My Tibetan guide/minder did not take her duties very seriously and left me to my own devices for much of the time. So on Thursday afternoon and evening I joined the stream of pilgrims circumambulating, in a clock wise direction, around the periphery of the Jokhung Temple. The circuit is souvenir mecca and the pilgrims are from all parts of Tibet with distinctive hairstyles, clothes and ornaments. They carry hand-held prayer wheels with which to send, skywards, the prayers they murmur continuously. In front of the Temple - the spiritual centre of Tibet - further pilgrims repeatedly and energetically prostrate themselves full length on the ground. Having completed the circuit, I peeled off to explore the crowded side streets, crowded with people, stalls with food being cooked, stalls selling clothes and trinkets and fruit and vegetable barrows. There was a Muslim market (run by Muslims and selling mainly fruit and veg.), a Mosque, a call to prayers and a smattering of dreadfully deformed beggers.
The Tibetans are lovely. They are kind, friendly and smile readily. They don't have the delicate and ethereal beauty of some of the Chinese; they are quite short and sturdy and quite swarthy, but they are a gentle, good humoured and good natured people and there can be few places in the world where one is safer. They are also very devout and their overt expressions of faith are a surprise after China, where temples are no more than historical buildings.
On Friday morning the sunshine and blue skies had vanished and it rained. Escorted by my guide, I visited the Jokhung Temple. It was small and packed tightly with tourists and pilgrims and Buddahs in all their many, many manifestations. The Temple was hung with multi-coloured hangings and decorations, all crowded one upon the other in a hectic riot of colours and patterns. Monks abounded and we all squeezed around trying to avoid the golden bowls of yak butter (actually it was Nepalese butter, the yak butter smokes too much!) in which burning wicks were inserted and trying not to slip on the floor, made greasy by said liquid butter. My guide tried hard to explain what the different Buddahs were all about, but left me more confused than ever. An investigation for when I return, I think.
After the Temple, we visited the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama - a mere 3 kms from, and not a patch on, the Potala Palace. The only thing going for the Summer Palace were the attractive gardens. A new and very small 'palace' had been built for the present (14th) Dalai Lama but he only lived in it for 3 years before fleeing to India. The rooms of this 'palace' looked very forlorn. They were small, cramped and in a 1950's time warp. So, in spite of the mighty Tibetan red-gold throne, the palace lacked opulance and looked terribly suburban. The hope, always, is that one day the Dalai Lama will return, but the hope is, I fear, as forlorn and as faded as the rooms of his palace.
Ater that we paid a quick visit to the new and interesting Tibet Museum, then retired to a small restaurant for some pretty disgusting yak butter tea and lunch. The tea tasted similar to the awful UHT long-life milk one gets in cartons. Imagine that hot with only the slightest hint of weak tea!! Lunch was Tibetan noodles in yak meat soup, which was very nice.
Sight-seeing over, I was returned to my hotel and free for the next day and a half. I decided to make my own way to a nearby 15th centuary monastery by way of the local bus. It was no problem getting there as the bus terminated at the monastery, getting back was more tricky as I wasn't 100% sure where to get off. I only went wrong once and got off too early but that was soon put right and the monastery was certainly worth the visit. It was large and very dilapidated, with lots of monks (about 500) and lots of urgently needed building work in progress. I caught the last few minutes of a debate (in Tibetan, so didn't understand a word) between the older and the novice monks. It seemed to be a sort of oral exam and heaven help those who got it wrong - they were attacked with sort of karate chops!! After about 2 minutes (all I saw) of this, they all came rushing out of the garden where the debate had taken place in very high spirits and rushed off to the temple to do some chanting! Such a strange and almost primitive life and so far divorced from one's own!
On Saturday it was again pouring with rain and I set off at 06:45 to take a trip to a sacred lake about 4-5 hours away. I was unable to exit the hotel, however, as the front door, the only way out, was locked and bolted and there was no-one about. After 5 minutes of shouting and banging a young lad was awakened and he let me out. Nam-tso Lake is the highest salt water lake in China and claims to be the highest in the world (I'm not sure what Lake Titicaca would have to say to that!) and by the time we got there, having survived a puncture and yaks straying on to the road, it was not only pouring but also blowing a gale. We (a Japanese gentleman, who spoke a bit of English, and myself), went to one of the lakeside restaurants for lunch. We emerged an hour later and the sky was blue, the sun was shining, it was warm and the wind and rain had gone. In the rarified air of 4,500 metres, the lake looked beautiful. It was turquoise and the distant mountains rimming the lake were purple with white snowy tops on the highest. The only slightly jarring note were the child beggers - some barely old enough to walk but, encouraged by their mothers and grandmothers(!!), able to thrust their little hands out at one fairly persistantly. We spent about 3 hours at the lake, then had another 5 hour return journey to the more moderate altitude of Lhasa.
Probably not wise to comment on political issues in Tibet, so will mention the prayer flags. They always come in 5's - white represents the clouds, yellow the sun, blue the sky, green the water and red is for fire. I'm not quite sure why the earth is not represented, unless I've got the above wrong. But I'm pretty sure that I haven't!
The following is in the wrong place. It refers to the couple with whom I shared the train compartment. The young Chinese couple a) insisted on sharing one bunk, although they had one each and made full use of my bunk when I wasn't there. b) the wife spent the first hour of the train journey cutting her husband's toe nails (which were quite long), then left the nail clippings scattered all over the floor for the rest of the journey. c) the wife (again) never stopped talking. It went on hour after hour and was a complete monologue. Husband didn't get a word in edgeways and this went on until 1 o'clock in the morning. I think that they might have been having a row because she was very moody the next morning! It was all a bit too close for comfort, but interesting to see how awkward they were with each other, physically! The Chinese are, in many ways quite androgenous (?) and it's difficult sometimes to identify male and female. Not sure if this has any baring on the matter!
On Sunday morning, at 09:20, we rolled out of Lhasa on the train bound for Beijing. I had the bottom bunk of a soft sleeper and was sharing with a young Chinese couple (who were a right pain, see above!) and a Chinese bloke who only used the compartment for sleeping. The sun was shining as we left and the glorious scenery unfolded in front of the window like a slow-moving film. The wheat was being harvested by farmers using scythes and stacked in small neat stacks in the field amid cloud-topped mountains, rushing rivers, nomadic herdsmen's tents, herds of cows, sheep and yaks grazing where the wheat had been cut and groups of peasants cutting, tying and stacking the bundles of wheat. The train is an extraordinary feat of engineering by the Chinese. A lot of the track has been laid on perma-frost and pipes have had to be installed to keep the ground under the tracks permamently frozen and,due to the altitude, we have oxygene pumped into the compartment. There were long tunnels, some several kilometres in length, burrowing through the mountains and the train chugged along at an average of 60 mph - very comfortable and relaxing - a perfect way to spend 2 days.
By midday on Sunday the ground had begun to flatten out into empty, marshy grasslands with little streams, supporting herds of cows, sheep and yaks and the high (but not massively so) mountains had given way to rounded, green hills. And by late afternoon the landscape became a bleak scene of stoney, moss and frost covered hills. Monday was sunny again in the morning and the view from the window was of flat grassland, bordered by large sand dunes and small hills. It gradually became more hilly and fertile, with villages, rivers and more fields of wheat, then quite mountainous, warmer and more misty as we returned to sea-level. By the time we reached Xi'an the land was flat, industrialised and foggy and the enchantment was over!
We reached Beijing at 9 am this morning and tomorrow, at 7.45 am, I leave for Moscow. So this is the last missive from China!! I have 6 days on the train with no possibility of a computer, but hope to write a final blog either from Moscow or St.Petersburg, depending on where I can find an internet cafe.