Fractions of Lhasa

Trip Start Sep 08, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of China  , Tibet,
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Once again I am writing too late, too far behind the event that is Tibet. And Tibet is such an immediate place, so visceral, so phenomenological. But it is in the nature of the Chinese-designed tour that is "the Tibet Experience" that there is no time for taking notes, no time for reflection.
And so for days I have been trying to formulate a means of communicating the experience of Tibet in words that do it justice but the task is too daunting. The experience does not lend itself to coherency and it seems facile to unpick the unimaginably rich fabric that is thrown over you, to untangle the splendid multi-coloured threads and process them into bland and empty sentences. So I think the best thing is to throw words onto the page as all of Tibet has been thrown at us and let you untangle them if you can and hope that somehow a few refracted images may begin to emerge in the tapestry.

The smell of yak butter and incense. Headache and dizziness. No glass in the window of our Lhasa dormitory. (Christian graffiti on the walls promptly paganised; I love Jesus, Jesus loves you becomes Jesus loves yoghurt, I love cheeses). No hot water. Lhasa November nights: thermal underwear, t-shirt, fleece, woolly hat and gloves, sleeping bag liner, sleeping bag, two duvets and a blanket - still cold. The extreme contrast of it all. The extreme contrast of whitewashed walls and the crispest black-filled shadows that eyes cannot see into. The dry hypothermic nights, the skin burning blazing sun-scorched days. Shivering and sun burnt. The dawn bringing with it an even colder wind.  At eight you walk around thinking you will never be warm again. By ten you are stripping off layers as fast as you can. Carry an extra empty bag to carry all the discarded layers. Skinned yak carcasses on the pavement, frozen blocks of meat crudely cubed. Engines on two wheels hauling a cart - the ultimate utility vehicle. The whole thing experienced through a persistent headache and disembodied dizziness. Psychosomatic or lack of food? Drink water.  Nostrils fill with dry crusts of bloodied bogeys. Burnt skin. Dry freezing skin. Dry, dusty mouths. Dry lips, cracking. Smoke sinks to the ground, lingers like dry-ice. Terrifying devotion. White silk scarves and automatic machine guns. Armed patrols. Security checkpoints in the pedestrian streets. This is Belfast under Thatcher. Sharp-shooters on roof tops. Taizer control. Pilgrims assaulted. Shouted at. Man-handled. Thrown to the ground. Taizered. Simple farmers from the countryside. Nomads. And yet they keep coming. Huddle patiently in line. Young and old. Complete, terrifying devotion. The intensity of the religious fervour is overwhelming. This is medieval Europe. Caught up in the waves of pilgrims, the unending stream. This is REAL. These people are not kidding around. Not pretending. Not playing lip-service. They are unquestioning. Have complete purpose of being and with smiles and indifference they tolerate the soldiers, almost ignoring them, and continue to pray. Continue to polish the stone of the pavements, of the square outside the temple, as they prostrate themselves. Polished to a glistened, yak-butter lubricated sheen, through continual repetition. Whole body offering. Yak butter lamps. Yak butter stalls. Yak butter sacks, drums, cups. Yak butter on the stones. Yak butter on the steps. Butchered animals on the street. Skinned yak carcass. Headless goat. But the people. The people. The faces. The Costumes. The Beads and jewellery. Headwear. Hats. Threads plaited. Tribal identity. Different coloured threads. Multi-coloured banded aprons. The most beautiful women in the world? The most handsome. The proudest. Snow-burnt faces. Wind-burnt cheeks. Savage. Primitive. Awesome. Scary. Beautiful. Trapezoid building forms. Trapezoid window openings/surrounds. Turmeric yellows and paprika reds. Branches on parapets with coloured rags. Great cones of incense. Juniper? Sandalwood? Piled in street stalls. Thrown by the handful into giant kilns, constantly alight. Plumes billowing forth, sinking to the ground. Settling there and mixing with the yak butter. Yak butter and incense. Snipers on the rooftops, ducking below parapets to avoid the tourist's camera. Yak stew. Yak curry. Yak dumplings. Dried yak. Yak. Yak. Yak. Yak. Yak. Outstretched hands. Chinese adverts. Fake jewellery. Fake shawls. Fake hats. Fake fake. All going into Chinese pockets. Headache and dry mouth. So overwhelming. So enthralling. So invigorating. Jokhang Temple. The most intense experience of my life. All the sense assaulted. The extraordinary intensity of pilgrims. The smell of yak butter and incense, of unwashed people, sweating yak butter. The sunlight streaming in through high windows, cutting lines through stinking smoke. The colours of the whole thing, the candlelight, the candle colour flag things. The woodwork. The icons. The taste of barely beer. The sound of a thousand mumbled mantras and the sweet chanting women's song. And the people touching, grabbing, barging, making space, smiling, offering. Charging worry beads against sacred icons, doorways, columns. Absorbing energies. So much to absorb. The Buddha of Compassion. The Buddha of Wisdom. The Buddha of This. The Buddha of That. The Living Buddha. The Future Buddha. The Present Buddha. The Past Buddha. Buddha and Lama. Dalai and Panchen. Lama and Kings. Kings and Gurus and Masters and Teachers. And Buddha. Guardian Buddhas. Medicine Buddhas. THE Buddha . The Enlightened One. Siddharta Gothama and His disciples. The Red Schools. The Yellow Schools. The Gulpa School. The Taras. The Four animals? The Eight animals? The Three Sacred Rivers? The Four Holy Mountains. The Five Holy Mountains? The Four Noble Truths? The Eight-fold Path? The prayer flags. Bells and drums. Mantras and mandalas. Stuppas; the physical manifestation of the enlightened mind. Mandalas; representations of the space of meditation. The meditative emanation. The Sackmen - the real pilgrims who have prostrated their way to Lhasa from miles and miles around, covered only in cloth sacks and plastic bags, covered in dust, caked in dirt. Callused blackened hands. Blackened foreheads. Blackened knees and chests and elbows. Cluster together exhausted. Having made their destination, now at a loss of what comes next. Dentists on the street. Pliered extractions. New sets of gold gnashers. Chinese merchants. Cowboy hats and boots. Long coats, yak-wool-lined. Fabric hats, circle topped, embroidered, wool lined. Heath Robinson bus door opener. School children in shell-suit uniforms. Filthy. Yellow Caps. Smiling. Gawping and laughing at the funny-looking foreigners. Beard grabbed by leprous hands. Student lamas philosophising under shady groves. Crimson robes and wooden beads. Shaven heads and slapping hands as questions answered. Answers rebuked with smiles. Whitewashed walls. Snow-blinding brightness intensifying the headache. The impossibility of vision concentrating the dizziness. In this weird state of consciousness it is all like a dream. No! No, it is not! It is all absurdly real. This place is really real. This place is real?
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