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!

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