Day 5 : Potala and the Sera Monastery
Lhasa Travel Blog› entry 5 of 24 › view all entries
Today we have the luxury of sleeping long as we won't be leaving before 9.30 hrs. This also means plenty of time for an elaborate breakfast. Breakfast is served at a little side building off the courtyard and I am very curious of what to find. Via a narrow, wobbly dim-lit staircase we get up to the first floor where the restaurant is located. It's a tiny space crowded already with Chinese tour groups. There's a small buffet and someone is preparing eggs. A fried egg sounds good and I join the queue, trying to keep my balance on the grease stained floor. The tables are dirty and sticky and the buffet doesn't look too appealing either but at least there is toast and jam. Quite an improvement already compared to our Chengdu hotel!
Unfortunately Ils is not feeling well today.
After breakfast we leave by bus to the Potala palace. It's only a short drive, but our guide prefers the bus in order to still give some information along the way. We've been given a fixed time to enter the Potala. From that time onwards we then have exactly one hour to see the palace from the inside. This means there's no time to waste!
Before we enter the premises, we need to show our passports and get thoroughly checked. Absolutely no liquids are allowed inside. It resembles a bit the security check at the airport.
Now we are already in the Potala complex, but not yet at the actual palace. First we need to still climb about 150 meters of staircase and I wonder how we'll handle this at this altitude and without any drinking water. We still have a good half an hour to get up the hill, so it's no problem to take it easy. The splendid views over Lhasa are a good excuse to take a (photo) break. At the end of the stairs we get to the large courtyard in front of the white palace. Here's a possibility again to buy bottled water for the tour. This is the last spot where we can take pictures. Inside the palace, photographing is strictly forbidden.
Exactly at the given time, we enter the White Palace.
The white palace comprises the living quarters of the Dalai Lama and the tombs of 8 earlier Dalai Lamas. These are enormous golden sarcophagus. The white palace is separated from the red palace by a big yellow courtyard. The Red Palace was used for religious purposes and here we find a multitude of little chapels, prayer halls, libraries and all sorts of hallways. The Potala should count 99 rooms and one cave; a meditation cave used by the founder of the Potala: Songtsen Gampo; who used the cave for meditation.
It is fascinating to see the many Tibetan pilgrims at the palace. Entire families have travelled far and wide in order to make this pilgrimage. Even babies are brought along. One can easily see these people are very poor and yet they generously donate at each chapel and to each statue. In Tibetan Buddhism money is not important during one's earthly existence. They believe that all money donated now will be rewarded in the next life.
Exactly one hour later, we are outside again and we can take the stairs down. It's great watching the colourful traditional clad Tibetan families on the way down. Downstairs we end up at the kora around the Potala Palace, lined with hundreds of prayer wheels. The circuit is buzzing with plenty of pilgrims, monks and prostrating devotees.
In the mean while it's gotten lunch time and those who feel like can join the group for a buffet lunch. However Ils and I prefer to look ourselves for a bite to eat and we arrange to meet up with the rest later on at the hotel.
We still have plenty of time and decide to walk back towards the hotel. We even have time to sit and relax at one of the benches across the street to take a few additional pictures of the palace. All benches appear to be taken but there's still space on one on which a Tibetan family is sitting. I break the ice offering a cuddly toy to the little girl. We can take pictures and the parents are fascinated by the photo camera. They love seeing the images of themselves on the little display and are taken by all the buttons and functions on the camera.
After about half an hour it's now really time to head back towards the hotel. We make a quick stop at the supermarket and then head straight for Dunya again. it's no surprise to find some more fellow travelers there. We order soup and a sandwich. The service is excellent again and the huge and delicious portions arrive in no time. We still have about 15 minutes before we need to meet up with the rest of the group, but when we get to the hotel, the bus is already there and waiting! I worry about being late or misunderstanding the time, but it appears they are just early, so no harm done. A few minutes later everyone's ready and we can move on to the Sera Monastery.
The Sera monastery located just outside Lhasa and is famous for its Monk's debating classes in the afternoon.
Again quite a few group members need the restrooms (with all that water we need to drink to stay hydrated some has developed a bladder problem) but there is no toilet nearby. First we need to walk and climb up towards the main temple. While they then try and get relief, I go and check out already the front porch of the temple. It's fascinating to watch the many pilgrims walk in and out. Many small children are taken to this monastery and come out with a black dot of ashes on their nose. This is said to bring good luck.
Our guide Jimmy is still waiting downstairs to continue his tour. But since we already climbed all the way up, some group members suggest seeing the temple right now; that way they don't have to climb up again later on.
Since we need to get out in time for the debates, it becomes a real blitz visit around the most important statues and chapels of the temple. It's rather dark inside and very warm and slippery because of the many butter candles. Everywhere is the faint smell of butter. Not only us tourists, but also a big number of pilgrims want to get inside, so it is a real traffic jam in the small corridors. In the mean while it is already past 3PM and I start to get worried we'd miss the debate because of the whims of a few group members. Jimmy picks up his fastest pace and we pass most of the temple chambers without any explanation at all.
It's about twenty past three when we leave the temple building. Luckily we can still hear the shouts and noises from the debate. Fortunately the courtyard where it takes place is really close. We will get to see at least a little part still.
Over a hundred monks are sitting in little groups all over the courtyard and are heavily debating. The monk who's making the point is mostly standing and claps his hands to reinforce his point. Even though I do not understand a word they're saying, it's clear that they are very passionate about their point of view. The young monks seem very eager. The older monks are involved in less heated discussions.
After about 15 minutes we need to move on as we still need to see the mandalas; religious drawings made with coloured sand. They are really beautiful and amazingly detailed. It surely requires a monk's patience to make such a masterpiece!
Via a few more side buildings, stupas and prayer wheels, we head towards the exit again. And again we need to wait for those who need to pee...
On the bus we get the sad news that our visit to the Tibetan Traditional Medicine Center is cancelled. It should be closed today because of some religious festival. Too bad! Though I think it's just an excuse. My guide book says it closes at 5 PM. It's now 4.30... It's just not possible anymore to make it on time. My guess is that we missed it because of ample waiting time for those needing to pee all the time.
But anyway, this means we have again some free time in Lhasa, not bad either! Ils and I decide to pay a visit to the Tibetan Blind Massage Institution. This is a project that trains blind people into massage therapists, so that they can make a living for themselves and feel less dependant on their family. It's quite a search as it is located in an apartment complex off the big Beijing East Road. Despite the signs to follow, it is still quite a maze to navigate. When we finally get their, it turns out they're fully booked for the afternoon but we can return around later on in the evening.
Change of plans again and time to shop. Ils and I head towards the Barkhor and browse through all outdoor and Nepali clothes shops along the way. Event though we try and inspect many items, nothing is bought.
In search of the traditional vegetable and food market, we even commit sacrilege and walk counter clockwise around the Jokhang. The market is worth the detour though. We get to see the many kinds of tampa, vegetables and daily use items. There's a lot of couleur locale here still.
All that walking has gotten us thirsty and yesterday's roof terrace at Makye Amye looks like a great place to break Though we seem to have come at a bad time. There's still space on the roof terrace but at this time of the afternoon they only have tables for eaters. Too bad... A bottle of water from a street vendor will do then.
Instead we explore a few more outdoor shops. No luck for Ils but I manage to find a decent pair of trekking pants.
It's a little after 7PM now and about time to return to the Blind Massage Centre.
This surely isn't a walk in the park. All pressure points on the feet and calves are quite heavily manhandled. At certain moments it even hurts, yet is very relaxing. I can feel the stiffness from climbing all those stairs at the Potala and convent ooze out of my legs. The massage takes about an hour and it is nearly dark when we walk out.
We developed a bit of an appetite by now and Dunya is only a few steps away so that's an easy decision! Apparently we are not the only ones with this idea.
It's already well past nine when we finish dinner so it seems we will miss the sound and light show near the Potala, which was due to start at nine sharp. But we decide to walk over anyway. I still want to see the Potala by night and a little walk after dinner certainly won't hurt. In the mean while it started drizzling and it's gotten rather chilly too. Fortunately I have my rain jacket on me.
Turns out we didn't miss anything. Because of the rain, the spectacle has been cancelled. Nevertheless the palace is nicely illuminated and makes for nice pictures. There's also a small group of Chinese tourists that love to have their picture taken with us too.