That last sentence sounds pretty calm and organized. The truth is quite different.
I was very worried and frightened about this journey, which meant I worked myself up into a tizzy. To do this you first must select an object for your tiz. I elected my eye medicine without which I will go blind. I became, over a number of days previous to this night of packing, convinced that I would not have enough of one of my eye medications to last me through the trip in Tibet. The sane part of my brain took the hysterically tizzy part by the hand and took her to the opthomalic pharmacy, just off Durbar Marg in Kathmandu, we know to show the druggist the bottle of Cosopt. He said he didn’t have that but gave me two bottles and said one drop of each with a two minute interval between would produce the same result. I bought the two bottles. Ms. Hysterical Tizzy calmed down a bit but I could feel her suppressing a fit, as she did a sort of contained rhumba of panic from time to time inside her straight jacket of rationality.
Sarosh and I arrived at Tribhuvan Airport, wended through all the lines and forms. Managing all this was
new to Sarosh who would not usually accompany a client but come into Tibet separately whether by air or road as part of a team. We then sat for three hours waiting for our Sichuan Air flight. Our companions were an international mix, including a young Russian with no English headed for Tibet. He was the first of a number of Russians we were to glimpse but never talk to. None of them spoke English.
We waited so long that we had to get lunch at the fast food place near the waiting room. I had a chicken pastry and Sarosh a big tray of rice with things mixed in it.
When we did board, I realized that the people in front of us were speaking Spanish. They were from Valencia and were at the Kiychu Hotel as was I. There were a lot of Spanish in Tibet this year.
Arriving at the Lhasa airport we had to put our bags through X-ray machines. Both Sarosh and I were worried the Chinese would take food away from us as they had on other occasions. I had brought in ten bars of 99% dark chocolate and decided that rather than bunching them together I would distribute them around my big purple backpack. Sarosh was packing, among other things, four cans of salmon for me to eat on the circumambulation where nothing much is available except dehydrated noodles with flavoring powder.
However, when our bags went through the X-ray, a young woman official singled out mine with an imperious shout to her male companion to be inspected for beads. This seemed so unlikely that I thought I’d misheard. I had not. I have not idea why this year the Chinese were fixated on beads. The young man with a resigned and tired look at me unzipped the purple backpack, zipping it up immediately and motioning me on and out. I was grateful and astonished. He must be fed up with his female counterpart. Anyway my beads, skulls carved out of yak bone, got through.
We were met at the exit by my Tibetan guide, a man in his late 40’s, capable but lacking charm. The driver had more. We arrived at the Kiychu.
I was on the third floor, American second. I could do a flight of 22 stairs slowly but then would have to stop to pant. I had no headache, but I was lightheaded. Before going to sleep I got an email off to Bernard at my broker’s asking him to transfer the money from an account there to the account of Himalaya Expeditions to pay for my trip. I asked him to call me in Lhasa. I couldn’t use my HSBC credit card, as I had not been able to get a new one while I was in KTM and Him Ex’s bank wouldn’t accept my American Express card. I was doing this trip to Tibet on credit. I have been a customer of Him Ex for thirty years.
I had a large pleasant room at the Kiychu with absolutely no view. My window was right up against the wall of another building. On the other hand there was lots of hot water.
The Kiychu is, I should explain, a rather famous Tibetan hotel in Lhasa with a delightful garden at its center with a fountain and trees pruned into umbrella shapes to sit under. Tibetans come here for lunch or to have tea and gossip.
There had been rain the night before and we discovered when we went into the street that the mountains surrounding the Lhasa valley, the high ones, had their first snow. This is the oracle of winter.
Tashi picked me up at 9 am with Sarosh who was about to have his first Lhasa tour. We walked over to the Ramoche temple, which is a complicated walk along streets that seem to have no distinguishing characteristics. The streets are very clean but the paving stones, granite blocks, are often cracked and uneven. Tashi said this is because the Chinese have used the wrong kind of granite.
His English was good; I could understand him most of the time. I asked him about the silent motorcycles, which I had wondered about on my last trip. Indeed, I was right. After the 2008 riots the government
ordered that all motorcycles were to be run on electricity. Tashi said this improves the noise and air pollution but that there are more accidents because people don’t hear the motorcycles. This is true and it
can give one a moment of alarm to turn and find a motorcycle a foot behind you or have one suddenly, do a silent swerve around you.
Despite feeling light headed and like death warmed over, altitude gives one a feeling not unlike the onset of flu, where the whole body descends into desperate unhappiness, I tried, as we went through Ramoche Temple to concentrate on the Buddha. This is the statue of the Buddha at the age of eight, which the Nepali wife of the 7th century king, Songtsen Gampo, gave to him. He has a very geometric nose—flat plane on the top and on the sides. Everything in the gompa is new—paintings, statues.
We went on to the Long Life Chapel next door which does a roaring business with the Long Life Buddha in the centre and a corridor around him along which Tibetans of all ages and physical conditions, many with canes, race at their usual pious racecourse pace.
When we came out I decided to takeover. Tashi was beginning to understand that I was not a Tibetan tyro. I suggested we go on to the gompa of the Talking Tara. She is upstairs; her face always strikes me as
odd, as though it had been painted over white wash. This is also the appropriate temple at which to make offerings if you want to do well on your exams. You give something rolled up in a cylinder with an apple at the top. There are dozens of these scrolls lined up in the chapels.
Downstairs the monks were chanting in their red rows, a few with the deep, deep voices of Gyuke throat singers. That was a lovely treat.
We continued along Beijing Road, once known as Happiness Street, to the little temple I am so fond of. I don’t have its name. It has some old murals and a superb old thangka of the White Brahma. A couple of suits of chainmail hang from a pillar along with a bow, two quivers, a spear or two. I swear there used to be a couple of muzzleloaders on that pillar. The monk who chants next to this pillar uses the chain mail as a repository for small easily lost things, safety pins, hair clips.
There were festoons of a seed that I’ve seen before in gompas. It’s hard to describe. The seed is inside a sort of flat, semitransparent case that is fluffy around the edges. The cases are connected to each other so that they can be strung up as decorative leis. I have wondered about these for years. A monk, when I pointed and asked, showed me the long, curved green
spear like pods that came from India. I have no idea what its significance is but I have seen gompas festooned with these seeds for years and was delighted to have even a partial explanation.
Last time I was here there were to starveling cats.
This time two dogs in poor but not desperate condition were in attendance.
Feeling wobbly but determined I suggested we go to the Ani Gompa, which is a march from here. Lucky again, we walked into a chanting service that went on and on at a frenetic pace. There were no drums, no cymbals, just the mass of female voices sounding to me like a chorus of sewing machines stitching at a mad, unrelenting pace. I sat listening for a while. The men, feeling a bit out of place, waited outside.
A bit desperate I decided what I needed was some butter tea that I was sure I could get from the nuns. Tashi, I was surprised by this, did not approve of my drinking yak butter tea and was astonished that I drank it, two glasses. This meant I could keep going, although added to the water I was constantly drinking I had to use the nun’s toilet. I was determined not to become dehydrated on this trip and so had been constantly sipping as I walked.
As we walked by the Labrang where I usually stay, I
remembered a Chinese postcard shop nearby and steered us there to buy thirty postcards. We then walked back to the Kiychu passing where the Snowland’s Hotel and restaurant used to be. Both are gone.
Back at the Kiychu I picked up my present for Tashi, not my guide but my friend. At the Tashi 1 restaurant Tashi’s sister ushered me into the family dinning room. It turned out to be a family occasion
with four of the five daughters with their children who were eating and play-fighting. This caused the two elderly dogs considerable annoyance. One of the sisters who had a son in school uniform teaches Tibetan. The boys wear dark trousers and a sailor top. The girls have red plaid dresses with pleated skirts.
The children are close in age and obviously enjoy each other. There was also a little three year old who belongs to a Chinese-Muslim family with a shop downstairs eating and playing with them. Her mother, Tashi told me, doesn’t want her to eat Tibetan food and takes away the cookies Tashi gives her. It is important to instill prejudice, fear and hate into a child at a young age. Considering the attitude of many toward Chinese Muslims she would do better to welcome this friendliness.
In the midst of all this happy confusion a big, fluffy, ginger, unkempt cat leapt through the window and headed purposefully toward the kitchen. He looked a bit of a tough.
I went home to the Kiychu, waited for the phone call from Bernard in NY. It didn’t come but I was not surprised. I went to bed but woke in the middle of the night my nose parched, full of blood scabs from the dryness of the air, unable to breathe. But in the morning I felt much better and it was mostly stairs that gave me trouble. Since I was going to the Potala I would have plenty.
At breakfast I met an Australian couple, close to my age, who come out to Tibet every year for two weeks. What a nice idea. There was also an Indian family from Vancouver, husband, wife, son and his wife, on their way to Kailash. I was to see them a number of times. The Spanish from Valencia were there and each day I sent them to a new place when they came back from their day of touring.
I have done this tour of the Potala so many times that at least half is familiar. Tashi was excellent. We did a quick swing through the museum, which has some spectacular applique thangkas as well as a small but exceptional display of gold and silver objects, most
religious—a gold lotus that opens its petals to display the Buddha at its centre and various scenes from his life on its petals.
You are not allowed to take any pictures on the tour, not even when you are on the outside of a building. I am glad I took pictures of all of this years ago including my favorite snow lions on the upper terrace. They used to be surrounded by coins stuck onto the wall with yak butter. All that, of course, has been cleaned up by the Chinese. I did stop at the vibrant stone bas-relief of Garuda on the wall that always gives me a thrill.
The Dalai Lama’s apartments have long since been emptied of their fabulous contents. Then there are the various audience halls for the ordinary or the exalted, the room where he had lessons from his
teachers. The gods are endless and then we come to the chorten tombs of the Dalai Lamas. The two big one’s are, I think the 5th and the 12th or maybe the 13th. The 6th, the Dalai Lama who was a poet, was killed away from Lhasa, so he isn’t there but most of the others are represented in silver and gold chortens studded with massive carved turquoise or agate. There is supposed to be, among these, a huge pearl that was extracted from an elephant’s brain.
There is a big assembly hall that was closed last year for renovation but is now open with high, high
ceilings and skylights. It is very airy and full of brilliant, but new, paintings.
I thought maybe this time I would last the course but shortly after the assembly hall I found I could take in the small chorten tomb of a very young Dalai Lama, I’ve no idea which, but the following row of gods and chortens that symbolized something or other left me totally uncomprehending and mulishly unwilling to stuff any more into my altitude addled brain.
When we came out I headed with half the female population of China for the public lavatory. I was beginning to feel that I had Tashi and Sarosh fairly well trained that the two imperatives were water and toilets.
Among the Chinese on our Potala tour was a young woman in a calf-length white windbreaker with a white fur collar. She and her buddy took pictures of each other, alone and together all the way down the stairs. Where do these Chinese kids thing they are going in their fashionable clothes and where do they get the money?
When we got down all the way, Tashi asked where I wanted to go next. I had been thinking about the cave temples opposite the Potala. So after another dash into a public john in which, with my New York City
subway training, I blocked a woman who was trying to slide with her elbow out into the stall I was waiting for. You quickly lose all compunction about the quick maneuver, the adroit shove with the Chinese.
We headed through the complexity of tunnels and exits to walk through the park full of TV screens displaying the wonders of China and the faces of the leaders, passing the little naga chapel on its island, the prostrators near the fountain and then on out into the hushed lane over arched by whispering, yellowing leaves. The piles of Mani stones, like stacked books, were almost shoulder high with little clay tsatsas along their ledges. Mani stones are flat slates on which a professional sculptor has carved a mantra or other sacred symbol. Tsatsas are small figures, of Buddhas or chortens, made from clay pressed into a mold. Above them in shinning colors painted on the rocks of the cliff images of Tsongkapa or Guru Rinpoche glittered in the late sun.
When we got to the chapel that has the U shaped ambulatory, I told Tashi about the white stone in the black stone pouch in the wall that Tsongsen Gampo used to rattle to let his wife know he had stopped meditating. Then I couldn’t locate it. When we asked the monk he told us, and there between some the 7th century figures carved into the black wall was the
black stone pouch with the white stone
in it. Tashi was delighted with this.
The sculptures on the walls here are considered by the Tibetans to be self-realized figures. In other words, they appeared by themselves out of the wall. Actually, they go back to the time of the first historical king of Tibet, Tsongsen Gampo, the man who fought against the Chinese until he stood at the gates of their capital, Xi’an. It was then that they offered him the Princess Wencheng as a bride. He united temporarily the Tibetan nation in the 7th century and these sculptures are from his time.
The next level is a mostly modern chapel. But the level above, where I don’t think I had been before, was exceedingly interesting. There is to the side of the stair a rough stone alcove and in it is a statue of Tsongsen Gampo and his Tibetan wife. This was the first time I had seen an image of this wife, and besides that, she had, in the crook of her arm, her son by Tsongsen. He had no children by his Nepali and Chinese wives. Clever man to keep the channel of inheritance undisputed. Beyond that surprise was a bigger one. Tashi and I were looking at the statue of Tsongsen.
I said to him, “Do you see?”
He responded with gleeful triumph, “Yes, I see!”
Hanging from a cord around the neck of the image of
Tsongsen was a, totally forbidden, framed, small,
faded photo of the Dalai Lama. This is very Tibetan. They know the Chinese won’t look, so they hide him in plain sight like the letter in Edgar Allan Poe’s mystery story.
I cannot remember what else was in the room beyond this alcove other than the splendid view of the Potala that you get at every level of these temples.
We headed back down. I mentioned as we started to walk out the tiny nunnery that nestles among the rocks near by. We went up and the reception was totally different from the last time when I felt nothing but hostility. There were smiles as we passed before the cases containing the statues. The only one of these that registered was a large statue of Tangtong Gyalpo with a pompadour of thick white hair. In the Potala there had been an image of him but there he had a huge, bright blue pompadour.
I am a fan of Tangtong who built the first suspension bridges anywhere and invented Tibetan opera.
Going down, we were flanked by a line of Tibetan women coming up. One, not over forty, gave me a thumbs up of approval, followed by touching foreheads and cheeks. Tashi was delighted and so, of course, was I.
Home to the Kiychu, which was full of Tibetans. I particularly love the little old ladies who, out of ingrained frugality, bring their own snacks to go with the tea.
I discovered this night that although my email life had been all right for a while I now could not either send or receive emails because I am Gmail and the Chinese, angry with Google, have blocked all Gmail.
In the morning we went to the Jokhang. What the Chinese are doing is terrible. There were no monks in the Jokhang. The Chinese are obviously intent on make the temple into a sterile museum. You cannot get into the Jowo chapel. Offerings are accepted in front of the chapel by soldiers in camouflage uniforms.
Soldiers are present elsewhere. Eight to ten, in full battle dress, fully armed with transparent plastic shields, march around the Barkhor on a regular schedule, about every 20 or 30 minutes.
Inside the Jokhang there are ropes making you walk in particular ways. Many of the chapels were closed.
This said there were three good things. I had a long time in front of the mural of the 5th Dalai Lama and Gushri Khan so that I could enjoy their faces. Gushri is particularly comical with a big lumpy nose. He looks so happy, so pleased with himself and the man
he has just made Dalai Lama that I get happy too. Their courtiers surround them, all smaller figures than they are to show the difference in rank, and have individual faces. In the next life I would recognize any of them.
I found the pillar with the stone in it, although I can no longer remember its significance.
The second good thing was that in one of the innumerable chapels Tashi pointed out down low, almost behind one of the statues, a bas-relief figure, a little wonky, of a goat. I had never met him before. This is the magic goat that carried the dirt to fill in the lake on which the Jokhang was built. He leaps out of the wall, happy and vital in his gilding.
Third was one of the alcoves as you walk along the inner khora of the temple where there are statues of Tsongsen Gampo with his Nepali wife on his right, Wencheng, the Chinese wife on his left, but in the dark, behind the Nepalese wife is the Tibetan wife, Monza Triucham, cradling her son in her arm. Also in another alcove there is a statue of Tangtong Gyalpo with a pompadour of white hair.
There is a new, very gold, mandala and a new statue of Manjushri, the god of wisdom. As you come in the side entrance there is one of the huge copper caldrons
The monks used to make butter tea filled with water and floating on it a selection of plastic lotuses. This to me symbolizes the Chinese tenancy of Tibet. The Chinese can’t tell the difference between fake and real. Those who were going around the Jokhang in dyed hair with silk threads woven in little braids into their hair were fervent in their worship. There was the usual push and shove of the Chinese who, male or female, just ram past or into you. One tactic when possible is to step ostentatiously aside and suggest with a pleasant smile and or wave of your hand that they pass you.
The upstairs chapels were all closed, as was part of the roof.
I suggested that we go on to the small temples that dot the Barkhor. The first, Manilakam, has a huge prayer wheel. There were so many of us on it that we came to a stand still while still pushing the wheel around. We did not go to the upstairs temple where the monk gives a health blessing because I would not jump ahead of everyone on the line, which was long. Tashi was astonished that I would not take advantage of my foreignness in this way.
Behind this was a Chinese propaganda museum about Tibetan prisons in the 19th and early 20th century which were undoubtedly awful but no worse that the Chinese ones of the same period. I got us out of there.
We went to the tiny temple down the street that has several upper floors, which I hadn’t realized. Tashi when I asked him the name of this temple said he didn’t think it had a name. That’s not at all likely!
Something here triggered Tashi to talk about the Tibet Heritage Association, Pin Pin, the Portuguese woman, John, I think American and a German whose name I’ve lost. They did so much good work in restoring structures in Lhasa as well as the humble work of building good neighborhood johns. John died, Tashi said while skiing in the Alps. Pin Pin and the German ended up in Beijing, Tashi said, working on the wall. They were great people.
Pin Pin once lent me her sleeping bag, it was superb, when I had a sleepover in the storeroom with open grain bags and resident rats at a monastery outside Lhasa years ago.
Then we went down the little alley to the big Muru Nyingpa temple. There again we went upstairs and found ourselves with a superb view of the roofs of the Jokhang in one direction and Tibetan house roofs on which people spend time in summer.
I managed to get us to the Makya Ama for lunch, totally populated by Chinese. But we had wonderful spicy lamb cooked on stones, mushrooms grilled with
cheese and stir-fried vegetables. We could watch the Tibetans doing the khora around the Barkhor and the soldiers every twenty minutes marching the same route heavy with automatic weapons.
I was so please when later I asked Sarosh if he liked it and he gave me a glowing, “Yes.” Tashi was less sure but I blame that on his having to eat in the midst of Chinese.
We came back to the hotel briefly and then drove to Sera. Somehow it seemed smaller despite the usual profusion of gods. The mysterious room I am so fond of is less mysterious now that it is well lit. It has extraordinary masks hanging from the ceiling, along with chainmail shirts, bows and spears. Another section of the ceiling is decorated with guns that you spiked with powder and then set off with a spark from a flint. Even well lit it is a confusing room since you are forced to walk through a maze. Dimly lit, the masks glowered down at you and the ambiance had a sinister mystery.
In one of the chapels children were having a black triangles painted on their noses and were blessed. I wondered if it would help my blood scab clogged nose.
When we came out on the other side of the temple I could hear the rumpus of the debating monks.
Tourists, all nationalities—French, German, Austrian, Chinese. Spanish—poured into the courtyard to watch. It is a spectacular show with a couple of dozen monks engaged in debates, making their points with their distinctive hand slapping gesture.
Tashi had let his phone battery run down, and therefore, when we couldn’t find the driver he couldn’t call him. I was annoyed and let it show since we had to wait for 20 minutes. However it was a good day. I was slow going up at Sera but had very little bad feeling, although I was certainly tired at the end of the day.
The next day was Drepung where I have not been in many years. It is beautifully set against the lower mountains that, this year, are very green. On the right hand side are huge boulders brilliantly painted with Tsongkapa in his orange robe and yellow hat. Beside him on a smaller boulder is another orange robed monk and further up the hill a thing that looks like an outdoor movie screen, but is used to display the monastery’s enormous handmade appliqued thangkas. On it an enormous blue conch with orange touches has been painted against a blindingly white background. The conch is one of the Buddhist symbols and represents the Buddha’s voice in his teaching.
Last time I was here there were two nuns encamped in a cave they had extended by a tent and carpeted with Astro turf. They blessed me before I went to Kailash. The Chinese have kicked them out.
I cannot begin to write about the various chapels and rooms and chanting halls that we saw. They are a big undifferentiated puddle of Tsongkapas, Taras, Tsongsen Gampos, Shri Devis etc. There is one court I always remember because it has an ancient, much revered tree that each time I come looks more debilitated.
There is a very large chanting hall, very grand with a high ceilinged atrium at its center that is particularly beautiful, the red of the cushions elegant with the blue decorations on the pillars. I think it is the largest chanting hall among the monasteries.
As well, toward the top there is a chamber with fine old paintings on a yellowish tan background. In one of them some rather Yahooish looking guys, grinning happily, are heaving rocks at people down the hill.
There are wonderful views to the mountains and looking down, alleys, some with prayer wheels on either side. There are small and large prayer wheels powered by the water of rushing streams and tiny ones that revolve on the heat of a candle.
We saw the kitchen, always impressive with its huge cauldrons, its rows of shinning brass ladles, piles of wooden tsampa bowls and the ingrained odor of smoke and yak butter.
When we came back I went to Tashi’s for lunch and to find out where to buy khatas and prayer flags. The Chinese no longer allow these to be sold from tables on the Barkhor. She, of course, went out and bought them for me. She also wrapped a khata around my neck as I left
The two old dogs slept on their cushions in one corner of the benches around the family table and the new, raffish ginger cat slept in the other when he wasn’t going about his business through the window. The little Moslem girl, who is adorable, showed up but refused a cookie she badly wanted because of her mother’s instructions. The Tibetan kids went charging through the restaurant chasing each other.
I said good-bye to Tashi, always an emotional moment since we never know if we will see each other again. She gave me a beautiful stole and an embroidered purse. I hope the sweaters I brought her and her sister keep them warm this winter. We have known each other since 1993, twenty-four years. She is the only unmarried one amongst the sisters.
I walked down to the PO, bought fifty postcards, which I though should take care of me, before returning to the cozy garden of the Kiychu for a cappuccino among the old Tibetan ladies in their chubas, sunglasses, Lhasa Ladies hats and canes surrounded by their children and grandchildren. The flock of sparrow who reside in the trees of the garden came home chattering vigorously as they settled in for the night
We were leaving the next morning. I woke up in the night and had a spasm of hysterical worry over my eye drop supply.