Initially, Lhasa disappointed. It looked like any Chinese city with modern high-rise buildings, the usual array of shops, wide roads. The train station was huge, clearly built recently to accommodate the influx of eager visitors to Tibet. This was Lhasa, Chinese style. Did we just spent two or three days on a train for this? We arrived at dusk and our transport to the hotel awaited us… No need to fret when what we all needed most was sleep, in the comfort of a bed with soft pillows.
In the morning, we were treated to a taste of the ‘real’ Tibet, or let’s be honest, the Tibet and Lhasa we expected to see: traditional buildings, Buddhist prayer flags, quaint roads full of touristy trinkets, and of course Tibetan people dressed in their customary attire. We visited the Potala Palace, the residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th (and incumbent) Dalai Lama fled to India during the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. The palace is an impressive structure, spanning 400m from East to West and 350m from North to South, and leaning into the ‘Red Hill’. It contains 1000 rooms and 10,000 shrines over 13 stories and with visitors only allowed to stay inside for just one hour, we only covered a fraction of it. But still enough time to savour the opulence and grandeur of what was once the winter palace of the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Tibetan government. No photographs allowed inside though…
Construction of the current palace started in 1645 on the remains of an earlier fortress. With walls as thick as 5m at the base and foundations strengthened with added copper to withstand earthquakes, the palace rises a full 300m up from the valley floor and towers over the rest of Lhasa. However, rapid modernisation and urbanisation is slowly swamping the old Lhasa and in order to strike a balance between progress and preservation, the Chinese government has ruled that buildings must not exceed 21m in height in the area surrounding the palace to safeguard its unique atmosphere.
After a lunch of delicious yak stew and beer (brewed at ‘the roof of the world’) in the Tibetan Lhasa Kitchen, our next stop was the Jokhang Temple, considered the ‘spiritual heart of the city’ and the most sacred temple in Tibet. The history of the temple was rather lost on all of us. Sated by stories of the Buddha and totally confused by tales about the past, current and future Dalai Lama, we were engrossed in the riches of the building itself and its surroundings. And the fact that another relic of the past managed to survive the ‘cultural revolution’ of China, albeit that from 1966 to 1979 Tibetans could no longer worship there and for some time the temple housed a pigsty and slaughterhouse, an army barracks and even a hotel… Eventually the temple was renovated and reconsecrated and is again visited by huge numbers of Tibetan worshippers.
The Johkang temple is located in Barkhor Square, a large square dominated by two enormous incense burners and an imposing prayer flag pole, its dome and staff bulging with blue, white, red, green and yellow cloth. The five colours represent the five elements (sky and space [blue]; air and wind [white]; fire [red]; water [green]; earth [yellow]) which promote health and harmony when they are in balance. Prayer flags are not only seen in temples, but most houses and buildings in Tibet feature flag staffs on their roofs. Contrary to what many people think, prayer flags are not prayers to a god, but the wind brushing them is meant to spread goodwill and compassion to all.
Every day Tibetans, young and old, congregate at the temple to ‘make kora’. Kora is both a type of pilgrimage and a type of meditative practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It typically involves worshippers making a circumambulation (revolution; circling) in a clockwise fashion around a sacred site or object. Such objects fall into different categories and can be either found in the mystique of nature (such as mountains, or lakes) or in man made structures and buildings (such as temples, monasteries, stupas). Pilgrims to those sites are seeking religious merit, and the more auspicious the site, the more merit they gain. Most people walk around, carefully keeping a record of the number of circles on their prayer beads or counting malas. Some carry their own handheld prayer wheel, whilst others spin the big prayer wheels outside monasteries and temples. It is believed that touching the prayer wheels equals chanting the Buddhist mantra. In Tibet it is also common for pilgrims to make kora by making a full-body prostration, which takes a lot of time and effort, but gains the prostrator much more merit, especially when it is performed a favourable number of times. However, it is not just older people who spend their time walking around the temples, it is surprising to see younger people joining in too. But as our guide explained, it is the only form of exercise available for many and brings people together…
Barkhor Square is the focal point for worship, as well as a hub of commercial activity with a maze of smaller streets radiating from it. The ground floors of traditional dwellings have been converted into shops plying tourists with mementos of Tibet: from yak paraphernalia, imitation spinning wheels and healing music bowls to tapestries and thangka paintings. Plenty to choose from and something for all budgets. Coffee shops offer a pleasant respite from shopping and the sun and benches under the trees and in the shade give shelter to those in need of a rest. Shopping and making kora can indeed be a taxing pastime..
Near the mosque, just a few streets away from Barkhor Square, we chanced upon a thriving market in caterpillar fungus. The curious looking organisms – in winter an animal and in summer a plant – are being harvested on the Himalayan high grounds of Tibet, Nepal and Sikkim (in neighbouring India) at elevations between 4300 and 5000 m. The fungus is used in Tibetan and also Chinese medicine and has been popular for centuries as a traditional cure for ailments ranging from asthma to impotence. No wonder that as the Chinese middle class has expanded, so has the demand for the fungus. The fungus can only be found for a few months each year, from May to August, and has become a major source of income for many Tibetans. As the prices of the fungus have soared, so has the harvesting of them and environmentalists are warning that the harvest could have a damaging long-term impact on the sensitive environment of the Tibetan Plateau.