It’s been awhile since we wrote our last post, which can be explained by two main reasons. First, Pam’s parents were still here, which didn’t leave us with a lot of free time to write on the blog. Second, the horrible incident in Boston happened, which made it quite meaningless to write about whatever little adventures we are having in China. I also hesitated about publishing the following post. You be the judge.
A Trip to the Roof of the World, Part 3: Lhasa.
After our brief but rewarding visit to Xi’an and a 34 hours train ride from hell we finally made it to Lhasa, Tibet. As we have mentioned before in this blog, Pam and I have a special connection with this place. I spent a year studying at Tibet University, and Pam also studied at the university for two summers for intensive Tibetan language training. Further, we have been able to come back several times for extended periods while working for the SIT Tibetan and Himalayan Studies program. Finally, Lhasa, of all places, is where a Spaniard from Barcelona, and an American from upstate New York met for the first time, so Pam and I were particularly excited to show our kids and her parents the university where we both studied, as well as some of our favorite places.
The city has changed a lot, although sometimes change was difficult to assess since it was happening as we were there! As you can see below, we visited some of the most significant places in the city, like the Jokhang temple and the surrounding Barkhor area, the Potala Palace, Sera Monastery, and, for personal reasons, Tibet University. Pam and the gang even ventured one day outside of the city to visit Samye, the first monastery built in Tibet in the 8th century.
Visits aside, I would like to dedicate part of this blog entry to something more than just a reminiscence of our personal history with Lhasa. First, I would like to talk about (although I should really say praise) the extraordinary (magnificent!) infrastructure work that the central government, in all of its wisdom, is doing in Lhasa right now for the benefit of all Tibetans. As we arrived, we witnessed how the whole city is undergoing (some cynical soul may say suffering) the installation of a city-wide gas system that has transformed, temporarily, streets into trenches, but that is also another important step in the modernization of the city. Tibetans did not ask for the project, but, as usual, the central government knows best, and delivers without expecting any gratitude in exchange (that’s the true definition of a compassionate Bodhisattva!). Some tourists I talked to complained that all of the infrastructure work had transformed the clean, albeit thin, air of Lhasa into clouds of dust that leave those lives described in the wonderful Ken Burns documentary, The Dust Bowl, nothing to envy, while I prefer to see those dust clouds as a symbol of Tibetan solidarity with the rest of their fellow Chinese citizens. If the rest of mainland suffers from pollution, why don’t they, Tibetans, join in solidarity and breath some thick dust themselves? I was also impressed by the scale of the project. While in other countries the government would have gradually worked on different parts of the city until the project is finished, here they are doing the whole city at once. The effectiveness of the approach is undeniable, since instead of annoying Lhasa citizens from different parts of the city at different times of the year, the government gets to annoy all citizens at once, all over the city. It is a balanced, fairer approach to infrastructure work.
The other important project going on right now is the reconstruction and façade renovation of most of the old part of the city. This project made our daily walks a lot more fun than they used to be. Instead of admiring this 1,300 year old, beautiful, historical city, you could walk around and try to guess what remarkable old landmark was just being demolished, or what was hiding behind the hundreds of scaffolding structures around the city. Some people, mainly romantics or college educated snobs, think “old” is a value in and of itself, while I, like the great government of this country, think that there is more value in new, cement, plastic-adorned buildings that almost look like the old ones (especially if you have never been to Lhasa before and just imagined what it should look like), but are definitely not. These buildings are better simply because they are new. Which is like saying that if you disagree with me, it’s simply because you are wrong…
The second important thing that I want to point out is how safe the city is right now. The country, in general, thanks to the tireless job and wisdom of the central government, is very safe, but Lhasa is particularly safe. You cannot walk five feet without seeing the friendly face (some people would say stern, but I like to see the best in every person) of a group of policemen, or the military, or even SWAT teams all over the city. People, including foreigners, are mandated to carry their ID’s at all times since they can be asked at any time and anywhere to identify themselves. I think carrying your ID at all times is a very wise decision by the central government. I can particularly see how after a fun night and a few beers with friends you may even forget who you are. But fear not, a friendly policemen, or perhaps a military member, will remind you of who you are and where you live and you can be safely on your way.
The government has increased safety levels in particular at the various monasteries and temples around the city. During our visit to the debate grounds of Sera monastery we could see how there was one policeman for every 5-10 monks. I know (although I never actually asked) that monks are particularly grateful of their presence since those philosophical debates about the nature of emptiness can get particularly heated. I also believe (although, again, I did not ask) that officers really enjoy their jobs, since they do not only perform an important, patriotic duty, but they also get to explore the complexity of Buddhist philosophy.
Anyway, I am going to stop here, since writing this is lots of fun, but also exhausting. Before I finish, though, I just would like to add a quote, for no particular reason, from one of my favorite writers, Fyodor Dostoevsky: “Sarcasm is the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.”