email a friend iconprinter friendly iconMy Life in Forbidden Lhasa
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Even now our troubles were not at an end. We were trespassers in Tibet, unwelcome foreigners in a land where every man is forbidden to assist a traveler who lacks written authority to pass. Our clothes were in rags, our appearance unkempt and forbidding. We had no baggage animals and no money to hire them. Surely the gates of the holy city would be closed to us.

We decided on one last desperate gamble. At Shingdongka, the last village between us and Lhasa, we searched out the binpo, or local official. With as much authority as one can command in filthy sheepskins, we introduced ourselves as the advance guard of an important foreign emissary and demanded pack animals and an escort to Lhasa.

Miraculously, the bonpo believed us. A donkey and driver were placed at our disposal. As in a dream, we walked the last few miles to Tibet's capital.

The valley of the majestic Kyi River fanned before us like a great carpet. Tilled fields and marshes and parks bordered the flat plain that runs unbroken to a towering wall of naked, sloping mountains. In the crystal air of the Roof of the World the panorama seemed perfect beyond reality.

The Potala's red and white facade loomed larger and larger. The 300-year-old palace crowns one of two jagged ridges which rise like sentinels from the valley floor. It wore an air of supernatural grandeur, as if it welled up in massive slabs of stone from the earth itself.

Gate Marks End of Flight

We stood before the three giant chortens, or stupas, that bridge a gap between the Potala and neighboring Chagpori. A red-robed monk emerged from an archway in the central chorten. Here was the gateway to Lhasa, the end of the torturous road we had traveled.

The monk turned aside, and Aufschnaiter and I looked at each other in anxiety. Where were the guards? I had visions of being thrown into a dungeon or, worse, turned back.

To our amazement, only beggars stood vigil at Lhasa's gate. It was, we learned later, believed impossible for unauthorized travelers to reach the sacred portals. No sentinels were considered necessary.

A wide street opened before us. Peddlers displayed a tempting assortment of delicacies, and the aroma nearly drove us mad. We had walked 25 miles that day without a bite to eat. But we had no money for food. Our last rupee must go to the donkey driver.

Low, flat-topped houses built of stone and mud lined the streets. Prayer flags fluttered from every roof. It was dusk, and the warmth of the afternoon sun yielded to the bitter chill of Tibetan winter. We must find shelter, but Tibet has neither restaurants nor inns. Hesitantly we approached a house. A servant girl's face froze in horror. We retreated into the street, conscious of our fierce unTibetan beards and wretched clothes. At the next house another maid shouted abuse until we fled the courtyard.

Our donkey driver was bewildered. He could not understand why the advance guards of an important foreign personage did not go where they were supposed to and stop wandering around.

At the far side of town we reached a fashionable neighborhood and paused before a fine-looking establishment. We could go no farther; our weary limbs were through. We marched into the mansion's courtyard, paid off the donkey driver, and collapsed beside our scanty possessions.

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