Tibet


On any visit to Lhasa, there are a few sites you just can’t miss.  In addition to Jokhang Temple (as discussed in our last post), the must-see attraction is Potala Palace.  As we arrived by bus from the airport, I suddenly caught a glimpse of the Palace.  Built into the side of a hill, the Palace rises above the rest of Lhasa enabling a view of the striking building from most vantage points in the city.
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Construction of the Potala Palace commenced in 1645, with the white palace completed in 1648 and the red palace completed in the 1690s.  In total, the Palace consists of 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and 200,000 statues.  The white palace was used as the Dalai Lama’s winter residence while the red palace was devoted to religious study and prayer and houses the tombs of several former Dalai Lamas.

Fortunately for visitors, the number of people allowed in the Palace each day is limited.  During our visit, we felt like we had the place to ourselves most of the time.  It was especially interesting to see the former living quarters of the Dalai Lama.  While not spartan, the residence was definitely not as opulent as many of the royal palaces in Europe.
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In what was probably the highlight of our stay in Lhasa, we visited the Sera Monastery.  Prior to the Cultural Revolution, the monastery housed some 5,000 monks; now, a few hundred remain.  There are multiple chapels in the monastery.  In one, we found gorgeous statues and a large group of pilgrims fighting their way around the chapel.  In another, we happened upon a ceremony where dozens of monks were chanting in deep voices – somewhat soothing, but also a little frightening.
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At 3:00 p.m., we headed to the garden near the monastery.  Every day, hundreds of monks gather there for 2 hours of furious debates.  From our observations, the monks split up into groups of 2 or 3 monks, with 1 of the monks assigned the duty of asking the other monk(s) a serious of questions.  Depending on the answer or in order to make a point, the questioning monk slaps his hands together in a somewhat violent manner.  It makes the US Presidential Debates look incredibly boring.  It’s readily apparent that the monks truly enjoy the debates, with the monks smiling and laughing frequently.  The debates are a long-standing tradition that will hopefully continue.
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With Shanna in bed with a stomach virus on Sunday afternoon (Tibetan Food – 1; Shanna – 0), I headed to the Drepung Monastery, which at one time was the largest monastery in the world, housing over 7,000 monks.  After enduring a bus ride that took an hour and a half (but should have only taken 20 minutes; long story) and then almost getting into a fight with a Chinese cab driver who was trying to rip me off (luckily, I outweighed the guy by about 100 pounds), I made it to the monastery right before closing time.  Since this is the low season anyway, I had the monastery free to myself (well, other than the 1,000 monks and countless sheep who live there).

After roaming the monastery (which is built on the side of a mountain) for about an hour and getting completely lost, I noticed a monk on top of a nearby building.  I waved at him and pointed in both directions trying to get some advice on which way I should go.  He pointed the way towards his building, which turned out to be the monk’s living quarters.  Once I made it to his building, I looked up and asked for further direction.  He pointed to the door and made gestures that I should come join him on the roof.  Who am I to turn down a monk?
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Once upon the roof, the smiling monk – who was enjoying the beautiful afternoon and reading his prayer book – asked if I’d like some tea.  Again, who am I to turn down a monk?  Next thing you know, I’m following him to his spartan living quarters on the first floor.  The room, which was about 8 feet in length, 6 feet wide and 5 feet high, was simply furnished with a tiny cot and about 30 religious books.  Attached was a tiny room where there was a small stove for boiling water.  Once we entered the room, he offered me a seat on the cot and prepared the tea.

For the next hour, we flipped through pages of a Tibetan/English phrasebook he had in his room, trying to learn tidbits of information about each other.  I learned that he was 34, became a monk at 14, was not from Tibet but from a neighboring province, was a big fan of the Dalai Lama and had an older brother who was killed as part of the Cultural Revolution.  After drinking several glasses of tea and exhausting all of the relevant phrases in the phrasebook, I said goodbye.  It was an experience I will never forget.

Sera Monastery Video:

Potala Palace Video:

Quickly after arriving in Lhasa, Tibet, I fell in love with the place. The more I travel, the more I seek out places that are truly foreign. I seek experiences that just don’t make sense. These types of experiences abound in Lhasa.
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Lhasa has expanded to a population of over 250,000. Much of this growth has been in the new part of Lhasa, with its generic Chinese-style concrete buildings. The old part of the city – Barkhor – is where the real action takes place. Walking down the narrow alleys, your senses are overwhelmed with monks and religious pilgrims begging in the streets, yak carcasses being slaughtered by local butchers and yak cheese and yak butter being sold by the pound (or, actually, by the kilo).1
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As you wind your way down the alleys, you’ll eventually reach Barkhor Square, the heart of the old city. The centerpiece of the square is Jokhang Temple, the holiest site for Tibetan Buddhists. The Jokhang Temple was built in 642 (yep, that’s 1,365 years ago!) to house the Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha, a gold Buddha statue brought to Tibet by a Nepali princess who married the then-king of Tibet and basically started Tibetan Buddhism. The statue has become the most venerated object for Tibetans.

Many Tibetans make a pilgrimage to Lhasa at least once in their lifetime just to visit the Jokhang Temple and its Jowo Buddha. Of course, they can’t just hop on I-65 and arrive in Lhasa in a few hours. The journey, through harsh terrain, can take weeks or even months. Some of the most reverent Tibetans travel by way of prostration, where they place their hands together, touch their foreheads, chest and stomach and then slide across the ground making sure to touch their forehead to the ground (resulting, in some cases, in wounds on their forehead). After the slide is complete, they get up, walk 2 or 3 steps to the spot where their hands ended up after the slide and then repeat. As you can imagine, this is not a very fast mode of travel. I’ve read that some Tibetans have spent years traveling between holy sites in Tibet by way of prostration.
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When we first approached Barkhor Square and the Jokhang Temple, we were swept up in the “kora” of the Jokhang Temple. The kora is a route traveling in a clockwise direction around the temple. From dawn to late in the night, you can see many Tibetans traveling this route either by walking or by way of prostration in hopes of earning merit as a Buddhist. Many of the Tibetans are holding a prayer wheel which is basically a stick with a wheel on the end, which houses prayers written in Tibetan script. As the wheel is moved in a clockwise direction, the prayers are released up to heaven. Similar prayer wheels line the sides of building and temples, allowing you to turn the prayer wheels as you walk by.
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The line to visit the Jokhang Temple was extraordinarily long. After waiting for a few minutes, a few of the pilgrims tried to explain to us in Tibetan that we foreigners (who were going to pay a sizeable entrance fee) weren’t required to wait in the line. After some hand gestures, we finally figured out the protocol and made our way to the main entrance. The temple was quite dark inside, relying on yak butter candles to provide most of the lighting. Instead of doing a quick tour of the temple, we decided to jump back in line with the pilgrims who were slowly visiting the many side chapels that housed multiple statues of Buddha and other gods.

The devotion and reverence of the pilgrims was extraordinary. They took their turns touching their forehead to the altars, leaving small sums of money in front of the statues and refilling the candles with a fresh batch of yak butter (which has a distinct smell that I won’t soon miss). Unlike most of the temples, mosques and churches I’ve visited throughout the world that seem more museum than place of worship, this place was alive. After the Cultural Revolution in China that prohibited religion in Tibet for several years, you got a sense that the pilgrims to the temple wanted to get in all the worshipping they could just in case they are prohibited from doing so once again. We left the temple emotionally exhausted (and physically sore after enduring the endless pushing of the pilgrims as we made our way through the temple).

  1. By the way, if you’re waiting for a post on Tibetan food, don’t hold your breath. The cuisine of Tibet can be summed up with one word – yak. Just imagine a high-quality piece of Angus beef, then think of the opposite. That’s yak. Enough said. []

Until only a few years ago, the only thing I knew about Tibet was that lots of people who like the Grateful Dead, hugging trees and world peace (according to the many bumper stickers on their car) also wanted Tibet to be free.
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The Tibet Autonomous Region is technically a part of China, but it is a world apart.  The people, the language, the religion, the clothes, the culture, the food – well, everything – is different from the rest of China.  It is geographically located in the western part of China, north of India and Nepal.  In Southern Tibet lie the great Himalaya mountains, including Mt. Everest which straddles the border of Tibet and Nepal.  With an average elevation of 15,400 feet, Tibet is known as the “Rooftop of the World”.

The greatest distinguishing characteristic of Tibet is its religion.  Tibetans practice a form of Buddhism that is unique to this area.  To a Westerner’s eye, it is much more ritualistic and colorful than schools of Buddhism you’ll find in other parts of Asia.  When you’ve seen pictures of monks wearing funny-looking hats and chanting “Om” in a deep voice, there’s a good chance they were Tibetan Buddhists.
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The leader of the Tibetan Buddhists is the Dalai Lama1.  According to Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of a prior Dalai Lama.  He is to Tibetans as the Pope is to Catholics – and then some.  They worship him.   As you may know, the Dalai Lama met President Bush while on a US visit a few weeks ago.  This was major news in Tibet and in China (where the officials expressed their great disappointment on the meeting).  In fact, the government temporarily halted issuing permits for foreigners to visit Tibet2  Luckily, they quickly changed the policy, and we were able to obtain a permit.
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Tibet and China have had a long history as neighbors, with Tibet remaining independent from China for most of its history.  This began to change in the past few decades.  In 1950, China invaded Tibet, making Tibet a “national autonomous region” with the Dalai Lama still in charge.  This didn’t go well, and things started getting ugly.  Eventually, it got so bad that the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet in 1959, making India his new home.

The next several years were brutal for Tibet.  Communist China and its anti-religion movement had a field day in Tibet, banning religion, destroying religious buildings (reportedly over 4,000 monasteries were destroyed) and burning religious texts during the Cultural Revolution.  Many Tibetans, including monks and nuns, lost their lives during this time.   The Tibetans refer to this period as the time that the “sky fell to the earth.”
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After the ban on religion was removed in 1976, Tibetan Buddhism and culture began to re-emerge.  Calls for independence from China have occurred since then, but have been quickly squashed by the Chinese government.  Therefore, the “Free Tibet” cause has largely occurred outside the borders of Tibet.  Of course, the Chinese are not willing to budge on their stance on Tibet, noting that Tibetans should be thankful to the Chinese for rescuing them from the serfdom that existed before the Chinese arrived and for investing millions of dollars in Tibetan infrastructure and other government services.

The future of Tibet is unclear.  Thousands of Chinese are moving into Tibet because they believe opportunity awaits them, similar to the Go West movement in America in the mid-1800s.  This mass migration, plus the increase of Chinese tourists, has been facilitated by the recent completion of a new railway linking mainland China with Tibet.  Many Tibetans believe this addtional Chinese influence will ultimately lead to the dissolution of the Tibetan culture and an end of Tibet as it is today.  Stay tuned!

  1. So I jump ship in Hong Kong and make my way over to Tibet, and I get on as a looper at a course over in the Himalayas. A looper, you know, a caddy, a looper, a jock. So, I tell them I’m a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald… striking. So, I’m on the first tee with him. I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one — big hitter, the Lama — long, into a ten-thousand foot crevice, right at the base of this glacier. And do you know what the Lama says? Gunga galunga…gunga — gunga galunga. So we finish the eighteenth and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.” – Carl Spackler (aka Bill Murray), from Caddyshack, the movie.  Sorry, folks, but I had to do it. []
  2. In order to enter Tibet, foreigners must be part of a “tour group” and be issued a permit, which of course costs money.  I’m assuming the permit is there in order to keep out “Free Tibet” activists, but it’s mainly a farce and an easy way for the Chinese government to make money.  For independent travellers – like us – who avoid tour groups at all costs, with the help of travel agencies you are able to receive a permit as a “tour group” of two – in our case, Shanna and me – and not actually have a guide or set itinerary. []