By TOM COCKREM Tibet may have been encroached upon by crass modernity,but only in the towns. Elsewhere, it is essentially unchanged, and remains a deeply mysterious, still forbidding land.
Simi La Pass
I am standing with my camera in the shadowy corner of a corridor – one that surrounds the holy inner sanctum. It’s a devotional path, or khora. Pilgrims have ventured here from all parts of Tibet and beyond.
There are tall, broad Khampas from the east, with their long hair tied with red tassels, Amdo women with extravagant tribal jewellery, and weather-beaten peasant folk in long, drab sheepskin jackets from as far away as Sichuan in China, Nepal and even India and Bhutan. The same folk pass me time and again, by now exchanging smiles. They will keep up their circumambulation long after I have gone.
This for me is the culmination of our trip – one that it certainly deserves. We have finally arrived in Lhasa, capital of Tibet. The temple I am visiting is the Jokhang. Its builder was the all- conquering Songsten Gampo, who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 7th century AD.
The Jokhang is nothing if not a great survivor. It withstood even the carnage of the Cultural Revolution, when its sacred inner sanctum was deemed fit only for pigs. Now faithfully restored, the temple once more accommodates a host of exquisite golden statues – Lamas, Future Buddhas and heroes – and resonates with the chants of the assembled throng of monks.
Its rooftop is as ever a peaceful and exquisitely adorned retreat, where you go to meet the monks, who come out for debates around a pot of herbal tea.
It is easy to get excited about Tibet. It’s just so disconnected from the mundane Western world. The mountains see to that. To the south, the Himalayas all but seal the country off from India and Nepal. The mighty Karakoram does the same job in the west, as does the Kunlun in the north. On their Tibetan side the mountains never make it all the way back down. Instead they stretch out into a plateau, which at around 4,000m vies in height with many of the world’s most awesome peaks.
Not much grows on this plateau – it is just too cold and high, and the earth is often frozen underneath.
It is amazing to think that people choose to live here. But they do. These are the hardiest of men, whose lungs have adapted to the thinness of the air, and whose skins have hardened, tough against the bitter winds and snows, and the fierce rays of a scarcely filtered sun. They manage to grow barley and potatoes, and keep lots of yaks and goats, and sheep that look like goats. And that’s how they survive.
Potala in Lhasa
Tibet, of course, is famous for its monasteries. It does seem ironic, that in a land that would offer its inhabitants so little, they in turn show more gratitude than almost anybody else. The monasteries testify to this. They are gargantuan in size, and spectacularly opulent, with copious repositories of gold and jewel-encrusted art. Tragically, most were robbed and decimated in the Cultural Revolution. One that wasn’t was Tashilhumpo in Shigatse.
Situated some 250km southwest of Lhasa, Shigatse is Tibet’s second biggest town. So vast and gleaming is the walled Tashilhumpo Monastery, that we stayed here two nights, just to try and do it justice. The site comprises numerous treasure-laden chapels, gold-topped funerary chortens (stupa), prayer rooms and temples whose corridors have been worn smooth by crimson-robed monks.
Meilamu Pass in Tibet
All such power centres were historically protected by a fort, or dzong. These typically crown a nearby hill. The most famous is at Gyantse, another busy trading centre southeast of Shigatse. The fort owes its ruined state mainly to the British, who in 1904 shelled it almost to oblivion, as part of their campaign to shore up Tibet against an impending Russian threat. You can climb up to the top of the old fort. Your reward is the fantastic view you get of all of Gyantse below, and of the town’s main claim to fame – the Pelkor Chode Monastery.
Dominating the monastic grounds is the golden spire-topped Kumbum Chorten, whose six concentric floors contain no fewer than 77 chapels, many embellished with exquisite mural art.
Travelling in Tibet means negotiating mountains, and their passes. These all offer breathtaking views – literally – and, at 5,000m and 6,000m, they seriously test your adaptation to the altitude. At Gyatso La (5,250m) and Kamba La (5,045m), you look back down on the emerald green Yamdrok-tso lake, whose multiple arms thrust themselves between the root-like buttresses of such lofty ice-capped monsters as Mt Nojin Kangtsang (7,191m) and the lake’s centrepiece, Tonang Sangwa Ri (5,336m).
Pilgrims in Jokhang Temple
Lhasa on first arrival is a disappointment. It has been modernised to the point of losing its identity, with ultra wide boulevards lined with nondescript glass towers and malls. Your compensations are but two.
But these are fantastic – the Jokhang and the Potala. The Potala has been standing here, commanding Marpo Hill since 1645. It’s an architectural phenomenon, so huge and multi-faceted, it at one time comprised almost all of Lhasa, housing parliament, administrative offices, schools, chapels, private apartments, the Dalai Lama and his entourage, prayer cells and even the gold-encrusted tombs of past Dalai Lamas.
The building is now a museum, peopled mainly by tourists. Yet it presents itself today almost exactly as it did in those early 20th century photographs you see. All that’s now missing is the village of Schol, which stood humbly at the mighty building’s feet. It was deemed by the Chinese to be in the way of progress.
The pilgrims come here too. The most earnest among them throw themselves onto the ground every few steps of their khola, touching the pavement with their foreheads. And this they might do for days on end. But most devotees confine such prostrations, or chak, to the portal of the Jokhang. The standard quota is 108.
It is true that Tibet has been encroached upon by crass modernity. But really, that has only occured in the towns. Elsewhere, it is essentially unchanged, and remains a deeply mysterious and forbidding land – by dint of its location, its prohibitive climate and political sensitivity.
You feel extremely privileged to be able to visit at all. It is not an easy road. A touch of nausea, perhaps, and intestinal rebellions may accompany your trip. But you love it just the same, and find genuine enchantment every day on every side.
On the seventh day of our visit – a day of rest in Lhasa – I found myself already contemplating my next visit. For our route was a much-travelled one. Many others are not. And who knows what unfathomable wonders they conceal?