A chill wind cuts down from Himalayan peaks through the valley. Dry and merciless, it strips moisture from exposed skin. The altitude leaves you struggling for breath and pausing every few steps to gulp down mouthfuls of thin air. And there’s a dull ache squatting somewhere behind your forehead and above your neck. Even at the lowest points of Tibet – and at 3,600m Lhasa is far from the loweest point – the effects of thin Himalayan air are apparent.
But – and there’s always a “but” when it comes to material discomfort in Tibet – it´s all forgotten the moment the Potala hoves into view. Ubiquitous military patrols armed with tear gas guns and fire extinguishers, shotgun-toting paramilitaries, flash Toyota land cruisers with blacked out windows. They all fade the moment you see the 450 year old palace, enthroned atop its hill, towering over the encroaching city.
Built by the fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century, it’s a beguiling symbol of Tibet. But while there are plenty of locals treading the holy circuit around it, you won’t see any inside, they´re not allowed. To get in you have to show your passport and you only have a limited time slot. A symbol of modern Tibet in more ways than one.
The Potala may be the symbol of this mountain land, but the living, beating heart is the Johkang temple. Pre-dating the mighty palace of the Dalai Lamas by a thousand years, this ancient low-lying White stone monastery sits in the Barkhor square at the dead centre of old Lhasa.
At the entrance bronze whirls and dances, glinting in the darkness, as immense prayer wheels spin. In the dark interior a mass of chanting shuffling praying devotees shuffle round. They’re worshipping Tibet’s deities, serene golden buddhas looking on with hooded eyes, leering black and red toothy demons crowned with skulls and decked with bones. Legendary mountain monarchs crowned with tiny buddhas and surrounded by princes. All half glimpsed through greasy smoke from yak butter lamps and burning incense.
Lhasa is a fast growing city with the whiff of frontier about it. There’s definitely money to made here, shopping malls and mining company HQs are shooting up to prove it. But this new, very Chinese city is a world away from the defiantly Tibetan old town.
Heavy stone structures cling to the barren ground. Never more than four stories high, but massive in construction, they have wide walls to withstand earthquakes and rise, gently tapered to flat roofs. Windows are large and colourfully linteled against the white washed walls.
Narrow alleys and cobbled streets meander around and between these great buildings, full of pot-shops, wrinkled oldsters selling religious paraphernalia and leather jacketed youths hawking the latest Chinese pop singles. Burgundy coated Kampas push past you, scowling fiercely, uncut hair tied up in a red scarf and silver shining bright in earlobes. Leather jacketed youths look over, teeth glinting in roguish weather-darkened faces. An old woman, her face a geological relief of deep grooves wanders slowly, her brass prayer wheel spinning all the while. This is the soul of Lhasa. It may be dirty and bedraggled, but it is utterly fascinating.
What’s clear is that – despite all the shit they’ve been through – Tibetans know how to enjoy life. There’s a lot of smiling, dead-panning and laughter, often at your expense. There is a vibrancy about them. Of course, it’s near impossible to join in. Locals have too much to lose in opening up to strangers.
For an area that has been a part of China for sixty years and seen a huge influx of settlers and money from the rest of China. Tibet has maintained an extraordinarily strong self identity, at least to the outsider. There seems to be a clear sense of Tibetan culture, in the red scarves of hard faced Kampas in from the steppe, in the traditional clothes worn by so many, old and young, in the masses of genuflecting pilgrims of all ages circumambulating their way round the temples.
Restaurants are packed with families digging into yak and mutton, roadsides are full of chatter as pilgrims gather round pots of yak butter tea and bags of Tsampa. This staple is made from roasted barly flour mixed with a little butter and tea and pressed in soft doughy parcels. It’s a bit like snacking on uncooked bread, but tasty for all that, particularly if you add some searing local chilli sauce.
Food is pretty much centred around barley and yak, the low stocky hairy cow-like beasts with great horns. The meat is more intense than beef and very tasty indeed. They provide butter for the ubiquitous (and villainous tasting) tea and lamps, furs and leather for clothes and accessories, bones for tools, skulls for luck and of course, everything else for food. Not a scrap is wasted. More on that in a future post.
This city, this country is a fascinating and magical place. There is a lot of over-romanticised talk in the west about “magical kingdoms in the sky” and similar labels. Maybe they’re left over from the myths of 19th century Britain when it was a mysterious and forbidden kingdom. But there is some element of truth in them. It’s unlike anywhere else I´ve been. Not without its difficulties, moral and physical. But for all that it’s more than a bit magical, and very beguiling.
We travelled to Tibet with the superb Insight Himalaya. I would recommend them very highly indeed.