Pilgrim family with their luggage

SYNOPSIS:   About the heart of Lhasa, the Barkhor.  About people, dresses, smells, worship practices.  There is nothing, nowhere quite like it anywhere else!

Jokhang Plaza took my breath away!  Not only because of the thick white and black clouds of juniper smoke that wafted all across the open space before Jokhang Temple, and made everyone choke, but also because because of the unbelievable site that unfolded in front of me. 

Hundreds of people moved as if directed by an invisible hand clockwise along the Barkhor, one of the three most sacred circumambulatory paths of Lhasa.  Their faces.    Their dresses!  Their prayer wheels!  I did not know where to look first.  Many of the people walked in small groups, churning wheels of all sizes.  Others prostrated every few feet, clapping wooden hand protectors in front of their face and chest before going on their knees and sliding their hands all the way in front of their bodies, only to get up and start the whole procedure again.  Between the chatting, the clapping, the sizzling sound of the burning juniper, I felt I had been transported into a surreal theater production.  This could not be real.  But it was. 

This was Lhasa as it must have been 100 years ago, and as it is tolerated again, today.  Religious practices such as these — to circumambulate the holy Jokhang, to bring offerings to the temples, to worship, pray, and prostrate — had been suppressed to near extinction.  But under the watchful eyes of hundreds of visible and invisible police, its revival is not only allowed, but encouraged.  Some of the buildings destroyed during the Cultural Revolution have in recent years been rebuilt keeping with original designs.  The old city of Lhasa, centered on the Jokhang, is under cultural protection.

The number of police deployed to “protect” this area us hard to overestimate.  Every entrance to the center of town is blocked by a checkpoint.  Your luggage more than your passport, is checked for explosives, flammables, and who knows what else.  Police are stationed in garrisons occupying entire blocks of some of those restored patrician villas.  And small sun-protective huts are positioned on top of roofs for some of the police to keep an eye on the pilgrims.  But not enough — if you look around carefully, you will notice cameras fixed onto trees and buildings everywhere, outfitted even with microphones!  If this is not Orwellian, what is?!  All you can do is put this Big Brother out of your mind and go about your business.  What other choice is there?

This morning, I hardly got out of bed.  My body demanded time for some more adjustments after all.  Sleeping felt good.  But I spent all afternoon and evening — one of my precious two free days (without a guide) — at Barkhor.  Shopping opportunities were endless.  What to buy?  At one minute, I was tempted to take something home of everything, at the next moment I was so overwhelmed that I wanted to buy nothing at all.  It is nauseating!

From Lobsang I learned yesterday, that you can distinguish people from different regions by their dresses.  Men from the North usually have long, black hair braided and wrapped around their heads, interspersed with red tassels.  Their women wear big beads of amber, coral, or turquoise, in their hair.  Women from the Kham region in the West prefer to braid their hair into tiny braids, 108 in all!  Women of all regions when they are married are expected to wear a colorful apron on top of their skirts.  And the elders over 80 wear an honorific vest of white wool with a sun and a moon embroidered on to it.  But no matter what, I was most taken with the faces of these people.  The young ones are just pretty in their own ways, but the old ones are beyond imagination; full of lines, character and beauty. 

Many of the older people are highly superstitious.  Taking their picture would violate some of their deep-held beliefs that this is a violation of their spirit.   For the most part, I restricted myself to taking pictures of peoples’ backs as we all continued in this clockwise swirl.  Off this Kora, you can venture into some side streets and find numerous small, local temples.  Those were among my favorites; intimate, quiet, authentic, and void of foreigners as the local guides do not typically take people there. 

If this were to be the end of my trip to Tibet I would have to say, that I saw something today that alone was worth coming for.  It is hard to put into words the atmosphere of the Barkhor, as the sounds and smells that make this place so unique just can’t be captured.  It is a place imbued with spirituality, sacred to all Tibetans.  The Jokhang may be small in comparison to the much more famous Potala, but it by far surpasses its religious significance.

From the rooftop restaurant at my guesthouse, I can see both the golden roofs of the Jokhang as well as the hill of the Potala.  Even though the Jokhang prayer times are off limit to visits by foreigners, I can hear the chanting and the drumming of the priests in the morning right from my room.

What a treat to be here!