Lhasa, Dalai Lama’s residence until his exile to India
It is curious the attraction that Buddhism and Dalai Lama arise in the West and how little we really know about them. The most glamorous religion has its spiritual capital in the middle of Himalaya, Tibet. The last theocracy until China invaded and annexed it as one of its provinces. That happened more than 50 years ago. Despite of it, and even though they try to hide it, it is still another country. In reality, it is Chinese people themselves who give Tibet a particular status requiring a special authorization to be able to visit. It is some kind of save-conduct that we could only get in Kathmandu with luck and something else. We celebrated it with the coldest beer in the world, frozen actually, a larger Everest. At last we would be able to fulfil the adventure that we have been pursuing for so long: cross the highest range in the world driving a 4×4.
During the first part of the journey we drove a little road where the capital of Nepal and the Tibetan border meet. It was a narrow path with abandoned villages on its way, many of which have decided to build barricades and charge a toll to any fool who crosses their roads. Arguing here and paying there, we arrived to the Friendship Bridge, a viaduct over the rift that separates Nepal and Tibet. With our bags on our backs, we started crossing it as if we were spies sent back to the enemy in the middle of the Cold War. Behind us, we still could hear the rumour of bustling Nepalis. In front of us, we had, waiting for us, Chinese soldiers enveloped in fog, who without saying one word, made us form a line. With the passport in our hands and the fear in our eyes, we waited to have our bags checked. They did it in such an organized and methodical way that we started to feel guilty, remembering all the legends about innocent people behind bars. When it was our turn, they started to shout and our doubts turned into a nightmare. The reason: a misspelled surname in our visa. For less than that, others had been sent back to Nepal, but the Weather Lama took pity on us and it started raining cats and dogs. They didn’t think that getting wet, because of two nobodies like us, was worth it so they got quiet as fast as they had started to shout before.
That is they way we entered in the most mystic country in the world: completely soaked and running like a hare, just in case the charge man changed his mind and arrested us. One week later that wrongly stamped paper, played a dirty trick on us again. Tired of so much foolishness, it decided to hide at the bottom of our suitcase and refused to be found for a while. The police officers in the airport where we had to take our plane to leave Tibet explained the situation very tactfully: “no paper, don’t go”.
Before all that, we had to get to Lhasa. Seven days that felt like seven weeks. Just the starting up was an adventure. The first Tibetan village is like a bottleneck, trapped between the border and roads under construction. The long lines of trucks waiting to get the permission to leave the country make it even worse. Luckily, we were only one day isolated in that trap. The following day we were cleared to continue our journey through an impossible road: a winding precipice where hundreds of workmen risk their lives everyday to turn it into a free-passage. Once we overcome the vertiginous falls, a couple of short cuts through nowhere took us to the high plain where the Himalaya is situated. Spectacular scenery with blue lakes, white snow and grey lands; mountain passes at an altitude of 5000 metres and a view to the famous Everest and the unknown Cho Oyu. That is how we arrived to Lhasa.
Located in the middle of a dead plateau, surrounded by steep mountains and crossed by big avenues, the cradle of Buddhism looks more like another city in the Olympic China than the capital of Tibet. The spirituality that we expected to find vanished like ice in the spring. All the ideal sanctuaries, where silence and meditation reign over materialism, are now a fantasy in the westerners’ imagination. The bucolic view of peaceful people sharing their philosophy of life with the travellers is “some Hollywood” eager to make their movies real. Traffic lights and aggressive children take its place now. It is said that Chinese people destroyed that dream, and with it, most of the temples. Demolished, ruined, or simply with their doors closed and sealed. The few that are left have turned into machines to make money to pay for the “revolutionary tax”, that, as if it was a gangster, the Chinese government make them pay to be able to continue operating. The same government that has prohibited the reincarnation of Dalai Lama.
Or maybe not. Maybe the Chinese invaders were not the ones who put an end to that idealized Tibet. Maybe it was the corrosion of the modern life, or the globalization, or maybe it was the industrial development. Maybe it was that image of Buddhism that we were projected and its capital never existed. We tried to ask about it to some Tibetans to know the truth but the only answer that we got, over and over, was: “I’m not allowed to talk about this”. Will they ever be able to do it?