The Ceremonial Oven

The ceremonial oven in the above photo is in a field a few miles from the Lhasa airport, where we arrived in May 2014. We disembarked from a China Airlines aircraft and entered the small but modern airport. John Bellezza, who has walked thousands of miles of Tibet and written extensively about its culture and archeology, accompanied us as our guide. The first thing that struck me as I entered the airport was a large photo of the young Panchen Lama on the wall. I started to asked John about why the Panchen Lama’s portrait graced the airport lobby instead of the Dalai Lama’s. John shushed me. He warned me not to say anything about the Dalai Lama, portrayed in Chinese propaganda as a former dictator bent on destroying the happiness Tibetans supposedly enjoy under Chinese rule. If someone overheard me we could be denied entry into the country.

After passing through customs we were not allowed to formally enter the country until a guide licensed by the Chinese government met us. Our guide, who John told us would likely report anything suspicious to the Chinese authorities, was late and so we waited on the other side of a barrier that kept us from officially entering Tibet.

The guide finally arrived and we boarded a van with a driver and our official guide, a young Tibetan woman. We headed out of the airport toward Lhasa, about 40 miles north. After about 15 miles our guide suddenly remembered that she had forgotten to sign some forms required by the government. John ordered the guide to let us out so that we wouldn’t have to endure the ride back to the airport. She dropped us off near some fields of green barely shoots and groves of shade trees next to the village of Jinbei. With a few exceptions, the Chinese have Sinicized Tibetan names of all the villages and geographical points and replaced them with names in Mandarin, China’s official language. We sat under one of the trees awaiting our guide’s return. Across from us was the ceremonial oven with lines of prayer flags fluttering over it. We watched as women in traditional Tibetan dress from nearby farms gathered to make smoke offerings to the lu, spirits that are believed to provide water, healthy crops and other good fortune. The women of each family, sometimes accompanied by the men, each morning burn offerings in the oven.

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