Lhasa Lhasa Lhasa

Trip Start Sep 18, 2004
Trip End Jun 05, 2005

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Friday, November 26, 2004

Written by Nelly

Wow, Lhasa is nice
We have been in Lhasa for a couple of days now. After being in the dusty Chinese cities, Lhasa is a refreshing change. Not only is it surrounded by beautiful mountains, the air is fresher (thinner too...we get winded just climbing two flights of stairs), the tourist attractions such as Jonkhang monastery and Potala palace are fabulous, there are Tibetan pilgrims everywhere in their colorful outfits, and plenty of good food around. We enjoy just sitting at a cafe drinking sweet tea (not yak butter tea) and watching people walk by.

Tibetan Buddhism is not what we think
So there are quite a few things we have found surprising about Tibetan Buddhism. To start off, the Tibetan monks are not vegetarian! I guess if you are a vegetarian in Tibet in the old times, you'd probably only have cabbage and yak butter tea to eat.
Also, we see so many Tibetan pilgrims in front of sacred places such as Jonkhang and Potala palace repeatly prostrating themselves all day long. Some of them will do the kora (pilgrimage circuits) around these holy sites, over and over again. Once they are inside of the temple, besides adding more oil to the yak butter lamps, or draping a white scarf over the buddhist statues, they will use their forehead to touch anything sacred. We saw someone start banging his forehead on the fire extinguisher cabinet next to the entrance of the Jonkhang temple, and soon everyone started following him. We've also seen pilgrims walking under a cabinet full of sacred scriptures, maybe in hope of gaining wisdom. Overall, we find Tibetan buddhism very ritualistic, and it's really fasinating to watch.

Jokhang Temple
We visited Jokhang Temple quite a few times since we've been to Lhasa. The temple is within walking distance to our hotel (which has a functional heater!) Jokhang Temple is one of the holiest temple in Tibet, it houses the statue of Jowo Sakyamuni, brought to Tibet by a Chinese princess in the Seventh century. The temple is filled with pilgrims, lined up to touch the lap of Sakyamuni with their foreheads. To ensure the pilgrims don't hold up the line, there's a monk on each side of Sakyamuni. The monk will grab one pilgrim, shove the pilgrim into the right or left side of the lap of Sakyamuni, and immediately pull the pilgrim back out, then move on to grab the next pilgrim in line.

Around 6:30 pm every night, we can get into Jonkhang for free and watch the monks chant. The monks don't seem to always be chanting the same thing, so we are always puzzled at how they coordinate the chanting. It also looks like if you donate enough money, you can go into the prayer hall and pray while the monk is chanting. You then will distribute money to every chanting monk in the hall.

You really don't want to see a dentist here
The pilgrims will circle around the outside of Jokhang Temple, this kora is called the Bakhor kora. The whole kora is a very interesting stroll, besides the Tibetan pilgrims, the kora passes the older town with Tibetan architecture, and the whole kora is lined with street vendors and shops selling anything from rabbit fur to gold teeth. Yes, gold teeth! We saw quite a few dentist signs with samples of gold teeth you can purchase, along with super glue right next to them! The dental office consists of a tiny store front with a chair and a table with some dental implements.

Hello Money Hello Money
Being devote buddhists, the Tibetans are very generous to the poor. There are a lot of beggers in Lhasa, especially by the temples and other holy sites. You see beggars of all ages, and some mothers beg with their kids and train their kids to grab onto potential benefactors' legs and beg. We walked past a mom that was begging to us, and she screamed at her young son to come over to help her beg. The only English the beggars speak to us are, "Hello Money Hello Money." or "Hello, give me Money, give me money. Hello Hello" I don't think they realize how rude that sounds.

Drepung Monastery
On Jesse's birthday, we visited Drepung Monastery. Drepung means rice heap in Tibetan, since the mostly white monastery complex looks like a heap of rice on a hill. At it's prime, it housed 10,000 monks.

To get to Drepung, we first took a bus that dropped us off at the bottom of the hill. From there, we got on a tractor that takes pilgrims and tourists up to the monastery. The tracter was a three-wheel vehicle with a pick-up bed behind the cab. We climbed up to sit in the back, and it was a bumpy ride. Luckily, the driver was not driving too fast.

Drepung Monastery was very big, and we didn't see many people there, not even monks. It was nice to be able to enjoy the monastery fully undisturbed by hordes of Chinese tourists.

The nice thing about Tibetan monasteries is that you can always get to the roof to get a panoramic view of the surrounding. We had a nice picnic with a beautiful view of the snowy mountains on top of the monastery.

Nechung Monastery
Nechung Monastery was a ten minute walk away from Drepung. It was where the Nechung Oracle lived, until he fled with the Dalai Lama in the 50s. The Dalai Lama apparently consults the oracle every Tibetan New Year. The oracle apparently whips himself senseless and then starts to predict the future. Needless to say, the oracle's monastery is on the creepy side. We walked in and the doors are blood red with torture scenes painted on them. The murals around the temples are full of skulls and other torture scenes. Inside, two monks are playing drums which makes the whole temple even more eerie. Sure enough, we both had nightmares that night after visiting Nechung.

Snowy Lhasa
Lhasa had its first snow of the season yesterday. It was wonderful waking up in the morning and see snow on the roof and trees. We walked down the streets and kids and adults alike are having a good time throwing snow balls at each other. We had to yield to quite a few snow balls coming our way!

Bump into an old friend in the Sweet Tea Shop
So there are quite a few of these sweet tea shop in Lhasa, the signs are in Tibetan and Chinese, and there is always a thick Tibetan curtain covering the door. We decided to try one of these shops. We walked into one by Jokhang Monastery, I was trying to figure out how it works with the cashier, and next thing I know, Jesse sat down at some table with some Tibetans. It turned out that our driver who took us to Lhasa happened to be there with his buddies! We had sort of become friends with him and we were thrilled to bump into him.

The sweet tea is just like sweetened milk tea, very very yummy. In these sweet tea establishments, you grab yourself a glass and sit down. You put couple yuan on the table, and the waiter / waitress will come and fill your cup and take some money (typically three jiao (0.3 yuan) a cup). As soon as your cup is empty, the wait staff will come and fill your cup and take another 3 jiao away from your table. The tea shop is filled with Tibetans playing cards, chatting and smoking. It was quite fun to be there.

After the tea shop, our hospitable driver invited us to his place. Since he works for the TTB, the Chinese government gave him a room (without bathroom) in the older building of a government compound. Regardless, his place is very clean and nicely decorated with photos of Panchen Lama and Buddha. There was really comfortable furniture covered with Tibetan rugs. His wife works in a rug factory and she makes these soft, beautiful rugs. We promised our driver to call him if we are back to Lhasa again.

Sera Monastery
Today is our last full day in Lhasa, we decided to go to Sera Monastery, about 5km north of Lhasa. We went into the first temple complex and met a really friendly monk there. He was studying English, so we helped him with some of his English exercises and started chatting with him. He had been in the monastery since he was eight or nine years old. He learned Tibetan from his uncle who is also a monk in Sera, and he learned both Chinese and English on his own!

We went back to look for our monk friend after we finished looking around Sera. He took us to the Monastery restaurant and we had sweet tea and momos (Tibetan dumpling)and chatted some more. We found out that he gets every Sunday off and he also gets two month off in the summer. He usually goes back to Lhasa to visit family on Sundays, sometimes his family will come and visit him. He said that there are about 1000 monks in Sera, but you wouldn't know it since everyone has a job and they are all busy doing their jobs. His job was taking care of the temple where we met him, some monks work in the monastery restaurant, some work in the hospital, and others do cleaning duties. He also told us most monks in Sera will wear regular clothes instead of their monk outfit when they go to Lhasa. The monks begging in Lhasa are not real monks and most of the real monks don't want to be mistaken as the fake monks. Since he was going to Lhasa to meet his friend tonight, we decided to go back together. It was such a shock for us to see him in a sweater and jeans, after seeing him in his monk robes all day!

What Next?
We leave for Zhongdian tomorrow, we are sad to leave Lhasa. From Zhongdian, we are planning on going back to Kunming to go to Bangkok. We are ready for some sun and beach after the cold weather! We still plan on going to Burma, but only after a nice break in Thailand, probably after the new year.
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