Thursday, August 23, 2007

High and Low – converting from Donkey to Lama

When I was stranded in Australia recently, awaiting visa approval from the good folk at the Consulate of the People's Republic of China (the meaning behind these endearments shall be revealed shortly), I found myself forced to watch Dr Who – see that there? That was pure Donkey brilliance; asserting that the reason I watched Dr Who was 'cause I was in exile in Melbourne, and not 'cause I'm a friggin' nerd! So anyway, as I was sitting down one Saturday night to watch the good Doctor and his foxy new assistant, it happened that one of the Doctor's two hearts stopped beating, and he was forced, like us mere mortals, to manage with a single heart for a while, until he could jump-start the second again. During his one-heart [one love, let's get together and feel alright!] ordeal, the Doctor was constantly puffing and blowing and was generally out of breath and out of condition.

Jump forward a couple of weeks, and here I am wondering whether I might be in the same boat! OK, I'm not a Time Lord, and I assume I only have one heart, but the way I'm feeling, it's either dropped down to half capacity, or I have fallen into a coma and am reliving my memories of twenty-five years ago when my father, after catching me smoking, locked me in the cupboard under the stairs with three, made-in-Taiwan Cuban cigars and an order not to come out 'till every one had been smoked down to my fingers. I remember then that I walked around for about a week afterwards, barely able to breath, and that's exactly how I'm feeling right now.

It took me seven minutes to walk up two flights of stairs an hour ago, and after flaking-out on the bed and trying to gulp down as much oxygen as I could, I've only just been able to sit up and pull my lappie out to begin typing this ... crikey, it's only been 330 words and I feel like I've just run the Sydney – Melbourne!

Before you get too alarmed and start sending sympathy cards and frilly panties, don't worry, I haven't had a heart attack or anything like that, although I reckon a heart attack must feel something like this. The cause of my breathlessness is simply due to my recent arrival at 3,500 metres above sea level. Yep, I finally made it, I have landed in Lhasa, Tibet, a place which the local beer labels tell me is on the Roof of the World. And in case you're wondering, it is awesome!

Oh, and you can still send frilly panties ... if you want.

Aside from the breathlessness and the pounding of one's heart just from dunking a tea bag into some hot water, and aside from the thumping headache from dawn 'till dusk, and aside from the fact that I have to read the same line of a book thirty-seven times before I take it in, and aside from the fact that one completely loses track of what one's say... these shoes are nice ... aah, sorry. Aside from all that, things seem to be going pretty well.

Of course, on the advice of some pretty seasoned, hard-core travellers – and my Mum – I left Aus with a welter-weight suitcase full of the most extreme, bulky, cold-weather gear with which to withstand the ball-crunching cold one would expect of a place at this altitude, and so I was completely unprepared for the 25+ degree days. Man, it was absolutely stinking hot yesterday, and up here, where the air is so thin, poor Ol' Donkey's shiny scone was roasting a nice, toasty, traffic-light red in the late arvo sun, as I raced with Mrs D towards the striking, hulking mass of the Potala Palace.

Although we were trying to gun-it as quickly as possible in order to beat the huge, ominous dark clouds that were rising from the surrounding peaks and which threatened our first photos of the famous, world-heritage landmark, in truth, due to the altitude, we were only doing about 10m/minute – it was like an horrific nightmare, y'know, where you can see the milk falling from the table, but are too far away and unable to reach it in time, "Nooooooooooooooo!".

So, after about three hours, like a couple of bent, gnarled pensioners trying to get to Maccas before 11am to get their half-price coffee, we finally arrived at the front wall of the massive, imposing spiritual home of the Dalai Lama (Whoa-ho, that's gonna slay 'em). How can one describe seeing this wondrous, 1300-year-old structure for the first time? To say it's big just doesn't cut it. It sprawls along the top of an entire mountain, rising up steeply from the base of the jagged cliffs in huge, striking, white-washed walls, in some places, judging by the dark windows uniformly spaced from east to west, reaching more than ten stories high. On top of that, the so-called Red Palace squats like a great, sun-tanned Sumo Wrestler who has landed on his arse on the white canvas, and who no army shall ever be able to get back onto his flabby legs. Atop the great, red Sumo's head, rising still higher into the thin Tibetan stratosphere, a multi-horned crown of pure gold shines from dozens of ancient spires and temples, and all this can be seen from any corner of this ancient city, like an attracting beacon for the thousands of pilgrims who swarm into Lhasa every day in order to circumambulate the massive fortress-come-monastery. Even despite the thickening black clouds that were all over us by now, our first sight of the Potala was an impressive, awe-inspiring experience. The paint work may well be looking a bit faded due to decades of Chinese neglect, but even so, as it hulked from one corner of your peripheral vision to the other, I gulped down the realisation that never before had I felt so small and undeserving before a single, man-made structure.

And from what I could tell, I wasn't the only one struck by this overwhelmingly powerful presence. As Mrs Donkey and I stood dumbfounded on the curb, staring up into the heavens at the golden rooves, we started to notice old, gnarled Buddhist pilgrims, dressed in their thick woollen cloaks, huge leather boots and cowboy hats, swaying from side to side as they moved along the clockwise, three kilometre circuit, or kora, around the base of the Potala, mumbling prayers as if in a trance and holding their ornate prayer-wheels aloft and spinning before them. Despite their apparent concentration, they would still break out in a lined, toothless grin as they passed you by and wish you "Tashi delek", their eyes sparkling a tangible joy which suggested their visit to the Potala was something of a life-long dream fulfilled.

Even more affected by the Potala's grandeur were the pilgrims who undertook the three kilometre kora, complete with prayers and prostrations. Mrs D and I watched, aghast as a devoted pilgrim walked three steps, and then dropped to the concrete on his wood-padded knees, then onto his wood-padded hands and knees, and then onto his stomach, stretching his arms out forward in prayer, before getting up, walking another three paces, and doing it all again, all the time mumbling guttural, intense prayers. And he wasn't the only one. The flagstones around the entire perimeter of the Potala are polished smooth from the stomachs of prostrating pilgrims, such is the awe of the place and the spiritual importance it plays for the current and future lives of all Tibetans.

Mrs Donkey and I were shaken from our contemplation of the imposing structure when the threatening clouds delivered their promise, and the temperature plummeted in minutes. Soaked, shivering, and of course, puffing profusely, we walked hand-in-hand into the Old Tibetan quarter for some yak pie and a beer with a host of similarly water-logged, hairy, unwashed backpackers. It was some time before Mrs Donkey and I said anything to each other, but when we sat down, we both grinned and in typical, light-headed, high-altitude fashion, exclaimed stupidly, "Cool!". Yep, Tibet's gonna be fun.


The towering majesty of the Potala Palace. Pic: Hagas