Nonfiction | Invisible Cities

You May Have Already Been Blessed

Learning to Exhale in Tibet

The guidebooks are very clear. Do not discuss politics or religion with anyone you meet in Tibet. It could get them arrested, or shot, or perhaps both. So we were on our best diplomatic behavior when our ragtag group of students, backpackers, and eat-pray-love types finally arrived in Lhasa, the religious and administrative capital, after a two-day, less than luxurious high speed train ride from Beijing. 

Tibet is literally breathtakingly beautiful, despite the best efforts of the guidebooks and the Chinese government to make it sound otherwise. The air is thin and sparse on the rooftop of the world. It does not go down easily. Breathing is labored. Walking a few steps is sometimes next to impossible, but always worth the effort. The skies are a crystal clear royal blue; nothing at all like the damp grey polluted skies of Beijing. In Beijing, the air hangs down so thick, you can almost reach out and grab dirty, sticky clumps of it with your hands.

Our guide met us at the train. He was thin, wiry, and bookish. His name sounded something like Tim, so that’s what we called him. He wrapped white silk scarves around us in the traditional greeting and directed us to a blue minbus. Tim spoke excellent English and he liked to talk. He talked mostly about Tibetan history and Tibetan Buddhism. At each sacred place we visited — and even not so sacred places like dumpling restaurants, carpet factories, and herbal medicine shops– he would pause in front of a statue or a painting or an object and give us a brief but detailed lesson about Tibet and its culture.

Our hotel was in the heart of the old town. It was a small, dark, well-worn place with good sized rooms and a temperamental plumbing system. We spent a lot of  time in the cafe just off the hotel lobby. It was well stocked with cold beer and bottled-in-China Cocoa-Cola so sweet that if it was sold in the U.S., it would prompt a Congressional investigation. We’d order plate after plate of delicious momo, the classic Tibetan dumplings filled with beef, chicken, or goat.  And we would talk.

We always asked Tim to join us and if he did, Marc, a fellow law student and travelling companion, would buy him endless rounds of Chinese beer and pepper him with questions about Buddhism, a religion he said he was “seriously considering.” Kristina and Boris, a hipster Hungarian couple, asked about ancient herbal remedies that might help their various eye, ear, nose and throat ailments. Meanwhile, Anne, another student from Montreal who spent the previous six months on a chemistry fellowship in St. Petersburg, wanted to know where she could ride a yak. 

We never talked about the government. We never talked about China except in the most abstract and circular ways. For example, if we were walking through Bakhor Square and saw a shop with some interesting shawls or prayer wheels, Tim would place a gentle hand on an arm or a shoulder and say simply, “Those are fine Chinese goods.” What he meant was this: the shop was run by Han Chinese who, encouraged by the government, had migrated here from Eastern China. They sold machine-made faux Tibetan goods targeted at the tourist trade. He would quietly steer us to smaller shops off the main thoroughfare. Here, many Tibetan merchants still sold authentic handmade wares. We agreed it was better to help local residents make a living than patronize a government-sponsored tourist trap. 

After an afternoon of bargaining with merchants selling pashmina shawls and ritual prayer beads, we’d return to the hotel and check email  in the lobby (Yes, there is wi-fi on the Tibetan plateau.) Then we would use what was left of the air on our lungs and climb to the hotel roof, which doubled as an ad hoc bar and lounge. We’d sit in shabby metal beach chairs, drink more cold bottles of Tsingtao and talk about everything, the way disparate travelers who somehow end up on the same rooftop in Tibet always do. Sometimes Marc would bring his little iPod speakers and we’d take turns plugging in our playlists, while looking out at the Potala Palace, lit up and sparkling in the distance; impressive, mysterious, and holy. 

The Potala Palace is Lhasa’s jewel. It is a beautiful, white-washed ancient structure high atop a hill. The palace can be seen from almost everywhere in Lhasa. From the distance it looked like a large wedding cake or a larger than life MC Escher puzzle perched on a mountaintop. 

The Palace is the ancestral home of the exiled Dalai Lama. It includes the rooftop White Palace once the living quarters and the central Red Palace, used for religious functions. There are 1,000 interior rooms including stunning chapels housing the glittering tombs of several previous Dalai Lamas. Despite the grandeur, the palace seems feels empty, haunted and missing its soul. Like the sleeping beauty in a fairy tale, the one thing that could perhaps restore Potala to its previous, vibrant self would be its previous tenant returning home. Sadly, this story is not likely to have a happy ending.

The day we went to visit, even though the number of visitors each day is strictly limited, the lines were long to begin the steep seemingly endless climb to the top. It is considered a holy pilgrimage to make the trek. Tim introduced us to group of elderly men who made the climb each week as a sign of respect. There were very pregnant women hoping to bring their unborn babies good luck. I spotted a group of orange-shrouded monks wearing Teva sandals and talking on cell phones, but the majority of the crowd were ordinary Chinese tourists from outside Tibet, armed with large cameras and backpacks. The Chinese tourists were almost all good humored, friendly, eager to practice their English and have their pictures taken with us. We talked about basketball and  Chinese NBA star Yao Ming. We traded snacks: curiously flavored green tea crackers and soft, sweet lichi candies swapped for an unopened roll of Life Savers or a bag of M&Ms suddenly discovered in a zippered compartment.

Marc and Tim became fast friends and they often lagged behind the group on heads tilted close together in what appeared to be deep philosophical conversations. I was focused on more earthly concerns; specifically breathing. Occasionally, the altitude would get to me (“Oh, you’ll get acclimated —  if you don’t die first,”  our smiling innkeeper told me one morning while serving me a complimentary cup of Yak Butter Tea — something believed to aid in altitude sickness. However,  at least for me, I can tell you that it does not.) and keeping up with the group seemed a task I was ill equipped for and I would hang back with Tim and Marc and try to catch pieces of their conversation.

On this day, Tim was telling Marc his backstory. He said he was the youngest son in his family and it was his mother’s wish — and his wish as well — to become a monk. His family scrimped and saved to send him to Dharamshala, to study with the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama talk made me nervous. Should we even be talking about the Dalai Lama, even in passing? There were Chinese soldiers in olive uniforms with bright red arm bands — and guns — milling about in the crowd. Tim did not seem bothered. He continued to talk about his journey in a matter of fact but quiet voice. He loved his studies and wanted very much to become a monk, but his family’s finances became stretched too thin and regretfully they had to call him home to help the family. We sighed in sympathy, but Tim waved us off. “I believe it is my destiny to work here and teach tourists the way of the Buddha,” he said. He nodded his head solemnly as if he were repeating something he truly believed or had at least come to believe after a long period of soul-searching and prayer.

Tim, like most Tibetans, was worried about the encroaching presence of the Han Chinese in Tibet. Bit by bit, he said, they were chipping away at Lhasa and the native culture and turning it into a theme park. When we were there, the city was already split between modernized Chinese shopping centers, office buildings, knock-off souvenir shops and what was left of original Tibetan homes, shrines and shops. This made Tim sad and it made each of us feel a bit guilty, but pleased to be visiting this mystical city of colorful temples, fearlessly blue skies and beautiful rituals before it vanished into another large, clean, anonymous Chinese metropolis.

Marc asked Tim if he ever met the Dalai Lama. Tim said he had worshiped with the Dalai Lama on several occasions and it was and always would be the greatest experience of his life. He seemed unafraid to share with us. 

By now the line was beginning to move and I found myself walking next to Tim. We walked in silence for a while. But I had something I wanted to ask him. I was a little nervous, but I needed his opinion about something that had been bothering me for a while.

As we walked, I leaned in very close to Tim. “You know, I heard His Holiness speak a while ago in the United States,” I said. A few years ago, the Dalai Lama came to speak at Emory University in Atlanta and I went to hear him. I would not call myself a pilgrim by any means, but I am always searching for God in one form or another. I crave the comfort and certainty God might bring if I were lucky enough to find the right place, and the right people and the right prayers. I remember the day he spoke quite well. It was a warm, sunny day and the auditorium was filled with flowers and security guards. From my seat at the side of the stage, I marveled at the Dalai Lama’s warm happy expression. His face seemed to be pressed into a permanent expression of friendliness and calm. He talked, he lectured and he prayed. But as much as I wanted to be inspired or changed in some way, I just didn’t feel anything. I had always felt bad about this. I was sure I always would.

 Tim turned and peered at me thoughtfully though his wire-frame glasses and he smiled. “How wonderful to be blessed by His Holiness,” he said.

“Well, it wasn’t a religious event or anything like that,” I said. “I didn’t meet him. He was just giving a talk… but it was very moving,” I added quickly, lying just a little bit, because I thought I should, for Tim’s sake.

Tim shook his head. “Oh no, you have already been blessed,” he said. “Just to be in the same room with His Holiness is to receive his blessing.”

“Really?” I said, trying not to sound too skeptical. Tim nodded and smiled. Another tour led, he was probably thinking, another soul on the Road to Compassion. 

I didn’t believe him. I wanted to believe him, but I didn’t believe him. 

We continued to walk up the steep paths to the top of the palace. It wasn’t easy. I found myself fighting the most insidious altitude sickness; every step made me gasp, every pause made my head hurt. At one point, I wanted to stop. I wanted to go back down. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to die. But Tim and the group would have none of it. Tim produced a bottle of water from his rucksack and commanded me to drink it. I was too tired and dizzy to say no. Marc held my hand and stroked my forehead. We found a spot to rest and look out over the city. We saw the multi-colored prayer flags of the believers and the granite plazas of the encroaching Chinese office buildings. In my addled brain, Tibet was washing away in a sea of impersonal granite, as vast and as quick as an incoming tide. 

“I can’t do any more,” I said to Marc. “I just can’t.” I turned and buried my head on his shoulder. And while I felt I couldn’t go up, I also felt I didn’t have the energy or the strength to go back down, either. I was stuck. It was awful.

“You must try,” Tim said. “Why else would one come to Tibet?” he said this matter of factly and I wondered if he  believed it or if he was just trying to be encouraging. I shook my head.

“Oh, you can do this,” Marc said, patting me as if I were a small, stubborn child. “It’s just walking after all. We are in this amazing place, doing this once in a lifetime thing. How many white people — how many white women — ever travel this far and can say they made a climb like this?” I remember thinking that of course he was right. I also remember thinking that at this point the route to the top was shorter than the route back to the bottom. So, I resumed my trek.

Somehow, with endless encouragement from Tim and Marc, with Kristina carrying my bag and Boris telling bad jokes he kept insisting were hilarious in Hungarian, I was somehow able to climb to the very top of the Potala Palace. After a good long rest and several more bottles of water, I started to feel like myself again. We all took pictures with our arms around each other. We admired the exceptional view. I gave Marc a grateful hug for all his support and he gave me a little squeeze. “I would give you a big, wet kiss,” he said, “ but I’m afraid my lungs will collapse.”  I was confounded by the sense of  accomplishment and the simultaneous misery we felt.

That night, we climbed one short flight (it may have been more, but after the hike at the Palace all subsequent climbs seemed like one short flight) to the rooftop of  the Jokhang Temple  to view the city below. Even going up that one flight felt like a journey up Everest, but the sky was so clear and so blue and the colors of the temples and the shops were such vivid shades of pink and yellow and purple that we were willing to gasp for air to see it and to photograph it. Then we would burn the vision into our minds before our magical mystery tour came to an end and we headed back onto the train to the crowded concrete jungle that was Beijing.

The people in the square were gathered together in small groups, heads titled and fingers pointing upward toward the sky as the sun began to go down. “What is everybody looking at?” I asked Tim.

“There is an unusual constellation in the sky this evening,” Tim replied. “And the people are sure it has some symbolic meaning.” he said. I nodded and tilted my own head upward toward the sky. “We are an ancient and superstitious people,” Tim said.

As we were heading back to the hotel, we stopped near the doorway of the Temple and watched families filing in to pray. Marc wanted to go in and experience a worship service. I would have liked to go in as well, because as I mentioned, I am always searching. Tim told us that the Temple was not open to foreigners and especially not to Western foreigners. He showed us a spot in the square where we could meet up when he returned from praying himself. Marc and I were just about to sit down when we noticed a little old monk coming toward us. We smiled. He smiled. He had to be about 80 years old, possibly even older. He wore an orange robe and little round black glasses were the only decoration on his slightly wrinkled, but pleasant face. He was short and round and bald and quite adorable. If I believed in such things, I would have said he had an inner incandescence — some kind of inner light or aura around him. But I don’t believe in that kind of thing, do I?

The old monk stopped in his tracks about four or five feet away from us. He pointed at me. He smiled. We smiled back again, this time, tense, little nervous smiles. The little old monk motioned for me to come closer to him, and because he seemed so nice, I went over to say hello. Marc began fumbling with his Nikon, hoping to get a nice photo. The nice old monk reached out and grabbed both my hands and held them tightly. I tried to pull back. I was suddenly frightened and instantly began to wonder if this kindly old man was even a monk at all. Maybe he had a crowbar under his robe. I was just about ready to run, when the old man started talking excitedly to me in a language I didn’t understand. Marc was about to reach over and pull my hands away when Tim came out of the Temple and spotted us. He spoke to the old monk and then he spoke to me. 

“The monk wants to say hello to you foreigners and wish you well,” Tim said. 

“Is that all?” Marc asked, “He seemed like he was telling her where to find Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” The monk spoke again, quickly, to Tim, and then turned to me and smiled. 

“And he wants to give you a blessing for your journey,” Tim said.  “He knows you foreigners have come a long, way.”

Somehow I knew he wanted to give me a blessing for a journey that was bigger than the two day journey back to Beijing or even the eventual journey back to America. So I closed my eyes and let him hug me. It was a warm fatherly hug, nurturing and reassuring. The kind of hug a monk would give to a member of his flock — if monks have flocks but I don’t think they do. His hands were warm. The air smelled like smoke and sweet incense. The stars were in a strange pattern in the sky. I could hear the whirring and clicking of the camera, and the sounds of many murmured prayers inside the Temple. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can remember the monk’s kind face and his open arms.

And yes, at that moment, I knew that I had already been blessed.