Following two very long, difficult days on the road, we now had a whole day to spend in Shigatse, the second largest city of Tibet. It was the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, second in authority only to the Dalai Lama.
The 10th Panchen Lama had remained in Tibet after the Chinese take-over. A petition that he presented to the government of Mao Zedong earned him 14 years as a political prisoner.
After his release in 1978, the Panchen Lama travelled throughout Tibet, working to preserve Tibetan culture and for the improvement of Tibetan lives.
In 1989, after giving an extraordinary public speech criticizing the Chinese government, the 10th Panchen Lama died at age 51, in mysterious circumstances.
The 6 year old boy who was recognized by the Dalai Lama as the new and true Panchen Lama in 1995, was promptly abducted by Beijing and has not been seen since.
China appointed their own Panchen Lama who is now a delegate of their government, but he was denounced by the Dalai Lama.
What has this to do with my visit to Tibet?
I always felt passionately that Tibet should never have been annexed by China. It’s a different country and a different culture. It’s a very unique culture.
Recently, a Tibetan delegate was granted audience at the White House, to ask for help from the USA. Our president replied by “thanking her”, and asking her to “say hello”. ??? Not a great gesture of encouragement.
At the time I was in Shigatse, this was all still in the future.
When I looked through my pictures of the town, and compared them with recent images, I became confused and I was obliged to hunt around the internet to satisfy myself I wasn’t imagining things.
The image here is how the fortress looked circa 1934.
In 1961, at the instigation of the Chinese, the fort was dismantled, rock by rock, by hundreds of Tibetans.
At left, is what I photographed in 1986.
It has now been rebuilt and looks totally different.
It has been turned into a tourist destination instead of the mystic and possibly religious experience it once was.
The temple was several stories high and these were connected by steep ladder-like stairways.
Inside the temple I came face to face with the Tibet I had always dreamed of. I recognized the mystic gloom and the scent of yak butter and incense. I recognized the monks chant. But how? I had never even heard a recording of the sound. The atmosphere was reminiscent of temples in the Far East, but not the same. The monk’s voices were different, so too the music, which was played on conch horns, cymbals and drums. I wanted to stay there, mesmerized, drinking it in, but our little apprentice monk urged us on, saying “shall we go?” in perfect English.
There were numerous rooms like this one, each dedicated to a different incarnation of a lama or a Buddha. The altars were covered by hundreds of tiny yak fat candles and yak butter ornaments. All other surfaces were painted in wildly garish colours. The low ceiling was supported by thick wooden posts into which had been stuck all manner of offerings, safety-pins being very popular. We placed some postcards on one of the altars.
I am not religious but in this instance I felt very respectful. We were following the same clockwise rotation around the temple as the many pilgrims who came there daily and who mostly ignored us unless they approached to quietly ask “Dalai Lama picture?”
In the afternoon, we took a walk around town, poking around in the market, where I purchased a Tibetan fur hat (I was collecting hats then) and an old prayer wheel.
In a fairly large “department” store, we witnessed what it is like to live in a place where supplies of everything are limited.
Display counters were very simple and the floors were bare concrete. The people shopping at the store all seemed to be dressed in the basic Chinese costume.
Tibetans seemed to prefer shopping in the market or stalls that were set up here and there everywhere. I daresay there was some vague organization to the whole thing but to us it seemed rather chaotic.
By early evening, we were exhausted from all our activity at the un-accustomed altitude, and we couldn’t face another awful Chinese meal, so we decided to forgo supper and fell into bed, Tim with all his clothes on, including his parka.
Breakfast in the morning was delayed due to general disorganization of the hotel and its sulky Chinese staff who seemed not to care a great deal for us. In the end Tim and I settled for the dried fruit and nuts purchased in case of just such an eventuality, and made ourselves a hot drink using the thermos water in our room.
It was a freezing cold morning as we set off, huddled in our transport, but within a short time we arrived at Gyanste, some 60 kilometres along our route.
The monastery we visited there was temporarily unoccupied.Light shafting through ceiling windows cast an eerie light in the room where the monks robes were all piled up in rows.
It was as if they had all suddenly vanished in the middle of their prayers.
Outside temple dogs gamboled about enjoying their status as the re-incarnations of lamas. They were stout little dogs with short legs. I wanted to cuddle them but thought it not advisable. For various reasons.
After our brief stop at Gyantse, we climbed back aboard our bus for the last long drive to Lhasa, our ultimate destination, my dream come true…