Sunday, September 17, 2006

Lhasa -- initial impressions and feelings

(In Lhasa, in Barkhor Square, approaching the Jokhang Temple:)

(View of the kora around Jokhang Temple from the roof of Mandala Hotel:)

(Potala Palace in the sky:)

(Mountains everywhere! (Chinese development, too):)

Lhasa is a beautiful, prayerful place, the spiritual heart of Buddhism, and is surrounded by tallest mountains and enveloped in a rich history. Unfortunately, the spiritual heart is weak and the historical development unraveling (unraveled?) -- but more on those thoughts later, first my initial impressions.

In Lhasa, Buddhist pilgrims can be seen in constant prayer. The older folk can be seen walking koras (clockwise circumambulations) of temples and other set routes, chanting and spinning their prayer wheels (also in a clockwise motion). The younger pilgrims can be seen doing full-body prostrations in one graceful motion, starting on feet and ending with forehead onground -- repeatedly, even in the rain and cold. Every early morning, the main temple in theTibetan part of town, Jokhang Temple, is a crush of people to enter, to kora, to prostrate and to pray with water and yak butter and money in hand as offerings to the various shrines within the temple. It's an amazing otherworldly, devotional energy, and within it, I feel contemplative and prayerful.

Tibetan Buddhism was heavily influenced by India (the birthplace of Buddhism) and China (though Chinese Buddhism has since virtually disappeared). Because Tibetan Buddhism is one of the oldest forms, it also was mixed with the particular folk religious beliefs of Tibet -- which makes it particularly distinctive.

There are many layers (of course).

Tibetans view the current situation as an illegal occupation (since 1950) by China of a sovereign Tibet. Indeed Tibet had a rich, long history as a sovereign nation (also with long-standing ties to Mongolia for protection against enemies, economic support, etc.).

These political problems directly correlate to economic problems -- for example, use (abuse?) of the natural resources of Tibet by the Chinese and lack of development of Tibet as an individual economic entity able to stand on its own feet. (To be fair, some would say that China has invested a lot of money towards developing Tibet in terms of infrastructure and other economic development.)

In all of this, socioeconomic tensions arise, including lack of economic opportunity for most Tibetans, discrimination against Tibetans by the Chinese for well-paying jobs, business contracts, etc.

This gives way to a whole host of social problems including rampant alcoholism, prostitution and a lot of undernourished and uneducated people who everyday struggle to live and have no access to education or any other economic opportunities (a lot of begging in the streets and in the fields, everywhere!) I saw the alcoholism myself first hand. It was not unusual to see Tibetan men stumbling around drunk by early evening.

Many tourists feel hassled here. While it is true that there are other types of hassling in China, the begging here is really intense. (And I have had this much hassle or more in other countries.)

As for me, I can see and somewhat understand the political, economic and social problems, and certainly my description only scratches the surface (!) and for me that understanding eases the anxiety when beggars personally approach me.

In fact, the meditative, prayerful atmosphere in Lhasa and my meditations and prayers in particular, keep me open and growing, and I feel very emotional. (I cried at Jokhang Temple!) When I visit temples or other holy places, because I lack specific familiarity with the Buddhas and their stories, I examing each Buddhas, his or her different countenances and features, and I try to find the predominant single characteristic of the particular Buddha -- which might be serenity or openness or lightness of heart or wisdom/full knowing or justice or strength or protection or even detachment or passion. I think about the characteristic for myself and how to deepen these traits within me. Particular for me is unburdening my own heart.

Here, my spirit is well fed.

On the personal side, I've met several fellow travelers and the atmosphere among travelers is congenial and convival. Because many people have come here to do additional trip to Everest Base Camp or Kailash or to numerous other places in proximity to Lhasa, there are message boards around the hotels/guesthouses. People leave notices to get in contact to join together for these trips (which are priced by the vehicle, not bythe number of people, so making it affordable means getting enough people to join together on a trip. There are usually several similar trip happening simultaneously, so this is easy to arrange (my arrangements were made on the night I arrived!) Many travelers talk and meet up with many other travelers and this is all social.

Lhasa fills me through and through with the beautiful and the terrible.

On the Terrible

Someone whom I met and quickly became dear to me when I met her was undergoing something terrible in Lhasa -- call it the convergence of the Chinese oppression and the Tibetan self-punishing response.

One day, a lovely girl with the sweetest smile and high energy and grace was sketching in Potala Palace park, and when she got up to stand, accidentally bumped a toddler (one of the many toddler-beggars, or toddlers sent by their parents to beg). The toddler fell, crying and ended up with a bloody cheek. The mother, close at hand, started screaming, "She hit my child, she hit my child!" The next thing you know, police were on the scene and 10 witnesses had signed that she hit the child (as opposed to accidentally bumping the child) and her passport was confiscated. The video cameras around Potala (also all over Lhasa) later revealed that she was in a blind spot and could not corroborate her story. The parents were demanding inexorbitant sums of money (thousands of euros) -- and money she as a student did not have nor family to help and an embassy ignoring her. She was facing the real possibility of jail time.

Was this a scam? Intentional? Did they pick a blind spot to the cameras? Were they demanding a high amount of money to split among 10 or 11 people ("witnesses" + family).

I was not present at the incident, just a bystander, trying to be there for her. The PSB and the so-called Bureau of Foreign Affairs (into which building she was not allowed to step) were talking out of both sides of their mouths. At times she (we?) were followed.

It was exhausting and sad. I realized that could happen to anyone, including me (though I and others would be able to pay my way out).

In the end, the family was demanding too much money, and she was apologetic and compromising. Her embassy got involved and the police wanted to conclude the matter. She paid a small fee, got her passport back and left the next day.

Exhaustion, relief and a necessarily abrupt leaving of Lhasa.


Special thanks and love to Dermot for being my GPS, my porter, my back-up plan, my personal comedic and for helping me break in my hiking boots all over the Tibetan quarter. Are you sure that I can't convince you to be my porter in Africa? ;)

Special thanks and love to Fee in spite of our mutual wanderings through the Chinese/Tibetan labyrinth. Your courage and resilience are astounding, you truly are a Fee-rie, and flying, you will always be free! See you in Barcelona!!

Nam-tso, the largest lake in Tibet, the second-largest saltwater lake in China and the highest saltwater lake in the world at 4720m.:


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