A tale of two cities

Last night in Lhasa, and then an 8 – 10 hour drive to Gyantse (which apparently resembles what Lhasa looked like before it was colonised).

The thing that’s left the biggest impression on me is how tightly religion is stitched into the fabric of everyday life here. Walking down the street, you will pass countless people either spinning a personal prayer wheel or counting their prayer beads as they walk along – not because they’re on a pilgrimage, but because that’s just what they do when they’re out and about. Even when sitting talking to each other, they’re performing some kind of religious act. Their Buddhist faith is so deeply embedded into their thoughts and actions – no question, no confusion, no doubt. It’s a mentality which is completely alien in the UK – anyone behaving in that manner, being so public and unswerving in their expression of their faith, would be derided at best as a complete eccentric, at worst as a dangerous fanatic. And when religious expression does appear from a man in the street in the UK, it takes the form of aggressive proselytisation (how many times have you walked through central London and rolled your eyes at the lunatic yelling that we’re all going to burn in hell unless we repent?). Here in Tibet, religion is deeply personal – everyone has their own relationship with their own protector, god, mentor; but the unanimity of their faith means that people are free to pay homage in public in whichever way they choose. It is a totally religious society, but one that is free from internal religious repression. How often have we managed that in the West?

Yet this way of life is increasingly, ineluctably under threat. The image of Lhasa that may well stay with me above all others is of an old woman, prayer wheel spinning, crossing a road during a rare break in the traffic. She seemed like such a tiny, isolated figure, framed against the modern buildings and paved roads of the new Lhasa. It was a picture that spoke a thousand words – the old way of life slowly being overtaken and drowned out by the new. I wonder what those who remember the old Lhasa make of what’s happened to their home.

It’s been a packed few days, so I’ll try and present a pruned account. Potala Palace was, as to be expected, a jaw-dropping experience. Lung-bursting as well; climbing 240 steps at 3700m beats the treadmill any day. It was the tallest building in the world before the ‘age of the skyscraper’ (thanks to Lonely Planet for that one), and its deep red and white form dominates the city. The inside (of the red part; the white part is the former political centre of the Dalai Lama and is now closed) is an endless collection of chapels and chanting halls, which is still frequented by a small number of monks. As with the other monasteries, the faint murmur of praying is ever-present, as is the smell of yak butter, and the slightly sweet, slightly stale smell invariably lingers in the back of the throat. Drepung and Sera monasteries were also memorable visits, particularly Sera for its debating monks – I’ve never found conversations which I couldn’t understand a word of so fascinating. I visited Lhasa’s Muslim quarter as well, populated by Uighurs who have migrated east from Xinjiang for one reason or another. The atmosphere is completely different from the rest of the city, and for some reason there is far more (visible) disability amongst its inhabitants. Paraplegics and blind people were clustered around the entrance to the mosque, begging – I’m forced to wonder if they receive fewer benefits than the rest of Lhasa’s populace.

On the outskirts of the Muslim quarter is a nunnery, which I have been to twice now. The atmosphere is completely different from that in the monasteries; calmer, somehow, and gentler. On my second visit, this evening, I was able to watch while a group of three nuns chanted their prayers. It was haunting and beautiful, and a great privilege. Afterwards, one of the nuns invited me to sit down and joined me, and despite me not speaking a word of Tibetan and her knowing only two or three words in English, we managed to exchange a reasonable amount of information. She’s 39, and has been at the nunnery for 25 years. She chanted a short prayer for me, and invited me to spend the night at the nunnery. Unfortunately I had to turn down the offer, but I was touched beyond words, and emerged back into Lhasa’s bustle lost in thought.

It’s not all serious here though. Scratch the surface and there’s a peculiar comic side to Lhasa, even if it’s not always intentional. The constant spitting is something that has to be laughed at. A few nights ago I caught a taxi with someone in my group, and the driver spat out of the window several times en route to our hotel. Each jet was preceeded by the most amazing primordial noise, which I assume was coming from the back of his throat but sounded like it was coming from the bowels of the earth. Was he making a special effort because he had tourists in his car?

I’ve also had my first try of yak butter, which seems to permeate all areas of life in Tibet (Shangri-lard? Hmm). It’s an acquired taste, which admittedly took me about two seconds to acquire. I was served it in a traditional Tibetan restaurant, which put on a ‘culture’ show of music and dancing after the meal. The evening ended with me getting a Glasgow kiss from a pair of women in a yak costume – I’ll spare the details, but they really shouldn’t have made the yak’s nose out of such hard plastic.

So farewell Lhasa, city of monasteries and mirages, and an intriguing take on fancy dress…

One thought on “A tale of two cities

  1. Pingback: The People’s Republic of Chinaland | Sur place

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