KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
After a short break, we headed out on foot to tour the Palace. It was only a short distance away, but we were all a little worried that we would tire in the thin air and not be able to climb the hundreds of steps to the towering edifice. After paying our entrance fee, we entered the Palace courtyard through a tiny dark door. Just as we emerged into the bright sun, we noticed an elderly gentleman coming towards us with a cane. At that moment, he appeared to stumble, and then he sank to his knees and fell face forward onto the paving stones. He made no effort to break the fall with his hands but I saw that his face did not hit the ground hard nor did his glasses break.
David and another man in our small group rushed forward to turn him over and get him into a sitting position. Someone ran back to the entrance gate to bring a bottle of oxygen but the poor man didn't appear to be conscious and his left arm jerked a couple of time and then was still. I asked David, who has some emergency room training, if he thought the man was having a heart attack. He said he felt a weak pulse and that he was breathing and his colour was good. A tour guide rushed over and when she saw the situation, she used her mobile phone to call for an ambulance. David tried to keep the man comfortable by having him lean against his legs, but shortly before the doctor, nurse and stretcher arrived, the man went limp and his colour changed dramatically. It was pretty obvious to all of us around him that he was gone. The medical team placed him on the stretcher and began CPR but it didn't seem to us that he was in any position to pull through. Someone thought he was part of a Taiwanese tour group and I had to wonder what a man his age was doing at 12,000 ft about to climb hundreds of steps in the thin air of Tibet.
With sadness, we left the group surrounding the man and continued on our way. We discussed the fact that the man had died on one of the most beautiful of places, at the top of the world, under a bright blue sky and a blazing sun. At the end of a long life, maybe it wasn't the worst way to go. I just hoped he wasn't alone; that there was someone who knew him nearby.
With that warning fresh in our minds, we ascended the dozens and dozens of stairs up the south face of the Potala Palace slowly and carefully. We stopped frequently to catch our breath and let our pounding hearts slow a little. When we reached the gate to the white portion of the Palace, we learned that these were the living quarters for the Dalai Lama and the hundreds of monks who attended to him. The site was first used in the 7th century AD but it was during the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama that the major building began. It took workers and artisans over fifty years to complete and there are over one thousand rooms in the thirteen stories balanced on top of the 130m-high Marpo Ri (Red Hill). I read that Chou En Lai sent his own troops to protect it from the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.
The central red portions of the Palace are used for religious functions and contain the jewel-encrusted chortens (tombs) of previous Dalai Lamas. We spent over an hour passing through dozens of small, elaborately decorated rooms filled with golden wonders. While astoundingly beautiful, we couldn't help feeling it was just an empty shell compared to the spirituality emanating from the Jokhang Temple on the plain below. What is missing from the Potala Palace are the people of Tibet.