Saturday, 16 July 2011

Five Days in Lhasa

Lhasa as a place has for many years conjured up a sense of the mysterious and mystic. This otherworldliness enhanced by the book Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer and alluded to in the novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton. Lhasa nestled amongst some of the highest peaks of the Himalayas has until recently been seen as a place to visit for the more adventurous and daring of travelers. Not so. Now Tibet is quite an easy place to get to even for the solo traveler as you can go by air or rail. Now there are many visitors both foreign and Chinese.

The flight into Lhasa airport is both breathtaking and nerve-racking; flying over the mountain peaks is an awesome experience. I had arrived in Tibet, one of those ‘dream’ places I have always wanted to visit.

My research about getting from the airport to Lhasa city had been rather poor which I instantly discovered outside the airport surrounded by taxi touts, Lhasa city was 95km away. After some hard negotiations the fare of 200Yuan was negotiated, which is the going price for the trip. It is also possible to get a bus to the capital form the airport.

The long drive to Lhasa revealed stunning mountain scenery as well as a rather harsh countryside.

Day 1.

Johkang Temple

The most interesting part of Lhasa is the Tibetan area; the larger Chinese part of the city is a typical nondescript modern Chinese city, without any character. Altitude sickness is one thing you are warned to be on guard about. ‘Take things slowly’ is the mantra. Staying near the Johkang temple, Tibet’s holiest shrine, made it easy to wander there. Even with taking things slowly and easy, mild altitude sickness manifested itself as I had a constant headache and a low level nausea while I was here.  

Barkhor Square
is the area around the Jokhang temple where pilgrims do the kora by walking around the temple in a clockwise direction. Young and old spinning their prayer wheels praying and talking as they proceed devotionally around the Jokhang. One of the great attractions around this area is the market, selling white silk scarves, prayer flags, prayer wheels, yak butter for the devotional lamps in the temple as well as jewelry and other interesting trinkets; I was easily seduced into buying some jewelry on my very first circuit.

Day 2.
 At the Jokhang, there are two lines at the entrance, one for the Tibetans who were going to worship and one for the tourists. It is a remarkable temple, very ornate with may little ‘chapels’ and shrines.  It is very humbling to see the rapt devotion of the Tibetans as they go around the temple lighting their yak butter lamps and placing their monetary offerings. The air of the temple is replete with the scent of burning yak butter and juniper which can be somewhat overpowering. Outside the temple people are selling yak butter, both melted (in a thermos) and solidified, white and orange scarves for the devotees to use inside. The pilgrims pour the yak butter into the large blocks of ‘devotional’ candles. There are number who prostrate themselves many times in front, while others either walk around, with their prayer wheels or prostrate themselves as they go around the building. A number of the pilgrims have come in from the countryside for this piety.
Tibetan Woman in National Dress

 A lot of the women both young and old are in their national dress which is rather nice to see, though I suspect it could also be a form of protest against the Chinese regime.
It is necessary to book the day before you go for the Potala Palace, which is a recent development. Booking has become essential as the rail link from China to Lhasa has made it easier for the Chinese to flood into Tibet both as tourists as well as working and living there. One reason a number of Chinese like the idea of living in Tibet as the one child policy doesn’t apply here.

A Chinese boy sat at my table while I was having lunch we began talking. He is an anthropology student at Beijing University and specializing in Tibetan culture. He has come to Tibet a number of times, especially during his summer breaks. He is studying the influence of Han culture on Tibetan culture, and wanted to interview them.  I pointed out that Tibetans probably would not say what they really thought to a Chinese person, but he had difficulty fully appreciating this. He seemed torn between the fact that the Han Chinese have tried to flood and eradicate Tibetan culture and mouthing the party line.
Then off to the ticket office to book for the Potala Palace. My new Chinese friend came with me. We arrived at the booking office, a sign proclaimed ‘No more tickets for tomorrow available’. It was here that I found out you needed to be there early in the morning, but as luck would have it there was someone getting some tickets (probably a tour guide as he had a number of passports). Saying to my Chinese companion ‘If he can get tickets now, why can’t I? I’m only one person.’ So, the ‘not what you know, but who you know’ worked – He spoke to the people in Tibetan, and Voila!! I had a ticket for the next day at 15.40, not the best time but it meant I didn’t have to waste a morning lining up.
Together we went to the Tibetan Museum which proved very interesting though you need to ignore the Chinese propaganda on the displays. It is so blatant it is easy to see through it.
Another day to be out and about and as I stood poised to cross one of the main roads in the old part of Lhasa an elderly Tibetan woman in traditional dress was also poised on the side of the road. I quickly glanced at her and smiled and the next minute she grabs my hand and ferries me across the road (well I think it was that way around) and then pats my hand and smiles at me and then goes on her way.
It is an easy walk to Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama and is situated in a large parkland area, some of the buildings have been maintained with monks in attendance while many have been left in various stages of disrepair and neglect and have been allowed to ‘disintegrate’.
The Tibetans who come through the palaces and temples show great reverence to the actual places the Dalai Lama has been, bowing and making offerings of yak butter lamps and money.
The trees and plants provided and quiet, cool respite from the streets and traffic, though the gardens themselves were not spectacular in any way. Then all of a sudden there was a slight breeze and then gossamer ‘snowflakes’ floated down from the trees, the air was thick with these seed capsules which gave an ethereal other world feel to the whole place.
Potala Palace
The Potala Palace, just to be in front of this building gave me goose bumps as it has been one of my dream places to visit since my youth. Clutching my permission for entry acquired the previous day I negotiated the entrance (no sign of guides for a tour), plodding up the innumerable steps to the first main entry point. It is advised to take it slowly and have frequent stops on the way (not that you could do otherwise). Just walking up a few steps finds one gasping and breathing more deeply to suck in more oxygen. Views are magnificent, clich├ęd though it may sound. Rooms are ornate and can be quite suffocating with the ubiquitous burning of juniper incense and yak butter lamps.
The Potala Palace has 13 stories and 1300 rooms and at its height housed thousands of monks. The White Palace the eastern side was the living quarters of the Dalai Lama and the Red Palace (central building) was for religious functions. Going from room to room, chapel to chapel, and golden tombs of various lamas I came to think how much this palace served the monks and religion in its use of precious gems and gold on par with the excesses of the Vatican. Here the monks were well away from the people and one wonders if it occurred to them that all the money given and spent on all the ornate tombs might have been better spent on helping the people in a practical way with health and education services.
The route we follow around the palace is strictly proscribed which apart from the chapels and tombs also include the Dalai Lamas bedroom and takes just over an hour to view. Knowing how many rooms are in the palace and the few we were allowed to view it is worth pondering how many have been left to sink into irretrievable disrepair 
A morning excursion to Drepung Monastery can be taken by a local bus and get off at the end of the line. There were many taxis waiting to take people up to the monastery, it seem a reasonable distance so I decided to walk, but this proved to be a poor decision as it is further away than it seemed, however I was rescued from total exhaustion by an empty minibus, which was on its way to pick up a group, stopped and though the driver spoke no English he offered me a lift to the monastery, for which I was eternally grateful.
The Monastery dates back to 15th century and was the largest in Tibet. There were 7000 monks here prior to the Cultural Revolution. During that time there was a concerted effort to smash the influence of the major monasteries and over 40% of the buildings were destroyed. Today there are around 700 monks who reside here or nearby. More burning of juniper and incense which now seems even more suffocating, and I found it hard to breathe even when it is outside. The chapel is typical Tibetan ornate and there is a charge between10-20yuan to take photos in the chapels, but the chapels are quite dark inside and without a really good class of camera, photos would most likely not turn out well.
Having been told that the hill behind the monastery gave a really great view of Lhasa, I investigated the possibility of a climb. It looked rather rugged with a lot of loose rocks and stones but overall quite do-able but I would have preferred to actually do it with a companion rather than on my own (caution took over for a change) as at least they could be a witness if I slipped and broke a leg or something. However Drepung Monastery is quite high up anyway and you can still have a great view of Lhasa.

Monks debating At Sera Monastery

Walking back to the bus stop, going down hill is easier than up, and I wandered into Nechang Monastery, which is quite small and very typical, then back to Lhasa for a rest before heading out to Sera Monastery in the afternoon. This monastery was founded in 1419 by a disciple Tsongkhapa. The monks gather in the courtyard in the afternoon to debate various points related to Buddhism. The debates are very animated with a great deal of lunging and hand thumping to emphasize a point. It would have been wonderful to be able to understand what they were saying and the points of their arguments. The monastery is another similar to other Tibetan monasteries but I find them are all very interesting.
 Tickets for the pilgrim bus to Ganden Monastery were bought the previous day. It is best to do this to ensure a seat.
It was a rather chilly morning and still dark when I jumped on the bus. The monastery is about 40kms out of Lhasa, traveling through the countryside and seeing the small villages, some of which looked exceedingly poor was eye-opening. The twisting roads and the mountains on either side and in the distance makes you feel insignificant, the low lying cloud on the mountains gave them a mystic air. As the bus continued along the twisting steep road, Ganden Monastery stepped up the mountainside eventually came into view.

Tibetan countryside

Apparently it had been all but destroyed by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution and much of it has now been restored, where once it housed a thousand monks now it just has a few hundred. There are still some old buildings that remain and ‘Tsongkhapa’s gold stupa is still there though it must have been hidden during the turmoil.  The plight of the monasteries and monks under the Chinese is evident, many monasteries have been destroyed, monks been persecuted and killed and monasteries are now shadows of their former selves.
The bus left Ganden at about 1.30 but stopped at another small temple on the way back to Lhasa; after all it was a pilgrim bus.
The following day I left Lhasa with a heavy heart as I loved the quiet leisurely manner of the Tibetans. It is sad to see the way they are subjugated by the Chinese and realize how ruthlessly they are still suppressing Tibetan culture. Since the riots before the 2008 Olympics the Chinese have cracked down even more ruthlessly on the Tibetans. It will be harder to visit Tibet and it is distressing to see the gradual strangling of the Tibetan culture. Will it be lost forever?

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