China – Lhasa (Tibet)

Lhasa is the capital of Tibet, and at 3,650 meters, is one of the highest cities in the world. Located at the foot of Mount Gephel, the city is regarded as the holiest center for Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet, and once served as the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama. We had long dreamed of visiting Lhasa especially after watching “Seven Years in Tibet”, as well as reading Peter Hopkirk’s “Trespassers on the Roof of the World”. Our tour included a visit to the majestic Potala Palace (former residence of the Dalai Lamas), the Jokhang Temple (the spiritual center of Tibet which draws large crowds of pilgrims prostrating and circumnavigating this holy area), Barkhor Street (a lively district where Tibetan artwork and souvenirs are for sale), Norbulingka (the Dalai Lama’s summer palace), the Tibet Museum, and the Sera Monastery (home to several hundred red robed monks, a lively afternoon debating session occurs daily). Prior to our visit, we were worried that the Beijing to Lhasa railroad would bring an influx of Chinese immigrants into Lhasa, forever changing the unique landscape of one of the world’s last Shangri Las. We are happy to report that Lhasa’s precious heritage and rich cultural traditions remain intact, at least for now. We are already planning our return trip back to this amazing corner of the world.

3 Dec 07: Tse Ten, our Tibetan guide, was waiting for us once our luggage was off loaded. She offered us a white silk kata (scarf) in greeting, and draped it around our necks. Tse Ten also warned us that we had an hour drive ahead of us, and recommended that we use the airport’s latrines before climbing into the jeep. Tse Ten was very friendly, and gave us an informative briefing on Tibetan history during our drive in. Of course, Becky had to interrupt once she spotted a yak on the side of the road…picture time! The ducks dive bombing for fish were another matter…they were simply too difficult to photograph as they were moving way too fast. Tse Ten told us those types of ducks mate for life, and are always seen with a companion as they don’t enjoy being lonely. It seemed true…we scanned the horizon for a lone duck but found that all the ducks appeared to have “paired” up with another nearby duck.

Our Lhasa digs were at the central ShangBaLa hotel (opposite the Snowland’s hotel). We were thrilled to learn that it was located in the Barkhor old historical district, mere steps away from tonight’s lunar Buddhist festival, known commonly as the Lamp Festival (in Tibetan its called “Ganden Aamcho”). This two day festival attracted thousands of pilgrims from all of Tibet, who descended upon Barkhor’s Jokhang Temple to offer butter lamps for Tsong Kapa, the 1407 founder of the Yellow (Gelugpa) Sect of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama order. Members of this sect are identified with their yellow hats. The Yellow Sect is the predominant Buddhist order in Tibet, explaining the mass influx of pilgrims into Lhasa for the festivities. Tse Ten explained that tonight’s festivities on 3 December were called “Shim Ju”, and tomorrow night’s celebrations were called “Nam Ju”. Every year, the Butter Lamp Festival falls on the twenty fifth day of the tenth Tibetan month…and we were lucky enough to be here for both days of the festival! Our guide advised us to walk around the Barkhor district tonight, where we would see a myriad of butter lamps lit on rooftops and windows to commemorate the loss of Tsong Kapa.

As we were pulling into downtown Lhasa, we saw and inquired about the Amdo people, who Tse Ten explained hailed from Northern Tibet. We were mesmerized with their colorful clothes, long strands of turquoise braided into the Amdo women’s hair, along with young children strapped to their backs. Very cool! The colorful Tibetan finery definitely brightened up an otherwise austere environment. The other group of pilgrims that amazed us were the Khampa people, who hailed form Eastern Tibet. The Khampa men had black tassels in their hair, and the Khampa women braided their knee length hair into 108 strands, while wearing massive quantities of heavy jewelry. Their absolutely stunning outfits held us in a high state of anticipation for the next two days.

Lhasa’s street scenes made us long to skip dinner and join in the revelry, but our growling stomachs protested against a boycott of food. So we had dinner at the nearby “Flavor Restaurant of Masterpieces”, where we had a nice spread of food. The way the restaurant was designed, it was evident that theatrical shows were conducted here during the warmer, summer months. For now, we sat in the restaurant bundled up in our North Face parkas and scarves, refusing to take them off even after our waitress brought us some hot soup and tea to warm up. After dinner, we headed back to the ShangBaLa hotel, where we had the rest of the night free. Tse Ten advised us not to do any strenuous activities to enable our bodies to adjust to the high altitude. We were both developing mild headaches which were a symptom of AMS (acute mountain sickness), but we figured that with a good night’s sleep and plenty of water, we’d be fine in the morning. For tonight, we wanted to head out and wander the streets. So we joined thousands of pilgrims in the “kora” (circuit) around the Jokhang temple, carefully sidestepping around the dozens of especially devout Buddhists prostrating themselves on the ground during the entire 1 kilometer circuit. The sights and sounds from the festival were absolutely unforgettable, although the incense, smoke, dim lighting, and crowds made for a complete photography no go. Nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed the Barkhor district and made a vow to wake up early for some morning shots of this area.

4 Dec 07 Lhasa: Note to self: the sun doesn’t rise early in the morning during Tibet’s winter months! We slept restlessly all night long (blame it on the altitude), and awoke early in anticipation of taking morning light photos of the Barkhor district. Surprisingly, it was still pitch black outside. Our consolation prize was to be a hot shower, but the ShangBaLa showers only dispensed uncomfortably lukewarm water. Not what we had expected! Ok, so no morning light and no hot shower. At least we had a large breakfast spread we could count on. Downstairs, there was a large American group already in the breakfast area, so we pulled up a chair and joined them. It appeared that many of them were suffering from the high altitude, and the pills they had taken didn’t alleviate their winded state. Many of them complained of severe headaches, and a few of them opted out of the day’s activities. After breakfast, we decided to wander out into the Barkhor district and walk the pilgrimage circuit. The daylight was making a valiant effort to shine through the misty, fog shrouded morning, and we had to dress warm to keep from freezing outside. There were hundreds of like minded pilgrims, so we joined the early morning crowd in circumnavigating around the Jokhang temple. A large Tibetan family set up camp right in front of the temple, and after completing our first lap, we asked the super cute kids if we could take their photos. And what photogenic kids they were! Tibetan children with their rosy red cheeks make superb models, and we really enjoyed photographing them. The ShangBaLa Hotel was a warm respite, and we stood directly in front of the heater to thaw out our frozen fingers and toes. At 0930, Tse Ten linked up with us in the lobby, and we headed out towards the Potala Palace.

Becky had been inspired to visit the Potala Palace ever since reading Peter Hopkirk’s “Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet”. Visions of the Dalai Lama’s primary residence had invaded our dreams, and a visit had been high on our list for a long time. Tse Ten explained that the Potala Palace was built in 1646 by Lozang Gyatso, the fifth Dalai Lama. Subsequent Dalai Lamas resided here up until 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama fled from Tibet to Dharamsala, India after a failed uprising. There are over 1000 rooms housed within the 13 storied complex. This morning, we were to visit the white palace (“potrang karpo”), followed by the red palace (“potrang marpo”). Due to the butter lamp festival, the palace’s main visitors consisted of numerous Tibetan pilgrims hailing from all four corners of Tibet. We had to take our time climbing up the steps as it was quite easy to get lightheaded at this altitude. The White Palace was our first stop, and it served as the living quarters for the Dalai Lama. No photos were allowed to be taken inside the palace complex itself, although exterior photos were permitted. In between the white and red palaces, a central, yellow-painted courtyard known as a Deyangshar separated the two. The red palace of the Potala functioned purely as a religious study area for Buddhism. On closer examination of the red hue of the palace, we found that the exterior surface of the upper walls consisted of twigs tightly bundled together rammed into the wall, painted a dark reddish-brown in color. The upper parts of the Potala were constructed entirely without nails! The only thing holding this magnificent architectural wonder together are finely joined wooden brackets, beams and eaves. The red palace is much larger than the white palace, and it is built on many different levels with a complex maze of small galleries and winding passages linking the Great West Wall, the Saint’s Chapel, the North, South, East and West chapels, as well as the tomb of the 13th Dalai Lama. Tse Ten told us we actually visited at an ideal time, as in the summer, the Potala is so packed full of visitors and tourists that everyone has been allotted only one hour to rush through the entire complex! We took our time admiring the amazing vistas, and left the palace feeling mightily impressed.

Lunch was at the Kyichu/Kitchu Hotel, which was within walking distance from our ShangBaLa Hotel. Tse Ten dropped us off here and suggested we link back up at 1300 for an afternoon visit to the Jokhang temple. Two thumbs way up for the Kyichu restaurant, where we enjoyed a delicious (and affordable) lunch of yak burgers and fries, yak steak and steaming hot masala tea. Topped off with crème caramel (one of Becky’s fav desserts), we refueled quickly and enjoyed every morsel of our meal. On our return trip back towards ShangBaLa, we stopped at several stores selling rip off North Face and Columbia parkas. Reasonably priced at 200 Yuan and up (about $28), we checked out the selection and debated whether we needed new jackets or not. Bargaining is essential here, as prices started plummeting the minute we walked out. In the end, we decided our current jackets were just fine, although the wide variety of gore-tex gear was mighty appealing. At 1300, we met back up with Tse Ten and headed towards the Jokhang temple. Earlier in the morning, we had seen a long ling of devotees wrapped halfway around the temple, and we feared we had to join it to gain entrance to Jokhang. Little did we realize there was another entrance to the right, where we bought our entrance tickets and strolled right in. The sheer number of pilgrim visitors was overwhelming, as we followed them into a labyrinth of shrines. This temple is one of Tibet’s holiest sites and the interior halls and galleries showcase some of the oldest and best preserved Tibetan art treasures. We felt a bit smothered inside the temple with excited pilgrims pushing and shoving their way through to see the Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha statue, the most venerated object in Tibetan Buddhism. Tse Ten gave us a brief history of the temple, before cutting us free for the remainder of the afternoon. We immediately headed up on the rooftop of the Jokhang temple, where we enjoyed a fine panorama over Lhasa and the Barkhor area. Breathtakingly beautiful, and the backdrop for many a Tibetan postcard! We spend hours (literally) on the rooftop spying on the activity below us. For some reason, we never tired at admiring the colorful and ornate costumes of many of Tibet’s remote tribes. The women’s amazing braids adorned with brightly hued turquoise and coral were completely mesmerizing, and we remained awestruck at our surrounding the entire afternoon.

We finally tore ourselves away from the Jokhang temple area by mid afternoon and made our way back over towards the Potala Palace. We had spotted nearby elevated stupas, which we figured would make for a marvelous view. On our way there, we got distracted by the numerous, colorfully clad Tibetans, and stopped to take a few photos. And of course we had to set up a couple time-delay shots of ourselves with the Potala as a backdrop. The stupa stop was a good choice (well worth the 2 Yuan “entry fee”), and just as we set up for a photo, the sun broke through the clouds to sparkle against the Potala’s gilded copper roof. Absolutely brilliant! We ended up circumnavigating around the entire Potala complex before heading back to our ShangBaLa hotel to drop off our gear and freshen up for dinner. Dinner was buffet style, and we were careful not to overstuff ourselves. Tonight the revelers were gearing up for the culmination of the butter lamp festival, and our hotel’s staff lined the entire reception counter and floor of the lobby with candles lined in a row. We decided to celebrate with an hour long Tibetan massage at the Tantric Massage parlor just down the street. We could have opted for the 100 Yuan, 100 minute massage, but decided an hour was plenty. Good thing too, as our masseuses gave us powerful, deep tissue massages. Don’t let the diminutive size of Tibetan women fool you! Our masseuses had us begging for mercy when they started on our legs. Definitely worth every Yuan.

The entire Barkhor district was lit up with butter lamps and candles galore. It was crowded too, and we were ready for some serenity so we headed back to our hotel where we relaxed and got caught up on trip notes. What a great day…memories of a lifetime were created today in phenomenal Tibet.

5 Dec 07 Lhasa: Another fitful night of sleep. Followed by another cold shower. Boy we were getting tired of the lack of sleep and hot water! After breakfast, we had a 1030 visit to Norbulingka, more famously known as the summer palace of the Dalai Lama. The palace is located three kilometers west of the Potala Palace, and was built by the 7th Dalai Lama in 1755. The “new palace” of Norbulingka was built in 1954 by the present Dalai Lama and completed two years later. The palace contained a series of gardens, chapels, fountains and pools. Tse Ten told us that the name Norbulingka literally meant “jewel” (Norbu) “park” (lingka), and in its entirety, is a whopping 36,000 square meters (to include the gardens). The vast gardens are a popular picnic spot for local Tibetans, especially during August’s Yogurt Festival (“Sho Tun”). She told us it’s a must-see if we ever decided to return back to Tibet. Tse Ten described the culmination of the festival with the unraveling and display of a large thangka (similar to Bhutan’s Paro Festival). We added it to our festival list in the event we ever get another chance to revisit Tibet again.

Tse Ten also gave us a brief education on Buddhist mythology when she explained the significance of the Garuda and Naga. The summer palace contained a “Palace of the Naga”, which was surrounded by water. The Nagas are a race of intelligent serpent or dragon-like beings, which are sometimes half human, half serpent. The Garudas are sworn enemies of the Nagas, and appear as a large mythical bird or eagle like creature. Normally, Garudas are seen with a snake (Nagas) in its beak. Most Buddhist thrones have a Garuda carved on them, which serve as powerful antidotes to the negative influences of Nagas (spirits) which try to cause disease/harm. Given the apparent evilness of the Naga, we found it interesting that an entire palace would be devoted to the Naga at the Norbulingka complex.

Next stop was the Tibet Museum, which housed prehistoric culture, history, art and customs in a two floor building. We had an audio guide, and were easily able to follow along as we listened about the highlighted exhibits. Naturally, our favorite section was the ethnic minority section where photographs, costumes, and accessories were displayed. Lunch was at the ShangBaLa Hotel, where we had what was supposed to be sweet and sour pork but ended up being sweet and sour fat (seriously…no joke), non descript hot water soup, burnt white rice…probably our worse meal in Tibet! Needless to say, we did not stuff ourselves silly today, and decided to walk off our meal around the Barkhor district. A full circumnavigation later and we were feeling better, still mesmerized by the multitude of pilgrims in their colorful attire. Hands down, Barkhor wins our vote as one of Lhasa’s best sights!

At 1400, we returned back to our hotel to hop in our ride out to the Sera Monastery. Tse Ten told us that everyday around 1530, the monks engaged each other in a lively debating session, a must see for the monastery. It was a short 5 kilometer drive out towards Sera, and we learned that 700 monks call this monastery their home. Once we arrived to the monastery grounds and Tse Ten paid the 50 Yuan entry fee, we found that the main assembly hall doors were locked. Lucky for us, Tse Ten had her “contacts” because after inquiring around, one of her friends (the caretaker) appeared and unlocked the main door for us to sneak inside for a quick peek. We were surprised to see that the interior of the hall was packed with Tibetans all in line to see a statue of Hynagriva (a horse-headed demon god). We joined the throng of visitors and caught a quick glimpse of the statue, but were unwilling to pay the 30 Yuan photography fee. Primarily because we felt it would be really rude to take photos inside of a religious hall where devotees were openly worshiping. The real highlight of the Sera Monastery was the lively debating session in an outdoor courtyard. The monks were really going at it with each other! One monk would serve the role as the teacher and several other monks would serve the role as students. The teacher would ask his students a series of philosophical questions that could only be correctly answered after hours of study. If the student monk answered incorrectly, the teacher monk would slap his hands vigorously, lean forward and wag his finger in disdain. Talk about a lesson in humility…we didn’t see many students escape the merciless onslaught of verbal abuse from the teacher monks! Tse Ten explained that the Gelugpa (Yellow Sect) of Tibetan Buddhism practiced this formal process of study where future lamas had to participate in these daily debates in order to advance. In this daily battle of words, the monks would supplement their efforts by using a variety of gestures including clapping their hands, pushing their partners for an answer, or plucking their prayer beads to win the virtue of the Buddha. After observing the debating session for a while, we started to feel bad for the student monks, who looked beat down and exhausted in the verbal rampage…boy is it tough to be a Tibetan monk.

After returning back to our hotel, we decided to take an afternoon nap. The high altitude was getting the better of us, and we relaxed in bed while watching several episodes of “Heroes”. There was no group dinner buffet tonight, so we enjoyed a solo dinner of Chinese food in the ShangBaLa’s Chinese restaurant on the first floor. Only one more day left in Tibet, and while we really loved this part of China, we were ready for a decent night’s sleep at a lower elevation.

6 Dec 07 Lhasa – Beijing: Off to Beijing later today! We were really looking forward to taking the hottest shower we could stand once we arrived to China’s capital. The cold ShangBaLa shower situation was quickly getting old, and we could only manage with a “bird bath” this morning. After breakfast, we returned back up to our room to finish packing before linking up with Tse Ten for an 11 am Tibetan Traditional Medicine Hospital visit. The hospital visit was a nice surprise. Little did we know about the Tibetan style of medicine! The director of the hospital took about an hour of his busy day to give us an in depth lecture on the medicine practice here. Our briefing occurred off of circa 1960 thangkas, complete with the human body and all symptoms and solutions clearly diagrammed in detail. Apparently about 5 or 6 years of close study is required to completely study and understand all how to practice Tibetan traditional medicine…we only spent an hour but learned so much in a short amount of time. Two enthusiastic thumbs up for this visit!

At noon we checked out of our hotel, and got our 200 Yuan deposit back after the housekeeping verified that nothing in the room had been “accidentally” packed away in our backpacks. We loaded our luggage into the jeep, before walking back over to the Barkhor area for lunch at Lhasa Kitchen restaurant. What a hidden gem…the food here was excellent and tasty, and the masala tea was spicy and strong. Just the way we like it. Our visit to Lhasa was drawing to a quick end, but not before we stopped by a Tibetan carpet factory. We had purchase a Tibetan wool carpet in Nepal for a super reasonable price, and assumed that the carpets in Lhasa would be equally priced. Boy were we mistaken. The short demonstration of the carpet looms was good, but the prices for yak wool, wool and cotton, wool and silk, and pure silk carpets were simply outrageous. We certainly were glad we bought our carpet in Nepal where the prices were much better! Our last stop in Tibet was a short visit to a local Tibetan family. It felt a bit awkward as we weren’t sure that the family had been briefed we were coming. It almost seemed that our “visit” was a surprise to them, and while they tried to make us feel as though it wasn’t an inconvenience, we decided to cut the visit short so as to not impose on them. We were surprised to see flattened yak dung patties stuck all over the exterior of the family’s house…apparently the patties are used as fuel after they have been sun dried.

Our return trip to the airport was uneventful, and we thanked Tse Ten and our driver for a wonderful introduction to Tibet. Checking into our flight to Beijing was easy, and we found out that we had another layover in Cheng Du (no direct Lhasa – Beijing flights) for about an hour. Our Lhasa – Cheng Du flight was interesting, with a tiny baby screaming its bloody lungs off for over an hour. The poor soldier sitting next to the young mother and baby squirmed uncomfortably the entire flight, and initially we thought the poor chap was the baby’s father. However, once we saw that he continued on to Beijing with the mother and baby disembarking at Cheng Du, we realized that he was just unlucky enough to be sitting next to the loudest baby in history. That baby looked newborn, but had been blessed with an incredibly strong set of lungs and would not shut up. Maybe the baby couldn’t equalize the pressure in its ears? In any case, we breathed a sigh of relief when we found out that we would not have to listen to shrieking and wailing all the way to Beijing.

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