Mountains & Monasteries is an overland trip that promises to satisfy your sense of adventure and spiritual curiosity, and Intrepid’s Tara Kennaway discovers that it offers that and more as soon as she arrives in Lhasa…
“My guide told me on arrival yesterday that I should not shower straight away for two reasons: the likelihood of catching a cold and the possibility of evil spirits invading my body. I don’t particularly want either so am more than happy to wait until midday today, the recommended period.
The author of the book I am reading has the most amazing ability to describe the faces of the people he meets on his journeys through Central Asia. I have not read anything by him about Tibet but I wish I shared his vivid ability to transcribe details of character and features into words as photographically as he does. Each face here is so distinct, so expressive. Surely a story behind the smile lines around that elderly pilgrim’s eyes, surely a wealth of wisdom behind the sunglasses of the dignified old gent who holds her arm to steady her step. School children scamper past in their uniform tracksuits, late for class. A middle aged lady spins a prayer wheel as she walks her dog. Sellers shout their bargain prices for luridly coloured sneakers, pirated DVDs, hunks of yak fat and piles of woollen socks. In the middle of all this is me, and I’ve only just walked out of my hotel in the middle of the Old Town and into the street.
I decide to head straight for the Potala Palace. Before coming to Lhasa I had heard it was now very much a Chinese city due to the influx of migrants from the east and centralized planning. Certainly there air clear signals that we are in China, the same chain clothes stores, the signs in Mandarin, the strong police presence. But at least from the outside there is no diluting the Tibetan-ness of the Potala Palace (not even by putting a Chinese flag on top) or the crowd of pilgrims that surge around it. Tomorrow I will visit the Potala the regulated, authorized way with the compulsory local guide, but for now I just want to take it all in from outside. I join the pilgrim shuffle across the square in front of the palace. They move in an excited, rhythmical rush, but although their feet seem to move swiftly I have to slow down to fall in step. Some stop to pray, others turn to smile or stick their tongues out at me in the traditional friendly greeting. They seem fine with a cargo-panted red-head joining their pilgrim conga line.
I break away after we’ve crossed the entire façade of the palace and make my way over to the other side of the road. Here the Tiananmen-like square is almost empty save for some soldiers and a few Chinese tourists taking happy snaps. In the nearby park from where the Potala can still be seen framed by the autumn trees, pilgrims prostrate themselves in the shade, over and over, sliding down to their stomachs and pushing up to stand again, repeating with renewed energy on each prostration.
From the park I dip back into the Old Town towards Jokhang Temple to walk the Barkhor circuit with more serpentines of pilgrims. There are prayer wheels, beads and parasols twirling in every hand. I realize how individually each of the Tibetan women are dressed, even if there are common themes of thick padded jackets, one sleeve dangling behind, long silk dresses fronted by striped aprons and woollen belts wrapping waists warmly. Here are ladies with their hair topped by fluorescent pink scarves, here are hundreds of tiny braids cascading down a back, here is a bundle of clinking bracelets, a daintily pierced nose, a freckled face under plaits looped and threaded with coloured wool. I feel very plain and under-dressed even with my bright hair and blue eyes.
I get hopelessly, wondrously lost in the backstreets of Barkhor. The stalls are crammed with every kind of trinket, there does not seem to be any order as to how and where the goods are displayed. Slabs of yak butter squares can logically be stacked next to plastic watches. Silk prayer scarves hang above Michael Jackson tribute VCDs, dried yak meat strung up nearby elaborate Thangka paintings. Everyone is buying, selling, haggling browsing and the husky hum of whispered mantras chanted by the pilgrims is the soundtrack.
At one stage I spill out from the stalls into the Muslim Quarter. The square in front of the mosque is full of Hui minority men waiting for midday prayers. The colour and individual fashion of the Tibetans is replaced by the uniform of white skulls caps or yellow Amish-style straw hats on the men gathering in groups. There are fewer women here but those serving noodles at the street stands have round faces framed by sparkly headscarves in pastel colours.
I weave my way back towards the temple again and follow the snaking crowd back into Barkhor Square. It’s still sunny and I let it soak into my skin. The smoke from the temple burner and the bright sunlight make me squint but the pictures in my mind from this morning’s experiences stay very real and clear. I love Lhasa!”
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* photo by Steven Greaves – Intrepid Photography Competition