The sight of the Potala in the distance as we approached Lhasa the capital city of Tibet thrilled us. At last A view of this famous home of the Dalai Lama. Staying at the Shangri La modern hotel seemed bazar. Having a full English breakfast with altitude sickness was a new experience. The only comfort was at least we could rest on a decent bed and be ill privately without the constant bumping of the vehicle on the bumpy roads.
Our first experience was to wall around the Barkor a street market that circled the Jokhang temple at the end of the main square. Everything that Tibet had to offer was for sale here, clothes, furniture, crafts and religious artefacts. The Tibetan medicine stall was a revelation with many unspeakable dried parts of animals sold as medicines. The food stalls had many types of tsampa, Tofu, and dried meats. The most surprising was the display of buckets of Goats heads, stripped of skin and most of the flesh. Presumably a delicacy for soups and stews!
At the front of the Jokhang temple there were many Tibetans carrying out prostrations on the paved courtyard, around a furnace? Billowing out incense smoke. Green uniformed Chinese police watched us closely obviously there to deter us from talking to the local population. Inside the temple there was a shrine to Chenrezig the god of compassion, a thousand arms and hands, each hand with an eye in the centre looking to help those who needed comfort the hall was filled with hundreds of butter lamps flickering in the dark lighting up the room.
Our visit to the Potala was the highlight of the trip. Saved from damage the place had what seemed like 1000 rooms each filled with gloomy and dark shrines to previous Dalai lamas and various gods. It was very mysterious neglected and seemed forgotten. At the top of the building was the Dalai lama’s quarters. The Chinese were allowing the Chinese tourists to dress up in Tibetan clothes and the balcony was filled with laughter. It was if they wanted to desecrate the memory of the importance of this place. I was disgusted.
Down in the streets below there was a festive and yet tense atmosphere with thousands of Tibetans filling the streets all with prayer wheels, weeping and talking animatedly. The streets were filled with the smoke from burning incense. To our amazement they were all witnessing a religious ceremony, the lowering of two giant tankas down in front of the Potala. Perhaps, 80-foot long and 60-foot wide one tanka was of the red medicine Buddha and one the white Tara deity. We climbed on a roof above the crowd and could get a feeling of the atmosphere of the occasion. The Tibetans were excited that the Chinese government were allowing this ceremony to take place for the first time in forty years sine the occupation but intimidated by the fact that every 5 metres along the road mingling with the crowd were Chinese green uniformed army soldiers each with machine guns at the ready. We stayed watching this process which took hours to lower and raise the tankas. At one point they seemed to get stuck much to the impatience of the crowd. Increasingly the crowd’s impatience became evident and there were several minor incidents between them and the Chinese guards. The Tibetans were openly contemptuous of the soldiers and we felt quite uncomfortable with the atmosphere and took our pictures and left.
A most memorable and historic moment for us.