I left Lhasa this morning. In the street outside my room, the hotel porter traced in sooty water droplets on the cab roof how much it would cost me to get to the airport. OK! And then we were speeding off through the rainy streets of Lhasa, past the imposing bulk of the Potala, down broad avenues and out into the countryside.
It wasn’t clear to me where one could construct an airport in Tibet; there are so many steep ravines and mountains. After an almost hour of speeding down narrow roads snaking past valleys and mountains it was still not clear just where exactly the airport was hidden. Then suddenly we passed into a long tunnel drilled through the hillside, over a bridge and then another bridge and the airport was there. More incredible Chinese feats of civil engineering. A few hours later, as the aeroplane pulled very steeply away from the runway, I could see we were flying along a vast flood plain. Lakes and rivers far below glittered in the oblique morning light. Steep mountains crowded the cabin windows on each side of the aeroplane. In another half an hour or so, the Tibetan plateau had vanished beneath the clouds.
But returning to Lhasa: once we were free from our Chinese tour guide, I had three days to explore the city. As I said, I changed hotel to one in the centre of the old Tibetan town, and not the new Chinese city, which is utterly without interest. Although our tour guide had warned us about ‘tall handsome Tibetan men’ as they were apparently the most dangerous and avaricious, I was not frightened! I spent the good part of two afternoons walking around the narrow streets and looking into the shops, visiting the occasional temple.
Of course the main feature of Lhasa is the barkour, a series of concentric circles pilgrims make around the city’s most important temple. A great mass of people circles around and around, ebbing and flowing throughout day’s passage. Most of these are pilgrims, old faces tanned to a deep, heavily wrinkled brown by the plateau’s harsh ultraviolet radiation, twirling prayer wheels in one hand and counting beads in the other. Softly chanting under their breath. The women wear long skirts patterned with the traditional Tibetan colours, often with white cloth hats to protect against the sun’s rays. The men are dressed in dark suits. There is not the slightest hint of modernity, there is no location in time. If I were to fade to monochrome the pictures I made and airbrush away the tourists, they could have been taken at any time this century. The churning crowd at times is enveloped by blue clouds of burning incense. Most of these pilgrims are old, but the monks in their red robes seemed to be much younger. I imagined that this is what it must have been like in the crypt of St. Denis in the middle ages, when the relentless and unending flux of the faithful led Abbe Suger to invent gothic architecture…
Everything in the city centres around the barkour, from the countless souvenir stands which line its route to the markets in the streets around. Nearby, I found a shop specialising in prayer wheels. A small weight is attached to a metal cylinder mounted on a wooden pole. Inside the cylinder, prayers are written on a tightly coiled spiral of paper. A slight circular motion of the hand is enough to spin the wheel and prayers are emitted towards heaven. Modifications on demand! When I passed the shop, pilgrims were crowded around the owner who was shortening one prayer wheel whose pole was slightly too long.
Towards the periphery, the streets become slightly more frayed, the pavements more uneven, the buildings slightly less well maintained. Streets too narrow for any kind of motorised vehicle. One can see all manner of things. On the ground here, the bloodied carcass of a yak, for sale; against a building over there, monks chanting in prayer. And asking for money! I suspected that there not real monks. A faint whiff of unpurified sewage hanging in the air. In the markets, every imaginable type of produce is offered, many of them unidentifiable to western eyes. I suppose all of this is what the streets of European cities might have been like a hundred, two hundred years ago.
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