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Travellers' Tales :: Strolling Around the Barkhor


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This story is excerpted from The Hotel on the Roof of the World by Alec Le Sueur, an Englishman who spent five years in Lhasa running what was at that time the most unlikely version of the Holiday Inn in the world. Material is copyright Alec Le Sueur and is reproduced with permission of the author and Summersdale Publishers. Get the book to read more of Alec's bizarre and very funny adventures. For details, see

at the heart of Lhasa lies the main pilgrim circuit...

by Alec Le Sueur

A FEW HUNDRED YARDS FURTHER into the city, past the tantalising aroma of roast lamb kebabs, the rickshaw drew up to the edge of a wide open cobbled square. This area had remained as a rabbit warren of Tibetan houses until 1985 when the Chinese liberated the people from the inconvenience of walking through the small streets and demolished the old Tibetan buildings to make an official people's square.

Somewhat ironically, the square which was meant to be for the good of the people soon turned out to be a favourite spot for rioting and anti-government demonstrations. September 27, 1987, saw the first group of monks chanting for independence in the square. The monks were arrested and on October 1, Chinese National Day, an angry crowd of Tibetans gathered outside the police station on the square to demand their release. The exact sequence of events that followed is unclear but it is generally accepted that panicking Chinese soldiers fired into the unarmed mob, killing at least six Tibetans. Somewhere in the chaos that followed the police station was burnt down.

The Chinese had many lessons to learn from their first experience of rioting in the "New Tibet." Unfortunately one of the lessons they did not learn is that when your police station has been burnt down, you should get a new set of fire extinguishers. They still don't seem to have learnt this basic rule, as every time there is rioting in Lhasa the police station on the square burns down again. Clearly there is an opportunity for a good sprinkler salesman.

The square itself shows no signs of the troubles that have passed over its cobbled stones. Its dilapidated state is not from riots but from dirt and zero maintenance. An unkempt garden with a muddy concrete-lined pond and broken fountains stands in the centre. To the western end of the pond a sorry looking rose attempts to climb a metal arch painted in Blackpool beach colours. This appears to be a favourite picture spot for both Chinese and Tibetans alike and a brisk trade is carried out by the dozen or so photographers who tout for business.

At the far end of the square, beyond the railings, roses and pool, is the modest entrance to the Jokhang temple - the centre of the Tibetan Buddhists' world.

I had arrived in Tibet nearly a year after the 1987 riots and despite some more shootings in the Barkhor in March 1988 I had been assured that the troubles were a thing of the past. Even tourism was picking up again, which was just as well as it was now my job to see that business to the hotel increased. Confident that I would be riding the crest of a wave as tours poured back into Tibet, I approached an unmistakably American tourist to ask the way to the bazaar of which I had heard so much.

Barbara, from a Smithsonian Institute tour, had been twice around the bazaar and was now on her way back to the group bus. "You gotta go clockwise" she said, pointing to a queue of people walking from right to left in front of the temple. "Just follow them."

Barbara was being followed by a determined group of Tibetan Khampa ladies haggling profusely. It was their livelihood and they knew how to haggle to perfection. Bracelets, necklaces, prayer wheels, rings, broaches and useless trinkets were being pulled out of bags and thrust under Barbara's nose. She really had no chance.

"Only one thousand. I like you. Six hundred. You how much? Holy silver. Holy, holy! Five hundred. You how much? Very cheap. One hundred. You how much?! You special price. Seventy five." The sound of the prayer flags flapping above in the wind was momentarily drowned by a crescendo of the haggling chorus as Barbara climbed on to the tour bus. She could not be permitted to be out of reach or they would lose the close on their sales.

The Khampas rushed around to the side of the bus and knocked fervently on the window by Barbara's seat. It was a pleasure to watch professional sales people at work. With the engine revving and the driver waving the girls to move away Barbara finally gave in at "OK. For you fifty." The driver shook his head. All the Tibetans knew it was only worth five, but Barbara would never know and would be happy to show off her bargain from the bazaar over dinner parties back home.

The Khampa girls returned from the scene of their sale giggling at the fun of it all. Another tourist ripped off and happy. Some more money for the family.

Khampa women have a joie de vivre as strong as the pride of their fierce husbands. Beautiful rounded faces with sparkling eyes above rosy cheeks smile out at every foreigner. Strings of turquoise beads are woven into the hair and occasionally crowned by a centre piece of coral or amber. A scowl at a Chinaman, a smile to a foreigner: the Khampa girls love to flirt. Gold-capped teeth flash from their inviting smiles but they know that they are safe - no one would wish to pick trouble with their Khampa husbands.

I followed the direction in which Barbara had pointed and found myself on the edge of the square at the opening to the Jokhang temple. Deep behind the whitewashed walls of the opening passage, red painted pillars the width of stout men, support a balcony draped in yak hair cloth. Two gilded deer and a Dharma wheel shine down from over the balcony on all who pass beneath. But your attention is not held by any of the interesting structural technicalities or adornments of the building, instead it is focused on the people who crowd the forecourt.

The granite paving stones are worn to a polish that no hotel Housekeeper could ever produce. Apart from a lapse during the Cultural Revolution, every day for hundreds of years has seen many thousands of prostrations over these slabs. With hands first clasped together in front of the head, the chest and the waist, each prostrater then lies flat down on the ground with arms outstretched in the direction of the temple.

Merit is what Buddhism is all about. At least that is what I had gathered so far from my meagre research into the subject. I had found most books on Buddhism terribly difficult to digest - all those incomprehensible names and anatomically impossible beings. I could guess that the Eleven-Headed One Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara would not be a Bodhisattva to take on at table-tennis, but I had yet to consider any of the more complex ideologies of Buddhism.

Without going into tiresome detail and very long names, the simple formula to follow is that the more merit you have gained during your lifetime the better your chance of being reincarnated as something higher than an earwig in the next life. If you are really pious and score high numbers of merit points you could come back as a human being again and if you earn just those few more points you could come back as a rich nobleman or a high lama instead of having to be a down-trodden peasant again. It's a bit like collecting Air Miles.

Hitting the jackpot in terms of merit would be to score so many points that you could leave the endless cycle of rebirths and achieve nirvana. Once you have reached this Buddhist's bingo there are no more worries about who or what you are going to come back to.

With this clear incentive to keep prostrating, some manage to keep going for over a thousand per day. Others stick to the holy number of one hundred and eight prostrations which is quite difficult enough. To ease the pain of sliding outstretched across the granite, special gloves fashioned in the shape of small clogs are often worn. Aprons can be used to protect clothing from wearing out and women prostrating will often tie their long dresses close around their ankles if they are going in for a lengthy session.

Around the temple entrance is also where the first time visitor to Tibet has his initial encounter with an unfamiliar odour: yak butter. Or the more fragrant variety: rancid yak butter. It is brought into the temple by devout pilgrims who carry blocks of the yellow grease in yak bladder bags. They scoop the butter out by the spoonful into each of the stone and silver vessels of yak butter which burn in the holy chambers of the temple. Yak butter is not an easy odour to forget. It clings to every person in the Barkhor, to every item sold on the stalls, to every piece of clothing and when you think that you have left Tibet far behind, the smell of yak butter will still be lingering in your suitcases, waiting to hit you when you open them to pack for next year's holiday.

Fortunately, two holy incense burners are within a few yards of the temple entrance and a step towards them brings the very pleasing fragrance of a blend of burning juniper and a finely scented artemisia. Piles of dried herbs and small bundles of wood collected from high in the hills around Lhasa are offered for sale to those who did not bring their own supplies for the burners.

Starting from the entrance to the Jokhang temple the market street continues clockwise in a half mile perimeter circuit right around the temple and back to the entrance again. By no small coincidence the market street is also a holy walk. Every temple, monastery, holy mountain, holy lake and holy entity is surrounded by a holy walk known as a kora, and by walking this kora in a clockwise direction you gain merit. All these merit points keep adding to your running total of merit to give you a better chance for a good reincarnation next time around. The beauty of the Barkhor bazaar is that you can gain merit and do your shopping at the same time.

A ramshackle collection of metal stalls lines each side of the street selling a mixture of imports, antiques, fakes and forgeries. Trinkets from Kathmandu and nylon clothes from China share stands with Tibetan rugs and traditional jewellery. Bulky silver rings studded with beads of red coral or turquoise, heavy-set earrings of gold, old Indian coins made into broaches and any amount of religious paraphernalia are all on offer for sale. The word "antique" is used for anything which dates from pre-1959 when the Dalai left into exile. Customs laws are strict in China and they declare that anything that is "antique" or a "cultural relic" cannot be removed from the country.

"Holy Turquoise!" called out a Khampa girl, thrusting a piece of blue plastic in my face and then running off down the street giggling to her friends. I followed, caught up in the clockwise stream of bodies that flows continually around the Barkhor. Only the most ignorant tourist and a few belligerent Chinese attempt to walk against the flow.

Just past the Jokhang entrance on the main Barkhor street I was attacked by a small child. A boy of no more than five years of age grabbed my right leg and clung on as hard as he could while launching into his sales pitch in perfect English: "I have no money. I have no parents. I have no money. I have no parents. I have no money. Please give me money. I have no parents. I have no money. Please give me money..."

The "Rapper," as we called him, was the most persistent of all the Barkhor beggars. His ruthlessly pitiful approach was used to great effect. He could only be shaken off with either a considerable amount of force or a large contribution to his funds which he would then take back to his parents who eagerly awaited him at the front of the temple.

One of the favourite claims by the Chinese is that they eradicated begging when they liberated Tibet in 1951 and that they turned the beggars into "the new proletariat of the New Tibet." I pictured the Rapper clinging on the leg of a die-hard Communist and wondered who would win: the lecture on the no-begging policy of New Tibet, or a contribution to the Rapper's welfare funds?

For the Tibetans, there has never been anything unwholesome about begging. There are claims that before the Chinese entered Tibet there were some twenty thousand beggars making their living across the country. In the constant search throughout life to gain merit, giving money to beggars scores high points and giving money to beggars in the Barkhor scores some of the highest merit points of all. For some pilgrims the walk to Lhasa, their spiritual capital, was the accomplishment of a lifetime which had taken their entire life savings to achieve. They would beg in the Barkhor to raise enough money to see them through the trip home.

Colonel Waddell who accompanied the British invasion of Tibet in 1904 and who may well have had the Rapper's great, great grandfather around his leg, described the Barkhor beggars as "repulsively dirty." It is a description which could be used very accurately today and after removing the Rapper and his sticky lolly pop from my trouser leg I set off down the side streets for some relief from the bombardment of sensations at the Barkhor.

In the narrow streets behind the Barkhor I would find my favourite part of Lhasa - where time has stood still for hundreds of years. Streets twist and turn, sometimes thirty feet wide, sometimes six feet wide, veering off at right angles between old whitewashed stone buildings three to four stories high with black trapezoid windows. Here you only see Tibetan faces - the Chinese do not venture alone down these little alley ways.

One street corner always has a ram tethered to a door post. He has a very short rope and can only stand or sit on the large granite doorstep. There is never any food visible yet he is permanently chewing something, sitting on his doorstep gazing at the world going by. Sheep are often saved from the slaughterhouse by Tibetans who take them on as pets. It is thought that this saving of a soul from death is a very merit worthy action and therefore adds to the running total of merit of the new sheep owner. It is quite common to see Tibetans walking around the Barkhor with a sheep on a lead, or taking a couple of sheep on a long pilgrimage.

At least I used to hope that this ram was one of the saved ones. It did dawn on me one day that perhaps it was a different ram there every time and that they were just being fattened up for slaughter.

In a dimly lit doorway across from the ram, an old Tibetan lady in full Tibetan dress slices a turnip on a chopping board across her lap. Another spins wool into thread. Small girls lean out of first floor windows calling, "Hello, tashi delai, hello!" to passers by. Everyone has time to greet you, whether by a smile, a nod, a tashi delai or occasionally by the really traditional greeting of sticking a tongue out at you. This is the Tibet of the past that so many wish was still here today.

Trying to find my way back to the Barkhor market, I found myself trapped between two narrow streets filled with excrement and the decaying carcasses of dogs. The pungent stench of rotting flesh and maggot-infested pools sent me scrambling for the fresh air of the open square. Even rancid yak butter was perfume compared with this. Half way down the narrow alley, at a point where the path consisted of stepping stones through the sewage, two men came out of a doorway, their eyes wide with excitement and their breath heavy with a strong alcohol. They stopped in front of me, blocking the only dry path through the nauseous street. Both had the distinctive profiles of Khampas. They stood tall and proud with red braid wrapped across their matted black hair. One was bare-chested with his chuba, the Tibetan cloak, tied around his waist. They stared at me in silence for some time, looking me up and down. Their surly expressions did not change and they held firm their position blocking the only dry exit. There was no one else around. There were no old ladies in the doorways, no little children smiling and waving from the windows. Alone in excrement alley face to face with two alcohol-steaming Khampas. I was deep up the creek without a paddle.

"Do drigey rey?" the bare-chested one broke the silence. I had no idea what he was saying. "Do drigey rey?" he shouted. I smiled at him but to no avail.

He pulled a sword from its sheath, stooped over me and held it up to my chest. Why had I been so mean to the Rapper? Is this what happens if you don't earn merit? Where was a Chinese soldier when you needed one?

The other Khampa looked over his shoulder and moved in closer to me. "Katse rey?" he called out with a nod of his head. The bare-chested one waved the sword closer to my face. Sunlight flashed in my eyes as he tilted the steel blade towards me. I could even see every detail of the intricate engravings running along the centre of the blade between the two razor edges.

He withdrew the sword, pointed to the space beside us and made a series of cuts in the air to demonstrate a nifty disembowelling motion. He shook it in front of my face again.

"Katse rey? Katse rey!?" he shouted.

The bare-chested one frowned in thought, recalling the only English words which he had heard learnt from his wife.

"You how much?" he called to me.

It was with an enormous sense of relief that I suddenly realised they were not threatening to decapitate me if I crossed their path but were merely trying to sell me the sword. Their scowls turned into broad gold-capped grins as I took the sword and examined it closely. The swirling engravings of the steel blade ended abruptly inside a gaping dragon's mouth of silver which formed the base of the handle. The body of the dragon curled around on itself to provide the bulk of the grip. It was newly made, perhaps one of the imports from Kathmandu, and certainly practical for the man about town. But disembowelling daggers were not high on my shopping list and I had no intention of buying it, I just wanted to get out of the place with dry feet and in one piece.

I shook my head and passed the sword back to him. Recalling Tashi's words of greeting at the airport, I ventured the only Tibetan words that I knew: "Tashi Delai." This earned me a great slap on the back that pushed me dangerously close to the edge of the excrement area, and my two new Khampa friends strode off down the lane howling with laughter.

There are only so many smells and sensations that the body can take on the first day of reaching an altitude of 12,000 feet so after I had found my way back to the Barkhor I haggled for another rickshaw to return to the hotel.


This material © copyright Michael Buckley. All rights reserved.