Having tasted mainland China, we hopped on a plane in Chengdu to take us to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
Upon landing we were met by our guide Sonam and some other travelers who we would be touring with for the next ten days – when visiting Tibet, if you plan on leaving Lhasa you must be accompanied by a licensed guide. We jumped in a minibus to take us to central Lhasa, and as we pulled into the city one of the girls on the tour commented how large the city was – this seemed strange to me after being in some of China’s biggest cities, 300,000 people vs the 1.5 million in Chengdu, and no buildings were more than a couple of stories high.
We were released into the city that evening before the tour officially began the following morning – food and markets! At the markets my brother’s fiance bought a prayer wheel. She started to play with it and the stall keeper stopped her in horror – it must only be turned clockwise! We also tried some famous Tibetan dried yak cheese – utterly, utterly disgusting!
We finished the evening by heading to the Potala Palace and taking some pictures from the square across the road. You had to go through airport like security to get into this area – quite strange. After taking some photos we decided to join a constant but not crowded stream of people circumnavigating the palace, it took maybe an hour. All around the palace are prayer wheels that people spin as they make their pilgrimage. A couple of young boys followed us most f the way around, and we were pretty freaked out as Sonam had given us the obligatory warning about pick pockets etc. on the ride from the airport. Eventually we got the courage to confront them, and in broken Chinese determined that all they really wanted was a photo, but were too shy to ask. I suppose we were photo attractions in China, this was only likely to be more so in Tibet.
I really liked the vibe of the architecture in Lhasa, kind of an eastern take on traditional Italian architecture. The people were also fascinating – I love the Tibetan clothing and especially jewelry! In the streets there was a mix of classic Tibetan and modern Chinese. There were times in China that you could have someone on one side of you in all the latest designer clothes, iPhone in hand, and someone on the other side in the basics squatting in the middle of the street eating rice, looking like they belonged to the time of the of communist regime. To be fair it only ended in the 1980s, so very much within living memory.
We had been warned about altitude sickness, but I fared fine throughout the journey. The first set if stairs was a shock though, because of the altitude it felt like climbing with someone sat on your shoulders! The next morning the others were feeling unwell – apparently a symptom of the altitude. Some people recommend getting the train into Tibet rather than flying to give you a chance to acclimate to the altitude, but some of the others in our group did this and it didn’t seem to help them. Interestingly the altitude sickness hit the Chinese in the group more than the westerners. I wonder why that is.
Our guided visit to Tibet officially began that morning with our first official trip to the Potala Palace – this time we were going inside, where unfortunately you cannot take pictures. I say unfortunately, but I must say I am not one of those people who likes to take a picture of everything I’ve seen, I like to spend time absorbing, and so the no camera rule did take a bit of the pressure off an let me relax. Anyway, we had to climb 130 meters of stairs to the entrance. The group was a bit worried about this, but Sonam set a leisurely pace, stopping to point things out and tell stories, a strategy clearly developed from experience to get us all to the top in one piece. I say this in jest, but as we were leaving the palace we saw a western woman receiving CPR. This seemed to go on forever, which is not a good sign, and eventually the many delivering the CPR walked away. Someone in his group caught his attention and he just shook his head grimly. It is scary to think that person probably died from the sudden change in pressure on their body. As we watched Sonam told us that in Tibet they used to practice Sky burials, cutting the body up into tiny pieces that the vultures would take away, completely eliminating the body. Apparently it is now illegal, but some of the very wealthy still have the ceremony.
The Potala Palace itself was full of shrines to the gods – there were so many that they are difficult to distinguish in my memory. Each shrine was surrounded with piles of money, given as offerings. There were also many monks throughout the building going about their business. The place was busy, and there was a lot of ‘queue walking’, but apparently it is a lot less busy now as fewer Tibetans come because they must now pay to enter. My favourite concept that I was introduced to at Potala was the divine trinity of past, present and future (think Dickens).
We split up for lunch and we went to Lhasa Kitchen, a pretty well known restaurant near the market. We had fried Yak dumplings, Tibetan meat stuffed bread, some naan and a chicken curry – it was all delicious. Unlike yak’s cheese, I can recommend yak meat.
After lunch was the Jokhang Temple. We went in the afternoon as use of the temple is divided, with locals coming in the morning, and tourists able to enter in the afternoon. Outside there were big incense burners and a small shrine full of candles that people lit for the dead. In Tibetan tradition that treat the spirit at present for 49 days, and then it goes off to heaven or hell. The temple was also surrounded by people praying lying down and prostrating themselves, and then standing up, again and again (they kind of looked like they were doing a yoga sun salutation). As well as doing this in large groups in front of the temple, some people did this moving around the temple, completing circumnavigating it while prostrating themselves Sonam suggested to us that he believed prayer to be an effective healing practice. He said at some point he had a stomach ache for some time and no medicine would work, and the a monk told him to prostrate himself around the temple, he did, and he was cured. It was strange to think of someone who came across as having a very modern world view believing this, but maybe that’s me showing my ignorance.
Sonam explained that this temple was built on this site in the 7th century, where there used to be a lake, as a kind threw his crown into the lake and a rainbow appeared, which was apparently a good omen. He also explained that the location of the temples is very important, as the land of Tibet is sen as a demon, and the role of the temples to hold him down.
He also explained that many of the sculptures we saw appeared ‘naturally’ (something he referred to several times throughout the trip) and were not man made (I guess like people say the Turin shroud is ‘natural’). One of the main statues in this temple was a healing statue, discovered naturally, and brought to the temple by a Nepali wife of a king. Interesting, statues of the men who carried the statue were placed in the temple alongside it. Linked to this, this temple has Nepali architecture, distinct from that of the Potala Palace. It was very beautiful, but many of the wall and ceiling decorations were blacked, damaged from the smoke from butter candles used as offerings.
The main concept I remember from this experience was learning about the trinity of Llamas (trinities clearly a common religious theme): the Dalai Llama who embodies wisdom, the Panchen Llama who is peace, and the Karmapa Llama who embodies anger. We also learnt about the god, ubiquitous in temples and market stalls, wearing a crown on skulls – young children are taken to see him to banish bad dreams, he scares them off.
The temple is in the neighbourhood of the Barka Street markets, which we also explored that afternoon. That evening we went to a place called Dunya for dinner, a westernish place owned by a Dutch ex-pat. We did speak about how exciting it would be to own the ex-pat place in a town like Lhasa. We had their famous Yak burgers, which were only OK, a bit under-seasoned and overcooked.
After dinner we went back to the Potala Palace as we heard that there was some kind of evening fountain display on in the square across the way each night, which we missed on the previous evening. It was quite spectacular. The fountains and the music was beautiful, but more so were people coming together to dance and sing. One of the things I lived about China was how people come together in public spaces, something that is sadly missing in the west.
The next morning we rose early to head to nearby Drepung Monastery about an hour’s drive from Lhasa. It is nestled among mountains, and I can completely understand how being in these locations could encourage a clam, meditative outlook on life! Drepung was also our first introduction to toilets outside Lhasa. With even less ‘to them’ than the public toilets in China, we are talking a whole in the ground with barely a wall for privacy!
Again we had to climb quite a few stairs to get to the monastery, and the way was paved with prayer wheels spun by the devout – Sonam explained that there are little votives inside. As we climbed we could see the hill side dotted with decorated rocks featuring the founder of the temple and his two disciples. There was also some massive red scaffolding on which they hang a giant Thangka image off once a year.
The monastery itself was actually relatively new, restored after it was largely destroyed in 1959. It looks quite similar to the Potala Palace, and it was both the home of the Dalai Llama and administrative centre before the Potala Palace was built. The place was full, and I mean full, of gold. Hundreds of statues made from mud and pained with gold minerals. Here I learnt that the god of wisdom has a sword at one shoulder and a book at the other. Also, if you buy a statue to go in your household shrine, it must be taken to a monastery where the monks pray over it for three days – otherwise it is just a statue…
The temple contained a small chapel to the god of knowledge – which appeared ‘naturally’ – and as you went past a monk tapped you twice on the back with a blunt sword to bless you. Nearby was a small hole in the wall which people queue up to walk towards with their eyes closed and their finger outstretched. If your finger goes in the hole your wish will come true – I missed.
For lunch we went to a local Chinese restaurant. Most of the restaurants we went to on our travels outside Lhasa were Chinese szechuan places – they seem to have a monopoly on the market. We had yak dumplings, potato jewels, dried yak’s cheese (well not me, but others were keen), soup with mini dumplings, cabbage soup, mushroom rice, deep fried egg plant radish, spinach, bright green veg, some fried meat, a corn dish, tomato and egg. They were still bringing out food when I was so full I thought I would explode!
In the afternoon we headed to the Sera Monastery. This place is famous for monk training, which you can watch the monks debate at 3pm every day (commercialising their assets, like we do in the museums). One monk sits on the floor and answers questions posed by a standing monk, who uses a series of proscribed gestures to lead the conversation. One clap is a cation, two claps means that you are wrong.
Making the most of our last evening in Lhasa before heading further afield, we went back to Dunya for drinks, Lhasa kitchen for yak momo (dumplings) and the Potala Palace for the fountain display.