Published: June 6th 2010May 17th 2010 "Tashi Delek!"
bustling Barkhor Street
old Tibetan women circumambulating the area
Our local guide, Jam, greeted us as he placed a traditional Tibetan white scarf (khata)
on our necks. After 53 hours of train travel, we were finally in Lhasa. Even at night, the city looked crisp and modern. Roads and buildings were neatly planned and structured. The city appeared to have a surfeit of marble supply because the roads and walkways were made from marble. Yes, marble roads.
Still acclimatizing to the altitude of the city (3,490 meters above sea level/MASL), we could only walk very slowly. Any step faster resulted in breathlessness. The cold weather and calmness of the morning eased the pain that
freak accident had caused me the night before [see Other (mis)Adventures below]
Everything was brightly lit. People spinning prayer wheels while reciting mantras as they circumambulate the nearby temple against a backdrop of mountain ranges and crystal clear blue skies -- it was like a scene from a postcard that had been given a breath of life. The rush of people still teemed with a sense of calmness. Life was like in slow motion.
Our guide had taught us 3 phrases that served us well during our stay in Tibet. He
said it was enough but I should have learned more:
- Thu-Je-Che ("thank you," pronounced tu-she-she)
- Tashi Delek (pronounced de-ley or de-leh)
- Ngü Ka-tsö re? ("how much is it?" pronounced ka-cho-re).
Our stay in Lhasa was highlighted by the trip to the Barkhor Bazaar/Square (market), Jokhang Temple, and Potala Palace. On the way to Jokhang Temple, we bumped into some of our train-mates, including the old Chinese lady who got sick while in the train and her family.
Barkhor Street and Square
Wherever I go, I make it a point to see the market and document houses, windows, and doors because I believe these reflect the culture and character of the place and its people. True enough, Barkhor painted a vivid imagery of Tibetan culture. This area is comprised of the narrow, maze-like circular streets surrounding Jokhang Temple and the plaza fronting it. Being the oldest street in Lhasa and the main path to the temple, hundreds of Buddhist pilgrims could be seen walking or crawling and prostrating around. Almost all buildings are 2- or 3-story white square structures with flat roofs, highlighted by intricately painted doors and windows and decorated by
colorful Tibetan door curtains and prayer flags shyly dancing with the breeze.
Both sides of the streets are lined with stalls and shops selling prayer wheels, torquoise and metal wares, Tibetan knives, musical instruments, ornaments and jewelry, prayer beads, fruits, tea, breads and pastries, tukpa
(soup with noodles), thankas and mandalas, fleece and traditional Tibetan clothes, shoes, ancient coins, singing bowls and other religious items, among others. Many Muslim Tibetans could also be seen outside the mosque at the periphery of Barkhor.
Many Chinese Policemen were stationed around the area. Jam warned us not to take pictures of the Chinese Policemen or Army. "What will happen if we take pictures of them?"
I asked. "They will get angry and you will get into trouble,"
Jam said in a foreboding tone. While walking across the square, Yla was approached by a group of policemen. They thought she took a picture of them. Fortunately, no police image turned up in the digital pictures. Well, I am just saying that if they were not all around the place, then the danger of snapping a shot of them would be less.
Living a Life in Meditation
Prayer and meditation
is a big part of Tibetan life. Everywhere you turn, you see monks and lay people praying or spinning a prayer wheel or clutching their prayer beads, seemingly lost in trance from their meditative activities. Up until near midnight, many people could still be seen praying and going around the temple. This probably explains the very low crime rate in Tibet.
The manner by which the Buddhists circle monasteries and give reverence to the Triple Gem (see "Useful Information on Tibet and Culture" below)
is very interesting and fascinating. Trinity symbolism abound. Most Buddhist-related activities are in counts of 3's -- from one of the mantras they recite -- "Om ah Hum,"
referring to the perfect state of the body, speech, and spirit or mind -- to the set of rhythmic movements they perform. The gesture begins with putting both hands together first at forehead level, then lowering to the level of the nose and mouth, consecutively. The person then kneels before completely prostrating, extending both arms in front and touching the ground with the forehead. The Buddhist then rises, takes 3 steps forward, and repeats the process over again as he goes around the temple or monastery in
clockwise direction. Curious, I asked our guide how often people do this. "Everyday,"
he answered. I could not help but praise this remarkable devotion.
The Jokhang ("House of Buddha")
Temple is the first Buddhist temple in Tibet, construction of which started around mid-7th century, with reconstructions and expansions done in the 17th century. It is the holiest temple and most important pilgrimage site of Tibetan Buddhists. As such, hundreds of pilgrims flock this UNESCO World Heritage Site throughout the year.
As we entered this more than 1,300 year-old structure, we came across many pilgrims prostrating in front of the temple. A giant prayer wheel greets the pilgrims at the entrance that leads into a courtyard. Votive candles and yak butter lamps illuminated the dark temple interiors and labyrinthine chapels that house the statues of the king who built the temple, his brides, deities, gurus, Buddhas, and bodhisattvas. The walls and posts are embellished with elaborate murals and thangkas,
or traditional Tibetan religious scroll paintings depicting a Buddhist deity, Buddha, or a mandala. Pilgrims endure the long queue for the chance to go into each of the chapels, pay respect to these religious images, and give
Cleaning Jokhang's roof?
These people were chanting and holding a suction-like apparatus
offerings. Monk quarters are located at the temple's rooftop where Barkhor and Potala Palace could also be seen.
From the temple, we walked all the way to the Potala Palace that stands magnificently atop the Marpo Ri hill at 3,700 MASL. It is the former residence of the Dalai Lamas and seat of Tibetan government before the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled to Dharamsala, India in 1959. This is where he established the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. This 13-story UNESCO World Heritage Site contains more than 1000 rooms. Hundreds of Buddhists also circumambulate the palace's periphery due to the stupas
or tombs of the previous Dalai Lamas.
It is divided into an outer White and an inner Red Palace. The White Palace (Potrang Karpo)
houses the living quarters of the Dalai Lama, monk dormitories, seminary, and administrative offices; while the chapels, shrines, stupas, prayer halls, murals, and library are all within the Red Palace (Potrang Marpo)
The reaction of the security people at the entrance when they learned about our being Filipino nationals was amusing; it seemed like it was their first time to see people like us. "They were saying you looked like Indians
following the pilgrims
along Barkhor to Jokhang Temple; the Tibetan woman is spinning a prayer wheel
translated our guide.
Tourists only have one hour to go around the huge palace. Climbing the more than one thousand steps was quite difficult. I do not know if my training (running) had been helpful because there were lots of times when I found myself catching my breath. Several much older tourists went up faster than me. What a shame. "You did not tell us it was going to be this hot."
Thinking it would be very cold, I was dressed in several layers: double socks, tights, leg warmers, and jeans. Perspiration from the heat intensified the burning pain from my wounds. The blistering heat outside contrasted with the chilly temperature inside the palace halls and chapels.
Within the chapels are the enormous stupas of the past 8 Dalai Lamas, many of which had been made from thousands of kilograms of pure gold ornately decorated with pearls, gems and other semi-precious stones. Buddhist scriptures that lined the walls of the library seemed endless. There are only few Tibetan monks remaining in the palace since it now functions more as a museum. In one of the chambers, we found a monk by the window serenely reading
composed of the outer White Palace and the inner Red Palace
a scripture, with the sunlight casting magnificent shadows upon his face. That image -- Priceless. It was just plain frustrating that they forbid taking photographs inside the palace.
Hungry and tired from the tour, we asked our guide to bring us to a place serving traditional Tibetan meals. Off we went to the backstreets of Barkhor. Tibetan meals are often incomplete without at least a serving of tea (cha)
-- be it plain tea, milk tea, or butter tea (pöcha)
. For a non-tea drinker, I liked the first two. However, I would not take another sip of butter tea again if I have a choice; the yak butter made it salty and oily making it unpleasant to the palate. Meats traditionally served in Tibet are yak and mutton. We got our first taste of curried yak meat, which tastes like beef. Other delectable Tibetan dishes are momo
(their version of dumplings) and tukpa
(soup with noodles and often yak meat).
Yla and I further explored the city after lunch. We chanced upon artists making and selling clay Buddha sculptures, as well as Thangka artists expert in painting these religious art works and mandalas.
We also stumbled upon a quaint little shop, Shambhala Artisan Studio for Disabled,
featuring hand-made carpets, pillows, Tibetan rugs, and jewelries made by differently-abled young Tibetans. Tibet is considered the "home of traditional carpet making."
We were lucky to see a young woman in this shop weaving a carpet using a loom. "Profits earned from selling the crafts of these youths are used to finance their needs,"
said the lady managing the shop. Search for this establishment if you are interested at helping them.
Useful Information on Tibet and Tibetan Culture:
- Previously of Tibeto-Burman family, the Tibetan language is now referred to as Sino-Tibetan. (Check out "Tibetan Language for Beginners")
- Majority of the population is practicing Tibetan Buddhism. Central to Tibetan Buddhist belief is reflection upon the Triple Gem: Buddha (The Enlightened One), Dharma (The Teachings of Buddha), and Sangha (The Community who have attained enlightenment).
- Prayer wheels (mani korlo) contain mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum" printed on thin rolls of paper. Held upright and spun clockwise, it is believed that saying, viewing, or spinning this mantra through the prayer wheel could lead to accumulation of merits and blessings.
Such power is increased as the number of mantras there are increases. For example, a single rotation of a prayer wheel containing 100 pages of the paper, with 200 prints of the mantra per page, is equivalent to reciting the mantra 20,000 times.
Tibetan dumpling but more delectable
- Prayer flags (dar cho) are variously colored rectangular cloths printed onto which are mantras. Each colored prayer flag represents an element and aspect of an enlightened mind: yellow (earth), green (water), red (fire), white (air or wind or cloud), and blue (space). Arranged in this order, the prayer flags are typically hung in multiples of 5 horizontally or vertically via poles. It is believed that by hanging prayer flags, the mantras permeate the wind, thus spreading blessings and good wishes to all beings touched by the wind. (For more information, check out "The Prayer Flag Tradition")
- Mandala is Sanskrit for "circle,". This is often used to facilitate meditation.
- Stupas (chorten) are the most sacred Buddhist monuments representing enlightenment and replete with an array of symbolism. These are also built to honor Buddhas and holy men.
- Observe proper etiquette. It may be nice to share food with Tibetans; however, sharing of food from one's plate is unacceptable to Tibetans unless you are husband and wife.
- Met a freak accident on our first night in Tibet. Water was leaking from the bathroom light. It suddenly exploded, spewing hot water and broken glass over my scalp, neck, shoulder, and chest. The ice-cold shower was inadequate to quell the pain. I sustained burns about 15-20% of my total body surface area. Fortunately, water's boiling temperature here is low, as such I only sustained first degree burns. My upper body had turned red from the burns and patches of blisters developed on my neck, shoulder, and chest.
The hotel brought me to Lhasa's LARGEST hospital. To my surprise, the doctor wanted to admit me to receive intravenous hydration. I declined since I knew my situation did not necessitate such. I only wanted medications that I could use on my burns but the hospital had NONE. Imagine that. We bought the traditional Chinese ointment that they have.
Cursing from pain whenever I clean my burns, the hotel was really lucky with me because I only asked for an ointment and did not create a scene or berate them. Had I been a b%tch, I would have demanded for many things. It was, after all, our first night and I did not want to destroy the rest of our trip. That incident left me with a number of scars.
- Private, government, and commercial establishments, even the market, open at around 9 am. Due to longer days, market also closes at around 8-9 pm.
- Good bargaining skills can get you a long way. Haggle. Rule of the thumb: slash the asking price by more than 50% and start negotiating from there. Many vendors jack up their prices for tourists.
- Currency used is Chinese Yuan. Ensure that you have enough of this currency when you go outside of Lhasa, as only the China Bank in Lhasa exchanges a wide array of foreign currencies.
- When in the vicinity of monasteries, temples, stupas and other sacred sites, walk only in CLOCKWISE direction.
- Do NOT take pictures of the police or army. Or else.
- Use of cameras inside the temples and Potala Palace are forbidden.
There are more photos below