A Week in Tibet

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Asia » China » Tibet » Lhasa
October 23rd 2007
Published: November 27th 2007EDIT THIS ENTRY

Note: I haven't been able to put up some of the photos from Jokhang Temple as of today. I'll try and put them up next week.

New Lhasa

Lhasa looked a little strange as our taxi drove us from the train station into the center of the town. It could have been the effects of the extreme high altitude messing with our heads, it could have been the surreal, near moonscape views of the barren Tibetan mountains around us, or it could have been the unexpectedly warm and comfortable weather that made me feel ill at ease but something else was wrong there as well; something was completely opposite to what I was expecting from the ancient capital of the Tibetan world.

For centuries, at least ten of them, Lhasa had been the grand capital of the Tibetan kingdom; a kingdom ruled by religion as much as it was by kings. From their seat of power high above the town in the Potala Palace fourteen successive Dalai Lamas had ruled an empire that covered the majority of Asia, from the southern boundaries of the Himalayas in modern day Nepal all the way to the Hexi corridor in northern
The Potala, Up Close and PersonalThe Potala, Up Close and PersonalThe Potala, Up Close and Personal

This was taken from within the walled city at the foot of the Potala. In the not too distant past (I.e. the 19th century) Lhasa was completely within these walls. It is only recently that the actual city has been constructed.
China and stretching eastwards as far as modern day Chengdu. In those times Lhasa was not a city as it is today; it was actually little more than the Potala Palace and a small surrounding village where the administrative classes lived. Further afield, dotted across the surrounding valley and in the mountains that ring it, dozens of monasteries were scattered where monks lived and learned, but little else filled the valley. In stark contrast, the Chinese construction that is the Lhasa of today is a sprawling city of identikit housing estates and small industries which fills the majority of the valley.

Since the Chinese takeover of 1950 a massive construction effort has modified Lhasa in entirety. Row after row of plain concrete Chinese rubbish has been erected on all sides of the Potala, filling in every spare gap of land with a planned Chinese city. Lhasa has been planned out to such an extent that vast sections of the city still remain to be constructed while all of the roads, street lighting, signs, electricity and water facilities in these areas have already been put in place. From the train station to the city proper is a ten minute drive
Lhasa StreetLhasa StreetLhasa Street

Typical alleyway near the Barkhor.
through six different suburbs of empty streets and vacant blocks. This alone feels creepy, but when it is put into perspective by the pictures of Lhasa which the Chinese government proliferates, which have all of the vacant land filled in with planned buildings, you get a shocking picture of what Lhasa will look like when China is finished with it.

A bit of history is in order here, just to get you up to scratch with what Lhasa used to look like. In the seventh century, King Songtsen Gampo unified Tibet and created his capital in Lhasa. He started the construction of the Potala Palace and several of the monasteries in the surrounding valley (as well as many in more distant regions), he married princesses from Tibet, China and Nepal (all of which had lost some land to him) and he is considered to have been the single greatest thing since the invention of sliced bread (which is oddly hard to find in Tibet). For some centuries Tibet continued to be ruled by hereditary kings as a feudal state and Lhasa was little more than the Potala Palace and the small town at its base, but then, thanks to
Very Old TempleVery Old TempleVery Old Temple

Inside Sera.
the rapid rise of Buddhism and internal conflicts the state got irrevocably entwined with religion. Over the course of centuries the power in Tibet was gradually passed over to the Lamas (eminent monks) until eventually the kingdom was ruled by the spiritual head of Buddhism rather than by a king.

The Mongolian emperor (remembering here that Mongolia was also heavily influenced by religious leaders) gave the title of Dalai Lama (translates to “ocean of wisdom”) to the most eminent Lama in Tibet at the time and the title has been conferred onwards ever since. The Dalai Lama is considered to be the most recent incarnation of the goddess Avolitkesvara (Boddhisattvara of compassion) and after his death a child is found who appears to contain the spirit of the previous Lama, thus indicating that they are the newest incarnation. Therefore, Tibet has been ruled by a Buddhist god for the last 400 years.

The Dalai Lamas became the kings of Tibet and ruled from what was then a much grander version of the Potala (the seventh Dalai Lama extended it) but outside of the Palace and the monasteries, Tibet was nothing more than farmers and nomads. The valley around
Rooftop PrayersRooftop PrayersRooftop Prayers

Old prayer flags on top of a roof.
Lhasa remained all but empty, and very little changed across the land. Until, of course, the Chinese arrived.

The Potala

For the first western explorers, those in search of Shangri-La, who ventured deep enough into the Himalayas as to reach Lhasa the sight of the valley must have come as a shock. Even photos from the 1900’s show a virtually alien world where Lhasa stands. The mountains surround the valley on all sides, steep sided and barren, rising up a good six hundred meters to the Tibetan plateau which extends in virtually all directions. A slow-moving river passes along one side, but other than that the valley is almost perfectly flat and inviting; a perfect refuge from the harsh weather on the plateau. The Himalayas block most of the rain which reaches Lhasa, but the valley remains comparatively verdant and comfortable which made it an ideal location for the capital. Almost shockingly, a lone thrust of rock sits in the very middle of the valley, breaking the plain as it steeply rises a good hundred meters (which is small compared to the surrounding mountains but is impressive for its solitude) and on its peak sits the Potala Palace. The palace covers the entire rock, rising even higher above the plain as it looks down on its kingdom; never have I seen such an imposing fortress. At the foot of the palace were the living quarters of the monks and officials, a relatively small settlement which barely extended beyond the base of the palace, and no other structures existed beyond that. As far as royal isolation can be taken Lhasa could not be beaten and the Potala has been aptly labeled as “the real forbidden city”.

Even now the Potala shocks people with its majesty. Unlike most palaces and castles which are based on symmetry and logical defenses, the Potala is almost ramshackle in its randomness. Sections of the building must have been added again and again as the building grew and morphed into the massive lump of impregnability that it is now. The vast white, red and black walls, topped with golden trimmings and fluttering curtains overlook the entire city which make the palace the one part of Lhasa which constantly reminds you that you are not in China anymore.

Despite the fact that tourists are not allowed to freely roam the entire palace (the
Jokhang TempleJokhang TempleJokhang Temple

The view from the Barkhor Square.
ticket price seems to be inversely proportional to the number of rooms that are open for viewing according to people that visited a few years ago), and irregardless of the tight control and supervision (this was the first attraction that I have ever seen guarded by the army), the inside of the palace was even more thrilling than the outside. Huge collections of Buddhist art (every single wall is a painting), statues, carvings, books and all sorts of other ancient treasures were on display. The giant golden stupas (burial shrines) of past Lamas are even housed inside the palace, each one trying to be more impressive than the last.

While inside the palace we were able to see the living quarters of the Dalai Lamas, prayer rooms, audience chambers, meeting halls, and all sorts of other chambers that seemed to go on and on in endless rolls of history. Some of the rooms remained untouched from their original state centuries ago. At one point we even found ourselves peering into the cave where Songtsen Gampo himself meditated with his wives before construction of the palace began 1400 years ago.

Kora Time

Slightly east of the Potala
Praying at the GatesPraying at the GatesPraying at the Gates

Pilgrims prostrating themselves in front of the Jokhang temple.
is an old section of Lhasa, the area where the common people lived (it lies about 2km away), which remains as the only part of Lhasa which feels Tibetan. The old buildings and narrow alleyways which wend their way around the houses and shops still retain a Tibetan charm. Butchers carve up freshly killed Yaks on top of old tree stumps, busloads of Tibetans with their exquisitely braided hair, intricate coral jewellery, brilliant shawls, coats, hats, boots and other accoutrements pack on an off of run-down buses, traders hawk Tibetan food from the footpaths, butter and yoghurt can be bought everywhere, prayer flags adorn every rooftop, intricately carved and painted doorways abound, prayer spinners are more common than mobile phones, and every inch of the place smells of incense. To put it simply, this place is Tibet.

The center of the district, and the reason for its existence, is the Jokhang temple: the spiritual hub of Tibet. This temple sits in the very middle of everything and is constantly abuzz with everything that is Tibet. The temple itself does not appear to be very much from the outside, it is a fairly low-lying building with plain white walls, even though it is perhaps three hundred meters across, but around it lies a hive of activity. Thousands of Tibetan pilgrims travel to this temple from all over the Plateau. People from thousands of kilometers away travel to Lhasa and find themselves at Jokhang. They all dress in their finest traditional clothes for the occasion so I was surrounded by hundreds of amazing colours, dresses and styles of clothing from all of the exotic corners of Tibet. These people have faces that tell a million stories, clothes that speak of a completely unknown culture, their hair alone could be the subject of a thousand volumes, and they all come together around Jokhang temple.

A magical thing happens outside of the temple: the kora. For karma reasons it is necessary to walk around the temple in a clockwise direction, traversing around all of the side sections of the temple, all of the prayer wheels, the incense burners (which the police were in charge of cleaning) and all of the prayer flags. Around the circuit there are approximately three million hawkers, shops and salespeople, along with several thousand pilgrims. When I approached within a hundred meters of the temple I somehow found
Burning Even More PrayersBurning Even More PrayersBurning Even More Prayers

The entire city of Lhasa smells of incense thanks to the thousands of sticks which get burned every day. This bonfire outside the Jokhang Temple also burns prayer (in paper form) and I once saw it being cleaned by the police!
myself idly ambling around the kora along with all of the pilgrims, my mind wandering as all of the sights, sounds and smells around me pulled me deeper into the pilgrimage. It was impossible to stay out of the kora, the throngs of people were just too captivating. Over the course of a week I probably walked the kora ten times, each time seeing different things that pulled me around the temple, there was never a dull moment.

A large number of pilgrims are always prostrating themselves in front of the temple; clasping their hands in prayer on their foreheads while pushing themselves onto the ground over and over again. Some of them even prostrate themselves around the temple, each time taking two steps before touching their heads to the ground again. On one day we even saw the pilgrims prostrating themselves sideways as they shuffled slowly around the temple, moving no more than six inches with each prostration.

Inside the temple was even more impressive. After entering through the tourist line (which bypasses most of the temple) I found a polite Tibetan and pushed myself into the pilgrimage line. This act did two things: first off it meant that I was stuck in a line for two hours, but secondly it meant that I slowly walked though a hundred different side chambers along with all of the pilgrims. I saw thousands of statues, hundreds of customs, dozens of different ways to pray, and millions of little details in that temple. Parts of the temple appeared to have grown out of the ground as the ancient wooden pillars had been worn smooth into knots of intricate shapes by the hands of a million pilgrims. Every statue was ancient, each doorway was individually carved and detailed, all of the walls portrayed ancient views of the world, and every room was magically filled with wonders that I had never seen before. At one point I was even allowed to touch my forehead to a statue which was brought to Tibet in the seventh century by the Chinese bride of Songtsen Gampo and be blessed by a monk; an experience that was supposedly reserved for the pilgrims.

After an hour in the temple, all of which I had spent in the company of a Tibetan family on their once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the center of their religion and lives, I was
Prostrating MonkProstrating MonkProstrating Monk

This monk was in the process of prostrating himself around, and I mean around, the temple.
still in awe of the building around me. Literally every single part of the temple is ancient and significant, each statue important, and each picture priceless. Even the light filtering through the roof played magical images across the room through the dust. I would gladly have spent a whole week watching the pilgrims slowly progress through the temple as they touched their foreheads, offered money and mumbled their prayers in front of a thousand different relics.

A Good Time to be in Lhasa?

Thanks to Chinese control, it is always going to be touchy for an independent traveler to be in Lhasa. But Marjie and I could have timed our trip a little better. You see, it turned out that the 17th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party was being held in Lhasa that week. For someone who was illegally in the province this could have been a bad thing, but then again, China is not known for its efficient and effective policing.

The Chinese plan for ensuring a successful conference was threefold. Step one: Don’t tell anyone that the conference is going to be held, thus ensuring that people don’t plan anything bad (this failed thanks to some Americans who miraculously managed to swap the Chinese flag for a Free Tibet one in the main square beneath the Potala). Step two: stop issuing travel permits so less people are in Tibet at the time (this failed because we just got on the train without one). Step three: hire several hundred seventeen year old guys and make them police for a week (this failed because all that happened was that you could often see six seventeen year olds wearing police uniforms with Nike sneakers sitting around a small table drinking tea and chatting with girls).

The Chinese plan could not have done any less to ensure that troubles didn’t occur. The police presence was quite laughable as all of the young kids in police uniforms were about as effective as the rip-off trekking gear that was on sale for less than a dollar. I saw the police chatting up girls, I saw them cleaning out incense burners, I saw them picking up trash. I even saw the police playing hackey-sack with their batons!

Drepung Monastery: Closed For “Painting”

On the western side of the Potala, perhaps 10km away and up on a mountainside, sits the Drepung Monastery. This temple complex is one of the four most important in Tibet, along with the Sera, Ganden and Jokhang, and looked mightily impressive from the outside. However, upon arrival at the access road we were informed that the monastery was closed that day and would not open for the rest of the month. We (Marjie, Sari, Sanyi and I) were disappointed to say the least, and we were also a little intrigued as to why we were informed of the closure by a clearly Chinese man at the access road, and not by a monk at the entrance gate 1km up the road. We investigated further.

We walked through a small village slightly further down the road and headed in the general direction of the monastery, slowly climbing up the hill as we meandered among the Tibetan homes. Eventually we passed through a wall and found ourselves looking across an open plain to the monastery which had a few interesting additions: on our right we could see a couple of police cars and army trucks blockading the entrance to the monastery. Further intrigued by this, we decided to head around to the other side of the temple where we could sneak up a gully and perhaps get inside.

We headed across the village and came out on the other side near a wall which provided good cover along the gully and confidently we headed out for that goal. Somehow though we had neglected to see a gate in the wall which was being guarded by a Chinese soldier and we were forced to walk by as though nothing was awry. Of course, something was awry, and out of the gate came four Chinese men (your typical Chinese tourist type men from Beijing: wearing Hawaiian shirts and cowboy hats) who stopped us and told us to go back to the main road. I asked why and tried to quietly find out what was going on, hoping that the men would tell us the truth because they didn’t appear to be a part of the military. Unfortunately I got no further than “closed for painting” before they forced us to walk away. They wouldn’t even let us climb one of the surrounding mountains; clearly the painting was rather sensitive. I asked some of the villagers on the way out but again they wouldn’t tell
A Wall of BuddhasA Wall of BuddhasA Wall of Buddhas

Look closely at all of the statues carved into the wall here.
us what was happening beyond the “painting” line. Someone had scared the villagers into not talking which I found to be an excessive measure.

To solve the mystery of the painting works we consulted the internet and found an interesting collection of truth and Chinese cover-up. Apparently there was a protest at the monastery. Every year, during the yoghurt festival, the monks at Drepung unveil a giant Thanka (painting of Sakyamuni) on the neighbouring hillside, but this year they refused to do so until the government agreed to fund a Buddhist school in the area. Instead of giving in to the demands, the officials forced some low level monks and some tourists who were there to open the painting anyway, thus not interrupting the important festival, and then subsequently closed the monastery. Who knows what has happened to the monks who were protesting, but I’m guessing that the army wasn’t called in for nothing.

A Living Monastery

While in Lhasa we visited the Sera Monastery, another of the four pillars of Tibet. We spent two whole afternoons walking around the temples and monasteries, as well as climbing up the hillside behind the monastery in order to get to a temple high up above the valley. The complex contains dozens of small temples and a handful of monastic schools, each of which is a giant temple in itself. I don’t intend to go into details of what we saw in the temples, as that would take far too long (suffice to say that there were a lot of wonderful paintings and statues to be seen), but two things do stand out in my mind.

While in Sera we were lucky enough to run into four artisans who were busy building parts of the temple. When we found them they were building a table in the traditional Buddhist style and we watched in amazement as they painted the intricate designs and blended the colours together to make the wonderful images that adorn every Tibetan temple. After having seen so many ancient wonders in Lhasa during that week it was a treat to be able to see the same type of objects being newly created. The same styles and techniques were being employed as had been used centuries ago right there in front of us. Furthermore, one of the artists could speak English and he walked us around
Pilgrims on the GroundPilgrims on the GroundPilgrims on the Ground

Prostration doesn't look like a hell of a lot of fun.
the room while explaining the ancient paintings on the wall. Finally we could understand some of the exquisite images that cover every inch of every religious building in Tibet.

The second interesting thing which we discovered while at Sera came while we were walking on a ridge high above the temple. According to Chinese information there is no military presence in Lhasa (odd considering the military guards in the Potala for a start), yet from the ridge we were able to see an entire military base hidden around the side of a mountain. I guess it was classed as a different city by the Chinese, something different to Lhasa. I wonder what its name is. . .

Additional photos below
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