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China Part 7 - Tibet

Lhasa

sunny 30 °C

Lhasa

Arriving in Lhasa after spending the morning watching the countryside up on the Tibetan plateau out of our train window was very exciting for us, having finally arrived at the home of Tibetan Buddhism. And even with our expectations high, we loved this city - it's passion, food, spirituality, the colours and people - and would love to come back and spend more time exploring.

We had a fairly jam-packed program with our guide (foreigners are practically not allowed anywhere in Tibet without a guide) and started with the Dalai Lama's Summer Residence and surrounding gardens. We were fortunate to have our trip coincide with the Shorten (Yoghurt Drinking) Festival, and despite the somewhat mundane-sounding name and vast quantities of yoghurt to be had, is actually a vibrant celebration full of colour with Tibetans dressed in their traditional clothes as well as dancing and singing performances and Tibetan opera. Of course, the visiting Tibetans also made time to pay their respects and pray at the many sites around the city, including making the famous Barkhor Kora around the Jokhang Temple (a kora is a religious duty performed as prayer walk in a clockwise direction - to do so in an anti-clockwise direction would be a statement of anti-Buddhism - around a Tibetan site of religious significance, including mountains, temples, prayer wheels, etc., and is often completed at least 3 times).

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The Sera Monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, is a famous site, in particular given the opportunity to observe a unique practice of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) Sect of Tibetan Buddhism - the young monks testing each other's knowledge through vigorous philosophic debates. The debates take place each day in a charming pebbled courtyard full of shady trees interspersed with small groups of monks. The debates were often very lively and took the form of one monk throwing questions at one or two other monks in rapid bursts, while requiring fast responses in time with claps of their hands.

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Famous Potala Palace - obviously a long-anticipated destination on our trip here! However, there were several bureaucratic hoops to jump through on our way...our guide is required to make an appointment for us the day before, and once inside, we were only allowed 45 minutes to shoot through for our RMB200 each ticket. Practically no photos were permitted and security was also tight, with airport style checkpoints and a prohibition on liquids (or perhaps that was just to help the vendors inside the palace - it was quite a climb up to the top and around 30 degrees)..so we hid the large bottles of water we had just bought in some bushes outside the palace (and successfully retrieved them later)! Like the Summer Palace, Potala (or the Winter Palace) resmebles more of a museum than the home of Tibetan Buddhism. Most clearly felt, of course, is the absence of the Dalai Lama himself which has created an air of expectancy and hope for a time when a Dalai Lama (clearly it won't be the present one) supported by the Tibetans themselves might be allowed to return to Tibet. In addition, the monks inside the palace are also not permitted to wear their traditional robes and get around in what looks like white lab coats. Nevertheless, climbing the unmistakeable staircase to Potala was an incredible experience and our tour of the buildings gave us an important insight into life at the seat of power for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government. We were fortunate that it was not a busy day, which allowed us slightly more time to linger in some of the inner temples and fully appreciate the stupas (or tombs) of previous Dalai Lamas, numerous inner temples, worshipping halls, reception halls and incredible collections of artefacts (which may or may not be the originals). Given the extreme temperatures in both summer and winter, the construction of Potala also uses a double-layered brick wall with a 2 metre gap between the inner and outer walls which provides insulation something like a vacuum flask I guess.

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There are 3 sets of stairs leading up to the Dalai Lama's working and living quarters, out of which common people were only permitted to use the stairs on each side, with the middle stairs reserved exclusively for the Dalai Lama. Seeing the stairs roped off and guarded by a monk, brought home to both of us the reality of what is missing for everyone here in Tibet.
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Laundry anyone? If you can believe it, this is a hotel.
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I guess we just felt that our trip WOULD be the same if we didn't visit this cafe too, so gave it a miss...!!
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Central Lhasa and the old town is a lively place full of many stalls, people and shops - including many pilgrims walking around the kora spinning their prayer wheels. With so many people in a constant circumambulation of the central temple, there is a strong energy here which draws you into the flow like a strong current - most Tibetans will complete 3 koras every day. When returning to our hostel, it was also impossible for us to avoid joining the kora and certainly we did not want to (or weren't able to) walk the shorter route in an anti-clockwise direction. The famous Jokhang Temple in the centre of town was therefore the focal people for religious pilgrims, who were here for the Shorten Festival and provided a very interesting glimpse of the variety of dress and colours worn by the native Tibetan people. A very strict form of the kora performed by the most devout involves starting from standing position, dropping to your knees and sliding forward on your hands until you are lying prone on your stomach. After standing up and taking one step forward would repeat. It would take almost a whole day to perform 3 koras in this way and the people doing this would be wearing wooden blocks on their palms, as well as pads on their knees and stomachs. One of the most important things we took away from Lhasa was to experience the Tibetan people and religion in all their diversity and not simply as a suppressed people and religious branch of Buddhism.

However, to the latter, there is no doubt that the army presence in Lhasa is significant to say the least - including lookouts on the building tops, hidden cameras throughout the streets and constant armed patrols. Through threats of deportation and confiscation of pictures, the Chinese manage to keep most foreigners fearful of taking any photos that might expose the level and nature of the Chinese presence here. Certainly, if you are expected of being a journalist, you would be subjected to constant searches of your photos and computer equipment. Also, it is important to bear in mind that while we could be subjected to searches, deportation etc, that is nothing compared to the harrassment and possible prison terms that would be inflicted on a Tibetan person suspected of receiving information (regarding the Dalai Lama being the most inflammatory) from foreigners or passing on "state secrets". We had also heard a story of Chinese secret police posing as monks to entrap foreigners wanting to pass on memorabilia (photos of the Dalai Lama were also a big no-no) onto Tibetans.

Although Tibetan cuisine itself is not particularly exciting, we did have several great Nepalese curries and naan bread, which really whetted our appetite for our next stop in Nepal.

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What do you think...could we pass for Tibetans?
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Posted by HT 23.11.2009 19:45 Archived in China Tagged backpacking

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