Kora-rama...pilgrims, potala and prostrations...

Trip Start Sep 25, 2003
Trip End Apr 23, 2005

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Sunday, October 17, 2004

Factoid: "Notice for Foreign visitors- this is a holy place- please keep quiet" notice in Drepung monastery, as monk yells into his mobile phone before returning to his chants and gong beating...a sign of the times?

Abstract: Arrived in Lhasa, Wandered around with mouths open, hoards of pilgrims, monks, nuns, locals, nomads all performing the Kora (a circambulation of a holy site) around the Johkang. The Potala is aweinspiring. Over next few days we were happy to rest, feed up, and wander around the old town. Visited the Potala, Johkang, Sera and Drepung monasteries. Booked onward trip to Nepal.

Nitty Gritty: After much grinding of teeth we managed to persuade our misrable driver to drop us in the hotel district rather than at some roundabout miles from anywhere, but not until we had had another display of gesticulating and churlishness.... Needless to say he didn't get a tip.We booked into a brand new youth hostel which was to be our home for the next few days, sharing a room with Lucy who was by now a firm friend. The afternoon was spent exploring the Bharkor or old city in the centre of which is the Jokhang Monastery, one of the most holy in Tibet. Thousands of pilgrims were walking the kora around it and it was impossible to move in any direction except clockwise. The kora route was lined with stalls selling jewellery, monastic supplies, clothing, souvenirs of all sorts to tempt pilgrims but the best of all was a vendor who produced two watches from his inside pocket. They were of Chairman Mao the seconds counted by his arm waving back and forth (KITCH-A_RAMA!! - one mustn't forget he ranks in the top three mass murderers of course, it is difficult to imagine hitler watches going down so well ...?).

We all rejoiced in the heady pleasure of a warm shower!! Until that is G concussed himself when the metal shower head fell out and brained him, as if the constant altitude headache wasn't bad enough...

The first view of the Potala Palace is indescribable (it's funny how quickly you take it for granted though) and we set off to try and climb the hill which supposedly gives the best views of it, only to find that the good old Chinese have stopped you climbing it and instead you must settle for a hillock, the views from which are pretty good. Before discovering this, after wandering around for hours, we asked a monk, well pointed to the hill, and made walking movements with our fingers, he nodded vigourously and kindly sold us tickets. Of course his tickets weren't for the hill at all but for another one of those 1000 images of buddha shrines that we'd been to in every Buddhist country.

G had a funky haircut in the backstreets of the old city by a barber with a pinstriped suit and funky hightlighted hair, and we marveled at the pilgrims swirling hand held prayer wheels some, covered with crochets covers as if to keep them warm. We did a great deal of people watching (and people of us too, especially cute were some young kids playing snap, one with a cowboy hat on and one wearing a crash helmet.

The following day was bright and clear with not a cloud in the blue sky so after retaking the photos of yesterday we visited the Potala Place - they took a note of your passport number before they'd let you in - nodoubt in case you unfirl a "Free Tibet' banner from the roof, b ut sadly anyone who thinks Tibet will ever gain independence from China is living in cloud cookoo land.

The yank we met who said there was nothing to see inside deserves to be shot as it was a wonderful place, made more wonderful by the huge number of pilgrims from all parts of Tibet who were milling around the chambers. Of note (the yank must have been wearing a blindfold) were huge carved metal doorhandles in ornate patterns, intricate murals, a 7th Century statue inlaid with jewels and the oldest in the palace, huge golden tombs of the Dalai Lamas (goodness knows how they kept them hidden during the Cultural Revolution) that reached to the ceiling and were of beaten gold with jewels and turquoise and coral, of which one was 3000kg of gold, the Dalai Lamas penthouse appartment on the roof offering fine views of Lhasa and the surrounding snowy peaks and sadly the square infront of the palace complete with communist statue and produced by flattening Tibetan homes, rooms of exquisite scriptures in boxes covered with fine embroidered cloth, carved woodern doorways painted in bright colours, and the hum of pilgrims wondering at the holy place.But there was nothing to see........

We managed to sneak into the Jhokang near to closing time and before we were chased out we witnessed the monks chanting in the dimly lit main cathederal with was an awesome sight and sound.

Lhasa has some great food and we are busily eating our way through it and fattening us for our onward journey to Nepal. Spicey potatoes are a particularly cheap and tasty breakfast - necessary sustinence for our first visit to the Napali embassy where our application was thwarted by a lack of application forms - a first for us! The wait to discover this was humoured by two little Nepalese kids who were making piggy faces at us through the glass by squashing their noses against the glass - very sweet..

Continuing the scoffing theme, we discovered a lady selling amazing chips and homemade crisps covered in crushed chillis which were divine and a chinese with incredibly friendly owners who filled our stomachs each evening with wonderful food.

We have met some great fellow travellers since we have been in Lhasa, which has made a pleasant change from the arses we have met on the rest of our trip (Clive, Avan & Heather et al excepted!!!!. These have included an dutch couple one of which had cycled from Holland to Lhasa and the other from Tashkent in Uzbekistan and Claudia, and Austrian retruning home after 4 years on the road. Lhasa is a great place to hang out and we have been doing plenty of that.

Sera Monastery just outside Lhasa gave us the opportunity to witness monks debating in a huge couryard which had to be heard to be appreciated - lots of hubub, clapping hands and jesticulating - quite a thing to experience - would have loved to know what they were debating - whatever it was was quite heated. The monastery complex was huge and more like a walled town and with all the tourists long gone, we happily explored its sacred buildings including a huge assembly hall decorated in rich red cloth and the streaming light through the windows made it vary atmospheric.

Despite our free peak at the Jokang we decided to get a better look, we were astounded to descover our entry included a free CD-Rom????!!! a bit at odds with the ancient, timeless feel of the place. Having already been inside we went straight up to the roof , where the views of the city, the potala and the faithful doing the kora are mesmerising, we watched a gardening monk and said hi, and he took us through some (locked) doors into a set of rooms and small chapels where the Dali Lhama used to stay, we felt very privilaged to see the exquisitely decorated fabrics, and paintwork. Upstairs one poor monk was lugging a budda statue half his size and sweating whilst his mates grinned at us.The inside was absolutely fabulous, each monk's gown was arranged to appear as if it was praying but unfortunately no photos (fair enough). Graham nearly burst with photoopurtunityitis when we watched two young monks tending the enormous yak butter candles, contained in decorative brass bowls with the light of the candles illuminating their faces, behind the rich magenta, reds and browns of the fabrics and gold icons were being picked out by light streeming from tiny windows in the roof, hazy with the incense and yak butter smoke. The inner kora however did afford good photo opportunities and the prayer wheel spinning faithful and prostrators and curious kids kept G occupied for some time. Wonderful!!

It would appear that you can buy anything in China, including Pierre Cardin toothpaste and face cream promising 'enhancing skin gloss and personal charm', as well as plenty of North Fake clothing .....We are struggling to keep our faces from drying to a crisp as the air is very thin and the altitude seems to dry everything out. Even though we have aclimatised, even the slightest exertion causes us to puff and pant - much worse for those who have flown in...

On a trip to the postoffice, a monk and a nun asked whether we would address their letter in english to a clleaugue in Daramasala in India where the Dalai Lama resides, they returned the favour by addressing our letters to people we'd met, in chinese characters.

We managed to get up early the next day as Lucy was off at 6.30am on a trip to Nam-tso lake 4 hours north of Lhasa, so decided to go out to Drepung monestry, once, with 10,000 monks the largest monestry in the world. Before Mao got involved that is... we took the minibus about 10km out of town and then had to hop onto a three wheeled tractor contraption to take us up the hill with pilgrims packed in like sardines, as usual G ended up hanging off the back, the driver came round and gesticulated I should hold on tight, I had in fact worked that out for myself as a self-preservational instinct, but it was nice of him to mention it.

Drepung was amazing and enormous, 4 hours later the chapels, assembly halls and colleges were begining to look the same to our untrained but amazed eyes, made watery with the fumes of the thousands of yak butter lamps, inscense and musky nomad pilgrims. The whole experience of a visit to one of these monestries is overwhelming. Less reverant highlights included the monk on the phone from the abstract, a cave where a budda image had appeared without the help of human hand (quite common in Tibet apparantly) where a monk was happily beating the faithful on the back with an iron bar to demonstrate there devotion, I avoided his gaze when he offered me a beating... We especially like the neatly stacked scrolls wrapped in beautifully embroidered fabric, here (and its a shame they don't do this in UK university libraries) there is a small space underneath where the faithful can crawl beneath and apparently absorb the knowledge contained within without reading it, I tried but don't seem to have learn't very much, perhaps I was worrying about bumping my head too much after the shower incident.

We are spending the next day or two preparing for our trip to the border, and buying up supplies for the Everest trip (a 5 day trek to base camp complete with yaks to carry uour packs and us too if the going gets tough) and Shishapagma base camp too..before making our way to Kathmandu and the promise of more spectacular mountains...
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