Steep steps led higher into the Potala Palace in the already heart-poundingly punishing altitude of Lhasa.
This Tibetan woman wasn’t stopping for breath as she stepped confidently up ahead, her red shoes revealed briefly as she climbed. The colours and symbols of Buddhism had been cleverly woven from plastic on the path beside her, turning a no-entry barrier into a celebration. Inside the Potala, the quiet susurration of chants and prayer wheels created calm.
But travelling to such places inevitably brings dilemmas…the tensions in the region are well documented and visible on the streets. Police checkpoints surrounded the traditional circular worship routes that hug the ancient Jokhang Temple. Soldiers with guns watched the procession of prostrating Buddhists from the roofs.
We got there by train…three nights and four days from the south of China – the route itself a controversial development across the pristine Himalayan Plateau. The stars were crisper and brighter than I’d ever seen. But they lit up the mass movement of Chinese trucks leaving Tibet, laden, a fellow passenger said, with quarried minerals.
It was winter-time, so many Tibetans had come in from the countryside to the city. It was vibrant and lively and intensely colourful. Even teenagers were in full Tibetan dress, although with jeans on underneath against the sharp, dry cold. The air was ripe with the smell of yaks. Huge slabs of yak butter and cheese were being carved from cloth-wrapped blocks in the market. The smoke from butter lamps and incense seeped into our clothing.
Modern life was evident too. Today’s Tibetans have added mobile phones to their traditional dress and many have replaced old-style stiff leather boots with soft, Ugg-like synthetic replicas. Local crafts are being kept alive, however, with the support of some fair trade artisan organisations and new markets. We took home several thick, Tibetan rugs. Made for the harsh Himalayan climate, they seem quite at home in Shetland.
K. Warner, Shetland