Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tibet: Jokhang Temple, Potala Palace, Norbulingka

Our stay in Lhasa included visits to three of the most important sites in Tibetan Buddhism. Because photography is prohibited inside these sacred places, we can only share a few pictures of exteriors. The first and most important site is the Jokhang Temple in the center of the oldest section of Lhasa, the Barkohr.

The Jokhang Temple dates from the year 639 CE. It was built by a Tibetan king to house a statue of the Buddha as a child that was brought from Nepal by one of his two brides. His other bride, the Chinese princess Wencheng, selected the site for the new temple to be built. According to legend, she threw her ring into a lake and declared that was the spot where the Buddha should reside. A white goat, now much honored in Lhasa, carried loads of dirt to fill in the lake. The interior of the incense-filled temple features numerous small chapels dedicated to different manifestations of the Buddha and a large inner sanctum where hundreds of monks can assemble for daily prayers and special ceremonies. Every day, hundreds of pilgrims prostrate themselves outside the temple and walk clockwise kora routes around the temple complex.

The Potala Palace is without doubt the most famous place in Tibet. Just open your wallet, take out a 20 yuan note, and you will find a picture of it right on the back of the bill. (Mao Zedong is on the front, of course, since his picture graces all the currency.) The Potala Palace was established in 631 CE by the same king who built the Jokhang Temple. The small cave chosen by King Songsten Gampo as his favored place of meditation can now be seen within the palace. The Palace was vastly expanded in the 17th century. It now includes more than 1000 rooms and was the residence and burial place of every Dalai Lama from the 5th to 14th, an imporant place of worship, a monastery, and the seat of Tibet's government. Vistors can see the stupa covered with more than 6000 pounds of gold that contains the body of the 5th Dalai Lama, huge three-dimensional mandalas covered with gold and jewels, numerous chapels for meditation and prayer, and the living quarters, meditation room, and throne room of the Dalai Lama.

Norbulingka is the pleasant summer palace of the Dalai Lama at the western edge of Lhasa, the last residence occupied by the current Dalai Lama before his flight to India in 1959. It features beautiful parks and gardens, open-air study rooms situated in a small pond, and grassy lawns where families can picnic. The rooms of the small residence are preserved exactly as they were when the Dalai Lama went into exile.

The album has pictures of all three locations.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Tibet: Faces of the People

We love to visit museums, temples, parks, shrines, historic sites, and scenic wonders. But what we really love most of all is observing and meeting people -- seeing how they work, eat, argue, dance, sing, worship, and play. Most of the pictures in this album were taken in the Barkohr -- the ancient neighborhood of stone houses, narrow streets, tiny shops, sacred shrines in the heart of the oldest part of Lhasa. Because the Barkohr is also the site of both the Jokhang Temple -- the most sacred site in Tibetan Buddhism -- and the mosque that presides over Lhasa's lively Muslim Quarter, it is an eclectic meeting place teeming with pilgrims, families, soldiers, workmen, tourists, and vendors of every description. In short, it is an ideal location for world-class people-watching.

Tibet: Rural Life

Farm life is never easy, least of all in Tibet. On our way from Kabala Pass back down to Lhasa, Pema asked if we would be interested in seeing a small Tibetan farm. She herself had grown up in a tiny village and was intimately familiar with the hardships of rural life. We stopped by the roadside and selected a farmhouse at random. Pema knocked at the gate and asked the farmer whether he would be interested in having visitors. Our host was incredibly gracious to us, showing us around his home, introducing us to other members of his family, offering us home-grown barley and toasted beans and homemade cheese for us to sample, and talking with us about his work and his life.

The gentleman is 51 years old. He lives on the farm with three sons and a daughter and two infant grandchildren, a pair of five-month old twin girls. His wife has passed away. His daughter-in-law died soon after the twins were born. His son is a widower at 20 and will probably remarry if he can find a family whose daughter will accept his two daughters. Our host greeted us warmly and made us feel welcome during our entire visit with him and his family. His life is hard. He smiles and gets on with it. It was a rare privilege to meet him.

Tibet: Kabala Pass and Yamdrok Lake

We had originally planned a day-long trip to Namtso Lake, but unfavorable road conditions made that impossible. Instead, we drove southwest from Lhasa along a new two-lane highway that crossed over Kabala Pass to Yamdrok Tso, a beautiful turquoise lake high in the mountains. Pema (our Tibetan guide) and Mr Chimee (our driver) secured the necessary permits for the trip. Above and beyond our American passports, my LNU contract and work permit, and our one-year Z-visas, we also had to secure a letter absolving my employer from any liability, a special permit to enter the Tibet Autonomous Region, and extra permission to travel outside the immediate vicinity of Lhasa.

The paperwork was well worthwhile. The drive up the river valley and into the mountains was truly memorable, and Yamdrok Lake itself is spectacular. We passed a number of small farm villages (and a few deserted ones as well) and ended the afternoon with a picnic on the roadside. Here is a small album of pictures we took that day:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tibet: Arrival and Sera Monastery

The Tibetan Autonomous Region of the PRC is an immense and sparsely populated area consisting mainly of an arid, high-altitude plateau and a few scattered towns and settlements. It covers more than 460,000 square miles and is home to a mere 2 million people. Lhasa, the capital city, has a population of only 140,ooo. (By way of comparison, Texas has an area of 260,000 square miles and a population of 24 million.) Lhasa, a city of thin air and bright sunshine, is situated at an altitude on 13,000 feet. To the southwest, Mt Everest soars to just over 29,000 feet.

Tibet is a land of very stark contrasts, embracing modern development and renovation alongside ancient monasteries and nomadic yak herders. Tourism, which was drastically curtailed following violent disturbances in March 2008, is now an important source of economic growth.

This is not the appropriate place to discuss the complex and intractable issues surrounding Tibet's political status. Suffice it to say after the introduction of Buddhism into this remote part of the world, Tibet became an isolated feudal theocracy. By 1950, when the People's Republic of China reasserted its centuries-long claim to Tibet through an act of "peaceful liberation," the Tibetan people were suffering from abject poverty, disease, and a 98% illiteracy rate. In the words of one very balanced account, "the country entered the modern world without an army, without lay education or roads, and with few technologies more advanced than the prayer wheel." The Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s inflicted new anguish on this long-suffering people. Today, the PRC seems about as likely to relinquish sovereignty over Tibet as the United States would be to return Arizona to the Navajo. We have read official government reports that list the numerous investments the PRC has made in Tibet. The PRC refutes claims of "cultural genocide" by detailing the undeniable progress that has been made in education, health care, economic development, transportation, religious freedom, and the protection of the Tibetan art, language, and culture. Ironically, perhaps the greatest obstacle to continued stability and progress in the region is the massive influx of Han Chinese who, while they have contributed greatly to Tibet's progress, now outnumber the population of native Tibetans.

Our first destination was Sera monastery just north of Lhasa. It was founded in 1419 and once housed more than 5000 monks in its three colleges. Today, about 700 monks reside there. It is a popular pilgrimage site, especially for parents who line up for many hours in order to present their children to a Buddha whose blessing brings special protections to the very young. We were not permitted to photograph the interior of this sacred spot, so you will see only pictures taken outdoors.

Xi'an: Army of Terracotta Warriors

China's first real emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, died more than 2200 years ago in 210 BCE, but his remarkable legacy is still quite apparent. He was an energetic and visionary despot who made no small plans. Qin Shi Huangdi subjugated his many enemies, unified his empire militarily and politically, began work on the Great Wall, designed an extensive system of roads, standardized the currency and the system of weights and measurements, and laid the foundation for a comprehensive legal and administrative system that existed for centuries.

He also assembled a workforce of some 700,000 men to work for 36 years building a vast necropolis near Xi'an. His mausoleum is still visible from the highway about a mile west of where his underground army was discovered. It is a huge burial mound that has still not been excavated. Ancient written sources say that it contains a miniature version of his realm, complete with rivers of liquid mercury and a sky studded with pearl stars. Two incredible bronze chariots, complete with horses and drivers, have been recovered from his tomb and are now on display. Archeologists have begun work on a large number of surrounding structures and tombs, unearthing many bronze artifacts and weapons, stone armor, pottery sculptures, rare birds and animals, and human bodies.

In 1974, peasants digging a well in a field about a mile of the mausoleum discovered pottery fragments that led to one of the most astonishing and significant finds in the history of archeology: Qin Shi Huangdi's underground army of terracotta warriors. To date, three huge pits covering about 22,000 square meters have been excavated, revealing the shattered fragments of about 8000 highly detailed life-sized warriors and horses. These silent guardians were meant to protect the emperor's tomb and allow him to continue his conquests in the afterlife.

If only a single one of these remarkable sculptures had survived, it would be hailed as an unequalled work of art. To see rank after rank of them standing in battle formation just as they did 2200 years ago is simply breathtaking. The terracotta army has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. Susie and I agree that this is no exaggeration.

Today (October 12), I read in the China Daily that a group of sculpted musicians has just been discovered near the imperial tombs. We know that Shaanxi province contains many more unexcavated ancient tombs. This area is the Chinese equivalent of Egypt's Valley of the Kings, and untold wonders still await discovery.