Potala Beckons and Rioting Begins


We reached Lhasa at night. We met Lien Cheng again at the ticket booking counter. In China, one can book train tickets only 10 days in advance, making travelling a last minute experience. Not only did he help us get the train tickets, he even helped us get get real cheap accomodation in Phuntsok Khasang Tibetan Hostel. Talk about the Chinese bargaining prowess! They beat even the Indians at it.

Lhasa wasn’t what I had imagined it to be despite reading plenty on Lhasa. Wide roads (wider than most Delhi roads), modern style buildings, glittering neon signs are just some of the things that strike you when you reach Lhasa.

Lhasa from the Potala Palace

Having checked in, we decided to have a Tibetan meal outside. However, most eating joints had closed and the closest one open didn’t have the momo and thukpa we wanted. Just as an aside, the Chinese really believe in the adage, “Early to bed, early to rise …..”. Even in Beijing, most shops and restaurants closed by 9 and we had to hunt for places to eat. Coming back to the dinner that day, we settled for the Chinese equivalent, jiaozi. They taste almost the same but are shaped differently. I think the momos look more aesthetic. Moreover, jiaozi are sold by weight rather than by pieces like in India. A 500 gm plate turned out to be more than what I could eat especially with the chopsticks slowing down the process. One thing to note is that water is rarely drunk at room temperature in China. They always serve hot water and if the restaurant is generous enough, then green tea (or rather two leaves floating in a pot of water).

The restaurant was a Chinese establishment with Tibetan workers. They were pretty excited at seeing an Indian face, a rarity in Lhasa.

The next day was the big day! A visit to the Potala. Since all of China follows one time zone, and Lhasa is on the extreme Western part of the country, dawn broke only at around 7:30-8 AM. Also, it gets dark only by 8:30-9 PM. We tagged along with a Chinese couple staying in the hostel. Liu Feng was from Beijing and his girlfriend was working in Shanghai and they’d come for a 2 week holiday to Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). What fun! I almost envied them.

Breakfast was a very Chinese one with some rice porridge, baozi and boiled eggs. It was quite nice and filling. We then walked to Potala which was just 10 minutes away from the hostel. Potala palace was grand. It was an imposing structure painted white, looking resplendent in the bright sun.

Lhasa is expensive and the entrance to the palace cost us a princely 100 Rmb. Even Panu’s student ID didn’t work here. Most places in China allow student’s concession, so it’s quite cheap to travel as a student. Most of the chambers inside the palace were closed and we finished off with the tour in an hour or so.

Potala Palace

Taking pictures is not allowed inside and hence the opulence can only be described in words. The Buddha or Sakyamuni as Tibetans call him, and other statues like those of the bodhisattvas are pure gold. I saw the study chamber of the Dalai Lama and I imagined Heinrich Harrer (of the Seven Years in Tibet fame), meeting the Dalai Lama and giving him lessons there. I’m glad the CPC didn’t plunder the palace when they captured Tibet, unlike the Taliban who destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. It’s ironical though, that the Chinese are earning big bucks from opening Tibetan religious places to foreigners, while there are hundreds of tibetans who can only dream of seeing Potala. I wonder what my Tibetan classmates from school would think of that!

A memory which will remain etched in my mind is that of the permanent smell of yak butter and incense. In fact devotees came with packets of yak butter as offerings. Another memory is that of the hordes of pilgrims revolving the prayer wheels and prostrating on the ground facing the Potala.

Prostrating before the Potala

We were quite close to the Jokhang temple and the Barkhor square, the Janpath of Lhasa. We took a rickshaw till the square.

Unfortunately, the temple was closed for some reason. However, that didn’t deter the pilgrims who were prostrating before it by the dozens. Strolling along the Barkhor square, we found much of the jewellery imported from Nepal and India, or maybe its the other way round. Whatever, the idea was that since I didn’t find anything novel, I didn’t shop anything either. I intended buying some spices to take back home. In the mid 20Th century, India traded with Lhasa in spices and my parents absolutely recommended buying some, extolling about their purity. However, when I saw lizards and snake skin also proudly displayed among the spices, I didn’t buy any. I only bought a silver pendant shaped like the ‘Endless Knot’ which represents the intertwining of wisdom and compassion among other interpretations.

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Dried lizards

One of the Tibetan vendors, from whom we bought Tibetan coins, was rather pleased to see Indians and got really chatty. She told us the places she’d been to in India. She was of the Kham tribe and had huge chunks of turquoise woven into her hair. Tibetans aren’t allowed to hang up pictures of the Dalai Lama or even utter his name. However, it seems almost criminal to be not able to speak even about Dharamshala, his headquarter in India. Upon my uttering the name of the place, she instantly hushed me up. While leaving, as a friendly gesture, she gave me another of the Tibetan coins.

It was time for lunch and we decided to taste Tsampa and yak meat the first thing. Alou Cang near the Barkhor square was a reasonably priced restaurant, where we’d had butter tea also before going to Jokhang. Tsampa is hand rolled balls of roasted flour mixed with yak butter. The first two-three balls were quite okay but having a whole bowl of it was another story. Yak meat was a more elastic version of the mutton. Again good to experiment but I couldn’t possibly eat it every time. However, I’m glad we tasted all of this on the 14Th itself because little did we know that we’d remain in the hostel for the remaining time in Lhasa, having overpriced meals in candlelight.

Tsampa and Stir Fried potatoes

Menu

Riots Break Out

While in Alou Cang, we saw some people running in one direction. A few people, mostly women and children entered the restaurant and the proprietor promptly switched off lights, barred the entrance and drew the curtains. Amidst an uneasy silence and hysterics of a woman, we had our lunch, paid up and left. It was only when we left the restaurant that the gravity of the situation struck us. A couple of police vans were overturned and huge flames were engulfing them. The situation was confusing. We didn’t know what was happening and who was behind all this. The acrid smell of burning was pervasive. We ran in a direction away from those cars into some kind of narrow alley. A Tibetan told us that there was some political problem and the mob was burning Chinese establishments and lynching the Han Chinese. The civilian population in China is not allowed to carry firearms, and thankfully there was no shooting. Since Panu has very Chinese features, the Tibetan youth advised us to take shelter where we were. We couldn’t go to our hostel, which was just 5 minutes walk away, as the mob was on a rampage on the main road which we’d have to cross.

The place where we took refuge was a kind of a courtyard surrounded by Chinese buildings. Not a very wise choice! A couple of Chinese women were also hiding there, terror clearly reflecting in their eyes. We could hear the cries from the mob as they broke into shops, damaging anything and everything. The sound of glass breaking and smell of burning was unceasing. Every moment we feared the angry hordes would break in where we were staying as their shouts got louder and closer. There was a Chinese hotel just next to where we were and uncannily all the rooms were vacant and locked. Looked like the owners expected trouble! Anyway, with no other place to go and thick black smoke streaming in through the windows of the hotel, we decided that the open courtyard was much safer. Fire was breaking out somewhere close to us and we could feel the heat in the air. Flakes of cinder started dropping from the sky. I’m not sure if it was the smoke but the sky was overcast as though reflecting the horrors of the situation. This thought was even echoed by Andy, who I was to meet the next day in the hostel.

By now, there were quite a few people in that little place. Two young Tibetan girls began to cry and it was difficult not to let panic grip you. It was time to leave the place as it was getting very risky with the smoke slowly choking us.

The next refuge was a Tibetan tea shop where at first they refused to accept us because of Panu’s Chinese looks. It was only after waving our Indian passports did they let us in. Waiting in the darkness, we had endless cups of butter tea, waiting for the police to come, waiting for the madness to end!

The situation was slightly better by 6 and one of the Tibetan woman showed us the way to our hostel. The streets were littered with the charred remains of the shops, street lights fallen on the ground and the army personnel supervising and stationed at every place. The fire brigade was trying to douse the fire but most shops had been gutted.

The hostel was without any electricity when we returned. There was to be no electricity for the next day either. As night approached, we wondered what had become of Liu Feng, his girlfriend and Lien Cheng. We could only pray for their safety. The next morning thankfully, Liu Feng returned safely. He had gone to a temple near Lhasa and stayed the night there.

We could see plumes of smoke even on the second day. We later got to know that this kind of thing was happening after 20 years. The army had moved into the city and there was heavy deployment in the area we were staying in. Seemed like we were in the epicentre of the whole thing. Tanks were also rolled in and journalists took photographs from inside armoured cars. I took a few pictures covertly of the burnt shops, the fire brigade and the army troops. To be seen taking the pictures would result in the confiscation of the camera and maybe even a fine. In fact I saw a few cameras in the hands of a soldier, accosting a man with a video camera.

On the 16Th, we had out train to Wuhan. Prior booking of tickets helped us convince the patrol to let us leave the city and there must have been at least 8-9 checkpoints where they saw our passports, tickets and checked our luggage. The camera had been discovered and with it the pictures. I had to delete all the pictures so as to be able to keep my camera card, else even that would be lost. At certain checkpoints, the soldiers were snotty nosed teenagers trying to come to terms with the sudden importance. Yet, in all the checkpoints we were not asked for our travel permits even once! I guess we bought only peace of mind with those 1000 Rmb permits.

I managed to leave Lhasa that day and even met Lien Cheng at the station, but not before thanking God for it. I’m not sure who my sympathies lie with now. The Han Chinese who faced so much destruction of property and life or the Tibetans who’re second class citizens in their own land. I guess, there’s no black or white answer to this. Unlike most people (read Europeans and Americans) however, I don’t share their blanket views on Chinese being all very greedy, ruthless and Tibetans being the epitome of simplicity.

I guess I’ll just watch the situation for now and reserve my judgements for later.

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