Monday, October 31, 2011

Postcards from Lhasa - Part 1 - Guest Post from historian Sandy Lydon

We have a very special treat this week!  Sandy Lydon, emeritus professor (Asian and Asian American Historian), who has been leading trips into China and other parts of Asia for thirty years or more, is our Guest Writer on the ground, in Lhasa, Tibet. Sandy, along with Dr. Gary Griggs (geologist and oceanographer), and Dr. Cherie Barkey (Modern Chinese Historian) are leading an intrepid group of travelers, most of them from Santa Cruz, California, on an amazing 2 1/2 week adventure through China, Tibet, Hong Kong and Macao. You can find details about the trip itinerary on his website.

The Potola Palace from the Roof of the Jokang Temple
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009

The singular hallmark of Sandy's trips is the great preparation that travelers have in the 6 - 8 months prior to departure. They are immersed in learning of all the forces that have shaped the region - religion, language, history, conquest, trade, geography and politics - enabling them to have a nuanced and non-judgmental understanding of the people and places they are visiting.

This is the first in a three part series, which I know you will enjoy. Please feel free to respond with your comments. Included in this post are my own photographs taken on two previous trips to Tibet - in July of 2001 and then October of 2009.

Who hasn't wondered about, dreamt about, fantasized about and wanted to go to Lhasa? And the being here in no way resolves any of the dreams or fantasies. We say over and over again to ourselves and each other, "I'm in Lhasa." And smile. It is magical. Whether I'm able to make any clear, logical sense of it is another matter. Lhasa assaults the senses and being at 11,000 feet just adds to it. The air is clear and bracing, sharp on one's lungs that seem to be shallow. We don't breathe – we pant. We've been blessed with remarkable weather since our arrival – we left the clouds and chill of Xining for bright, deep, blue skies, much like one experiences at the top of ski lift. Allan McLean leaned over to me as we were walking through the park at the Norbulingka and said he had never seen a deeper blue sky, noting that the sky up the Santa Cruz County North Coast where he grew up (Rancho del Oso) is always hazy, even when cloudless. It is easy to see why both the Tibetans and the Mongols use a deep blue in their imagery, and symbols.

The Jokhang Temple on Barkhor Square
Lhasa, Tibet - 2001
Mid-day Prayers
Barkhor Square in front of the Jokhang Temple
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
J O K H A N G   T E M P L E
After lunch (a sumptuous Americanized spread with meat, potatoes, pizza-like stuff, and a dynamite tomato soup), we journeyed over to the Jokhang, a temple complex originally built in the 7th century and then restored following fires and political destruction, most recently during the Cultural Revolution when the Red Guard desecrated the interior. Since then it has been restored and is so heavily used by pilgrims and so filled with yak butter candles and incense smoke that one would think it is over 1,000 years old. If Tiananmen Square is the political and cultural bulls-eye of the Chinese world, Lhasa and more specifically the Jokhang and the Potala Palace comprise the center of the Tibetan World. Throughout the afternoon we were surrounded by thousands of Tibetans, including little children and complete three-generation families, moving in the propitious clockwise direction, prayer wheels turning, humming their prayers and mantras. They have come from everywhere in the Tibetan World, wearing the clothing of their home areas, strolling and always with a look of surprise when they see us.

Prayer before Kora at the Jokhang Temple
Barkhor Square
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
Kora (clockwise circumambulation of a holy site) on the Barkhor
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
A movie was being filmed on the roof of the Jokhang (I cannot imagine the permits and bureaucracy THAT must required) and we watched as they filmed a scene of a young bewildered Chinese tourist trying to find himself. By that time, after a big lunch, the various Buddha statues and their attendants, the bodhisattvas, the Lama images began to blend together, and I was relieved when we finally entered the sea of humanity that was walking around the Jokhang.

On the Roof of the Jokang Temple
Lhasa, Tibet, 2009
T H E   B A R K H O R
It didn't take a genius to figure out that a river of circumambulating pilgrims provided a great opportunity to sell stuff, so as the hundreds of faithful walk around the Jokhang, they are flanked on either side by a continuous line of stalls, selling most everything, but heavy on the jewelry and Tibetan clothing and accessories. Most of our group members resisted the temptation, but there were some who shopped, such as Gary Griggs. I will not divulge what he bought for fear of ruining the surprise of his returning home with gifts. The square in front of the west entrance to Jokhang is filled with pilgrims prostrating themselves, and it is also this square that is the place where many protests and demonstrations began. It serves the same purpose for dissenters as does Tiananmen Square.

Shopping on the Barkhor after Kora
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
Side Street Commerce on the Barkhor: Yak Jerky and Yak Cheese
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
Side Street Commerce on the Barkhor: Lots of Veggies
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
B U M P E R  S T I C K E R  P O L I T I C S
The two-word bumper sticker "Free Tibet" what one often sees on cars in Santa Cruz County makes it seem so simple. But, as Vicki Birdsall noted the other day, you can't winnow down the situation between China and Tibet into two words. It is a hugely complex issue, and as the locals will point out – it was the Chinese government's suppression of the March 1959 uprising that really marked the beginning of the end of any Tibetan autonomy. And, on the anniversary of that rising in March 2008, the Chinese government responded with a very heavy hand. Before and since, protestors (mostly monks) have chosen the Jokhang's Barkhor Square as their stage. And everywhere we look, there are uniformed Chinese soldiers. Not the type that you might see guarding an airport, though; these are tough even scary looking men. We have been told repeatedly not to take pictures of the soldiers. So, I'll have to try and describe them.

A N  O C C U P Y I N G  F O R C E
Some are stationed in guard posts, either located in the middle of the human river flowing around the Jokhang, or off on the side. At first blush these posts look like hot dog stands at the county fair, but the men inside them are not hot dog salesmen. They wear tan or sometimes camouflage uniforms, and shiny dark brown helmets. The posts have machine guns, and the soldiers holding them are wearing knee pads and shin guards much like a baseball catcher would wear. But the gear is designed to allow them to kneel and fire those fierce-looking weapons should the need arise. They look much like the storm troopers in Star Wars, and they walk with difficulty, a stiff gait, their legs reaching out far ahead of them. Each post has a large number of fire extinguishers set in the corners, and at first I thought it might be one of their other functions – to protect the wooden structures on either side of the human river. Then it dawned on me, and it was a chilling revelation. Those extinguishers were preparation should a protesting monk set himself on fire. They would want to douse the flames before any movie or still cameras could record the event and post it on the Internet for all to see.

Most military men standing on duty will crack a smile or grin in return of a grin from us. But there is no humor here in Lhasa, no laughter behind their eyes. They are tough, no-nonsense dudes. Most Tibetans do not make eye-contact with them, and the young ones that do have no laughter behind their eyes either. There is grim drama being played out here, one that does not seem to have an immediate resolution.

The place I am most familiar with where the cold eyes of an occupying force met a similar glance from the residents was in Ireland. Vince Versage, a member of our group, noted the same similarity. And, as do the present-day Irish, the Tibetans know the names of their martyrs and exactly where they fell. The British no longer occupy most of Ireland, but the Chinese occupy Tibet and have vowed to do so in perpetuity. Chinese patriots insist that Tibet is and always has been part of China, while Tibetans insist that claim to be tenuous. Our group members have read about the two views and we have discussed the situation, but seeing it first hand, and watching the squads of heavily-armed Chinese soldiers march through the crowds of pilgrims, I realize now that the problems are much more complex than I had even imagined.

From the beginning of this adventure back in January, I had asked group members to try and cultivate a position of neutrality before going to Tibet. Then, after the trip I plan to ask them what position they now hold on what is often called the Tibet Problem. You might ask them when they get home.

Editor's note: text has been minimally edited to circumvent any possibility of censure by the Chinese government.

All of the images posted here are also available for purchase as 8x10 and 5x7 fine art prints and A2 size greeting cards (all printed on archival water color paper) at Be sure to send me a message if there is something you'd like that you don't see listed, or if you'd like a custom size or item, as I truly enjoy creating one of a kind items that hold special meaning. Thanks!!


  1. Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.

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