14th DL’s Western Toilet

SYNOPSIS:  Visit to the Summer Palace in Lhasa.  About the Dalai Lama’s toilet.  About keeping face?  About a Tibetan, a traditional dance performance, and about catching a taxi.  About the Potala photo spot and about a meditation cave. 

My new guide Tenzin is nice.  But there are a few things I would like to understand.   I knew that today, he could only spend 1/2 day with me.  From 10 AM to 2 PM, I had been told first.  Last night, that turned into 10-1.  I texted him to suggest that we could do 9-1 to make up for the lost hour; no response.  This morning, he picked me up and mentioned that it would be around noon that he would have to leave.  On his electric bike he took me to the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama, the Norbulinka

The summer palace is pretty much a huge park with several gardens and villas.  There are some small temples, a library and a few dorms for monks.  Each of the recent Dalai Lamas had a house built there, where they spent the hot summers, away from the Potala.  Photo restrictions applied and I never got beyond photographing the exteriors and the entrance doors.  Most villas followed the same layout:  A path through a walled-in garden led up to a raised platform which led into a public reception hall with a throne, not unlike the main assembly halls of a monastery.  From there, small doors left and right of the altar, or more likely the throne, led into private dressing, reading, and bedrooms not open to the public.  Decor and imagery is close to that in temples.

After we had visited less than half of the compound, Tenzin told me that he had to leave.  It was shortly after 11 AM.  Could he not be honest about that up front?  Did he not want to lose face?  Was this a Tibetan form of politeness?  Not to mention the fact of course, that I had been charged a guide fee for the entire day.  That, even though I had mentioned multiple times to the agency that I would like another free day, only to be told that I could not!  Well, this was something like a paid free day, then.  What to do?  I was glad I could visit the last compound at my own pace, as it was the one of the last and current Dalai Lama.

Surprisingly, the 14th Dalai Lama compound was larger than the previous ones featuring a two story building.  Nowhere else than here, can devout Tibetans be in the virtual presence of their ousted leader.   In this villa, you can walk through his bedroom, his reading room, his throne room.  All are open to the public.  As in temples and monasteries, locals prostate themselves in these rooms, drop money offerings, and touch as many objects as possible.  Photography was strictly monitored in these rooms. 

My favorite was his personal room in which he would just sit or do whatever he pleased.  He had a Western Radio in it!  I could just picture him sitting there as a youngster listening to world news in the 1940s.  He also had a western-style toilet and a deep, full sized bathtub, perfect for full-immersion soaks at the end of the day.  Would that be considered an inappropriate indulgence for a monk?  If I couldn’t have a photo of his rooms, at least I could have a photo of his toilet;  there seemed to be no webcams following my every move in this particular corridor.  And so, I snapped a picture.

Not my guide, but Deishe, had told me about an all-day Tibetan-style performance at the Summer Palace gardens.  I had heard the drum beat and the sound of the cymbals throughout the compound all morning.  For about an hour I watched dozens of dancers, who seemed to belong to different camps in the opera plot, doing their slow-movement line dances.  A king and his entourage seemed to feature prominently in the plot.  A masked narrator, ever present, would talk or sing, moving the story forward, recitative-style.   And at one point, a masked monster appeared, sending a good portion of the cast onto a flight across the sea, beautifully acted by wrapping a cloth with wave designs around all of their waists and moving across stage in undulating ways.  The audience consisted of old and young, mainly locals.  Foreign visitors accompanied by their guides would not be given the time to linger.  Lucky me, my guide had long left me to my devices. 

As everywhere in Tibet, a stall filled with costumes was set up in the gardens, ready to rent any imaginable Tibetan outfit to visiting ladies from China who, to great fanfare of their travel companions, would pose in their outfits in front of the Dalai Lama’s palace or anywhere else of their choosing.

From my guide book, I knew there was a meditation cave right across Potala Palace.  That was my next destination.  Catching a taxi around here to a slightly obscure and even to the most obvious spots, is not easy.  All the taxi drivers seem to be Chinese.  They have their own words for places like Potala or Jokhang and no matter how long they have spent in Tibet, they don’t seem to bother learning even a single word of anything in either English or the local language.  On the other hand, most Tibetans now realize that without learning Chinese, they are doomed…  Finally, I got a taxi which already had a passenger in it who understood where I was going.

Potala Palace used to lie outside the old town of Lhasa.  Now, Lhasa has enveloped it with a Chinese satellite town and all the four-lane business roads that come with it.  Our biggest road used to be called Road of Happiness, Deishe had told me yesterday.  Now it’s called Beijing Road, he added, rolling his eyes.  To make way for the roads, the most recent administrative buildings at the bottom of the Potala hill had been bulldozed.  Thankfully, three iconic stupas connecting the Meditation Cave with the Potala, had been left standing.  Traffic was flowing between them.  A viewing platform had been built behind the stupas which allowed one of the few, full views of the Potala that was unobstructed by traffic.  Without my “free day”, I would have not seen any of this.  The fixed program does not allow time for it.

I don’t know who mediated in this cave or elsewhere, but Tibet is full of meditation caves of varying ranks.  This one seems to be quite famous.  Perched on the hill with full view of the Potala is now a small monastery which was built to encapsulate a variety of “natural images”, those, believed to have formed miraculously, and a cave.  A small circular path inside the dark shrine has been smoothed over from countless prostrating devotees, whose hands and knees have rubbed it clean and shiny.  Two monks attend to the cave.  One was reading scripture, the other watched the visitors and attended to their offerings of money, butter oil, scarves and all.  And he made sure that I took no pictures.

Due to the language barriers between me and the Chinese taxi drivers, it was impossible to catch a taxi to where I needed to go from here.  Far from my destination I was dropped off.  My walk home made a long day even longer.  I’d better get some sleep before tomorrow, when my official tour of Western Tibet starts. 

My time in Lhasa so far, was just to warm up. 

Good night. 

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