And the road ended in Lhasa

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I woke up early this morning and lay in bed reflecting on the past four days. Traveling through Tibet and all it’s small, quirky town has been an adventure and one I’m sorry to end.   Being in a big city (Lhasa) means big city things like traffic congestion, high rises, blasting horns and no more roadside potty stops.

We’ve passed through some of the most beautiful countryside I can imagine which of course include the Himalayans –  home to the “8 thousanders” (8000 meters = 26,247 ft.) – over 100 mountains exceeding 23,622 ft.  I have stood on the “roof of the world”  and while a tad dizzy at times – it was spectacular!

We woke up early for a road trip south to Yamdrok-tso Lake, the town of Nangartse, and the Kambala Glacier with our final destination being Lhasa.

First was the Kambala Glacier and while we did not go to the top (25,579 ft) – we admired the view and the snow.

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On to lunch in the town of Nangartse, home of the 8th Dalai Lama’s mother. The place we stopped to eat was a very real Tibetan restaurant but the experience was less than enjoyable. It felt very “touristy” but even though there were many of us moving through the restaurant, it wasn’t clean and the flies were horrendous! the food wasn’t good either. We were all happy to get back in the truck and head for the open road and a “fresher” toilet.  Next stop – the turquoise lake. Yamdrok-tso Lake is one of the four holy lakes of Tibet, and legend has it that if the lake ever disappears, it will mark the end of Tibet.

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It’s known for its incredible turquoise color and with the exception of high-ranking officers, boats, fishing, swimming, and the general public are not allowed on the lake. Following the death of a Dalai Lama, these same officials take a boat onto the lake and look at its reflection to discover who the next Dalai Lama is going to be.

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Don’t ask me how they do it – or if this is in fact true.  The story came from our babbling POS guide, Tsering.  He actually woke up today and began to talk and didn’t stop until we got to Lhasa.

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Yes…I’m on top of the world!

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Around 2 pm, we arrived in Lhasa, a bustling, thriving city and went immediately to my hotel where I was greeted by the hotel staff, one of whom placed a white silk scarf or kata around my neck. The kata demonstrates the good intentions of the person offering it and is a traditional symbol of welcome.

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The girls showed up at my room an hour later with stories of another bad hotel room.  We made a couple of calls to the local office of our tour company and within the hour “the man who fixes everything”, Tashi showed up in the lobby.  He took us to another hotel that was in the middle of Bharkor Street – home to the most sacred pilgrimage site in Lhasa and the best shopping!

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Bharkor Street is the most active market in all Tibet. It’s possible to purchase traditional Tibetan artifacts, religious implements, antiques, books, music, clothing, spices, fresh meat, vegetables and so much more!

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The largest incense burner I have ever seen resides in Bharkor Street.  Just for a moment I wondered what it would be like if it was filled with something other than incense – mellow out dude!

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Bharkor Street encircles the Jokhang Temple with small side streets branching out towards the main streets of Lhasa.  But the really interesting part of it is that everyone maintains the same clockwise direction as they walk around the temple.  It is not a two-way street.

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This is the kind of shopping where you must look each other in the eye and bargain with merchants for the best possible price using just a calculator and a smile to communicate. If you are skilled at this, you can get some great deals – though frankly the prices start pretty high so you’re sort of working just to get it down to a normal price before the real nitty gritty of the conversation starts.

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The streets of Lhasa are immaculate!

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O.K – we did some shopping.  But I believe that you should support the local economy and I’ll be back in time for Christmas so – guess what you’re all getting — Tibetan sneakers!

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After our conversation with “the boss” at the agency (about our POS tour guide, Tsering) to our great joy – Tashi became our guide for the next three days!  We LOVE Tashi!

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As long as we’re in the area, Tashi takes us to the Jokhang Temple. The temple is one of the holiest sites in Tibetan Buddhism because of the alloy statue of Sakyamuni, or Buddha. It is also another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The temple was built in 647, which given its well-preserved condition is almost unbelievable. This holy property is engulfed by worshippers. Outside, those unlucky souls who cannot gain access, prostrate themselves for hours on blanketed mats on the concrete.

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Somebody, not me, wrote this…but I thought that it expressed the scene very well.

We marvel aloud that this exact ritual has been taking place for hundreds of years, and now we are its witnesses. We are humbled to be here, struck once again by the piety of these impoverished people. We, like many visitors before us, are in utter awe of this magical land called Tibet.

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These worshippers are desperate to get through the gated entry into the complex. Security guards, and even the monks are surprisingly physical towards them, pushing them back, trying to maintain some semblance of order.  But they que up and wait, sometimes for hours, to get inside for the chance to be close to their gods and to make offerings to them.

Remember what I told you about the yak butter offerings? You can see that one young man in the white striped shirt is carrying a bag of butter and the women in front of him is carrying a thermos of melted butter.

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What’s it like on the inside of a working temple? Let me tell you…

We entered the temple and immediately, the rancid odor of yak butter candles assaulted our sense of smell – so you rush to breathe through your mouth as best you can. The dark passageways are lined with colorful artwork, illustrating the story of the Buddha and his teachings – making you feel like you should whisper. Rows of people 4 and 5 deep slowly circle past ancient relics; many of them are chanting.   As we follow Tashi through the crowded dimly lit halls, we’re being pushed and shoved by fellow visitors.  It’s not something you can be resentful of though – because they’re there for a better reason that we are – to honor their gods.  We’re just gawking tourists.

After glimpsing and touching the sacred Buddha, we thankfully head upstairs and finally out into the open air of the blissfully uncrowded roof.

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Temple Legend and how Lhasa got its name

The Jokhang Temple was built on the former site of a lake. According to the legend, the lake site was chosen after many failed attempts to build a temple in the region. Prior to this, every time a temple was built, it would collapse. Confused by this phenomenon, Princess Bhrikuti turned to Wen Cheng for help.


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Being a learned woman, Wen Cheng told the Princess that the geography of Tibet was very much like a hag, with the lake at the heart. In order to build the temple, Wen Cheng advised they must demolish the hag by filling and leveling the lake using 1,000 sheep to carry soil from a mountain far away. When the temple was done, it was called Ra-Sa-Vphrul-Snang (‘ra’ meaning sheep and ‘sa’ meaning earth in Tibetan) to commemorate those sheep.

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Whether the legend is true or not, this temple brought Buddhism into Tibet and became an inseparable part of Tibetan history and culture. The city of Ra-Sa grew around the temple and over time, became known as Lhasa, a holy land.

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There is always a presence – quietly intimidating – watching everyone

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Our next stop was the Potala Palace, an incredibly beautiful place but no photos were allowed to be taken inside – only outside.  Breathtaking!

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The Potala is considered one of the great wonders of the world. It is held sacred by Tibetans as the former residence of successive Dalai Lamas and is one of Tibet’s most holy pilgrimage sites.  They hope that some day, the current Dalai Lama will return here.

One of many women who stopped to prostrate themselves on the sidewalk in front of the palace.

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Many, many steps up..feeling the altitude in a big way

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The Potala Palace is divided into two sections, the White Palace and the Red palace. It has more than one thousand rooms and is thirteen stories high. The White Palace was mainly used for government administration, whilst the Red Palace was mainly used for religious functions and still has numerous chapels, including those containing reliquary stupas of the successive Dalai Lamas which are richly decorated in gold, silver and semi-precious stones.

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In every country/city, I have a “favorite” time or event that I will always look back at fondly and smile or laugh or cringe.  Tonight’s  event was my favorite in Lhasa.  We went back to the Potala Palace – more specifically, the square across the street as the sun was setting.  Not so long ago, this square was a rice field, but today it’s a place for people to stroll and for music and water fountain shows!  Every night at dusk, the square lights up and the water fountains squirt – all in sync to the lovely sounds of classical music – both western and eastern.  We had so much fun!

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The Potala Palace is a photographers dream at night! And while I’m not much of a photographer, even I couldn’t make this place look bad.

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I think that I’ll blow this one up when I get home.  It’s so beautiful.

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The water show began around dusk

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And people gathered from all over the city to watch the children and adults play in the shooting streams of water.

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This little boy and his sister just kept running in and out of the fountains – sometimes getting caught in a squirt – sometimes safely navigating through the surprising jets!

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I think we must have looked strange to her

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I was the first to make a run for the center and the first time I did it by myself.  I couldn’t talk the girls into coming with me.

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And while it took all my powers of persuasion, I did finally convince Tessa and Leideke to join me.

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Basil was happy to stay dry and take pictures…

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The next day, we set off for the Sera Monastery…a very unusual experience.  It was named Sera ( wild rose in the Tibetan language) because the hill behind it was covered with wild roses in bloom when the monastery was built.

And while the monastery itself was very nice, it was the activity in the back courtyard that captured our attention.

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Debating monks. You’ve never seen anything like this!  For these Buddhist monks and monks-in-training, part of their studies includes participation in debates.  This furthers their comprehension of Buddhism and allows them to proceed to more advanced levels of study.  The debates are conducted by the lamas in the monastery every day beginning at 3 am.  In the battle of words, they supplement their efforts by using a variety of gestures including clapping their hands, pushing their partners for an answer, or plucking their prayer beads to win the virtue of the Buddha.

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Frankly, it looks to me, more like an exercise in patience for the elder monks.  But the whole idea is to make your point and try to convince your audience to buy into that point – as loudly as possible!  It was a crack up to watch!

And now we are off to visit the former summer palace of the 14th Dalai Lama. Norbulingka means “the jeweled garden” and it’s a historic estate just a short distance away from the center of town covering an area of about 89 acres.

Note the Budweiser tent to the right 🙂

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The estate is covered in trees, which we have not seen for what seems like a thousand miles. Tall pines and cypress pleasantly shade the cobblestone walkways leading to the three main palaces on the property.

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Because of its relics and artwork and historical significance (this is the home the Dalai Lama fled from in 1959)UNESCO has named this part of the Potala Palace World Heritage Site. We visited because it is a holy shrine, the last place the Dalai Lama lived in his homeland. Walking through his villa/temple, there are many of his personal effects and gifts from other world leaders. It is clear his presence still lingers. As I walked through the palace, it was impossible not to wonder if this Dalai Lama would ever be permitted to come back to his beloved homeland and his people.

I’ve learned that currently in Tibet, it is illegal to possess a photograph of the Dalai Lama. If you’re caught, there are severe penalties. It is also illegal to display the lovely Tibetan flag.  I also learned that if you’re caught with marijuana – they will cut off your hand!  Now that’s a reason not to let anyone touch your luggage!


Just as an aside…for those of you who have been sending me messages via Facebook – I’m not able to respond.  The Chinese Government read some things on Facebook they didn’t like and shut it down throughout the country.  I haven’t been able to access Facebook now for about 5 days and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change while I’m in China – another full month. Can we all say together – Chinese = PITA.

We’ve really had a wonderful stay in Lhasa.  There is a restaurant called Dunya’s, owned by an international couple (an American woman married to a Dutchman) that we’ve eaten at two nights in a row. At this clean colorful, welcoming place they serve delicious Tibetan, Nepali, Indian and American food and also serve fantastic beer and a California Chardonnay. This was where I had my very first yak steak and the very best french fries ever – they use REAL grease! And it goes without saying that I enjoyed the wine 🙂

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We’ve found that Lhasa is really two distinct cities, the older somewhat crumbling Tibetan section and the bright shiny Chinese area that Tashi dubs Lhasavegas. Cars and minibusses whiz by and motor scooters add to the frenzy.  But no matter the section we were in – we had a great time.

We leave Tibet tomorrow morning – catching a flight back to Kathmandu and while there is much that I would like to say about what I’ve seen and what I’ve learned about the the relationship between the Tibetan people and their Chinese government, the fact that I will be traveling through China for another month precludes me from writing anything negative.  I have been warned that what I write stands a very good chance of being monitored by the forces of evil, so I shall refrain from further editorializing about the Chinese.

I will instead end my Tibetan blog by saying that I wish these people well for they are kind souls who simply want the freedom to pursue their traditions and religious beliefs in peace.


















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