This winding path, with its overarching prayer flags, is the Lingkor – the outer circumambulation path around Lhasa. In both the morning and evening there are many local people still walking here, reciting mantras and turning prayer-wheels. But to walk the Lingkor is to become aware of what has happened to Lhasa over recent years. Every now and again you emerge from the old Tibetan pathway to find yourself in modern China, with wide streets, and traffic. You make your way for a while past busy shops and then go down an alley into the next section of undestroyed pilgrimage path. Then further on suddenly you find yourself back in modern China again. In 1959, when the Dalai Lama (and Dagyab Rinpoche with him) fled Tibet, Lhasa was a small town of perhaps 35 or 40,000 people. Today it is heading for a quarter of a million. It is a place of cranes and cement, a modern Chinese city with an old Tibetan quarter.
The Chinese policy of encouraging settlement in its ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region’ seems to have been a much more effective way of dowsing remaining hopes of Tibetan independence than repression and torture. The influx of Han Chinese to Lhasa and other major towns in Tibet is so big that it feels irrevocable, a tsunami of immigrants that threatens to swamp the local population. Somehow I found it made the tragedy of Tibet’s loss of independence easier to accept. There is so obviously no way back.
I had to put in a picture of a yak. We passed these on the hillside as we walked to a temple called Pabongka, outside Lhasa. I grew very fond of yaks. I liked looking at them as much as the Tibetans in our party enjoyed eating them. Naturally, all the Tibetan restaurants served yak. Some places that catered to tourists sold yak burgers, and one menu even offered yak bourguinon. Me? I’ll stick to being vegetarian…
This one is me, walking uphill painfully slowly, with dusk falling, towards a place of death. After we had been in Tibet for a few days, we made our first overnight excursion out of Lhasa. We travelled to Drigung, the main monastery of the Drigung Kagyu sub-school of Tibetan Buddhism. Drigung is renowned for its sky burial site, to which corpses are brought to be dismembered and fed to the vultures. We had been staying in Lhasa, which is relatively low by Tibetan standards – only 3,600m – and before being acclimatised much we were going up further. The monastery itself is at about 4,000m, perched high on the side of a spectacular mountain valley. The sky burial site is another 30 minutes’ walk up the mountain.
In this picture all the rest of our party has gone on ahead, but for some reason the altitude has really got to me. How you respond to altitude isn’t about how fit you are. I’ve run half-marathons in the last couple of years, but now I can only manage even to walk up this slope by chanting mantras. Vijayamala comes back to see if I’m all right. I joke to her that this is all very convenient. She will be able to leave me for the vultures when I collapse at the sky burial site. Eventually even mantras don’t seem to help. Instead I try imagining myself as a truck with a big diesel engine. When we finally painfully arrive there, the sky burial site has a kind of wild beauty to it, and a strong atmosphere, but I am too tired really to take it in.
Later that night I vomit into a bucket in our bedroom in the monastery guesthouse. The alternative would be to go to the bathroom. But that is down three flights of stairs, and then across the courtyard, in the snow. And when you get there the toilets are holes in the ground… Mind you, that was exceptional. With our western money and group booking power, we tended to stay in good hotels, better than I’m used to in Europe.
Ah, for me this was one of the highlights of the whole trip. This is a picture of the upper lhakhang at Ratsa Ritrö, a small temple outside Lhasa. As you can see, I went just with Elke, Mario and Vijayamala. Our party contained people with different interests, so sometimes we would go our own ways. Pema, our guide, and his bosses seemed reasonably relaxed about this, and Elke and Puntsok were very patient and accommodating!
Ratsa Ritrö is a temple where the practice of Vajrayogini, a Buddha in dakini form, is emphasised. In it are several images of Naro Khachö, the form of Vajrayogini that is a major focus of practice in the Gelug and Sakya schools. In the middle of the room there is a mandala with offerings to Vajrayogini. The monks allowed us to meditate here, even telling other visitors that the lhakhang was closed so that we could be undistracted. I had wanted to visit lesser-known places in which there was still strong practice going on, and Ratsa Ritrö is an excellent example. In fact, when I came away I had the sense that the whole of the lhakhang had been bathed in a gentle red light. It wasn’t, there were just the usual butter lamps and naked light bulbs, so presumably my memory was influenced by the strong meditative atmosphere produced by all the Vajrayogini practice that had taken place there.
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