Having slept fitfully, altitude or attitude, I’m not sure. I had had a conversation with a Chinese anesthesiologist over my evening yogurt who complained at length about not being able to sleep so I may have contracted my sleeplessness from her suggestion.
My hired-by-day guide, Jumpa, arrived and we took off for the Jokhang where we went in on the left hand side of the main door. The right hand side trailed a long, long line of Tibetans which wound between the prostrators many of whom were very well dressed—one in a bright blue chuba, the Tibetan wrap-around dress, with a matching hat. I saw a one legged man doing prostrations with metal blocks to protect his hands. He clicked them together at the over-head position, a pacific variation on the military heel click. Prostration, rather like the yoga salutation to the sun, is a form of Tibetan worship.
Once inside the Jokhang the two lines converged and, because of the Tibetan circumambulatory pace, it became a bit scarily frenetic. The elderly Tibetan woman behind me grabbed a fistful of the back of my jacket and hung on for dear life. We went charging through the five-meter passage where the bell from the long lost Christian church hangs overhead, into the first courtyard. The feeling of compressed frenzy exploding outward suggested a Woody Allen dramatization of the passage of sperm into ejaculation.
But in the court I had a chance to look at my favorite mural of the Tibetan Regent, Sangye Gyatso, receiving tribute from the Mongol Khan, Gushri Khan, in the 17th century, both with humorous faces and bulgy noses looking immensely happy and pleased with themselves. When I told Jumpa that I loved this painting, he commented condescendingly, “Not very old.” This certainly put me in my place and it is true it is a mural commissioned by the 13th Dalai Lama in the 19th century.
In this court Jumpa showed me the pillar with two stones embedded in the wood, except one is gone now, and the place on the pavement where there are two mysterious black bulges. The Jokhang is full of these little mysteries and enchantments of ambivalent significance.
We went on into the main hall, a mass of shoving Tibetans, cheery, not aggressive, shoving. Jumpa was excellent, more informative than any of the guides I´ve had before and more understandable. He showed me some murals depicting the castles of nobles in Lhasa before Buddhism. These had swords on top of them, stuck in like candles in a cake, signaling their readiness to do battle. The Buddhist umbrellas of peace later replaced them. The paintings made me think of the offensive towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany.
On the second floor we looked at 7th century doorframes either executed by Nepalis or heavily influenced by them. Their figures are more Hindu than Buddhist with occasional sexual overtones. All these carvings, beautiful in their sinuous lines, are slick with yak butter from the lamps in the chapels. From this level I could clearly see the cornice of grinning, 7th century white, lions with the sphinx in their midst, a tag around his/her neck to identify him/her.
Coming back down stairs we went into the most revered chapel where the Jowo resides, a statue of the Buddha at the age of twelve, gleaming among yak butter lamps. I circumambulated him being blessed by a monk as I passed, touching my head to the heap of khatas, scarves given as an offering, cushioning the Buddha’s thigh and then along the dark passage behind him lined with gleaming figures to come out again into the main hall.
The odor of yak butter didn´t seem as overpowering but the religious energy was as strong as ever. I think the Chinese have either restricted or reordered the method of giving yak butter and tsampa, roasted, ground barley, because no one seemed to be bearing bags of either. I hope there is a general repository for these gifts but such a restriction would certainly help to contain or, at least, restrain, the rat problem.
As we walked Jumpa told me, with pain and bewilderment in his voice, that his ten year old son will only speak Chinese in and out of the home because his teacher told him it was very important that he always speak Chinese. I comforted him as best I could by telling him I was sure there would come a time when his son would react against this instruction.
Outside the Jokhang I noticed that the Chinese have put a three foot high glass guard around the 18th century doring, a tall engraved stone, which gives instruction on how to protect the population against small pox. I wondered if people have been chipping at it. Jumpa had told me that the Chinese have covered many of the old pillars in the Jokhang because people gouge out bits to take home.
We stopped at the ATM on Mentsikhang Lam where I did something so quixotically idiotic it took me several days to recover. I withdrew 5,000 yuan in two batches of 2,500. I had trouble with the machine because of the large amount I was withdrawing but even that did not wake me up to what I was doing. When I figured it out I was aghast. Jumpa kindly blamed my altitude addled brain. Later I realized that my retarded mind was still dealing with the exchange rate for Nepali rupees, having not yet acquired the fact that I was in Tibet and, therefore dealing with the rate for yuan. There are about 100 Nepali rupees to a dollar. Therefore, fifty US would be over 5,000 rupees. There are about 7.60 yuan to a dollar. I had withdrawn over seven hundred dollars worth of yuan, far more than I would ever spend in my remaining eight days in Lhasa.
As we walked to Tashi´s for lunch, my brain was on liquefy in its autonomous blender. I was aghast at what I had done. Jumpa said that he knew a man who would change the money back into dollars at the black market rate which is lower than the official rate. Probably I should have held on until Hong Kong and gone to the HSBC bank there which is the main branch. But my mental blender was on high. A half an hour later over a table in the Tashi restaurant, in full public view, I exchanged my wad of yuan for four crisp fifty dollar bills and three one hundreds acquired from a small, Tibetan man who would not look me in the eye. The bills could have been play money or counterfeit. I will end the suspense now. They were fine. They just cost me two hundred dollars.
After lunch walking to the Ramoche, another important temple but much less intense than the Jokhang, Jampa told me that my former guide, Norbu, was no longer guiding but driving. This was alarming news because Norbu would be a wild, erratic driver. He was a superb guide once one left Lhasa, knowledgeable and inventive in emergencies. Also he knew everyone. I stopped using him because he started drinking while on trek.
At the Ramoche, all the paintings on the walls are new and beautiful. It turned out that they were done by a distant relative of Jumpa´s. I would not have taken Jumpa to the Riwoche but one cannot enter the more important temples in Lhasa any more unless you have a guide.
Jumpa and I parted company and without him I went to a tiny temple next door to the Ramoche where people circumambulated at speed and smiled at me. I ambled home looking in shops. One near the Jokhang, on the Barkhor was selling bits and pieces that had obviously been torn from temples. There is a lot of this illegal trade going on quite openly in Lhasa.
Home at the Lebrang, in the garden, I worked on my blog. In the midst of which four Australians, mostly middle aged, arrived on roaring, red Honda motorcycles having driven from Everest Base Camp, one way. They were individually immensely charming and magnificently fit.
They went out to eat steak at a place called The Owl and I had a banana and yogurt.
The next morning I had breakfast with the Australians who shared their peanut butter. We talked politics a bit but there was nothing much to say. They made fun of Americans who only go to cities but they just ride through the countryside, never walking or pausing. They certainly didn´t see the Jokhang or any of the other sites in Lhasa. It is interesting that need to be superior to your fellow travelers. At the end of a trek in Bhutan, that I should never have done, although I am very glad I did it, some of my fellow trekkers said, when we saw the other inhabitants of the hotel dinning room, “Yes, but we are trekkers, travelers, not tourists.” It is better to travel than to tour but perhaps one should cut one´s fellows a little slack?
When the Australians left I was told I could move to my new hotel any time. The Lebrang, because of a Chinese holiday, was so over booked that they had asked me if I would mind staying in another place. I readily agreed hoping that the new place would be an improvement on my dungeon room. I zipped everything up and one of the men from the Lebrang walked me, carrying my back and day pack—I just trotted along with my purse—to the Barkhor around to the other side of the Jokhang and then out through a worrying maze of streets—how would I find my way—to a big gateway leading into a court surrounded by three story buildings with verandas and sparkling windows. There are trees, sparrows, pots of roses and marigolds in the court of the Yabshi Phunkhang. I learned that this was formerly the residence of the 12th Dalai Lama. I seemed to be the only resident. They said at the front desk, in the charge of two smiling Tibetan women, that they did laundry and I immediately gave them mine. I also learned that they had just opened the hotel and were very worried about its success. They need not be.
I was three flights up, which, at this point, was hard going but doable. But I was rewarded by a superb room, huge, with two beds, enormous windows, one with a curtained window seat, butter colored sun spilled in lighting up Tibetan painted chests, carved pillars, embroidered pillows. There was a bathroom any Wisconsin housewife would have been proud to own.
Despite these enormous improvements in my physical situation I felt totally lousy. It was my fourth day at altitude, often the worst. I went down stairs to sit in the garden and write, ordering ginger-lemon tea and a big pot of hot water. I managed to Skype a friend in upstate New York on my phone but since she couldn´t hear me I signed off. But it was good to see her face. However, as I drank mug after mug of tea and hot water I began to feel better. WHEN will I learn that my physical problems in Tibet are in part caused by dehydration? By the time I had wiped out both tea and hot water I was feeling quite all right.
I gathered myself up and went off to Tashi´s for lunch. When I came up the stairs Tashi´s sister greeted me with a big grin, saying “Tashi´s here!” We had a grand hug, talked about everyone and everything. The sadness of the Barkhor without its stalls. What her new employer, my dead friend´s daughter is doing. How the restaurant is getting on. What happened to the man who used to cook at the other restaurant, which was in the Kirey Hotel. During this I had four cups of butter tea, thugpa, a Tibetan noodle soup, and cheesecake.
A family member arrived and I left intending to go to the Meru temple, an old favorite of mine, but instead stumbled first into a very active monastery and temple full of people and chanting monks. I love listening to monks chant. Although the resemblance is not great, it does make me think of Gregorian chanting. When I went upstairs I saw an unusual image of a Green Tara. The Taras are deities who formed from the Buddha’s tears when he recognized the terrible suffering of humanity. They protect and help all sentient beings. The face, but not the body, was in bas-relief, a thing you rarely see in Tibet and I realized I was in the temple of the “talking Tara,” Gyürme Tratsang. And that is what I know. I don´t know when she talked or to whom or what she said.
From there I walked on down Beijing Street to the Meru temple where years ago I gave them money to put a new skin on their drum. A rat had eaten the old skin. Next to it is another temple from which one is always barred. I don´t now why but it may be a place for the fierce deities that women are not allowed to enter. It looks very spiffy and recently renovated.
The other temple, the Meru, looks sad, neglected. In the back, behind the main altar there is a pillar hung with chain mail, 19th century weapons, guns and on the wall a fine thangka on display, a small, elegant painting of what was identified on a label as “White Brahma,” portrayed as a warrior. The weapons and chainmail would have been donated to the deity in thanks for surviving whatever conflict they had been used in. I gave 10 yuan, which caused the two young monks on duty to whisper to each other.
It is sad to see its condition. Down its stairs, outside, were two sad, hungry cats with matted fur in a puddle of sun.
Walking back to the Yabshi Phunkhang with happy thoughts of having tea in my window seat I made a mental list of changes in Lhasa: new buses with digital signs on their fronts; new blue and white official taxis, huge TV type screens advertising everything from soap to cars, street lights—some quite handsome with cut out metal designs– no stalls on the Barkhor, cleaner streets, x-ray machines and metal detectors, acute Chinese shopping frenzy with huge speakers outside shops blaring messages or music, sidewalks now mostly even, flowers in pots arranged before the Jokhang, soldiers not apparent as last time when they were stationed three to five together in full battle dress with fixed bayonets on every corne lights—some quite handsome with cut out metal designs– no stalls on the Barkhor, cleaner streets, x-ray machines and metal detectors, acute Chinese shopping frenzy with huge speakers outside shops blaring messages or music, sidewalks now mostly even, flowers in pots arranged before the Jokhang, soldiers not apparent as last time when they were stationed three to five together in full battle dress with fixed bayonets on every corner.