Norbu Lingka, in western Lhasa, was the last residence for the 14th Dalai Lama before he started his life in exile following a failed armed rebellion in 1959.
Traces of the turmoil have faded over the past five decades in the fast-changing Tibet and can hardly be spotted in the tranquility of early spring in the garden park.
In the spring of 1939, a farmer's son Lhamo Thondup, who was less than four years old, but was already acknowledged as the new incarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama by a search party, left his hometown at a remote village of the northwestern Qinghai Province, in a large party that included his family members, for Lhasa.
The journey took three months. After a whole-day ceremony in which Lhamo Thondup was conferred the new Dalai Lama, the little boy was brought to the Norbu Lingka -- his first home in Lhasa.
Norbu Lingka means "treasure park" in Tibetan. The place, with evergreen forests and energetic blossom of flowers, is indeed a natural wonder in such a high-attitude plateau city as Lhasa.
It witnessed many unforgettable happy moments in the growth of the 14th Dalai Lama from a child to a young man. So that, of his two regular residences in Lhasa, the Potala Palace and the Norbu Lingka, the 14th Dalai Lama showed an obvious favor to the latter in his autobiography published in 1990, saying "the Norbu Lingka was much the more pleasant of the two places."
"It was surrounded by gardens and consisted of several smallish buildings which were light and airy inside. By contrast the Potala, which I could see towering magnificently above the city in the distance, was dark, cold and gloomy inside," he recalled in the book Freedom In Exile.
But more importantly, it is the Norbu Lingka, flourishing with natural pleasures, saw off "the last temporal liberty" of the 14thDalai Lama that he was ever to know, because he "enjoyed a whole year free from any responsibility" there before he was formally enthroned at the Potala Palace in the winter of 1949.
After that, as his predecessors had, the 14th Dalai Lama moved to live in the Norbu Lingka every March and moved back to the Potala Place at the end of every September.
However, those who are allowed to enter the inner courtyard of Norbu lingka, which was surrounded by a conspicuous yellow wall, were mainly high officials of the then-Tibetan government, members of noble families and senior lamas.
PARK OF PEOPLE
The administrators of Norbu Lingka now call people the owners of the "treasure park." The residents now in the park are more than 70 work staffs of the administration, including more than 20 monks taking care of the palaces for the Dalai Lamas.
The palaces are no longer a taboo for ordinary people, while the gardens are a favorite picnic spot at weekends or important Tibetan festivals, particularly the Shot on or "Yogurt Festival," when families camp in the grounds and traditional Tibetan opera performances are staged.
The park used to be on the old course of Lhasa River. It has finally evolved into a garden palace covering an area of more than46 hectares since the government of Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) built the first building for the seventh Dalai Lama in the 1740s.
Ma Yigang, head of the Norbu Lingka administration, said visitors, mainly pilgrims, are allowed to visit almost all the buildings, including the Takten Migyur Potrang, meaning Eternal Palace in Tibetan.
"For the Tibetans, the Norbu Lingka is as holy a place as the Potala Palace, so we have received a lot of devotees every year, especially since the Qinghai-Tibet railway opened to traffic three years ago," said Ma.
According to Liu Rongquan, an official with the administration, the annual number of tourists to Norbu Lingka had increased by an average of 18 percent since 2006. The number exceeded 500,000 in 2007, but dived to a historic low in 2008 to less than 5,000 because of the riot in March.
"However, no matter how many tourists come here, the Takten Migyur Potrang, or the New Summer Palace, for the 14th Dalai Lama is always one of the most popular places in Norbu lingka," said Liu.
The two-story New Summer Palace, which the Chinese central government built for the 14th Dalai Lama in 1956, is by no means an eye-catching building in the park, though its traditional Tibetan-styled appearance, featured with carved beams, painted pillars and upturned eaves is no different from its counterparts.
The inside of the palace, however, is another story.
Electric lamps and butter lamps together enlighten the rooms. Ancient roll paintings of Buddha are hung at the same room where a framed kitten embroidery, a gift from the British, was hung above the entrance.
Traditional Tibetan cushions and a set of western-styled gray sofa are both featured in the bedroom of the 14th Dalai Lama, while the wooden frame of his bed holds a spring-mattress.
The bathroom is even more an eye-opener to most of the visitors as a white western bathtub, a toilet and a washing tank unexpectedly greet the eyes of visitors.
"Like other palaces, everything here in the New Summer Palace is almost the same as what they were 50 years ago," said Liu.
The modern facilities are still a big surprise to most of the Tibetan visitors like Karma Chozin, a new graduate from the Northwest University for Nationalities in the neighboring Gansu Province, who is looking for a job in Lhasa.
"Even now, the toilet is rare to most Tibetans. I didn't expect he (the 14th Dalai Lama) started to use it more than 50 years ago," said Chozin.
It is the second trip for the 22-year-old to Norbu Lingka. Her last childhood trip conjures memories of "many trees and the excitement of seeing live peacock for the first time at a small zoo in the park."
The young woman said her father came to Lhasa to see her from the hometown in the Shannan Prefecture, so they decided to revisit the Norbu Lingka.
"After all, the 14th Dalai Lama is still alive and I am very curious of what's his residence like." she said "I'm glad to see both the house and the things inside are well protected and my father has said the murals and the cloth paintings are almost the same as what we saw more than 10 years ago."
The administrators are also satisfied with their work. More than 60,000 pieces of cultural relics and all buildings have suffered no "man-induced damages," said Ma.
"We have given equal attention to the protect all the palaces here, and the New Summer Palace is no exception," he said.
A seven-year preservation project on the Norbu Lingka, which is estimated to cost more than 80 million yuan (11.69 million U.S. dollars), is expected to be completed in September this year.
All the wooden buildings have been replaced with antisepsis materials and the mildew-eroded murals have been also repaired, according to Ma.
WATCHMAN OF NEW SUMMER PALACE
Jigme Geleg, one of eight workers who take care of the New Summer Palace, is proud of his job.
The 28-year-old Tibetan speaks fluent Mandarin and English and often volunteers to work was a guide for the tourists to "share his understanding of Tibetan culture and history of the region."
"I will say the Norbu Lingka is the essence of our Tibetan culture and I hope people will still have chance to see these treasures to understand our culture even after many many years," said Jigme.
The young man has worked in the park for nearly 10 years since graduating from high school. He started to work in the New Summer Palace six years ago.
Jigme works from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day sweeping the floor, lighting up the butter lamps, cleaning the lamp holders and changing the "sacred water" presented in front of the Dalai Lama's thrones.
The pilgrims often bring offerings with them to visit the Norbu Lingka. For the palace keepers like Jigme, the butter to refill the lamp and the length of white silk called "hada" are both welcome, but the barley can really be a headache.
"We have to often ask the visitors not to scatter the barley around in the palace. It's a common practice for the pilgrims to show their respect to the Buddha, but it attracts mice, which is no good to protect the wooden buildings," he said.
A south-facing sutra hall on the second floor of the New Summer Palace is the key area for Jigme to watch. There are 301 of murals here telling the Tibetan history -- from its founding by the Holy Monkey to the 10th Panchen Lama and 14th Dalai Lama's interviews with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1954.
Pilgrims are often seen prostrating or putting their heads on the foot of statues or the walls with murals, chanting the sacred words "Om Mani Padme Hum."
"The paintings are more than an art. They makes up of a brief story of Tibetan history," said Jigme.
A GATE TO REMEMBER
According to Ma Yigang, the 14th Dalai Lama spent his last days before the exile not in the his own palace, but in the Kalsang Potrang, the oldest palace within the Norbu Lingka built by the seventh Dalai Lama in 1751.
The palace is some 200 meters away from the New Summer Palace. It also happened to be place where the 14th Dalai Lama spent his first night in the Norbu Lingka.
Fifty yeas ago, the upper ruling class in Tibet staged an armed rebellion to preserve serfdom and theocracy and the Norbu Lingka was the location of the rebellion headquarters.
Some 100 meters away from of the main entrance of the Kalsang Potrang, there is an inconspicuous gray wooden door on the bounding wall of the Norbu Lingka.
At a few minutes before 10 o'clock on the night of March 10, 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama, disguised as a common soldier, left the Norbu Lingka through the door and started his life in exile. The gate is now numbered by the park administration as Gate 8.