Beginning our trip in the holy city of Lhasa

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October 12th 2015
Published: November 2nd 2015
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After meeting up with the remaining members of the tour group in Chengdu the night before, we had an uneventful flight on Sichuan Airlines to Lhasa the following morning, with a clear sky giving us an excellent view of the terrain en route. This ranged from very mountainous, rocky outcrop with no vegetation to snow-capped peaks on the extremes of the Himalayas.

Lhasa airport is around one hour drive from the city itself, and the trip in set the pattern for the general landscape we expect to encounter for most of the trip, again with very limited vegetation of any type. Lhasa sits at around 3,600 metres, so gave us our preliminary experience with the higher altitudes. Our first view of the magnificent Potala Palace, which served as the winter residence for all the Delai Lamas for hundreds of years and which towers over Lhasa, is one that will stay in the memory a long time. We were fortunate enough to be staying at the excellent Kyichu Hotel, just a short stroll from Barkhor Square, the spiritual heart and centre of all Buddhist activity in Lhasa, and which adjoins the famed Jokhang, Tibet’s holiest and most famous temple.

Close to the entrance of the Jokhang, there is a constant throng of Buddhist Tibetans circumnavigating the complex, always in a clockwise direction, many spinning their prayer wheels or counting their prayer beads while uttering their sacred mantras, and from time to time having to spread out to accommodate a true believer, doing the same rounds but prostrating (the act of praying, bowing and stretching) at every step. These pilgrimage circuits are called koras and in the one kilometre Barkhor kora there are four stone, pot-bellied incense burners that in effect scope out the full circumambulation route. Against this background, are occasional armed police, generally moving provocatively anti-clockwise, as a reminder of the past demonstrations and self-immolations that have occurred from time to time as the Tibetans strive hard to maintain their original self-identities. Add to this the various areas cordoned off with more mass postulating, the periodic spinning prayer wheels, the flickering butter lamps and the overhanging smell of incense and melting yak-butter and it creates an atmosphere that is very had to put into words.

The tour next day of the actual Jokhang Temple itself was interesting enough, but for a non-believer like myself it probably missed the spiritual element. The various chapels were pretty crowded with dedicated pilgrims, all of whom again moved around in a clear clockwise direction, as required for all koras. The murmuring of the mantras and the strong aroma of burning yak butter that supported the myriad of candles certainly added an element to the many life-sized Buddhas, and other revered figures, for whom almost every pilgrim donated cash funds at almost every figure. For me, the highlight was probably the stunning views from the roof, with its great aerial views of Barkhor Square with its masses of prostrating pilgrims, and also the view of Potala Palace in the distance. Another interest for me up there was a chance meeting with Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund, who was leading a similar tour to ours and who we would run into a number of times over the period.

The visit next day to the Potala Palace had many similar elements, but being far bigger (over 1,000 rooms) and basically lying dormant since the exit into exile in 1959 of the Dalai Lama, it had more of the feel of a museum without the same degree of vibrant activity from the throngs of pilgrims. The main components of the palace are respectively the White and Red Palaces, with a solid climb up to each in the oxygen-depleted environment taking its toll (climbing clockwise of course), but again the visit to the top was worth the climb and afforded an impressive vista of the whole city. The internals focussed heavily on the history of the 14 Dalai Lamas, up to the present one currently in exile. That evening, we ventured out on a very chilly night all rugged up to take in the extraordinary sight of the Palace lit up at night.

Our two remaining visits in Lhasa were to the Tsamkhung Nunnery and the Sera Monastery. The former is a small, but politically active, nunnery located in the old Tibetan quarter. We were very fortunate to be allowed to enter and stroll around during their time of medication, and even had the opportunity to later chat (via the interpreter) with a number of the resident nuns, who were very generous with their time. They also ran a very popular teahouse in the courtyard, as well as selling prayer beads and other jewellery. The Sera Monastery at one stage housed up to 5,000 monks, but now hardly contains one-tenth of this number. Apart from its uphill terrain being a further test of our adaption to the higher altitudes, its main claim to fame are the very active monk debates held in the afternoon, where points are clearly scored just as much for the physical gestures of the debater as his content.

That completed three days of tours and acclimatization in Lhasa and tomorrow we will set out for Gyantse, where we will be travelling for most of the day at over 4,000 metres altitude.

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