Blessed to be a witness

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Thursday, March 17th

You must be Jokhang

Prayer wheels at the inner kora of the Jokhang

It's hard sometimes in Tibet to retain the same affection for the Chinese that I have for them in China. There's something a little grating, when one knows the history, to see the Tibetans reduced to just-another-minority of the Motherland, but that is how they're viewed, and if Chinese people are a little cynical about the distortion of the history that they're given, they don't show it.

At Barkhor Square, built in the 1980s by the Chinese in front of the Jokhang Temple, a sign exhorts that 'National Treasure is also International Treasure', but it's clear to whose nation they refer. That said, China will never leave Tibet, so the best that the people here can possibly hope for is to become the most autonomous and most free of all the 'Chinese' minorities - a point well made by Patrick French, the former president of the Free Tibet movement, in his marvellous book Tibet Tibet, which I highly recommend if anyone's interested in the country. The Chinese are liberalising, albeit excruciatingly slowly, with ghastly abuses of human rights, torture and murder, for expressing views that in the West would be seen as innocuous or mildly seditious at best. Now, if you keep your head down and avoid controversy, a Tibetan is free - or about as free as any Chinese citizen, though probably a little less - to live your life as you want it, and worship as you want.

So now Lhasa is more Chinese than Tibetan, and the western portion of the city could be any in China, if it weren't for the bowl of mountains in which the city sits, and occasional glimpses of the Potala Palace high above everything. It's complex: Chinese influence here has been both malign and benign. Without them, there would be little education, less healthcare, no infrastructure. Without the Cultural Revolution, many monasteries, treasures and people would still be in existence. Without them, there would be no electricity. But without them, the vast mountain lake of Yamdrok-tso, which is fed only slowly by glaciers, would not be being irreparably drained.

The Chinese present the holy 'national' treasures - most of them Unesco World Heritage sites - with more than the usual brand of lacksadaisical incompetence. Our visit to the Jokhang Temple was confused by a lack of discernible entrance, though a helpful pilgrim took a break from prostrating herself to point us the way. Once inside, the Chinese ticketing agent, who presented our very expensive 70 yuan (€7) ticket - in the form of a business-card sized CD-ROM - indicated that it would be OK to take photographs. However, the first time I tried I was chewed out by an irritated monk.

Supposedly this most holy of Tibetan Buddhist temples was built to pin down the heart of a huge demoness who was lying across the Himalayas (other temples were built at her extremities), and the site chosen was a lake, which had to be filled in. The place was trashed during the Cultural Revolution, but has been slowly rebuilt. Inside it was dark and seemingly ancient, lit by flickering yak-butter candles. Alas it was devoid of the murmuring pilgrims that give such sites their magical atmosphere. In the hushed main worship chamber, or 'cathedral' as the sign said, dozens of chained-off shrines ringed the inner chamber, each full of the images of Buddha or other deities. As I watched, a rat crawled over one golden bhoddisatva, and a temple cat scratched itself in the pews where the monks would be sitting and chanting if this were a working day. On the roof, the view over Barkhor Square revealed a snaking line of pilgrims making their 'kora', or circumambulation, of the temple, the Potala in the background.

We've also booked a trip in a Toyota Land Cruiser to Everest Base Camp. This will take us five or six days, depending on how we handle the lack of atmosphere - since it's 5,200 metres above sea level - and the journey there will take in Yamdrok-tso, and the towns of Gyantse, Shigatse and Shegar, as well as the Rongphu Monastery at the foot of Everest, or Qomolangma, as it is known locally as a holy mountain. We leave on the 21st. I have a few trepidations, mainly to do with dodgy driving practices, and the altitude at which we will find ourselves, but it would be criminal to be here and not to see it.

The day also involved an abortive trip to the Potala, where we discovered that the place was shut in the afternoons. No indication from the Chinese authorities, of course, in any other language than Chinese, merely a little piece of paper stuck on the entrance gate - once we had found the gate, that is, there being no indication whatsoever of the way in.

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