'Beware of bumping into things' warns the sign above the door of the Residence of Lungsha. I'm inside the sprawling grounds of the Potala Palace, the old winter headquarters of the Dalai Lama that in its rectangular grandeur is a red-and-white version of Castle Dracula overlooking Lhasa city.
The Lungsha residence, a two-storeyed cottage tucked away in the side, is where the Tibetan official Lungsha Dorje Tsegyal stayed with his staff in the early 1900s. In 1914, he escorted the first four Tibetan students to step outside the country and study in Britain. He came back as a 'reformist', wanting to make changes to a closed feudal society. For his efforts, he was imprisoned in Lhasa's Shol prison where he died in 1940.
Today, Lungsha is seen as a dissident of the old Tibetan government. Who says the Chinese don't love Tibetan dissidents?
Inside the Potala museum is a stunning collection of Tibetan artefacts that include porcelain cutlery, a 15th century manuscript from India with Buddhist slokas in Sanskrit, and a pair of bronze skeletons holding up a Tibetan horn that 'must' have inspired all those Grateful Dead posters.
But the climax lies on top. Battling vertigo and breathlessness, I walk up the steps that ultimately lead to an airy courtyard. Tourists, mostly from mainland China, are chaperoned by authorities in bright orange Guantanamo-style jumpsuits towards the destination: the Dalai Lama's quarters that the courtyard overlooks.
A million increasingly narrow and steep steps later, I'm inside the by-now familiar dimly lit world of Tibetan monasteries. Nope, there are no pictures of the Man in Dharmasala.
I pass through a room where the Dalai would receive important guests.
Then along with the crowd — young and old Tibetans touching their heads to the wall and letting out a prayer as well as tour guide-led Chinese tourists — I walk through the Dalai's study, chapels, tombs, more chapels...
But where's Dalai's bathroom? His bedroom? I must confess, after a point, everything starts to blur and look the same — unending stairs, narrowing walls, bronze statues, one room leading to an earlier one, and bank notes from pilgrims stuck to the wooden panels.
As I tumble out of Potala's boxes-within-boxes, I notice another sign, this one on the T-shirt of my minder: 'I want to believe'. Yes, quite.
GETTING DOWN AT LUOBULINKA
A day before Potala, I was at Luobulinka Park, built around the old summer palace of the Dalai Lama. After the utter emptiness of the gigantic interiors of the Lhasa Railway Station — "This is not rush hour," the deputy director of the station explained — I bathe in the happy chaos of Luobulinka that's bubbling with the energy of people.
Unlike Potala, which is a pilgrimage and museum for tourists, Luobulinka is an unabashed public park.
People are getting high on the grass (courtesy the ubiquitous, class-shattering Lhasa beer); families, friends and lovers loll about as if there were at a riotous college campus.
It's Sheton Festival time and all kinds of shows are going on, one of which happens to be a Tibetan opera underway in between a packed Budweiser stall and a crowded Harbin beer one. For me, more interesting than the show itself (which is kitschy and daubed with Ram Lila aesthetics) are the members of the audience. Forming a thick ring round the 'stage' are Regular Joe Tibetans watching a matinee show.
This isn't a tepid display of culture put up at Lhasa's equivalent of Dilli Haat for the benefit of tourists or culture ministry quotas.
This is a packed show of what's already popular with its entranced fan base. From a top-dollar position on the ground a few feet away from the performance, I get a view of the audience — old, young, trad, mod, not culturewallas but 'Bijli cinema frontseaters'. An overwhelming proportion of the crowd watching are local Tibetans.
I don't blame the monks for getting upset that the old Dalai Lama's palace has been fumigated and thrown open to the public. How would the priests at Tirupati or Ajmer-e-Sharif or India International Centre feel if their 'homes' and 'offices' were taken over by happy, loud crowds?
P.S. Wanting to see whether all the mirth at Luobulinka wasn't set up by our hosts for only our viewing pleasure, the next day I skipped lunch and went AWOL. I was back at Luobulinka for ten minutes and was happy to note that the thronging crowds and the noise of happy disorder were, as they say, in Delhi's Janpath Tibetan stalls, 'genuine'.