Not just the views are breathtaking when you arrive in Lhasa, capital of what is now called the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China; it is also the thin air. With the area at an altitude of 3800 meters, I immediately noticed this. Walking with my backpack for a short while is an enormous effort now, with my heart pounding in my chest, taking desperate gasps of air while feeling a slight dizziness.
I found a nice though basic room in a Tibetan motel, in the old centre of Lhasa known as the Barkhor. It is where most of the Tibetans live nowadays, an enclave in the middle of what has been transformed over the past decades into a modern Chinese city. The Barkhor area is also Lhasa’s most authentic and atmospheric, its small alleys filled with stalls, the vendors selling yak butter and meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables, as well as clohing, souvenirs, gear for horses and religious artefacts. From a number of cassette- and cd-shops comes the sound of Tibetan popmusic, a quite catchy mix of traditional high-pitched singing with western beats. The houses and apartment blocks in the area are no higher than three storeys, the white brick walls are thick, and in front of the small windows are plants with colourful flowers, and at times white and blue cloths with auspicious symbols for protection, luck, prosperity. On the streets, there are the ordinary Tibetan residents, the men at times in brown suits, usually wearing cowboy-style hats, the women in dark clothing with aprons with elaborate patterns, and brightly coloured sleeves of their shirts. Then there are the pilgrims, spinning their prayer wheels, quietly saying mantras. Their dark clothes are dusty, they wear many different kinds of necklaces and armbraces, they seem oblivious to the busy life aound them as they are doing the clockwise route around the inner city, grateful to have reached Lhasa.
The first couple of days, I did nothing but acclimatise to the altitude, and I visited some of the many tea houses in Lhasa. Tibetans from all walks of life come here to socialise, to chat to eachother or to play card games. There were people of all ages, from babies with shoes that squeek when they walk, young boys and girls, ancient looking men and women, their faces very dark and weathered. For 3 jiao, the equivalent of 3 Eurocents, you can get a glass of sweet tea with milk. You leave the money on the table, and each time one of the waitresses in their white aprons refills your glass, she deducts 3 jiao from the amount on the table. In some places, you can get a whole thermos if you want, or one with butter tea, a stronger tasting variant that includes yak butter and salt. In one particular tea house near Barkhor Square, I bought a ticket for 2,5 yuan, and went into the kitchen to exchange it for a bowl of delicious putou, or Tibetan noodle soup, with yak meat. As you are eating or drinking, you sit among monks in their red robes, and pilgrims, with styles of clothing that reveal which part of Tibet they’re from, spinning their prayer wheels even when sitting down.
I visited many of Lhasa’s monasteries and temples. Having been to hundreds of Buddhist temples in many of the previous countries I visited, to step into one in Tibet is an altogether different experience. Perhaps it is because of the air of veneration, with the pilgrims quietly mumbling their prayers inside one of the many chapels. Perhaps it is because of the messy way the chapels are decorated, with so many religious artefacts and statues, candles and cloths, giving it such a cosy yet solemn feel. And then there are the beautifully elaborate thangkas, painted or embroidered religious scrolls that are displayed on the walls or hang from the ceiling, and the dozens or hundreds of katags, Tibetan scarfs made from white silk, that are wrapped around statues and objects.
In front of the Jokhang, one of Tibet’s most sacred of temples, the air is filled with juniper smoke, billowing up from large incense burners. Many pilgrims prostrate themselves in front of the doors of this holy place. They raise their hands, palms pressed together, above their head, then lower them to their forehead, and chest, before they lie flat on the floor, and once again raise their hands above their head. They stand up again, only to repeat this process many times. In fact, for many pilgrims it is the way how they travelled to Lhasa, prostrating themselves during their entire pilgrimage. For some, the journey to reach Lhasa took nine months, for others longer.
The Potala Palace, Lhasa’s most famous of sites, was built in the 7th century by King Songtsen Gampo. It has served as the country’s administrative centre, seat of government and monastery, and it was here, where the Dalai Lamas, from the Fifth to the Fourteenth, lived, until the Chinese took over. To see the Potala for the first time is something you’ll never forget. This Palace, this fortress, high up on Marpo Ri (Red Mountain), is a truly impressive sight, with its red and white walls, visible from most parts of the city. Climbing up to reach the palace is quite an effort in the thin air, and I paused occasionally to take in the stunning views of Lhasa and the surrounding mountains, and some much needed oxygen. It’s of little consolation that the Tibetan pilgrims seem to have as much trouble climbing up, their cheeks bright red from oxygen deprivation. The golden tiled roofs of the Palace are decorated with golden Tibetan umbrellas, and large cloths hang in front of the windows, decorated with auspicious patterns. Inside, corridors lead to elaborately decorated chapels, with dozens or at times hundreds of statues of the Buddha, of important scholars and their students, of Dalai Lamas. Pilgrims hurry from chapel to chapel, quickly saying their prayers, leaving a littlebit of money as an offering, or refilling one of the many lamps with a spoonfull of butter. There are huge libraries with sacred Buddhist scriptures, written on loose papers that are bound together in embroidered cloth and stored in wooden boxes. Underneath, there is a passage, and pilgrims walk crouched down underneath them, in the hope of obtaining knowledge for a next life. In some chapels, there are large chortens, traditional Tibetan Buddhist monuments, which here serve as tombs, containing the remains of previous Dalai Lamas. Some are several storeys high, golden and decorated with jewels.
After visiting the Potala, I walked through a small alley around the north side of the Palace, with hundreds of large prayer wheels along the wall. Inside each of these, there are paper rolls on which Om Mani Padme Hum is written over and over again, the Tibetan prayer that encompasses all Buddhist scriptures ever translated from Sanskrit. The pilgrims turn the prayer wheels to gain merit for a next life. Then, I came to a small park, and I followed the direction where Tibetan music was coming from. I arrived at a large stage, where a dozen actors in colourful dresses, mostly red and yellow, were performing Lhamo, or traditional Tibetan opera. It involved beautiful singing and dancing, and to keep the crowd entertained, it was occasionally interrupted by a play, at one point involving a man and a woman wrestling on stage. The crowd, around 200 people including pilgrims and monks, were delighted and even the actors couldn’t keep a straight face. The woman was victorious, and after the applause, more dancing and singing followed.
I visited the Norbulingka, the site of the summer palaces of the Dalai Lamas. The current Dalai Lama, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, had his summer palace built here, a stately mansion. Now, it is a rather sad place to visit, the richly decorated rooms fitted with CCTV cameras to keep an eye on the crowds. It was from here that His Holiness fled to India after the Chinese invasion in 1959, where he remains in exile until this day, near the town of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.
On a visit to the enormous monastery of Drepung, just outside Lhasa, with its beautiful views of the Kyichu Valley, I came across a group of men and women who were working on a roof of one of the buildings. They were stamping a cement-like material with poles, that had round wooden planks attached at the bottom. While doing this, they were singing beautiful Tibetan songs, while continuing to stamp as a way of keeping the rythm.
In the evenings, even in summer it can get quite chilly in Lhasa, and I would stay warm with frequent cups of sweet tea in one of the many atmospheric tea houses. One time, I found myself in an Internet cafe, sitting next to two monks who were playing a shoot-em-up game, and clearly enjoying it. But there are warning signs on the walls, as officially every foreigner needs to register with their passport before being able to use the Internet. Every e-mail in and out of Tibet, and even every text message and phone conversation, is being monitored.
After a number of days acclimatising in the capital, and trying to take everything in of this beautiful culture, I was preparing to leave Lhasa, and go on a tour to the south of Tibet.