Yubanaswa Chakraborty: I stood near a window, high up, and imagined how the present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled this very palace, hidden in a caravan, headed towards India. Somehow, I felt this event completed a cycle that started from Padma Sambhava crossing the Himalayas from down south.
Beijing to Lhasa
In the mad rush of the Beijing West railway station, there is a noticeable distinct division of class evident, not ideal for a country that takes pride in being communist. On one end are the white coloured bullet trains taking neatly dressed businessmen to various other large cities. On the other end are the overcrowded rickety green (some of them are red and white) trains with stinky toilets leave Beijing towards the less fortunate parts of the country. We took the most special train of all. Special, and in so many ways controversial. The train Z21 to Lhasa.
This is a specially built train. It is much taller than usual ones, and it has in built oxygen supply vents, gas masks for emergency and other facilities for the high altitude. Yes, we were on the highest railway of the world. It was quite late in the night and we went off to sleep on our hard sleeper berths.
The next morning, we were in the middle of breath-taking vista of Xi An province of China. We passed the yellow river and miles and miles of moonscape. Rock-faces, sand dunes, alternating green paddy fields and barren stretches. This is the deserted part of China, sparsely populated, in a stark contrast with the North and the coastal areas. A few tiny villages popped up here and there. Some very old Buddhist temples started to appear. In the towns, there were mosques to be seen with their prominent domes. Signs were appearing that the Chinese govt has been taking a soft policy towards religions and working towards an open society!
This part of China is not all just barren stretch of land. As a surprise we passed two massive cities. Lanzhou and Xining. Both looked like space age cities, with Manhattan like skylines rising up from the mountains.
In the meantime, we became real good friends with our conductor. With no way to talk meaningfully to anyone in the train, sign language was predominant. Beena proved to be really good at it. By the time we reached Xining, we made scores of friends. Everyone seemed to be jostling outside our compartment. One of the funniest moments of the journey was when we had to fill up the immigration forms. It was written in Chinese. An hour of dumb charades from Beena managed to do the trick. It involved pointing to passports, visas, permits, train berths, showing numbers with fingers, and a lot more!
There were a number of Tibetan monks on the train. When we left Xining, we were out in the absolute wilderness. Next stop Lhasa. Everything in between would be just high mountains and endless fields. And dotted with crystal blue lakes.
We had reached the Tibet autonomous region by afternoon. By that night our train swapped the loco for an enormous diesel loco specially built to pull the train up the highest railway on the world – and added generators to supply power to the train.
The train has been meticulously designed. It has all elements of traditional Tibetan designs, thrown into the modernity. The buffet car was one of the best in the journey. The amazing landscape of the Tibetan plateau passed by, as we sat on a table. It really started to feel like a dream now!
There can be endless debates about this one particular railway. Was it a great thing to build this? What does progress mean to us? Being able to travel on a high-speed train as opposed to ride on a horse back? Should old traditions just go on and on, or should we bring in changes? When we were in Siberia, no one questioned these, as it has been a hundred years of the railroad. In Tibet, it has only been ten. I would assume that Tibet’s future is exactly same as that of Siberia. Difference is that future reached here 90 years later. We had many conversations with local Tibetans about the good and bad sides of this railway after we reached Lhasa. I am refraining myself to bring those up here. This is a travelogue.
It was thrilling to pass the high mountains. To stop on tiny stations and see the Tibetan villagers come on board. The vast fields with grazing yaks. The snow-covered mountains rising to the clear sky. Small streams, blue lakes, small hamlets of farmers.
It was a whole day of visual feast, we traveled through the plateau. This is what they call the roof of the world! By late afternoon, we reached Lhasa.
We, the foreigners, were soon escorted into a police control room, and all details were noted down. There were in all four foreigners on this train. Outside the station, we were received by our guide, and a warm welcome was in place. After making us feel very comfortable, he dropped each one of us in our hotels. On the way he explained the dos and don’ts of Tibet. There are many don’ts and a few do’s.
The new part of Lhasa is a gleaming modern city. Towering skyscrapers dwarf the tall mountains at the horizon. In the night, they shine like the New York skyline. This may dishearten a lot of people. But for me, it was expected. The old part of Lhasa, had partly retained its old buildings and fabric.
We were not feeling breathless at all, so we decided to walk down the alleys on the very first evening. The first meal of MOMOs accompanied with a Hindi chatter with the locals gathered in the tiny shop. A lot of Tibetans have studied in India, and they are fluent in the language.
The first two days were spent in Lhasa. Acclimatizing to the roof of the world. Wandering around the ancient alleyways. Much of Lhasa has changed in past one decade, since the train arrived. Influx of mainland Chinese, setting up of large businesses – changed the city forever. A new center of power has now been set up in front of the Potala palace – the people’s parliament of the TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region). The palace itself is now called a “relic zone”, and has been converted into a museum.
Central to Lhasa, also central to the life of the Tibetans – lies the Jokhang Temple. This temple is almost 1500 years old now. Founded by the legendary King Songtsen Gampo, it has stood through bloody history and devastating earthquakes. In the twenty first century it still takes the center stage. Thousands of devotees come every day. The lie face down on the dirt in front of their lord, Buddha.
Inside of the temple, fascinating idols decorate the chambers. Photography is strictly prohibited here. The central hall has two gigantic idols – one of the present Buddha Shakyamuni and one of the future Buddha – Maitreya. Around the central hall there are many chambers – ranging from Bodhisattva to Avalokitesewara, from Manjushree to Atisa.
The chamber of Atisa is a sure-shot Goosebumps inducer for anyone from Bengal. Remembered as Dipankar Shrignyan – the ancient scholar from the Pala dynasty, we find him only in history books back home. But in the Jokhang temple, he still lives in the heart and soul of the devotees, in the faraway land across the mountains.
Outside, in the square, incense burns in colossal containers. Towering prayer flags flutter in the air. Beyond the fumes of the incense we could see the majestic Potala palace. The alleys have a fabric unique to Lhasa, but similarities with old Indian towns is evident. Small shops, roadside food stalls, music playing on boom boxes, Lhasa alleys are always busy and noisy.
In the evening, the square can be seen a different colour. Thousands of devotee’s crawl on prone position and circle the temple in clockwise direction. As neon lights come up, and the dusk sets beyond the mountains, a magical light falls upon Lhasa every evening.
Religion has played a big role in everyday life in Tibet for thousands of years. Neither the Cultural Revolution, nor the communist prohibition on religion could get rid of that. The crowd that gathers at the temple every day and every night is the evidence! Ever since the Indian teacher Padma Sambhava crossed the Himalayas and brought Buddhism here, Tibet has been the epicenter of Buddhism. Faraway places like Russia and Mongolia have been influenced by Tibetan Buddhism for more than a thousand years. On this journey, we have finally arrived at the epicenter of what we started witnessing after crossing lake Baikal.
The next stop for anyone visiting Lhasa has to be the Potala Palace. This requires a special arrangement for the foreigners, and everyone is given a fixed time to go inside. Another architectural marvel of the old world, covered in this trip. The palace is a breath-taking feat of engineering, along with the rich history associated with it.
The Cultural Revolution killed its spirit though. I stood near a window, high up, and imagined how the present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled this very palace, hidden in a caravan, headed towards India. Somehow, I felt this event completed a cycle that started from Padma Sambhava crossing the Himalayas from down south. When Tenzin Gyatso crossed the mountains back to India, the cycle completed, leaving a void in Tibet.
And right now, most Tibetans are living their everyday life in that void. Potala palace sits atop a hilltop looking over all that. A palace without the king. A school without a teacher. Aptly called a relic from the past.
Local people though, keeps their faith running. They paint the palace once every year, with white, golden, and maroon colours that they create from the natural rocks of the mountains.
They go around the palace, spinning the prayer wheels. A sprawling big city spreads across the valley, complete with all modern aspects – an airport, railroad, busy streets, cinema, supermarkets and huge shopping malls.
Our time in Lhasa was not just to be spent on sight-seeing. We were running from one agency to another to make arrangements for a land route to Kathmandu. More on that story later!
Words and photos: Yubanaswa Chakraborty
About the author: Yubanaswa Chakraborty is a software developer based in London. Born in Siliguri, India, he has a degree in engineering and has been a techie for almost two decades now. A passionate traveler and biker, whenever time and money permits, he travels to faraway places to experience new cultures and make new friends.