Back to the archives …
Between trips, I like to go back to my travel journals and find some old gems, and Tibet is always a treasure trove of stories. I’ve been to Lhasa twice now, a fact that continues to thrill and astound me. I had wanted to go to Lhasa for so many years, and when I finally went, it was far better than I could have ever imagined. Lhasa is a very, very special place; these are some of my favorite recollections from both trips.
First of all, Lhasa is brilliant! There is color everywhere in this city at the top of the world – luminous yellow sun, cobalt skies, brightly painted wood balconies, windows, doors, and signs. Even the clothing is multi-hued. Lhasa is one of the most visibly vibrant places I’ve ever seen, yet its pulse is a distinctly mellow one infused with a palpable Tibetan Buddhist spirit.
Mornings here are glorious – with crisp blue skies, a nip of cold in the air, and undiluted sunshine – and there is no better place to spend one than the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace. The grounds are gorgeous, with miles of walking paths, ponds and small lakes, trees just beginning to turn autumn gold, and flowers everywhere. Vermilion-and-saffron-clad monks swish their brooms over the paths and chant in the nooks of buildings and courtyards.
Just being in the rooms where the Dalai Lamas spent their summers is awe-inspiring. Staring at the mundane, dingy old bathrooms, and seeing a clock forever stuck at 9 p.m. (the exact time when the current Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959), one feels an overwhelming sense of both their presence and a lingering sadness. There is only one public photo of the Dalai Lama in all of Lhasa, and it is here in one of the last rooms, where a Buddha of Compassion statue looks sadly at visitors, all of whom can be in this place of the Dalai Lama’s happy childhood summers, while he himself cannot be and might not ever be able to be again.
Barkhor Square is the heart of Lhasa. Here, every sense is flooded. Smoke pours from giant urns in front of the Jokhang Temple, monks and Tibetans of all ages prostrate themselves before the temple, and stall after stall of vendors with their brightly-colored wares surround us. The mantras of the prostrating pilgrims mix with the calls of “Hey, lady, cheap!” from the stalls. The stupas, meditation and chanting rooms inside the temple are all breathtaking, but in many ways, the highlight of the Jokhang is the rooftop with its views of Barkhor Square, the Potala Palace, and the mountains surrounding all of Lhasa. The view from up here is astounding and both times, I have lingered there for a long time, soaking up the sun, the smell of incense, and a feeling of peace and solitude.
I also love doing the kora (circumambulation) around the temple and wandering in the back alleys behind Barkhor Square, where I find small local shops and dozens of kids eager to kick a ball with me. In the two times I’ve been to Lhasa, I have probably done the kora 50 times, joining the throngs of pilgrims walking clockwise around the temple, stopping in at a plethora of shops or, eventually, just walking, mesmerized by the crowd and the spinning of the prayer wheels in their hands.
One of my favorite memories of the kora was an encounter with an older, quite talkative Tibetan lady who was showing me a set of prayer beads. She enthusiastically used both a knife and a lighter – hacking at the beads and trying to light them on fire – to show us the stones were “oldie, oldie, not Chinese-y!” She was quite a character and even surreptitiously showed us a locket around her neck that held two photos – one of the Dalai Lama and one of the 10th Panchen Lama. She was very brave and trusting to show this to us right there in the square because having a picture of the Dalai Lama is absolutely forbidden and potentially damaging to her entire family. She asked my daughter, “no money, baby?” and held out a bracelet she wanted to give her for free. She was a very special lady and we are happy to have her beads in our house and on our wrists as a memory of how strongly the Tibetans love the Dalai Lama and how much pride they take in being Tibetan.
Of course, the pièce de resistance in Lhasa is the imposing Potala Palace. Words cannot do justice to this massive, commanding structure. We climbed the palace ramps and stairs at 12,000 feet to visit many of the government and religious rooms (there are 1000 of them in all), including the Dalai Lama’s reception room, his private study and bedroom, and the thrones and other private rooms of many former Dalai Lamas. Some of the stupas have gold ornamentation weighing hundreds of tons; it’s fortunate the palace’s foundation is an entire mountainside. The Tibetans from the countryside who have made the journey to this most holy city of Lhasa are humbling to see – old, stooped women, young children, and others bowing low, praying, chanting, and touching their foreheads to the images and shrines.
We left the Potala moved and astounded; it exceeded my astronomically high expectations by a great margin, as did Lhasa overall. Although it takes time, money, and quite a bit of hassle to get to this mysterious “place of the gods,” my fondest hope is to return there yet again someday.