Just before dawn, I’d set out to explore Chakpori—the “Iron Hill”—highest promontory in Lhasa. On its summit, Sangye Gyatsho, seventeenth century regent of Tibet, built the Mentsikhang, a medical college that turned out doctors until it was demolished in the uprising of 1959 and replaced with a steel radio transmitter tower to broadcast the news of Tibet’s “peaceful liberation” by the PLA.
I had worked my way up on a path that skirts the 7th century Palha Luphuk—a retreat cave used by King Songtsen Gampo—and finally reached a ridge overlooking the Potala Palace—former seat of the Tibetan government. Blue, white, red, green, and yellow prayer flags bearing images of the “wind horse” had been strung from a steel pole and were flapping like a flock of excited birds over a four-foot high rock cairn built of flat mani stones. Bits of paper and juniper needles were burning in a concavity atop the altar: a lhasang—“offering to the gods”—incorporated from ancient Bön tradition. Whoever built it had split, probably to avoid the cops.
From that lofty perch, I had watched the golden dawn kiss the Potala, framed decorously by flags singing unanswered prayers into the perpetual wind of the Tibetan plateau. Seven years later, those flags had been ripped down, and the once crystal blue sky was smudged gray with smoke from the city’s new cement factories.