Lhasa, Tibet - Nirvana: smells like yak butter


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October 29th 2018
Published: December 1st 2018
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We'd briefly strolled around our immediate environs in Lhasa the first afternoon/evening and our first impressions were very positive indeed. I was taken with the cleanliness of the place - street cleaners were everywhere, playing Russian roulette with the traffic to catch just one errant leaf blowing across the road armed with only a dustpan and brush to protect themselves, or wiping down the lamp-posts (yes, seriously) as they emptied the bins (yes, we were back in the Land of the Litter Bin!). And it was sooooo quiet, despite the scooter/motorbike being a favoured form of transport. This, it turned out, was because the bikes are electric and can therefore operate in stealth mode, creeping up on you from behind like Ninjas.

Over the course of our time in and around Lhasa we had a mixture of organised sightseeing with our guide and driver and time on our own to explore at will. The temperature varied enormously during our stay, with sub-zero temperatures overnight rising to the low teens during the days. I wore multiple layers of clothing which stood me in good stead. Steve decided it wasn't that bad and shivered for most of the first day before adopting the Michelin Man look himself. It was certainly fresh! Our hotel used water in the ashtrays instead of the usual sand, or nothing, and it had frozen overnight when I went down one morning. The temperature had dropped to -7 degrees!

Our driver, Mr Somethingwenevercaught, and our guide (I'll call him Norman, though that wasn't his name) were very professional and knowledgeable and Norman was especially willing to talk about life in Tibet (our driver didn't speak much English so that was understandable!).

Our guided tours included Norbulingka, the traditional summer home of several Dalai Lamas, dating back to the mid-18th century. It was enormous, with over 400 rooms and covering 36 hectares. This was our first introduction to the Dalai Lamas but I found the who/what/where/when dreadfully confusing, made all the worse when Norman said that the history often varied depending on whether you were Tibetan, Chinese or Indian and he usually changed his spiel to suit his audience. I stood no chance, then ... I decided instead to appreciate the things I could understand and welcomed the peacefulness and serenity of this calm and beautiful place.

We also visited Drepung Monastery, built in 1416. It had a HUGE assembly room filled with obnoxious-smelling yak butter-burning votives and with carpets lining the walls. These used to be handmade apparently but were now mass-produced so the monks had piles of something soft to sit on as they texted on their mobiles or chatted to each other over the inspirational chanting of some of their brethren that seemed to start up just as tourists were approaching. Good timing, that. I got talking to a Scotsman there, and we agreed it looked like a Tibetan version of an Axminster showroom! It seemed to me to lack any atmosphere or spirituality.

After lunch on our first day we walked up a hill to Sera Monastery. I think this was to be the highest point of our whole trip (depending on the source of information, it was somewhere between 3800 and 4100 masl). I was suffering from what were either symptoms of a cold or symptoms of altitude sickness, depending on how sorry for myself I was feeling. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself at this stage because I had stumbled over a step at lunchtime (again, either a symptom of altitude sickness or just me being my normal, clumsy self) and had broken my glasses beyond repair. Don't be asking me to read anything then ... We were just in time to watch the monks during a debate. It was impossible to understand, of course (even Norman said the dialect they used was incomprehensible to most) but it was quite a spectacle (still fixated on the broken glasses). The more knowledgeable monks question the juniors and if their answer is correct the elders clap their hands one way and, if the answer is wrong the hands are clapped the other way in over-exaggerated movements. I decided they were discussing their shopping list - Yes! Get toothpaste; Yes! Get bread; No! Don't get any more yak butter, we've got enough to last several reincarnations ... The elders twirled around in their maroon robes and Nike trainers and reminded me of Steven Segal (who's big buddies with the current Dalai Lama, currently in exile in India, by the way) with their wafty arm movements and over-acting. The juniors tended to look bored stiff, sitting on the floor and shuffling around to seek out shade or to avoid attention, I couldn't decide which.

With our guide we visited the Jokhang Temple, the oldest wooden structure in Tibet (@7th century) and it was literally at the end of our street so we walked. This was an especially holy place, particularly favoured by the monks for its city location and more relaxed attitude which, it seemed to me, allowed them more versatility with their hairstyles (shaven heads were not prescribed, apparently, and one sported a rather obvious moustache!) and we even saw one monk pootling around town on his matching maroon scooter, robes billowing behind him as he went. Cynicism aside, for the general population this was clearly a most reverential place. Many spend ages just getting there, prostrating at every step to complete their circumambulation.

It was a 'cleaning day' when we arrived here. I decided this was a euphemism for 'Picking up and pocketing the cash day' and only foreign visitors were allowed in. Those Tibetans who visit any of the temples, shrines or other holy places part with their hard-to-come-by money in great quantities, usually as an offering to the deity of their choice. You could literally roll on the floor in it. On this 'cleaning day' bountiful sackloads of cash were being filled up and piled high, though we also saw some banknotes being stuffed into individual monks' pockets. Maybe they'd run out of sacks ... Whatever, I thought it interesting that the locals were not allowed to see it happening.

Our final outing with Norman was to the Potala Palace, again very local to our hotel and providing us with the amazing view from our room window, especially when it was all lit up at night. I kept wanting to call it the Potato Palace, but this was more to do with the similarities of the words than any resemblance it had to a root vegetable - #You say Potala, I say Potato#. Maybe that doesn't quite work .... It was quite stunning, anyway.

Now, I'm generally a good walker and can easily cover miles and miles BUT only on flat terrain or going downhill. Put me on a hill or steps and I'm hopeless. So, you can imagine my thoughts when I saw the climb up the hill, with steps (over 1000 of them!) AND at altitude (we were down to 'only' 3600 masl now!). I was not at all confident I would be able to manage and agreed a meeting up point at the bottom if it all became too much and I had to turn around and go back down. However, we took it slowly, one step at a time, pausing occasionally for a rest or for Mrs Surbiton to remove one of the five layers of below-the-waist clothing she was wearing as it became warmer and more strenuous. And, yes, I think it was worth the climb. The Potala Palace is the final resting place of several dalai lamas and their tombs and shrines are at the very top, grand in scale and golden in colour. (Photos here and in other holy places are not allowed so I've nothing to post but that's better than having them and subsequently losing them!) Worshippers as well as tourists regularly make a pilgrimage to this most wonderful of places and I can understand why. It oozed spirituality from every brick.

There are, I understand, two main groups of people in Tibet, the Farmers and the Nomads. As you might expect, the Farmers stay put and tend the land while the Nomads move around, following their livestock. Many are uneducated as a result and we saw one couple in their Sunday best finery who had clearly made a pilgrimage to this holy place and were quite over-awed by the experience. Our guide tried to give them some information but they struggled to understand each other's dialect and, unfortunately, this elderly couple could not read so could not gain information from the explanatory notices. It was very moving for us to witness.

Our descent was somewhat quicker than our ascent as we used the gentle slope at the side of the palace to do it. Why we didn't use that on the way up was a question I didn't ask. Maybe that's the price you have to pay to see the tomb of a dead dalai lama. We came across an interesting painting concept on this route down. I'd noticed that many of the trees and grass in this area were coated in white paint. It turns out that was because instead of climbing ladders with paint-pot and brush, the local painters just stand at the highest spot and pour the paint down, covering shrubs, flowers, trees and grass as well as the walls. Hmmm - certainly sounds easier if somewhat less precise. I can't see it catching on for domestic DIY projects though.

Other things about Lhasa/Tibet that we learned during our time there:

* There were plenty of dogs, many of them pets, including the Lhasa Apso breed as you might expect. I asked our guide how popular the Tibetan Spaniel breed was. He'd never heard of it (so where is that dog we know at home as a Tibetan Spaniel from?) but I'd never heard of the Tibetan Mastiff he told me about so fair do's, though I gather the Mongols claim it as one of theirs....

* The traditional dress was still commonly worn by Tibetans and I was really smitten with it;

* Male yaks are apparently very lazy and stubborn so are no good for working the fields. The female yaks are much more amenable so they are used for this job instead, as well as for their milk for butter and the like. The male yaks have to pay the price of an early death, though, as their meat is much more tender as a result their laziness and they are eaten ahead of the females;

* All Tibetans, apart from the Dalai Lamas, are chopped up for the vultures in a 'sky burial';

* Tibetans don't have a familial name. It is traditional for a Lama to choose the name for a newborn but Lamas are becoming hard to find these days and much of this is being done over the internet now. That, or the parents just choose a name they like themselves. Now there's a thought ...

* I was surprised that Lhasa seems a very modern city. There's LOTS of newbuild, and more taking place;

* There's clearly significant amounts of 'new' money about, with sleek modern cars side-by-side with the usual moped of choice of the poorer people. There's also some designer-clad ladies strolling cheek-by-jowl with traditionally dressed or normally-clad ordinary, working folk;

* It's pretty chilly in Tibet so most of the mopeds/scooters have a bespoke, almost built-in duvet covering to keep the drivers' hands, lower bodies and feet toasty warm;

And then there's the political situation. The Chinese think Tibet belongs to them and it is classified as 'an autonomous region of China'. Many others, including most Tibetans and the Tibetan President himself (also currently in exile), think Tibet is an independent country. It was an issue we wanted to explore further with our guide but had been warned against by ManCanDo. Surprisingly, Norman brought the matter up himself and he was very open to discussion on that and other 'sensitive' topics. Norman's view was that China was determined to absorb Tibet into the Chinese mainland. The culture and language native to Tibet was slowly being eradicated, with only two hours per week of Tibetan language being permitted in schools, in favour of Chinese. Tibetans were not allowed to travel, or be given a passport, unless they were entrepreneurs or studying at a Chinese university. He referred to some atrocity that took place in Lhasa during the Beijing Olympic games. We were completely unaware of this but he pointed out a vast complex of high rise new build which he said was on top of a mass grave site resulting from the conflict. Regardless, many Tibetans are embracing the Chinese initiatives as they see this as the way of the future. OK, I know there's two sides to every story but it gave me pause for thought. Despite everything, we found the Tibetan country and people friendly, welcoming and interesting and I really, really liked it;

Norman was unable to accompany us to the airport on our last day. He said he had to attend a 'staff development' session 'to be brainwashed'. Just about says it all really.

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