A Hundred Yak Butter Lamps

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Lhasa, Tibet
By Brandon Wilson

Chapter II
Landing at Lhasa’s incongruously modern Gonggar Airport, we excitedly joined an international group of five other travelers on our mandatory, propaganda-laden, organized tour. We were a little nervous approaching customs since we’d secreted a stack of photos of the Dalai Lama into our luggage.

His Holiness had lived in forced exile in Dharamsala, India since 1959 while the Communists waged an untiring campaign to wipe out any memory or remaining allegiance to Tibet’s god-king. Although we knew photos were strictly forbidden and their presence might have caused us to be expelled immediately, we decided to risk bringing them in. Not only would they be a sort of holy currency, they’d serve as a treasured gift of faith to any of our local hosts.

Our photos remained undetected. After breezing through customs we were met by two politely grinning Chinese appointed guides who herded us into a mini-van. Then, signaling the start of our ninety-six kilometer race, the coach electronically bleated, “Bong schwei! Bong schwei! Bong schwei! Bong schwei!” before spinning down serpentine roads toward our long-awaited vision of “Shangri-La.”

As a fleeting barrage of images sailed past, everyone anxiously pressed noses against the smoked windows. Gui, a bearded Barcelonan professor, craned to snap photos as Elyse, a winsome Parisian, feverishly drew on her notepad. The rest of us struggled to mentally sketch a composite of it all.

At first, it looked just like another god-forsaken wasteland with monolithic, stark boulders sprouting atop a desolate, dusty plain. Then, upon closer inspection, we could tell it wasn’t entirely foreboding. Sparse green fields were polka dotted with shaggy black yaks looking like sheep dogs on steroids, and squat, sugar-cubed adobe huts. A glittering swatch of snow crowned surrounding peaks while swirling rust-hued dust clouds engulfed black-robed pilgrims. And then, for an instant, a brilliantly surreal rainbow even garlanded the otherwise bleak, coffee ground terrain.

“That’s a good sign,” I thought, hoping and desperate to believe that luck had flown over those impenetrable Himalayas with us. We needed all the help we could get.

It was nearly two hours later when those tidy huts transformed into clumsy, cookie-cutter, concrete block houses hidden behind thick, foreboding walls. This was Lhasa.

At first glance, that “Place of the Gods” was unsettling in its bland newness, unnerving in its pervasive Beijing persona. Family-run shops, their facades plastered with hand-lettered signs, stretched for miles. Rickshaws clogged pockmarked streets, while packs of soldiers scavenged town squares. Tons of Chinese troops in olive-drab, one-size-fits-all uniforms flirted with Szechwan go-go girls and hookers decked-out in ’60s beehive bouffants and spiked heels. Standing and smoking, spitting and gawking, they leered with distaste at the once-sacred city where fate had dumped them.

In that crowd, spotting a Tibetan was like finding Waldo, since China’s resettlement of ethnic Chinese into Tibet has been horrifyingly successful. Beijing knows exactly what buttons to push, billions of times.

Social and economic incentives for resettlement include substantial perks: pay up to four times what they would earn back home; favorable loans; better housing; longer leave; exemption from the hated one-child-per-family rule; and the ultimate “golden carrot,” the chance to live where they want when they return. Consequently, Chinese pioneers outnumbered Tibetans within the pre-invasion borders, five million Chinese to only four million Tibetans.

Already, I could clearly see Shangri-La wasn’t the ancient “paradise” everyone imagined. “Where is the legendary city that withstood foreign invaders for so many centuries?” I silently wondered.

As if in answer, the concrete curtain parted, if only for an instant, and the Potala Palace rose in transcendental splendor from atop nearby Marpori Mountain. For a heartbeat I was relieved. Then I wondered in horror if the Dalai Lama’s former home was all that was left of Tibet after forty plus years of occupation?

Khada Hotel became a humble base for our five-day escorted tour. As you might expect, it was rustic by Western standards (or any standard for that matter). Our room, a dazzling psychedelic parrot green, overlooked a courtyard parking lot while sagging twin beds faced a battered black-and-white TV flickering Kung-Fu films. The sink was a simple affair: a tin wash basin and crimson thermos of boiling water in the corner.

At least it was warm. Our room was bone chilling, since nights already plunged to freezing and there was no heat. Those “modern” communal showers they had bragged about were two floors down and rarely offered hot water. Sadistically, even the Turkish squat toilets were two halls and a very long jog away.

Funny. Although it seemed primitive to us then, looking back, we would soon miss its relative luxury.

Khada’s restaurant was a pompous cavernous hall, splashed the same gaudy shade with an immense incense pot planted in the center of the floor. A golden altar flooded an entire wall with bottles of whiskey, brandy and imported cigarettes shanghaiing sacred positions once occupied by photos of the Tibetan god-king and the benevolent Goddess of Mercy. Lhasa’s new gods silently reflected in a cracked and peeling mirror, offering numbing communion to those few who could afford their nightly redemption.

That first evening the seven of us reluctantly joined our guide in what was to become a frustrating daily ritual, a kind of culinary Chinese torture. After laboriously deciphering the jumbled menu, we carefully pondered our slim options and cautiously ordered only to be scolded, “We’re out of that!” And so we started our frustrating guessing game again. Each night we salivated as visiting dignitaries (Lhasa Rotarians?) were plied with piled platters of delicacies. As spicy aromas wafted and mingled with nauseating rose incense, each man ate his weight in meat and vegetables, momos (stuffed dumplings), noodle dishes and pastries. Then, with a loud belch, they casually flung empty beer bottles to the floor.

“Hey, we’ll just have what they’ve ordered,” quipped Tedd, our gregarious Swiss club manager. With a noncommittal smile our guide shook his head then vanished behind beaded curtains into the kitchen–only to eventually return with yet another bland plate of noodles or rice or an omelet, traveling incognito as scrambled eggs.

Meanwhile, Mandarin waitresses, clicking back and forth in high heels and even higher teased hair, graciously kept cups topped with an endless stream of sweet jasmine or yak butter tea.

We’d read about that traditional Tibetan staple: how a pressed block of strong black tea is brewed in a huge pot with a fistful of salt for hours over a dung-fire. Then, just before serving, a dollop of rich, freshly churned yak butter is added, creating a cloudy soup. Since we figured we’d practically live on the brew like local Tibetans for the next few months, we might as well try some. So those waitresses graciously poured us cup after murky, swirling cup.

Unfortunately, the Khada Hotel’s recipe lost something in translation. That rancid yak butter concoction kept weak western stomachs brewing and churning all night.

The next morning, anxious to discover the remnants of that endangered culture, we set off for the Jokhang Temple, center of Lhasa’s religious and social activity. However, to reach that fortress-like complex, we needed to maneuver through and survive a living, swarming maze. For one fleeting instant, a moment frozen in time, a few wayward travelers became part of an eon’s old spectacle.

Everyone had something to sell; everything had its price. Skirting pushy jewelry vendors who were screaming, “Come look! Come look!” while tugging sleeves of reluctant passersby, we wove a circuitous path between rickety food carts stacked with a mosaic of colorful produce, and squatting, sun-ripened women pushing pyramids of seeds piled high on yellowed newspapers.

As much as we tried to downplay our Western presence, we were as invisible as skinheads at a Hasidic temple. Beggars, hobbling past on a wobbly crutches, cased out the strange-looking foreigners, while rickshaw drivers brazenly cried out in Chenglish, “Hey, take you somewhere, Misstah?”

Even religion was peddled, with prayer flag merchants and ceremonial khata cloth salesmen hawking holy offerings by the yard or strand to frenzied shoppers and Western heathens alike.

Outside the temple’s seventh-century facade, shrouded, gnarled men bought aromatic boughs of juniper and sage-like herbs, which they ceremoniously tossed into the smoky pyre. Then, heads bowed, they fervently chanted amid swirling white smoke, engulfing both the pious and not-so-holy in pungent wafts of incense as clouds billowed and surged from twin immense urns.

Their reverence was contagious and carried upon the wind.
Beneath fluttering strands of multi-colored prayer flags, a hundred Buddhist pilgrims feverishly prostrated onto the temple’s entryway, sliding well-worn calluses across polished bare stone. While a few fell on tattered straw mats, others wore cardboard squares on weathered hands. Trance-like, their rhythmic reclining and chanting repeated again and again. No beginning. No end.

A massive cylindrical prayer wheel the size of a Volkswagen guarded the temple’s monumental portal. Its metal inscriptions were rubbed smooth by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims over the centuries, who had traveled far to spin the missive millions of times, sending its prayer of “Om Mani Padme Hum!” soaring to the heavens.

We, too, drifted on a cloud of incense to an expansive inner court where flickering rays of a hundred pungent yak butter lamps cast eerie illumination across the grounds. Amid maroon-robed monks chanting a mystic drone of devotion, we joined humble throngs shuffling through the temple in a clockwise procession. Eager hands turned scores of prayer wheels mounted beneath exquisitely graphic thangka murals, tempting with the pleasures of nirvana, shocking with the agonies of hell.

Swept up in a tide of cherubic-cheeked pilgrims, we left the light-streamed courtyard, wandering past a solemn inner sanctum holding the treasured seated Sakyamuni, Gautama Buddha. Then, climbing stairs, we ducked inside a tiny chamber and plunged into a stifling total void.

The walls oozed grease. The floor seemed to have a life of its own. There was an overpowering stench, a sickening scent of sweat, musky incense, and putrid yak butter matured over fourteen centuries. As our eyes adjusted to the murky light, we found ourselves pressed into a five-by-eight chamber with sixty others who reverently filed past the Medicine Buddha, rubbing brass plates and mumbling incantations to ensure their good health.

From there we meandered on several levels through another twenty crowded chapels dedicated to a confusing array of deities, royalty and saints; the only foreigners to be seen among hordes of joyous Tibetans. Although awe-struck by the temple’s craftsmanship and astounded by the tremendous devotion, we couldn’t help but feel intrusive, strangely out of place, as if we were missing something.

Envious, I searched the blissful faces around us, thinking these people have come huge distances and sacrificed greatly for this once-in-a-lifetime trip to their Mecca. Some, I’d heard, even crawled like human inchworms the entire distance!

“Unfortunately for us,” I thought, “this part of our trip, although uncertain, has been almost too easy. We don’t deserve to be here. If only the Jokhang was at the end of our journey…if only politics didn’t dictate Kathmandu as our destination, we could join them here in celebration…perhaps even as pilgrims.”

Feeling insignificant, I fled the temple alone, swept up in a sea of civilization, swimming clockwise through the crowded bazaar on an inner pilgrim circuit. I became lost in a crowd, enveloped by nomad women, drokpa, their braided hair and blushed cheeks shining with yak butter pomade, garbed in black robes and turned-up felt boots. I was surrounded by statuesque, fearsome Khampa warriors whose hair was looped in red braided rope; austere, wandering monks in burgundy robes; Amish-looking Muslims in battered straw hats and wisps of beards; gnarled women bundled in ten layers of rags, spinning miniature prayer wheels; wizened men with skin the texture of dried earth, curiously gazing out from under floppy felt hats.

And, it would be safe to say, the goods sold there were as diverse as the buyers. Lhasa’s ancient trade center was a street market goulash of mostly imported goods, peddled mostly by imported Han merchants and peppered with unbridled enthusiasm. If it could be bought in Tibet, you could buy it there: everything from fresh yak carcasses to boxes of apples, pears, chili peppers, persimmons and raisins; from barrels of dried or shredded yak cheese to dusty bags of tsampa, ground barley flour. Ladies hawked yak butter by the block, while Han shops offered every expensive import: flapped fur hats, bolts of material, thermoses, rice pattern dishes and tin plates, kerosene stoves, herbal remedies, beers and brandies.

It was a grand spectacle, much as it ever was, except for one frightening detail. As Tibet’s hub it is not surprising that the Barkhor is also one of the most closely observed areas of that occupied capital. Video cameras and plainclothes police provide ever-vigilant eyes, ensuring protests are short-lived and retribution severe, as evidenced by the hundreds of political prisoners. Journalists have been sentenced from ten years to life in prison for exposing the truth. Monks face up to ten-years confinement if police as much as spot them chatting to foreigners.

Sadly, even the hallowed Jokhang provided little sanctuary. During the 1959 uprising Tibetan freedom fighters took refuge there, reasoning the invaders wouldn’t dare desecrate the premises. They were wrong. After suffering a shelling, tanks rammed then rolled through its crumbled gates. However, we soon discovered that Tibet’s recent tragic history lesson only began there.

That afternoon our guide took us to Sera Monastery, former home of the 5,000 famous fighting monks. Once trained in the martial arts, many gave up their vows to fight for freedom. All that has changed. Today, most skirmishes are between young monks debating in the courtyard.

We, too, were flooded with unanswered questions. Cruising past an exhausting collection of temples and shrines, we probed our well-meaning, but ill-informed guide for more information, asking,

“What’s that statue?”

“One of Buddha protectors,” he’d cough.

“Which Dalai Lama is that?”

“Yellow Hat,” he’d mumble.

“What’s that?”

“Very old…” he’d whisper, shuffling off.

Finally, frustrated with his non-answers, we supplied a few our own. Chasing after him, we spotted another brooding statue. “Oh, that must be a Yellow Hat!” I proclaimed. Pleased with his students, he nodded in agreement.

From that day on, we fondly called him Wrong Job. As Cheryl explained, “Nice guy…wrong job.”

Over the next few days, Elyse, Gui and Conrad, a German banker, diligently fought frantic mobs at the China South West Air office. For some unexplained reason the airline hadn’t booked return seats on the once-a-week flight back to Nepal and the trio was reluctant to overstay their welcome. So, while they battled the bureaucracy, Cheryl, Todd, Fredo (the Italian) and I joined Wrong Job wading through a confusing hodgepodge of Tibetan history, which only created more unanswered questions.

Our first stop was Drepung Monastery, once the world’s largest with 10,000 monks. Now its halls and kitchens ring silent, testimony to Beijing’s Chinese Religious Bureau. This state-appointed committee controls all aspects of the once-thriving monastic life and reportedly limits monk recruits to those who “love the Communist Party.” Consequently, Drepung’s dogs, thought to be reincarnated monks who’ve failed to karmically advance in life’s cycle, were more visible than its holy men. Far from the seat of wisdom it once was, all Drepung could muster was a state-orchestrated, Disney-esque diorama of religious tolerance for the traveler’s benefit.

Still, in some ways, we felt fortunate to even step across its massive portals. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, thousands of Tibet’s temples (perhaps 90 percent) were pillaged and tens of thousands of monks or nuns were killed or sent to concentration camps.

Our next stop, the Norbulinka, was once the Dalai Lama’s pristine Summer Palace. Today, it is a neglected garden complex and the Holy Man’s former quarters were locked. However, after great persistence, a caretaker understood our wildly animated requests and led us to the hollow shells of two 1927 Baby Austins. Tibet’s first cars, the Dalai Lama’s pride and joy, lay rusting among weeds. Originally carted over the mountain passes in pieces by the 13th Dalai Lama, they were reassembled in the 1950s by the present Dalai Lama then demolished by mobs during the bloody revolt.

Disheartened by Norbulinka’s lackluster condition and the temple’s cultural sideshow, we approached the Potala Palace, a last visible reminder of the Lama’s power, with trepidation.

“What if it, too, is ransacked?” I thought. “What if just a shell remains?”

Fortunately, as we entered, any fears quickly vanished. Spiritual significance aside, the building remains an architectural wonder. Built in the 17th century without steel frames or even nails, the Potala towers thirteen stories, contains 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and 200,000 statues. A monumental achievement, it was built entirely with human and animal power, since the wheel was still unknown in Tibet.

All afternoon we aimlessly wandered its chapels and meditation halls. Fascinated, we explored silent shrines and towering mausoleums whose chortens contain dried remains of former Dalai Lamas. Each gargantuan urn was extraordinarily exquisite, studded with precious jewels, turquoise, diamonds, coral, and plated in gold and silver.

But for us, the most fascinating feature was the rooftop apartment that overlooks the sacred city, the chamber of His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama. In its simplicity and frigid, symbolic loneliness, it supposedly remains in the same condition as when he fled into exile to India in 1959.

For an instant, huddled atop the gusty rooftop, surrounded by the sweeping, snowcapped panorama of the Himalayas, Cheryl and I were deeply chilled by the challenge confronting us.

Then, mysteriously, we were blanketed with a warm, reassuring comfort: a feeling as though we would never be alone on our journey. And any doubts we had vanquished in the wind.

An excerpt from Yak Butter Blues by Brandon Wilson
(© 2004) Pilgrim’s Tales/Heliographica
For expedition photos, information, or to purchase a signed copy, visit www.YakButterBlues.com

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