Saturday, August 22, 2009

Amazing Tibet

We have been many places in this old world, but Tibet was one of the more interesting.  Up until now, Egypt, with its bleak landscape and legacy of ancient pharaohs, temples and tombs, has been the place that has been the furtherest removed from our Western view of the world.  China has also been very different.  It, of course, is the oriental world, almost the polar opposite of my occidental world.  But on top of the ancient customs, temples, Buddhist statues, is a veneer of the modern Western world.  Many people speak English, they have high-rise buildings, and they operate their everyday economic life on one of the most energetic forms of capitalism I've ever seen.  But the Tibet part of China is strikingly different.

Tibet is the top of the world.  This becomes abundantly clear the minute you step off the airplane and can't breathe.  After four or five days it is still difficult to breathe, especially after some exertion.  Our first day there we did nothing except veg in our hotel room and try to acclimatize.   It's worth noting that every room is equipped with tanks of oxygen.  

We took a van trip from Lhasa to Shigatze, the second largest city, and spent the first several hours climbing up the sides of mountains on a serpentine, two-lane road until we reached a high plateau.  Nestled in between snow-covered mountains (in July) is the beautiful Yamdrock Tso Lake with its crystal-clear waters.  Like nearly everything, it is sacred to the Tibetans.  

A little further down the road we passed the glacier that fed the lake.  

There was not much traffic on this road, mostly just tourist vans and buses, but there was a lively trinket-selling trade at nearly every stop.  You could take a picture sitting on a yak for a fee.  

Vendors set up shop on a blanket spread out on the ground at every intersection or pull-off.  Prayer flags could be seen flapping in the breeze at prominent points, especially at points overlooking the river where "wet burials" were performed.  Look it up on Wikipedia.

We were interested in the agriculture.  Green crops were growing in the fields in every valley.  

The yellow-blossomed rapeseed seemed to dominate at this time of year and bathed the countryside in a yellow glow.

 Farmhouses with their stone walls and enclosed pens for animals were everywhere.  Prayer flags few on staffs on each of the four corners of the houses.  Most appeared to be new.  I saw very few rundown or abandoned farmhouse anywhere.  There was lots of new construction.  I understand that the Chinese government is pouring lots of money into Tibet, its poorest province, partly to improve the lives of the peasants and partly to quell any dissent.  

Once, while stopping by the side of the road for a break, our guide asked an old grandmother squatting by the side of the road if we could tour her nearby house.  She consented and this little tour turned out to be the highlight of our trip in Tibet.  The lady of the house turned out to be not the grandmother but a beautiful young mother of about 30 who took great pride in her home. 

 It was an extremely humble home.  The kitchen featured a cast iron, yak dung-fueled, cooking stove and a cupboard.  No running water.  There was an electric bulb in the center of the room and a small TV that did not appear to be working.  

There were places for sleeping with yak-hair blankets.  The courtyard featured a primitive loom.  All the wood trimmings were highly colored with delicate designs.  

Around the courtyard were pens for animals, and plastered on the stonewalls were yak dung patties set out for drying.  Once they were dry they were stacked on top of the wall until time for use.  But the family was delightful.  Humble but happy, and gracious to a fault.  And the young mother, in her native soiled costume, had the face of an angel.  

That Tibet is Buddhist is obvious.  One only had to look at everyday people walking down the street on any city or any side road spinning pray wheels--old people, businessmen, monks, housewives and shop girls.  

We visited the Jokhang Temple, the heart of Tibetan Buddhism, and saw a side of Buddhism we had never seen before, much different than what we had seen in Thailand or China. 

 Outside the entrance were dozens of people praying by holding their palms together, genuflecting, then kneeling down, and then fully prostrating themselves on the ground with their foreheads touching the stone pavers.  Then they rose, only to repeat the motion hundreds of times.  To make things more comfortable, they had homemade mats to lay on and pads on their hands to protect them as they slide down into a prone position.  After a hundred or more motions, they paused to get a drink of tea or visit with a neighbor.  And then they went on all day or more.  Many were old women, but some were young women wearing designer jeans (probably tourists).  

In side the temple, things were chaotic.  There was a long line of pilgrims waiting to get in, all lined up belly to bum.  People were selling yak butter to use in fueling candles.  The line inside snaked around the interior wall but disappeared into side rooms featuring Buddha statues and bodhisattvas, all of whom were honored by some active of devotion, including pushing money through the wire screens protecting the statues (they were made of gold, after all).  The inside of the Temple was dark, noisy, dirty, smoky, and crowded, almost like a market place.  Indeed, in one corner there were several monks selling prayers they wrote on small pieces of paper.  

The yak butter smoke was overpowering both to the nose and the eye.  From every side of us there loomed yet another Buddha figure, large and small, smiling and grim, comforting and threatening.  

Compared with the inside of a Mormon temple with its solemnity and simple decor, this was a strange experience.  But no one could deny the devotion of the adherents there that day, and it is inconceivable that God would withhold His blessing because of what I considered to be the grotesque nature of their religious practices.  

Our peak into this exotic religion continued with a tour of the Potala Palace.  Built as it is like a cap on a stoney hill in the center of Lhasa, it is an architectural wonder.  It is no longer a religious site (although some monks apparently inhabit the place), but is run as a museum by the Chinese government.  We paid our money and showed our papers, and proceeded to climb the steep, snaking stairs up the front.  We ran out of breath every 20 steps or so.  So we paused and went another 20 steps. 

It is quite well maintained; the step are in good repair and it had a fresh coat of whitewash.  After some effort we got to the top levels and began winding through a labyrinth of rooms housing more Buddha figures.  There were dozens and dozens of these rooms and hundreds of statues.  On the very top we saw rooms that had housed various Dalai Lamas, including the 14th, now in exile.  Here there was none of the chaos of the Jokhang Temple, but there was still the bizarreness of the Buddhist figures.  This palace is one of the most recognizable images of Tibet and one of the more remote places on earth; Elva and I were in awe that we were actually standing there.


Lamonte John said...

Steve - thanks for these great pictures. The Potala Palace (did I spell it right?) is amazing. Do you know how old it is? I can show you many examples of modern day architects who have copied the switchback stairway, although in a much less grand fashion. The panoramic pictures showing the mountains and beautiful flowers are also stunning. Nice treat for rainy Saturday.

Jolee said...

Wow! I just saw your Tibet pictures... incredible! That is definitely a place I would like to go sometime. Hope things are well back at home!