Sunday, September 5, 2010

Lhasa: how might it have looked then ... and how it looks now!

In the mid 1920's an eccentric French woman, named Alexandra David-Neel, walked from Yunan province in China to Lhasa, Tibet.  She made this journey, with her adopted Mongolian son as her companion and, was the first Western woman in the holy city of Lhasa: their journey is detailed in her book My Journey to Lhasa.  Of the many verbal images she creates in her writing, one that sticks in my memory is her description of coming over the final mountain pass and seeing the Potala Palace atop a hill and Lhasa laid out before her on a huge open valley. Few buildings impeded her view of the Potala Palace in all of its imposing architectural wonder.  Grainy black and white photographs show the buildings without giving any impression of the grandeur of the surrounding scenery.
Approaching Lhasa airport
Our flight departed Zhongdian in the rain and our route north and west was mostly seen through peek-a-boo moments when the clouds cleared and the rain stopped beating on the plane's windows. However what terrain we did see was covered in muddy water and the visible mountains appeared bleak and unfriendly.  I found it a little disconcerting to not see huge, high mountains - we were after all journeying to the roof of the world.  The awareness came slowly that of course they were not huge and high mountains - we were after all between 10 and 11,000 feet above sea level already!
Between Lhasa airport and the city
Settling into the small bus, which met us at the airport, our journey continued.  Lhasa airport is about an hour from the city itself.  We stopped to see this series of sacred sculptures in the wall of a mountain between the airport and the city.  The white items are khata (usually white scarves associated with Tibetan religious practice symbolizing goodwill and compassion) which people have thrown to gain the highest place on the side of the mountain.  Hoping their prayers are closer to heaven, we wondered?
Where one used to first see the Potala Palace!
The bus moved on toward the city - all eyes were to the left waiting our first views of the Palace.  Instead this was what we saw!  American writer, Canyon Sam (Sky Train - University of Washington Press 2009) had detailed very clearly what to expect on arriving in Lhasa today. However as the bus continued on toward the center of the city the first view of that amazing building, perched on the top of a mountain, appeared through the bus window. No less amazing than I had imagined.  Moving on away from this amazing sight and the modern thoroughfare ... the bus turned into a tight, crowded narrow street in the Tibetan part of the city and stopped outside our wonderful, Nepali managed, traditional hotel where we settled in for the next four days.
Potala Palace seen through the dirty, wet window of the bus

The Dhood Gu Hotel, Lhasa

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