Magical, Mystical Tibet

Trip Start Sep 30, 2006
Trip End Jan 16, 2010

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Flag of China  , Tibet,
Friday, November 3, 2006

I am currently in Lhasa, Tibet - after flying from Chengdu on a brand new China Air jet, we arrive in Lhasa greeted by our smiling Tibetan guide, Tashi. We learn how to say hello (tah-shi de-leh) and he places white silk scarves, or katas, around each of our necks as a traditional symbol of welcome. The kata is an auspicious symbol, lending a positive note to the start of any relationship. The kata demonstrates the good intentions of the person offering it. Katas are offered to religious images, such as statues of the Buddha, as well as to lamas and government officials prior to requesting their help in the form of prayers or other services. The gesture of the kata announces that the request is not marred by corrupt thoughts or ulterior motives. I ruminate on this tradition and think that katas would be most helpful back in Washington, DC, especially the part about corruption. One of the most memorable offerings of the kata I witness is at the nangma, the Tibetan disco nightclub. Even after sixty years of Chinese rule, here in Lhasa Tibetans still celebrate their popular culture every night, till all hours. Aside from hiking amongst the holy mountains and visiting its heartwarming people, going to nangmas was my absolute favorite activity while in Tibet. The event is hard to describe, but by god it is fun. An energetic combination of traditional cultural celebration and dancing, lip-syncing, and modern kareoke, the Tibetan nangmas are pure entertainment. The nangma in Lhasa was In a huge hall, with full stage lights, amplified sound and effects like dry ice. Performers showcase traditional Tibetan dances, Bollywood hits, and even American pop. To show their appreciation for the performers, members of the audience buy katas from the bar, go up on stage and drape it around the neck of their favorite singer. One handsome performer, while singing what must have been a Tibetan love ballad, received so many katas his guitar could no longer be seen, yet he continued to smile and play, clearly soaking up the adoration. He decided to help out us English speakers by crooning "Everything I Do" by Bryan Adams, which we loved. My eyes really popped when the much beloved Tibetan solo artist did the best Michael Jackson impersonation I've ever seen, and set us roaring with amazement and delight. He sung "Billy Jean" and had all the props from the white glove to the cane to the sequined jacket. I was astounded that here at the roof of the world, in this sheltered society, this Tibetan guy had perfected the American pop star from his clothing to his voice to his dance moves. He had to have gotten hold of an illegal video that he watched over and over, but I wondered where did he get the TV? This was a place that barely kept the lights on, never mind television. The internet was here, but really sporadic, only at hotels. Nangmas showcase Tibetans sense of fun and laughter, and their love of music and dance. After the professionals perform, the floor opens up for amateurs (kareoke) which is hilarious because it is after a lot of drinking. After drunk men try to serenade the tee-heeing ladies, it is time for everyone to dance. Two sweet adventurous girls take me by the arms and bring me up on stage, where the entire hall has migrated. They try to teach me a kind of Tibetan line dance, and now I am the subject of friendly tee heeing. These ebony haired girls smile warmly and laugh openly at their new Western friend. I think they have never seen red hair or freckled skin before, because they seem fascinated by my coloring. We stay until the wee hours, walking home to our hotel under starry skies and blissfully empty streets. I look up and see that a perfect white ring has formed around the full moon. In Lhasa, which means "place of the gods", this celestial wonder seems to me to be an auspicious beginning for our time in Tibet. Lhasa is a bustling, thriving city of approximately 400,000 (estimates range from 258k-over 500k) at the foot of Mt. Gephel. Lhasa is regarded by pilgrims as the holiest center in all of Tibetan Buddhism. Today we visited the World Heritage designated Potala Palace, former home to Dalai Lamas and the administrative home to the former government of Tibet. Built in the 7th century and updated in the 17th by successive leaders, many feelings went along with today's visit which I will write about when I get to Nepal. To be truthful, I could not get out of the Palace fast enough. While it was once a holy place of pilgrimage (and still is to Tibetans hoping their leader will come back), this palace of worship and home to priceless artifacts of Tibetan culture has been corrupted by the Chinese strictly for tourism. For instance, admission to the Palace is almost three times the cost of the Great Wall. The government policy states this is for maintenance. Relics include ancient paintings, bronze and gilded statues, murals, sutras and personal effects of the Dalai Lama. Only a very small number of Tibetan pilgrims are allowed behind its walls, so many nomads who travel hundreds of miles from their homes in the country are denied entry. In Lhasa we really felt the presence of the Chinese government and what they have done and are still doing today, to suppress the people of Tibet. It was discouraging, disturbing, infuriating and mystifying. I don't understand why a government as powerful as China can be so threatened by the gentle, peace loving Tibetans. However, clinging to religious beliefs in a culture of atheism is dissent, although elsewhere in China religion is now tolerated, even accepted. It is a story of repression the world has seen many times before. It is a story still in search of peaceful resolution. And a story I do not have sufficient space to write about here. So I will instead write about the wonderful warmth of the Tibetan people and their colorful city. We are here for 5 days, partially to acclimatize to the ever increasing altitude, now at 3683 meters or almost 12,100 feet. To avoid altitude sickness, we've been advised to drink at least 3 litres of water per day, adding another litre for each beer we drink. Here in Lhasa, we discover a new beer, Everest, which we like much better than Tsingtao. We also become acquainted with momos, dumplings that can be eaten steamed or fried. I'm partial to the fried veggie momos, which taste similar to pierogis, only tastier. I decide I may just get through this country without starving after all. In Lhasa, we have a better variety of food. On the pedestrian filled street in front of our hotel, my Japanese friend Hiroko finds a woman who makes perfectly salted potato chips and sells them by the grocery bagfull. There are men with huge carts of dried fruits, and another selling popcorn. Corn is one of the agricultural products we saw growing and being stored all over China, but other than popcorn it was never served to us. Shopkeepers try to lure us with bottled water and sweets. Along the main drag next to the Yak Hotel, there is a refreshing restaurant called Dunya's, owned by an international couple (an American woman married to a Dutchman). At this clean colorful, welcoming place they serve delicious Tibetan, Nepali, Indian and American food and also serve fantastic beer. This place was such a godsend after our long travels and bland food of the barren countryside. We gorge on momos, hot soup, ginger tea and the most delicious french fries ever. I've been able to see many amazing sights such as Barkor Square, the fantastic mountains surrounding Lhasa, and the Sera Monastery where Bhuddist monks recite their sacred scriptures, or sutras, in the golden afternoon light. Lhasa now is really two distinct cities, the older somewhat crumbling Tibetan section, and the bright shiny Chinese area, which our guide dubs Lhasavegas. Cars and mini-buses whiz by, and motor scooters and bikes add to the frenzy. The high pitched sound of two-stroke engines fills the air, as well as the chug chug of cars that would never be allowed on any US road except in some backwater town where the driver knows the sheriff. Smog is here but quickly dissipates in the high mountain air. Pedestrians literally overtake the smaller streets, and in Barkor Square which actually is a designated pedestrian zone, shopping is a glorious pastime. Our favorite place is the Dropenling center for authentic Tibetan crafts. This is the kind of shopping where you must look each other in the eye and bargain with merchants for the best possible price using just a calculator and a smile to communicate. If you are skilled at this, you can collect some authentic Tibetan crafts and artwork. I break from my no buying rule here to get a traditional Tibetan doorhanging, because they are literally over every entryway and will hopefully remind me of the local street scenes here in Lhasa when I am thousands of miles and many time zones away. My treasure is a thin layer of white cotton embroidered with a traditional Tibetan design in its middle, (I choose a dharma wheel) flanked by several ruffles of brightly colored silk at the top and more colored fabric - usually blue- bordering its sides and bottom. This is a good trinket, an item I can be sure will not break, is not heavy, and can be rolled up and squished with my clothing inside my pack. I am delighted to spend some money in the local economy other than on food! I am also glad we can spend some time in this ancient thriving city, as around every corner is a new discovery and what will eventually be a fond memory.

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