The next morning, Tondop brought us to the centre of Lhasa and the Jokhang Temple. The Jokhang is the oldest temple in Lhasa, and along with the Potala Palace is the most expensive sight we’ve visited so far on our trip. Prices for entry to monasteries in Tibet is very high, ranging from €6-10. But there’s no point in coming to Tibet if you don’t visit the temples and monasteries, and this proved well worth the admission price. Taking pictures inside the temples is another thing – in the open areas and courtyards, photography is free. But inside, the price can be as high as €100 for photos or videos, so don’t expect any photos of the inside of temples (except the Potala Palace where photography is forbidden, but where I sneaked a few shots).It was the middle of Saga Dawa, a 15-day festival which culminates at the full moon, which marks the date of the Enlightenment of Buddha. We were on Day 8, which along with Day 10 and of course, Day 15, is considered particularly important. The square in front of the temple has two huge brick urns, which were pouring out the smoke of the flaming palm and juniper incense. All around us where we stood, pilgrims were prostrating themselves in front of the temple in prayer to Buddha. We walked into the temple and were greeted by a notable odour and a slippery surface underfoot; both the result of the copious amounts of yak butter. Most of the pilgrims hold a thermos flask or plastic bag of yak butter to add to the candles around the monastery as an offering to the countless Buddha embodiments. Monks around the temple convert 1Y notes (around €0.12) into 0.10Y notes, adding longevity to the pilgrims’ donations to each of the Buddha statues in the temple. There are hundreds of statues in each temple. The temple was absolutely mobbed, and there was a constant murmur of prayer as the people circumambulated the temple and numerous internal chapels in the traditional Buddhist clockwise direction. It was an impressive sight. As we stood in the courtyard inside the temple, we could hear singing, and our guide lead us up to the roof. We now had a view over Lhasa, situated on a flat plateau surrounded by mountains, as well as of the source of the music. Our guide told us that the Tibetans traditional work style is to sing while they build. They split into two groups and take it in turns to work and sing for 15 or so seconds, thereby conserving both energy and morale. They were all engaged in manual labour, but all smiling. We could have sat there all day – check out the video for yourself by clicking on the big picture below.
When we got back to the hotel, we found workmen installing telephone lines in our room, as almost everything in the hotel was still under construction. We were fed up, and I went to complain to our travel agent. As I was complaining, a Dutch group came in, and joined in. They started demanding a new hotel, and suddenly, there were five groups all demanding a new hotel. We were relocacted to really nice place, the Cool Yak Hotel, right on the doorstep of the Barkhor district – perfect location!The Barkhor district is reknowned in Lhasa, as it is a kora (pilgrimage circuit) around the perimetre of the Jokhang Temple. Only the uninformed, or purposefully disrespectful (ie Chinese authorities) attempt to circle the temple in an anticlockwise direction. In our Lonely Planet guide, it advised to walk it several times, because just like a snowflake, no two instances are ever the same. And it was true. We walked it in the afternoon, which was quiet and gave us an opportunity to interact with locals and discover temples on the side-streets branching off the main circuit. And we walked it again just after sunset, a popular time for pilgrims, which left us completely dumbfounded and overwhelmed. It was almost impossible to walk on the wide street at sunset as the ground was covered with prostrate pilgrims who had come from all over Tibet. Each of the regions is distinguishable by different hair, generally braided incorporating brightly coloured ribbons on both men and women, and traditional dress from head to foot. The people are immensely hospitable, and even invited us to join the turning of the massive prayer wheel in one of the small temples. Although we had not planned it this way, we were enormously lucky, as our trips to Tibet and Nepal, two of the most Buddhist populations in the world, would coincide with the key dates in one of the key Buddhist festivals of the year – pure coincidence! Maybe we had some special karma, but what is great about the timing is that there is so much activity and many more temples than usual are open. The Buddhists are reknowned for their non-violence, but the Chinese authorities in Lhasa take a different view. Throughout the monasteries are CCTV cameras. Near each monastery is a police station “for the monk’s protection”. In Lhasa, around the famous Barkhor market and circuit, army surveillance stand on rooftops, and every 100 metres is a police stand with several police and army. During lunch, we watched a bus arrive with a full squad of police who marched through the square. In the front of the temple and the prostrate pilgrims, a SWAT team officer stood with his automatic weapon,while two busloads of his SWAT colleagues arrived later to gather around the square. All entrances into the Tibetan part of the city are guarded by armed military, and several more patrol the streets. You’d think that you were in the middle of a war-zone, not one of the most peaceful people’s on Earth. The Chinese obviously aim to intimidate and exercise oppressive power, such is their habit. We spoke with many people who wanted to visit foreign countries but explained that the passport application process for a Tibetan normally lasts 5 years, with checks on the person, their family, their friends etc. You cannot even set foot in Tibet as a foreigner, without being part of a guided tour. The Chinese insist on holding a Chinese (or preferably Tibetan) national accountable for your actions, and their tool of choice is fear. And of course, the Dalai Lama, the holiest man in Buddhism is in exile, and his image (Buddhists venerate images of the Lamas) is forbidden. All Tibetans we spoke too expressly asked us to avoid addressing political issues as there are eyes and ears everywhere. As a tourist, hide your copy of the Lonely Planet or other guidebooks which mention the Dalai Lama, as the police will confiscate them if they have the chance. China – what a messed up society! There is no excuse for denying people human rights through a policy of fear and intimidation. Would you accept this in your country?
Moving on, one of the things we really enjoyed in Tibet was our visit to the Blind Massage. An NGO called Braille Without Borders (http://www.braillewithoutborders.org) sets up special schools for the blind in Tibet to educate them in English, massage and other skills which can earn them a living. It’s a great idea – massage is based on touch, and some people may prefer the extra privacy afforded them by a blind person. The massages were great, but what we enjoyed most was having tea with the staff afterwards. Genzen, Udun and Tashi were really hospitable and very capable people, and we admire them, their kindness and the charity very much. That was a very moving, and also relaxing, experience.
On our last morning in Tibet, the agency had messed up our itinerary. The agency was a disaster, so I insisted on seeing the manager (a Chinese man who didn’t speak any English). Eventually, one of the guides agreed to call him, during which time I was giving out to Corsen, our contact in Xi’an. We had had enough of the hotel, the noise, the messed up itinerary, and I demanded a full refund. We settled on a 1,000Y refund, which brought our budget back in nice shape. I felt bad for giving out to Corsen as he was very helpful and I recommend him, but beware of the agency in Lhasa who has a predisposition for making simple things messy.That afternoon, our third guide brought us to the Potala Palace. It’s a tall, glorious, red and white palace which towers over Lhasa. It’s a tough climb at altitude, but we would rise another kilometre in height the next day, so we were glad for the test, and we passed. There are views all around Lhasa from the palace, including of the area which was once a settlement around the palace, but is now a massive paved square for a Chinese flag – hmm cultural awareness. The Palace has a bit of a museum feel, as pilgrims visit in the early morning, and we were becoming a little tired of numerous Buddhist statues – our pre-work on Buddhism had not been completed! What are impressive are the golden stupas which house the tombs of now dead, now reincarnated Dalai Lamas. Also nice were the 14th Dalai Lama’s rooms which he used before being driven into exile. But what I liked most were the hanging clothes of auspicious symbols everywhere which constantly move in the wind, and the bright coloured walls of orange, blue and lime, which dazzle in the bright light and thin air of the mountains.
That night we made our final preparations for our trip to the Himalayas. We bought local Tibetan altitude medicine (no Western medicine available so stock up before you arrive), 20 litres of water (4 litres a day per person) and two cans of oxygen (€2 each) in case of emergency.
Lhasa, where the people are so devoted and so friendly and who face adversity with a smile and their favourite greeting; “Tashi Dele” (good fortune and happiness to you).