, the pedestrian-only Tibetan quarter, is steeped in tradition: narrow, winding alleyways; temples, prayer wheels and stupas; tiny shops making yak wool or noodles or prayer flags by hand; kids crouched on the pavement playing makeshift games with found stones.
Since the moment we arrived in Tibet 4 days ago I have felt utterly mesmerized. The impossibly harsh, jagged, and seemingly lifeless peaks that dominate the landscape are punctuated with valleys filled with technicolor fields of wildflowers and wide mountain streams that perfectly reflect the sky not so far above. The colorful traditional buildings and colorful local dress are all the more alluring against the bleak, rugged landscape.
(Regarding the sky being not so far above, as it turns out, we weren’t exactly cut out for life above 12,000 feet. The altitude has been a force to be reckoned with. The first day, even with a low-dose prophylaxis prescription for Diamox, we were practically incapacitated. As we strolled through town, little tiny old ladies hobbling along with canes blew by us. We huffed and puffed and wheezed and had to return to the hotel for a nap. I have a whole new respect for people who do crazy things like climb Kilimanjaro, or Everest, or really anything in the Himalayas. Happily it is getting better by the day, but tomorrow we will head farther afield, and farther up, as we make our way toward Everest Base Camp. Hopefully we can handle life at 5,000 meters, if only for a day.)
Perhaps the most captivating part of this city is the Barkhor – the swell of humanity that circumambulates the central Jokhang Temple, every day from dawn until dusk (which isn’t until about 9:30 since all of China is on Beijing time). All day long Lhasan Tibetans and Tibetan pilgrims in traditional dress from hundreds – even thousands – of miles away make the clockwise circuit, many of them spinning prayer wheels, making yak butter offerings, or prostrating themselves along the way. (Yak butter, by the way, emits an absolutely nauseating smell – any time there is too much of it in a temple I must make an early exit, or I risk vomiting all over Buddha.) Their dress depends on their home region, but usually involves some incarnation of belted woollen coats or robes, colorful aprons from the women, and all manner of headdress, from simple braids woven with string to ornate hats decorated with colorful stones.
Yesterday we went to the Sera monastery, where we watched the monks debate. I would have done anything in the world to have a real time translation of those arguments. Debates about esoteric topics of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy occur daily and are an integral part of study for the monks at Sera. If you ever thought monks were supposed to be soft spoken and austere, think again. These guys are incredibly loud and animated, jumping around, clapping loudly, swatting prayer beads around. Supposedly each action has a specific symbolic meaning, for example, a clap after each question is asked, but even without a full understanding, it was great fun to watch.
Our guesthouse is a friendly, quiet place in the Muslim quarter. There are a bunch of monks staying (living?) here as well, which I think is swell. Perhaps the most unexpected part of our Tibet experience so far is what we found on the bedside table: a brochure about HIV/AIDS prevention in Tibetan, and a pack of condoms – a first in all of the hotels we’ve stayed in over the course of the year. Glad that the monks and the Buddhists are learning about safe sex. Now let’s see if we can export this idea to Africa…
Tomorrow it’s onward and upward, as we make our way toward the top of the world.