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Strangers Become Social Lions

We became the sensations of Lhasa. Aristocrats in fur-lined brocades and silks streamed to the Thangme home, bringing gifts. Everyone took great delight in our tale of how we had hoodwinked the Shingdongka official.

The visit of George Tsarong, a Government official and the son of a former grand minister, set the house in an uproar. Tsarong was of higher rank than Thangme, and under Lhasa's rigid protocol would not ordinarily visit his home. The young aristocrat, however, proved a diverting guest. He had learned English in a British school in India, as had Thangme.

Tsarong listened daily to news on a radio, powered by a wind-propelled generator, which he had put together himself. From him we learned of the events that followed World War II. Despite the end of hostilities, we were not anxious to return home.

Yangchenla, Tsarong's wife, bubbled with laughter and questions. One of Lhasa's fairest women, she customarily dressed in a rainbow-striped apron and a triangular Lhasastyle headdress studded with turquoises, coral, amber, and seed pearls. She knew the use of rouge, lipstick, and powder.

Other ranking nobles came to see the strangers and stayed deep into the night. Aufschnaiter and I worried lest we inconvenience our host and hostess, but they assured us they had never known such an exciting time.

Our status as minor celebrities, however, did nothing to ease our worry over the future.

The Regent had not yet returned to Lhasa, and until he made his decision we were living on borrowed time.

Then, eight days after our inauspicious arrival, we were summoned to the home of the Dalai Lama's family. The impression we made, we felt, might influence the Regent's decision. We listened intently as the Thangmes instructed us how to behave. Generously they supplied us with white silk ceremonial scarves to present to the "Great Mother" and "Great Father." Tibetans of all ranks exchange these scarves, called khatas, in the manner of calling cards.

At the door of the family's three-story mansion, standing in a garden at the foot of the Potala, we found an eight-foot prayer wheel that is turned day and night by men hired for the job. We ascended to the second floor.

The Gyayum Chemo, the Dalai Lama's mother, sat in queenly grace on a modest throne in a room vivid with frescoes and carved pillars. Stretching our arms full length, we offered the silken scarves. She smiled; then, unexpectedly, she shook our hands, a custom alien to Tibetans.

Mother of Three Living Gods

The First Family proved as eager as the Thangmes' guests to hear of our crossing of the Chang Tang. The Dalai Lama's father, a tall, pig-tailed man with thinning hair, joined us for tea. Lobsang Samten, their 14-year-old monk son, set upon us with questions and made it perfectly clear that the Dalai Lama expected to hear from him a full account of our visit. Lobsang later became one of my best friends.

The Great Mother has led a remarkable life. Until the recognition of her son as the incarnation of Chenrezi, Tibet's patron god, the family had been simple farmers in a mountainous border region of China's neighboring Tsinghai Province, where many Tibetans live. She attained almost regal status overnight. Yet she bore herself with the confident poise of a lady born.

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