The Roof Of The World - Part 1

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June 14th 2011
Published: June 14th 2011
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On my first day in Nepal, I was seriously disorientated and didn't have a clue where I was when I woke up. I had to go down and fill in some forms to sort out my visa for Tibet. As I was still half asleep, my poor tour leader only got grunts out of me.

He told me there was going to be an optional tour at 9am, if I wanted to go, where we'd go to an important Buddhist temple, and then a Hindu temple.

Outside the Buddhist temple was a stupa, that was absolutely amazing. It had a tower with eyes, perched on a mound, covered with prayer flags, and as it was a beautiful day, it looked particularly impressive. The low wall around it had hundreds of prayer wheels in it, which you could spin as you walked past.
The temple was a lot more colourful that I was used to (after China), there were literally colours everywhere!!!

Once we'd finished inside the temple, we went to an art shop, where we went upstairs to see the students painting the prayer mandalas, and other religious paintings. They were all beautiful, but unfortunately way out of my price range. I consoled myself with the thought that I never would have managed to get it home in one piece anyway.

Next it was off to the Hindu temple complex. We couldn't go in the main temple, as that is for Hindu people only. Still it was nice to walk around, and we walked to this view point that looked over some of the most important parts of the complex. From there we could see where they cremate their dead (someone was being cremated while we were there which was a little disturbing) and where sadus (holy men) sit, waiting to bless people (tip: only the fake sadus charge you money for blessings or to take pictures).

Just as we were about to leave, an ambulance appeared with a crying lady in the front seat. Obviously her loved one had just died at the hospital, and had been brought straight to the temple to be cremated. It seems that it all happens very quickly in Nepal!!
We quickly headed back to our bus, so we wouldn't have to see them bringing the body out of the ambulance. Once back in the safety of the bus, we headed back to the hotel, with out tour guide pointing out where the locals grow cannabis along the roadside.....Apparently it is used on the livestock when they have diarrhea......

I just chilled that afternoon, went and rented a four seasons sleeping bag for Tibet, packed the things I would need for the Tibet trip and Everest, and caught up with things on facebook (as I knew it would be taken away from me again when I was in Tibet!).

It was up early to catch our flight to Tibet. Thankfully everything went off without a hitch, and we were let into the country...though I had to hide my leaflet with information about Tibet, when I went through the Chinese security, as they don't like you bringing books about Tibet into Tibet (don't really know why, as you can just read them before or after you go there).

As soon as we landed I could feel the difference of high altitude (Lhasa is at 3500m approx). Most of us felt dizzy and/or headachy, even though practically all of us had taken altitude sickness tablets. It was so weird just walking and finding it slightly hard to breathe.

We met our Tibetan guide, who gave us these traditional white scarves, that had been blessed by monks. It was then 1 1/2 hours from the airport to Lhasa, and our group leader wouldn't let us sleep on the bus as we hadn't acclimatised yet, and falling asleep would seriously restrict the oxygen going to our brains. Our leader walked up and down the bus, making sure we were awake, and telling us to keep drinking lots of water.

We stopped briefly to see an 11th century Buddha carved into a mountain. There were prayer flags everywhere, and it was lovely up there, surrounded by all the huge, brown mountains.

It wasn't far to Lhasa from there, but it was already 6pm by the time we arrived there (us having jumped forward 2 hours flying from Nepal time to China time). So it was a quick rest, again with instructions not to sleep, and then we went for a small walk around Lhasa.

Tibet is like nothing I've ever seen. It is beautiful in a harsh, barren way, and the Tibetan people are very like their landscape; very brown, and with lined skin, weathered by the sun
Jokhang TempleJokhang TempleJokhang Temple

People prostrating themselves
and a hard life. What I really liked was the bright coloured jewelry they wore, and the colourful clips in their hair. Most of them go around wearing the traditional clothing - a skirt with a stripped apron across it for the married women, and baggy trousers if you are a man. They all wear raggedy coats, and lots walk around with what appear to be cowboy type hats on their heads.....very odd.

After the walk, it was dinner, where I tried a Yak steak and an altitude relax tea ( a special tea that helps you adjust to being a high is also pretty darn tasty :D ). The Yak was tough (just like the Tibetans) but very tasty and full of flavour. It tasted like gamey beef, and some people in my group said it tasted a lot like buffalo (I've never eaten buffalo steak so I couldn't comment).

By the second day I was starting to realise what some of the side-effects of taking the altitude tablets need to wee ALL the time, and you find parts of your body i.e. your feet or hands randomly tingling intensely, as though they had fallen asleep. It feels pretty bizarre, especially is only one of you fingers it tingling but the rest of your hand is normal......Still I could have been having worse side-effect so it wasn't too bad (little did I know that there was more to come!!)

First thing we did that day was walk to Barkhor, the most Tibetan part of the city (though calling it a city is being very generous). It is the second of two traditional pilgrim circuits, meaning that while we were there, we saw several people heading to Jokhang temple, prostrating themselves after every step they took. The Barkhor is lined with stall after stall, selling jewelry, prayer flags, prayer wheels, traditional Tibetan clothes and many other things. My eyes almost popped out from my head I was trying to see so much all at once. There are these oven type things all along the Barkhor, where Tibetan people come a throw in incense and herbs to burn, it creates a wonderful smell all around the area.

At the centre of the Barkor is the Jokhang, the 1300 year old, golden-roofed building that is the spiritual heart of the city and the Tibetan world. Pilgrims come from hundreds of miles away and numerous countries to pray here. Many Tibetans in Lhasa come everyday and prostrate themselves 108 times in front of the Jokhang, using their prayer beads to keep count of how many they have done (it has 108 beads on it!). Some even do it every morning and evening!!!! It was becoming very obvious that the Tibetans were a very religious people, and that their belief in Buddha is the centre of who they are as a people.

All the Tibetans that go into the Jokhang (and any other Buddhist temple) carry flasks full of Yak butter, as every room in the temple is lit by Yak butter candles. The Tibetans pour their Yak butter into the dish like candle holder, all the while chanting. The smell is something else! Add it to the juniper incense burning everywhere and it is an aroma I've smelt nowhere else, very uniquely Tibetan!

Inside the Jokhang, it was very dark, as the candles were the only source of light. This served to make the temple seem even older than it really was, and cast the most amazing shadows over the Tibetan's expressive faces.

After a nice lunch, on a roof top, over looking the Jokhang and some of the Barkhor, we hopped on a public bus and went to the Sera Monastery. It was founded in 1419 by Jamchen Choje Shakya Yesh who was a disciple of Tsongkhapa. Sera Monastery has an Assembly hall, three colleges and thirty-three houses in it, and is the second largest monastery in Tibet.

People take their children to visit this Monastery if the child is not sleeping very well. A monk blesses them and then puts a black mark on their nose to keep away bad spirits. However, this is not restricted to just children, so a lot of us decided to have a blessing done over us, especially as some of us hadn't been sleeping all that well at night due to altitude sickness. We looked a little silly with black noses!!

The main reason for us going to Sera Monastery was to see the monk debating. They spend the mornings learning about science, history, geography, maths etc. and then in the afternoons they 'study'. In the monks debating area there are groups and groups of monks, most of them sitting and only one or two in each group standing. The monk standing can ask a sitting monk any question he likes, it could be "why is the grass green?" or about events of the past. The sitting monk then has to answer as best he can. If he is right, the standing monk hits his hands together in a sliding motion, palm to palm. If the sitting monk is wrong, the standing monk hits the palm of one hand with the back of the other. It was great to watch, especially as some of the monks get really, really into it.

Once a year the monks are examined on what they know, and only the best move up the ranks and eventually become Lamas. They all line up and are asked questions by the higher ranking monks, and they know if they are right or wrong with their answers by what the higher ranking monk does with his hands. So the debating the monks do everyday in the courtyard is really just practice for their exams!

The next day we visited the Potala Palace. Unfortunately it was raining, and very cloudy, so we couldn't see the mountains behind it. The Potala Palace is the symbol of Tibet and stands over 13 stories high. It consists of over 1000 rooms, so it is impossible to see even a fraction of the rooms in the one hour the Chinese allow you inside the Potala. The present extended structure was begun during the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama (17th century) and took over 50 years to complete. We are told that it is because of the age of the Potala that we were only allowed in for an hour; if there were too many tourist inside, there are fears that the ancient wood would collapse under the weight (I'm not sure I believed this excuse! It was the Chinese being controlling, with no other reason other than that. They just don't want to give tourists a chance to see what they've done to the place!).

Before the 'liberation' of Tibet by the Chinese, the Potala was the Dalai Lama's residing palace and the centre of political and religious affairs.
The main construction is divided into two sections, the Red and White Palaces. Because of our time constraint, we had to move very rapidly to see the most important rooms in both palaces.

The main thing I remember from being rushed around the Potala was that the inside looked a lot like all the other monasteries we'd been to see, and that it had huge gold stupas (burial monuments) for the past Dalai Lamas', covered with ginormous precious and semi-precious stones.

Our visit to the Potala was over very quickly, so it was then off for some lunch, where I wussed out on ordering a steamed sheep's head....Instead i went for the very safe option of vegetable soup (the diamox - altitude sickness tablets, have the unfortunate side-effect of giving you a delicate tummy.....)

Walking the streets to and from the restaurant, we came across a construction site, where in traditional Tibetan style, the people inside were singing and dancing while they worked. They had these stick like things that they were using to hit the ground in time with their singing.

We then went to Ani Gompa, the only functioning nunnery in Lhasa. It was a very simple place, where the nuns look a lot like their male counterparts; with shaved heads, walking around in red robes. They have hangings of cloth to cover the doorways and often nothing else, and live in small, cell like rooms.

We walked into a room where they were writing , rolling and blessing the Buddhist mantras that go into the Tibetan prayer wheels. All the while they were working, they were chanting together. Very interesting to watch, but I felt bad about bothering them and disturbing them from their work.

The next day we went to Ganden Monastery, which was about a 2 hour drive from Lhasa, and involved going to an altitude of 4000m above sea level. It was perched high on a ridge over looking the Kyichu valley, and is the central monastery of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It was build in 1409!

When we arrived, we stopped just before the monastery to take pictures of the Yaks that were everywhere. They were pretty cute with their shaggy coats and coloured feathers/or tassels in their ears.

What was nice about Ganden Monastery was that it was far enough away from Lhasa to have escaped too much Chinese influence. This means it looks exactly the same as it always has, and the monks live their lives as they have always done.
There were so many monks wandering around everywhere, I don't think I've ever seen so many together in one place.

We walked all around the monastery and the views from the roof were spectacular, we could see right down into the valley. Because of the clouds, every time we looked, there was a different view!
We got to go in the main hall and watch the monks while they chanted and prayed. They had a break int he middle where they ate rice balls and drank Yak butter tea. They seemed just as fascinated with us as we were with them.

After munching my way through my packed lunch, I had the option of going for a hard walk, which involved a climb up to some prayer flags, or an easier walk that involved walking around the outskirts of the monastery. I opted to do the hard walk as I thought it would be good preparation for the Base Camp Everest walk.

It was tough as it was so steep at points. But we stopped for short breaks, and there were beautiful small flowers growing on the mountainside to look at, but you couldn't see them until you were practically on top of them.

I reckon we might have gone up a little bit too fast, as there were a couple of moments where several of us felt very lightheaded. Thankfully, after a brief pause, we were OK.

The views made it worth climbing all the way up to see the prayer flags. We could see for miles and miles in every direction. There were so many prayer flags up there that it was difficult to get through them to go look at the view on the other side. I even tripped over a couple as my legs were a little too tired to lift high.
We were so high that there was even a little bit of snow on the ground, just enough to make a snowball or two. We stayed up there for 10minutes or so, and then it was back down to meet the others. Ermond (a guy from my group) and I fell coming down, which was pretty hilarious, there was this black type moss/grass that was very slippery. Luckily neither of us were hurt.
I napped the whole way back to Lhasa, absolutely knackered from the climb. And even with the 2 hour nap, I slept like the dead that night.

We headed out early for the eight hour drive from Lhasa to Gyantse. Still, the journey went quickly as he scenery was so beautiful. We had lots of stops to see special things or particularly nice views. The first place we stopped was a site where the Tibetans practice Water Burials. This is were they cut up the body into small pieces, and throw it into the water to feed the fish. Tibetans DO NOT eat fish because of Water Burials.

The other types of burials they practice are cremation, nature burial, and sky burial. Nature burial is for when a family is poor, and can't afford to have to body carried up to the high, sacred sky burial sites. The body is cut up and left to nature to be taken back by nature (aka eaten by the animals and insects....). Sky Burial is for families who are relatively rich. The body is cut up, and the bones are crushed and mixed with fat to make them more palatable for the vultures. The bones are then fed to the vultures first, as they wouldn't eat it given the choice between bones and flesh. Every bit of the body must be consumed to release the spirit......

After the water burial site, we went through a high pass of 4794m. Just after we crested the peak (which involved going up a very, very long, windy road that seemed to go o forever), we stopped so we could take pictures of a lake, and also have a go at riding a Yak and/or holding Tibetan Mastiffs or goats. I had a go riding a Yak, and there are some pretty silly pictures of me with a big, fluffy hat on my head. Needless to say, traditional Tibetan hats DO NOT suit me at all.

I then decided to hold a little, fluffy kid (baby goat - just to clarify), as everyone w paying to have their pictures taken with the Yaks, or the Mastiffs, or the cute Mastiff puppies, but everyone was ignoring the woman with the goat. I offered her 2 yuan (20p) to hold the goat, and she quickly plucked the money from my hands and thrust the goat at me. It was so fluffy and good, and it just happily stayed in my arms, it's little face poking out. It had these red earring type things in it's ears, made from Yak wool, to identify it, so everyone knows whose goat it is.

Then it was onwards and upwards, through another high pass at over 4960m, where we saw the Khrola glacier. Tjere was a tiny settlement there, of very hard faced people, desperate to sell you anything. They were perhaps the most unfriendly Tibetans I met over my whole trip.

Eventually we arrived at Gyantse, the fourth largest town/city in Tibet, though it feels very small when you are there. What I loved about Gyantse was that it felt so Tibetan, so real, as it is one of the least Chinese influenced towns in Tibet.

Our guide Ashok, took us for a walk around, and it was great to see only tibetan style houses, children playing everywhere, cows tied up outside the front of each house, and Yak and cow dung piled high on the walls (it is used as fuel for the fires in the winter, and is also a symbol of wealth. The more poo the better!!!). The people were so friendly, smiling and wanting to try and talk to us. Bar from the electricity wires, the place could have been from time several hundred years ago. Absolutely lovely and so quaint!

The next morning, we got up and went to Baiju temple. The cyangtse pachu monastery was erected in 1418, and within the monastery complex there was this beautiful stupa called Gyantse Kumbum (the stupa of 100,000 deities) built 1427-39. The stupa rises 35 meters high, has 108 gates, and 75 chapels. Structured according to a compendium of Sakya Tantra, each level creates a mandala, and the whole represents a three-dimensional path to the Buddha's enlightenment in terms of increasingly subtle tantric mandalas. The stupa has the eyes of Buddha looking out in all directions.

From the Baiju monastery, we could see Gyantse Dzong, the fortress of Gyantse, with parts dating back as far as 1268. Unfortunately it wasn't open to the public, but it still looked beautiful sitting atop a hill, with the blue sky above it.

Because Gyantse Dzong was closed, we climbed a nearby hill so we could get a better look at it, and at Baiju temple and all of Gyantse. We could see for an impressively long way from that hill!!

Then it was back into the bus to head to Shigatse, Tibet's second largest city. On the way we stopped to take a picture of some Yows, the result when a Yak falls in love with a cow...... (don't know if my tour leader was pulling our leg about that....)

Once we arrived in Shigatse, we had time to rest before the option of doing the Tashilumpo Kora, a walk that goes around the Tashilumpo Monastery and beyond.

I decided to go on the walk, and it was great to see and do it with so many Tibetans, spinning all the prayer wheels as they passed, as the whole thing is lined with prayer wheel after prater wheel.

Along the walk you see the Buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum carved, drawn or painted onto the rocks.
I really enjoyed the walk, and as it was a warm evening, we ended up taking most of our layers off as we walked along. We got a little over excited about the whole walk and walked too far on the path and missed our exit..... The problem in Tibet is that you cannot go anti-clockwise around religious buildings/paths etc. So we couldn't turn back, we had to keep going until we found a random path to follow. Luckily we managed to make our way back to the hotel without getting too lost!!!

OK, that's it for this blog. Will be posting the next and final Tibetan blog soon

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