Tibet Tidbits – random trivia from my trip there

Tibet Tidbits – stuff I learned on my Tibet trip

Tibetan Mastiff – 藏獒 – are more or less Astartes dogs. Not only are they frickin’ gigantic compared to any breed that’s not a Caucasus Shepherd, but they’re fierce and regularly take on wolves and leopards. And according to tour guide story, the process to create a supposedly “pure” mastiff is definitely worthy of the grim darkness of the 41st Millenium where there is only war: one takes a litter that’s just been weaned off milk, digs a hole, sticks them in the hold, then closes it up; the pups eventually have to start fighting and eating each other, and the sole survivor then has to break out him/herself to be counted as a “true” mastiff. Of course, this raises the question as to why the remaining dog would be loyal to their owner in the first place, but still – if true, then ancient Tibetans were totally hardcore.

Tibetan Feng Shui – the Jokhang Temple was built to house a statue of Shakyamuni brought by the Nepali princess married to Songtsan Gampo. However, most auspicious site for construction happened to lie on a lake, so no one knew what to do until the Nepali princess had a dream about that told her the answer was goats. So the next morning, she gathered up 1000 mountain goats to haul enough earth to fill the lake, creating a foundation for construction. However, the temple kept falling down for no reason, so the Nepali princess asked Princess Wencheng, who was known for being good at geomancy, what was going on. Wencheng did some magical cosmic mumbo jumbo and concluded that the site was the heart of a demoness, and needed 12 pillars of wood driven into it to suppress the demonic energies enough for a Buddhist temple to be built. Those pillars are still there to this day. After Jokhang was finished, the city of Lhasa was built around it.

Tibetan Feng Shui, part II – originally, Jag Pori Hill and the Red Hill (upon which Potala Palace sites) were connected as a single ridge, forming a leyline through Lhasa. A later Tang princess who was married over to Tibet bore the Tibetan king an heir, but the child was “disappeared” due to court intrigue. In her grief, she ordered the leyline broken. To fix this, three white towers were constructed between Jag Pori and the Red Hill, then a metal wire was threaded through the towers and the hills, upon which hung many prayer bells. Thus the leyline was reconnected, and the main white tower became the main gate for Lhasa.

Thangka – Tibetans are Buddhist, so they need Buddha statues all the time. However, Tibetans are also nomadic herders, so they can’t exactly be hauling around big hunks of metal or stone or wood. So what’s a devout Tibetan to do? Why, paint Buddhas on scrolls that can be rolled up for transportation, of course. Now, this is Buddha we’re talking about, so plain old paint just won’t cut it. Instead, the paint gets its pigmentation from ground up precious materials. Red? Ground up red coral fossils. Blue/green? Turquoise. Yellow? Amber. The shiny lines? Silver and gold. These guys were frickin’ loaded.

Yak – the default cattle of Tibet. Generally, when “beef” is spoken of in Tibet, they really mean yak meat. It goes into everything, from dumplings to meat pies to soup noodles. It also finds a place in steakhouses (there are actually quite a lot of foreign cuisine restaurants in Tibet to cater to the many many foreign tourists that contribute so greatly to the local economy). I had yak steak once. It was like beef, except it had more of a gamey taste like lamb, so all in all it’s kind of a happy medium between the two.

Security – Tibet is a border region of high strategic value. It was also the 60th Anniversary of the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet when I went, so the authorities were understandably worried about separatist elements planning something on such a sensitive date. Military Police deployment seemed fairly professional, with a pair on each intersection. Half-squads (5 guys) periodically patrolling walking areas like foot-streets (where cars can’t go) or the plaza in front of the Jokhang Monastery, and there are also stations where more half-squads are standing guard. At especially sensitive places like the Potala Patalce, the deployment is one every 20-30 meters. Pairs of MPs are usually armed such that one has a shotgun and the other has the ammo belt. It had a very Enemy-At-The-Gates feel to it, and begs the question of why don’t both of them have shotguns and ammo belts. Half-squads generally have one shotgun or SMG among then, and the rest have batons. At Potala, all MPs are armed with shotguns or SMGs. From what I hear though, they’re actually pretty nice fellas, and are quite good about giving directions.

Traditional Tibetan Medicine – as a man of science, I generally have great disdain for “alternative medicine”, due to their intellectual dishonest debate tactics and their general ignorance about what science means. Thus, this section isn’t about what their traditional medicine is (a bunch of herbs and animal body parts that, while we can establish has some use, requires further scientific testing to establish utility above that of a placebo). Rather, it is merely to highly their “Medicine Buddha”. Traditional Tibetan Medicine was formerly only accessible to priests and nobles. The common people had to rely on pu’er tea and prayers to this Medicine Buddha. Unsurprisingly, the upshot of this was that Tibetan Nobs and Priests had an average life expectancy in the 60s, while the commoners had one closer to the 30s.

Dalai Lamas – this will also be touched on by my last piece on Tibet. Basically, the current Dalai Lama has done a very good job of educating the West that historically, the Dalai and Panchen Lamas were the wise benevolent rulers of the Tibetan people, leading them in their harmonious society. Further study indicates this was…not the case. The first Dalai Lama to hold the title only did so when military aid from the Qing Emperor Shunzhi backed him up in a bid for power that cemented the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism as the one school to rule them all in Tibet, after which Shunzhi gave him the title of Dalai Lama. This guy was actually the fifth in the incarnation cycle; the title of Dalai Lama was applied retroactively to him. After his death, his regent kept news of this development hidden, enjoying years of power before the next incarnation was finally found. The regent then kept the child at his side and secluded him from chances to learn how to govern. The 6th Dalai Lama took power quite late into his life, such that he was never known for having contributed to the building of Tibet, only for writing rather decent love poems and songs. He was also known to be a womanizer, such that in the neighborhoods around the Jokhang Monastery, a household raising a yellow lantern signified that the Dalai Lama was “spending the night” there, so to speak. The 9th, 10th, and 11th Dalai Lamas all died extremely young, and it was around that time that silver became highly popular due to its reacting easily to arsenic and its propensity to react with other ions in a way that becomes toxic to bacteria but safe for humans – in short, because silver does actually help detect poison. Aside from this, there was also the issue of serfs, and the fact that while the Dalai Lamas were sitting on piles of mineral wealth, they never used it to open up the region to trade, expand their PPFs, and improve their peoples’ lives. So, yeah – the Dalai Lamas were holy men, but it seems that the society ruled by these holy weren’t all that different from every other society was ruled by holy men with divine right, be it Saudi Arabia, the Aztec Empire, or Crusader Europe.

Norbulingka Zoo – Norbulingka was the summer palace for the Dalai Lamas. The 7th Dalai Lama had a zoo built there, and the 13th had it expanded to accommodate more species. It is extremely depressing because all the accommodations were built before people knew how to properly take care of animals, so the cages are way to small to hold what they were supposed to. You have what basically amounts to an apartment bedroom holding a bear or a tiger or a single Tibetan wolf (horrid, because wolves are pack creatures who really shouldn’t be isolated). The cages also have to be crisscrossed with wire to prevent people from sticking their hands into them; I find myself wondering whether they were there from the start or whether it was deemed to be necessary due to someone thinking tigers are harmless and coming back ‘armless.

Namtso Lake – OMG THIS IS LIKE THE PRETTIEST LAKE EVER. If someone told me the sky is blue because it reflects from the waters of Lake Namtso, I’d believe them. You know what Cozumel looks like, or the lovely beaches of Florida? This is just like that, possibly prettier, except it’s not hot enough to melt the balls off a brass monkey, and it’s got snowy mountains surrounding it, and it’s over 4 km above sea level. Like, srsly, I went on a tour group there; one of the places we stopped at inside is actually 5190m above sea level, only 10m short of the elevation of Everest base camp. The most prominent mountain surrounding the area is called Nianqingtanggula, who the locals revere as spirit of the mountain and a protector god, and Namtso is supposed to be his wife.

Oxygen deprivation – this works itself into pretty much any conversation about traveling to Tibet. I myself flew over there from Beijing. Upon landing, I had a very slight dizziness and nausea in my stomach, though I suspect the latter to be due to the horrid horrid airline noodles that tasted of jet fuel and plastic. That first night, I woke up two or three times with a pounding heart and a pounding head, but a couple deep breaths fixed that enough for me to go back to sleep. The next morning my bones all ached and my legs felt like they had no strength, but talking around fixed this. That night I woke up once. After that, everything was good, although breathing does get difficult if I am in the vicinity of smokers or fuel-inefficient cars, due to my lungs getting used to drawing oxygen at its normal use level, but not at compensating for excess tobacco or gasoline particles in the air. I suspect that a large part of the High-Elevation Effect may actually be psychological; I bought an oxygen canister but never finished it in the four days I was there. Now, I am in relatively good shape due to wushu, but it’s also said that people who exercise regularly should have it the worst due to their bodies needing more oxygen, so…take that as you will.


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