Giant Buddha carved in stone outside Lhasa
New Video - scroll down to the photo section to see a video of the monks feverishly debating at the Sera Monastery while the foreigners gawk and take their pictures...
This morning after breakfast we hopped in the Toyota and started the three hour drive to Lhasa. The road is better than anything else we have been on in Asia and the scenery is desolate, arid and spectacular.
Often, if you close your eyes for a second and forget where you are, you can open them and imagine that you are driving up highway 395 to Mammoth Mountain where we ski in California which is pretty surreal when you are actually in Tibet. As we approached Lhasa, we came to a large, new tunnel which Tenzin told us was recently finished. This new tunnel cuts off an hour or so of driving to get to the airport outside of Lhasa and cuts right through a massive mountain.
Tibetan woman with huge prayer wheel
We pulled off the side of the road at one of many little watermelon stands and sat on tiny little plastic chairs eating fresh watermelon, trying not to get it all over our faces.
Neither of us was quite as adept or noisy as Tenzin and Jayang but we all enjoyed the sweet melon. Afterwards, we stopped at a small outdoor temple of sorts where there were some giant Buddha images carved into the mountainside. The carvings are supposed to be very old but recently painted in bright, primary colors. There were a ton of Tibetan pilgrims milling about spinning prayer wheels. Several different men were taking white silk prayer scarves from all the Tibetans, tying a rock to one end, then swinging them and flinging them way up onto the cliffs where they would snag and flutter in the wind. They all looked like they were having a good time, especially when one of the men would miss and the scarf would come flying back down.
We made it to Lhasa and checked in with a little bit of trepidation to the Flora Hotel.
Razzu had warned us that the accommodations were leaning on the “budget” side so we weren’t expecting much but were pleasantly surprised when we checked in and had a reasonably clean and nice room. No three star place but a lot better than we expected and anything it lacked in cleanliness or charm it made up for in terms of its great location, a ten minute walk to the Jokhang and Barkhor Square. Tenzin took off quickly saying he would meet us in the morning, no doubt anxious to go see his girlfriend since he is back home in Lhasa.
Tibetan Medicine Thanka - it shows illnesses and their treatments
After settling in, we took a walk through Barkhor Square which is a huge shopping area surrounding the Jokhang, the most revered religious building in Tibet.
The square is an amazing site filled with Tibetan pilgrims praying, walking the streets fingering their prayer beads and spinning their prayer wheels and shopping for everything from coral and turquoise jewelry to thankas to cowboy hats to monks robes. This area is Tibet’s most famous and popular kora or pilgrim circuit where the devout come to walk around the huge square in a clockwise direction, spinning prayer wheels and often prostrating themselves on the ground in front of the Jokhang. There are literally thousands of shops and stalls lining the streets - even the Chinese have got in on the act, realizing there is more profit in selling these trinkets than in trying to completely destroy the Tibetan culture. Tenzin later told us that many if not most of the vendors are either Nepali or Chinese but of course they all claim to be Tibetan, some even changing their names to Tibetan ones. There are also lots of pilgrims, monks and sadhus begging for small change or small bills.
Courtyard View from the Jokhang
Everyone walks clockwise around the huge square eventually making it to the large open courtyard in front of the Jokhang (more on that tomorrow after we visit).
Golden sculptures on the roof of the Jokhang
We wandered around the alleyways off of the Barkhor and eventually stumbled our way into the Tashi 2 Restaurant - a place we had read about, for a lunch of momos (Tibetan dumplings) and Bobi which was kind of like a tortilla that you stuff with curried vegetables and a cream cheese mixture. Pretty tasty food and our first taste of another Tibetan beer called Snow Lion that was nice and cold. Not long after we sat down, a large Dutch group came in and we started talking with them about Tibet and travel. They were very nice and had specifically come back to this restaurant a second time so we figured it was good luck to have stumbled in…
After a bit of a rest at the hotel (the altitude, about 12,000 feet, does tend to knock you out, even if neither of us has a bad headache…) we walked back out to snap some pictures around Barkhor Square and the Jokhang before having a nice dinner at the Namtso Restaurant which had been recommended.
Cold Lhasa Beer, tasty Tibetan soup for me and a “Chicken Sizzler” for Cindy all of which made us pleasantly full and happy. Tenzin is going to pick us up tomorrow and either visit the Potala or the Jokhang.
Rooftop of the Jokhang
Tenzin picked us up and said that the Potala was sold out today (they limit the amount of visitors) and we would go tomorrow which is fine with us as we have read that there are lots more Tibetans on Monday’s. We started off with a visit to Lhasa’s Tibetan Medicine Hospital. This time I didn’t get my knees steamed or receive any “deer shit pills” as I did in Bhutan.
Instead, a very well spoken Tibetan doctor gave us a very detailed overview of Tibetan Medicine including explaining all about some of the really interesting medical thankas (paintings embroidered in silk). There were a dozen or so of them hanging on the walls, each with a specific function including the depiction of physiology and pathology, diagnosing illnesses and treating illnesses. There was another group of Americans with us and everybody was very interested but wrinkled their noses a bit at the point that he was describing urine analysis and that, perhaps and hopefully only in the olden days, the doctor would examine, smell and even taste the patient’s urine. No wonder doctors make so much money! hahaha
Roof Details and lion at the Jokhang
Next stop, the Jokhang temple, the most revered and visited Buddhist temple in all of Tibet.
It is located in the center of the ancient city of Lhasa, and was originally built in the seventh century A.D. by King Songtsan Gampo to house the statues of Buddha that were brought here by his Nepalese wife and concubine, Princess Bhrikuti as part of her dowry. Later, the most famous Buddha image in Tibet, the Sakyamuni, was brought to the Jokhang and to this day remains there. Princess Wencheng, the Chinese bride of King Songsten Gampo (when you are King you get as many wives as you want in the old days…), told him that a huge demoness lay across all of the Tibetan plains and that he had to build temples all over Tibet to subdue her. Using Chinese astrology and geomantic calculations, she determined that the heart of the demoness lay beneath the center of Lhasa in Lake Wothang and insisted that the King fill in the lake with sand and build the Jokhang there effectively piercing the demoness‘s heart.
Carved Yak skulls in Lhasa
Goats carried tons of sand in to bury the lake and the Jokhang was built over it. There are many other temples throughout Tibet that represent the taming of the demoness’s limbs and other organs designed in concentric circles around the Jokhang including Trandruk Monastery which we visited outside of Tsedang. This subduing of the demoness paved the way for the success of Buddhism over the shamanistic Bon religion in Tibet.
Norbulingka Summer Palace
The Jokhang is a massive two story building, jam packed with a large assembly hall surrounded by smaller temples dedicated to the various and many manifestations of the Buddha. The insides are dimly lit, mostly via the light of small and giant butter lamps which the pilgrims all add to either from a bottle or a bag of hardened butter.
In the old days, this was yak butter, but now it is mostly oil and plain butter which is a lot cheaper. No pictures are allowed inside, but you get a fantastic view from the rooftop of the Barkhor, and of the large courtyard in front of the building filled with monks and pilgrims as well as the Potala on the hill in the distance. The rooftop is covered in golden sculptures, some of them fairly massive, including the Wheel of Law in the picture which represents the eight parts of the Noble Eightfold Path to Buddhist enlightenment. The brightly painted carved wooden details of the rooftop and all of the finials and protective lions are particularly cool.
The Potala in Lhasa
We had lunch at a typical Tibetan restaurant overlooking the Potala, the massive former palace of the Dalai Lama situated on a hill overlooking the valley. On the way to visit the Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas, I tried using my Indian cell to text page our friend Dave and it actually worked.
He and his family were at his daughter (my god-daughter) Lauren’s high school graduation party and she managed to call my cell for a few minutes. Other than the brief delay in talking, it is pretty impressive that I can use my American phone with and Indian SIM and talk to the US from Tibet. Technology is cool, at least when it works and isn’t conspiring against you!
Doorway into the Potala Palace
Norbulingka, literally “Jewel Park” is the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas and was built in 1755 by the seventh Dalai Lama and then added to over the years by the following Dalai Lamas.
It is a huge, wooded garden that is in pretty poor shape with a number of different palace buildings and a man made lake. This is the site where the current (fourteenth) Dalai Lama escaped the Chinese disguised as a Tibetan soldier and fled to Dharamsala India in 1959. After the relatively boring visit to Norbulingka, we walked through our neighborhood (interestingly enough in the Muslim quarter) to a local Internet café that was actually kind of a cool little place with free wireless (as long as you bought overpriced drinks) where we managed to check email and update the blog. We had a nice dinner that night at Makye Amye which is an open-air, rooftop restaurant situated right on the corner of Barkhor Square with great views of the pilgrim kura circuit below. We met two nice, young Chinese couples, both of whom attempted to have conversations with us to varying degrees of success.
View of Lhasa from the Potala
The one couple were really nice and insisted on sharing their Tibetan sweet tea (“only 18 yuan!”) and Tibetan Naan with us. It must be very strange for the Tibetan’s to host such a huge number of Chinese tourists who seem eager to see the sites of Lhasa when it is their parents and grandparents who were so eager to destroy it. Times change…
Doorway of the White Palace in the Potala
The Potala is the massive and now empty palace of the Dalai Lamas and is thought to have originally been built in the seventh century by King Songsten Gampo high up on Marpo Ri or “Red Hill” overlooking Lhasa and next to a cave where he meditated.
The current dual palace (there is a “Red Palace” and a “White Palace”) was built by the fifth Dalai Lama in the mid 1600’s and served as the Winter Palace of the Dalai Lamas until 1959 when the fourteenth Dalai Lama fled the Chinese invaders and fled to India.
Audience Hall in Potala White Palace
We drove over to the Potala looming high up on the hill and stopped at Tenzin’s travel agency to pick up our tickets. When he got back in the SUV, he handed them to us and said “Is this you?” and the names were not even close and somebody else’s. He assured us that it wouldn’t be a problem and we went to the first of three checkpoints at the Potala where he shmoozed the girl taking the tickets into letting us in even though they didn’t match our passports. Luckily the Chinese military guys standing around and smoking were clueless and not paying attention.
We started the steep climb up the stone walkways that zig-zag up the Potala (you can see them on the left hand side of the picture with the deep blue sky). There were large groups of young Chinese tourists, huffing and puffing their way up (they seem really out of shape and I thought a couple of the women were going to faint from hyperventilating). Just before you enter the building, you can get a pretty spectacular view of the Lhasa valley lying below. You can see from the picture that it is pretty built up and modern, probably a lot different than it was 50 years ago.
Tsong Khapa Statue in the Potala
You enter the Potala through typical massive red doors ornately adorned with huge, brass knockers with woven silk pulls and intricate and colorful carvings and walk through some fairly plain and empty rooms and up many stairs, eventually exiting onto a rooftop with several surrounding buildings.
Since you can’t take pictures once inside, we opted to buy a book and have snapped pics of a few of the pictures in the book to give an idea of what the insides of the Potala looks like. I think the Chinese have little room to complain about copyright infringement - ask anyone who has traveled in Asia about the wide availability of books (especially Lonely Planet) and movies available for 1/10th of the price they would be at home. Hell in Pokhara we walked past a bar showing Pirates of the Caribbean Three not more than three days after it was released!
One of the tombs of the Dalai Lamas
The first picture is the doorway of the White Palace and typical of the many palaces in the Potala with seven lions up top representing the seven royal emblems, an inscripted tablet above the lions describing the purpose of the room and then all the intricately carved doorframes, columns and beams topped with engravings of tigers, lions, garudas and dragons.
The second picture is the old audience hall of the White Palace where all celebrations and religious services were held since the Fifth Dalai Lama moved into the Potala in 1650. The gold characters above the throne read “The blessing of abundance illumine in all directions”. The third picture displays typical statuary of the many temples inside the Potala and is an image of Tsongkha-pa Lobsang Drakpa who was a great master of the Gyelupka Buddhist sect. Usually these chapels have a main statue as in this picture with smaller statues surrounding him, butter lamps and holy water bowls or sometimes butter sculptures in front and thankas hanging from the beams. It is all very rich and ornate and there are usually piles of money in front of the statues and often prayer shawls donated and covering the images.
Schoolkids on a fieldtrip in Lhasa
The last photo is one of the many tombs of the Dalai Lamas which easily give the Vatican a run for the money in terms of sheer opulence, indulgence and insane wealth. We stopped at the tombs of the sixth, seventh and eighth Dalai Lamas and were amazed at the incredible amount of jewels and gold and I remember estimating just the cost of the gold of one at well over $10,000,000. When we walked downstairs and saw the tomb of the Fifth Dalai Lama the previous ones paled in comparison. This one is in a huge room surrounded by other gold and precious jewel encrusted stupas with the main tomb in the center of the hall standing over twelve meters tall and 8 meters wide. Just the gold used on the tomb is worth in the neighborhood of eighty million dollars. Truly amazing.
Monks debating at Sera Monastery
After the Potala visit, we walked through Barkhor Square and had lunch at a Tibetan restaurant where it ended up we were the only foreigners.
They did manage to find a menu in English and we sat down initially sharing a table with two Tibetan men, one younger and one older who actually offered us snuff which we politely refused. We ordered Cheese Momos and some fried vegetables too afraid to order some of the more interesting sounding dishes like Auspicious Insect with Yak Tongue or Fried Sheep Lung. All of the Tibetans were staring at us as we patiently awaited our order, not sure that the girl understood us at all. The men left and we were joined by a group of two men and one woman decked out in traditional Tibetan clothes and jewelry (lots of silver, coral and turquoise) who were really friendly and insisted on sharing their thermos of Tibetan Butter Tea which is more of a salty, soupy kind of thing and certainly not high on Cindy’s list. I don’t mind it as much now that they don’t always use Yak butter which is pretty gamey. It is hard to refuse and remain polite so I drank mine.
Monk with Prayer Beads at Sera Monastery
Cindy took a few small sips, the problem being that tradition in Tibet and much of Asia says that if your guest’s cup isn’t full, you need to fill it up. This is especially true of alcoholic drinks (if you read the entry of our Bumthang trek in Bhutan you will recall the couple that kept pouring and pouring Ara for us). The momos eventually arrived and were interesting dumplings filled with what tasted somewhat like old, moldy parmesan cheese but was actually aged Yak cheese - yummy.
Debating Monks at Sera Monastery
After lunch, we headed to the Sera Monastery which ended up being a pretty cool place. The main temple had a huge, multi-story Buddha surrounded by the usual accoutrements of thankas, statuary, wood carvings, butter carvings and offerings (but I was to cheap to pay for a picture inside - something un-Buddhist about constantly having to pay monks to take a picture).
The cool part of the monastery is that around 3:00pm, the monks all come out into a large gravel courtyard lined with trees and they debate, heatedly, completely ignoring the throng of camera flashing tourists (ourselves included but hopefully more polite than most). Obviously our Tibetan is a little bit weak (we can say Hello, T hank you and Good! which hilariously enough is Yabadoo! making any American who grew up in the 60’s think of Fred Flintstone…) so we couldn’t understand what they were debating about. One monk would stand and argue his point with one or more seated monks, at the end of his diatribe looking like he is going to perform some kind of Kung Fu feat, standing on one leg and rubbing/slapping his hands together which Tenzin told us is basically demanding a response to his oratory. It was very cool to watch - we thought that the one guy in the close up shot looks a lot like a Tibetan version of Quentin Tarrentino.
Debating Monks at Sera Monastery
Quentin Tarintino looking monk at Sera
After watching the debates for quite a while, we walked up towards the hill where there are some stupas and another small nunnery high up on the ridge. This is one of the many locations in Tibet where they perform “Sky Burials”. These are the somewhat gruesome sounding to a westerner Tibetan ritual for the dead. Unlike Hindus who are cremated, the Tibetans have a special monk who takes the body to a sky burial location, completely dismembers it and then leaves it to feed the birds and carnivores. They feel that the soul has moved on and the body no longer necessary and that they are giving something back to nature and helping the chain of life. It is now illegal for non-Tibetans to attend Sky Burials as in the past, tourists would disrespect the mourners, merrily flashing their cameras away.
Needless to say, we didn’t witness this.
That night, we went to what we figured would be a fairly lame Tibetan Dance/Buffet Dinner thing and, unlike the one in Kathmandu, this time we were correct. The room was packed with Chinese tourists, nearly all of them crowding in front of the stage flashing their cameras. I don’t think we saw one dance other than the finale when they tried to drag us up on stage. This time I was successful in avoiding the dance. We met a UK Couple who were on a China/Tibet vacation and talked to them a bit. This time they were on a short vacation but hope to take an extended holiday next year so we talked about that quite a bit. Their guide was Chinese, not Tibetan and he got very nervous when Tenzin and Jayang sat down with us. Tenzin made a point of loudly telling Cindy that it was 35 Yuan each (about $5) per person for dinner and the dance.
The other guide sort of rushed the UK couple out as Tenzin told us that the guide charged the couple 100 Yuan each, pocketing the other 130 for himself. The Tibetans are generally very honest people. You can go into any temple in Tibet and see piles of money in front of almost every statue. The locals often make their own change, throwing a 20 Yuan note into the pile and grabbing all the small bills for change to donate at the next statue - the monks would never even worry about the devout being dishonest.
Debating Monks at Sera Monastery
Tomorrow we are off to Gyantse to visit the Khampa-la pass, Yamdrak-dzo lake and the large, golden stupa.