Friday, November 4, 2011

Postcards from Lhasa - Part 2 - Guest Post from historian Sandy Lydon

Welcome to the second in a three part series by guest writer, Sandy Lydon, professor emeritus of Asian and Asian American History. He is writing direct from Lhasa, Tibet where he, along with Gary Griggs (Professor of Earth Sciences and Director of UCSC's Institute of Marine Sciences), and Cherie Barkey (Professor of Modern Chinese History) 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 Sandy's website.  Included in this post are my own photographs taken on two previous trips to Tibet - in July of 2001 and October of 2009.

Potala Palace
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
P O T A L A   P A L A C E
We delayed our visit to the Potala Palace until the second day here at 11,000+ feet, hoping that most of the group would be acclimated enough to handle the 200+ (or is it 300+?) steps required to make it to the top floor. We gave anyone not feeling comfortable with the climb an option to stay below and hang out with Tony, our national guide. Suzanne McLean was the only one choosing to stay behind (and while doing so, did the required clockwise circumambulation of the entire place and sketching a brilliant image of the palace.)

The Potala is the most prevalent icon of Tibet, that huge, white multi-storied complex that every book, travel book and Tibetan website has as its lead image. But, as we stood at the bottom, girding our lungs for the coming ascent, we realized that those photos are misleading, because all those images make it appear as if the complex is draped down a hillside that looms up behind it. Not so. The photographs compress the depth of it. The Potala is actually draped down all sides of a smaller mountain and is squared up on the points of the compass with the main part of the building facing south.

The morning air was crystal clear, and standing near the base of the Potala, it was framed against that deep blue Tibetan sky, a hodgepodge of windows and terraces, the details framed in black while most of the building is freshly-white washed a brilliant almost painful white. Pilgrims and volunteers paint the building every year and pay no attention to the surrounding stone and rooftops below. It looks as if the countryside had been bombed by a flock of huge, possibly ill birds, the white "overspray" as Gary Griggs called it running off everything. 

Potala Palace Pilgrim Painters
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
The Potala's Specialist Touch-Up Painter
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
The group stopped at a wide spot below and took all manner of photographs with the Potala behind them, establishment photos that prove they were in Tibet. And then, after going through security yet again, we began, slowly and steadily, our own pilgrimage, joining the crowd of Tibetans and foreigners slogging up the stone stairs. The route up is a series of switchbacks and we stopped at each turn, panting, wondering how many steps we had done and how many remained. Janet Jones seemed to be the only one of us counting, and she told me an outrageous number – 300? – when we were still short of the top.

The number of foreign visitors is restricted to 3,000 per day, and they are sent up in groups that are a half-hour apart. Each group is supposed to complete the climb and visits of the various rooms at the top and be out in an hour, and our guide said that we were 30 minutes over by the time it was all said and done. He had to pay a small fine for our lollygagging, but the group did extremely well, with several who had been nursing colds keeping up with the rest.

Within the Potala Palace
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
There is no limit placed on Tibetans who wish to climb the Potala, either in numbers or time, and they were everywhere, carrying children and offerings up the slope, the advantage of their good lungs apparent. When inside the rooms at the top, they filed by us, sometimes nudging us gently out of the way, repeating their mantras and dropping money and yak butter at various important stops. And some had cell phones pressed to their ears, carrying on conversations while making this important of pilgrimages.

Stunning Color within the Potala Palace
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
As with other temples that we have visited, the air inside the dimly-lit rooms is heavy with yak butter and incense, and the history of the various Lamas, and sect-founders is even more dense. The paintings are incredibly detailed, and I only wish I knew more about each image, each Buddha statue. These pilgrims walking beside me probably know each and every one and for them the place has the deeper dimension that comes with a lifetime of immersion in their faith, but for me they are incredibly beautiful, but mysterious. The wooden handrails that help keep us from falling to an early death are worn smooth by thousands – millions? – of hands.

Potala Palace Rooftop
Lhasa, Tibet - 2001
T H E   B L U E   B A G   S E C T
Photography is prohibited inside the rooms and temples here at the Potala, but they have several bookstands on the landings, selling books not available in stores, published by the Potala Palace with the funds going to help buy all that white-wash. Our group lines up at the last bookstand and does commerce, each book placed in a blue plastic bag. There were so many of us having them, that we christened ourselves as the Blue Bag Sect, a play on the various Buddhist sects (Red Hat, Yellow Hat, etc.), and declared our guide to be the founder. Those having the bags posed for photographs at the bottom, and we boarded our bus and trundled off to lunch.

Many times, an historical icon that one has yearned to visit can disappoint. But not the Potala. It is everything one can imagine and more. The views of Lhasa from the palace are stunning, and even though our lungs, at times, were complaining, I think that if members of the group could pick just one place to visit in Tibet, this would be it. Ask them.

Editor's note:  when I visited Lhasa in 2001, visitors to the Potala Palace were allowed to stay as long as they wished and also take photographs.  I have included some here.

Norbulinka Palace (Summer Palace)
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
N O R B U L I N K A   or . . . The Lonely Planet Gets it Dead Wrong
I'm a great fan of Lonely Planet guidebooks and have lugged them around wherever we go – in China proper I tore the recent edition apart – as did many of our group members – rather than lug the whole thing. But I brought the entire Tibet Lonely Planet with me. The Lonely Planet writers can often be acerbic and dismissive, and they were about the Dalai Lama's Summer Palace, Norbulingka, saying that it ranks behind the other sights in Lhasa. They use the word "lifeless" in their description. Wrong. Dead Wrong. If you knew nothing else about the place, and glazed over when the litany of earlier Dalai Lamas who stayed there (#'s 7 – 14) were there I could understand it. But it is the 14th Dalai Lama's having stayed there, and then escaped from there that elevates the place to something special. Our guide pointed out on the large map at the entrance the route that the Dalai Lama took in 1959, dressed as a soldier to escape detection, as he fled the Norbulingka and set off on his exile that continues to this day.

Norbulinka Palace Gilded Roof
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
T H E   F O U R T E E N T H   D A L A I   L A M A
The Dalai Lama's presence is everywhere here, in the commentary, in the furniture, the carpet. But his likeness is not. We have seen no images of the 14th Dalai Lama anywhere in China or Tibet. (And were warned not to bring any books or magazines with such images into China.) Since his receiving the Nobel Prize, and the March 2008 uprising, the Chinese government has seen to it that his image has disappeared. So much of Tibetan history and Buddhism is attached to images and likenesses. Statues and paintings of every major and minor figure are jammed into the temples. But there are none of the 14th Dalai Lama. It reminds me of the early Buddhist iconography where the artists and sculptors, unable to depict the Buddha who had transcended this word, left blank the space where he would be. Only the Buddha's footprint, or the animals worshipping him. You can almost see the indentation of the Dalai Lama where he had been sitting on the sofa. But the space where he would be is empty.

There is an audience room where the 14th Dalai Lama would receive visitors, dignitaries, pilgrims, and at the head of it is a low bench where he had held court and dispensed his incredible wisdom. On the surrounding walls is a history of Tibet that he had ordered be painted. It is a decidedly Tibet-oriented history and it is exquisite. It ends on the lower corner of the third wall (the fourth is windows), cut off by events in 1959 and following. When our guide got to the end of it and was standing near the bench, I asked him if conditions were ever such that the Dalai Lama would/could return to Lhasa, would he possibly be sitting there again? "Of course!" he said "This is his home."

I would suggest, respectfully, that Lonely Planet take another look. And this time open their hearts.

Outside the Norulingka Summer Palace
Lhasa, Tibet - 2009
A R T   &   L I F E  and Seven Years in Tibet
Almost from the beginning of his presentations both in Norbulingka and other important sites involving the Dalai Lama, our guide has been making references to the 1997 movie starring Brad Pitt: Seven Years in Tibet. He has never seen the film, but has learned bits and pieces about it from his tour groups over the years. He pointed to places at Norbulingka that were depicted (but not actually filmed) in the movie, and for him as with many other Tibetans he tries to piece together the bits and pieces he has heard. When I just tried to Google Seven Years in Tibet, it was not able to connect with any of the movie sites about it, and then my Google wouldn't work. The long hand of the Chinese government at work.

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 comment:

  1. I did not fully understand the dread term “terminal illness” until I saw Heathrow for myself.