Today is the 86th birthday of HH The 14th Dalai Lama, and I’ll be posting two diaries today to mark the occasion. This is the first, with memories of my visits to Dharamshala/McLeod Ganj, India and to Tibet in 1998 and 2000. And this evening, at 10:00pm EDT/7:00pm PDT, I’ll be posting my weekly Nonfiction Views column for the Readers and Book Lovers Group, where I’ll discuss various books on Tibet and the Dalai Lama.
In 1998, my wife Phyllis and I took a two month trip to India, Nepal and Tibet. One of the highlights of that journey was a week in Dharamshala, India, seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile, while the Dalai Lama was giving his annual post-Tibetan New Year public teaching, attended by thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns, Tibetan exiles and foreigners like us.
Dharamshala, or more specifically McLeod Ganj, the commercial town just up the mountain from the seat of government itself, was pretty ramshackle back then, two main streets lined with basic shops, restaurants and hotels, with the Namgyalma Stupa and its dozens of prayer wheels right in the center. Smaller streets radiate off up and down the mountain, to schools, meditation caves, monasteries and more, through stands of pine, Himalayan oak and rhododendron. Snow-capped peaks were visible from numerous outlooks. Temple Road leads out the far end of town to the Tsuglagkhang Complex containing the main Temple and the Dalai Lama’s residence. Around this complex, the kora, or traditional ceremonial path Tibetans follow around sacred sites, winds through the forest, past piles of mani stones and strands of prayer flags. Occasionally, monks in their crimson robes would march through town, chanting support for the Dalai Lama and for Tibet.
We stayed at the Hotel Tibet. Out our window, we could see a maze of tin roofs with large rocks and pieces of slate scattered about to hold them down. Monkeys scampered. Across the way, at the Shangri-La Guest House, there were many monks staying. We would watch them on the roof of the building, brushing their teeth or studying their scriptures, giving us a wave and big smile when they spotted us.
As with everything else, I understand that the town and its tourist trade has grown considerably in the ensuing decades. There’s now even a Hyatt Regency hotel. I’m grateful to have seen it back in its more modest days.
On the day the teachings began, crowds streamed to the Temple complex early in the morning. It was a chilly, drizzly early March day, but most of the outdoor seating area in the courtyard alongside the Temple was protected from the elements by corrugated plastic or with fabric. The area was packed with people sitting on the ground or on concrete bleachers, yet miraculously, monks carrying huge iron kettles of milky tea managed to pass through the crowds, filling everyone’s cups, or in the case of one cup-less pilgrim, the tiny cap of his compass.
The Dalai Lama finally appeared at the back of the courtyard, having evidently walked up from his residence, carrying his own umbrella. He reached the dais, and there followed a long series of guttural chants by the monks. The Dalai Lama spoke in Tibetan, but translations were broadcast in multiple languages; we would listen by tuning in on transistor radios to the appropriate station.
We didn’t attend every teaching. The days were long and uncomfortable, and in truth the level of Buddhist instruction was beyond our ready understanding. Some days I would just walk to the outside of the compound, without bothering to enter the courtyard through the security, and simply spend some time listening to the Dalai Lama’s voice over the loudspeakers, and to the translation on my radio. But it was a thrill and an inspiration to see him in person, and when he passed just a few feet in front of us during one of the breaks, I swear you could feel the energy radiating from him.
During one of the sessions I listened to, the Dalai Lama spoke of the hunger strikes begun the week before by the Tibetan Youth Congress in Delhi, the Indian capitol, demanding freedom for Tibet. He said he had received a letter from the hunger strikers asking him not to order them to end their action. The Dalai Lama spoke of his torment. On the one hand, self-harm in the form of a hunger strike was a form of violence, which he could not condone. On the other hand, he respected their commitment.
After we returned to Delhi, we visited the hunger strikers. They were in a tent in the public Jantar Mantar park. It was now late March, about three weeks into their protest. They were lying in beds, already quite weak; one of them spoke softly to us as we held his hand. A month later, Indian police forcibly removed the strikers (some say at the request of Gen Fu Quanyou, head of China’s Peoples’ Republic Army, who had arrived on an official visit to India.) In protest, 55 year old Thupten Ngodup set himself on fire at the scene. He died a few days later, though not before the Dalai Lama had visited him in the hospital. Afterward, the Dalai Lama spoke of his conflicted view:
"My middle approach up to now in certain fields has brought no results, so they are trying to bring some more notice to this to everyone including the Chinese government," the Dalai Lama said after meeting a group of recent escapees from Tibet. "Therefore I felt if I stop them I have to offer some other kind of alternative. But that is not there unfortunately. I myself am in a state of dilemma over what to do and I frankly told them I am confused now."
After India, it was on to Nepal. From there, we planned to take a two week trip to Tibet. Alas, Phyllis came down with pneumonia, probably due to the awful air pollution in Delhi. However, we had met numerous Tibetans in India and Nepal who had given us katas, the ceremonial white scarves used to signify respect and gratitude, asking us to place them on the Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha in Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple, considered the most important in Tibet. In order to fulfil this obligation, we decided I would travel alone to Lhasa on a quickie three day organized tour.
While I did get to see the major sights—The Jokhang Temple, the Potala Palace and the Norbulinka Summer Palace—the trip was more interesting for the glimpse it gave me into Chinese control of Tibet. At that time, you had to be part of an organized tour to visit Tibet, so travel agencies in Kathmandu would conspire to assemble sham ‘groups’ for going through customs in Lhasa. My ‘group’ consisted of myself, three American women, a newlywed couple from Singapore, two German women and another solo woman from another Asian country, all with different itineraries and slated to be staying in three different hotels.
The corruption seemed to go smoothly at immigration in the Lhasa airport, though it was a bit disconcerting. Some, including myself, had obtained Chinese visas beforehand. These were stamped ‘cancelled’ at immigration, and the only documentation seemed to be the ‘group’ visa with all our names on it. I received nothing specific to myself: no stamp in my passport, no paper visa, no personal documentation of any sort that would show I was in the country legally. After going through customs, I was somehow swapped into another faux ‘group’ for the 93 kilometer bus ride to Lhasa and the Lhasa Hotel (formerly a Holiday Inn.) There, I was stripped away once again by my personal, non-group handler for the short ride to where I was slated to stay: the Grand Hotel, which was listed in no guidebook and which no one had ever heard of. But first, I asked my guide if I could change money at the Lhasa Hotel. In theory, only guests could exchange money, but my guide said “Just write down any room number.”
I wrote down Room 204 in the designated space.
“There must be some mistake,” said the woman behind the counter in perfect English. “All our room numbers have four digits.”
Caught! “Um...well, I’m with the group just checking in,” I stammered. “They told me Room 204…..”
“I think perhaps they meant Room 3204,” the woman helpfully prompted. I added a 3, and, the farce complete, she swapped my travelers checks for Chinese currency.
Then it was a quick ride to the Grand Hotel, which did in fact exist. It seemed new, it seemed huge, and it seemed empty. There was some initial consternation at the front desk, as I had no visa number for the registration form; as I mentioned, I’d been given zero actual documentation for myself, and existed only as part of the fictional ‘group’ visa. There was quite a bit of back and forth between my guide and various hotel personnel, and the matter was finally—albeit mysteriously—resolved. I was assigned Room 2233, which, I silently noted, had four digits.
The hotel had a sort of sterile luxury, and the corridors were comically long, with Muzak softly playing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” and “Theme From ‘The Sting.’” My room was similarly sterile, though comfortable, with Chinese touches like little rubber slippers at bedside and a thermos of hot water for tea. As there were still several hours of daylight, I decided to explore a bit on my own.
No one stopped me as I left the hotel, and, despite feeling a bit vulnerable without documentation and without a guide to bail me out, turned left onto a broad avenue lined with Chinese shops. There were stores of all types, from hole-in-the-wall noodle shops to large stores to karaoke bars, nothing seeming Tibetan. There was also a two-story department store with what might have been the only escalator in Tibet. Tibetans, from children to adult monks, were riding up and down, laughing with delight.
I walked past the Potala Palace, then walked all the way into the old Tibetan quarter and the Jokhang Temple, wandering through the festive Barkhor Square in front. Though it was only from the outside for both, I was happy to have seen them without a handler. My official guided tours to both, as well as to Sera Monastery and the Norbulingka summer palace, would take place over the next two days.
Not wanting to overdo it in the 12,000 foot altitude, I headed back to the Grand Hotel, thinking I would have dinner there. Near the stairwells of the long hotel corridors, there was always a desk with two women to monitor you. I asked if there was a restaurant in the hotel. This seemed to cause a bit of consternation and prompted a telephone call, after which I was sent to the lobby. I saw no restaurant in the lobby, so asked at the desk, where I was directed up a flight of stairs. There I was confronted by a cavernous, desolate dining room and six staff, who seemed shocked to see me. This prompted more discussion and phone calls, after which it was determined I could have some rice and vegetables and egg drop soup. They turned on the lights, seated me, and I ate my miserable meal in lonely silence.
It was nice to see Lhasa, but the trip felt very constrained and rushed. But at least I accomplished my mission: I draped the various katas entrusted to us in front of the Jowo Shakyamuni statue in the Jokhang Temple.
Phyllis and I returned for another two month trip to India and Nepal two years later, in 2000, and that is when we took our postponed dream journey to Tibet together: one week in Lhasa, and then one week overland back to Kathmandu, Nepal, all arranged by a Tibetan travel agency (new back then, but still in business and highly recommended: Basanta Adventure or Basanta Tibet.)
This trip was everything my dreary excursion two years earlier had not been. We stayed in a modest Tibetan hotel, the Banak Shol, in the Tibetan quarter, where Tibetan men on the rooftop outside our window played Sho, a popular dice game. On our visit to the Jokhang, we were allowed to wander around on the roof, where we watched a team of women working in formation as they sang and tapped out a rhythm with long poles. At Sera Monastery, where two years earlier I’d been subjected to a rushed visit and dreary lecture, we got to watch the monks debate in the courtyard, and then went to our Tibetan guide’s nearby home to meet his new baby. On Sunday, we joined his family on the grounds of the Norbulingka for a traditional family picnic. We had plenty of opportunity to wander on our own, both in the ever-dwindling area of traditional Tibetan architecture around the Jokhang (being steadily destroyed by the Chinese,) and the more modern Chinese city.
The seven day trip across Tibet back to Nepal was equally amazing, visiting the cities of the more modernized Shigatse and more traditional Gyantse, the Tashilhunpo and Samye monasteries, seeing the glowing blue of the sacred Lake Yamdrok, going over mountain passes of 15,720 and 17,120 feet, and the final night in the tiny, rustic town of Tingri, jumping off point for the Tibetan base camp for Mount Everest, visible in the distance. It was the adventure of a lifetime.