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Lhasa LAYER BY LAYER

Tibet's capital is not a city of instant spiritual gratification. Those in search of a deeper experience need the patience and steadfast heart of a pilgrim.

October 09, 2005|Cherilyn Parsons | Special to The Times

Lhasa, Tibet — AT first, I must admit, I didn't like the land of the gods.

Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, literally translates as "god ground." It's been called the farthest goal of all travel, the most hidden city on Earth, the hub of the kingdom of enlightenment, the locus of Shangri-La. Hardly a destination on Earth has been more mythologized.

So, when I first ventured to Tibet, a country perched in the Himalayas north of India and Nepal, in the summer of 2000, my expectations were nearly as high as Lhasa's elevation -- 12,000 feet.

And fell just about that far.

Satellite dishes tangled with prayer flags on the rooftops of traditional whitewashed houses. Tibetan nomads in Nike caps roared into the city on motorcycles. I had imagined them riding horses decked with tinkling bells and embroidered saddles.

I had studied Tibetan Buddhism for years, so I nearly wept at what I found atop the sacred Potala Palace, former residence of the dalai lamas: a photo studio where tourists could dress in Maoist uniforms, the type worn by the Chinese army when that country annexed Tibet in the 1950s and outlawed religious practice for 30 years.

I hated Lhasa.

But I recalled how explorers in centuries past spent months trekking over the Himalayas to get here, only to be turned away because the Tibetan government didn't like visitors. Most of them tried again, usually disguised as pilgrims. They believed in Lhasa. So why should I let a few goblins of globalization scare me away? I had to try again.

When I returned to Lhasa two years later, the city was worse.

Buildings in the square in front of the Jokhang, Tibet's holiest temple, had been bulldozed to make space for glittery Chinese gold shops and stores selling TVs and refrigerators. The government had claimed to be allowing religious practice and renewing monastic life, but Lhasa's monasteries felt like ghost towns.

At the government-owned Lhasa Department Store, festooned with banners featuring Western supermodels, I spotted a nomad family gasping over an innovation of my culture: an escalator.

The father approached the escalator, which seemed to ascend on its own. He tucked in his sheepskin robe, paused at its entrance, began to step forward and hesitated. Two, three more tries, and he took the plunge, stepped on and rose -- without lifting a foot. Cries of amazement came from his family.

I smiled. A delightful scene. But Lhasa still was not quite Shangri-La.

Could a third trip be the charm? The current, exiled Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, has said that Shambhala, Tibet's own utopia, actually exists on Earth but that we need to develop an enlightened vision to see it.

I took his words as travel advice. I would attempt Lhasa again.

On my third trip (last November), the city was as awful as ever. It was shrouded in concrete, loud with Chinese soap operas and surrounded by new suburban condo complexes. Monks asked about L.A. Laker Kobe Bryant.

As I squinted in the high-altitude sun, I recalled words by aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "The eyes are blind."

And: "One must look with the heart."

The pilgrimage begins

I tossed aside my guidebooks, maps and mental compass and began to follow heartfelt people, Tibetan pilgrims, on their paths through the city. I started on the Barkhor path, a pedestrian avenue that encircles the Jokhang, the central temple of Tibet.

The avenue was lined with stalls, and hawkers called out their wares, including prayer flags, necklaces, monks' garb, cymbals, fur caps, false teeth. Tibetans were shopping furiously and dressed to impress -- the gods, that is.

Lissome beauties wore their hair in 108 braids (the Tibetan sacred number), and old folks fingered strings of 108 beads. Beaming nomads ambled along in clunky jewelry of coral, turquoise and amber. Many spun hand-held prayer wheels, flashing gold in the sun.

By 6 p.m., hordes began to enter the courtyard that led into the Jokhang. I'd already been to the temple with other tourists on my first trip here. I'd seen frescoes, golden statues and an 8th century Buddha -- Tibet's most sacred statue -- kept behind a chain curtain. Fluorescent lights had glared overhead. I had felt nothing magical.

Now, outside the massive locked doors to the sanctuary, a crowd of pilgrims jostled for position. When two burgundy-robed monks opened the padlock, I crammed through the doorway with everyone else.

And entered another world.

This was nothing like the Jokhang I'd seen as a tourist. The huge chamber, lighted with hundreds of butter lamps, glowed red and gold. The floors, rafters and pillars were painted deep crimson. Paintings and brocade wall hangings, shot through with red, gold and silver threads, hung from the ceiling as if to paint empty space itself. The sanctuary was like the inside of a human heart.

All was hushed, except for the murmuring of mantras -- prayers -- by the pilgrims: Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum.

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