I realised I would not expect to see the Lhasa depicted in old black-and-white films. I had prepared myself for a city, which counted just around ten thousand inhabitants in 1950 and which had now evolved into a large metropolis of over half a million people, largely modern Chinese in aspect, with skyscrapers and wide avenues.
Landing at the airport this is what seemed to be the case. Would I ever taste even the minutest flavour of a Lhasa, whose name means ‘Home of the Gods’, I’d read about in old travellers’ tales and, especially something of the city people like Heinrich Harrer had spent seven years in? (Incidentally Harrer only died in 2006 and spent the rest of his life fighting for Tibetan rights. There’s a museum dedicated to him in Hüttenberg, Austria – definitely a must-see when I’m next in that country).
The skyscrapers around the new railway station which, also in 2006, has linked Lhasa to the Chinese railway network, prognosticated my anxiety that I would come across a thoroughly different Lhasa: a Lhasa where half of the inhabitants would be Han Chinese and where the last thread of isolation from the outside world would be broken in 2020 when a rail-link will connect it to Kathmandu through the world’s longest tunnel, under Mount Everest itself.
These fears were there with me and one should always be prepared for them but Lhasa still turned out to be an unmissable place – a city of incredible history, of astonishing life and, underlying it all a sense of deep-seated Tibetan faith and ancient values which are so strongly embedded in the psyche of these wonderful people that it would take a very long time to eradicate them. With inner sadness I would encourage anyone to visit Lhasa for it remains one of the most unforgettable places you are ever likely to stay upon this planet.
I’d come across Tibetan hints while still in Italy. There was the Tibetan bridge at Vagli di Sotto (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/10/10/a-tibetan-bridge-in-the-garfagnana/) and only after visiting the lovely city of Pistoia between Florence at Lucca had I realised that the first western traveller to arrive at Lhasa was Ippolito Desideri, born in Pistoia in 1684, trained as a Jesuit missionary and reaching the ‘Home of the Gods’ after a perilous journey lasting months, in 1716. Moreover, there are several Tibetan monasteries in Italy – a positive result of the forced diaspora of so much of the country’s population after the 1959 invasion. A friend of mine recently told me he’d first met the Dalai Lama at Pomaia, near Pisa. (See the post at https://lamiatoscanaitaly.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/pomaia-the-little-tibet-of-tuscany/ )
The wonderful thing about Desideri was that he was entranced by Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and tried to reconcile his own strict Roman Catholic beliefs with them. Desideri was given his own chapel at Sera monastic university (more on that later since it is one of the three great Tibetan monasteries we subsequently visited). The ruler of Lhasa at that time was Lhasang Khan who gave Ippolito full permission to teach Christianity and encouraged him to learn Tibetan.
How wonderful for a Jesuit to be able to debate with the Buddhist monks of Sera way back in the early eighteenth century and learn their particular mode of dialectic! How amazing to find Desideri compiling the first ever Tibetan grammar for the western world. How pioneering of him to study Tibetan culture for the first time and produce a book called ‘Notizie Istoriche del Tibet’ which described Tibetan customs and culture as he found them during his stay there. Incredibly, this book was not rediscovered in the Jesuit archives until the end of the nineteenth century and was only translated into English as recently as 2010.
My wife was also particularly intrigued by her name-sake: an amazing French woman Alexandra David-Néel, explorer, writer esoterist, opera-singer, spiritualist and anarchist who died in 1969 aged one hundred. Alexandra reached Lhasa under cover in 1924. But that’s another story to write about…..
There is still a frisson in reaching Lhasa even today when special permits have to be issued and where, regrettably, one is under frequent observation by the authorities. However, it’s really worth it and our first morning in Lhasa beat all expectations and provided us with one of the most remarkable travel experiences of our lives.
There is still a part of Lhasa which is thoroughly Tibetan in feel and that is the district of Barkhor, an area of alleys, crowds of pilgrims and many interesting shops. In the centre of Barkhor is Tibet’s most sacred shrine, the Jokhang, which contains the statue of Jowo Shakyamuni, sculpted by artist Vishvakarman under the celestial guidance of the God Indra (c.f. so many Catholic statues crafted under Godly guidance e.g. Florence’s basilica della Santissima Annunziata and Lucca’s Volto Santo). The statue represents the Buddha aged twelve and was brought to this city by Chinese princess Wencheng Kongjo as dowry when she married the Tibetan King Songsten Gampo around 600 A.D.
The temple itself is a wonderful place to explore (although photography is discouraged, indeed, almost impossible, since the press of pilgrims, the smoke from the Yak-butter candles and the general mystic darkness of the interior is quite overwhelming). However, anyone who has been into the Jokhang in the morning will understand the impossibility of describing the atmosphere of intense devotion present there. I think I only got near this atmosphere when visiting the monastery of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland. The force of devotion is almost frightening: truly the fear of God is palpable. Just looking at Jowo Shakyamuni’s face filled me with transcendent feelings that seemed to reach the confines of astral planes. It was truly overwhelming.
I also think that since in Lhasa there’s just 68% of the oxygen you breathe at sea level that must have something to do with how I felt!
Here are some photos we were able to take of the Jokhang temple. Do note the omnipresence of the Chinese state even in this most sacred place for Tibetans. The red flag flies everywhere and one must go through more than one check-point to reach the sanctum sanctorum.
The Jokhang is associated with two kora or pilgrim routes. One is within the temple and the other is outside the temple and circumambulates the Barkhor district. Here are some photos we took of the external route. You’ll also spot that there’s a mosque en route. Muslims like Christians have lived in peaceful co-existence with Tibetan Buddhists for over a thousand years. Oh I wish it were so for so many other parts of this massacred world we live in. Note also the prayer flags, the juniper incense raised from the four great braziers which line the Kora and the prostrations of the pilgrims who come here from all parts of Tibet.
Somehow we did find the true Lhasa that morning; our hotel the ‘Kyichu’ was beautifully placed centrally so we could forget the modern city and immerse ourselves into something which those historical travelers must have felt when they first entered the ‘forbidden’ city: forbidden because it used to be so difficult to get to…forbidden because there are still so many unsolved mysteries to be unraveled in Lhasa.