At first, I must admit, I did not like the land of the gods.
Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, can be literally translated as "divine land." It has been called the furthest goal of all journeys, the most hidden city on Earth, the center of the kingdom of illumination, the place of Shangri-La. Hardly a destination on Earth has been more mythologized.
So when I first ventured to Tibet, a country located in the Himalayas north of India and Nepal, in the summer of 2000, my expectations were almost as high as Lhasa's elevation: 12,000 feet.
And it fell almost as far.
Satellite dishes entangled with prayer flags on the roofs of traditional whitewashed houses. Tibetan nomads wearing Nike caps invaded the city on motorbikes. I imagined them riding horses adorned with bells and embroidered saddles.
I had studied Tibetan Buddhism for years, so I nearly cried at what I found atop the holy Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lamas: a photo studio where tourists could be dressed in Maoist uniforms, like the ones the Chinese army wore when that The country annexed Tibet in the 1950s and banned religious practice for 30 years.
I hated Lhasa.
But I was reminded of how explorers of centuries past spent months traversing the Himalayas to get here, only to be turned away because the Tibetan government didn't like visitors. Most of them tried again, usually disguised as pilgrims. They believed in Lhasa. So why should I let some globalization sprites scare me? I had to try again.
When I returned to Lhasa two years later, the city was worse.
Buildings in the square in front of Jokhang, Tibet's holiest temple, have been demolished to make way for gleaming Chinese gold shops and shops selling televisions and refrigerators. The government claimed to be allowing religious practice and renewing monastic life, but Lhasa's monasteries resembled ghost towns.
In Lhasa's government-owned department stores, festooned with banners featuring Western supermodels, I saw a nomadic family eager for an innovation from my culture: an escalator.
The father approached the escalator, which seemed to go up by itself. He put on his sheepskin cloak, stopped in the doorway, started to take a step forward, and hesitated. Two more, three tries, and he dove, took a step, and came up, not lifting a foot. Gasps came from his family.
I smiled. A delicious scene. But Lhasa wasn't exactly Shangri-La yet.
Could a third trip be the charm? The current and exiled Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has said that Shambhala, Tibet's own utopia, really exists on Earth, but that we need to develop enlightened vision to see it.
I took your words as travel advice. I would try Lhasa again.
On my third trip (last November), the city was as horrible as ever. It was clad in concrete, resounding with Chinese soap operas, and surrounded by new suburban condominiums. Monks asked about LA Laker Kobe Bryant.
As I squinted under the high-altitude sun, I was reminded of the words of the aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: "The eyes are blind."
And: "You have to look with your heart."
the pilgrimage begins
I put aside my guidebooks, maps and mental compass and began to follow sincere people, Tibetan pilgrims, as they passed through the city. I started on the Barkhor road, a pedestrian avenue that surrounds the Jokhang, the central temple of Tibet.
The avenue was lined with stalls and street vendors hawking their wares, including prayer flags, necklaces, monk's robes, cymbals, fur caps, and false teeth. Tibetans shopped furiously and dressed to impress the gods, I mean.
Slender beauties wore their hair in 108 braids (the Tibetan sacred number), and old men wore 108-bead necklaces. Radiant nomads walked in clumsy jewelry of coral, turquoise, and amber. Many turned hand-held prayer wheels that shone like gold in the sun.
Around 6:00 p.m. m., the hordes began to pour into the courtyard leading to the Jokhang. I had already been to the temple with other tourists on my first trip here. He had seen frescoes, golden statues, and an eighth-century Buddha, the holiest statue in Tibet, kept behind a curtain of chains. Fluorescent lights shone overhead. He hadn't felt anything magical.
Now, outside the huge locked doors of the sanctuary, a throng of pilgrims jostled for position. When two wine-robed monks picked the lock, I slipped out the door with everyone else.
And entered another world.
This was nothing like the Jokhang I had seen as a tourist. The vast chamber, lit by hundreds of butter lamps, glowed red and gold. The floors, beams, and pillars were painted a deep crimson. Pictures and brocade tapestries, crisscrossed with red, gold, and silver threads, hung from the ceiling as if to paint the empty space itself. The sanctuary was like the inside of a human heart.
All was silent except for the murmur of mantras - prayers - by the pilgrims:Om mani padme hum, Om mani padme hum.
The pilgrims formed a line that meandered along the left side of the sanctuary toward the rear. I had no idea what was going on, but I got online. We pass shrines of gods and bodhisattvas, people revered for devoting themselves to helping others.
I had noticed that many locals carried plastic packets of butter and a spoon, and now I discovered its purpose. When we passed the chapels, the Tibetans buttered the lamps to keep the flames alive.
Finally, I reached the back of the shrine, the 8th century Buddha shrine called Jowo Shakyamuni, surrounded by large magnificent butter lamps. A monk opened the chain curtain so that people could enter.
Tourists were not allowed in on my previous visit. But now there were no tourists. Just me. a pilgrim
The Jowo portrayed the Buddha not as a great sage but as a 12-year-old boy many years before he achieved enlightenment. It was a strange choice for the holiest statue in all of Tibet, I thought. He was slightly larger than human size, and his golden skin was richly carved and studded with precious stones.
Following the example of the pilgrims, I rested my head on Jowo's knees to say a prayer. I looked at the statue. Was this image so dear to Tibetans, I wondered, because it showed that any child, or adult for that matter, could become enlightened? Could I get to Shambhala?
Next on my non-itinerary was the Potala Palace, which occupies an entire hillside. The whitewashed chambers and towers rise like a fantasy fortress from which the divine rulers of Tibet once peered over the roof of the world.
The Potala may be an architectural marvel, but my previous tour was depressing. Then as now, there were surveillance cameras everywhere. Only 10% was open to visitors. No one was allowed to mention the current Dalai Lama, although one visit included his former quarters.
Still, Tibetan pilgrims flocked to the Potala. I found out they did it the other way around the tourists. Instead of starting at the top and working their way down, pilgrims started at the ground, circling the palace on foot and ascending room by room. I found that the perspective accentuated the way the buildings and windows were narrower at the top than at the bottom. The palace seemed to stretch across the sky, uniting heaven and earth.
As I was panting up the stairs, I saw a pilgrim ascend while prostrating himself. He clasped his hands in prayer above his head, touched his forehead, throat, and heart, and stretched out on the sidewalk. He got up and took a step as far as his hands could reach, then he started again.
Inside there were more displays of devotion. Pilgrims milled around the chapels, their foreheads touching the feet of the gods, the thrones, and almost everything sacred.
As I watched, I wondered if everything that was loved, everything that was seen with the heart, was also Shambhala.
I was getting tired of temples and chapels. Fortunately for me, the Tibetans too. They like to keep jars ofchange, a sour barley beer.
A placechangeThe room is on the terrace of a private house in the southwest corner of the main square facing Jokhang. It is usually packaged withInstallations, the cowherds of eastern Tibet, distinguishable by the red wool headband that envelops their heads.
The salon belongs to one of Lhasa's most colorful personalities, Tashi Tsering. As a child, she had been a member of the Dalai Lama's dance troupe. In the turmoil of the 1950s after Chinese annexation, he escaped to the United States, but then made the mad decision to return to Lhasa in the midst of China's Cultural Revolution. He was jailed for years as an American spy. He now runs a philanthropic empire, selling Tibetan rugs to finance dozens of schools in rural Tibet. Buy a rug, help some kids, get somechange-- which is about 80 cents a cup for the best quality. “The same price for everyone,” Tashi promised, “foreigners or locals.”
It's an acquired taste, but joyInstallationshelped.
an unexpected blessing
The next day I found out that the gods also like to drink. He had heard of the infamous Drapchi Prison, Tibet's home for political prisoners, named after the adjacent temple, Drapchi Lhakhang. The temple did not appear in any tourist guide, but a taxi driver found it for me.
The bottles of grain alcohol for sale outside the temple were a clue that something was different. As I entered the darkened temple, I was overcome by the cloying smell of alcohol. The assistants were mopping the floor with him. Some of the lamps were not filled with butter, but with...change.
Above the temple was a huge golden sculpture of Yamantaka, the wrathful conqueror of death. As the presence of alcohol indicated, Drapchi Lhakhang was dedicated to the fierce gods: the snarling, knife-wielding variety that drinks blood from goblets of skulls and dances amidst the flames. Such images are used in Tibetan Buddhism to transform one's darker energies.
Some of the 32 monks who run Drapchi Lhakhang noticed my interest. they put a targetkhataScarf around my neck, a customary gesture of welcome, but then I tied it with a strip of blood-red cloth, signifying that I had been blessed by the angry gods.
That night at dinner, the Tibetan waiters served me right away.
On my last day in Lhasa, I went to a convent. The Ani Sangkhung, painted yellow and full of flowers (yearsmeans nun) is in the maze of alleys behind the Jokhang.
The nuns allowed me to join their prayer service. They sang, played cymbals, beat drums, blew trumpets, threw rice, and did other delicious things to invoke the gods. Light streamed in through the tall windows, down the murals, andgraciaspaintings, depicting the peaceful goddess Tara and her wrathful counterpart, Vajrayogini. The music was antiphonal, powerful, tender, often sinister.
That afternoon I went to the 15th century Sera Monastery on the outskirts of the city. Once home to 5,000 monks, Sera is a shadow of its former self, but a few hundred monks still reside there.
At 3:00 pm they began to debate in the patio. They clapped their hands, snapped their prayer beads, and gestured dramatically as they made a comment. Were they discussing nuances of Buddhist philosophy? Maoist thought? Or NBA basketball scores?
I'll have to find out on my next trip.
Finding the soul of Lhasa, or perhaps the soul of anywhere, is like falling in love. A place, like a person, does not need to open up to me; I have to open up to it. And don't give up.
(BEGINNING OF INFORMATION BOX TEXT)
Taking off for Tibet
From LAX, connecting service (change planes) to Lhasa, Tibet is available on Air China, China Eastern, Cathay Pacific and Northwest. Round-trip restricted fares start at $1,175.
To call the US numbers below, dial 011 (the international calling code), 86 (the country code for China), 891 (the Lhasa code), and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Yak Hotel, 100 Dekyi Shar Lam; 632-3496, www.shigatsetravels.com/yak.htm. A well-located favorite in Lhasa, run by European and Tibetan expats, with lovely, clean, well-appointed rooms and a good restaurant. Doubles from $47.
Tibet Gorkha Hotel, 45 S. Lingkhor Road; 627-1991. A lovely new courtyard hotel located in the old town. It has decorated pillars and Tibetan furniture. Double rooms from US$48, includes breakfast and dinner.
Hotel Lhasa, 1 Mirig Lam; 683-2221, www.lhasahotel.com.cn. The choice for anyone who needs CNN. Large groups and conferences often stay in this huge echo chamber. The staff is helpful; breakfast horrible. Doubles from $165.
WHERE TO EAT:
Dunya, at the Yak Hotel (see above). The assortment includes pizza, salads, pancakes, yak cheese dishes, Tibetan dishesmomomeatballs, falafel. full bar. The "altitude tea" malt is great. Closed winters. Tickets $3-$10.
Snowlands Restaurant, 4 Mentsikhang; 633-7323. A popular place always full of travelers and well-dressed Tibetans. Indian food is better. Entrees $2 - $8.
A visa and permit are required to travel to Tibet. Contact:
Consulate General of the People's Republic of China, 443 Shatto Place, Los Angeles; (213) 807-8088, www.chinaconsulatela.org.
-- Cherilyn Parsons