Published: August 15th 2009July 15th 2009
Wed 15 July - Arrived in Xi’an after a tiring and very bumpy 5 and half hour bus journey. After a couple of uncertain directions we caught bus #603 from the bus station to the Xiangzimen Youth Hostel and eventually got a mixed dorm sorted for the night before wandering up town whilst waiting for a phone call re our Xizang permit. After a snack in the Muslim quarter we returned to the hostel for a rest then more food. Later, after no productive phone calls, we went for “shao kao” in the Art quarter.
Thurs 16 July - Bine was woken at 5am with a message delivered by the hostel staff re our permit - like it couldn’t wait? As it turned out there was no reason for this, it could have waited until a more civilized hour! We were up at 7.30 and after a nice breakfast we went off to draw cash to pay for our flights etc. At the Bell Tower Hotel we duly collected our permit and flight tickets then immediately caught the shuttle bus to the airport which took about an hour. After finding the correct terminal - a few hundred metres walk -
we checked our packs and ate our pot noodles in the departure lounge. At about 12.10 we boarded our flight for our 3 hour journey to Lhasa - interesting scenery. We stepped onto the oven-like Lhasa tarmac at 3.30ish and were duly met by our cool-looking guide Gong Ke who sported shoulder-length hair and bracelets. We were driven to our hotel, about an hour away, by our driver, as it turned out for the next few days and booked in. We then spent about two hours discussing and bargaining with the manageress of the tour company supplying out trips. The main reason it took this long was because our negotiations were constantly being interrupted by the manageress’s mobile phone. It was frustrating but eventually we struck a deal for an extra 6 days (over and above our original 5 day tour booked in Xifeng). Thankfully straight after this we enjoyed dinner/supper including rice with yogurt and sugar at a typical Tibetan restaurant just down the street.
Fri 17 July - After breakfast in our hotel we met Gong Ke in the lobby and drove to the centre of Lhasa to visit the Jokhang Temple (85¥ pp). Even before we
entered we were surprised by the many devout Tibetans some of which spend most of the day, everyday prostrating near the entrance. This attraction is always busy; there is a constant stream of pilgrims filtering through the heavy, well-worn entrance doors from a long, separate queue to the one we joined. This was because the devout visitors enter every room and pay respects to each and every Buddha image whereas tourists in comparison make a fleeting call. We first entered a small ‘courtyard’ before the ground floor room. At strategic points there are butter lamps - effectively a small vat of yak butter (or synthetic replacement these days which can be bought easily in the town) with lighted wicks. Pilgrims add a small amount of butter to these as an offering to the deity. Tourists and pilgrims alike are directed in a clockwise circular tour of the temple which allows access to each room housing different deities etc. Many are constantly chanting, counting using prayer beads or spinning prayer wheels.
We returned to the hotel just before midday to rest. This may sound ‘weak’ but we were still acclimatizing to the 3650m altitude - Xifeng is only 870m -
and wishing our headaches would dissipate. Don’t knock altitude sickness. It feels like a really bad hangover!
At 12.30ish we met our guide again and headed off to the Sera monastery on a hillside at the edge of the city. After a short minibus ride we walked up a cobbled street leading to the monastery (incidentally, they sell great spicy chips at a couple of stalls here) and entered the grounds (50¥ pp). Firstly we saw the intricate Mandala sand art and the once bustling kitchen where the large number of monks’ food was prepared but which now was just ‘idling’ with only about 200 mouths to feed. Next we observed monks printing copies of ancient Tibetan scriptures (it costs 5¥ to photograph them at work). The rooms available to view are elaborately decorated with Tibetan artwork with a central display of a Buddha image, yak butter lamps and glass-fronted shelves of scriptures. Accompanying each deity are always a number of grotesque figures. These are the protectors of the deity and were used to ward off any threats. At 4pm we walked to a gravel yard dotted with trees where we watched groups of monks debating about their morning’s
leaning. After a tea of pot noodles from the supermarket across the street we caught some CCTV9 (the only TV channel in English) before bed.
Sat 18 July - Breakfast was at 8.30 in the hotel before meeting Gong Ke at 9 to visit the Drepung monastery. This is big! Once housing 8,000-10,000 monks, Drepung although similar to the other monasteries we’d visited contained more, large images/statues of Buddha. Again there is a constant stream of pilgrims bringing their yak butter and jiao (1 jiao = 1 pence) to pay respects. Following a pot noodle lunch we enquired after train tickets in preparation for the return trip to Xi’an. We were told there were no hard-sleepers available for the date we needed so we planned to ask again mingtian. (tomorrow). In the afternoon we visited Norbulingka - the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas. The extensive gardens are somewhat neglected but the actual palace is in good order with each room elaborately decorated but sparsely furnished. The bathroom suite was Shanks - donated by the British apparently! At 5.30 we returned to the hotel to rest then had fried rice for dinner. We found the Lhasa International youth hostel
after dinner, booked a night for the 21st then wandered through Barkhor marketplace back to the hotel.
Sun 19 July - Early call today to return to the train ticket office by 8am. We actually arrived there about 10 to 8 and found a small bunch of people already waiting. They were huddled against the door to maintain their place in the ‘queue’. At 8am they rapped on the doors as the staff were late opening but all they received was (we guess) a reply of ‘okay, okay just a minute!’ When the doors finally opened the crowd ran through the lobby to be first at the one (out of 6) counter open. We strolled in to see they were still pushing and shoving at the front like school children to be served first - unbelievable. Eventually we were allocated two hard-sleepers for the 28 July (1328¥). We then wandered around the ever-busy Barkhor market area to choose some souvenirs and some spicy chips (1¥) for lunch before returning to the hotel.
After a sleep we met up with Gong Ke at 2pm and walked through the hot sun to the Potala palace. First built in the seventh century
and finished in the 17th, it’s an impressive structure overlooking the city from the hillside. After hiding our water bottle in a hedge (no bottles allowed as they will create litter in the palace, although you can buy drinks inside - figure that one out) we climbed the many steps, snapping at the views, before entering (100¥ pp). Tourists are only allowed in about 20 of the 1000 rooms and these house Buddha images and most impressively Dalai Lama stupas (burial tombs). One is decorated with over 3700kg of gold and precious stones. The pace is brisk, you only have a limited time to view all available rooms and if the pace slows ‘security’ will encourage you to move along. Interestingly, we were in one particularly narrow corridor with lots of other noisy visitors. The security man barked something in putong hua (Chinese) which we later found out was directed at the Chinese tourists: ‘Keep the noise down and be respectful like the foreign visitors here’. After passing through both the white and red sections of the palace we headed out and down to the xi men (west gate). As it happened to be nearby, we then paid a quick
visit to a carpet factory. As well as the business end tour we suffered the hard-sell techniques also. An ice cream later it was back to the hotel for a rest before a noodle dinner.
There are more photos below