Sunday, November 17, 2013

November 1, Lhasa

I have gotten quite interested in Tibet. According to Wikipedia, 5.4 million Tibetans lived in this country in 2008, with another 189,000 of them dispersed in other countries. Chinese statistics say that improvements in Tibetan health per 100,000 population are large between 1951 and 2010: women's maternal death rate, from 5,000 to 175; infant mortality, 430 to 21; life expectancy, 35.3 to 67. I have a hard time believing these numbers because I think a substantial portion of the population remains rural or nomadic, and many of the websites on Tibet are blocked from here. I did find out that Tibet is only about one-eighth the size of the United States, and it contains 800 of what are called “settlements” – villages, towns or cities. Because life here is so harsh, people do not live isolated from each other. Nevertheless, because so much of the land is uninhabitable – the Himalayas are in the northern part of the country – the population density is only 2 people per square mile. I once read a book about what life was like in the United States with population density that low, and it was very distorted compared to my experience. I can only imagine what it must be like here with the cold and the snow.

Lhasa itself is only the second-largest city, “liberated” in 1951 and appointed the capital of the Tibetan Special Autonomous Region as of 1965.

Before birth control was introduced in Tibet, people necessarily had many children. A form of poverty avoidance as well as population control was to give two or three of your sons to the monastery, which moreover was the only place to get an education. Children entered the monastery as young as seven and were not allowed to leave the monastic life regardless of their feelings about it, until they were 25 or older. Naturally monks were celibate, and supported by donations from their families and other pious families. There were and are nunneries too but they are less numerous and less important in the society, where boys are still prized over girls. It was only with the Chinese arrival that families were encouraged to value girls, ironically enough given the traditional Chinese attitude about girls. However there is still great inequality, as many parents still believe it is useless to educate girls because all they need to know is how to cook, care for children, and make handcrafts to sell. Currently many families prefer to have only two children in order to be able to afford such things as appliances, vehicles, and cell phones.

Now to get a government job one must graduate from Tibet University. There is an entrance exam and it costs to attend, but if very poor children pass the exam the government will pay for them to attend. People with government jobs, such as teachers, earn about 5,500 yuan per month in Lhasa, about $917, and private shopkeepers earn an average of 3,000 yuan per month – a good demonstration of the power the government holds to bestow blessings. There has been considerable inflation in Lhasa lately, causing poor people much difficulty.

In the morning we went to the Potala Palace. We have all seen pictures of it but I cannot tell you how massive it is. It is built on the highest hill in a relatively flat plateau. I took this picture in the late afternoon, obviously from a place much higher than Lhasa, but you can see the plateau better. Look carefully: in the right rear you can see the palace.

The palace from close up looks like it measures a kilometer from side to side but perhaps it is less. It was started in the 7th century by the famous 5th Dalai Lama, and was gradually added to over the years. This explains the asymmetry.

The stairs went up 150 meters, so I decided that a good thing for me to do was to sit in the sunshine at the bottom and meditate while half the group climbed to the top. It was a lovely way to spend a couple of hours.

Every year the palace is whitewashed in the fall – before the Tibetan New Year in January or February and before it gets too cold. Volunteers climb up with what looks like two-gallon cans of whitewash strapped to their backs and toss it onto the walls. You can see the whitewash splattered on the window surrounds.

The people-watching was superb. I couldn't take enough pictures of these lovely people. Children:

Women carrying a prayer wheel and prayer beads, and a picture of prayer wheels for sale at the bazaar. 

There are prayer wheels you carry and other stationary wheels you spin as you walk past.

Devout Buddhists circumambulated around it clockwise, as much or as little as they had devotion, time, and/or energy for. Some walk around it all day. I saw two men making the passage by throwing themselves on the ground and sliding their hands forward on small wooden platforms with fabric above to put their hands into. At the end of the prostration they got to their knees and then their feet and then stood up, walking a step or two before repeating the process.

At this shrine some men and women stopped, took off their hats, bowed, and continued on. I saw a man take a piece of paper money out of the shrine on the right and put it into his hat. Maybe it was only change??

Watching all these devotion rites underlined for me how arbitrary they are. Almost anything can be dreamed up to signify that the deity likes it, so people repeat it and repeat it and repeat it.

These two women with small children on their back stopped so the one in the back could change the diaper of the one in the front.

In the park there were many uplifting signs, including this one about the duties the generations owe each other.

The weather is definitely fall, with the leaves from the trees falling onto the shorter pines below. I thought this was beautiful.

After lunch – yak curry stew! – we went to two monasteries high up in the mountains above Lhasa, where it was even more difficult to breathe. I should know better than to say I am glad to skip anything: it was fascinating. This monastery made wood-blocks – the same long shape as I'd seen in the museum – and sold copies of the holy books in this shape and also printed as modern perfect-bound books. Outside one of the temples I saw people prostrating themselves on body-length cushions with their hands placed on wooden things to slide forward along the pavement at each prostration.

Parents bring children here to be blessed, as indicated by a black mark on the nose. Interestingly to me, many of the parents were fathers.


If you want to be a real hermit, you could live here.

These women were sitting and resting outside the front gate of the monastery.

The monks in the pictures below were all students debating questions about Buddhism. They take turns being the questioner (those who are standing), and the person answering (those who are sitting on cushions on the pebbled ground). It was astonishingly noisy. The questioner asked his questions while lifting up his left leg and smacking it down again while he clapped his hands together stingingly hard and loud. The questions and answers were also very loud. When a student did not answer well the teacher smacked him on the head. I imagine tomorrow when it's his turn the student will have his revenge.


In this village we were able to see yaks from close up – or, for all I know, a yak/cow blend. My yak expertise is pretty shaky.


There are five levels of what happens to people when they die, according to the level of virtue they displayed in their lives. This is supposedly decided by their families, and there are sometimes (often?) differences of opinion. The first level is for lamas, who are cremated and their ashes are placed in elaborate structures in temples along with a picture of them. The second level is sky burial, in which the body is chopped in small pieces and eaten in an hour by vultures, which are honored animals because they do not kill anything living. The third level is water burial, where the body is chopped into small pieces to be eaten by fish. The fourth level is fire burial, well, really cremation, like suttee in India. And the fifth and lowest level for bad people is earth burial, not favored because it poisons the earth.

The second monastery we went to was for the purpose of sky burials. Non-Tibetan Buddhists are not allowed to see the place this happens. It is behind the white building to the right of the picture.

This hillside was decorated with Tibetan prayer flags.

We went into a meditation and prayer room that was a cave lit by a large bowl where wicks burned yak butter oil.

Touching the cave ceiling, my fingers came away with soot from burning yak butter oil for so many years.

Another kind of fuel is dried yak dung.

It is not necessary to go to deepest Africa or South America to study societies in transition. It is so clear right here in Lhasa, where so many people wear traditional clothes and others wear platform heels. And everything in between. For me this next picture sums up the changing social standards so well. I took it in the sky burial monastery.

For dinner, at my request, those of us who wanted could have yak steak. Most of the group chose yak burgers instead and then carefully removed the lettuce, tomato and onion as unsafe to eat. Yak is lean meat so it was marinated beforehand, and absolutely delicious. I am thrilled to have been able to taste it.

This is a tiring trip, no question. People who have been on several or many Overseas Adventure Travel trips say that there is less down time on this one than on any others, one place to the next to the next. I'd say it's quantity over quality but my eyes are marveling at everything I am seeing, even the trash on the ground here, even an old chair tossed into a canal, unlike China where everything is so clean.

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