Mike's China by Mike Dixon - HTML preview
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Old Lhasa is still there. The ancient shrines and old houses continue to stand beside the famous Potola Palace but the scene is changing rapidly. Modern steel and concrete buildings are sprouting up. I'm reminded of what happened to Jerusalem.
The Chinese authorities are taking pains to preserve the physical past and the latest technology is being used to record it. Indeed, they are measuring everything with such diligence that some Tibetans fear they are planning to cut it up and cart it back to Beijing where it will be re-erected as a theme park. I discount that possibility. At the same time, I take the point about theme parks. I've seen what happened to Mont St Michel and a lot of other places that preserved their old buildings and lost their character.
Lhasa is, of course, best known for the Potola Palace. The old residential quarter is worth a visit and the markets are interesting but the palace is the real gem. It occupies a ridge above the city. There have been buildings and shrines on the site for well over a thousand years. The present complex dates mainly from the 17th century. The palace was the Dalai Lama's winter residence until his flight to India. It is now a museum.
The upper buildings are red and are religious in much the same way as a cathedral attached to a monastery is religious. They house shrines and tombs of the lamas. The lower, white buildings are where the monks lived and worked in the old days.
Don't attempt a visit until you are acclimatised. It's easy to get off a plane and think you can cope with the altitude. The traumas start when you exert yourself. There's a big climb between the ticket booth at the entry to the palace and the Dalai Lama's suite at the top.
When we were there, a Tibetan construction crew was making repairs to one of the terraces. It looked to me like a communal effort. No modern machinery was used. There were as many women as men and everyone wore traditional dress. Baskets of mortar were carried up wooden ladders. Girls with tea earns followed behind. Older women swept back and forth in line, kneading the mortar with their feet, all the time singing. It was as if a party was going on and building things was one of the games. I have the impression it is a daily occurrence. At any rate, some friends were there six months later and saw the same thing.
The upper palace is where it starts to get interesting. The palace clings to the rock face and burrows into it. Giant statues stand in chambers lit by lamps of burning yak butter. You wonder how the building can withstand the colossal weight then realise that the statues are set into solid rock and you are inside a cave. Gongs sound, rancid smoke drifts amongst the shrines and incense fills the air. It is not difficult to feel yourself transported back to an age when the monks still worshipped there.
You climb higher and leave the gloom. Daylight streams into brightly painted rooms and illuminates fantastic images of saints and demons. They stare down at you from nooks and crannies and stand in alcoves. You press on and reach the Dalai Lama's private chambers, on the highest floor.
I was reminded of a visit, many years earlier, to the Pope’s summer palace at Castel Gandolfo. His private quarters were not on the top floor. That honour went to the Jesuit astronomers who had a telescope on the roof. I know because I was an astronomer in those days and was there to talk astronomy. My only recollection of the meeting is of a sheet of paper that blew off a window ledge. It looped the loop before our eyes and entered the window below, much to the dismay of the Jesuits. A man returned the paper a short while later saying His Holiness recognised the writing as astronomical. Please be more careful in future.
The Dalai Lama was not in residence when I entered his chamber and there was no risk of disturbing him. His Holiness had gone to live in India and his room was now open to tourists like myself. I spent some time examining the humble furnishings. There was certainly no sign of extravagance. I recalled that he likes to refer to himself as a humble monk.
In some respects, his position is like that of a hereditary monarch. He wasn't elected to the top job. He was chosen at a very early age and raised by monks in a monastery. Unlike his peers in the Christian and Islamic churches he had no competition and no choice. He got the job and has to do his best in a very difficult position.
After I visited the palace I went to the nearby Jokhang Temple. It dates from the 7th century and houses statues of the Buddha, including the revered Jowo Sakyamuni Buddha. Pilgrims flock there from all over Tibet and beyond to perform the ritual journey of walking round the temple. I watched them for some time and recalled that my friend Kangri’s mother had expressed a desire to make the pilgrimage to Lhasa before she died. Despite the modern buildings and tourist cameras, Lhasa remains one of the holiest places on Earth.