Tibet Shares Exotic Spirit; Buddhist Traditions Strong despite Chinese rule.(TRAVEL)

Article excerpt


Traveling from Hong Kong and Chengdu, China, to Tibet is like moving through a time machine.

In a few hours, I moved from the eye-popping to the drab as the modern, conspicuously luxurious surroundings of Hong Kong were replaced by the stark cement high-rises in Chengdu that are so typical of decades of utilitarian Maoist construction. The next day, the plane descended onto the high plateau of Tibet, and I felt as if I were back in a centuries-older epoch.

Lhasa is 69 miles from Tibet's only airport, which is in Gonggar in the Tibetan highlands. The plateau, at 11,580 feet, is as flat as the proverbial pancake.

A huge river, the 1,800-mile-long Yarlong Tsangpo, traverses the plateau, running, indeed, on the roof of the world, from west to east. Its course is parallel to the great Himalayan range until it turns south to India and becomes the Brahmaputra River.

No tree was in sight on the plateau as we headed for Lhasa. Along the river, however, Tibetan peasants cultivate barley, potatoes and cabbage, which can grow at the high altitude and receive ample water from the river. I noticed squarish boats plying the water; they are made of yak hide and strong, flexible willow twigs.

We stopped by a village of low whitewashed houses with flat thatched roofs; over the main gate, the fluttering prayer flags and yak horns guarded against evil spirits. It was just after the harvest, and the villagers were thrashing the barley with their bare feet and brooms. A large, colorful rock painting of Buddha caught my eyes.

Finally, Lhasa came into view, the huge Potala Palace on the Maripora hill commanding the vista above the city. The old, low houses nearby had been razed to make room for the familiar tall gray blocks, which encroached on the view around it. The Chinese destroyed parts of the palace. Aesthetic destruction struck such a blow that, deprived of its original perspective, the magnificent castle looked somewhat like a forgotten piece of a Hollywood stage setting.

The Chinese army invaded Tibet in the 1950s, claiming suzerainty over the lands. In 1959, the Dalai Lama escaped to India. In the intervening years, there were uprisings in Tibet. About 100,000 people were killed, and a similar number fled to neighboring countries.

After destroying most of the ancient monasteries, the Chinese forbade religious practices and the display of the portrait of the Dalai Lama. Nevertheless, the communist ideology never took hold of the Tibetan people, whose everyday life was interwoven inextricably with Buddhism. The natives hunkered down in the small villages dotting the Tibetan plateau, kept their heads low and continued to worship in their homes.

After the miserable failure of the Cultural Revolution, some degree of normalcy returned to Tibet. Since 1979, the Chinese have rebuilt the Buddhist monasteries, and religious observance is permitted under tight control.

Tibetan kings ruled here from the seventh century until the fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) took over the secular and religious power and made Potala Palace his official residence. After that time, Tibet became a theocracy, and every Dalai Lama lived there.

For centuries, the lamas enjoyed unparalleled and often oppressive power in state matters. Since the 13th century, there have been 14 Dalai Lamas, each believed to be a reincarnation of his predecessor. "Dalai" is a Mongol word for ocean, and the title Dalai Lama signifies wisdom as deep and vast as the ocean.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is an enlightened leader but at present has no chance to return to Tibet. He surmises that there may not be another reincarnation to succeed him. The Chinese may think otherwise and install someone of their choice.

The buildings were constructed with such ingenuity that they conform to every nook and cranny of the hill, blending together as if the palace grew out of the surrounding rocks. …