Why we travel: Pico Iyer on his transformational trip to Tibet

The author and memoirist recounts a powerful journey through Asia that culminated on the high plateau of Lhasa among prostrating pilgrims, in the shadow of the Potala Palace — the former winter palace of the Dalai Lamas.

Thursday, July 2, 2020,
By Pico Iyer
Resident monks stroll through Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, an important destination of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims.

Resident monks stroll through Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, an important destination of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims.

Photograph by Getty Images

I was 28 years old and enjoying the kind of life I might have dreamed of as a boy: a 25th-floor office in Midtown Manhattan, a stimulating job writing on international affairs, a studio apartment next to one occupied by a gaggle of runway models. Yet something in me intuited that the enticements and exhilarations of this world might prove so all-consuming that I’d wake up one day, aged 70, and realise I hadn’t lived at all.

Pico Iyer is the author of 15 books, most recently, Autumn Light and its companion piece A Beginner’s Guide to Japan.

Photograph by Derek Shapton

So, I asked my bosses for a six-month leave of absence and flew to Tokyo. Within a few days, I was in Hiroshima; silent, watching red and yellow and emerald lanterns sent floating down the Motoyasu River on the 40th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. Soon, I was staying in a broken room in Manila’s red-light district, heading out each morning to join the demonstrations that would culminate in the toppling of Ferdinand Marcos through the nonviolent People Power Revolution. Later, I was riding an overnight train from Guangzhou to Beijing, stepping out to find the capital’s wide streets entirely car-less, citizens in blue Mao jackets playing badminton in the main boulevards leading to Tiananmen Square.

“Clear and elevated as I could never remember feeling before. Freed of every distraction.”

by Pico Iyer

The moment that transformed me, however, came after I flew to Lhasa, in Tibet. My parents had introduced me to Tibetan monks while I was a little boy, in Oxford, and as a teenager I’d made my first trip to Dharamsala (with my father) to meet the Dalai Lama. But nothing had prepared me for the shockingly blue skies on the plateau itself, the silence around the great monasteries of Drepung and Sera, the tear-streaked faces of pilgrims who’d walked 1,200 miles — some prostrating themselves every few steps — to see the Jokhang Temple by flickering candlelight. Lhasa then was still a cluster of whitewashed shops and houses under the protective gaze of the 1,000-roomed Potala Palace high above.

One bright September afternoon, I took the steep walk up to the home of the Dalai Lama, and, after passing through rooms full of statues and mandalas, stepped out onto a terrace to look across the valley. The elements had a sharpness I’d never seen, even at higher altitudes in the Andes. The monks chanting inside conferred an air of solemnity. The few other visitors were mostly pilgrims, excitedly buying scrolls near the rooms where their spiritual leaders once lived. At that moment, I felt not just on the ‘rooftop of the world’, as all the guidebooks had it; I was on the rooftop of my being, as clear and elevated as I could ever remember feeling before, freed of every distraction. By the end of my four-month journey across Asia, I’d decided to tell my bosses I was leaving my comfortable job and moving to Japan — where I still live, 35 years later. But it was that one moment in Tibet, in the midst of all the oppression and destruction that culture had suffered, that reminded me if I didn’t follow some intuition to leave the familiar world behind, I could remain an exile all my life. 

Pico Iyer is the author of 15 books, most recently, Autumn Light and its companion piece A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, both published by Bloomsbury Publishing. picoiyerjourneys.com

Read more tales from our Why We Travel cover story

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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