Saturday, August 6, 2011

Lhasa: Day Four

I showered fearlessly. I'd been mocking the tourist literature all week, which suggested that washing my hands and showering might cause me to catch a cold at altitude. This was, of course, insane.

Then today I'd realized that this was based on most people outside the city having no hot water. So yes, washing in glacial-melt water probably wasn't a good idea.

But the Yak, though it had a stinky bathroom, did have hot water.

My guide met me to escort me to Jokhang Temple, which is at the center of Lhasa's old town and is one of the holiest, most sacred sites in Tibet. Pilgrims used to hike for weeks to reach it, but now they can just take the bus—thanks to the new Chinese roads (oh, the dilemmas offered by the modern world!)—and boy, do they. In droves. Pilgrims were everywhere, along with hundreds of Chinese tourists.

Jokhang was packed, as packed as Potala Palace had been. Pilgrims prostrated themselves in front of the entrance while others walked around the clockwise circuit. Anyone who could get in, went in. Surfaces were worn down from touches, and people caressed corners, edges, touched any part of the temple within reach.

The crowds add to the claustrophobic feel of the dark, smoke-scented interior. But this makes it all the better when you get to the roof, where there is a grand view of the square and the city beyond.

Rinchin left me after I asked to be alone for the afternoon. We were beginning our five-day journey from Lhasa to the Nepal border tomorrow. I'd be seeing quite enough of the guide and driver.

I prowled the back alleys of the Lhasa old town for a while, looking at yak butter shops and kiosks selling photos of pretty much everyone but the Dalai Lama—were these forbidden items downloaded online and secretly kept at home? I wanted to see as much as I could in my attempt to understand the relationship between China and Tibet, and to see how actual Chinese people were relating to actual Tibetan people against the backdrop of one being the alien force but also bringing in so much infrastructure and progress. And the Chinese tourists were fascinated with the Tibetan culture, but so many tourists from what is really a different, more modern, secular culture were destroying the very thing they came to see.

And yet, an idea was forming in my head. The large groups were alienating and robotic, probably as damaging as a new species let loose in the Galapagos. But these independent travelers I spotted, and the young backpackers at the hostel...they were actively patronizing local businesses, interacting with Tibetans...could there be something here to think about? Was a kid with an open mind and a backpack learning more than a hive mind in a steel can? What about the Chinese backpacker who'd drolly laughed and said "Our government would just shoot us if we protested." He'd been joking...right? Well, sort of.

I wouldn't solve this confusing puzzle today. I walked back to Potala Palace to wait for sunset.

But the sun falls late in Tibet. Eventually, I went back to the Yak to pack up.

Tomorrow the journey to the border begins.

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