Leaving Lhasa

16 Oct 2007, by Brian in Culture, Locale, People, Savor

Kim did a wonderful job describing Lhasa but I also wanted to post my thoughts before commenting on the drive through the mountains… this post is going to be kind of long so don’t forget to click on Continue to read more after the jump.

We knew the altitude in Tibet was something to prepare for, so we started taking Diamox (Acetazolamide) on the way up during the two day train ride. Even still, getting off the oxygenated train at 12,000+ feet can knock you down, literally. Kim had to rest just to get to the bus, and the next day I had a wicked headache and had a hard time getting up the stairs to our room. The air in Lhasa seems to be much cleaner than in Beijing, but we saw many more people (mostly women) wearing masks over their nose & mouth. We later discovered that this was due to dust and not pollution… they even have lots of stylish colors and designs with flowers embroidered on them. While the air is much cleaner, it is thick with the smell of incense and yak butter everywhere, not just in the monasteries.

Our first day took us to Johkang Temple which is a pilgrimage site for every Tibetan. As we were walking through there thousands of people were waiting in line for hours just to walk through every chapel and make their prayers and take their little bit of yak butter to add to the candles. You can hear the music and jumble of people in the last audio post. Photos of the inside of many of these temples and monasteries are absent because they are either not allowed or you are charged a fee per room to take photos… and we were told by our guides that the money goes to the Chinese government and not the temple itself.

Next we moved on to Drepung Monastery where we heard the monks debating. At first we could not see them, and were even told it wasn’t possible to watch, but later we were able to enter the garden to see them (I think this was after the official debating was over, we had to wait until the next day to see the official debating at Sera).

The following day Kim wasn’t feeling great and took it easy during the morning, but she was an absolute trooper in the afternoon making our way through Sera Monastery and Potala Palace. As you walk through all of these places the floors are tacky with melted yak butter and the smell is very strong. You can see several photos of the monks debating at Sera, but I was also able to get a little video:

Potala Palace is almost indescribable. We kept taking pictures even though I’m sure they’ll all look the same… it’s just massive and beautiful. You can’t help but feel like just one more photo will be enough to capture the essence of it, but it’s not. There are golden three dimensional mandalas inside that we never saw anywhere else. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside at all. There are three types of mandalas, the three dimensional representations, paintings, and sand mandalas which we’ve been told we may see in the coming days.

The following day there were no planned activities so we planned to go back to the Barkhor market around Johkang and maybe Johkang again too. Kim was able to muster enough energy to bargain at the market with me for a few hours but she did need a break back at the room to rest. While she rested I took a walk back around Potala to see behind it where there was this very quiet park. While walking around this little boy came up to me to stare at my tattoo… then he started just following me and was looking at my camera as I took photos. He said “Hello” and I said “Tashi Delek” and he laughed… he kept following me so I asked if he wanted to take a photo and he laughed again… he snapped a photo of his dad (his parents were walking around spinning prayer wheels) and then his sister took a picture of us before they walked off in a different direction. Here I also got some video of prayer wheels spinning:

The next morning we got into several Land Cruisers and took off through the mountains for Gyantse. The drive was spectacular and we had a couple detours to sight seeing points high up at over 16,000 feet. Again, it’s hard to feel like the photos really capture what you see. The road was paved most of the way, but we had to take some dirt roads for over 2 hours that sometimes detoured through rivers where the road had washed out. It was a bumpy, exciting ride, but we finally arrived in Gyantse in time for dinner and bed.

This morning we woke up for an early breakfast before visiting the monastery in Gyantse and then piling back into the Land Cruisers for a quick 2 hour drive to Shigatse where we are now. Shigatse is the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most holy Lama after the Dalai Lama and the highest Lama currently since the Dalai Lama is in exile… still the current Panchen Lama resides in Beijing and was chosen by the Chinese government. This is the second largest city in Tibet after Lhasa and has another huge monastery that we visited today. Many of these monasteries appear the same with series of chapels and paintings and statues and stupas, but each one has its own significance and each has different valuable possessions that have survived the cultural revolution. Today we learned that many of these things were saved by hiding them in chapels behinds bags of barley so they would not be recognized. At the end of the tour today I was able to get a recording of some of the monks chanting.

It’s been an impressive couple of days and finally here in Shigatse I have found an internet cafe that is fast enough to upload a bunch of our photos… unfortunately a couple of the videos I wanted to upload (Kim riding down the chute at the Great Wall, and me crossing the street in Beijing… quite an experience) don’t seem to be working and I don’t want to waste more time troubleshooting it… it’s also getting late and I don’t have time to insert photos into these posts, maybe later, but I did get a bunch of new photos up in the Tibet album:

Kim is feeling much better now, she even went on a hike tonight. We are having a great time and will be at Mt. Everest in a few days!

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