Thursday, 31 December 2009

Crisis at Christmas

This Christmas is the first i have spent in central London ever. So the perfect time to try something i had been meaning to do for a long time (and i'm sure everyone says that) - and that's "help the homeless at Christmas". A bit of a cliche maybe, but for a long time i've felt that the music business is way too cynical and self obsessed with the narcissistic and frankly unnecessary bureaucracy and mechanisms that forget the human element - and for me, especially coming from a background of doing Youth work and working with Young Carers sometimes it all feels a bit empty.
So i can safely say that it was with totally selfish motives i signed up to work at Crisis at Christmas this year. I signed up for 3 days 23, 26 and 27 December. Unfortunately i had a chest infection after all the hedonism of recent weeks and so didn't go on the 23rd. But i ended up going in on the last day the 29th too - so 3 days it was. And i think if i hadn't missed the 23rd i probably wouldn't have been ready for Christmas at my house - you know they say charity begins at home, and also i don't think i would have made friends with my new buddy Tara.

"Crisis is the national charity for single homeless people. We are dedicated to ending homelessness by delivering life-changing services and campaigning for change"

Crisis says:

"Homelessness is an isolating and destructive experience and homeless people are some of the most vulnerable and socially excluded in our society.Homelessness is a problem throughout the UK, although it is more prevalent in urban centres, especially in London.Homelessness is about more than rooflessness. A home is not just a physical space, it also has a legal and social dimension. A home provides roots, identity, a sense of belonging and a place of emotional wellbeing. Homelessness is about the loss of these. Homelessness is costly to the individual, society and the state."

A crisis - a crucial or decisive point or situation; a turning point. An emotionally stressful event or traumatic change in a person's life. A point in a story or drama when a conflict reaches its highest tension and must be resolved.

Its actually quite relaxing to go and volunteer somewhere where Im not in charge and not responsible for what's going on. All i had to do was do the jobs allocated with a smile on my face, which mainly meant guarding entrances and exits and chatting. It was no trouble and not hard.
In fact, there were a lot of volunteers there - more than the "guests" at times it seemed. I chose the Hammersmith Day centre because it was closest to me, but in actual fact it occurred to me when faced with the reality that a Day centre is possibly the opposite of what's needed - a night centre would be better! But there was Crisis night centres too... just not the Hammersmith one - and to be honest, that i was before i understood a little bit more.
I'm a chatty person, if i wasn't i would have difficulty doing a radio show. So its natural for me to chat chat and make friends, and it doesn't bother me if they have a roof over their heads at night or not, its just a learning curve and maybe a way to spread some positivity.
I've been very lucky to travel a lot this year, and everywhere i go i like to try and understand. I think its normal to want to understand, and it was no different with "guests" at Crisis. I don't want to fall into the volunteer trap who's desperate for juicy stories of hardship, but of course as soon as i made friends its normal to want to know about each other, and wonder how this happened. I don't think anyone would choose to be on the streets. But from what i understand, the longer you are on the streets, the more difficult it is to get off them.
I suppose i should examine the terms i use, and people use to describe the homeless.
The Homeless... just that term - ideas of a huge advancing or stationary army with fingerless gloves? 
One of the Crisis guests and my new friends i'll call him "A" for the purposes of this blog told me that some of his friends call themselves Tramps. But he doesn't say he's a tramp, he says he's unfortunate. He's just had a run of bad luck and been unfortunate with the way things have turned out.
I say my new friends but it is very much a case of "us" and "them". You can't avoid the fact that there is a huge gulf between volunteers and guests. Us smarmy do-gooders and the people who are actually facing shit. Its easy really to take time out from University hols, office hols, Xmas hols to volunteer. I'm sure everyone volunteering was touched by the people they met and the things they saw. But the volunteers have the volunteer room that they go back to, and as we were reminded in the briefing everyday a fully stocked fridge to go home to.
"They" have no home.
Every time i hear "they" and "them" in situations like this alarm bells ring. "Otherness" is a concept which permeates thought in situations of divison and doesn't aid moving forward in communication.
But as we were told many times - "don't give out your phone number or personal details to guests, here at Crisis this week you have a safety net... outside in the big wide world you don't"
It's inevitable however much you don't want the chasm to exist between "guests" and "volunteers", that it stands large in the room like an elephant no one points out; its there and we all know it. Volunteers might feel guilty about their affluent lifestyle, guests may feel embarrassed. There's a whole minefield of potential faux-pas to trip you up.
However, the best thing to do is to go and be yourself and ignore that elephant as best you can, and in my opinion bring humour to the situation as much as possible.
Homeless in French "Sans Abri" - Without shelter. I suppose metaphorically and physically its true.
I remember watching a movie at University when studying the Nouveau vague or 80's cinema called "Sans toit ni loi" (without roof or law) which kept coming back to me this week. That film painted such a bleak horrid picture, with such a sense of hopelessness its hard not to think of it in terms of the people i've met and worry

There are a few "guests" that stand out to me who i had the pleasure of talking to a lot. And i can honestly say that i won't forget them. Firstly theres "J". A chap who Tara and I spoke to first of all. He appears now in retrospect slightly shady, but very well versed in politics and geography and economics. Mr. Commerce. 
He said he taught himself English from his 2 dictionaries he took with him when he left "The Soviet Union" English-Russian, and Russian-English. He sat with his 2 dictionaries in the library with a copy of Newsweek and TIME every day he said looking up words, and gradually learning to speak English.
He taught himself Dutch when he got to The Netherlands from sitting in a train station, and asking passengers waiting for their train to help him read a paragraph of the Dutch newspaper.
He taught himself French the same way.
He has a flat in The Netherlands he said and will go back there soon.
With a totally different temperament, and little to no interest in politics or commerce i suspect, unless to sell his paintings is "A"
*A has a broken arm cause some arseholes jumped on it whilst he was asleep in Covent Garden. They kicked him in the face too. He likes being tickled. He likes talking about his paintings. Someone told him that he has real talent. He likes talking about posh people and taking the piss. He likes just chitchatting. 
He sleeps rough every night. He smiles all the time (pretty much). He likes a bit of drama.
He kicked a bag of rubbish cause someone woke him up one morning too early. The bag of rubbish was full of bottles and he stubbed his toe. It still hurts.
The day i didn't go to Crisis, i wondered about him, and looked forward to seeing him again, just like *D
Here's my (bad) drawing of him:

What a sweetheart. First chatted about wrestling. Luckily because of Landphil i know a bit about it. *D likes the Undertaker

Especially his fight with Kane and when he came in on a bike.
*D loves the trains, that's where he sleeps at night. Trains or night buses.
He keeps himself to himself because he can't trust other people. Other homeless people steal his stuff he says. He has long fingernails that i looked at too much.
*D tells us he got into debt, owed too many people money, and can't face them now. I told him he should declare bankruptcy and sort it out. He said he thinks he's going to go and visit his parents  for New Year, but he's scared they're mad at him. I hope he can sort it out, i hope i told him the right thing - visit Citizens advice bureau!
He's a real sweet guy, so clearly aware of the dangers on the streets
Although According to *G of A+G it's not as bad as i might think it is, if you know what you're doing.
I didn't realise how shelters worked until speaking to *G. There's 30 places, in a different venue every night in West London. A+G have a map. And 30 people turn up at 8pm have food and can sleep indoors on the floor of a church/hall/community centre. There are normally 10 people waiting outside to see if someone doesn't turn up. If you don't turn up by 8pm you lose your place.
You get turfed out at 7am and then A+G make a coffee last a long time in Maccy D's. A tea in a greasy spoon. The boredom, G tells me is a killer.
G was doing a degree in philosophy when he faced a series of unfortunate events. I dont know the nature of these events i never asked. But whether its because he's ashamed of his position or its just his way or ashamed of what happened or of the big elephant in the room G doens't look me in the eye alot, even though we spend a long time chatting over a few days. I tell him that i am curious about people everywhere, that i love to travel and find out about new cultures, and that sometimes i wonder if being street-wise translates as a culture, and if he can afford to look at people with curiousity. He tells me he tries to stay positive and not to pigeon hole or stereotype. Tries not to say "this person did this to me, and this person and this person, and they're all from the same place so that place must be bad". He grew up in West London, and when i ask him about safety on the streets, and tell him about what happened to me in Buenos Aires, and how i've thought a lot about it and if you know your territory you're always less vulnerable than a new comer - he told me its not as bad as i think out there and started talking to me about homeless people not being all bad. I said i didn't mean homeless people being bad, i meant the guys tanked up coming out the pub at 11pm looking for a fight. He told me that was why he always makes it by 8pm to the shelter, because its safer indoors at night time.
Without giving me any details - i didn't ask for any, or want any - we talk about what a short slippery slope of unfortunate events it is to end up on the streets. I've decided its a lot closer possibility than most people think.
And it seems to me, that the main thing, the main barrier which protects you is family.
When the going gets tough, its rare to find someone in local councils who will go out of their way for you, days of queuing make no difference, especially to a single male on a housing list.
Thats where irrespective of the elephant in the room, volunteers at places like Crisis can help, because its not a question of queuing, its a question of volunteers doing what they can, and as opposed to worrying about the chasm inside the centre, its more about working on the chasm that exists outside the shelter, as i can see without some of "our reality" the "street reality" becomes further and further away from hope, and what is needed to get off the streets.

Crisis was well worth doing, i will hope to do it again next year, not just because it made me think, but because there's a good bunch of people both sides of that chasm, and its well worth keeping your eyes open and not being ignorant to it, especially at Christmas*

So, Crisis! Thanks for letting me be involved! And for making new friends

*see other post!

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Winter Solstice, Seasons Greetings and Merry Christmas

December 21st 2009 was the Winter Solstice - the shortest day of 2009. When the earth's axial tilt is furthest away from the sun, and when "traditionally" in Great Britain we would celebrate Yuletide....
But what is tradition? How many years does it take to make a tradition? 
In 46 BC Julius Caesar established Dec 25th as the date of the Winter Solstice (now we know exactly what day is the shortest), since then the date has moved with varying calendars established by the church, and its strange to think, when we think about Christmas and the date of the solstice, that its not just the date of the pagan festivals that Christmas is celebrated on, but the existence of the date that is 25th December on the calendar which was dictated by the church.
I ask what makes a tradition - now its a tradition that Santa Claus wears red - and we've all heard that this was because Coca Cola dressed him in red - but Sinterklaas in dutch folklore wore red robes and Tomte, who started to deliver Xmas presents in the 1840's in Denmark wore a red cap. The urban legend that Santa Claus wore red because of Coca-Cola is not infact totally true apparently Santa Claus wore a variety of colours prior to the Coca-Cola campaign but our current depiction of Santa Claus is probably more thanks to this chap:
Anyway, what makes a tradition?
Here we are on the 25th December celebrating Christmas or Christ's Mass, the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Christian God born as man from a virgin. But as we dont know his birth, and as all religions subsume other religious practises of the region that went before, Jesus was born on December 25th just as Coca-Cola is associated with Santa Claus.
Old festivals such as Jul/Yule are part of how we now celebrate Christmas - feasting, singing etc.
But I can't help but feel a bit fraudulent
A tradition doesn't have to date back centuries, but to someone who isn't Christian, its hard to tell what we're actually celebrating, don't get me wrong i'm grateful for a break. But i like to do it right.
Mean Geimhridh, Celtic Midwinter "The point of roughness" is when in Welsh mythology Rhiannon (The horse Godess) was supposed to give birth to Pyderi. Interestingly enough Pyderi (after disappearing) appeared outside some stables.
Mummer's Day - on Dec 26 - you could blacken your faces - Wren day on Dec 26th in Ireland - you could kill a wren and take it from house to house stopping for feasting
Alban Arthan - a Neodruidic English festival from 18thC gave gifts to the needy
Yule - from the Vikings and Germanic cultures began on the lunar midwinter and culminated on the arrivale of Juletid on midwinter. The Yule celebrations amalgamated alot of the traditions from all over Europe. A Yule log was burnt for Thor and feasting would continue as long as the log was burning (talk about heart burn).
Wiccan Yule, which i would love to explore more, is i suppose a neopagan amalgamation now. It is observed as one of the 8 solar holidays or Sabbat. Celebrated as the rebirth of the Great God and the newborn sun.
So here we have a load of festivals all together to basically try and give hope in the dark and cold time (i assume realistically the opposite should be celebrated in Australia!). A missing birth certificate of Yeshua of Nazareth (what would they put for the father anyway?), an adopted date of 25th December and some adopted rituals - yule log, holly, ivy, mistletoe, giving gifts - celebration in a Bacchian style, celebration in a Pagan style and now celebration in a commercial style. Its funny to think that in Early USA in Massachusetts Puritans band Christmas because it was too heathen.
Now we have an amalgam not only of Pagan, Christian, Celtic celebrations but also a mixture of stories from Dickens and films and all sorts that make Christmas what it is now. Not to mention adverts, commercial pressure and family pressure. (family love!)
Strange to think that commerical pressure now has the same effect on us that religion once did.
I like the idea of Alban Arthuan - the end of the month of the Elder tree, and the start of the month of the birch. The Elder and Birch stand at the entrance to Annwn the Celtic Underworld where all life was formed. What i would do with an Elder and a birch i dont know? Burn them like a yule log?
These things are what you make of them i suppose. In every sugary sickening Christmas movie they talk about "The spirit of Christmas". The spirit of Christmas  seems to me to be the spirit of many things and the spirit of none.
December 8th this year was Bodhi Day, or Rohatsu. (Beginning of every December) The day that celebrates Buddha's enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in 596 BCE. He sat under the Bodhi tree for 8 days and on the morning of the 8th day he realized that everyone suffers due to ignorance, and that ignorance can be overcome through the Eightfold path.
I don't know what ignorance at Christmas does but maybe on this day that most people have off work and that is relevant in so many paths, where familial and financial situations are highlighted it is important to remember those who are less fortunate to try to give hope for the future.
The Eightfold path is:
DivisionEightfold Path factorsAcquired factorsWisdom (Sanskrit: prajñā, Pāli: paññā)1. Right view9. Right knowledge2. Right intention10. Right liberationEthical conduct (Sanskrit: śīla, Pāli: sīla)3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
Concentration (Sanskrit and Pāli: samādhi)6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration
Bodhi Day is maybe the birth of Buddhism (although its origins were laid down way before), the day where Buddha suggested a way out from the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth and became Enlightened
Strange that the way out that most of us are offered today is at the shops, and especially at Christmas.
Anyway, whatever and however you celebrate i hope you have a peaceful, hopeful and enjoyable time. With or without faith, but hopefully with feasting and maybe a Yule log.
And maybe you may enjoy SSS's witty Xmas ditty

Bodhi tree in Bhutan, Sept 2009

Elder tree
and Birch tree

And a whole load of Holly

Sunday, 15 November 2009

A month since the Himalayas

I assumed that when i returned from the Himalayas i would have time to think. To digest comfortably in my mind the wonderful things i'd seen like savouring a great chocolate and rasperry pudding. But oh no! Life doesn't stop so you can enjoy your memories... until you're old and can hardly remember them anymore!

I've pretty much written about the whole trip as much as i can without naming names of people it might jeopardise and without boring you to death too much i hope!

But i know there's a lot more to say and that eventually i'll think it all through.

I recieved this postcard in an email from that charming dog that bit me in Kathmandu. Nice to see he's thinking of me and survived to tell the tale (tail?)

I've stayed in contact with the people i met in Tibet, Bhutan and Kathmandu, and with all the people i went with. I believe one of them was responsible for this postcard above, and for these two videos below; which are loads better than the stuff i filmed!
So thanks Peter and Jill!



Saturday, 7 November 2009

My last morning in Tibet. Heading home.

I woke up really early desperate to make the most of my last few hours in Tibet only to find that the front doors to the hotel were locked and i couldn't get out!
I went up on the hotel roof and stood looking at the Potala in the dark:

We had to leave at 7.30am. I eventually made it out of the hotel at 6.45, put my hood up, hurried down the pre-dawn roads past the armed guards, past the Tibetan lady roadsweepers, past a couple of people on their way to or from the Jokhang, past the empty market stalls to the Jokhang itself. What a site before dawn. I wanted to do another "Kora" of the temple before i left; with all the Tibetans and without the hustle and bustle of the markets later on.
With my hood up i was so obviously a westerner as i didn't want to disturb people in their morning ritual i just wanted to breathe it in and enjoy my last few hours in Tibet. I kept my camera on video round my neck in the hopes that people may understand what the Jokhang is like in the morning, especially those who don't have the chance to get to Tibet, because of visas or because of exile. So apologies for this video being a bit ropey, but i didn't want it to be obvious that i was filming because it would have changed the dynamics of the situation, and also if i got seen by the troops i would have got in big trouble.
Note the sounds of the Tibetans doing full prostrations and the prayer wheels they spin and the silence of the Jokhang before the dawn.

I got back to the hotel in time for a quick cup of (green)tea before getting in the bus to the airport. I still can't believe it was over so quickly. We arrived back to the heat in Kathmandu, had a swim, went shopping in Thamel, ate a plate of chips, avoided the hotel dog, managed to pack everything up in one bag and then had a huge 6 course meal sitting on cushions on the floor with everyone from the group. Then before you know it it's Goodbye Himalayas i'm off back to London.

My birthday party in Lhasa, Tibet

October 9th, Roof of the world, Lhasa, Tibet
Thanks so much to all my group and my Tibetan friends for giving me such a great day!
Here's some photos:

My Tibetan dress (no apron cause i'm not married - boooo!)

My cake box!! Nong Nong!!

Look at my amazing cake! Holy shit! Yes!

And i got a crown!

And i got a singing flower candle!

And i got to eat it!!!! (not all to myself of course...)

My birthday outside the Potala... still wearing the crown, full of cake and at the top of the world!!

Thank you so much David and Mountain Kingdoms, all the Tibetan contingent (no names!), Tessa, Toni, Jayne, Peter, Jill, Ruth, Flea, Rob, Graham, Helene and David

p.s. yes you can still get very excited about birthday cake at 29 years old!

Afternoon Jokhang. (my birthday part 2)

I had been told that the Jokhang was and still is the beating heart of Tibet.

Pilgrims prostrate themselves in front of its squat square exterieur, Tibetans continuously do laps of the temple as a "kora" in a clockwise direction.

During its history its seen many Dalai Lamas, witnessed many festivals with butter sculptures and thousands of monks and pilgrims, and i'm sure as it does today seen many market stalls - But then unlike now it wasn't situated on a big tiled Chinese square. Complete with 60th anniversary celebratory flowers and 4 units of soldiers.

I first visited the Jokhang the night before. It was colder than i expected, and the square was lit by really orange street lamps, and populated by so many soldiers it was almost a scary experience. Its a shame the "heart" of Tibetans religious passion has to be so heavily armed. Apparently many Chinese walk in an anti-clockwise direction round the Jokhang to show irreverance, or just because they dont care. (I saw this many times) Apparently there are so many guards because there have been incidents where Kampas have attacked Chinese for their anti-clockwise behaviour. I would say the whole of Tibet seems heavily populated by armed guards, and the concentration of them seems directly related to how important the place is to the Tibetans.
As time goes on unfortunately my trip becomes more like a memory and less like real life.

So to return to the Jokhang the afternoon of my birthday, the sky still blue as forever i went with the other tourists inside the Jokhang. There are less pilgrims and prostrations during the day time than there is in the evening or the morning, as i guess people are at work. There were once again many Chinese parties of tourists. When you step inside you realise its like a courtyard within a courtyard. And a lot of it is being worked on. Or demolished and rebuilt.

The inner room is square with giant paintings on the walls and different buddhas housed in each room around the periphery. In one of the rooms is the statue that the Chinese Princess brought from China with her - this is particularly popular with the Chinese tourists.

In the outer courtyard the pickaxes are weilded on the roof of the building being altered. And on the rest of roof you get the most fantastic view.
I can imagine that the Jokhang was once teeming with monks. I dont know the exact numbers but at the Jokhang that afternoon there were only a handful of monks. One of them was very friendly in front of the big statue of Buddha and Padhmasambava in the inner temple. He was very smiley, but the atmosphere quickly changed as this young (maybe 20?) Chinese guy stood right next to him and listened and questioned everything he said to me. It was unreal how aggressive this guys whole stance was. I only wanted to ask the monk about Buddhism, i was well aware i shouldn't ask anything provocative, especially not with a guy like that listening in. I felt very sorry for the monks in the Jokhang, not only are they not allowed to wear normal robes anymore, and no only have their numbers dwindled from the thousands to under a hundred, but they are caged and spied on - its horrendous really. On my way out of the temple there was a door ajar on the right hand side and i peered in, and it was full of led lights and buttons and cctv equipment. Like a big panel you see in James Bond movies to trigger a nuclear explosion. Stuck in the Jokhang temple to spy on people. Charming.
I'm trying not to be hard on the Chinese and i understand the situation is so fraught and difficult. And i know its not all Chinese, i've said all that in my previous blogs, but it all comes across very much as if the temples and traditions of the Tibetans are only tolerated a) for tourism and b) to aid oppression
Anyway, back to my day!

The views from the roof of the Jokhang are really spectacular, and its where i saw the few monks that still inhabit the temple. They even posed for some photos with Chinese tourists.

The Jokhang is surrounded by market stalls and shops, and i was determined to get my sister a birthday present whilst in Lhasa.

"Lookey lookey" the ladies call out as you walk past. I dislike being the tourist in the market, and such an obvious target, but with Tess it was quite a lot of fun, and i soon saw myself parting with money for a load of bracelets for my friends and just as i was heading back to the hotel, a spent all the rest of my Yen on a necklace for my sister. I still have no idea if i got a good deal, but i had a lot of fun bargaining for it, and my sister likes it - here's the lady i bought it off - i met her whole family in the process!

I went into some of the shops surrounding the Jokhang thinking i would get my sister something there, but as you walk further into the shop, you see that they are clearly Chinese establishments and so i walked out. Again, and again.

So, Potala, Norbulingka, Jokhang and shopping on my birthday and next i had a "suprise" to get ready for in my traditional Tibetan costume.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Vice Heavy Metal Roadshow part 1

I'm only in this documentary ain't i!!

Thanks Iano! x

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Turning 29 at the top of the world (my birthday in Tibet part 1)

Turning 29 at the top of the world.

It’s a once in a lifetime chance – to go into your 30th year in one of the highest cities in the world – Lhasa, Tibet.

I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while, since its 2 weeks since I’ve been back now. But writing about it means that I have to accept it’s all over, and I don’t want to! I’m in denial!

I wanted to write about my two friends Brain and Mike first too, because both of those tragedies came before this, and my birthday, despite the occupation, and the tragic history of Tibetans and despite the death of my friends, my birthday was a one off, the day was perfect. And I think you can only appreciate its perfection when you know what had gone before and how sad id felt.

I’d already realised that being sad and wearing a frown didn’t help anyone, least of which the Tibetans. “Gross national happiness begins with a smile” they say in Bhutan, and it’s a great attitude. And how can you not smile when you wake up 29, the sky is that deep blue you’ve seen in fairytale photos of Tibet dotted with a few graphic art clouds that only illustrate how high up you are and how big the sky is, and how underneath that panorama the Potala palace with the morning sun shining on it majestically, is still and will always be the dream and the symbol of Tibet and the hopes for what was and still could be. And today, my birthday was my lucky day, the day I got to visit the Potala, home of the Dalai Lamas, built by King Songsten Gampo, finished 12 years after he died in secret, holder and keeper of so many secrets, great library (although most of the writings now destroyed), great place of learning and great home. Just great.

But not just the Potala, today I would also go to the Norbulingka and the Jokhang. The Norbulingka I’d always been fascinated with as it was the Dalai Lama’s summer palace and from reading the biography of the Dalai Lama (14th) I knew how much HH loved the place, and I’d read about its beauty in the Summer when the Dalai Lama and all the officials and government would change their address from the Potala to the Norbulingka. I wanted to see if his Koi Carp are still in their pond or whether they’d been eaten!! Then I would get to go to the Jokhang. The most important temple in Tibet. Where the Dalai Lama became the Dalai Lama.

So you can imagine, I was very excited. I’d come to terms with the difficulties in Tibet, and the contradictions, and the necessity to just continue with life – well as much as you can come to terms with it in a few days, and I knew that I was now going to experience the Potala, which as the national symbol of Tibet, was also the place of most propaganda and mystery, and changes in the actual time line & history!

In order to get into the Potala, as with any of the temples in Tibet you need a permit. Nowadays the Potala has more restrictions, which left me waking up the morning of my birthday from a nightmare about rushing round a dark temple, missing all the things that had the potential to move me, and change my life and being pushed out the door without having seen the most important parts!

As I lay in bed in my Tibetan hotel (run by Tibetans) early that morning, I knew how totally lucky and jammy I was, it was still dark outside, and I opened my birthday card from my Mum and Dad, and I felt very grateful to them for enabling me to get to Lhasa on my birthday as I had hoped and planned for such a long time. What? You don’t honestly think that I could afford to do this trip as Earache’s press manager without help from my Mum and Dad do you? Pah!

I’d gone with my Tibetan friend to the dress shop near the hotel the night before when we arrived in Lhasa, and bought my traditional Tibetan outfit (but without the apron – they’re only for MARRIED women! Pah!) I had planned to wear my new Tibetan gear out that night on my birthday, as I had a feeling there was something planned and I think it’s really cool to wear that country’s national dress when you’re there. Its not the same as wearing a band t-shirt of the band you’ve gone to see at one of their shows, and hang the embarrassment factor a lot of people in Tibet (Tibetans) still wear traditional dress, and I hope that its taken as a compliment that I would want to aswell.

I didn’t want to wear my new silk outfit round the Potala though, as I knew that there would be a lot of stairs and probably quite a bit of dust.
(i'm wearing heart shaped sun glasses to show love)

We got to the Potala, and there were already a lot of Tibetans doing a Kora (circumambulation) round the Potala. These days getting inside the Potala is restricted access, as I mentioned already, but this is also applicable to Tibetans, maybe even moreso from what I understand. Although there were more Chinese tourists visiting the Potala than anyone else, with loud Chinese guides (probably explaining a Chinese version of history) there were one or two Tibetan families I saw going round too. You get stopped at the entrance by a Chinese lady sitting at a fold up table who looks thoroughly bored. She checked our passports, our visa, and our permit to visit the Potala. Then we were ushered through a room with cabinets containing confiscated liquids in all forms, and even an oxygen tank through a brightly lit room with an x-ray machine that x-rayed our bags. Then we went through the outside garden, which has a few buildings that used to be part of the administrative heart of the Tibetan government and affords a magnificent view of the Potala. The gardens were in bloom, the sky was blue, and Potala hunkered like a huge white stone giant in front of us. It was pretty exciting. It’s difficult for Tibetan guides I should think. Not only to be heard over the shrill Chinese tour guides, but also to not lose hope when visiting such important historic landmarks that are getting a very different take on history from an invading (sorry, liberating!) nation’s guides. I felt awe and reverence at the majesty and the weight of history going up the stairs of the Potala. I don’t know if every group there felt the same. But maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe its enough that there are people from China real, taking an interest. Who knows?

Anyway, you may already know, there are quite a lot of steps up to the Potala. Its not wheel chair friendly, its not hobble bad leg friendly. But at the same time, it’s not so bad. I didn’t really find it much of a problem. It is quite high up though so you get out of breath quicker than you think you should. And after 3 big flights of stairs the little concrete bench is welcome before hopping up the rest. By the little concrete bench these is a tree, all through the tree is lumps of cotton strewn amongst the branches. I had a feeling what I thought these might be, and I was correct – prayer flags have been disallowed in the Potala now, and these funny clumps of cotton were/are the Tibetan people’s way round that new rule. So we carry on up the steps.

There are only about 20 rooms open to tourists of the Potala out of its 500 or so. No one seems to know what’s in the other 480 rooms. No one knows how much of the treasure and the library still exists. Even the monks and Dalai Lamas didn’t frequent all the rooms under Tibetan rule, so one can only hope that some of the original rooms and contents survive in the rest of the palace. After all the Potala was “saved” from destruction by a Chinese premier named Zhou Enlai who supposedly deployed his own troops to protect it.

Our papers are checked again, and we go up more stairs into the courtyard below the Dalai Lama’s quarters (the rooms that are painted yellow on the outside of the Potala)

The timer starts from when we enter the Dalai Lama’s quarters from the top of the wooden stairs.

We get 1 hour and 1 hour only to do the 20 rooms. If we do the tour in more than one hour the company our guide works for will lose their ability to take a group to the Potala the next time. They’ll have their permit revoked. The race is on. I don’t like this pressure. There are people in my tour group who are slow, there are people in my tour group that don’t listen when we have things explained, and ask to have it all explained again. There are people in my tour group who go totally off subject and ask about things that aren’t relevant. None of this would normally bother me, but we are about to enter the Potala palace.

A place I have waited to see for a very long time. (I’m sure they’ve wanted to visit for a long time too) but we are on a fucking time limit! Man, I don’t want to get stressed out here – but here’s 20 rooms or so full of the treasures of Tibetan history and culture, where HHDL himself lived as a child, where he received state visitors, where he walked, prayed and pondered what to do about the advancing Chinese, where he stood on the roof with his telescope and watched his people go about their business in Lhasa around the Jokhang and in the market square – we’re about to enter the Potala palace – one of the most amazing places on earth, and we have a TIME LIMIT!!! Ughhhh!!! I tried not to worry, but as we hurried through rooms, and missed explanations I did think about my nightmare in the early hours of that morning and it wasn’t far off. But at least I was in the Potala. I saw the Dalai Lama’s apartments. I’d heard that the Chinese were keen to have them on display to show how bourgeois he was as if this would impact the Tibetan people’s opinion of him. I did see a lot of the Chinese groups stop specifically at his radio (also in the Norbulingka) and make a big thing of it. Really when you’d visited a lot of temples already the grandness of the apartments didn’t seem all that much. They look very much like the inside of a temple. Golden coloured statues, Red, blue, green, yellow. Tara, Manjushri, Avaloketishvara, Amitayus, Medicine Buddha etc. Thangkas and a little single bed.

I was worried. Worried about the time we had, worried about what I could and couldn’t ask our guide, desperate to see it all, but worried I wasn’t taking enough of it in. The signs explaining what was in each room invariably had an explanation which referred to a certain Chinese emperor or Dynasty, especially if there was anything that was linked to the Chinese princess that once wed a Tibetan king (more relevant at the Jokhang later that day, but nevertheless an event that holds a lot of interest for modern Chinese audiences and tour guides)

Up and down we went through little rooms belonging to different Dalai Lamas, seeing their Stupas and tombs, their favourite rooms, their gifts from foreign rulers. Waiting for others from our group to catch up, wanting to cram as much info in as I possibly could. Getting mixed up with Chinese groups, looking intently at statues as if I could somehow burn their appearance into my mind if I looked that much harder. It didn’t really work. I can’t remember everything I saw already, and its only 2 weeks ago. We were through the apartments of the Dalai Lamas within 58mins and I felt very frustrated that we didn’t have longer. It really was quite a lot like my nightmare! But it wasn’t gonna bother me on my birthday, especially when I was well aware of how lucky I was to be there at all. Not only is it still relatively difficult to get into Tibet, but there are thousands upon thousands of Tibetans in exile who would have probably given their right arm to have an hour in the Potala, and its their birth right pretty much to be there – but instead I was! And frustrated about the one hour I did get! I bought a book from the Potala about the Potala, written by the Chinese. Partly because I wanted the propaganda. I bought a book of postcards because photos were of course prohibited, and I thought they might help me remember the wonders I’d seen.

I wandered down the steps, now off the clock, down to our little bus waiting for us. On the way I passed by some tablets with Tibetan carved into them laid out on the grass. They’d been smashed during the “cultural revolution” and now were propped up because they’d been preserved.

So off to the Norbulingka – The Summer Palace

I was as excited about the Norbulingka as the Potala. Because I know how much the current Dalai Lama loved it from books, and I think it’s almost as important as the Potala. It was the place where the Dalai Lama’s projection room was housed, and it was, and to my surprise still is, the place that houses the Tibetan Opera each year. I’ve already mentioned what a lovely day it was, and this was all the more enjoyable in the gardens of the Norbulingka. The first part of the Norbulingka we visited was the 8th Dalai Lama’s palace. You walked through the gardens to big doors with big knockers

and then you enter a little peaceful place that seems a world away from the dark corners of the Potala. There was a lovely White Tara Thangka, and the whole place had been painted by a renowned Tibetan artist that I can’t find the name of ANYWHERE! My postcard book of photos of course doesn’t mention him, and the lonely planet doesn’t know.

We then went to visit the 14th Dalai Lama’s palace. I’d stared at photos of this part of the Norbulingka for a long time before visiting, and it didn’t disappoint.

You enter into a large hallway, which now has a giftshop on the right hand side, and then you go up some wooden stairs into a reception room at the top, that has the most wonderful painting on the wall of Tibetan history in 301 scenes. From the monkeys and first field that I’d seen a few days before at Tsedang to the 14th Dalai Lama. This painting was also by this great Tibetan artist - unfortunately there are no photos or books of this painting, although it would make a great children’s book, I’m not sure it’s a version of history that would sell very well to the Chinese.

I got to see HHDL’s other little single bed, and another radio that again the Chinese tour guides were very interesting (I won’t mention the ooos and aaaahs when they got to the gramophone! – which was a present from Nehru I believe) and the route that you walk through the palace also took you through HHDL’s throne room. And when I say throne room, I mean the royal throne …. And bath, and sink. All of which had money on them as offerings. I know my Mum would approve of this as one does like to wish people to be productive in that department… right Mum?

There is a wonderful ‘assembly hall’ with paintings on the walls with faces of 14th Dalai Lamas government that look like cartoons, I wish there was postcards of them too – and its so strange seeing the paintings, and knowing the history, and also knowing that this place – the New Summer Palace at the Norbulinkga was where the Dalai Lama escaped from disguised as a soldier when he left Tibet 50 years ago this year.

The Tibetan Opera still continues outside in the gardens of the Norbulinkga each year. They still perform towards the New Summer Palace as if the Dalai Lama was still there. But it now seems to be sponsored by Budweiser.

I was keen to see if HHDL’s Koi Carp were still in the pond, and I’m glad to report there are many many koi carp in the pond. I took photos as proof.

So far so good, a rushed Potala, and a peaceful Norbulinkga, both before lunch – not a bad start to a 29th birthday in Tibet!