They tell you that the best way to come to Lhasa is on the train. Because it’s so slow, it allows you to acclimate to the altitude which, at 12,001 feet, is much higher than the average person is used to. But I figured that having lived for 20 years above 5000 feet I’d be immune to the worst of the effects. I once sat in business class next to an annoying woman who had been to Tibet and had told me in no uncertain terms that I was going to be sick when I mentioned that I really wanted to visit the high country. I wrote that off to her being a know-it-all and so booked my flights. Besides, I didn’t have time for some sissy train ride.
The ground seemed a bit spongy as I got off the plane, sort of what it must be like to walk on the Moon with lower gravity and lots of gray dust to absorb your foot falls. You take steps but you don’t feel like you’re walking hard, the ground seems to have some give to it; even the steel deck of the jet way as I climbed up from the plane. After 60 minutes in the car I felt fine and so I set my stop watch as we drove past the Potala figuring that since I had at least 4 hours until dark I’d drop off my gear and walk back if it was a reasonable distance. It turned out to be about a 10 minute drive at rush hour speeds so it clearly wasn’t more than a mile. I checked in, grabbed my camera and headed out just as the Sun disappeared behind some scudding clouds. The temperature was mild – probably low 60’s and I was clearly in for one of those wonderful late spring montane evenings when it gets just cool and silky enough to make everything feel perfect.
The hotel was on a quiet street parallel to the main drag we’d driven in on, about a block south and just north of the Lhasa River. As I turned onto Jiangsu Lu I made note of a landmark – an unintelligible traffic sign – lest I return in the dark and re-live my Lijiang experience. I didn’t want to get lost so I stuck to the main streets instead of heading into the Barkhor, the Tibetan old town that surrounds the Jokhang Temple. While I was sure I could find my way in and out, I figured that might be left for the next day when I did not have limited daylight. It’s funny how quickly you become wary of enclaves and the lesson I’ve learned in the last few months is that when it comes to dealing with streets laid out over a thousand years with no particular plan in mind, it’s best to get your bearings when you’re rested and clear-headed.
The first thing you notice about Lhasa is that there are no tall buildings, nothing more than 3 or 4 stories. The buildings are all decorated with prayer flags and every window has a white linen sunshade lined in red and blue. Many of the doorways have a white cloth hanging in place of the door, decorated with a single color geometric pattern or animal. The second thing you notice are the checkpoints manned by the Army and the provincial security forces – they’re on every main corner, they have some very serious armed young men in them and they are surrounded by long tubes set in tripods and bristling with 12’ sharp spikes pointing out randomly along their full length. Clearly the government takes the threat of demonstrations very seriously here. Aside from Mexico, this is the only place where I’ve seen so many soldiers and so much weaponry. The difference though is that when you pull up to a checkpoint south of the border, the young men usually smell like they’re stoned on pot and are always very happy to see you. They like to chat in Spanglish. These guys clearly did not want to chat at all. I made sure my camera was never pointing in their direction and I tried as hard as I could to avoid eye contact.
The third thing you notice in Lhasa is the ringing in your ears and the splitting headache that’s growing behind your left eye – the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). The official list of symptoms includes headache, dizziness, lethargy, loss of appetite, nausea, breathlessness and irritability. Difficulty sleeping is another common symptom but I wouldn’t find out about that for several hours. I was certainly in the throes of the first two and additionally I’ll add that I was feeling pretty “stupid”. I couldn’t make the simplest decisions and I seemed to be stumbling over things that weren’t there. It was probably a good thing that I didn’t have to cross many streets and I paid an extraordinary amount of attention to those that I did. After a block or two it seemed as though I’d taken three or four times too many allergy pills. The world was out there but it was a buzzing confusion.
It was an easy enough route, just a couple of left and right turns before I made it to the square in front of the palace. I’d seen the picture of this place countless times and it surprised me to see that the photos must have been doctored – Mt. Everest is not visible from the back of it. Instead it sat upon a small hill, perhaps 300 feet high and its backdrop was the same band of bare dusty mountains that had hemmed us in on our drive in along the river. In spite of the view not exactly meshing with my preconceived notion, it was still spectacular and its command of the surrounding landscape was undeniable. It sat there rolling down the front of its little hill, demanding your respect.
The Potala Palace was first built in the 7th century by King Songtsan Gambo for Princess Wenchang, a member of the Tang royal family and his betrothed. It suffered mightily due to repeated invasions and wars over the course of the subsequent 700 years until its reconstruction was begun by the 5th Dalai Lama in 1645, reaching its present state in 1682. It is composed of the Red Palace and the White Palace, the former serving as the residential quarters for the Dalais Lama the latter as the administrative offices for his government. It covers more than 32 acres, has 13 stories, walls between 1 and 5 feet in thickness and is about 500 feet tall. There are more than 1000 rooms.
The road in front of the palace was torn up and undergoing some sort of renovation that seemed to have to do with building tunnels under it. Across the way, a tall modern statue commemorated the liberation of the Tibetan people by the Chinese in 1950. A single guard stood still and silent at the base of the sand colored granite monolith. Standing between the two, the contrast was a bit weird – this enormous red and white building high above and loaded with deep religious and cultural symbolism staring down this puny monument to an unwelcomed invasion. I picked my way through some piles of construction debris and turned my back on the modern.
It was now cloudy and so the colors of the structure looked dull and leaden. It lacked the “punch” I had expected but it was still very impressive albeit a bit shabby. I encountered mu first pilgrims here, making their clockwise perambulations around the building. Before Buddhism came to Tibet, there was another religion based on animist beliefs known as Bon. In their rituals, one walked around the holy places in a counterclockwise direction and in doing so you were said to be “of the Bon.” When Buddhism became predominate the direction was changed. These first pilgrims – old women wearing bright blue head wraps and black skirts, walking quickly along chanting, beads in one hand and a prayer wheel in the other, its pendant never ceasing to spin. I fell in among them and even at one point felt a bit self-conscious when I turned around to walk back to get a different angle on a photograph. I did not want to be “of the Bon” on my first night in Tibet. By now I was feeling really off from the lack of oxygen and so I decided to sit on a block of stone and wait to see if the setting sun would break through the clouds and give me a bit of illumination on the side of the palace. Behind me, another pilgrim passed by. He wore tattered clothes and had two boards strapped to his hands. He would stand up, clap the boards and then fall prostrate to the ground. He would then crawl five or so paces, stand up and repeat the process. His pace was remarkably slow and he looked so deep in reverence as to appear dazed. A symbol was drawn on his forehead – gray and brown, two nested “U’s”. I sat and waited as he slowly crawled past. Sitting there I felt immediately better aside from the now truly splitting headache. The sun was not cooperating so I got up and went on, passing two traditional Tibetan chortens, small and squat pointy temples on the far side of the plaza that used to mark the ancient city gates.
The sun was not cooperating and it was getting to be late dusk so I crossed the street in the company of all things, a Tibetan Spaniel and headed back across the plaza past the liberation monument, stopping to take photos here and there. A small flock of Gray-headed Parrots blazed across my path and settled in a bare tree. I didn’t know that Tibet even had a Parrot, and there noise brought to mind a sunny walk in Barcelona with My Lovely Wife. On that day we’d seen hosts of their bright green cousins in the city park. The far side of the plaza was treed and quiet with a couple of ponds connected by streams lined in gray stone block. Young couples sat here and there planning their Friday night. It was a couple of blocks down a pedestrian street lined with shops and restaurants – an upscale tourism district selling better quality souvenirs. I had it in mind to try and find one of the restaurants listed in the guidebooks so I crossed over into the Barkhor and took a left where I thought the street would be. Of course it wasn’t and I found myself in a throng of pilgrims and tourists. Here the streets were lined with tacky stalls selling all kinds of things – prayer wheels, prayer flags, Buddha, scarves, t-shirts, shoes – you name it. I was once again in Retail China. Behind them, better stores sold better things. But I wasn’t shopping, I was looking for dinner and against all hope I was once again lost.
This time though it didn’t last long. I found myself on Beijing Dong Lu, the main east-west street in Lhasa and so all it took was a couple of left turns and I was back in familiar territory. I headed back to the hotel where I availed myself of their not terribly authentic but very tasty buffet, gorging myself on duck, beef curry and rice.
The next chapter in my acclimation came during my first night of attempting to sleep. It was fitful, made worse by my now migraine-class headache and the incredible dryness. It’s hard to sleep with that kind of head pain and the searing property of the air on each inhalation made me wonder just how low the humidity really was. I kept after the aspiring, but this headache simply laughed them off as if asking if that’s all I could throw at it. I tossed and turned and waited for the morning, there was so much planned that I had to find a way to be ready to enjoy it.