“And then we saw, rising steeply on a rocky prominence in the midst of the valley, a fort-like dominating structure, with gilded roofs, which we knew could be none other than the Potala, the Palace of the Dalai Lama,” wrote Col. Francis Younghusband, as he approached the outskirts of the “Forbidden City” of Lhasa in l904. He was leader of a British expeditionary force launched the year before from India to assure that Tibet did not ally itself with Czarist Russia against Britain.
“The goal of so many travellers’ ambitions was in sight!” Younghusband wrote. He and his expeditionaires had just won the race to Lhasa, becoming the first British to reach the closely guarded city in nearly a century. Almost every one of the few Westerners who had managed to penetrate this elusive city had a similar cathartic feeling upon first gazing on the fabled Potala, the Dalai Lama’s majestic winter palace, which sits perched triumphantly on Red Hill on the edge of old Lhasa.
Its golden domes “shone in the sun like tongues of fire,” wrote London Daily Mail correspondent Edmund Candler, who arrived on the outskirts of Lhasa with Younghusband that day.
Indeed, Lhasa without the Potala would be as unimaginable as Athens without the Acropolis or Beijing without its Forbidden City. It is the quintessential emblem of Tibet, a concrete manifestation of the Dalai Lama himself, who once lived inside. Over the past two centuries, no single image has done more to imbue Lhasa with its aura of enigma, mystery, and romance than this holy palace on its perch limned by towering mountains and the cobalt blue Tibetan sky.
It was from this fabled city—or we might more accurately say, from this almost mythological place—that His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama fled forty years ago. Slipping out of his summer palace disguised as an ordinary Tibetan peasant, he managed to elude the People’s Liberation Army during a nighttime sandstorm, then rode for three weeks over the Himalayas on horseback. In what he later recalled as “a daze of sickness and weariness and unhappiness deeper than I can express,” the young twenty-five-year-old arrived, at last, in India.
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