19 February 2007

The Modern Monk

Nearly two days into our time here in Tibet and already I’ve been sucked into the country’s (yes, I’m referring to it as a country) charm and graciousness. We arrived at our hotel around 9:30PM only to find that we were literally one of two parties currently staying here! A man offered to carry our bags up the stairs to our third-floor room. Robin agreed but I insisted on lugging my enormous backpack. Bad life choice! Six steps up and I was completely out of breath. My heart was racing and I was literally keeled over, gasping for air. I dumped my pack there and continued (or at least tried to continue) on without it. I had to take two more breaks between the first and third floor. It’s just incredible what this altitude (12000 feet) does to your body. I waited in the room while the man brought our three bags up. Still no sign of Robin. I left her at about stair seven and I’m guessing at she is now passed out somewhere en route. Ten minutes later she trickles in. I am already collapsed on my bed, wondering why I thought this was a good idea in the first place. We rest for an hour before even attempting to unpack and get ready for bed.

Our first full day really set the tone for our entire visit. Because we are so far west and China insists that the entire country be on Beijing time, the sun didn’t rise until nearly 9am. I soon learned that this “Beijing control” thing really dominates life here in Tibet. We started with a delicious hotel breakfast, where we met the other two people staying in the hotel, a German man and Hungarian woman. She was full of life and he was completely taken by her. “We have been 37 years married,” he tells us, grinning ear to ear. It must feel incredible to still have that much love after a third of a century.

Diki, our tour guide, was right on time and we were off to the Potola Palace in our 4x4 all terrain monstrosity. I was assuming it would be a long ride, but about three minutes later we were there. No words or pictures can really describe the emotional impact of this incredible structure. It sits high atop the largest hill in Lhasa valley set against a sprawling, snow-topped mountain range and crystal blue sky (the bluest sky I have ever seen). In a word, it is otherworldy. Heavenly. You can’t help but sing “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah” in a mysterious voice.

The hike up probably makes my top ten list of the most physically taxing experiences I have ever had. Imagine climbing thirty flights of stairs. Exhausting, right? Now imagine climbing those same thirty flights of stairs with one-sixth the amount of oxygen. Welcome to Lhasa. It tooks us nearly ninety minutes to get to the top. Even our guide was huffing and puffing! “You are doing very good,” she told us. “The westerners are usually ok. They no need oxygen and they no die. But the Chinese, they have real problems, because the air in China is so bad so their lungs are already dead and sometimes they die.” Yikes!

“The Potola Palace is the only place saved during Cultural Revolution,” she tells us. “Oh, please don’t ask me any political questions when we are inside, she asks. “They are listening.” Besides the lack of free speech, there were no pictures allowed inside the Palace. I don’t want to ramble for hours about how incredible it was inside, but I will say that it is not what you’d expect. No large halls. No massive “Palace Spaces.” Instead, over 1000 small temples, monk’s dormitories, and tombs. The 5th to the 13th Dali Lama’s are buried here, and each of their “stupas” is covered in anywhere from 1000 to 7000 pounds of gold! That’s three and a half tons of gold, not to mention the countless diamonds used as “flair.” This was particularly true of the 5th Dali Lama’s stupa (No photos were allowed inside, by the way). I don’t know if you know this, but he’s a pretty big deal. He actually united all of Tibet for the first time in history back in the blah blah blah century (I can’t remember), which meant he got a really, really big stupa.

This whole remembering thing has become a really big problem the past few days. I think Diki is really getting irritated with me because I keep forgetting what all the different Buddhas stand for. There are just so many! You’ve got Past, Present & Future, Longevity, Happiness, Prosperity, Green Ida, White Ida, Men, Women, Harvest, things that begin with the letter L. “If you remember, I told you this morning,” she says. Sorry Diki, I don’t remember. I only have the first nine Dali Lamas and about a dozen Buddhas committed to memory.

It’s now 1PM. Robin and I are about ready to pass out. The Diamox is certainly keeping us from getting altitude sickness. Instead we’re just insatiably drowsy and our fingers, toes (and now ears) are constantly tingling. After a very China moment to get lunch organized (it involved two receptionists, a waitress, the hotel chef and the manager) we ate (all by ourselves) in the hotel restaurant then passed out in our room (after hiking the death-threat stairs again).

The afternoon was spent walking the circuit around Jokhang Temple (thought to be the center of Lhasa, Buddhism and therefore the world) where we witnessed pilgrims by the hundreds prostrating all around the structure. “They will do this from 10am to 8pm for three days,” Diki tells us. Now that’s spiritual commitment, and probably the best way to describe Tibetans. They are a deeply religious, deeply spiritual people and this passion fuels a culture of love, caring and kindness unlike any place I have ever seen. Despite all they’ve been through with oppressive China (I’ll get to that tomorrow, it’s going to take a while) they remain warm-hearted and optimistic thanks in large part to their faith.

Every person we pass smiles at us and waves. Even in Barkhor Market, where we wandered in the late afternoon, it was an entirely different feel than in China. The sellers weren’t pushy, and they were profoundly honest. “That’s not real silver,” one woman told me. “You don’t want that. It won’t last.” Bargaining just felt wrong. They’d give a price, I’d say half, they’d say ok, I’d be confused. One time the woman gave me an even better price than what I had offered. “You have a good aura,” she told me. “Your spirit is kind and giving. Buddha is with you. I must offer something for that.” It was nice to know that my being was strong, but I just felt bad.

More than anything this place feels like it is trapped between yesterday and tomorrow. There are no McDonald’s or Starbucks in Lhasa, which couldn’t make me happier. There are only three phones downtown that can make international calls. A large portion of women and men still wear traditional dress. The tallest building in Old Town has four floors. It’s my hotel. At the same time the downtown disco bumps the latest Britney Spears tracks. Budweiser beer reigns supreme. Coke is everywhere. Internet Cafes are a dime a dozen. Monks wear Nike Shox and have cell phones. It’s selective globalization, but it works. Because of their remote location the Tibetan people have been able to decide what comes in and what doesn’t. Now, however, with the new Tibet railway and China’s new push to “Hanize” (China-ize) Tibet, it looks like even that small freedom may be stripped away.

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