I hate the fact that I’ve had to write ‘China’ as the country I’m posting this from. But more on that later…
So I’ve been in Lhasa for two days now. The altitude hasn’t been as much of a problem for me as I feared it might be, although I started a throbbing headache within an hour of arriving in Tibet (we flew from Kathmandu airport – the first time I’ve been asked to taste food in my hand luggage by a security guard) which lasted for the rest of the day, and I woke up during the night feeling really strange. Apart from a dull headache, I felt dried-out and sluggish. What was happening inside my head was really interesting, however – as I was lying awake, thoughts were sailing past in a bizarre way – if you can imagine a freshly finished painting, which then has its colours smeared so the image disappears and turns into something else – that’s sort of what it was like. Smudged thoughts. Intriguing, more than unpleasant. Several people in my group were sick during the night, so I think I got off pretty lightly.
I was honestly shocked when I arrived in Lhasa – I didn’t realise at the time that there is an old town, and it just wasn’t what I was expecting (we arrived in the ‘new’ town). It was like an outpost of Beijing, except with fewer people. All the advertisements are in Chinese, and shop and street signs are in Chinese with Tibetan squashed in at the top. It’s like they’re trying to squeeze the indigenous culture out, and at the same time make sure you never forget whom this place belongs to. The state’s tentacles have slithered across from Beijing and wrapped themselves around Lhasa – from my hotel room, I can hear Chinese propaganda music blaring out, and see Chinese flags flying in the wind. It makes you want to throw the window open and yell: “THIS IS NOT YOUR CITY!” But of course you can’t. You also can’t criticise the Chinese government, discuss the Dalai Lama or bring guidebooks about Tibet in, as several of the group found out when they were confiscated at Lhasa airport. The ethnic makeup of this city has gone from 92% Tibetan to 50/50 Tibetan and Han Chinese. Most Tibetan government positions go to Han Chinese. And yet they call this the Tibetan Autonomous Region? The irony would be amusing if it wasn’t so appalling.
Luckily today we visited two temples in old Lhasa, and that really was the city I’d hoped to see. It’s nearly completely pedestrianised, with cobblestone roads, and traditional street lamps lining the way. It winds in a circular route, with little lanes sprouting off every now and then. Watching people pass by was amazing – so many worshippers, spinning personal prayer wheels, counting prayer beads, getting down to lie prostrate on the ground, muttering chants under their breath. Tiny old women with faces that seem to have witnessed it all tottered by, hunched and wizened but steadfast. Smoke billowed out from small stone stove-like constructions every 50 metres or so, where people burned incense and flowers, as their belief is that the more fire and smoke they create, the happier the gods will be. Coupled with this was the fact that the sun, so strong at this altitude, was perched directly above the scene, so bright that it bleached every feature it touched. The effect was of walking through a world of shadows, with almost monochrome shapes drifting past. It was distinctly otherworldy, an impression no doubt magnified by the mental effect of being this high up, which casts its own spell on your perception and senses. It was an incredible, ethereal experience, and so apt for this part of the world.
I don’t want to witter on too much – but the temples we visited were breath-taking; Jokhang Temple for the intensity of its atmosphere – the endless throng of worshippers, the smell of yak butter (an offering to the gods) and candle wax and the murmur of people in prayer – and Ramoche Temple for the hall of Yellow Hat monks performing throat chants, another deeply spiritual event.
And as a complete counterbalance, while writing in my diary in the hotel’s restaurant this afternoon (on the top floor, in full view of the Himalayas), the opening chords of “Tell Me Lies” started playing, followed by the familiar tones of Stevie Nicks.
Listening to Fleetwood Mac on the roof of the world – I wonder what else Tibet has in its box of tricks…