After a truly rotten night’s sleep I woke up with that same darning needle jammed into the upper half of my left eye socket. Clearly that symptom was not going away. However after getting cleaned up and dressed and downing a nice breakfast in the hotel restaurant I felt reasonably well. Most of the other problems were gone – I no longer felt mentally impaired and my ears were not playing the carillon bells from St. Peter’s. I had a slight reminder of the altitude when I tried to do my normal 2-step bound up the stairs (the elevator was slow and really confining), stopping on the landing after one flight and knowing what it must feel like to be a life-long smoker. But that too cleared up quickly. I popped another handful of aspirin and grabbed my gear.
I was a bit early for our appointed meeting time so I decided to take a walk down to the river, a few blocks behind my hotel. Apparently my sea legs were now intact because I had no problem walking at a regular pace. The headache wasn’t going anywhere but that was no longer a deal breaker. The sky was blue, the sun was coming up over the mountains and I was on my way to enjoying my first day in Lhasa. I had to negotiate a closed bridge that at first seemed to be the end of my walk, but stepping over some construction debris I found myself on a cobblestone path that ran parallel to the river. Calling it a river though is misleading because unlike the river on the way it, this place had no water at all. It was a desert river from bank to bank – sand bars, stones, trash and nothing more. Up ahead a bridge colorfully be-decked with prayer flags –red for fire, yellow for earth, blue for sky, white for clouds and green for water according to the Tibetan beliefs - spanned the bed leading to a developed island in the center. I stopped here to make a call back to the US but getting an answering machine I picked up and headed back to the hotel where Tse Tan my guide and Mr. Sung my driver were waiting for me.
Our first stop today was the Potala for a tour. We drove the few blocks through light morning traffic passing countless pilgrims already up and making their circumambulations of the city. I asked where they came from and the answer was “all over the region.” The numbers ebb and flow depending on the weather and the Buddhist calendar, but in general there are always hundreds of them in the street. Most were elderly – this type of worship seems to be the province of people who no longer have to work. As we drove by, they walked on and on chatting among themselves and continuously spinning their prayer wheels.
The drive was so short that a walk might have been a better idea. We said goodbye to Mr. Sung and rounded the corner through the same pile of construction junk I had stumbled over the night before when my brain and feet were not properly connected. Today the palace was resplendent – what a difference a shining sky blue back drop and a bright sun can make. As we headed towards the entrance Tse Tan explained that we had to be in line by a certain time and that the line was likely to be very, very long. He was right about the length – he told me to get in the end of it and he disappeared, returning in 5 minutes and telling me to follow him. He took me to the front and introduced me to a colleague whose name was Tse Dashi who said “hello” and opened his hand, asking me to sample some tiny brown cubes that the two of them were chewing on. He explained that they were pieces of some sort of barley pancake. I’m ever cautious, but I’m also aware of my responsibilities as an exalted guest, or actually an exalted paying customer. I picked a few out of the pile and popped them in my mouth. They were hard, dry, and crunchy and vaguely grain flavored. I thanked him and he didn’t offer me seconds. Tse Tan then folded me into a group of 6 westerners explaining that “the people who run this place like us to combine smaller tours into one big one.” Tse Dashi disappeared and Tse Tan took us inside. At first my new companions seemed a bit put off, and I suppose I was too having paid dearly for a “tour of one”. But faced with hours waiting to get in I wasn’t complaining – I started making small talk to diffuse their reluctance and soon we were getting along just fine.
We were led into an anteroom where we went through a basic airport security check. The construction of the place was apparent here in the basement – walls of plastered adobe bricks holding up beams which in turn held smaller poles (latillas in our part of the world) which acted as the base for the floor up above. In short precisely the same guts of my house back home. It seems that this style of construction follows me wherever I go, it being the product of people using what’s on hand. In places like this, Lijiang where I’d just left and the American southwest, mud, straw and sunshine are in abundance. Trees less so and therefore their use is more sparing. Just another case of parallel development in the far flung corners of the world. When this place was being constructed, the Pueblo people of the Rio Grande had been doing the same thing for a millennium and were just in the process of teaching the colonizing Spaniards to do it too.
We began the long climb up to the entrance to the palace itself, a long set of steep ramps that zigzagged up the front parapet. It was tough going between the altitude and the path itself which was little more than barely hewn rock. I got to talking with my companions – one turned out to be British and another Canadian with the remainder Americans. Two Sharon’s, a Bob, and an Ina. William the Brit broke the ice by asking me about my camera and we fell into a discussion of all the cameras we’d ever owned starting with our 35mm film versions away back when. He told me that he and Sharon #1 had lived in China back in the 1990’s for about 5 years, so we had something else in common. Tse Tan spent his time talking about the structure, I spent mine talking with William and taking pictures.
Finally reaching the top we entered another anteroom, this one with tall murals of fierce guardian Buddha on the surrounding walls painted there to keep the evil away. All temples have these and I’ve always wondered about them; it was nice to finally have an explanation. Two doors with enormous bronze handles holding long braids of colorful fabric gave access to the rooms beyond. Doorways in the ceremonial structures of China are not like ours – they have an elevated threshold that is said to keep the crawling evil spirits out. I suspect that the real answer is more prosaic and probably has to do with snakes and vermin, but the truth is lost somewhere in the mists of time. And besides, the current explanation is far more interesting and in tune with the spirit of the place. Tradition holds that it is considered bad manners to step directly on the threshold, and so I carefully stepped up and over and into the Potala itself.
We were now perhaps 8 stories into the overall structure. Only 30 rooms of the 1000 are open to the public today, and so it was hard to get an accurate assessment of where we actually were in the overall scheme of the structure. Our first stop was a broad plaza surrounded by a two storey building with an exterior porch that once held the monk’s quarters. Today only a handful are here as caretakers and they are not allowed to wear their robes lest there be some confusion that this is a religious place and not a museum. The government makes them dress like cleaning staff in simple brown polyester pants and long, zippered jackets. Of course you can tell who they are which I suppose defeats the purpose of making them dress like someone they’re not. The security team though was even more obvious, decked out in bright orange jumpsuits and black combat boots. They were surly and they were menacing and they were everywhere.
After waiting a bit while people used the restrooms and had a bottle of water we walked across the plaza to enter the higher portion of the palace. Here there were three short steep parallel stairways – left for up, right for down and center for the Dalai Lama, these days unused. Tse Tan gave us our tickets and I had to laugh. In true Chinese theme park form, the ticket was glossy, bright and embellished with a 3D plastic insert of the Potala against the sky. This was the Red Palace and its construction was different than the White Palace below. Instead of adobe, these walls were made of compressed juniper branches, millions upon millions pressed down hard and yielding a wall thickness of more than 10 feet from outside to in. You could see the tiny stems in parallel layers on the outside of the wall, covered only slightly by the blood red paint.
No pictures are allowed inside, so I had to plan to leave with only my memories. The Red Palace has served as the quarters of the Dalai Lama from the earliest days of this building. The tour route wound a confusing serpentine from room to room, sometimes crossing where we’d been and other times forming a series of concentric circles. We walked through the private rooms where the Dalai Lama had lived and met with visiting dignitaries and through broad, dimly lit assembly rooms where the learned would debate the nuances of their beliefs. In one room two incredibly ornate and detailed giant gold mandalas stood behind wooden screens, depicting the notion of eternal recurrence and the wheel of life. All along the way worshipers were spooning Yak butter into fonts that held small burning candles, offerings to the various Buddha in the room. It was all very moving and quite different than anything I had seen in any of the other temples I’d visited across the country. The colors reminded me a lot of Mexico and Central America – bright ochre walls trimmed in vivid red and turquoise. Tse Tan kept his patter up but each time we stopped a security guard would move us along.
At the center of the building it’s very hard to know just where you are. You go up tiny steep ladders and come down twisty staircases. Every once in a while you pass a monk in a dark alcove imperceptibly rocking back and forth, silently chanting and moving his prayer beads through his fingers, one by one. The air was thick with incense and the smell of the butter candles. All the walls were painted with murals depicting the lives of this or that Buddha or Bodhisattva and gilded statues appeared here and there in niches behind screens. Worshipers would stop, bow three times and move on to the next icon. Eventually we found ourselves down in the tombs where each Dalai Lama is eternally housed in a giant chorten made of thousands of pounds of gold and decorated with a galaxy of jewels. This part of the tour was truly spellbinding, so many ancient thoughts and personalities housed for all eternity in vessels of such incredible splendor.
While walking along, William told me that he currently lived in Texas and asked me if I would retire in New Mexico. I told him “yes” because the weather was so good and conducive to the one thing I really like to do – cycling. He told me that he was an avid cyclist as well and asked if I had bikes here and I told him the story of my two, recommending Carl Strong as a builder he could trust should he decide to go that route. He told me that he was already riding custom frames, mentioning Spectrum for his Titanium bike and Nic Crumpton for his carbon frame. It was another one of those “small world” moments and I mentioned that I too ride a Crumpton. So here we were, randomly thrown together in the tomb room of the Potala palace in Lhasa, Tibet sharing the fact that we both ride bikes produced by a small boutique builder in Austin, Texas. This stuff happens to me all the time, but I never stopped being amazed.
A few more twists and turns and we were back out in the sunshine on a platform overlooking the city. Tse Tan pointed to the smoky haze and told us that it wasn’t pollution, rather the product of the devoted burning juniper branches as an offering. Somehow I’d managed to lose the rest of the entourage and ended up walking and chatting with Ina, the only tour member that had ended up with me. At the bottom of the ramp I handed her a business card to give to William and I bid her farewell. We headed back to the car, the Potala behind us.
Tse Tan and I had a date at the office of his tour company as I still owed them a bit of money so we drove over to the Chinese side of town (west) and parked out back. The building was on the new side but decrepit like so many in China. Trash in the hallways, water in the staircases, you wonder why no one cares about such appearances in this part of the world. We stopped in the office where I had a chat in Chinese with the workers and handed over the remainder of the fee. Leaving there Tse Tan asked if I wanted lunch and took me to, yes, this is the name, The Tibetan Steak House. We walked in and there were my friends from the Potala and after a reasonably short bout of “Are you sure?” and “No, we insist”, I sat down and joined them. The drivers went off and sat somewhere else. I had a Yak and Potato stew which was pretty good. Westerners at other tables, all men, sat drinking 1 liter beers and chatting. Male western tourists seem to be unable to enjoy themselves without getting drunk at midday, an almost sure inevitability at this altitude. My friends and I talked about the place and their plans. Lunch over, I said “goodbye” again, this time for sure, and left for our next destination.
Like the original Potala, Jokhang Temple was originally built in the 7th century by King Songtsan Gampo or his Chinese wife who was a Buddhist. Legend has it that for years the people were unable to build a temple in the area as they would always fall down. Gampo’s wife Princess Wenchang reasoned that the geography of the region was like a hag, and that a lake on this site was the hag’s heart. She commanded that a thousand sheep carry rocks and dirt down from the surrounding mountains to fill in the lake. Once filled, the hag was dead and the Jokhang could be built. It still stands today.
The center hall dates from the original structure and the outer shell was added over the years in the style of the Tang Dynasty. On the roof at the front stands a golden Dharma wheel flanked by two deer representing the unity of all things. This place is the very heart of Tibetan Buddhism and is the most holy place in the country. In the front a small enclosed planter houses a willow tree, purportedly the scion of the original willows brought by the Princess when she left the Tang court in Xi’an. Two stumps in the planter are said to be trees that she planted. Incense ovens stands at the four corners of the building and flanking the main entrance a two giant bronze and copper tea vats, there to provide refreshment to the pilgrims. Two tall spires called doring stand in the main square decorated from top to bottom with prayer flags and bunches of Yak hair at the top. One was erected in the 1700’s during a smallpox epidemic and the other to commemorate a peace treaty between Tibet and China at the beginning of the 9th century.
The line of pilgrims here extended for many yards out the front door, but the Tibetan Guide Mafia came into play once again. Tse Tan ran into yet another colleague who handed him a partially used ticket which he have to me. A “souvenir” as he called it. The crowd he explained was unusually large today as this was the weekend preceding the entrance exams to the better Chinese secondary schools and so there were a lot of students and parents here to pray for good results. We cut to the inside of the line and went into the main atrium, Yak hair sunshades blowing in the breeze and golden roofs decorated the surrounding buildings. In entering we passed many women and children praying in a side yard, standing, kneeling, lying prostrate and repeating the process in a seemingly endless cycle.
The feeling imparted by being inside here is very hard to describe. It was as though I had stepped back 10 centuries to the very beginning of Buddhism in this country. The stone walls were covered with a thousand years worth of juniper smoke and the rough stone blocks that formed the floor were slick with Yak butter. Everywhere people were chanting in a low register and the result was that you could feel it more than hear it. Dozens and dozens of major and minor Buddha sat behind tiny windows along the corridor, their grills stuffed with 50 Miao notes left as an offering. Each time we stopped to discuss a spot the worshipers would stare at me, the younger ones smiling. The incense was strong and the light was dim and it was easy to imagine that this must have been what it was like back at the very beginning. We passed through a giant main hall holding two fabulously decorated Buddha, side by side and more than 20 feet tall. At the innermost part of the building, the statue of Sakyamuni brought 1300 years ago by the Princess stood up a small flight of stairs in an alcove, a monk tending to it by pouring and re-pouring liquid Yak butter brought by the visitors.
Like all the great cathedrals one leaves a place like this for the better, moved in many small and unexplainable ways. You feel good and you feel connected. We went back out into the sunshine and said “goodbye” having made our plans for the next day. I was close to the hotel so I went back and grabbed another handful of aspirin, unburdening myself from some of the things I had picked up over the course of the day. Leaving I took a different route back to the ancient town passing through the Muslim quarter, stopping to look at the outdoor butcher shops and the roof of the bright green mosque secure behind a tall white-plastered wall. I fell back into the flow of the pilgrims near the Jokhang and walked slowly looking at the goods in the stalls. Prayer wheels, Buddha, long Tibetan temple horns, running shoes and t-shirts – everything you could imagine.
I had a couple of additional objectives for the day, some small temples by the Potala and some rock carvings on the far side of a small hill that flanks the river on the other side of town. I took off from the Barkhor and headed back the way I had come earlier, arriving at the place where my guidebooks said the first temple would be. And here we shall listen to my rant about guidebooks in general. Starting back in September of last year when My Lovely Wife and I visited the Emerald Isle, it slowly became apparent that travel guidebooks are at best incorrect and an worst full of downright lies. We stayed in some funky hotels on that trip, ill-described in terms of their location and completely wrong in the description of their quality. But you write that off and go on - overlooking the miss in order not to detract from the fun you’re having on the trip. This time though with an ice pick headache and little air to breathe I gave into the rank hatred of the guidebook’s authors as I found myself on the other side of town faced with an “atmospheric temple that’s a must see” that simply wasn’t there. Failing at that I went on for another mile or two towards the “small rough track that runs parallel to a small stream that leads to the ancient rock carvings on the side of the hill.” That romantic description was nothing like the paved entrance to a factory that more or less fit the location by the stream. Things change I guess and places move on while the books are awaiting their next update. Given the cycle and how long it takes, I suspect that it would be better to simply offer descriptions and directions to things that don’t move – like mountains and oceans. The hike was not a complete washout - I was able to pay a visit to the golden statue celebrating the critical role of the Yak in this region's culture and economy.
It was getting close to sunset so I decided to try one of the two restaurants that sounded interesting in my guide. I’d checked them out earlier so I knew that they actually existed where the book said they were. I was waffling between the two and finally concluded that the Lhasa Kitchen would be the choice for tonight, my thinking being that it would be fun to try something local. My Yak stew at lunch had been that good. Rounding the corner onto Barkhor for the second time that day I headed towards the spiral staircase on the front of the building that led up to the second floor location of the restaurant. As I got there I saw a woman I recognized – it was Sharon #2 from the Potala. Jokingly I asked her if she’d been following me all day, she laughed and invited me upstairs where we found the rest of the group once again. Small World rules trump all in this part of the world I guess.