September 22nd-24th; 0km; Lhasa
Well we made it to Lhasa! This was a huge goal for us as it meant the end of arguably one of the most challenging sections of the whole trip from Xinjiang into Tibet. It was also more or less the half-way point of the trip. Regardless, it felt good to get here and it was nice to take some time to rest.
First we had some work to get out of the way, emails to catch up on, posts to write, photos and videos to organize, and things to send back to Beijing at the post office. So we were holed up in our hotel room pretty much the whole day. Some HBO Asia helped to pass the time a bit too though :).
Second day in Lhasa we set aside entirely for touristy endeavors! As Lhasa is the spiritual capital of Tibetan Buddhism and the former political capital of the Tibetan kingdom, there’s a lot of really beautiful sights to see. I’m not sure that 1 day is really enough time to see it all, but we’ve gotta work with the time we’ve got. One advantage we have though is that having been over a week at high altitude, we didn’t have to spend any time acclimating which is not a luxury most people have when visiting here (there were oxygen bottles available everywhere).
Our first stop was the Jokhang Temple, our guide’s favorite attraction in his hometown and apparently one of the most sacred sights for Tibetan Buddhists. It is a UNESCO heritage site located in Lhasa’s “old town”. It’s pretty easy to tell (even without Wikipedia) how sacred it is as there were local Tibetans lined up all around the building queuing to get in and visit the shrines. Outside were rows of people prostrating flat out towards the temple, evidently praying. Some even had wood blocks on their hands and aprons on their chests to ease with the praying ritual which involved clapping the wood blocks as you stand straight up, then leaning over and sliding out until flat out on the ground.
I guess as tourists we didn’t have to stand in the long line, though there was an entrance fee. The inside was very beautifully decorated, with an inner courtyard, the walls of which were lined with depictions of the Buddha. On the inside of the temple was a central area with throne and benches where the Lamas and designated monks gathered for prayer and teachings and circled around this were many different shrines in small rooms. The line of Tibetans that were there on pilgrimage weaved around through each of these shrines where they would pray briefly. Many also had brought large plastic bags of yak butter which they would scoop out at various large standing bowls with burning wicks, essentially giant candles, in the middle throughout the complex as an offering. Evidently yak butter can get quite expensive at Y40/kg and so is quite a valuable offering for people who likely don’t make that much in a week.
The most sacred shrine, and apparently the only one whose statue is the original golden one, is of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha who brought Buddhism East from India. Out here was the largest crowd of people, most praying and chanting out loud. As we walked around the back of the crowd we passed by several people reading through prayers in books and on pieces of paper. I found it quite interesting that one person was even reading the chant off of his smartphone.
Our next stop was the most famous sight in Lhasa, the Potala Palace. This is pretty iconic and almost impossible to miss as it is a massive structure, built with 999 rooms, that sits on top of a hill overlooking the whole city. This was the main residence of the Dalai Lamas from the 5th who started construction until the most recent 14th who fled to India.
As this is such a popular tourist destination visitation is strictly controlled and there’s a lot of procedure to follow. Cirang, our guide, had to arrange our tickets/permits which come with an allotted time like a movie or theater ticket and if you show up early they won’t let you in. One woman who must have been a guide seemed to have some problems with some of these procedures because at the ticket booth after you show your permits, the booth attendant wouldn’t even accept her money and she was causing a big ruckus about it all. After we got our tickets, Cirang was given a slip of paper with the time on it and we were told we had 1 hour to go through the main part of the palace.
Most of the 999 rooms are closed off to the public but it was still quite a nice tour. There used to be hundreds of monks that lived and studied here but now only 50 are allowed to take up residence and they have to apply through the central government. These we could see throughout the tour, some studying, some chatting to each other, and some playing on their smartphones (truly ubiquitous). There were a variety of rooms to visit including shrines, studies, changing rooms, chapels etc. Lots of stupas throughout the palace too, some “benign” stupas and others which our guide called “tomb stupas”. These are exactly what they sound like as they marked the burial place of different Dalai Lamas. They were all ornately decorated and some had the photos/images of the Dalai Lama which they stood for.
After that we went to get some lunch and then had a couple errands to run before heading back to the old town which surrounds the Jokhang temple. This was as you would expect any old town of an ancient city- small streets, low buildings, lots of people, and lots of souvenir shops with local crafts etc. Still a nice stroll and luckily the shopkeepers are not nearly as pushy as in many other places around China.
House of Shambhala
Finally, after saying goodbye to Cirang and Pasang (the driver who also joined us for the day), we went off to see one last sight- The House Of Shambhala. This, a restored Tibetan courtyard home, is a hotel/guesthouse located within the narrow streets of old Lhasa and is owned by an acquaintance of Amy’s from Beijing, Laurence Brahm, a social activist that has restored numerous places like this one around China, using this form of eco-tourism to help promote local artisans and preserve local architecture in an economically sustainable way. I won’t go too much into this here, but rather leave more of the description to Amy who will be talking more in depth about through her dedicated site Project China Building Restoration. It was beautifully done however and there was also a nice restaurant/bar where we stayed for a couple drinks and dinner. They’ve got a very quirky and fun menu with different Tibetan stories and myths in between the different menu items.
And then there was day 3… We were planning on leaving today but unfortunately, something we ate the previous day didn’t agree with us. Bit of food poisoning, somewhat ironic given how often we’ve been eating in small village hole-in-the-wall restaurants the past 2 months, and a lunch at a busy restaurant in the middle of a city does us in. We figured it would be best to take advantage of having the comfort of a hotel to recover in rather than risk having to make emergency pit stops on the side of the road. Oh yeah, having HBO Asia handy was nice too!
Gallery of the Day’s Activities
You can click on any to enlarge and cycle through the gallery.