I was surrounded in a wash of dark red clothing, heavy yarn-laden braids of hair, smiling, toothless pilgrims deep in the Barkhor Circuit, in the highest city in the world, and it was everything I could do to not barf all over all of it. The altitude sickness had kicked in. It was as the travel guides had warned, but there was no time to acclimatise. One does this by arriving at Lhasa by train or jeep, thus giving them the time to climb to 3750 meters above sea level. As a tourist (I prefer traveller, but sometimes behave in a way that demotes me to tourist) one has to apply for permits – Alien Traveller’s Permit, sometimes a military permit, depending on where you’re arriving from. In my case, I met a man who goes by “Jim Beam” in a lobby of a backpacker hotel in Xian, where hefty sums of cash were paid for all the necessary travel permits, plane tickets, and guide fees (proof of which are required for aforementioned permits). It was with a sweaty upper lip I handed over the rest of my travel money to this character, with a hand-written note given back to me illustrating some vague transaction that had occurred. I immediately took this into the adjoining bar and drank to soothe my nerves- the hand scrawl with the dollar amount staring back at me.
Obviously I made it. The necessity to arrive by plane at Lhasa Gonggar Airport had its drawbacks, but flying just above the Himalayas was not one of them. I’ll take the immediate pleasure of looking down upon the highest summits from a comfortable flight over actually having to climb them any day. I pondered this, a drink in my hand, imagining my childhood hero Sir Edmund Hillary’s life and death struggle to surmount Mt. Everest, and was glad, no, giddy, to toast his efforts more than fifty years on, from a very comfortable height indeed. Cheers, Sir.
Lhasa city central was less than an hour by bus from the airport. In strict contrast to the rocky mountainous surroundings that can be seen by the plane, the lower lying brown hills offered a maze to be guided through in the packed bus. There were brief sightings of yaks and prayer flags which offered the first glimpse of any expectation that this magical land had promised. But soon after these landmarks presented themselves, we entered a city I could scarcely have imagined – it was pure unadulterated Chinese officialdom. Squared off banks, governmental buildings in the familiar awful pastel colours I had gotten used to in Xian and other cities that dotted the train ride from Beijing. It was the kind of sprawl that is offensive to the senses, but it had to be gotten through in order to arrive at my destination – the Yak Hotel, chosen not only for its name, but that it was the first choice in the budget column. Jim Beam had taken all of my money, and the few RMD left to me were for cheap meals and various offerings to the many non-admission palaces I was sure to attend. I had a guide, after all, and many, many Buddhist shrines awaited.
As I always do when travelling, I threw my bags on the bed and took a perfunctory look around the meagre room before heading off to see the streets. A quick peek into the bathroom revealed the squat toilet – more on this later. I knew enough of Lhasa from what I’d read that the Jokhang Palace was nearby, and that it serves as a centrepiece to the city. More than that, it is the centre of worship for the entire autonomous region, with the circling pilgrims orbiting around it. I found myself in front of the Barkhor Square, immediately mesmerized by the crowds of Tibetans. Monks, children and pilgrims intermingled to and from the market stalls. There were the worshipers, performing their complex and physically adroit bows to the face of the palace, which could barely be seen. It has been built upon so many times over the years that the original structure is completely obscured by layers of tin siding, blankets and framing. Surrounding Jokhang Palace are the elements that absolutely colour the city – vendors, markets, delivery bicycles and fire pits. Of course, shuffling amongst this are the pilgrims, chanting and spinning their prayer wheels.
At that point, though, the real became the surreal, and after only hours at this elevation the top of my head started to feel frozen, the edges of my vision were blurred and the chanting, fires and spinning prayer wheels all became garishly cartoonish. My legs were heavy and the airplane food threatened to make a sudden appearance, but I managed to drag myself into The New Mandala Restaurant where I did myself no favours by ordering up the yak dumplings and local beer. I followed that with the palaak paneer, cooked with heavy doses of (probably) unpasteurized yak butter. Remember the squat toilet I mentioned earlier? Suffice it to say the meal was delicious – beyond delicious, but exacted its price.
On the second day, the elevation sickness had not subsided, but the gentle beauty of the mountains and the people – from the monks at the foot of the Potala Palace, to the begging children that littered the streets, calmed me into acceptance. By mid-day it had become routine to deposit 4 RMD into every collection plate beside a smiling Buddha of some variety. I stopped paying attention to my guide, whose lacklustre descriptions and history lessons were reduced to no more than saying, ad nauseum, “This is the Buddha of the past, this is the Buddha of the present, and this is the Buddha of the future,” barely gesturing to the statues. I didn’t bear him a grudge. I can’t imagine being an educated Tibetan, continually watching not only a hostile cultural takeover of your nation, but being host to the throngs of ignorant masses that come to see this land, with little to no context or knowledge of the history. My guide, his face worn and eyes deadened, was going through the motions, not even trying to fake enthusiasm, as we shuffled along the palaces and museums.
It was Wednesday afternoon when I attended the monk debating sessions. Held in a small square tucked in behind the school – yes, a Tibetan monk school, the sessions are a weekly occurrence, and tourists are invited to attend. Within minutes of the students gathering, the cacophony of debating teenagers is deafening – coupled by the slap of hands together that invite a response from the seated rival. The square, a peaceful and walled enclosure is laden with white stones, trees, and a narrow walking ledge that circles it. The tourists are asked to stick to the ledge and not accompany the students on the square proper. I enjoyed bearing witness to a few tourists that were not aware of this step upon the stones unwittingly, and embarrassingly scamper off when asked to do so. On the other hand, and I took particular notice of a photographer of Chinese persuasion step into the square to get a closer photograph of his subjects ignore the wishes of the students that asked him to step off. He continued to blithely photograph the debating monks to be. I felt as though I were witnessing the Petri dish version of what was, and has been happening, on the National scale for over 50 years. The Chinese, middle-aged photographer thought nothing of the gentle invitation for him to leave – and rather took advantage of the fact that the practiced and preached tolerance of the students was their Achilles’ heel.
I watched for hours, mesmerized by the youth and determination of these people – unlike anyone I’ve ever met or known in the west. I was desperate to understand the point of it all – like many others that visit this land, I think we just want to see something that we know will not survive, but there I was – surrounded by the youngest Tibetan scholars, who steadfastly applied themselves with their teachings of peace, enlightenment and forgiveness, despite the many barbarians waiting just beyond the gates. This theme was echoed within the inner core of Lhasa, where it would regularly occur that a young monk would surreptitiously hand tourists information pamphlets with shocking statistics of how many monks are extradited, have been made to “disappear” over the years, most regularly across the border to Nepal or India. The young monks handing out the pamphlets were more like ninjas in the way they stealthily gave out their leaflets – and then quickly disappeared into the many side streets.
In meeting with the locals one cannot escape the overwhelming sense of despair for the loss of culture, the exodus of the devout followers, and the annexation of what once was a distinct and autonomous nation. By the time I boarded the bus to the airport I was fully acclimatised and genuinely sad to leave. Lhasa then appeared to me to be a cozy, small town. I recognized the regular beggars, the local mentally ill people doing their rounds, but most of all, the mesmerizing rotations of the pilgrims in the core of the city – it is as if they are winding a clock. They keep the city moving – they keep it alive.