Lhasa, on the roof of the world

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Before getting to Lhasa we pass through Shigatse and Gyantse, so let me tell you about those places first.

Shigastse is the second city of Tibet and has big wide roads and modern buildings which give it a very Chinese character. However if you look no more than a few streets behind the facade, it all changes to a more tibetan character - stone built whitewashed houses with thick black painted area around the window. I find it reminiscent of the style of some 18th Century Scottish houses which have granite or sandstone lintels painted black. The main difference is that the sides of the Tibetan houses lean in about 5-10 degrees to make them earthquake proof, and to reflect this the external black painted part of the windows is also narrows from bottom to top. The tibetan houses also have a flourish of complex woodwork at the top of the window often painted brightly in blue, yellow, orange and red.

In the afternoon we visit Tashilhunpo Monastery, home of the Panchen Lama, and built in 1447. Panchen lama is traditionally number 2 in Tibet after the Dalai Lama.

Tashilhunpo is a very impressive and old monastery with many individual temples and lots of monks. We see the monks making candles out of yak butter mixed with a filler. It seems like a fairly relaxing job as the monks chat together, comment on the gawking tourists, and occasionally throw wax at each other.

Nowadays the number of monks is very tightly controlled by the Chinese, and they are all forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the Chinese state. We are advised by some Americans studying in Tibet not to mention the words Dalai Lama (DL) to any Tibetan as they can easily get into trouble and get thrown into prison. Nonetheless in some of the monasteries the monks make a silent protest by leaving a space for a picture of the DL on the alter next to photos of other Buddhist leaders.

From Shigatse its a short drive down to Gyantse, another important Tibetan town. Gyantse has a very British connection because in 1904 the British advanced into Tibet in an attempt to open up trade, and in the process stormed the fort there. The fort has been largely restored, and commands a breathtaking position on top of a steep hill. It takes about 20 min to walk up to the top where there are great views of the rape-seed yellow and brown countryside and the mountains beyond. Halfway up, theres the unmissable 'anti-british' museum describing the events at the turn of the last century; a fine example of chinese propaganda and bad spelling.

Making our way down from the fort, we head to Palkor Chode monastery. Within its walls are some amazing temples but none more so that the Palkor Chode Kunbum, which is built in the style of a pagoda, on 7 levels, each level narrower than the one before. On each floor there are little doorways that lead to chapels that contain different gods and images of Buddha. Each room is decorated with statues and artwork, and the walls are painted in detail with buddhist teachings. The temple was originally constucted in the 13th Century, so feels very authentic. Some of the rooms are so dark that you need to use a torch to see the paintings on the walls.

In the afternoon we head towards scorpion lake, but stop at the foot of an enormous snow capped mountain to camp for the night. Its another great spot with a 7500m peak as a backdrop, yaks grazing in the fields and buzzards soaring overhead. Rachel is cooking for 17 that night and serves up a great meal of Indian Lentils, Spinach, and Rice. Due to her responsibilities she doesnt have the fun of lighting the camp fire at 4500m which despite dry tinder and matches is really difficult. I find that if the wind doesnt blow the fire doesnt get enough oxygen and wont start, but on the other hand, if the wind does blow the first weak flames get blown out. How to light a fire? Eventually a helpful old Tibetan lady comes to our rescue by sending her grandson down to their hut to bring back some burning yak dung. Soon we add our own wood and we have a roaring fire in place for the evening.

Next day we drive over more high mountain passes en route to Lhasa. We see black yaks grazing on the high green meadows. They remind me of black galloway cattle with their thick black woolly coats. Some of the farmers cross the male yak with regular cattle breeds to produce a faster growing hybrid; however it is infertile due to the species gap between cattle and yaks.

We pass many people with roadside stalls selling handicrafts and minerals from the mountains. Someone on the bus buys several pieces of what I think is amethyst and gives one to Rachel. Some of the rocks being sold are clearly fakes.

Eventually we get to the outskirts of Lhasa and it is a bit of a disapointment as its seems like a sprawling suburb from a regular Western city. Our mood changes as we continue on the main thoroughfare and the road passes the Potala palace, a beautiful Tibetan building dating from the 14th Century. We learn that it contains over a 1000 rooms and at the turn of the last century it was the tallest building in the world with 13 storeys.

The palace is built on a hill and can be seen from many points in the town. I like it because of the enormous scale, the striking facade of angled walls, it many staircases, and the hundreds of windows.

After arriving in Lhasa at 3600m we feel too knackered to explore so fall asleep for a bit in the hotel. Later that evening we venture out to Dunya - a restaurant recommended for people weary of Tibetan food. Its even more of a dissapointment than any Tibetan restaurant, as Rachel's roast chicken turns out to be deep fried, the pastry on the apple pie is like cardboard, and the prices are vastly over inflated for rich westerners. We learn our lesson and agree to go for local food from there on.

Next day we explore the holiest place in Tibet - The Jokhang Temple in the middle of town. We wander along backstreets to get there; theres a real bustle of commerce as we pass through the streets of the old town. The buildings are typical black and white and Tibetans wearing traditional dress mingle with Westerners and Asian tourists. All the streets seem eventually to lead to the Barkhor Market which surrounds the Jokhang temple. We join the clockwise throng of people circumambulating the Barkhor where it seems impossible to attempt it anti-clockwise.

Eventuallly we reach a large square at the front of the 7th century Jokhang. There are many pilgrims arriving all the time and prostrating themselves at the front door. They use matts on the floor and gloves on their hands to minimise the effect of multiple prostrations. We enter the temple with them and enjoy walking round seeing the prayer wheels and smelling the yak butter lamps. Up on the rooftop we find an open door and wander through to a part of the temple that doesnt seem to be open. From this vantage point we can look down into the heart of the temple and watch the pilgrims below and looking up we see the skyline of Lhasa with the Potala Palace in the distance.

In the afternoon we try to get into the Potala but find all the tickets are sold out. We later find out that its extremely difficult to get tickets due to the red tape, but fortunately our Chinese guide agrees to help us out.

Our tickets are for the day after next, so on the next day we decide to head out of town 10km in a taxi to the Drepung Monastery. Lhasa is full of 1980's VW Santanas that are used as Taxis. I find it stange as the car was a complete disaster in Europe, obviously this is where they all ended up. The Taxi costs Y20 or about GBP 1.50

The enormous complex of buildings forming Drepung is the largest Monastery in Tibet and was built about 1400. It was largely destroyed during the cultural revolution (by the Chinese, of course you'll know that), but has now been extensively restored. There are so many spectacular rooms that I start to develop ATS (Acute Temple Sickness). It feels like the computer game of Doom moving up and down staircases, through rooms and hallways. The only difference is I dont have aliens chasing me and I lack an AK47 machine gun to blow them away.

Eventually we get to the highest point in the Monastery and hear the sound of women singing. We see 10 or so on top of a roof of a restored building completing the final step in the buildings construction: compacting the cement roof. This involves a song and dance routine where the ladies step in time whilst banging a stick with a flat plate on the end into the drying cement. We stand transfixed by the sound and movement; it certainly emphasises the difference between Tibetan and Western construction methods.

In the afternoon we try to find some good Tibetan food. We have both decided that we dont like yak meat at all because of its pungent and somewhat rancid flavour. To me its especially disgusting in stews, where it goes all stringly, and is invariably accompanied by large lumps of grissle and fat. Next to our hotel we have 4 butchers specialising in yak which also puts us off. The Yak carcases are delivered at nightfall and are hacked up by a guy with an axe on the pavement. The meat is arranged in big joints on tables and hung from the ceiling of the shops, unrefrigerated of course, and always seems to be covered in flies. Fortunately our hotel is not downwind.

We find a restaurant that is recommended in out guide book, Tashi 1. We wander in and find some folks already in there and ask if its any good. They recommend the Bobi - this turns out to be a good recommendation and is a Tibetan flat bread which is spread with a kind of garlic sauce, on which you heap on vegetables and chicken, fold it up like a wrap, and eat. Afterwards we try the local cheese cake and its also delicious.

As for Tibetan drinks there are lots to choose from. Amongst the highlights are lemon, ginger and honey tea which is a real pick-me-up. There's also sweet spicy milk tea which is like Chai Masala from India - its made with hot milk, regular tea, and some spices like cinnamon - its especially good in the morning as its quite filling. On the downside theres Yak butter tea which is made with sea salt, hot water, and a dollop of yak butter. To me it tastes like a mouthfull of rancid sea water, but apparently it does grow on you, and Rachel has ordered it at least once.

Eventually we get to use our tickets into the Potala Palace. We make our way up the long winding path up the side of the Palace. It feels a bit like the approach to Edinburgh Castle with its steep inpenetrable walls and craggy outcrops.

The 14th Dalai Lama used to live here before fleeing to India in 1959. The most interesting part of the tour is seeing his private quarters including the room where he eventually took the decision to flee the Chinese (see our Diary entry for Dharamsala, India). We follow the tourist path around some other spectacular rooms which include the memorials to previous Dalai Lamas. The tour only covers a very small proportion of the building which is somewhat disappointing, and you have to follow a predetermined 'path'. There is a real sense of grandeur about the place which is marred by the large tourgroups that either block your way or threaten to catch up with you as you make your way around. We complete the tourist route in about 1.5hrs and agree that whilst worthwhile as an overall experience, the entry ticket price of Y100 is a bit steep.

Tomorrow we're heading out of Lhasa to begin the long journey across the Tibetan plateau...
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