living clockwise

When you’ve been raised in the tradition of the stiff British upper lip, public displays of devotion can make you a little uncomfortable. For starters, people in the West aren’t devoted to much these days – iPhones; Grey’s Anatomy; raw food – and any deeper devotion is usually very privately held. So being swept along by a throng of pilgrims on our first morning in Lhasa, many with callouses on their foreheads from hundreds of kilometres of prostration, was a humbling and spellbinding introduction to real and living devotion, Tibetan style.

In debating the question of whether to visit Tibet, one of our fears was that we would witness a culture being watered down by military intimidation, Han Chinese immigration and tourism. But, perhaps as a symbol of resistance, Tibetan culture and Buddhism are worn as a badge of honour. Having said that, Lhasa is a virtually segregated city and security in the Tibetan quarter makes you wonder if Obama might be visiting – night time road closures; boys with guns on every rooftop and somewhat farcical foot patrols. But Tibetans are a tough mob – it takes a special breed to eke out centuries of existence in a frozen and vertiginous equivalent of the Nullabor plain.

 

 

 

 

Monasteries and temples are the order of the day in Tibet and despite visiting dozens, we never tired of them. Not at all museum-like, wafts of juniper incense and yak butter and the chanting of pilgrims making their fluid kora were a feast for the senses. Our diminutive guide, Chongla, liked to keep us on our toes with pop quizzes on the various images. Given how often we muddled up our Sakyamuni Buddhas with our Tantric masters, we were glad she didn’t employ the methods of reprimand used by monks in their debates, which involves an enthusiastic “whack!” delivered an inch from the face when you blunder the answer to an esoteric question. We eventually concluded that the more we learnt about Tibetan Buddhism, the more it completely mystified us, although I suspect that trying to explain the mechanics of the Holy Trinity to a Tibetan might have a similar effect.

 

A foreboding, silent monolith in a sea of Mandarin neon, Potala Palace is unrivalled in its dominance of the Lhasa skyline. Our first glimpse of the Dalai Lama’s winter residence and the seat of Tibetan government came on the late night ride from the brand new, gigantic train station on the outskirts of town, which rises out of nowhere like the Death Star. All at once, we felt excited, privileged, saddened and weighed down by the living out of a long-held dream. When visiting a few days later, we expected the building to be empty but were surprised to see that much of the interior survived the iconoclastic rampage of Mao’s Red Guards. That said, only a handful of the 1,000-odd rooms are open to visitors. Most definitely off-limits are those which might be construed as having a political element, such as the stupa housing the remains of the 13th Dalai Lama, the current Dalai Lama’s predecessor and no friend of China.

Earlier the same day we visited Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s traditional summer residence and where the current Dalai Lama spent much of his youth. Less visited than the other sites of Lhasa, we had plenty of time to wander the grounds and ponder what was left. One of the more fascinating and odd exhibits was a room full of horse-drawn carts gifted to the Dalai Lama by various heads of state and royalty on his coronation in 1950, a reminder that there was no motorised transport in Tibet at the time. Also on display was a small tricycle, which a monk explained had been the Dalai Lama’s 7th birthday gift from his English tutor. The living quarters were constructed in 1956 and in contrast to Potala, which is truly fit for a living deity, they are very modest – although there is a western toilet and a bathtub, which is a luxury in Tibet even in 2009.

I don’t think any of us will forget the sight of the empty throne in the main reception hall, robes folded and patiently awaiting their owner’s return. Hidden in an inaccessible corner of the room is the only picture of His Holiness tolerated in Tibet – a mural depicting a very young man, yet to acquire his trademark spectacles. Chongla was understandably reluctant to discuss politics – Lhasa is reputedly crawling with informers – but as we sat in silence in the courtyard outside, she casually remarked that although the buildings are full of beautiful things, they feel empty.

 

 

 

 

After four days in Lhasa, we began our journey that would see us deposited at the Nepali border. As if all the spectacular cultural sites weren’t enough, the Tibetan countryside also threw up some of the most jaw-dropping scenery of our travels. Every day it seemed we would cross another 5000m pass, marvel at yet another technicolour lake or glimpse an “8000-er” in the distance. Our penultimate night in Tibet was to be spent at Everest Base Camp, the details of which we hadn’t given much thought to – that is until our hungover driver started inventing reasons not to go. No chance, Tenzing! So after arriving in the dark and being shown to our dismal and overpriced digs, we glanced up and there she was: Mt Everest, or Chomolongma (Saint Mother) as the Tibetans know her, faintly lit up by a crescent moon and towering right above us. This magnificent sight was some consolation for having to pee in the carpark during the night, as the toilets were a special type of wrongness to be avoided at all costs.

 

On the suggestion of our recalcitrant driver, we were ready to go before dawn the next morning – only to wait around for him in the cold and the dark for 40 minutes until he graced us with his presence and drove us the short way to the viewpoint. Reliably informed by a fellow tourist that it was -10C, we stamped our feet as the first rays lit up the mountainside… and we felt very, very small. The prayer flags we carried up there and unfurled will hopefully fly in our Perth backyard one day.* When we could stand the cold no longer, we retreated to the car and about three hours later, began to feel our fingers and toes again.

The tale our journey through wonderful Tibet would not be complete without mention of Ryan & Jo, who foolishly agreed to be our travelling partners so many months ago. Wonderfully good-humoured and with a remarkable capacity for yak and potato consumption, we’re very glad they weren’t too put off by Linds’ incongruous references to Spinal Tap amidst the Plain of Jars.

*Uh, slight problem dudes – you have to acquire a house first?!

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