Saturday, November 16, 2013

October 31, Lhasa

Last night was pretty eventful. Despite having slept poorly the night before and being exhausted from oxygen deprivation, I couldn't sleep. I took my pulse: fast heart rate. Small headache. Some feeling of nausea. Despite the electric heater and three layers of blankets I couldn't get warm: fever. My father died nine years ago in Lima, Peru, having just been in Machu Pichu and Cuzco, from HACE: high altitude cerebral edema. I had the same symptoms of his altitude sickness, just as Mike had forewarned warned us, even though I knew that thinking of how my father died made my symptoms feel worse than they actually were. I knew I'd feel like an idiot if I woke up dead in the morning because I was too embarrassed to call for help, which, knowing my father, I am sure he would not have done, so he died.

The idiot/survival seesaw finally tipped at 11:45 PM when I called Mike for help, who called the hospital which sent a doctor to my room. He must see cases like this constantly. Mike and the doctor arrived at 12:15 AM, the doctor with a suitcase. The top layer was a white doctor jacket which he immediately put on, so now he was a real doctor. He took my temperature: a low fever. He took my heart rate with a stethoscope and my blood pressure with a portable machine. He asked my age and weight. He hooked up an IV bag by taking an S-hook and wide cellophane packing tape, taping it to the mirror above my bed, and suspending the IV bag from that: pretty resourceful! Into what I think was ringer lactate he added what must have been over a dozen tiny vials of medicine, to reduce the blood pressure in my brain and other things. He gave me two tiny sleeping pills, which took a long time to take effect. And then he sat and waited for the two hours while the IV fluid dripped into me. The cost was 1,080 yuan, less than $200. I have travel insurance but another person in the group told me the loopholes mean I won't get it back. No matter: worth it for the experience, to say nothing of surviving. Today I feel fine except for the lack of energy due to the low oxygen level, but I can cope with that. Because I finally fell asleep at 2:00 or 3:00 I skipped the morning's activity, a Buddhist temple, and slept until 11:00. Given my anti-religious feelings I was not unhappy to skip the temple. I was told the devout circumnavigate the temple on their hands and knees, and that while some people used things to cushion their hands others did not and had blisters and blood on their hands. I am not sorry to have missed that.

After lunch we had some free time. My hotel is right next to the most amazing bazaar.

 Many women and some men wear face masks, which come in designer styles as well as the normal ones. In fact with the best air yet, I've seen more face masks here by far.

How can this be? Because the sun is strong due to the altitude and women want to avoid sunburn and, horror of horrors, freckles. I've even seen women using umbrellas. Even in the sunshine, it's not exactly warm here.

Older people tend to wear traditional dark clothes to absorb heat; younger people modern and sometimes lighter-colored ones. I saw younger people using cell phones, but not older people. Sitting for a rest, I asked a family if I could take their pictures. I showed them all the results and they seemed pleased. 

So many things are sold here. I saw a cart with steaming sticky buns imperfectly covered with a towel, and even a cart of Red Bull energy drinks and a store selling Adidas sneakers. Lots of Wrigley chewing gum. There is no predicting what American products will be found here, although there are certainly many fewer than in Chinese cities I've been to. There are several stands and stores selling furs in different configurations – hats, vests, scarves (whole animals where the mouth bites the tail to stay closed – I remember when I was a child my mother had one of those), flat furs to line skirts and shirts, big and small rugs, everything.

 There was even a store selling a tiger skin which I would have thought would be illegal.

And in fact afterwards I learned that selling tiger skins is illegal, but I had turned it over and I know it was the real thing. By the end of the day that store no longer had the tiger skin displayed.

Besides furs there are many warm things for sale in down, fleece, and sheep or yak wool – I saw gloves, jackets, scarves, insulated shoes and slippers, and capes. The bazaar prices, naturally, are considerably cheaper than the brick-and-mortar stores, with, I imagine, more variable quality. The stores seem to have been built all at one time in the exact same proportions which is pretty boring visually; some especially prosperous or fancy stores are double-width, not much of a visual relief. But there are no brick-and-mortar stores I've seen in Lhasa selling Maseratis or Ferraris, as I saw in the other cities.

In the afternoon we went to many places, and I am feeling totally fine except of course it's hard to walk and talk at the same time because of the thin oxygen.

The first place was the Lhasa Historical Museum. 

It displayed artifacts starting with pottery vessels from 6,000 years ago, but what I was captivated by was the scroll displays, writer that I am. I said at the beginning that this record would be for me and now I am about to prove it – I doubt many of you will be as enthralled by the following objects as I was. This first one was a scroll from 1793. I loved the gracefulness of the cursive writing.

The next one one dated from 1741. It has official seals in red and both Chinese, written downward at that time (until 1949 actually — it's now written across from left to right), and Tibetan.

This blue scroll with lovely decorations on the top and the bottom was only in Tibetan and dates from 1667.

This scroll was an edict in Tibetan from 1840, with elaborate hand-drawn dragons at the top and the bottom.

The next one shows an entire book from the 13th century called “The Commentaries on Wisdom,” but it was compiled and transcribed in a Buddhist monastery later (date not given), just as our Western history of classical texts survived the Dark Ages because of the scholars in the Christian monasteries. The pages looked like they were 18” wide by 6” tall, and had wooden covers that were tied together with fabric. They were written with gold and silver ink.

This next book fascinated me. You can see the hole in the text. To get close to show it I took the photo only of the left side of the page but there was an equal hole on the right side also. I was sure this must be a way of fastening the pages together, with a long needle going through all the pages, very clever. Here's what it looks like. Doesn't that seem a reasonable explanation?

But the hole had a more prosaic reason, although still interesting. It was created when the wide page was placed on a hard surface with two tiny wires sticking up to hold the paper in place so the scribe could write it without any movement.

And here is still another style of writing – all of these are in Tibetan – called the “Long Leg” style for official documents, from the 18th century.

And finally, a complete book from the 17th century, shown with its top page written in gold ink and its cover.

On the bus to the next place we had a talk from Sunshine about marriage in Tibet. Marvelous. Although marriage customs are changing among young people in the cities, traditionally marriage was, and in many places still is, arranged entirely by the parents. There are two tests for a good match: first an astrological test for compatibility and then a relationship test. It was important that the spouses not be related, not even distantly, for the sake of the children to be born to them. The pair doesn't meet beforehand, unless they can sneak a peek somewhere. The wedding itself takes five or six days, extremely elaborate, at the end of which the dowry price paid by the bride's parents is shown off. Naturally, the richer the better. The husband's family pays for the wedding and the society, like China, is patrilocal: the bride goes to live with the groom's parents. Also like China, it is patrilinear: although the wives keep their names throughout their lives, the children take the husband's name. There are no wedding rings: married women wear aprons over their long dark skirts, which can be seen everywhere on the streets. Several of the women in the photos above are wearing aprons.   Interestingly enough, both polygamy and polyandry have been practiced here, and still are in very rural places. Sunshine assured us there are always problems with this arrangement.

An intermediate development has been that boys and girls choose each other but the parents still must give their approval in the old ways. The modern development is that before marriage girls and boys have relationships and use birth control to keep from getting pregnant. If the girls do get pregnant the family loses face but not as much as in China: the parents tend to raise the child and when the girl gets married gives it back to her to raise. In this modern custom, parents give up all control over their children's marriages. And divorce is hard to get: I wonder if that will change in coming years.

Then Sunshine told us that it is common for both male and female spouses to have lovers, but only secret lovers. Three or four at a time! Do you think maybe it's to keep warm?

Then we went to visit a factory that sold many beautiful things, some of which I bought. I passed up the necklaces costing $2,000 made of mountain coral.  Tibet used to be under water before the Himalayas were pushed up, and the sea coral was compressed by the mountains and became a beautiful deep red. They wove rugs with yak yarn, not smooth and thin like silk but thicker and warmer. (It is not for nothing that the yak is Tibet's holy animal, and unlike cows in India every part of the yak is used.) Two women were required to weave it. The one on the left bent and straightened, bent and straightened. My heart went out to her.

They had spectacularly gorgeous turquoise stones, also found in Tibet, more patterned than the turquoise we know from the American Southwest. The stones are sold individually, as in the picture, and in various jewelry forms. I actually bought an individual stone which they threaded into a pendant – after some very serious bargaining, from 460 yuan ($77) to 200 yuan ($34).

Some people on this trip are rich and buy things for many hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Well, you can't have all the beautiful things in the world, and I surely have more than my share already.

On the way to the next place, we passed a teahouse where the ground was littered with sunflower seed shells, which I've seen in many places.

I had to smile: Tibet has roof dogs that bark like mad, just as in Mexico!  It's to the right of the red part.

We visited a middle-class family in an older part of Lhasa. Homes that welcomed visits had the white fabric outside, which must be related to the white scarf Sunshine gave each of us as the traditional Tibetan welcome greeting, like the leis in Hawaii.

The courtyard faced west. Although it was narrow, it was warm enough to grow plants and warm up the living room through the panes of blue glass. The rest of the house was unheated.

 Look carefully at the back left of the living room in the photo above. There were two Singer treadle sewing machines, one in front of the other, although it's hard to make out the one in the back. Here are the scissors the seamstress used.

Every piece of wooden furniture – sofas and chairs – was covered with a woven rug made of yak wool.

The dining room where we were was something that made you blink. Virtually every square inch of sofas, walls, and the ceiling was covered with some sort of intensely colorful decoration.

In this picture the red and green fabric went all around the top of the room and across the center. There were two fabric pictures of the Potala Palace at the left. Below the one on the right was a covered large boom box. In the corner of the room was a covered television, topped with a DVD player. (Every electrical appliance, including the refrigerator, was covered.) Above that was a picture of two men: the previous and the current Panchen Lamas. Sunshine said it is not allowed to display a picture of the Dalai Lama. “Lama,” by the way, means “teacher,” like “rabbi.” At the other end of the room were Tibetan prayer flags.

Being mid-afternoon we were served snacks: bowls of candies and dried nuts and beans and baked things like breakfast cereal and even dried yak cheese, the first cheese I've seen in China. Tastes sort of like Romano cheese.

In the thermos, ubiquitous in China and Tibet, was yak butter tea, which I'd read about and was eager to taste. I loved it, sort of buttery, a bit creamy, and a little salty, to the point where I had three servings of it in this tiny cup.

It's a bit hard for me to understand how some people can make a trip like this and not want to taste things like yak butter tea. But then living in Mexico, I take probiotics every morning – who knows? Maybe they work.

An adjoining room, one of the seven rooms I was told made up the entire home for six people, was the chapel. Most or all devout Buddhists have chapels. This was a revelation. The top of the main shrine that contained three Buddhas was decorated with a pregnant woman, obviously a fertility symbol and a marvelous illustration of the way old and new traditions blend into each other. Here are the three Buddhas below the fertility symbol:

This was another illustration of how traditions blend. This family augments its income by welcoming tour groups (and the woman also sells small woven things you can see in the picture below), and she has placed paper money from the countries of her visitors inside the Buddhas's shrine. 

Here is our hostess. I was the only one to bring her a present, a small Mexican handmade purse, so she smiled and bowed to me many times.

Leaving her house we passed a little girl: irresistible.

It is on days like this I wouldn't give up a tour for anything. A wonderful day.

No comments:

Post a Comment