ET and Sergej at Potala Palace

SYNOPSIS:  About the big two sights in town.  About my new travel partner.  About the pressures tour guides endure. 

First I had been given the impression that I would be traveling with a “group” from here on out.  I had pictured that to be 5-8 people from all over the world.  My first guide, Lobsang, told me that there would be only one more travel companion, a German woman.  Fine with me.  But when my new guide Tenzin came on board, he had been told there would be an American man traveling with me.  Don’t they know what they are doing at the agency?  By now they should know who is coming.  If not, tomorrow, it might be an Arab oil sheikh!

I was curious and asked Tenzin for details.  How old?  What was his name?  From a stack of papers, he pulled out the welcome sign for the airport and there was the name:  Sergej Vladimirovich.  That was no American.  That was at best a naturalized immigrant like me.  A Russian!

45 years old, and Russian.  I pictured a vodka drinking, Trump-loving, macho, athletic guy and my heart sank.  Not that vodka drinking, Trump-loving, macho athletes aren’t people too, but I had to get along with this man for the next 16 days.  Worse, I had to manage the toughest and most challenging physical part of this trip with him:  Mount Everest at 5200 meters and the 54 km circumambulation of Mount Kailash at 5600 meters.  Gee!  This could ruin the entire trip.  There was nobody to balance this out.  We would be thrown together and had to be a team no matter what. 

After an apprehensive day yesterday, I decided to make an effort at reaching out to this Russian and to start our journey on a good foot:  I pulled out my translator and added what little I remembered from school and practiced three consecutive welcome sentences for him. 

Now the time had come.  I would be picked up by the driver from my guest house at 9 AM and Sergej would be there.  I opened the van door and launched my Russian welcome speech.  It worked!  Sergej was laughing and impressed.  But as we were driving up to the most important sight in all of Lhasa I found out a few things:

Sergej was indeed a naturalized American, who had come to the States in 1994.  He was 45 all right and quite athletic.  But he was neither vodka drinking, nor Trump loving, nor Russian.  He is a Ukrainian vegetarian, a meditating truth seeker on a spiritual quest.  He drank a lot of vodka in his past and I think that counts as the mildest of his wrongdoings.  He is madly in love with an Argentinian woman and is planning to propose to her upon his return from Tibet.  But he is here to redeem himself from his past and to turn a corner.  Whew!  I think, not only can I live with this, but we will be a good team.  I am just so relieved!

In fact, in the larger picture of the universe, and if we accept for a moment the premise that nothing happens by accident, then we have been thrown together for a reason.   We will have to figure out what that might be. 

A visit to the Potala Palace is a strictly regulated affair.  Tickets and time slots have to be obtained the day before and need to be observed to a tee.  Worse than that, Tenzin told us that we have to be in and out of the palace in an hour!  We were disheartened.  It turned out that both Sergej and I love to photograph a lot, linger and look.  Who is chasing us?  It was not a crowded day at the Potala.  Who cares if we spend two hours in here?   Turns out that if we miss the one hour mark, “the agency” will take a star away from Tenzin’s full 12-star record as a tour guide, degrading him from perfect to one less than perfect.  This is insane!

Worst of all is that there is not even a guarantee that there will be a check.  There is only the threat that there might be a check.  That is borderline psycho-terror.  I have encountered that once before on the tour to Namtso Lake.  There are speed limits that are so low (20 to 40 km/hour) on perfectly asphalted, straight roads, that most people can’t help but go about 45 or 50.  More than once, our driver would stop and request a 5 minute break for nothing but to stay within the time limits.  Who is checking and how?  The Chinese police via automatic cameras!  And to shame you or to scare you, or both, the last car that violated the speed limit would have its license plate displayed on a digital board hanging across the street.  Fines were associated with these violations, unless you have “connections”.  And for our guides and drivers, the Chinese travel agency would add the additional punishment of demoting them by deducting “stars”.  This felt like kindergarten!   Most likely, measures like this are in place to teach people from the get-go, to submit.  After all, Tibet is an occupied, or as the Chinese prefer, “liberated” territory.  And it needs to be clear on all levels, who is boss.

In both Potala and the Jokhang — our second destination for the day,  photographic restrictions applied for all interior spaces.  But both places are simply breathtaking, inside and out.  The climb to the Potala is steep, no accommodations are made for people with physical limitations.  Either you get up there on your own two legs, or you go home.  An American tourist, an elderly lady with a cane, had her work cut out for her.  Compared to the Jokhang, the Potala is relatively new.  It was started as the administrative center once the Dalai Lama assumed both religious and political powers.

The most impressive temples within are those housing stupas of deceased Dalai Lamas.  The amount of copper and gold (hundreds of kg each) and semi-precious stones would put Charlemagne to shame.  It is also testimony to the excessive riches the monasteries possessed even at times when the surrounding population was piss poor.  This “exploitation” of the population is one of the reasons cited by the Chinese government in justifying why Tibet had to be liberated from the joke of medieval feudalism and theocracy.  There is not just one such gold stupa at the Potala, but several.  There was excess, indeed.  And it looks like in recent years some of it has seen a revival.  For a skeptic of religion like me, none of this makes much sense.  But as long as religion is not forced on anyone and is not doing harm to anyone, I can’t see any reason against it either. 

Of the hundreds of rooms at the Potala, only a few dozen are open to visitors.  Once you exit the palace, you find yourself in a big park that has served the Lhasa population as a spot for recreation for centuries.  The last governor renovated the park and walled it in.  The last of the three important koras left for me to do was the one that surrounded the Potala.  Thankfully, there was time for that.  Sergej takes these parts of the journey very seriously.  He donates money to the deities/temples, spins the wheels at kora and meditates at special places when he is allowed to.  I do some of this, but more out of fun.  Whenever there is a Manjusri, or a Medicine Buddha, they get a small donation.  And during kora, I am more interested in the people who walk and the images on the wall, then spinning the wheels.  But I spin a few when there is nothing else to be done.  It can’t hurt. 

That was our first day together, and it went well.  I helped Sergej to find some shopping areas and showed him some of the small temples around the Barkhor.  Lo and behold, we ran into Professor Deishe!  There was no time for us to spend time with him today, but perhaps tomorrow, we can take him out for dinner. 

For now, it’s time to call it a day.  Because of the logistics of being a “group” now, I had to switch hotels.  I was not too happy to leave my guest house for a much more generic, even though still Tibetan-owned, hotel in the Chinese part of town. But I am no longer in control of anything.  Tenzin and “the agency” are calling the shots from here on out. 

Good night.