18: The Roof of the World
10 July 2002
We’re finally at the very Roof of the World, Shangri-La, the mystical kingdom of Tibet. We flew into Lhasa from Chengdu, away from the murky pollution-filled cities of China into the fresh thin mountain air. It’s been like entering a whole new, utterly fascinating world.
The Jokhang Temple is the most revered religious structure in Tibet, which becomes obvious even before entering. Numerous prostrating Tibetans line the front of the temple, lying flat on the ground, touching their heads and fanning their arms in devotion. Walking into the main chapel is a mystical experience that’s also enhanced by the dizzying lack of oxygen at Lhasa’s 3,600 meters (11,800 feet). It’s dimly lit with yak butter candles, incense floats through the air, and there’s the background murmur of monks and pilgrims muttering their repetitious chants.
Hoards of pilgrims make their way from shrine to shrine, touching their heads to the various blue-haired Buddha’s legs, rolling their prayer beads, and refilling the candles with yak butter from personal candles or thermoses. Many of them twirl prayer wheels a wooden stick with a cylindrical spinning top that’s attached to a pendulum. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a more sacred place… and I definitely felt out of place as a tourist poking my nose in someone else’s religion. However, I am definitely made to feel welcome. Pilgrims pull us into their lines walking around the Barkhor pilgrim circuit surrounding the temple. Monks are smiley, friendly, and eager to explain their different artifacts in a mixture of sign language and broken English. Already, I feel that Tibetans are a world apart from the often rude and brusque Chinese.
The Potola Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama, is probably Lhasa’s most famous image. It is one of the most wondrous buildings I’ve seen, rising on a hill above the skyline of Lhasa. While walking through the city, it’s very difficult to take your eyes off the structure. The bottom layers are of the nine-story White Palace. This somewhat resembles the Spanish-style architecture of white-washed brick buildings with rows of square windows, complete with flower-filled window boxes.
Rising up from this base is the sumptuous Red Palace whose dusky red hues somehow resemble both a fort and an intricate delicate structure at the same time. It’s said that Frank Lloyd Wright had a much-admired picture of the Potola hanging in his office. Inside the palace is a lot gloomier. In the Dalai Lama’s time, it was a bustling place that contained the seat of government as well as chapels, housing, and schools for religious training. Now, the palace is more like an empty museum. There are some pilgrims who wander the routes between each chapel and the tombs of former Dalai Lamas, but unfortunately there are many more huge, loud groups of Chinese tourists, gawking at the strange customs of one of their “liberated” lands.
Tibet is quite a sad place. Now it’s essentially a police state. Small armies of armed Chinese officers wander through the Jokhang and Potola. There are video cameras in the main Barkhor Square outside the Jokhang Temple, as historically it’s been a place of frequent uprisings. The police presence along the streets is unmistakable. They sit on every intersection, harassing the various pedicab drivers and fruit vendors for permits and licenses. Machine-gun-clad army men stroll the streets, scrutinizing everyone. Even sitting here in this internet cafe, I’ve been eyed by several wandering policemen (good thing they probably can’t read English). Lhasa has also become overrun by the Chinese, who are rapidly forcing the Tibetans into a minority. But somehow, despite all this, people seem friendly and relatively happy, at least on the surface.
We leave tomorrow to brave the Tibetan roads by jeep… on our way to Everest Base Camp!