Lhasa, Capital of Tibet
Lhasa, capital of the ‘autonomous’ region of Tibet is best reached by flight over the Himalayas. Along the way, you’ll get views of amazing views of Everest across the dog tooth peaks of the giant Himalayan Mountains. Its shape is instantly recognisable from hundreds of pictures and this vision of Nature’s majesty held the attention of everyone in the plane until it passed out of sight.
Arriving at Lhasa airport is, like all Chinese airports, some way from town. You are immediately aware of the iron grip the Chinese keep in this region as the staff herd you like cattle through their checking procedures. You are likely to be on a group visa and so will be expected to line up, in our group, in the order in which our names appeared on the visa form to present ourselves to the Immigration Officer before being granted entry into the country. Then, the entire plane was required to line up (behind the obligatory yellow line) to be called forward one by one for a thorough baggage Anyone being in possession of a guide book to Tibet in which the name of the Dalai Lama appears wil have the book confiscated. Following a complete baggage check you will then queue up again to have our baggage tags reconciled against our luggage; a process that needed to be done twice.
We had travelled in from Nepal and Lhasa is in complete contrast to Kathmandu. The chaos and anarchy of the Nepali capital was swapped for the order and regimen of China. None of your crooked houses and narrow ways here, it is constructed in blocks (U.S. style) and with roads big enough to take a tank or two. The Chinese have brought their infrastructure with them; there are excellent roads free of traffic, a new airport, a new railway under construction, new bridges, and tunnels being pushed through the mountains at a great expense.
It seemed the only sign of ‘old Tibet’ was the Potala Palace, that is, apparently, shaped like an elephant, that stood massive and defiant on the dominant hill of the city and is the residence of the exiled Dalai Lama. The construction really is enormous, the top of it standing 140 metres above the road and the extremes of width covering at least 500 metres. Its split into a white palace, where the administrative affairs were conducted and a red palace, where the religious affairs and the Dalai Lama’s living quarters were situated.
Lhasa doesn’t have the buzz and the energy of other Chinese cities, it is subdued and quiet. There are police and military everywhere that are the hallmarks of an occupying force. On every major street intersection there are Police stations, immediately outside of which are a row of riot shields and helmets at the ready. Every so often along a major road, there will be a square glass hut in which an armed soldier is positioned at each corner staring straight ahead, whilst a fifth stands in the middle of his colleagues, presumably with a roving brief. Clusters of police or soldiers can be found almost anywhere but are especially concentrated around the open public squares in case of the slightest outbreak of dissent or disorder.
The local Tibetan tongue is not spoken openly, is no longer taught in schools and does not appear on any road signs or shop doorways. It’s all announced in Chinese with English subtitles. There are now as many native Han Chinese in Lhasa as Tibetans. In two or three generations, Tibet will become like any other province of China.
In case anyone is wondering what it is that attracts China to Tibet in the first place, the search needs go no further than the land. It is rich in minerals and gemstones that are pushed to the surface by the movements of the great tectonic plates of the earth. It is also rich in water: it is the source of ten great rivers that serve half of the population of the earth. Thus, Lhasa has been transformed into a modern city by the Chinese who have constructed a metropolis in their own image. At a glance, it’s a pleasant creation with open spaces, boating lakes, parkland, street trees and (a very gaudy) downtown shopping area complete with multicoloured flashing lights, video posters, splashing fountains and glass fronted shops. And there is plenty of money around if the vehicles are any yardstick. The majority of the cars are foreign imports: Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Toyota, Hyundai, Buick, Chevrolet et al, littering the streets and sidewalks and looking entirely in keeping with the modern buildings around them.
But the Chinese haven’t tried to remove everything from the locals. The Potala Palace, in which the Dalai Lama hasn’t resided since fleeing to exile in India after the 1959 uprising, has become a museum full of “magnificent Tibetan arts and culture that are not only classified as national treasures but are also listed by the state council as one unit of the important cultural relics to be specially protected.” The elevation of the Palace above the surrounding land provides a very welcome opportunity to stop and have a look at the city with its dramatic backdrop of dark, brown shale mountains. Looking up at the Palace above, it seems that every window or opening is bedecked with an enormous blanket made from Yak hair emblazoned with the Buddhist sign of infinity. It is recorded that these drapes are so heavy that it takes two Yaks to carry each one.
The sixth of the thirteen floors on which the palace is constructed is where the main entrance is situated. The doorway is made of intrically carved wood, meticulously painted, adorned with large brass knockers from which interwoven red and gold tassels hang like earrings. The scene is guarded by seven lion watching from above. This announces the entrance to an auspicious place where the visitor can expect a person of great importance.
Inside the gate, we arrive in the Open Sky Courtyard where minstrels, actors and dancers would have entertained the Dalai Lama in times past. The main audience hall and the private audience hall were overwhelmingly red. On the walls was a frieze depicting the story of Lord Buddha, and above the seat of the chosen one was a huge painting of the current Dalai Lama. It was very similar to the audience chambers of the powerful Indian Maharajas.
Thereafter, were a series of chapels dedicated to different Buddhas that were constructed by various different Lamas, most of which had walls lined with pigeon holes full of wooden jacketed volumes of Buddhist writings and codes of the commandments for living (Kagyur). The largest area was dedicated to the Buddha of Eternal Happiness and was the work of the 6th Dalai Lama who liked to write poetry and pee over the balcony.
The final chapel was dedicated to the Enlightened Buddha but this was an area that is forbidden to enjoy. You are moved swiftly on to rooms full of funeral stupas of successive Dalai Lamas. If the Lamas lived life frugally, no expense was spared upon their death. Fabulous amounts of gold were used to build the huge, stepped, square blocks that housed the mummified corpses. The Stupa of the 7th Dalai Lama used 498 kg of gold and countless very large precious stones of all colours. But this was dwarfed by the 3,721 Kg of gold consumed by the tomb of the 5th Dalai Lama.
High on the steps above the city, you are afforded a wonderful view across the rooftops to the mountains beyond. In the centre of the old town is the Jokhang Temple. Its construction began in 647AD and was completed by Princess Wencheng (a Chinese from Beijing) who was one of the wives of the 33rd King of Tibet. It was built on a lake that was filled in because the position was determined to be the principal geometric place of power in Tibet and, upon the temples consecration the town’s name was changed from Rasa (place of the goat) to Lhasa (place of the deity). Outside the temple are, maybe, 50 people repeatedly prostrating themselves in an act of devotion that continues for many hours. Beyond them, there is a line of humanity circling the temple all day long with people joining and leaving the line from time to time.