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On the Hill, It’s Day of the Lama

Wherever the Dalai Lama goes, so do his followers. That made for a huge crowd following the Tibetan spiritual leader to Capitol Hill on Wednesday as he accepted the Congressional Medal of Honor.

But just as the atmosphere inside the Capitol Rotunda for the official ceremony was one of reverence and quiet, the mood outside on the West Front was more akin to a festival. Hundreds of event-goers lined up early, entering the lawn gates as early as 11 a.m. to get a spot, laying blankets out and picnicking as they were entertained by traditional Tibetan cultural performers.

“It’s a very special day. We’re always happy to see the Dalai Lama,” said Ayushsuren, an immigrant from Mongolia who lives in Virginia, as she readied school-age performers. (Like many Tibetans, Ayushsuren goes by just one name.)

Congress approved the honor more than a year ago, with a resolution focusing on the Dalai Lama’s contributions to peace, human rights and religious understanding. Yet even though the ceremony itself was peaceful, Members of Congress inched in political barbs aimed at the Chinese government, prodding it to meet with the Dalai Lama to resolve the long-standing conflict between the two sides. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who first met with the Dalai Lama three decades ago in the Capitol with about a half-dozen Members, went so far as to say a meeting between the two would be a serious move in goodwill for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Despite protests by the Chinese government over the U.S. awarding the Dalai Lama the Congressional Medal of Honor and meeting with President Bush, there were no disturbances inside the Rotunda or on the Capitol lawn.

Still, event organizers weren’t taking any chances. The West Front activities were regulated down to a T, with all entrances stocked with metal detectors and Capitol Police. With close to 70 volunteers wearing bright red shirts emblazoned with yellow block letters reading “International Campaign to Free Tibet” and more than two dozen portable bathrooms, the event was anything but impromptu, but that didn’t dampen the spirits of those attending.

“My mom and dad really want me to see him because if I meet the Dalai Lama it’s as if my whole family meets him,” said Tsengel, who immigrated to D.C. four years ago from Mongolia.

The mood was one of expectation among performers, who were looking forward to meeting the Dalai Lama.

“I’m very excited,” said Tsengel, who was wearing the tradition male Tibetan garment called a deel and a fur hat.

For many, the day was a reunion of sorts. The event provided an opportunity for eight women, who all had been young members of the Tibetan Institute of the Arts before immigrating to the U.S., to get together. Wearing green traditional dresses and wreaths made of pearls and red balls, the women, who now live across the country, practiced before taking the stage.

“It’s amazing that this can happen in our life. The next step is to make Tibet its own country,” said Tenley, who now lives in Boston.

Not all event goers had scheduled the visit. As government workers mixed with immigrants from Tibet, there were also plenty of tourists who had stumbled upon the event. Gschnell Rudolf, a northern Italy native, was hoping to get a tour of the Capitol on Wednesday only to find he couldn’t because of the Dalai Lama’s visit. But he made the best of it — borrowing a flag pole bearing the Tibetan and American flags from another visitor and posing with the large-screen TV in the background so he could have his picture taken with Bush in the frame.

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