Taking offense at the ticket price posted at the front entrance to the Potala Palace — it was 100 yuan (about $12), almost twice what I had paid to see Beijing’s Forbidden City — I turned to Plan B.
Plan B was not very complicated. I would simply walk a circle around the palace and look for an alternative entrance that might possibly be unmanned and thus “free.” It was a long shot and, in the eyes of those with more ticket-related integrity than me, ethically dubious.
I ascended the trail on the opposite side of the palace and entered what turned out to be the exit. Sadly, after a short wander in a courtyard or two, a Chinese gentleman asked if I had yet obtained a ticket since I seemed to have not come the way other visitors had. And so I paid for what would be the second most expensive entrance ticket of my journey, topped only by India’s Taj Mahal (which, at almost $17, was for a backpacker what college tuition is for a middle class parent).
I wouldn’t have minded this nearly as much had the staff not begun to close the Potala Palace immediately after taking my money. And so began the sprint. In the spirit of Carl Lewis I ran through the multi-level interior, cognizant of the occasional Chinese cry that I think meant “You’re going the wrong way.” I yearned to say in Chinese, “No, this is the right way for those of us who took the backdoor.” But even if I had had the opportunity to say this in English it would not have been wise: sprinting at an elevation of more than 12,000 feet does not allow for wasted breath.
Fifteen minutes later I emerged on the other side, quite unsure of what I had just seen since it had all been a blur. I knew this was the historic residence of the Dalai Lama. I knew that the initial structure was built in the seventh century but what we see today is the result of a massive seventeenth century expansion. And I knew that if it weren’t for Zhou Enlai using his personal detachment of troops to prevent the Red Guards from sacking the place, the Potala would have been turned into a pile of rubble during the Cultural Revolution — thus saving me 100 yuan but forever robbing the world of an architectural treasure.
The day was hot in the Tibetan capital. My lips were parched and my shirt, which had been drenched in sweat by the time I had entered the palace, was already dry again. It was clear that after all this running around I was dehydrated and was in urgent need of one thing: Coca Cola.
I descended onto the square across from the Potala, passed the Chinese fighter jet turned monument, and came upon an outdoor cafe commanding a view of the palace. Being Sunday, families were out in droves, and the cafe was completely packed. I saw only one empty chair, but since that chair was at a table already occupied by a lone young woman whom I did not wish to bother, I prepared to walk on. However, before I could tell him no, a waiter had pulled out the empty chair and instructed me to sit.
“Nihau,” I told the woman, having decided to say nothing more to her than this hello. I cannot remember if she replied, but if she did it was the last thing either of us said to the other. The barrier of language was thickened by shyness, and the silence at our table formed its own sound, a sound I thought rude to interrupt any more than I already had.
When the Coke arrived I saw that its size was ill-proportioned to my thirst — not that it was terribly small, only that it was insufficient. I would have ordered another had I not just paid the equivalent of thirty-four Cokes to enter the Potala. I wanted to order another, but to do so not only would have been to chisel out another small chunk of a tight budget, it would have been to lose a tiny piece of my identity as well. One of the many lessons learned on the road is this: how we invest even our nickels and dimes shapes the person we are.
As I wiped the salt from my forehead and began to sip the Coke, the quiet woman called for the waiter, who took her order and quickly disappeared. I continued to savor my Coke, listening to the silence between us.
The waiter returned not long after, Coke in hand, and placed it before me. I motioned toward the woman, indicating to the waiter that it was hers. But she softly shook her head no. The waiter walked away and the Coke remained where it was meant to be: in front of me. I suppose there must have been one more word spoken between us, for surely I said thank you. But then we left the rest to silence.
What I was experiencing now was similar to what I would experience months later in northern India, when an old Tibetan woman would pause beside me as I filmed several monkeys playing in a tree. Smiling, she would lean on me and look at my camcorder screen. Then after a minute or so she would walk away, her mouth still a smile, never having said a word. Could it be that we miss too much because of noise, even the noise of our well intentioned words? If we would only remain silent for a while, maybe then we’d discover what there is to say. Instead, our words often spew out like buckshot, perhaps well intentioned, yet fired without much aim.
I’m aware that a scientist will say that true silence is the absence of sound, but the traveler knows otherwise. There is a joy that comes in meeting a kind stranger with whom you can share no words because there are none. There is something being spoken in this verbal void, something that will fade if words are introduced, something that makes you think that “the language barrier” is not always such a bad thing. And surely there are times when the language barrier comes from our words, not from our lack of words. Perhaps the reason a young child learns so much about the world around him is because his vocabulary is so small. Like the young child, the traveler is forced to communicate in the simplest of terms. He rejoices not in complex grammar structure or fancy vocabulary but rather in simply being understood, even in simply having his humanity acknowledged.
I picked up the second cup and began to drink. The first Coke had quenched my immediate thirst; the second now fed my spirit.
I knew that I would want to remember the young woman’s face, and when I motioned toward my camera she nodded her permission. As I prepared to take the photograph, she reached into her purse for a pen and then began to write a brief note in Chinese, which she handed to me after I had taken the photograph. Then she stood to leave. Even now the silence held such sway that words did not seem right — even to smile too wide, I felt, would have been to make light of what had just been shared. So our eyes met a final time and then I watched her fade away — beyond the families talking loudly at their tables, beyond the hawkers with their souvenirs, and finally beyond my sight. Only the silence remained…and her note, which later I would have translated:
My name is Zhang Hejing. I’m a soldier in the Forest Section of the People’s Armed Police. I’m very happy to have met you on the street in Lhasa. My hometown is Inner Mongolia. You are welcome to come there. June 27, 2004 Lhasa
She included her family’s phone number in case I did indeed make it to Inner Mongolia. But this was more than a thousand miles to the northeast, and soon I would be heading to the southwest. Even if I had been going that way, though, Hejing would not have been there since she was stationed in Tibet. I would have met her family instead, who perhaps would have been as gracious as she.
I looked at Hejing’s empty chair and stood up to leave as well, convinced that if I stayed at this table any longer the silence would burst into something more charismatic than I was accustomed to. Yes, the silence was too potent now — much more of it in my ears and I would have begun to hug the people around me, a very unChinese thing to do, and I would have begun to cry and laugh because the sky was so blue, the sun so warm, the Coke so cold.
I love this about travel, that when all you’re looking for is something as simple as a cold drink, you may also meet a soldier in the Forest Section of the People’s Armed Police. And while this soldier may not say a word, in the course of your five minutes together she may somehow lead you to consider that while words are good, silence is sometimes better. For it is from silence that the best of words will eventually emerge.