I had read so many travelers' accounts of trips to Lhasa. They always talked about the golden roof of the Potala Palace being the first thing that one sees of Lhasa. When I looked to the far end of the Tsangpo valley and saw the shining glimmering light of the golden roof of the Potala Palace, I knew that I had made it. I knew that all the suffering was worth it. I hit the paved road with a new-found energy. My bike computer reported that I cruised along at 20 mph [33 kph]. The kilometer stones on the side of the road flew past me at a new found rate.
Many Western people have some kind of almost mythical image of Tibet and the entire Himalayan region. Part of that image is the massive Potala Palace, the former winter residence of the Dalai Lama. Up until this century it had been the largest building in the world. During my visit to Lhasa in the fall of 1992, I found that the Potala was impressive from the outside but the inside seemed dead. The Chinese government had turned it into a museum. The Jokhang Temple had become the real heart of Lhasa.
Thousands of multicolored prayer flags cover the metal bridge across the Tsangpo River. I rode across in a daze of disbelief that I had made it to Lhasa. Only five weeks before I had begun this cycling trip. Once I crossed the bridge I headed straight for the Jokhang Temple, the mystical jewel of Lhasa. Wow! City traffic! I weaved my way in and out of donkey carts and motorcycles, stopped at the traffic lights, and a kind of happiness that I have never really understood filled me. There is something about Lhasa that just makes me happy, happy to be there, happy to just walk down the street and through the markets, and make a kora around the Jokhang. I rode up to the Barkor, the large plaza in front of the Jokhang Temple, and dismounted my bike. I later learned that when Tibetan pilgrims come to Lhasa the Jokhang is the first place that they visit. Just like most every other sacred place in Tibet it is standard practice to walk around the object or place in a clockwise direction or circumambulation. I walked my bike through the crowds and around the Jokhang making three koras or circuits.
The mandala concept is one that reappears often throughout Tibet Buddhism. A mandala is a circular map of the cosmos. A distilled representation of the universe. The mandala has a defined center that is marked by a central structure. This structure has four openings, one toward each of the cardinal directions, north, south, east and west. A outer boundary area surrounds the main central structure. The Milky Way galaxy, and solar system and the Jokhang Temple each represents unique versions of a mandala. Buddhist pilgrims use the action of the kora, traveling the circle that makes up the center of the mandala, to both calm and center their mind. Speaking a mantra at the same time helps to focus the mind and keep it clear of distraction. Both of these actions help to create the proper mental conditions needed to contemplate the true nature of reality. As I walked the koras around the Jokhang I took a little time to reflect on my experiences of the past few weeks and to rejoice in my arrival in Lhasa.
In all of Tibet, Lhasa offered the most when it came to material comforts and I knew that I could use a little physical comfort. I made the three block ride over to the Yak Hotel only to find that no one would help me. It seemed like the Tibetan staff there almost ignored me. When I saw myself in the reflection of the window, I knew why. Since I did not carry a mirror with me, I had not seen my face in weeks. By the time I reached Lhasa, road dirt and sweat covered me and my clothing. I was starting to look almost as filthy as some of the Tibetan nomads. I got back on my bike and rode down the street to the slightly lower class backpacker hotel, the Banok Shol. When I reached the Banok Shol, the Tibetan women there greeted me with big smiles, and pointed out that they had hot showers.
I spent a few days indulging in the luxuries of Lhasa. I would get up and go to Tashi's Restaurant for some morning yogurt and oatmeal. After I ran a few errands and checked my mail at the post office, I would spend some time just hanging out talking to other travelers. By late afternoon it was time to start thinking about my dinner plans. My days had an obvious theme, eating and relaxing. I enjoyed the life of a true vacation.
There is a certain magic about being in Lhasa. At the center of this mystical town lives the Jokhang Temple, the magnet that draws prostrating pilgrims from thousands of miles away. The town consists of a strange mix of pilgrims, business people, and the worst of the Chinese police. When you stand in front of the Jokhang, you look out into a mass of pilgrims, undercover police, and vendors selling everything from prayer flags to Coca-Cola. When you glance up to check out the tops of the surrounding buildings, the rooftop surveillance video cameras watch your every move. The police are everywhere. Once, I saw three Tibetans make a small demonstration against the government. Within seconds, half a dozen undercover agents surrounded them. A few minutes later, a green Beijing jeep sped onto the plaza. The police forcibly shoved the demonstrators into the vehicle and carried them off to the police station, where an uncertain fate surely awaited them. At the same time, two Americans had been taking pictures of the Jokhang on the opposite side of the plaza. The police forced my American friends into a jeep and took them down to the police station to make sure that they did not possess any photos of the demonstration that had transpired moments before. My friends were oblivious to the demonstration and a bit perplexed by the police's concern with what they had photographed. The police are extremely careful about implicating photos getting out to the Western press. Almost every Tibetan whom I met had served time in jail at some point in time, or their father or brother had been in jail or killed.
The pull of the 1300-year-old Jokhang Temple is one of the main attractions that brought me back to Lhasa. Like the Tibetan pilgrims who prostrate themselves for hundreds of miles and weeks on end to arrive at the Jokhang, I was also strongly drawn to this central hub of Lhasa. Most afternoons and evenings I would spend some time in or around the area of the Jokhang. In the front there is an area continually filled with pilgrims, largely consisting of older Tibetan women. For a majority of the daylight hours, these pilgrims perform prostrations by holding their palms together and raising them above their heads, lowering their hands down to their head and on down to their chest. They then kneel down on the stones and place their hands out in front and bow down to touch their forehead to the earth. The repeated motion of pilgrims who have prostrated on this spot for hundreds of years has worn the paving stones smooth. I walked past the pilgrims and into the tree-trunk size columns that support the massive beams holding up the roof. Waist-high on the wooden columns are shiny indentations worn away by the thousands of pilgrims that have rubbed their hands on the tree trunks. Between the first sets of columns resides a prayer wheel the size of a Volkswagen Bug that is filled with millions of written prayers. I grabbed the brass rail attached to the prayer wheel to help spin the oversized cylinder in a clockwise direction and release more prayers into the world. Prayer wheels represent yet one more Tibetan Buddhist tool for transforming the mind, first by calming and focusing the mind and then by planting the seed of the object of contemplation.
Once through the main gate you enter the central courtyard of the Jokhang. A group of five or six Tibetan men worked away on restoration of the two-and-a-half-foot-wide [0.80 meter wide] wooden columns. They all worked with hand tools, chisels, planes and an assortment of other old-style wood-working tools. When I stopped to chat with the workers it became apparent that they were all extremely grateful to have such a fantastic job. They knew that the work was difficult but to be able to help create some of the new wood carving for the Jokhang made for a enormous privilege and honor.
Surrounding the main courtyard is a maze of dimly lit rooms and halls that contain a large number of the remaining treasures of Tibet. An unending line of pilgrims flow in and out of these small dark rooms whenever the Jokhang remains open. The pilgrims carry hand-held prayer wheels and prayer beads as they walk though the labyrinth of halls quietly repeating the ever present mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum." Over the course of dozens of visits I started to become familiar with just a few of the many rooms that contain wonderful paintings and statues. Bolted into the door frame of each of these rooms hangs a medieval-looking chain mesh that remains locked at certain times to protect the rooms from thieves and treasure hunters. As I examined each of the rooms some of the older pilgrims would often help me to identify the statues and the paintings of various Buddhas and images of famous Tibetan Buddhist teachers illuminated by the burning butter lamps. During one of my visits I noticed an oil lamp burning on a table in the corner of the room. The top of a human skull formed a bowl that held the oil for the burning lamp. This reminder helped to keep all of the visitors mindful of their own mortality and of the true nature of our short time on this planet.
During a trip to India I learned this lesson in a way that would never be possible in the USA. On the banks of the sacred Ganges River in north India lies the city of Varinasi. For Hindus this is one of the most holy cities in India. Near the river's edge descends a series of stone steps, called ghats, that lead down to the water. Every morning the ghats fill with Hindus who come to wash and bathe in the most holy of rivers, the Ganges. Alongside these bathers, vendors, and holy men are the burning ghats. From these places along the river's edge the flames of cremation fires rise into the sky. A few months before, in Nepal, I witnessed my first cremation. I looked across the river at the burning corpses and had the luxury of a close friend who sat at my side to help explain and reflect on exactly what we watched. In Varinasi I stood alone just a couple yards from a burning corpse. I drew into my lungs the pungent smoke that poured off the body. One moment these particles were the physical death of someone whom I had never met and the next they were part of the force that kept me alive.
The Tibetan calendar is based on a twelve-month lunar calendar. The full moon is always the most auspicious day of the month always falling on the fifteenth day of the month. Out of all the months of the year, Saga Dawa represents one of the most special. It is a month to celebrate and reflect on the birth, death and enlightenment of the Buddha. I had the good fortune to be in Lhasa during the month of Saga Dawa. In the Western calendar Saga Dawa often falls in the month of May or June.
In a local restaurant, I heard about a festival at Tshurphu Gompa. Tshurphu is the home of the nine-year-old incarnation of the Karmapa. Alongside the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, the Karmapa is one of the most powerful religious figures in Tibet. This festival was part of the month of Saga Dawa. At 6 A.M. I found a minibus in the Barkor headed to Tshurphu. Tibetans going to the festival packed the bus. Once we got underway, a couple of young Tibetan guys started speaking to me in English. They were both children of Tibetan refugees and had been born in Nepal. For the first times in their lives they traveled the land of their ancestors. Growing up they heard countless stories about Tibet but they had never before been able to actually see the land of their parents and grandparents. Sonam had spent some time in Singapore, where he learned a bit of Chinese, a useful skill for dealing with the Chinese officials and police.
Two years before, this Tibetan child was recognized as the incarnation of the Karmapa, the leader of one of the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism. The search for this young boy had lasted for eight years. The Chinese government handled the entire situation fairly suspiciously. They allowed the initiation ceremony to take place but Chinese government officials forbid the Karmapa to leave Tshurphu Gompa without permission. A few Europeans lived at Tshurphu, each spending a couple hours during the day teaching the young lama about the 'West' and the English language.
The small bus made its way over the rocky road. Every now and then a few of the passengers would disembark to move large rocks off the road. Fresh snow blanketed the hills above the monastery, adding to the beauty of the valley. A complex of old Tibetan buildings formed the monastery. The bus dropped us just in front of the gompa or monastery, I hefted my pack up on to my shoulder and started the short walk up to the main courtyard. I strolled past a Chinese solider holding an assault rifle. The soldier did not seem a part of the whole picture around me. I was at a Buddhist religious festival, the need for armed troops eluded me.
At first glance this festival looked like the original Grateful Dead show. Around the perimeter of the monastery complex, many pilgrims had set up yak wool tents. Closer to the main courtyard area, vendors sold everything from katas, silk blessing scarves for when you go inside to be blessed by the Karmapa, to cheap Chinese sneakers. As the recent snows melted, the pathways grew covered with mud. There were tents where you could buy sweet tea, Tibetan butter tea, or a bowl of noodles. In the center of the main courtyard lama dances continued for most of the day. I had been told that all the original costumes had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but one of the oldest monks at Tshurphu had overseen the recent recreation of all the costumes needed for this festival. The monks dressed as demons from other realms, as fools and as kings. They were all characters in this three-day outdoor play. Wearing large green and black papier-mâché masks with fake black dreadlocks dangling from their heads, two ghouls patrolled the large courtyard area. Between the different acts the ghouls kept the audience entertained by grabbing spectators from the crowd.. They would make fun of their victims in front of the rest of the crowd, by chasing them around, tying them up, or pretending to beat them. In a fun sort of way everyone in the crowd became fearful of being grabbed by these two wild jokers.
One of the main reasons that so many pilgrims came to this festival was to be blessed by the Karmapa. In Christianity, the only thing that this could be compared to is being blessed by Jesus himself. Well, just as that would cause all kinds of crowd-control problems, so did the chance to see the young Karmapa. The moment the announcement came that the Karmapa would start to see the public for blessing, everyone in the crowd surged forward to be first in line. After a bit of a wait, I also joined the wild mob -consisting of a mix of nomads and the elite from Lhasa. No real line formed, a mass of pilgrims all pushed and shoved trying to get to the main entrance of the monastery. Once inside, a narrow set of stairs ascended to the room where the Karmapa sat. When things started to get out of hand with all the pushing, the larger monks beat the crowds back with eight-foot-long [2.5 meter long] saplings. Their muscular arms showed prominently through the sleeveless maroon robes they wore. During the worst of it I crawled under a table with a Tibetan schoolteacher. In the calm of our little hideout we talked about the craziness of the Chinese and the craziness of the Tibetans, two vastly different extremes.
After a couple hours of living in a crazed mob of people, I made it up to the Karmapa's room. The bodyguards searched me and demanded I leave my fanny pack just outside the room. As I walked in, I saw a bored little boy sitting on his throne. The Karmapa seemed to be missing the magic that I saw in the Dalai Lama. I had been fortunate enough to be blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama two times before. During both of these times I felt some kind of special presence that is beyond words. Maybe the Karmapa was just too young to be able to cultivate that unique state of mind.
When the sun went down, the cold air started to penetrate my layers of clothing. I decided to walk around the monastery for a little while to warm up. I noticed a group of Tibetan men and women starting to gather just between the river and the main courtyard. In a short while, the stars started to shine as the sky grew black. A few of the Tibetan women started to sing a folk song as more people gathered. In Tibet people commonly sing songs while they work and go about their daily life. I often listened to beautiful songs that the young women sang as they shoveled gravel on the side of the road. Somehow, I could seldom imagine state highway workers singing as they picked up garbage from the side of the freeway in the USA. The women all held hands and formed a circle as they continued to sing a few more songs. A little later the men started to form a slightly larger circle around the women and to sing along with them. One of the Tibetans standing next to me told me that all the singers came from the same village. Most of the village had traveled to the Tshurphu festival. I felt privileged to witness this strong sense of community that often seems to be missing back in the USA.
It seems that in the USA we live few "real" experiences in normal everyday life. At home the television is the main source of all new experience, or rather pseudo-experience. As this trip unfolded I had a rare chance to experience things that I had never witnessed before on TV, since most of the area where I traveled has had few Western visitors. As I thought about it more and more, it seemed that most new experiences came from things that I had first seen on TV. Only much later would I ever get a chance to actually physically participate in the event. I remember seeing dozens and dozens of TV images of Machu Picchu in Peru before ever visiting there. Even though I had yet to travel to Peru my mind held all kinds of images and ideas of what it would be like. When I did finally get a chance to travel to Machu Picchu it held so much more than could ever be captured in a video image. Every day of this trip was infinitely richer than I could ever have imagined. Every day of it unfolded before me with a newness that is difficult for me to find in the USA.
I had met Sonam in a small shop at the foot of the Potala Palace. He overheard me talking to the shopkeeper in Chinese, and he started talking to me in English. I had been searching for a Tibetan tutor, and he was looking for someone to help him with his English. For Tibetans, English language skills provide a guaranteed way to get a good job and make a higher than average wage. Anyone who can speak English has a chance to become a tour guide for foreign tourists. We arranged to meet at Tashi's Restaurant two days later.
When I saw Sonam with his friend Lopsang out in front of Tashi's, I asked them if they wanted to go inside for a cup of tea. They both replied with a nervous but polite "Yes." Much later, I learned that neither of them had ever ventured inside the most popular backpacker hangout in Lhasa. When they accompanied me it was a new experience for them, they had never been around so many odd foreigners before. All of the wild-looking and colorful foreigners frightened both of them a bit. We all looked over the Tibetan language books that I brought and talked about what aspects of English they wanted to learn. They had spent some time learning English from other Westerners in the last year, but they both wanted to get a better command of the language.
We no longer met in Tashi's, because neither of them felt comfortable surrounded by strange foreigners. Over the next two weeks we met about every other day at different little tea shops or monasteries around town. I learned that both Sonam and Lopsang worked on a restoration project underway in a local monastery. They were both monks but they were forbidden to wear their robes because the Chinese government controls the number of monks at each monastery. At their height the three main monasteries in the Lhasa area each held from 3,000 to 10,000 monks. Today the Chinese government limits the numbers of monks at each institution to just a couple hundred. Years before, Sonam had been living in a large monastery just outside of Lhasa. After a police raid, the government officials held him for questioning for two weeks. They asked him about his faithfulness to the Communist government and whether he was involved in any kind of Tibetan resistance movement. At the time of his release it was clear that they would watch his every move. He knew that if the police picked him up again there was no way that they would let him out. Sonam decided to illegally cross the border to Nepal and traveled on to India. For a few years he lived in Tibetan refugee camps in south India, but recently he had come back to Tibet. In the last two years Chinese control of Tibet loosened up quite a bit. The Communists allowed individual Westerners back into Lhasa during the fall of 1992. Tibet had remained closed since the fall of 1987 because of the massive Tibetan uprising against the Chinese. During the riots of '87, Chinese security forces had killed hundreds of people in front of the Jokhang Temple.
Sonam and Lopsang were great guys. Sonam was the more serious one, and Lopsang the jester. He loved to sing a song that was taught to him by another Westerner -"We didn't start the Fire" by Billy Joel, a song full of references to John Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and nuclear war that he did not understand at all. We talked about the USA, Buddhism, and the situation in Tibet. They introduced me to their English teacher. She had taught English in Lhasa for quite some time. She invited me to help her out, because I was a native speaker. She knew English grammar far better than I did, but I could help with teaching pronunciation. During the time I spent with this small class and my two new friends, I felt that I was doing something useful both for other people and myself. I enjoyed it enough that I started to think about returning to Lhasa in the fall just to teach English. Then I would be able to live in Lhasa for a couple months, improve my Tibetan and help others learn English.
When I told my idea of staying in Lhasa during the fall to a friend who had spent many years living there, my hopes of becoming an English teacher in Lhasa were crushed. He presented a dilemma that I did not know how to solve. He had seen it all happen before. He told me the story would go like this. First I would establish a group of people that I would teach. We would set up a regular schedule of meetings maybe three times a week. Everything would proceed well for the first month. After about six weeks, the police would get word of the class. They would then recruit someone from the class, someone who had a relative in jail so that they could put more pressure on him or her. This person would then bring a concealed tape recorder to class and record every session from then on. After maybe three months, I would leave Lhasa. As soon as I left town, the entire class would be arrested. If any of the students had talked about anything political in the class the police would have it recorded on tape. Those people would then be tortured and sent to jail. The others would be held for a few weeks in jail for questioning. There was no way that I could teach more than two Tibetans on a regular basis and not be found out by the police. No matter how much good I thought I was doing by teaching English, I would always be putting the students at risk. If for nothing else, then for just associating with them. A week before, I had met Sonam at his work one afternoon. After that, he asked me not to show up there anymore because a foreigner walking around speaking Tibetan at his work place created trouble for him.
Although I would have liked to stay in Lhasa for another four weeks, other factors outside of my control prevented me. The PRC government makes it a bit difficult for foreigners to stay in China for more than three months at a time. I had to do a few extra tricks to be able to stay in China long enough to make it to the Pakistan border, so I could not afford to stay in Lhasa any longer. I wanted to travel a substantial part of the route to Mt. Kailash on the "south" road. This road is only passable after early May when the rivers start to thaw out, until the end of June, when the rivers run too high to walk across. Because of this, just about all truck traffic to Western Tibet travels on the north road. The south road is plagued with a mix of deep sand and deep river crossings, two things that do not go well with any kind of vehicle. When I announced my departure from Lhasa to a friend who spends summers there, he told me that I had to stay just a couple more days for the full moon of Saga Dawa. After a bit of coaxing, I finally agreed to stay in Lhasa for two more days. He promised that I would not regret it.
The most important part of the month of Saga Dawa happens during the full moon. In the predawn hours of the night of the full moon, just about every Tibetan in Lhasa will get up in the darkness to walk a seven-mile loop around what used to encircle the entire city. Today the circuit that makes up the Lingkor is just a small circle inside the sprawl of Communist Chinese concrete buildings and army camps that compose the greater Lhasa area.
I had woken up a couple times during the night to the sound of rain, but by 5 A.M. the rain had stopped. I struggled out of bed to make my way out to the street. It was just two blocks down the road to the Lingkor circuit. From a block away I could see massive bonfires burning on the pavement. As I got closer and merged into the clockwise flow of pilgrims walking the kora, I realized the fires consisted of giant piles of incense burning in the street. In the glow of the firelight I could see the unending line of the poorest of the poor lining the edges of the street. I had gone to the bank the day before to get a few large stacks of small bills to give out to the needy. Each of these two Mao notes was worth about half of a US penny. My Tibetan friends told me that any action that one takes during this day will be magnified a thousand times over, both good actions and bad actions. Thousands of the poorest people from all around Lhasa come into the city to try to be the recipients of other people's kind actions. As my eyes became used to the darkness I could start to see the faces of all the people lining the sides of the street. Entire families sat together with outstretched hands. I dispersed hundreds of two Mao bills. I just walked down the street handing a bill to every person. They all sat shoulder to shoulder on the curb in a seemingly endless line. Tibet remains one of the few places in China where beggars still roam the streets. One of the key tenets of the Communist Revolution led by Mao was the idea of the "iron ricebowl." This meant that everyone in China would have an "unbreakable ricebowl," that no matter what happened you could always get a bowl of rice to eat. Unfortunately this policy had never been exercised in Tibet.
By the time I walked to the west side of the Potala, the sun had started to rise. Seeing the Potala silhouetted in front of this orange glowing disk and smelling the incense burning, I once again felt that I was a part of something ancient -walking the same path that so many people had walked before me, smelling the same smells, seeing the same images.
Just as I walked past the Potala I turned back for one last look. On the street corner in front of the Potala Palace, stood a large billboard. The bottom half contained a picture of five or six people dressed in full face gas masks and radiation suits. The top half of the billboard displayed five consecutive frames in an animation of a mushroom cloud from an atomic explosion. The entire thing reminded me of something from a scene out of Pink Floyd's "The Wall." The bizarre juxtaposition of images, nuclear holocaust right in front of the former home of the Dalai Lama, the recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, left me transfixed.
During one of my many conversations with other foreigners in Lhasa, another traveler mentioned that two months before he had met two American guys in Kathmandu who had also tried to cycle to Mt. Kailash. Apparently these two cyclists had set out from Lhasa, on mountain bikes, for the same awesome mountain that I was headed for. Somewhere out in Western Tibet, before they actually reached Mt. Kailash, Chinese police stopped them and took them to an unknown facility. The Chinese officials then proceeded to take all the Americans' clothing and other gear. The cyclists speculated that they must have wandered into a contaminated nuclear waste zone accidentally but they were never sure. From there the Chinese deported them to Nepal.
I knew that active nuclear testing still took place in Lop Nor, located in Qinghai Province to the north of Tibet. Many American friends often cringe when I tell them I traveled in the general area of nuclear testing, but none of them seems to realize that they do the exact same thing when driving through parts of Nevada. I had often heard stories about nuclear dump sites located in Western Tibet, so I thought that there may be some reason for concern after hearing this story. I asked a friend of mine who stays quite knowledgeable about these matters. After I explained the tale as I had heard it, my friend informed me that he did not think that there would be any nuclear contamination located on the "south road" to Mt. Kailash. He thought that if there was anything out in Western Tibet it would be located far from the only road that crossed that area. As the conversation ended, he mentioned that if I wanted to retrieve any soil samples, he would make sure that they were properly analyzed. This most certainly did not make for a reassuring note to end on.
All images and text Copyright © 1996 Ray Kreisel