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Travel: Traditions in Exotic Tibet Survive under Chinese Rule

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/06/02; June 2, 2002.]

By Eva Harnik
Special to the Times-Union
Florida Times-Union
Sunday, June 2, 2002

LHASA, Tibet -- The Chinese army invaded Tibet in 1950s, claiming suzerainty over her lands.

Subsequently, the Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959. In the intervening years there were uprisings in Tibet, and approximately 100,000 people were killed, and a similar number fled to neighboring countries. The Chinese destroyed most of the ancient monasteries, forbade religious practices and the display of the portrait of the Dalai Lama; nevertheless Marxist ideology never took hold of the Tibetan people whose everyday life was inextricably interwoven with Buddhism. The natives hunkered down in the small villages dotting the Tibetan plateau, kept their heads low and continued to worship in their private homes.

After the miserable failure of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, some degree of normalcy returned to Tibet. Since 1979, the Chinese have rebuilt the monasteries, and permitted religious observance under tight control.

My journey took me from Hong Kong to Chengdu in China: the traditional starting point to Tibet.

Traveling from the bustling capitalism and mushroomlike, skyward spread of beautiful Hong Kong to the large industrial city of Chengdu was quite an experience: from the eye-popping to the drab! The concrete, tall buildings of Chengdu created a uniformly dull impression; next day the plane descended on the high plateau of Tibet, and this traveler found herself in a much-earlier century.

The only airport serving the country is in Gonkar on the Tibetan highlands. By bus, Lhasa, my first destination, was 69 miles away.

We were at an altitude of 11,580 feet. The plateau was as flat as the proverbial pancake. The 1,800-mile-long river Yarlong Tsangpo traverses it from west to east, running on the roof of the world, parallel to the great Himalayan range. There was not a tree in sight. However, along the river Tibetan peasants cultivated barley, potatoes and cabbage, which grow at this altitude. Squarish boats made of yak hide and strong, flexible willow twigs ply the river.

We stopped by a typical village of low whitewashed houses with thatched flat roofs. Over the entrance gate, fluttering prayer flags and yak horns guarded against evil spirits. The villagers were threshing the harvested barley with their bare feet and brooms. Nearby a large, colorful rock painting of the Buddha caught my eyes.

Finally Lhasa came into view. The huge Potala Palace perches on the Maripora hill commanding the vista above the city. The old, low houses nearby were razed to make room for the drab, gray blocks, which now encroach around it. The Chinese destroyed "only" parts of the palace, yet aesthetic destruction was evident; deprived of its grandiose perspective the magnificent castle looked somewhat like a forgotten piece of Hollywood stage prop.

Tibetan kings ruled here from the seventh century A.D. until the fifth Dalai Lama (1617-82) took control of secular and religious power and made the Potala Palace his official residence. Tibet became a theocracy and home to every Dalai Lama. Dalai is a Mongol word meaning wisdom as deep and vast as the ocean.

For centuries the lamas enjoyed unparalleled, and often overly oppressive power over state matters. Since the 13th century there have been 14 Dalai Lamas. The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is an enlightened leader, but at present has no chance to return to Tibet. He claims that there may not be another reincarnation to succeed him.

A visitor takes 125 steps to the main Gompa (monastery). The buildings were constructed with such ingenuity that they conform to every nook and cranny of the hill, blending together as if the palace grew out of the surrounding rocks. Palace and Gompa are now one, and the 1,000 rooms contain shrines, living quarters for the Dalai Lama and other high-ranking monks, offices for scribes and bookkeepers, huge kitchens and store rooms, and even a dungeon carved deep into the rock.

I could not describe Buddhism, a complex religion encompassing several branches. Its central figure is Buddha, accompanied by subsidiary gods and spirits, both good and evil. To understand Buddha's teachings would require years of study. In every monastery there are numerous statues of the Buddha. Thankas -- painted images on silk scrolls, depicting scenes from his life -- hang from the ceiling; sacred books line the walls; large altars are lit with butter candles brought by the constant stream of worshipers, who shuffle in a clockwise fashion around the altars chanting Om Mani Padme Hum -- Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus, their universal mantra. Vast amounts of paper money are scattered around the altars. At the end of the day the monks collect and count it. Some goes toward the upkeep of the monastery; some is handed over to the Chinese authorities.

Narrow, steep staircases connect warrenlike dark rooms. The railings are flimsy and well lubricated from the many hands carrying lit candles. As I slithered up and down holding on to these banisters, I thought there should be a warning sign: slippery when buttered.

The main market square, Barkhor, is a lively bazaar selling everything from vegetables to gold. In its center is the oldest and most sacred Gompa, the Jokhang. Old houses and shops surround the temple inside a circular road, which is circumambulated clockwise, by the many pilgrims who come here to worship and trade. They throng in the square; their colorful clothing, headdresses and jewelry show infinite variety. The tumultuous, friendly crowd is constantly on the move and gave the impression of a normal life.

Begging is common by well-dressed, well-fed women and children. Our Tibetan guide explained that begging is considered a religious act. The giver earns merit in the cycle of life leading to the ultimate redemption of Buddha-hood he must strive for.

Drepung and Sera Gompas are both just outside Lhasa, each built in the cradle of a mountain, rising gradually along the slopes. Both date from the early 15th century and house many important artifacts and books.

I was most impressed by the midday tutorial session. Student monks sit in small groups in the courtyard. An older, fierce-looking teacher questions them one by one, and after each question claps his hands with a mighty thunder. Judging by his facial expression the poor novice is in trouble if he did not memorize the earlier, morning lesson. The session looked to me like a rowdy shouting match, and it must have relieved a great deal of pent-up energy in this secluded monastic life.

Yak butter bubbled in enormous vats in the kitchen at the Sera Gompa. In another room a new floor was prepared from a mixture of soil and chopped straw. A dozen or so dancing feet stomped the ground with a long flat-bottomed stone tool. Apparently the end result is harder than concrete.

A short distance from Drepung, a Buddhist nun beckoned us into her rock cave. A simple straw mat, a few woven rugs, small stove, an altar with butter candles, and the forbidden portrait of the Dalai Lama completed her worldly possessions. Pilgrims bring food for her. It must be bitterly cold in the winter -- we were more than 12,000 feet above sea level.

We continue overland on the southern part of the Tibetan plateau. Through the Kampala and Karola passes we reached nearly 16,000 feet. Yandrouk Lake stretched below as far as the eye could see. Its color is an almost indescribable shade between turquoise and blue. Yaks grazed nearby. This creature is the all-purpose beast of high altitude; his long hair reaches the ground. Under the skin thick fat layer protects it from the bitter cold and wind.

However the meat is lean and tasty. The milk of the female yields cheese and butter. The latter has other uses as well as victual. Women dress their hair with it, and it fills the candles offered on altars. Nomadic women spin the wool into blankets and their portable tent homes. The yak is the sole provider of fuel on the barren high plateau. The dung is hand crafted into patties and stacked outside to dry.

Next we visited the Kumbum Monastery in Gyantse. The 14-tiered stupa, a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine, was topped with an intricate golden roof. Underneath, four sets of Buddha eyes inspect the world. Inside, on five octagonal and four circular levels the stupa can be circumambulated.

On a dirt road on the way to Shigatse, our minibus got stuck in the mud. Chinese workers stood by watching impassively until other tourists pulled us out. Yaks, goats and sheep were grazing on the lush pasture, but the many hued mountains were completely bare.

In Shigatse the Chinese installed the Panchen Lama in the 600-year-old Tashilumpo Monastery, which saved it from destruction. He is the official tutor of the Dalai Lama; the current Panchen is supposedly a Chinese stooge. The enormous Gompa used to house 10,000 monks.

In the small village of Zhelung our guide has a cousin, who invites us for tea. She prepares it in her smoky kitchen in the traditional dongmo -- a long carved wood cylinder in which the tea, hot water, salt and yak butter are churned together. I acquired a taste for this unusual drink, a bit like warm, liquid Camembert. The other room in the house contained an altar, thankas, low couches, storage boxes and polished brass pots. The ground was beaten earth.

The Tibetan plateau is sparsely populated, yet as soon as we sat down for a picnic lunch, as if a genie released them from the great emptiness, children appeared waiting for the leftovers. Yak- or donkey-drawn carriages, solitary horsemen, an occasional stupa with many fluttering prayer flags created much variety in this majestic, big open space.

On the last pass, Lalumba, we gazed at the long range of snowcapped Himalyas. Mount Everest, Makalu, Lotse and Cho Oyu were in view. I was much moved, as I had seen all these before, from the Nepali side.

After dropping 10,000 feet, we spent the last night at the rowdy, dirty, bustling Tibetan border town Zhangmu, which perches precariously on one side of a deep gorge. The next morning, armed Chinese border guard kept us waiting in long lines, to examine our passports. Then we walked over the aptly named footbridge -- Freedom Bridge -- into Nepal.


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