The majestic Potala Palace looms into view, but it is surrounded by streetlamps, cars and Chinese flags. It is truly magnificent, but the city is cold and lifeless. An insidious presence lurks here. The streets are lined with internet cafes, Chinese restaurants, karaoke bars, pool halls and brothels. I am saddened and troubled, for this is not Tibet.
Pilgrims wander by, spinning their prayer wheels methodically, in deep meditation. I walk slowly through ‘old Lhasa’ and immediately feel the warmth and spirit of the Tibetan presence. I circum-ambulate the local Barkhor Square, trying to blend in, but my blonde hair and tall, slim figure stands out among the short, dark-haired Tibetans. I spend hours combing the market for treasures and find beautiful embroidered silks, hand-made fabrics, turquoise wools and pashminas.
The pilgrims spend their days prostrating, praying to the great protective force that shields them. Legend has it that Jokhang Monastery arose out of a lake, from a gold ring cast by a prince and princess. Inside, Shakyamuni Buddha, protected by the Four Kings of the Four Directions, is adorned with gold and turquoise. Upon the roof, the Wheel of Law symbolically spins in silence, accumulating merit with every turn.
I can see the Potala Palace in the distance. Chinese militia guard its doors like a fortress and charge an entry fee to what is now, to them, a novelty exhibit. I feel a strong urge to remove my shoes before entering, out of respect. I walk barefoot through the palace rooms and feel the cold stones beneath my feet. Electricity courses through my body, connecting me with a time and a place that existed thousands of years ago. I wander through rooms and passages where many Dalai Lamas have gone before me.
As I explore the old Tibetan village under construction in the grounds of the palace, I realise I need to make some decisions about the direction in which my life is going. I know I am hanging on to things that no longer serve me and hold me back from experiencing true happiness. I want a place to call home, spiritually and physically. I want to build a world where I can feel loved and safe.
I want to leave the city and see the real Tibet. The Friendship Highway takes me further away from Lhasa, on a winding road through the mountains. The air becomes thinner as the altitude increases. Huge mounds of stone on the passes hold the kathaks and prayer flags up to pierce the sky. Waves of colour – blue, white, red, green and yellow – representing the five elements send the Tibetans prayers to heaven.
I see Tibet through an artist’s eyes. It is a ‘land of contrasts’, where hot, dry, barren deserts merge with snow-capped peaks, icy rivers and lush green fields; where the saffron, burgundy and orange robes of the Buddhist monks create a striking effect against a monochromatic landscape; and gentle people fight for their lives against a tyrannical oppressor.
Traversing Tibet is a long and arduous ordeal. The high altitude is oppressive and bears down on me. I have to remind myself to breathe deeply. A beautiful turquoise lake shaped like a scorpion coils around the mountains, a huge inland ocean, the waves lapping at my feet. The water is surprisingly warm. I want to dive down into its depths and feel the water against my bare skin.
The shores of Yamdrok Tso are littered with the skeletons of animals that died within metres of reaching fresh water, yet everywhere new life is emerging. Calves and foals take their first steps in the world. A cow rummages through a cardboard box for food, while fighting off a hungry pup. An emaciated ewe and her lamb scrabble across stony ground and I think of how precious life is here. Even in this barren land the endless cycle of life continues. My nights are filled with strange visions of giving birth, to ideas, to dreams and to possibilities.
A massive glacier falls down the side of a mountain, stopped in its tracks by another. The landscape is dotted with the ruins of old monasteries and villages. Tibetan houses made from mud and yak dung lie deserted. They are a curious creation, their windows framed in black trapezoid shapes. A young Tibetan girl leads her yak along a dusty road and nomads ride bareback towards a turquoise lake, their horses galloping across the plains, the wind blowing through their manes. My spirit yearns to feel the same way – wild, free and unencumbered.
The Chinese presence in Tibet is at odds with the natural environment. Hydroelectric power stations create manmade dams, controlling the flow of water and the natural course of the physical world. Transmission towers and power lines march across the landscape and tall buildings stand like impenetrable fortresses, symbolic of the way the Chinese people have imposed their laws and customs on the Tibetan people. I want to declare Tibet sacred wilderness and drive the Chinese out. I pass through a small town, where militia blast loud, repetitive music through the streets, brainwashing everyone in earshot with their subliminal propaganda.
I continue my journey and eventually arrive at Gyantse. Kumbum Monastery spirals towards the sky. Climbing in a clockwise direction, I pass pilgrims making their daily symbolic ascent to heaven, ambling slowly floor by floor to the top. Walking through the back streets of the old Tibetan part of town, a little boy invites me into his home then asks me to pay for the privilege of seeing how his family lives. Cows doze in the front yards of houses, bells tied around their necks, their ears adorned with colourful tassels.
But the Tibetans are scarce in Shigatse. I see a few walking the streets, the toes of their red boots curling up towards the sky. I notice how everything in Tibet reaches for the heavens. I wonder if this is simply due to their desire to escape what is left of their desecrated lives, where Chinese markets and shopping centres sell tacky souvenirs and cheap, mass-produced items. In a world so unconcerned with material possessions, money and power rule.
I experience moments of solitude, where I can recharge and balance myself. The space helps me process my emotions and let go of the pain, a little at a time. The next morning, I can barely move. I am exhausted and cold and cannot stop shaking. I struggle to gather my strength. The cobbled streets surrounding Tashilumpo Monastery are steep; I am unsteady on my feet and cannot walk straight. Gradually my energy returns.
A twenty-six-metre-high statue of Maitreya the future Buddha stands tall within a four-storey building. Outside, a turquoise mosaic of a swastika is set into a stone porch, the pieces reminding me of how broken tiles can be arranged to create a beautiful picture, much like a life that has fallen apart can be put back together again. Outside, a busy market sells prayer wheels and pieces of jagged slate carved with auspicious Tibetan symbols.
That night, I sit in on the monk’s chanting. They are friendly and welcome me into their world. The young ones are mischievous and misbehave as though at a school assembly, laughing and giggling in the back row, stirring up trouble when they should be concentrating on saying their prayers.
TO BE CONTINUED.
Words © 2005 Environmental Warrior
Images © 2004 Environmental Warrior