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LA Times[Sunday, October 09, 2005 07:19]
Tibet's capital is not a city of instant spiritual gratification. Those in search of a deeper experience need the patience and steadfast heart of a pilgrim.

By Cherilyn Parsons
Special to The Times

On high
Potala Palace, a sacred site for Buddhist pilgrims, rises on a hillside in Lhasa, Tibet. It is the former home of the Dalai Lama.
(Cherilyn Parsons / For The Times)
On high Potala Palace, a sacred site for Buddhist pilgrims, rises on a hillside in Lhasa, Tibet. It is the former home of the Dalai Lama. (Cherilyn Parsons / For The Times)
AT first, I must admit, I didn't like the land of the gods.

Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, literally translates as "god ground." It's been called the farthest goal of all travel, the most hidden city on Earth, the hub of the kingdom of enlightenment, the locus of Shangri-La. Hardly a destination on Earth has been more mythologized.

So, when I first ventured to Tibet, a country perched in the Himalayas north of India and Nepal, in the summer of 2000, my expectations were nearly as high as Lhasa's elevation — 12,000 feet.

And fell just about that far.

Satellite dishes tangled with prayer flags on the rooftops of traditional whitewashed houses. Tibetan nomads in Nike caps roared into the city on motorcycles. I had imagined them riding horses decked with tinkling bells and embroidered saddles.

I had studied Tibetan Buddhism for years, so I nearly wept at what I found atop the sacred Potala Palace, former residence of the dalai lamas: a photo studio where tourists could dress in Maoist uniforms, the type worn by the Chinese army when that country annexed Tibet in the 1950s and outlawed religious practice for 30 years.

I hated Lhasa.

But I recalled how explorers in centuries past spent months trekking over the Himalayas to get here, only to be turned away because the Tibetan government didn't like visitors. Most of them tried again, usually disguised as pilgrims. They believed in Lhasa. So why should I let a few goblins of globalization scare me away? I had to try again.

Colorful whirl
Prayer wheels are for sale in Lhasa shops. Tibetan Buddhists spin the hand-held wheels, which contain mantras (prayers).
(Cherilyn Parsons / For The Times)
Colorful whirl Prayer wheels are for sale in Lhasa shops. Tibetan Buddhists spin the hand-held wheels, which contain mantras (prayers). (Cherilyn Parsons / For The Times)
When I returned to Lhasa two years later, the city was worse.

Buildings in the square in front of the Jokhang, Tibet's holiest temple, had been bulldozed to make space for glittery Chinese gold shops and stores selling TVs and refrigerators. The government had claimed to be allowing religious practice and renewing monastic life, but Lhasa's monasteries felt like ghost towns.

At the government-owned Lhasa Department Store, festooned with banners featuring Western supermodels, I spotted a nomad family gasping over an innovation of my culture: an escalator.

The father approached the escalator, which seemed to ascend on its own. He tucked in his sheepskin robe, paused at its entrance, began to step forward and hesitated. Two, three more tries, and he took the plunge, stepped on and rose — without lifting a foot. Cries of amazement came from his family.

I smiled. A delightful scene. But Lhasa still was not quite Shangri-La.

Could a third trip be the charm? The current, exiled Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has said that Shambhala, Tibet's own utopia, actually exists on Earth but that we need to develop an enlightened vision to see it.

Tibetans in traditional garb and tennis shoes walk the renowned Barkhor pathway in Lhasa, Tibet.
(Cherilyn Parsons / For The Times)
Tibetans in traditional garb and tennis shoes walk the renowned Barkhor pathway in Lhasa, Tibet. (Cherilyn Parsons / For The Times)
I took his words as travel advice. I would attempt Lhasa again.

On my third trip (last November), the city was as awful as ever. It was shrouded in concrete, loud with Chinese soap operas and surrounded by new suburban condo complexes. Monks asked about L.A. Laker Kobe Bryant.

As I squinted in the high-altitude sun, I recalled words by aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: "The eyes are blind."

And: "One must look with the heart."

The pilgrimage begins

I tossed aside my guidebooks, maps and mental compass and began to follow heartfelt people, Tibetan pilgrims, on their paths through the city. I started on the Barkhor path, a pedestrian avenue that encircles the Jokhang, the central temple of Tibet.

The avenue was lined with stalls, and hawkers called out their wares, including prayer flags, necklaces, monks' garb, cymbals, fur caps, false teeth. Tibetans were shopping furiously and dressed to impress — the gods, that is.

Buddhist monks light thousands of small butter lamps outside the temple.
(Cherilyn Parsons / LAT)
Buddhist monks light thousands of small butter lamps outside the temple. (Cherilyn Parsons / LAT)
Lissome beauties wore their hair in 108 braids (the Tibetan sacred number), and old folks fingered strings of 108 beads. Beaming nomads ambled along in clunky jewelry of coral, turquoise and amber. Many spun hand-held prayer wheels, flashing gold in the sun.

By 6 p.m., hordes began to enter the courtyard that led into the Jokhang. I'd already been to the temple with other tourists on my first trip here. I'd seen frescoes, golden statues and an 8th century Buddha — Tibet's most sacred statue — kept behind a chain curtain. Fluorescent lights had glared overhead. I had felt nothing magical.

Now, outside the massive locked doors to the sanctuary, a crowd of pilgrims jostled for position. When two burgundy-robed monks opened the padlock, I crammed through the doorway with everyone else.

And entered another world.

This was nothing like the Jokhang I'd seen as a tourist. The huge chamber, lighted with hundreds of butter lamps, glowed red and gold. The floors, rafters and pillars were painted deep crimson. Paintings and brocade wall hangings, shot through with red, gold and silver threads, hung from the ceiling as if to paint empty space itself. The sanctuary was like the inside of a human heart.

All was hushed, except for the murmuring of mantras — prayers — by the pilgrims: Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum.

The pilgrims had formed a line that snaked around the left side of the sanctuary toward the back. I had no idea what was happening but joined the line. We passed side chapels of gods and bodhisattvas, people revered for devoting themselves to helping others.

A Tibetan girl waits among the large crowds of people who begin lining up around 6 each evening to enter the Jokhang in Lhasa, Tibet's holiest temple.
(Cherilyn Parsons / LAT)
A Tibetan girl waits among the large crowds of people who begin lining up around 6 each evening to enter the Jokhang in Lhasa, Tibet's holiest temple. (Cherilyn Parsons / LAT)
I had noticed many locals carrying plastic packets of butter and a spoon, and now I discovered their purpose. As we passed the chapels, the Tibetans would add butter to the lamps to keep the flames alive.

Finally, I reached the back of the sanctuary, the chapel of the 8th century Buddha called Jowo Shakyamuni, surrounded by large, magnificent butter lamps. A monk held open the chain curtain so people could enter.

We could enter?

Tourists hadn't been allowed in on my earlier visit. But there were no tourists now. Only me. A pilgrim.

The Jowo depicted the Buddha not as a great sage but as a 12-year-old boy, many years before he became enlightened. It was an odd choice for the most sacred statue in all of Tibet, I thought. He was slightly more than human size, and his golden skin was ornately carved and studded with gems.

Following the pilgrims' lead, I touched my head to Jowo's knee to say a prayer. I looked up at the statue. Was this image so adored by the Tibetans, I wondered, because it showed that any child — or adult, for that matter — could become enlightened? Could reach Shambhala?

Next on my non-itinerary was the Potala Palace, which takes up an entire hillside. Whitewashed chambers and towers climb like a fantasy fortress, from which Tibet's divine rulers once peered out upon the roof of the world.

The Potala might be an architectural wonder, but my earlier tour had been depressing. Then, as now, surveillance cameras were everywhere. Only 10% of it was open to visitors. No one was allowed to mention the current Dalai Lama though a tour included his former chambers.

Tibetan pilgrims flocked to the Potala anyway. I discovered that they took the opposite route of the tourists. Instead of starting at the top and working down, the pilgrims started on the ground, circled the palace on foot and ascended room by room. The perspective, I found, accentuated the way the buildings and windows were narrower at the top than at the bottom. The palace seemed to be stretching for the sky, uniting heaven and Earth.

As I panted up the stairs, I watched a pilgrim ascending while prostrating. He pressed his hands together in prayer over his head, touched his forehead, throat and heart and stretched forth on the pavement. He stood and stepped only as far as his hands had reached, then began again.

Inside were more displays of devotion. The pilgrims moved among the chapels, touching their foreheads to the feet of gods, thrones and pretty much anything else that might be sacred.

As I watched, I wondered if whatever was loved, whatever was seen by the heart, if that too was Shambhala.

I was getting tired of temples and chapels. Luckily for me, Tibetans do too. They like to hang out over pitchers of chang, a sour barley beer.

A local chang parlor sits on the terrace of a private home on the southwest corner of the main square fronting the Jokhang. It's usually packed with Khampas, the cowboy-warriors from eastern Tibet, distinguishable by the swath of red yarn wrapped around their heads.

The parlor is owned by one of Lhasa's more colorful personalities, Tashi Tsering. As a boy, he had been a member of the Dalai Lama's dance troupe. In the turmoil of the 1950s after the Chinese annexation, he'd escaped to the United States, but then made the crazy move of returning to Lhasa in the middle of China's Cultural Revolution. He was imprisoned for years as an American spy. Now he runs a philanthropic empire, selling Tibetan carpets to fund dozens of schools in rural Tibet. Buy a carpet, help some kids, get some chang — which costs about 80 cents a glass for the best quality. "Same price to everybody," Tashi promised, "foreigners or locals."

It's an acquired taste, but the cheering Khampas helped.

An unexpected blessing

THE next day, I discovered that the gods like to have a drink too. I'd heard of the infamous Drapchi Prison, Tibet's home for political prisoners, named for the adjacent temple, Drapchi Lhakhang. The temple wasn't in any guidebook, but a taxi driver found it for me.

The bottles of grain alcohol for sale outside the temple were a clue that something was different. As I entered the darkened temple, the sickening smell of alcohol washed over me. Attendants were swabbing the floor with it. Some of the lamps weren't filled with butter but with — chang.

At the head of the temple was a huge golden sculpture of Yamantaka, the wrathful conqueror of death. As the presence of alcohol indicated, Drapchi Lhakhang was dedicated to the fierce gods — the snarling, knife-wielding variety that drink blood from skull cups and dance amid flames. Such images are used in Tibetan Buddhism to transform one's own darker energies.

A few of the 32 monks who run Drapchi Lhakhang noted my interest. They placed a white khata scarf around my neck — a usual gesture of welcome — but then tied it with a blood-red strip of cloth, signifying that I had been blessed by the wrathful gods.

That night at dinner, the Tibetan waiters served me pronto.

On my last day in Lhasa, I got myself to a nunnery. The yellow-painted, flower-filled Ani Sangkhung (ani means nun) lies in the warren of alleys behind the Jokhang.

The nuns let me sit in on their prayer service. They chanted, banged cymbals, beat drums, blew horns, tossed rice and did other delightful things to call forth the gods. Light crept from the high windows, down the murals and thangka paintings, which depicted the peaceful goddess Tara and her wrathful counterpart, Vajrayogini. The music was antiphonal, powerful, tender, often eerie.

That afternoon, I went to the 15th century Sera Monastery on the outskirts of town. Once home to 5,000 monks, Sera is a shadow of its former self, but a couple hundred monks still reside there.

At 3 p.m., they began debating in the courtyard. They slapped their hands, snapped their prayer beads and gestured dramatically while making a point. Were they discussing nuances of Buddhist philosophy? Maoist thought? Or NBA basketball scores?

I'll have to find out on my next trip.

Finding the soul of Lhasa, or perhaps the soul of anyplace, is rather like falling in love. A place, like a person, doesn't have to open to me; I have to open to it. And not give up on it.

Taking off to Tibet

From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) to Lhasa, Tibet, is available on Air China, China Eastern, Cathay Pacific and Northwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,175.

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international calling code), 86 (the country code for China), 891 (code for Lhasa), then the local number.

The Yak Hotel, 100 Dekyi Shar Lam; 632-3496, http://www.shigatsetravels.com/yak.htm . A well-located Lhasa favorite, run by European expats and Tibetans, with charming, clean, well-equipped rooms and a good restaurant. Doubles from $47.

Tibet Gorkha Hotel, 45 S. Lingkhor Road; 627-1991. A new, lovely courtyard hotel nestled in the old city. Has decorated pillars and Tibetan furniture. Doubles from $48, including breakfast and dinner.

Lhasa Hotel, 1 Mirig Lam; 683-2221, http://www.lhasahotel.com.cn . The choice for those who need CNN. Big groups and conferences often stay in this huge echo chamber. The staff is helpful; the breakfasts, awful. Doubles from $165.

Dunya, in the Yak Hotel (see above). The assortment includes pizza, salads, pancakes, yak-cheese plates, Tibetan momo dumplings, falafel. Full bar. The malty "altitude tea" is great. Closed winters. Entrees $3-$10.

Snowlands Restaurant, 4 Mentsikhang; 633-7323. A popular place always packed with travelers and well-dressed Tibetans. The Indian food is best. Entrees $2-$8.

A visa and permit are needed for travel to Tibet. Contact:

Consulate General of the People's Republic of China, 443 Shatto Place, Los Angeles; (213) 807-8088, http://www.chinaconsulatela.org.

—Cherilyn Parsons
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