Awestruck in Tibet

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November 8th 2007
Published: November 9th 2007
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I am now in Tibet. I arrived in Lhasa on Sunday night after the most relaxing and luxurious train ride of my life. After the Russian and Chinese trains I had been on, train T 27 from Beijing to Lhasa was simply incredible. I entered a very new, modern train which was gliding smoothly through the rugged Chinese landscape like a jaguar. I shared my plush compartment, complete with private television screen, very comfortable bed with real duvet and oxygen outlet, with an American rock climber called Tree and a vivacious young man from Hong Kong called Chan. We spent the 48 hours train journey mainly tucked up in our berths, sleeping, or looking out of the window. On the first morning, I woke up after a ten-hour sleep (never slept so well on a train) to see the sun rise over a desert-like landscape with frozen lakes and huge, snow-covered mountains in the distance. The awakening light of the sun looked like liquid gold and contrasted with the brown earth. A little later, we passed the most extra-ordinary desert, with crimson-red mountains looming in the distance, and a huge turquoise lake. Eagles were circling over the train, and we spotted Tibetan goats, and even wolves. The Beijing-Lhasa railway is the highest in the world, most of it on an altitude of over 4000 m, and on permafrost, in an area susceptible to both earthquakes and landslides. Some passes are at 5000 m - which is why they pump oxygen into the carriages, so you suffer the altitude sickness when you arrive, rather than during the travel.

My main feeling on this journey, which is enduring, was immense gratitude. I feel so fortunate and privileged to be able to see and experience all of this, the wonderful landscapes and people in all their magnificence. I have a big smile on my face almost 24/7 and I often feel deliriously happy. I am falling in love anew every day - every time I think things just can’t get any more beautiful, I experience something even more amazing. It’s like being on a rollercoaster - a plethora of people, sound, vision, taste, smell and sensation. Of course there are also many things that are not so wonderful, and sad, but they're all part of the picture, and don't make being here any less wondrous.

My first impressions of Lhasa were strange. My heart sank a bit as we entered a big, modern city with many neon signs - I had been forwarned, but it was still strange to see - in particular as this is one of the most remote regions in the world. I wonder what Lhasa must have been like fifty years ago. My hotel room looked a bit like a brothel - everything was dark red: the furniture, the bedspreads, the curtains, and the lighting was very dim. But just in case this gives you the wrong idea, a poster next to the bathroom depicting two stern police officers warns: ‘It’s forbidden to prostitute, abuse drug, and gamble!’ And damn, was it cold! There really is no heating in most Tibetan hotels (but they have televisions - talk about priorities), and although it is very warm and sunny during the day, at night I am grateful for my many blankets and hot water bottle.

My hotel for the first couple of nights was in the old part of the town, the Barkhor, which is mainly Tibetan and houses the Jokhang Temple, which is the holiest temple in the Tibetan Buddhist world. As I woke up in the morning, the sun drenched the rugged mountains in front of my window in a pastel light, whilst hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims and worshippers did their prayers around the temple. I saw the stalls of an outdoors market, Tibetan women with thick braids and prayer wheels, men, children, all hurrying busily and excitedly along the circuit. I smelt the juniper incense wafting into my room and heard the occasional trumpet sound from afar. Welcome to Tibet!

On my first day in Lhasa, I met Emily, a French woman, and we visited the Jokhang Temple together for the evening ceremony. A few Tibetans were sitting behind the chanting monks in their enclosure, so we followed their example and sat with them. We were immediately given two white silk scarves and eyed curiously. The Tibetan people are absolutely beautiful - very warm, friendly and welcoming. And the children are just delightful - two little boys offered us their sweets one afternoon, as they were so happy to meet us. There are so many impressions and interesting and bizarre things happen every day. In Jokhang Temple, I went to the toilet to find it covered in David Beckham posters. A bit further on, temple staff sat on the roof top counting the biggest mountain of paper money (donations from pilgrims) I have ever seen, a bit like Dagobert Duck! And monks were sitting in the temple, watching movies on mobile phones, sending text messages or listening to music.

On my second morning, we saw our first snow: big fat snowflakes were dancing outside my window and the mountains were covered in fog. But it didn’t last long. I used the glum weather to move hotels - I’m now staying in the same place as Emily, and two other new Italian friends, Luna and Max.

I spend most of my time here visiting temples, monasteries and nunneries. The spirituality here is just mind-blowing. On Tuesday, I visited the very atmospheric Palhalupuk temple, built around an ancient cave. The cave was King Songtsen Gampo’s retreat in the 7th Century and is lined with rock carvings, many of which date from that time. It feels very ancient and sacred in there, and I spent some time sitting on the floor in the cave meditating with a Chinese woman, while the monks were chanting and sounding bells, and the pilgrims walked past us around the cave, muttering mantras. It was pretty overwhelming and special. Outside, as I sat on wall admiring the view, two monks appeared with an entourage. The monks struck pensive and pious poses outside the temple whilst the entourage took portraits of them. One of them also wanted me in the picture!

After visiting the temple, I joined forces with the Chinese woman and we sought out the big rock carvings - numbering about five thousand - on Chapori Hill. The long walk there really was worth it - there are so many carvings and paintings of the different deities on the huge rock, millions of prayer flags and silk scarves, little altars and offerings, and small cave chapels (with rats running around statues of Tara) with a thousand burning butter lamps. Wondrous: words just can’t do it any justice.

Yesterday, we tried to visit Drepung, a huge nearby monastery, and Nechung Monastery, which was the seat of the state oracle of Tibet until 1959, but military police stopped us from going there. Apparently it’s closed for renovation, but some say it’s closed because monks demonstrated and protested a few weeks ago, and the monastery is still surrounded by military. Undeterrered, we visited Sera Monastery instead, and that was a good choice. It was one of the most enjoyable afternoons of this trip. The setting itself if very beautiful, on a hill, and there are many cobbled alleyways, temples and colleges. One chapel struck me in particular: it housed only statues and paintings of Dark Goddesses, very Kali-like, with skulls, devouring humans. Inside the chapel sat a solitary monk, banging a big drum and sounding a gong, and the atmosphere in there felt very deep and reverential. Most pilgrims hurried through the chapel, but I returned three times, leaving a white silk scarf offering at the biggest statue. It’s a shame I don’t know very much about Tibetan Buddhism, but I am definitely intrigued!

The highlight of the afternoon, however, was watching the monks debating inside the shady courtyard behind the main temple. Every day, hundreds of red-robed monks assemble in small groups and practise their debating skills. It is a highly entertaining spectacle (and I suspect that they put it on somewhat for the tourists), during which they strike poses not dissimilar to hip hop rappers (much clapping, turning, and finger pointing), whooping, hollering, and throwing their prayer beads about. One monk sits on the floor, while another one stands, and between them, they argue about Buddhist rituals - immensely enjoying their debates. I don’t understand Tibetan, but I haven’t laughed that much in a long time: the spectacle is just so fun-filled and high energy. It’s a bit like a Sicilian market place, or a football match, increasing in volume all the time, and some of the monks are really good showmen, sometimes mischieviously involving us in their debates, as if trying to get us onto their side. Watching the debating, which lasts for two hours, really made me want to learn Tibetan, just so that I can understand what they are arguing about! And of course, some of the monks congregated in little groups to look at their mobile phones!

As for altitude sickness, I suffered a bit of it, but nothing too major - just a bit of a headache, shortness of breath and exhaustion. It’s mainly gone now, I only feel it when I walk up the stairs. I’m staying in Tibet for another ten days or so - Emily and I and two others are catching a jeep on Tuesday to Nepal, via Everest Base Camp and some other Tibetan sights, and hope to get there for the 20th November.


9th November 2007

sigh of envy
Dearest Tiziana, Tibet sounds absolutely exquisitely incredible. You sound soo happy as well, how could you not meet your soul partner soon? Your energy must be vibrating at an incredibly high level. Just reading your blog definitely raised my vibration! Sending love, Tanya
9th November 2007

Monk magic
The vain monk looks like my brother Steve!! x
18th January 2008

Busy, belated, but at least reading blog comments at last
I have read your recent Pakistan excerpts. I have been writing more than reading, although reading books, not blog comments. Now I know what I've been missing! I sent you a private mail today. Oh lucky stars allow me to have some precious moments to read Tiziana's travel blog. Alfie shut up - hehe. Good luck, good life. Angie x

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