It was a clear, cloudless Himalayan day when Tashi (a Tibetan friend) and I slipped in amid a troop of noisy tourists, and began clambering up the endless stone stairs that lead to the back door of Tibet's Potala Palace. As one jaded by the commercialized and crowded nature of "must-see" tourist sights, I was not anticipating much.
I had arrived to find Lhasa covered by a veneer of sadness. The dark years following China's 1950 invasion (in which 1.2 million Tibetans were killed and most monasteries destroyed, with only tiny El Salvador responding to pleas for help) had left their mark, and the "China-fication" of the mythic kingdom was proceeding unabated. Billboards demanded: "Be a civilized citizen; help build a civilized city." A new rail link with Beijing brought wave after wave of Han immigration.
I had orbited the Potala for days, for no matter where one stands in Lhasa, the grand edifice is impossible to miss. Perched atop a small rise, this historical winter residence of the Dalai Lamas symbolizes both authority and peace. It is unspeakably eye-catching, appearing to have floated from the pages of a fairy tale, or perhaps James Hilton's Lost Horizon. One cannot imagine another structure being so harmonious with the striking Himalayan backdrop, as the concrete and neon malls springing up across Lhasa so aptly prove.
But the crowds of hawkers and impromptu markets clogging its base, the jam of air-conditioned buses disgorging photo-snapping tourists in matching hats, the amusement park and replica Great Wall, and yes, the KFC built right on the doorstep of a once-holy site – well, none of it served to whet my appetite.
Out of breath from the steep stairs and the mind-numbing elevation (Lhasa sits at 3,650 metres, higher than the summit of Colorado's Aspen Resort), Tashi and I flashed our tickets to a stone-faced Chinese soldier and then stooped through a low door. Instantly plunged into darkness, we entered another world.
A short, candlelit tunnel lay ahead, traversing the Potala's immense (five-metre-thick) walls. Beyond, pilgrims streamed past, following a narrow inner passageway. They flowed ceaselessly, like a river, with no beginning or end in sight. Some muttered mantras, others spun brass prayer wheels. All were stooped double at the waist, shuffling beneath ancient book shelves that hung a metre off the ground and stretched right up to the high ceiling.
"They believe wisdom from the holy books rains down and enters their souls," Tashi whispered.
The pilgrims had come from across Tibet, from distant plateaus and remote valleys, with wild eyes, sun-blackened skin and rosy cheeks. The men were wrapped in soiled sheepskins, the women in traditional finery with beads of red and turquoise braided into untamed hair.
Most had travelled days, if not months. For each, it represented the journey of a lifetime. One man, who paused to speak with Tashi, explained that it had taken him three years to reach the Potala. Wearing kneepads – the type you find on volleyball players and flooring carpenters – and with wooden paddles strapped to both hands, he had prostrated himself every third step of the way. A dark heel-like callus marked the spot his forehead touched the ground.
It felt embarrassing, even mildly sacrilegious, to witness in gawky tourist style the expression of such unvarnished faith, but the Potala, under Chinese rule, is a museum and not a monastery. With a busload of tourists pressing behind us, Tashi and I stepped into the flow.
Swept onward, we were carried through a warren of dark rooms and narrow passageways, clambering up stairs that were little more than ladders and past walls draped with rich fabric. The palace is estimated to contain more than 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and 200,000 statues (most of which are millennia-old gifts from foreign emissaries). The wooden floors underfoot had been polished to marble by centuries of traffic; tangy incense hung in the stale air.
An hour or so later, we tiptoed past a Spartan room, holding just one small bed and a meditation seat. "This was his Holiness's bedroom – as a child," Tashi whispered, referring to the current (14th) Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet after Chinese troops invaded and remains in exile today. Beside the bed, a small clock still ticked.
On we drifted, past golden rooftops, where prayer flags fluttered from ornate windows, and through grand halls festooned with intricate carvings and brilliant murals. Everywhere were the repeated symbols and icons of Tibetan Buddhism; the eight-spoke wheel, the endless knot, the golden deer.
The pilgrims carried pails of yak butter and fistfuls of money; a lifetime of savings. As they went, the rancid butter was spooned into candles surrounding altars and shrines. Dirty and crumpled bills fell like snow; tossed at statues, stuffed in picture frames, piled on offering plates. Caretakers wandered the halls, sweeping the money into black plastic garbage bags as if they were raking autumn leaves.
Tibetans' devotion to their country, to their monasteries and lamas and Buddhist beliefs defies Western comprehension. Miraculously, a half-century of brutal repression has failed to break their spirit.
Travellers brush up against history wherever they go, but bringing that history to life, and recreating it in our minds, usually requires enormous effort. Just try to imagine a street scene in Canada a century ago – before phones, cars and airplanes had transformed the world. That's difficult enough. Now place yourself before ancient ruins – the lost Mayan city of Tikal (Guatemala) or Angkor Wat in Cambodia – and one can't help but wonder if the true miracles of such places have already been lost to time.
Not so with the Potala (nor any of the other places where minority cultures, often in the face of insurmountable odds, cling to ancient traditions). Theirs is a living history. And the Tibetan pilgrims, with their unshakable faith and unwavering commitment to carrying their country into the future, afford travellers a poignant glimpse of the past.
Special to The Globe and Mail