The city in the sky

Trip Start Apr 27, 2010
Trip End Apr 13, 2011

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Flag of China  , Tibet,
Monday, September 27, 2010

On our way to Chengdu airport, our Chinese tour leader gave us a stern lecture about Tibet. 'Tibet is part of China, it has ALWAYS been part of China. Tibet was a slave society, and the Dalai Lama is a rapist. Do not believe what you read in the western media'. Unfortunately, most of China’s brainwashed masses seem to believe this propagandist drivel.

Tibet was an independent country until the Chinese invaded in 1950, it was a feudal state run by a religious elite, and isolated from the world. China invaded and burned down monasteries, killed over 1.2 million Tibetans and did as much as possible to destroy the local culture and architecture. It is currently shipping in thousands of Chinese with promises of cash and housing in order to turn the Tibetans into a minority in their own country. We were warned not to discuss the political situation in Tibet at all, especially with our local Tibetan guide. There are apparently spies listening in!

We left the charmless and humid Chengdu behind as we flew to Lhasa, the former capital of Tibet. Upon landing, it was as if we were in another country (now why would that be?). Blue skies and clear air for the first time this trip, mountains and surprisingly green landscape. On our drive into Lhasa we passed the monumental Potala palace, former seat of the Dalai Lama which is built on a small mountain and towers over the whole city.

We had 4 days in Lhasa to acclimatise to the altitude (3595m). Apart from a slight headache, insomnia and breathlessness at the start, I managed to escape unscathed.

Lhasa is an amazing place. Situated in a green valley surrounded by towering mountains, it is still a sacred site for Buddhists,  with the 7th century Jokhang temple (the holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism)   a magnet for pilgrims for all over Tibet. We didn’t have much in the way of planned activities, so I spent most of my time wandering around taking photos.

The old part of Lhasa, mostly rebuilt since the invasion, comprises narrow winding streets of whitewashed buildings lined with market stalls. These sell Buddhist paraphernalia, fruit, fly infested cuts of meat, and spices, and are staffed by black haired, ruddy faced women in layers of shawls.  People here are very friendly, smiling and waving, exchanging the greeting of ‘tashi delek’ which is ‘hello’ in Tibetan and about all I can say in that language.

 The streets around Jokhang Temple are thronged with worshippers who walk clockwise around the temple spinning small prayer wheels – golden cylinders on sticks that have prayers inscribed inside of them. I haven’t seen such a diverse array of exotic characters since the bar scene in Star Wars. Monks in orange and red robes wearing fluorescent hats, toothless sultana-faced old ladies – some of them bent double -  taking their last few steps in this life, bouffant haired young locals, a friendly man that looked like a cross between the yeti and Ghengis Khan, tall thin faced men with red silk woven into their hair, Tibetans from far and wide in all manner of traditional dress, and spitting Chinese with sun hats and face masks.

In front of the temple, worshipers prostrate themselves, repeatedly standing up then lying face down on the ground. Some do this at every step they take around the temple. The more devout ones walk to the temple for up to hundreds of miles doing this every step they take. There are furnaces all around the temple where the pilgrims throw in juniper twigs, which give off a sweet, smoky smell which adds to the otherworldly and mystical atmosphere of the place.

Continuing the Star Wars analogy, there are also squadrons of stern faced Chinese stormtroopers stationed on almost every corner. They march across the main square with alarming regularity. These soldiers all look about 16, and have oversized uniforms and oversized guns. They are stationed on rooftops, looking out for unlawful gatherings (Tibetans aren’t allowed to gather in groups of more than 4 people).  Tourists are not allowed to photograph them. Once, one of them got into one of my photos and immediately ran over, demanding to see my camera and making me delete the offending picture.

Outside of the old town,  Lhasa is another humdrum Chinese town, with well paved streets and wide roads full of traffic and rickshaws, lots of expensive looking clothes shops, functional 5 or 6 storey blocks of flats and the odd factory or two. It is clean and safe though, the Chinese seem to have dealt with the packs of rampaging fierce dogs that I was warned about. Opposite the Potala Palace, there is a hideous communist style monument in ‘liberation square’ where a Chinese flag flies, guarded by a poor soldier who must stand guard in the heat all day.

Yes, Tibet is hot. Not humid like China, but the daytime sun in the cloudless sky is intense. It looks like the hundred pounds I spent on thermal underwear wasn’t such a wise investment.

We got to go inside a few of the temples -  Jokhang, Ramoche, and Sera monastaries and the Potala palace. I had never been inside of a Buddhist temple before, but they are not what I expected.  They are dark, windowless places, with the smell of juniper and burning yak butter candles hanging in the air. Multicoloured fabrics hang from the ceiling like the ties in tie-rack, and around the main temple there are small chapels filled with gold painted statues of a bewildering array of Buddhas and lamas. Most are peaceful faced and sitting cross legged, their hand gestures indicating which particular Buddha they are. Some look like demons.

Lhasa is easily my favourite place on this trip so far and has all of the things I love when I travel – nice scenery, friendly, exotic and photogenic locals, interesting history and buildings, and it even has good food. The next part of the trip involves stopping over at small towns where we visit monasteries and lakes on the way to Everest Base Camp.
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