Stupa-dupa

Trip Start Jul 21, 2006
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Wednesday, November 1, 2006

First, a little of the political (sorry): Tibet has been a police state since China "liberated it of its independence" (LP) over 50 yrs ago. The tensions bubble far enough below the surface that they are hardly visible to us foreigners - the occasional police search of a rickshaw, the complaints of a travel agent of the risks he runs if correct permits and guides are not organised. One waiter told us in hushed tones of the discrimination faced by Tibetan, Indian and Nepalese tour guides when applying for travel permits: the government favours the Chinese guides, with their carefully re-written history of Tibet.
And yet the Chinese would argue that they have injected well-needed investment into Tibet, aiding development by building infrastructure and encouraging tourism. Certainly much of Lhasa looks like any other Chinese city minus the high rises - ugly concrete buildings and garage door shop fronts... It's not until you discover the Tibetan quarter, the Barkhor, with its winding steets and stalls, its traditional houses and little temples, that you get a sense of what the city was once like. That the country's capital now has its own "Tibetan quarter" shows how much Lhasa must have changed. It seems that with the financial incentives now offered to Chinese who settle here (such as salaries linked to altitude - there is widespread belief that the thin air here is unhealthy, obviously far worse than smog-filled cities...) the government is trying a more literal form of occupation: social control by mass migration.
Much Chinese money is pouring into the restoration of temples here, probably aware of their commercial potential as more tourists arrive. What you don't find written on any of the noticeboards though is that restoration is only necessary because of the widespread destruction during The Cultural Revolution: the Chinese are simply fixing what they once destroyed.
In the face of such Chinese repression, it's amazing how Tibet has held onto a very definite and very religious identity. Buddhism is such a part of everyday life here that there is no seperate word in Tibetan for "religion". Watching the 100s of pilgrims walking the 'kora' around Jokhang temple, chanting and spinning their prayer wheels like football rattles, a few prostrating at every step, you begin to sense how important religion is, even to someone as spiritually out-of-touch as myself!
However, Lhasa is not quite the spiritual utopia I had thought: the monasteries have cottoned onto the money to be made from a budgeoning tourist trade and those around Lhasa now charge hefty entrance prices and further levies for taking photos and video. What struck both of us was the incredible wealth of these temples - gold plated statues and tombs inlaid with precious stones - the gaudier and richer the better. Tossed in front of statues or wedged in corners are sometimes hundreds of paper money notes as offerings to different Buddhas. I can't help thinking that such wealth could be put to far better use - like feeding this poor country. What is particularly galling though, are the monks who target foreigners for handouts on the street, often using some cover of a story about having broken an important artefact and needing to pay for its repair, when there are many many beggars, disabled or with young families, far more deserving of the cash. It seems religion sells, and Tibet has plenty to offer.

And so temples are the main attractions in Lhasa: we took a look at The Potala (henceforth known as The Potato, for the many mistakes we've made in pronouncing it), Sera and Samye monasteries, and the Jokhang temple at the centre of the Barkhor circuit.
Sera is well-known for its daily debates, in which groups of 2 or 3 monks gather to argue out the day's lessons. One is chosen as the 'interrogator' and uses wonderfully camp, theatrical gestures to hammer home contradictory points - indignant hands on hips, waggling of fingers and the ubiquitous foot-stamp-and-clap - see the video! One monk could have given Robert de Niro a run for his money - he was so angry and clappped so hard the sweat was pouring off him. The courtyard becomes a bit of a zoo with all the tour buses that arrive dead on 3pm, but many monks seemed to relish the opportunity to show off.

Samye monastery is a little further away, and required catching a bus at 6.30am. Because Lhasa is inexplicably in the same time zone as Beijing, 3 days away, the sun doesn't rise until around 8 o'clock, so we had to get up and find the bus in pitch black. The three of us (John, myself and our French pal Xavier from the train) were the only foreigners - the bus was stuffed with Tibetan pilgrims who infiltrated it with the pungent smell of yak butter.
After an hour we turned into a mountainside tunnel to reach the neighbouring valley. A gasp of excitement rippled through the bus and suddenly the Tibetans were standing on their seats, trying to get a better view - we were travelling through the middle of a mountain. Once at Samye we spent a good couple of hours peeking and poking our heads into numerous chapels and stupas dotted about the huge complex, all stinking of the yak butter that pilgrims bring in great slabs to keep the candles ever-burning.
We climbed the hill behind the monastery, up past a stupa to a tiny one-monk-run temple situated in a rubbish tip. On closer inspection this turned out to be hundreds of tattered prayer flags that had broken free and been caught by thorn bushes. After the sweaty extertion of climbing at altitude (or is it just my disappearing fitness?), we quickly got cold and headed back down to the guesthouse for some tea and banana bread - and ended up staying there all evening, trying to ignore the Arnie DVDs being played back to back to the great enjoyment of a group of Tibetan monks. Perhaps the culture difference really is that huge.

PS - more photos to come- midway through updating...
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