Trip Start Mar 19, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007


The main attraction on our first day in Lhasa was a visit to the Potala Palace, effectively the Dalai Lamas house. All tour groups are restricted to a 1hour visit to keep down congestion. But this hampered our visit a bit. It's a big place and we had to whiz around. Again I got the impression that there was a lot more to the story and some things were being left out. May be because we wouldn't understand or because we wouldn't respect it. Also I did learn that the Chinese have spies in each of these monasteries keeping tabs on the Tibetans and Buddhism.
The Chinese of course control Tibet and keep the Tibetans in line. Part of the Buddhist teachings is that you have do things like walk around places (like the Potala) in a clockwise direction. The Chinese make visitors go the other way, which is a kind of insult. I personally didn't know which way I was walking. It was a series of corridors and small anti rooms that soon have you lost. It's all what made it more interesting to me.
The place was first built in the 7th century and added to over the years. The main addition is the Re brickwork part, the Red palace (in the 15th century) it took years to complete and the then Dalai Lama died half way through construction (May be in a construction site accident - no hard hat). They kept this quiet from the locals until it was finished so no one lost interest in the building of it.
It escaped destruction in the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese whilst destroying everything else in a kind a drunken rampage with guns, actually sent troops to guard it. May be sensing even then that the tourist $ would more than pay for its up keep in later years.
At this point the Dalai Lama skipped town and is now living in exile in India. Hence a lot of the goings on at this palace and temples throughout Tibet has a certain degree of mystery. It’s my bet that the Dalai has visited these places several times incognito over the years under the noses of the authorities. 
The locals have much respect for this religion and the Tibetans have pilgrims that come from miles around all waving their prayer sticks - a kind truncheon with a cylinder full of prayers on top they twirl these things (all ways clock wise) in the air, releasing prayers upwards into the heavens quicker than can be said by mouth. It was raining and some had covered their sticks with plastics bag to keep the prayers dry. I thought that this may hamper the prayers being released but I didn’t mention this technicality. 

Another homage is the prostration of pilgrims. They prostrate themselves on the floor and touch their head on the holy ground. Some devouts can do this for many miles and it can take years to reach their destination. A simpler way is to walk a KORA. A clockwise circuit around a holy place. These also can be miles in circumference. The higher it goes or the longer it is can bring greater godliness. 
It was a holiday period the ever decreasing part of old Lhasa (Barkhor square) was filled to the brim with Pilgrims walking the Kora (some into the night) and prostrating outside the Joking temple.  
Patrick and I tried to take a short cut to get to a bar and found ourselves heading against the stream of these pilgrims all coming at us with their prayer sticks. Not wanting to commit a holy sin we had to turn around and go in the correct direction. It took us twice as long. Plus we were lost. 
The Johkang temple is Tibet’s holiest place. Its 1300 years old (and looks it inside) It was built to commemorate a wedding of a princess to a king and houses a statue of pure gold. It has a Labyrinth of corridors that hold infinite charm but I was lost before we even got in there. Turn around for a second in that area and you can be swamped by humanity. I had the guidebook and managed to sneak my way in once having found the entrance. I conducted a self-guided tour and ended up on the roof, from where you could get some great views, mountains to one side the Potala Palace to the other with prostrating pilgrims below. I managed to bump into Patrick and another from our group who had also become lost and eventually we found the whole group. 
We visited a nunnery, which was much the same as a monastery but somehow cleaner and tidier. The women that run the place looked exactly like the monks with the same robes and crew cut haircuts. The females on our group seemed to enjoy this place stopping to exchange girl talk with the nuns. 

We were invited in for a Yak butter tea and a demonstration on how it was made. Back in the day the used to smash up lumps of Yak butter in a cylinder by hand for 30 minutes. Nowadays a blender is used. The tea is how you might imagine it may taste, that is of salty butter and I have to say not to my liking. As I looked around for a plant pot to discreetly empty the contents of my cup, like on the Maxwell house commercial, I noticed something very familiar in the glass cabinet behind me. It was a box of Yorkshire tea. Busted! Whilst they gave us tourists the yak butter tea, after the doors are closed I bet those girls chowed down on a good old fashioned cup of Yorkshire Rosie lee.
The next morning we said goodbye to Patrick who flew back to Katmandu and then Holland. Our group was going its own separate ways but the remainder of us decided to visit Ganden Monastery a place a couple of hours out of Lhasa. It was founded by a lama called Tshongkapa a teaching lama. It was built in the 14th century and promised great scenery and views.

We managed to negotiate a deal to hire a land cruiser and off we went, The Monastery was partly destroyed during the cultural revolution (Chinese communists basically torched and destroyed anything that was religious and education or not to their liking).  Because of the ongoing state of repair there was a more laid back feel to it that Potala and we had free reign to more or less go where we liked. There weren’t as many tourists so we could take our time just wandering around.
Andre and I stumbled upon a little chamber with some monks chanting inside. They motioned to Andre to join them. I am not sure if they wanted him to join in the chant but he did all the same.  Andre was a big football fan and we had previously discussed getting Buddhist blessings for our respective Teams FC Groningen and Leeds United. Fc Groningen required a victory to reach the play offs and the chance to enter the champions league next year. Leeds needed a victory to survive in the division they were in.  We began our mantras and the monks seemed enjoy it. One even insisted on wearing my sunnies and back pack. He was pretending to be me and I was praying for Leeds like a Buddhist Monk. I also made a small offering but it wasn't enough and nor did the prayers work. Leeds lost, there was crowd trouble, a pitch invasion, they were relegated and within a week had gone into financial administration having a further 10 points deducted as a penalty. Hmmm.

before leaving the Monastery we did the Kora walk around the grounds passing sky burial sites and getting the promised views over the valley below.
Later that day we also said good bye to Caesar from Spain and is Swiss Girlfriend Stephanie who set off on a 3-day hike from the monastery into some villages. They were quite hard-core travellers and later are to traveller to Mongolia and do 10 days on horseback across Mongolia. Just the thought of it gave me backache. Their entire trip makes my little journey seem like an early morning stroll to the bakers next door for a croissant.
As it was out last night we went for a slap up meal at a Tibetan restaurant in Lhasa. You'd think they'd all be Tibetan in Lhasa but not so. The Chinese influence is very much domineering. The Barkhor square areas seems to be decreasing as more and more western shops such as jeans west and Nike are appearing. The Chinese think that they are improving things(and in time for the Olympics) but not so in my opinion. I can’t read all their huge neon signs anyway...they're all in Chinese.
The Meal at the restaurant was fantastic. The place had real ambience and looked ancient. The room was dimly lit by candle light. I later found out that was because there was a power cut but it added something. I had Palak paneer, a bright green soup with a swastika written on it in cream and I shared local Tibetan Naan bread baked in the oven with Mutton and chilli. Perfect for the cold weather (it had rained or snowed every day since we had been there). It also gave you a bit of a thirst. We tried some local barley beer, which was quite strong and ideal after the spicy food.
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