We are on the backside of the Potala Palace, the one thousand room edifice that sits atop a huge natural rock pedestal in the middle of otherwise perfectly level Lhasa, Tibet. It makes for dramatic scenery, as iconic as the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty.
It is dark. Lhasa is on Beijing time even though it is located far to the west of it so everything seems off; sunrise and sunset happen later than we expect. We got up for a morning walk at the usual time but it might as well be midnight. The few Tibetan pilgrims walking with us are mere shadows moving through the night. We pass one who is slowly prostrating his way down the stone walkway. Another is working the long line of prayer wheels, a clockwise spin to each one, softly murmuring a mantra to himself.
We are circambulating (a Kora) the Potala Palace and it is immense; begun in the 7th century and consisting of two main sections, the lower white section that was used for government and the upper white section that was the Dalai Lama’s residence. The white palace is an imposing expanse spanning our entire range of view. Off to the left I see the morning star, all alone, glimmering in the dark sky, and on the opposite side the last sliver of crescent moon, like a Tibetan singing bowl suspended from above by invisible strings.
I see another solitary light shining from a window of the white palace, a small but conspicuous illumination against the otherwise dim wall of stone, like a searchlight on a distant hilltop. Somebody probably forgot to turn off a light after the tours yesterday were complete, but I like to imagine a monk who had trouble sleeping sitting by the window reading.
To get to Tibet you have to get over that great tectonic train wreck that is the Himalayan mountain range. The flight is the air equivalent of driving the coastal highway in California, scenic in the extreme. The highest mountains on earth thrust their snow covered summits through a fluffy, cotton-white blanket of clouds. It’s a little hard to spot them at first—like looking for a polar bear in a snow storm—but when we do, it is a spectacular sight.
The first thing we notice in Tibet is the sun, which will not be denied. We’re at fourteen thousand feet and it’s like someone turned up the lights as far as they can go; as if we are guilty of something and sitting through a harsh interrogation. We simply can’t function without sunglasses and practically put them on before getting out of bed. Lobsang, our Tibetan guide, never takes his off. He wears them at the breakfast table and in the darkest monasteries. If we spend any time outdoors without our sunglasses then it’s a long time before we can see anything when we go back inside, our pupils are so constricted. Everybody wears long sleeves all the time, no matter what the temperature. We wish we could bathe in a tub of sunscreen before venturing outside.
It’s dry, too. Moisturizing lotion, eye drops and saline nose spray are essentials. We wash our clothes in the sink and they are dry an hour after we hang them up. We sometimes feel as if we, too, are in danger of evaporating.
Carol and I were here in Lhasa in 2006 and things have changed. The Chinese now outnumber the Tibetans and they have completely taken over. The Chinese presence before was like a playground bully. Now it’s more like “Big Brother.” We pass through check points when we walk or drive anywhere and need our papers on us at all times. In the city, there is a police station every one hundred meters (no exaggeration) and we mostly try to act so as not to attract anyone’s attention.
The Chinese people are cordial but not friendly like the Nepalis. The name of the gas stations is “U Smile”, but nobody does. The language barrier is as deep and wide as anywhere we have ever been. There is absolute nobody we encounter who speaks English. The upside of the Orwellian atmosphere is cleanliness. The streets are spotless but nearly empty when we walk in the mornings, a stark contrast to Nepal. We share the street only with the many uniformed street sweepers collecting any remnants of yesterday’s litter. The electric scooters in Lhasa are cleaner, too. They produce no fumes and are perfectly silent. Lobzang calls them the “silent killers” because they are driven with the same reckless abandon as in Nepal but here we can’t hear them coming.
Our guide, Lobsang, is a Nomad. He was born and raised in a tent and moved to the city 16 years ago. He has never attended an actual school, but has flawless English and much knowledge. He has worked as a gate guard at one of the hotels, for a large corporation, and everything in between. He taught at Tibetan University and is a voracious reader. His is a wealth of information but with limited range because his sources of information have been so restricted.
Lobsang is familiar with Donald Trump but knows Richard Gere only as a movie star, not for his work on behalf of the Tibetan people. He has never heard of Universal Studios, Socrates, Sting, Les Miserables, J.R.R. Tolkien, the Rawandan genocide, or the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. He is familiar with Lady Gaga but didn’t know Bradley Cooper could sing (who did?). Caroline played the song “Shallow” for him and he said, “That’s the Cooper?” He has never heard the word “klutz.” (I wonder how that came up?)
During the long hours on the road or at meals we have conversations about the whole range of things. One time, Lobsang referred to someone who was deceased as a “gone guy.” (I liked that). He is as curious about America and Christianity, as we are about Tibet and Buddhism. We’ve talked a lot about religion and philosophy. It’s hard to explain Grace to a Buddhist, but Lobsang has already done a lot of self study and is open to the basic concepts. He knows of C.S. Lewis only from watching the Narnia movies, but I suggested Mere Christianity and he wrote it down. Mostly, we look for commonality among cultures, religions and people.
Lobsang watches us closely and is determined to make sure everything is all right with us, which it is. He is especially concerned with our eating habits and it has been fodder for a lot of discussion. He wants us to eat more than we do because of where we are and what we are doing. He says we should have have “extra calories to burn.” I told him I usually just listen to my body and eat when I feel hungry but not when I don’t. He said that at this altitude a person will never actually feel hungry. He seems right about that. Living at this altitude reminds me of when I was on the fast; not hungry, vivid dreams, and the feeling of a constant slight buzz on. Caroline’s fingertips have been numb the whole time. We told Lobsang that our usual diet is healthy but vegetable- based. However, it’s hard to be a vegetarian where they don’t have many plants. He tells us we need to eat protein and we said we do and brought bars and other things to eat with us. He said, “I eat meat.”
Lobsang has never had a birthday; they don’t do that in Tibet. As it turns out, one of the reasons Lobzang never takes off his sunglasses is because he had an injury to one of his eyes when he was 16 and wants to protect it. Our teenagers have motor vehicle accidents; Lobzang’s injury was from running into a yak.
Caroline asked Lobsang whether he felt anger towards the Chinese. He said he chooses not to harbor ill will because anger never serves any purpose, especially in this situation. He tries to stay positive and says that when he sees a Chinese soldier he tries to put things in context, to not generalize or stereotype(my word). He remembers that the soldier is an individual person with a life and family of his own, who needs a job and has come to this place out of his own life situation and past events. It has been said that “nothing is without antecedent”, and that includes people. Lobsang said that when we forgive we save ourselves from the negative, not the other. I admire his attitude. And, as always, one must take the good with the bad. I think it’s fair to say the standard of living for the average Tibetan has improved; the roads sure have.
The Road to Kailash
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”
Gerald Manley Hopkins
If Nepal, with it’s concentration of high peaks, is the “land of the giants”, then Tibet is the original “big sky country”. It’s like the one in Wyoming, but ten thousand feet closer and without a single tree to obstruct the view. The Tibetan Plateau is a sweeping, arid landscape, as vast as any ocean only not as wet or flat. I used to like the TV show “The Big Valley” , but in Tibet they’re bigger.
We sit in the back seat of a white Land Cruiser, Lobsang and our driver, Kasang La, in the front. With Kasang La in charge of what we listen to, it alternates between Tibetan dance music and Kenny G. When Lobzang takes over, he plays Country Western, his favorite, along with some Neil Diamond and a Billy Graham podcast he has on his iPhone. Caroline synchs her iPhone to the vehicle and plays some selections, but she picks too much Joni Mitchell and Lobsang asks for something else. He doesn’t want our driver to fall asleep.
The mountain passes are an extreme test of motion sickness, like something they would have subjected the Mercury astronauts to so they could prove they had the right stuff. It’s also a test of our ability to stay calm in the face of danger. You know that thing we do when we are driving where, when we see a car approaching in the opposite lane, we refrain from passing the car in front of us? They don’t do that in Tibet.
We see a lot of things on the road to Kailash. There is girl herding goats with a motorcycle and some huge Tibetan mastiff dogs, all hair and tongue. We stop and buy some wild mushrooms that a little nomad boy is selling on the side of the highway. He collected then on the mountain in the morning.
We see glaciers just a few steps from the roadway (the ones here haven’t melted yet), clear turquoise lakes shimmering in the sunshine, and distant snow covered peaks that look majestic by our standards but are not high or significant enough for Lansang to know their names. We see wild donkeys running on the steppe and eagles flying just a few feet from our vehicle.
There is a human tendency to, when we see a high place, want to climb to the top. In Tibet, when they get up there, they build something. There are monasteries, stupas, houses and other buildings in the most unlikely places. To me, it seems like a lot of work, a steep climb from where I would have to park my yak.
Caroline made the mistake of using a public toilet. I had to go in to help her pull up her pants because she didn’t have enough hands to do it while holding her bandanna over her mouth and nose.
Caroline has a good attitude and is usually up for anything but the journey has already been arduous and we haven’t started the kora yet. She told me, “This might be the last time I do something like this.” We’ll see.
“Tibetans feel it takes a special destiny to even reach Mt Kailash “
Hope so. We have come to the foot of Mt Kailash, the “Crystal Mountain.” Tomorrow we start the kora. It is much colder here and we are told there is deep, wet snow on the pass that we cross on the second day.
Our last stop before Kailash was at the sacred Lake Manasarovar, about 30km south. The name Manosaravar means Lake of Consciousness and Enlightenment. About Manasarover there are hundreds of myths involving the lake as the source of all the waters of the word. It was created by the same deities who reside on Kailash, as a place to purify oneself when doing absolutions on the mountain. That is what pilgrims do even now. It is perfectly round and it’s clear waters are very cold and infused with eight auspicious qualities. Manasorover is large, and standing next to it, with Kailash and the other tall peaks in the background, helps us to recognize that we are small and our lives are short.
This place, the lake and the mountain, constitute the geographic source of the four great rivers of the Indian subcontinent. The sources of the Indus, Sutlej, Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, and Karnali/Ganges Rivers, like the source of the Nile, were sought after by explorers of the 19th and early 20th centuries and were considered a great prize to be won if they could be found. It turns out, the sources are all the same—Mt Kailas and Lake Manasarover. Pretty cool fact, I think.
We have stayed healthy and feel prepared in every way. It has taken a long time to prepare properly, inside and out. We know the best way to change a situation is to master your own reaction to it so that is what we have tried to do, good times and bad. There is a story by an Indian master, Shantideva. He said,”If you don’t like to step on thorns and sharp rocks as you walk around the planet, you have two choices. You can either pave the whole earth in shoe leather, or you can make yourself a pair of sandals. Make a pair of sandals for your soul.” We have made our sandals and are ready to start walking.