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Potala and Norbulingka (summer palace)

Lhasa Travel Blog

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early morning children going to school in Lhasa
I got up early in the morning, the sky was cloudy so I thought a sunrise photo-op at Potala was not likely to happen today. Instead, I went over to the Jokhang temple again. The air was a bit chilly, and snow can be seen on the mountaintops around Lhasa. At the Jokhang, a street sweeper car was cleaning up the square. I was approached by a young girl selling junipers for burning in the incense burners. I got a bundle and put it in the incense burner. I stood there watching the pilgrims paced by for a while. There was a monk sitting at the foot of one of those poles with yak fur and prayer flags, he was accepting donations which people leave. It seemed that most people leave 10 or 20 cents of RMB (not much money), but when I gave him 1 RMB bill, he gave me change of 80 cents, so it's a matter of collecting small amounts from lots of people, I suppose.
View around the Jokhang to the north with snow on the mountaintops.
That seemed to be the common denomination left at temples too. Before heading back to the hotel for breakfast, I bought a couple of prayer flags bundles with the intention of leaving them at the first mountain pass and at Everest base camp. You had to bargain on the prices of everything it seems at the vendors, and often 80% of the initial asking price is not a bad place to start. I found out later that even then I sometimes overpaid!

Our guide had obtained tickets to the Potala for the 9:40am entry. The Potala had a limited number of visitors per day, and you had to buy the tickets the day before. Each ticket only allowed you one hour's time inside the Palace! We went into the group entrance at the east side of the palace, and walked and huffed the ramp and steps up the front of the Potala.
Street sweeper cleaning the square in front of the Jokhang early in the morning
They used to make people go up the back side car ramp, but that is no longer the case. The inside of the Potala is off limits to cameras, but getting a book near the exit is not a bad alternative. It would have been real difficult to be able to take photos as good as shown in the book (250RMB). The Potala Palace is now a museum where ordinary people can go in and visit. During the Cultural Revolution, the Potala was protected by an order from Chao En-Lai and it was not touched by the red guards. The Potala has so many treasures, we are so fortunate that they were preserved.

After climbing up the ramps in the front, we emerged at an inner courtyard  in front of the White Palace. The upper part was the living quarters of the Dalai Lama, and the lower parts the offices of the Tibetan government.
me holding the bag of juniper twigs to be put in the incense burner behind me to the right where the smoke is coming out
We went in the ground floor of the White Palace and climbed many stairs to visit the winter living quarters of the 14th Dalai Lama before his exile to India in 1959. The living quarters were nice with a great view of the city, but it was nothing like the living quarters of kings and queens in European palaces. He was a monk after all.

There are many structures forming the Potala Palace, from a distance they formed an integrated castle on top of this hill in the center of Lhasa. It is an engineering marvel. The palace was built from stone, wood and rammed earth (by people stomping on it while singing for a LONG time, this is still practiced today and we saw workers stomping on a roof before climbing up the ramp at the Potala). The wood was dyed red, and that's what made the red parts of the palace.
The incense burner where I put the juniper twigs
From the front, the tall white facade in the center serves as the display wall for HUGE thangkas. Most Tibetan monasteries have a place where huge thangkas of buddha images can be displayed once a year. We saw one such thangka rolled up in the main hall of the Tashilumpo monastery in Xigaze. There it takes 150 monks to carry it in unison up a hill to display it! We didn't see the rolled up thangkas here but I am sure they require just as much work.

The Potala contains the White Palace and the Red Palace. The White Palace was for administration offices and living spaces for the Dalai Lama and monks who lived there. It even included a prison! The Red Palace was for religious use, and contains the tomb stupas of 8 previous Dalai Lamas, including the great Fifth Dalai Lama.
More pilgrims, some walking the circuit (to the right, coming toward me), and others paying respect to the butter lamps behind the wall on the left
The stupas were wrapped with pure gold, the Fifth's stupa hass over 3700 kg of gold, stands 14 meters high and is studded wih precious stones such as ambers, rubies, diamonds. It was a most impressive sight. Although I had not seen the pyramids of Egypt and the tombs of the kings there, I imagine the stupas here  are just as grand if not more! The other stupas are smaller, but also impressive.

There were "treasure rooms" inside the Potala where gifts from all over the world to the Dalai Lamas over the centuries were stored. Any of these rooms full of buddhism statues are worthy rival of any museums of the world. Because they were for the Dalai Lamas, only the best would do. However, these rooms and treasures were not generally well-lit, and the statues were packed full on shelves.
Dogs do the Barkor circuit too
It was nothing short of amazing.

There were also many murals in the palace, showing buddism events, Tibetan histories, and other things of religious significance. The 14th Dalai Lama talked about how he learned a lot of history of Tibet from these murals in books such as "The history of Tibet, conversations with the Dalai Lama" by Thomas Laird, which I only half finished before the trip.

We were out of the palace with no time to spare. We walked down the ramps on the back of the Potala. Outside the back gate which comes out at the west side of the Potala, there was this kid, maybe 6 or 7 years old, who was having fun practicing throwing himself on the ground. He did it as if it was a game or something he really enjoyed doing. We visited a store which sells carpets and thangkas.
This monk was circumambulating the Barkor circuit
They had supposedly old thangkas obtained from people, as well as modern ones. We then walked across the square, past the reconstructed west gate to the little medicine buddha hill with 3 chortens (stupas). This was a popular and great place for a photo of the Potala with the stupas in the foreground. In our hotel, there was an old photo of the Potala from this viewpoint, except there were people on horsebacks near the west gate!

We had lunch and a little rest before we set out on our minibus to visit the Norbulingka, the summer palace of the 13th and 14th Dalai Lama.  Although not that far from the Potala, this was an entirely different  palace. It has a large garden, ponds with pavillions, and LOTS of blooming flowers. Although some were in pots, the place definitely felt like a summer garden.
Pilgrims prostrating in front of the Jokhang
It also covered a large area, with a small zoo. I hope the animals were in better shapes than they were, but it's not a modern or naturalist zoo, and the animals  were in concrete cells. China has a ways to go on its zoo technology and education of people on how to be nice to animals. We were upset to see some monks throwing rocks at the lions in order to make them roar, even our Tibetan guide was embarrassed to see such uncivilized behavior. What would the Dalai Lama think about that! We thought these bad monks would be reincarnated into zoo animals right here!

In the building which was the residence of the 14th Dalai Lama, there was a mural dipicting the history of Tibet. Starting from the monkey which was believed to be the ancestor of all Tibetan people to the building of the Potala Palace and to more modern times.
Pilgrims in front of the Jokhang
On one other mural, a likeness of the 14th was visible at the far end. However, most pilgrims who went from room to room, here or in the Potala or in other monasteries went from room to room quickly, they would prostrate or pray or  put their heads on the foot of statues or walls, never saw anything on the wall, or even looked at the statues closely. To them, the importance was not the art of these creations, but just their devotion. It's a pity.

After returning to the hotel for a little rest, we walked over to the Tibetan medical institute where we had arranged to meet the director. The institute is now a hospital. The director who spoke good English gave us an introduction of the Tibetan medical theories and practices, showing us some of the medical thangkas which were used for teaching.
This dog must lived around the Jokhang, we saw it almost every time we went to the square in front of the Jokhang.
It was very interesting, and I learned that Tibetans also had acupunture! Except they used only one needle, and they poke you on the top of your head.

Afterwards some of us decided to walk the Barkor circuit again, trying to do it at pilgrim's pace. It was not easy, there were lots of distractions for us, but it was a nice walk and a  good way to get a feel of what the pilgrims go through.
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early morning children going to sc…
early morning children going to s…
View around the Jokhang to the nor…
View around the Jokhang to the no…
Street sweeper cleaning the square…
Street sweeper cleaning the squar…
me holding the bag of juniper twig…
me holding the bag of juniper twi…
The incense burner where I put the…
The incense burner where I put th…
More pilgrims, some walking the ci…
More pilgrims, some walking the c…
Dogs do the Barkor circuit too
Dogs do the Barkor circuit too
This monk was circumambulating the…
This monk was circumambulating th…
Pilgrims prostrating in front of t…
Pilgrims prostrating in front of …
Pilgrims in front of the Jokhang
Pilgrims in front of the Jokhang
This dog must lived around the Jok…
This dog must lived around the Jo…
View of Potala after we went into …
View of Potala after we went into…
A closer look at the Potala Palace…
A closer look at the Potala Palac…
In front of the Potala, workers ar…
In front of the Potala, workers a…
Another view of the Potala and a s…
Another view of the Potala and a …
5 of us going to Potala  Palace
5 of us going to Potala Palace
Workers carrying heavy load throug…
Workers carrying heavy load throu…
Tourists and pilgrims walk up the …
Tourists and pilgrims walk up the…
A pilgrim going up the steps in fr…
A pilgrim going up the steps in f…
More pilgrims, wearing traditional…
More pilgrims, wearing traditiona…
Looking up at the wall of the Pota…
Looking up at the wall of the Pot…
The red parts of the Potala are ma…
The red parts of the Potala are m…
A young pilgrim resting on the ste…
A young pilgrim resting on the st…
Almost at the top of the stairs no…
Almost at the top of the stairs n…
Windows of the Potala
Windows of the Potala
This is where the clock starts y…
This is where the "clock" starts …
The White Palace where we started …
The White Palace where we started…
View of Lhasa from the toilet wind…
View of Lhasa from the toilet win…
Braided hair and colorful silk  of…
Braided hair and colorful silk o…
Me doing a yoga pose while the Tib…
Me doing a yoga pose while the Ti…
group shot on the way down from Po…
group shot on the way down from P…
Ramp down the Potala from the back…
Ramp down the Potala from the bac…
Some mani stones at the side of th…
Some mani stones at the side of t…
long ramp down the back of the Pot…
long ramp down the back of the Po…
A monk and elderly woman walking d…
A monk and elderly woman walking …
Potala view from the stupas near t…
Potala view from the stupas near …
Kevin and I
Kevin and I
Tibetans at the entrance to Norbul…
Tibetans at the entrance to Norbu…
A door in Norbulingka
A door in Norbulingka
The wall outside the summer reside…
The wall outside the summer resid…
The library and retreat of the 13t…
The library and retreat of the 13…
A shaded walkway leading to the re…
A shaded walkway leading to the r…
Some flowers in bloom at the Norbu…
Some flowers in bloom at the Norb…
The front of the summer retreat of…
The front of the summer retreat o…
A corner of the retreat for the 14…
A corner of the retreat for the 1…
A wall detail
A wall detail
A cute dog on a mural
A cute dog on a mural
The bridge leading to the pavilion…
The bridge leading to the pavilio…
Monks and monkeys.
Monks and monkeys.
A bear in the zoo
A bear in the zoo
2 birds in the zoo
2 birds in the zoo
A linx in the zoo
A linx in the zoo
yak parts decorating the store fro…
yak parts decorating the store fr…
Director at the Tibetan medical in…
Director at the Tibetan medical i…
Ticket to the Potala, 100RMB
Ticket to the Potala, 100RMB
Ticket to Norbulingka, 60RMB
Ticket to Norbulingka, 60RMB
Lhasa
photo by: mountaingirl