RARE BEAUTY, RARE AIR. 2 days in the Tibetan countryside / Suhasini Haidar

Posted on 2016/07/03



Publicado en The Hindu  agosto 2014

In Beijing, we are prepared for our impending flight to the roof of the world. Our flight to Lhasa will take 4 hours, and we are climbing to an average altitude of 4,000 metres. I was last here in 2007, on the famous Beijing-Lhasa railway that takes 40 hours and allows you to acclimatise gradually. Not this time, and I begin to feel the effects of rarer air as soon as we land. Altitude sickness makes my head light and my legs feel heavy, but in its extreme, the sickness can be fatal. We are given Tibetan herbal medicine to drink, and an oxygen can at our hotel for emergencies. Get rest, and dont bathe for a day, say our guides. We’re much too dazed by the air and stunned by the beauty of Tibet to do more than nod.


We drive into the thoroughly modern yet quiet town of Tsetang on a sunny afternoon. There’s construction going on everywhere, the roads are broad and smooth, and the town is well planned and new. Most of the people we see are Han Chinese, and must have moved more recently for jobs. Tsetang is also an army base, and soldiers can be seen guarding many of the smart buildings we pass by. But there is an older town, called old Tsetang or the Tibetan quarter. Having seen the same in New Lhasa, and old Lhasa, I presume this is the pattern in many Tibetan towns: a developed modern town populated by Han Chinese and the traditional old town populated by Tibetans which still retains narrow muddy lanes, crowded homes and many monasteries. Like a more segregated and starkly different version of New and Old Delhi.


On the outskirts of Tsetang is the Changzhu or Tsongdu monastery, which is believed to be the oldest Buddhist location in Tibet. This was originally a palace belonging to Songtsen Gampo, the 7th century King who introduced Buddhism into Tibet, and his two wives, Tang Dynasty princess Wenchen and Nepali princess Birkuti. We are taken into the restored building that hosts some real wonders, including a Tangkha wall hanging of the Buddha, believed to be sewn with gold thread by Princess Wenchen herself more than 1300 years ago! Another Tangkha is completely woven with 29,000 pearls. Only a few visitors get to see those, and no photographs are allowed. The main statue of Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, also called the 2nd Buddha is flanked by an ancient Indian Manjushri statue. As I look closer, a photograph seems familiar…it shows the current Sakya Lama, a senior Buddhist figure who now lives in Dehradun, where I have met him! We may be on the roof of the world, but it’s still a very small world.


The imagery of Songsten Gampo has a modern meaning for the Chinese government too. In the new push for a «grand unification» of all regions in China, officials in Tibet are reportedly promoting mixed marriages between Tibetans and the Han Chinese here. A Washington Post report quotes an official report of the Communist party that says mixed marriages have grown from 666 couples in 2008 to 4,795 in 2013. Tibet’s administration insists the marriages promote harmony, and officials often use the region’s most famous mixed couple, the revered King Songtsen Gampo and Chinese Princess Wenchen for the promotion.


Good morning from Tzetang Tibet! Off to see a Tibetan medicine hospital. Follow blog @the_hindu for updates pic.twitter.com/2BD9OlGYWM

— Suhasini Haidar (@suhasinih) August 23, 2014

For the people of Tsetang, though, the challenges are more basic. These are simple rural families, mainly depending on agriculture, cattle breeding and handicrafts to get by. Our Chinese hosts take us to a «model village» that the government hopes to make the template for other villages- with very modern schools, solar panel street lighting, bio-gas plants for fuel, and weaver’s cooperatives. The Provincial official we meet tells us 1/3 of the prefecture’s villages have similar amenities. Whatever the truth of that claim, our fellow delegates from Nepal and Bhutan agree, each of those ideas are good for all our villages too. Tsetang houses a massive 300-bed Tibetan medical hospital where the locals flock. At the pharmacy, I meet Tsamdue, a local ironsmith who says he has never been cured by western medicine, and only believe in the traditional pouches he comes here for. The president of the hospital Tashi Tseren says they treat about 100,000 patients each year,on the basis of a science developed 1,000 years ago. As I profer my wrist for a quick diagnosis, the doctor tells me my stomach is cold from all the ice-cream and chilled water I love…and I have to give them up. I sigh, but his diagnosis is spot on, as he goes through the other journalists, guessing one’s breathing problems, and another’s short temper!

China diary heads to Lhasa next! Please write in on twitter @suhasinih

Keywords: Tsetang, Beijing, Suhasini Haidar

LAST LOOK AT THE NEW LHASA  November 25, 2014

Everywhere I look Lhasa has changed in unimaginable ways. If it wasn’t for the majestic and imposing structure of the Potala Palace, I would have a hard time finding my bearings, despite having visited before. First, all the roads have been widened and building structures standardised. This means even the Tibetan quarter, one full of rickshaws, horse-drawn carts, and hand carts all jostling with each other, has started to look more like Rajpath than Chandni Chowk! I remember having to walk the last 100 metres to our hotel, weaving our way between yak-butter sellers, hawkers over various kinds, and even the bollywood-CDs-dubbed-in-Tibetan shops who lined the narrow lane. That’s all gone now, and there is a heavy presence of Chinese shopkeepers along neatly cobbled spotless streets instead. Another place that has undergone a transformation is Barkhor square that leads up to the famous Jokhang temple in the middle of the city. This was a bustling square with hundreds of small handicraft stores that now rivals any European piazza. One can’t help but wonder where those Tibetan shopkeepers now work, but I did also notice that many more young Tibetans have jobs in the malls, electronic stores, and in the local administration than I can recall earlier.


A national flag is a symbol of pride in any country, but it does look out of place at a place of worship. Yet the red star of china flies from the top of every monastery and temple we visit. It also adorns every house in the countryside we saw, fluttering atop even the smallest of homes in Tibet. I wonder if it’s necessary, given that you don’t see as many flags in other parts of China I have visited. Interestingly, this month, the popular Chinese scholar and novelist Yang Hengjun wrote something similar on his blog after a visit to Tibet. “Why does Beijing want to give the impression that Tibetans appreciate the Chinese government, the party and its leaders more than anyone else in China?,” Mr. Yang writes, “Tibetans don’t need to show more patriotism than the Han people do.”


After nearly a week in Lhasa, the one thing I really miss is being able to speak the language. Our delegation of journalists, invited by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, comprises a nice semi-SAARC- with Indians, Nepalis and a Bhutanese journalist. All of us have Hindi in common, and it builds a bond during our travels through Tibet, given that no one except our guides speak anything but Chinese and Tibetan. As a result we all cheer when it turns out the Maitre’d at the hotel we are staying at (called the Grand Brahmputra Hotel) is Nepali. Tuka Gurung arrived in Lhasa in 2006 from Lamjung in Nepal, and says he doesn’t intend to leave. We ask him about reports of protests and violence, and he says simply, “no one has the time anymore.” I don’t press him further.


Sometimes, guidebooks really don’t know. The ones I have, and the sites I checked online all say that we should give ‘Norbulingka’ a skip, as it is a “dull affair”. Norbulinka was the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas, an estate of 36 sprawling acres. The main palace, built for the 7th Dalai Lama in 1755, has 374 rooms, while the compound includes several well laid gardens (renamed the People’s Park), and even a zoo. On one side is a more modest palace, built by the current or 14th Dalai Lama in 1954. He lived there from 1956-1959, before fleeing to India, fearing arrest. That palace underwent a major restoration about 10 years ago, but hasn’t always been open to the public. If you are ever in Lhasa, this is a must-see (regardless of the guidebooks), complete with the study room where the 21-year old Dalai Lama and his tutor Heinrich Harrer worked. It also has an amazing old radio and record player gifted by PM Nehru. There aren’t, quite obviously, any images of the Dalai Lama, as they are prohibited by the Chinese government. Even so, it is interesting to see how scrupulously the Chinese government maintains his personal effects, including a gold brocade gown he wore for ceremonial occasions that now is propped up on his throne. What’s amazing is how many Tibetans come through, performing several prostrations before this throne, leaving money and scarves for their spiritual guru who has been away more than half a century. What is equally amazing is that our official hosts chose to show us this palace, and the worshipping locals, than the more imposing, and less controversial main palace!

Keywords: Lhasa, Potola Palace, Norbulingka


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