Or, How I Learned To Laugh About Myself Under Scrutiny From The Locals
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Until recent times, Lhasa was the gateway to the Tibetan frontier. Today, travelers usually come into Tibet either through Lhasa or Chengdu, to the southeast; but Lhasa has the far more romantic draw to it.
The Chinese have made Lhasa their own, however, as hundreds of thousands of settlers have moved west to this city in the sky, and today, you are probably more likely to see signs in Chinese than Tibetan script. The city could almost have a clear line drawn through it as well, differentiating the older Tibetan sections of the city from the new Chinese sections.
In the center of the city, the Potala Palace (in Tibetan, Budala Gong) still rises proud and serene; but the Chinese have turned it into a museum. While still holding religious significance, it feels strangely empty – perhaps because its rightful denizen, the Dalai Lama, is in exile. It has been restored and looks as beautiful and regal as ever, reminding every visitor about the city’s – and the region’s – history and religion.
Across the street, the Chinese created a vast, flat cement plaza (now called Potala Square) dominated with a memorial to Communism or the motherland or something. To anybody who knows their Tibetan history, it seems incongruous to have the bastion of Tibetan Buddhism with Chinese flags waving at its feet.
Lhasa sits along a river valley, ringed by mountains. The air here is thin and still relatively clean by Chinese standards, with plenty of sunshine and great views. The Potala is the most potent reminder of Lhasa’s past; but certainly not the only one. I spent a lot of time walking around Lhasa, as we had a few days there to acclimatize ourselves to the thin Tibetan atmosphere. I was enthralled by the city, and would readily return to spend far more time exploring it.
In the case of the Potala, you want to get there early; tickets (¥100, about $15) are available on a limited, first-come, first serve basis, and you are given a specific time to return to enter; the tickets are often gone as early as 11 am. You climb to the top – somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 to 15 stories’ worth of climbing, so hit that Stairmaster before you go! – and then work your way down. An average visit takes 1-2 hours, depending on time of day, and how crowded it is at a given time.
Since I was having trouble adjusting to the altitude (it was only our second day there), I did not climb the Potala, although the rest of my group did. One of my group mates expressed disappointment that they really didn’t get to see as much as they thought they would, and they had to move through faster then they would have liked – plus, there are almost no locations within the Potala where you are allowed to take pictures, including on the roof, unless you have special permission.
Instead of climbing the Potala, I opted instead for doing the Potala’s kora, the traditional clockwise prayer route around a site of religious importance. Every monastery and temple in Tibet has this route; some are truly spectacular, such as Shigatze’s, which climbs the side of the mountain behind the monastery.
The Potala’s route is flat, but it is almost entirely ringed by prayer wheels. The devout will spin every wheel, or do the kora in the traditional prostrated fashion; but most of the people I saw walking the path were spinning their own personal prayer wheel and only occasionally spinning the larger ones that lined the route.
There’s a park behind the Potala, with a lake and a lot of trees – depending on what map you're looking at, it's called either Liberation Park, Jiefang Gongyuan, or on the map I had, Zang Gyab Lukhang. On an interesting side note, the lake in the park was formed when water filled the hole where dirt was removed to build the Potala. In early autumn, it was really quite lovely, with the trees’ leaves turning to shades of gold. If you have ever seen the pictures of the Potala rising above a lake, those pictures were taken from this park.
Unfortunately, although that particular view was a picture I had intended to take, I completely forgot about them due to other things that happened to me in this park!
It was actually my second walk in the park, but it was mid-morning on a Sunday and surprisingly busy, and I was a bit aware of the fact that I was taller than most of the people I walked past. The Tibetans, like the Chinese, will blatantly stare when something catches their attention, and despite Lhasa’s rise as a tourist attraction, foreigners still stand out. Especially somebody like me – a redheaded, plus-size Western woman - and I had attracted stares, gawking, and even requests for photographs across China.
The Tibetans are generally slender and fit; like the Chinese, it is unusual to see an overweight or even stocky person among the citizens. (The introduction of a Western diet has begun to change this, however.) But their Buddha images are often portly, with cherubic faces.
Where the Chinese might have stared or even giggled at a person that they find unusual, the Tibetans have no embarrassment over touching somebody they don’t even know, to confirm for themselves things like hairy arms, beards, blonde or red hair, or in my case, broad hips and an (ahem) curvaceous derriere and thighs.
Imagine my surprise as I was walking through the park, and somebody suddenly grabbed my butt! I looked over in shock to find a grinning Tibetan man. I chastised him with a gentle "No!" and a wag of my finger, which he found hilarious. "Bad boy!" I added, not assuming he spoke English, but wanting to get the message across that it wasn’t polite to grab somebody’s butt without warning!
"Bad boy!" he repeated with a laugh, then coyly reached out and give my butt another squeeze before darting away. "Bad boy!"
Not even fifteen minutes later, I was elsewhere in the park, when a Tibetan woman fell into step beside me and began chatting at me in Tibetan. I could tell by the tone of her voice that she had some concern, so I nodded and smiled and then she reached out and began patting my thigh and hip repeatedly, laughing a little and continuing her talking.
At this point, I really didn’t know what to say, I was so floored! I smiled brightly, and tried to reassure her that despite my weight, I was healthy and feeling okay. She kept walking with me, still patting my thigh, and talking, and I began to wonder if she was going to follow me all the way around the Potala. She finally gave me a few more pats on the hip, and then waved goodbye to me with a little laugh, and walked off.
Those two wouldn’t be the last to pat my hindquarters as we made our way across Tibet, either, but more on that later.
Despite the butt-touching and the blatant stares, I loved the park and found myself back there a few times. It was very relaxing to sit by the lake and reflect, or to watch the devout walking the kora route, turning the prayer wheels.
Besides, the best thing you can bring back from a vacation are outstanding memories - and I can tell you that I will not soon forget my experiences in Lhasa!