We could feel the higher elevation of Lhasa as soon as we stepped off the train, and no longer had access to the outlets pumping out oxygen. The altitude here is 3650m and it took us about 24 hours to fully acclimatize. Once we did, we were able to focus more on the environment around us, rather than our gasping breaths. Truth be told, Mindy struggled with the altitude considerably more than Ligeia, but Ligeia was kind enough to taper her excitement and slow down to Mindy’s speed.
Our first evening in this bustling market city was quite low-key. After checking into our hotel, we went for a walk, where we were immediately bombarded with requests to “looky looky” at the wares merchants were trying to sell us, all of which of course were at “special prices”. Our white faces certainly stood out in the sea of Tibetan pilgrims walking their “kora” (a clockwise circuit around a holy place). This particular kora was the Barkhor circuit, around Jokhang Temple. We could have people-watched for hours, but as soon as the sun went down, the temperature plummeted and it started to snow. We quickly decided to head back to our hotel.
The next morning we started an extremely busy day with a visit to Potala Palace.
This massive structure, with over 1000 rooms, used to be the home of the Dalai Lama (before he was exiled in 1959), as well as a monastery for monks and Tibet’s government. Nowadays, only a handful of monks live there full-time to maintain the numerous Buddhist relics and keep watch over the countless visitors that march through the rooms. Little did we know that Buddhism was so complex! We learned that, in total, 1032 Buddhas would come to this earth one by one, with only 5 having come so far! We saw beautiful golden statues of Buddhas (past, present and future), previous Dalai Lamas (there have been 13 prior), and hundreds (if not thousands!) of Tibetans coming in to pray and make their offerings within the incense-filled chapels. These offerings, we learned, could be anything: barley, water, milk, money and yak butter. The last two were clearly the most popular. Yak butter, with its very distinct smell, is the smell of Lhasa. It is for sale in the markets, made into candles that burn in the temples, cooked into a hot drink (bo cha) and even formed into statues. It is clearly a staple in the daily lives of Tibetans, but for us, we haven’t yet acquired a taste (or smell!) for the omnipresent dairy product.
Our day continued with a visit to the aforementioned Jokhang Temple.
The Buddhist relics, yak butter and incense smell, and ornate paintings and wall carvings were all familiar and similar to what we witnessed at Potala Palace. The highlight for us was when we climbed to the roof and were able to watch people walking through Jokhang Square below.
Our tourist day ended with a visit to Norbulinka, the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama.
Since he is banished from Tibet and lives in northern India, the palace serves mainly as a place for tourists. The grounds must be magnificent in the summer when flowers are in full bloom. In early Spring, we could only imagine how lush and beautiful it would be.
On our last day in Lhasa, we visited two monasteries: Deprung…
…and Sera. They both currently house about 600 monks each, and the definite high point was witnessing them debate, in their native Tibetan language. Apparently, this is their only time each day to discuss their opinions of what they have learned with their fellow monks. At all other times, they are to pray, meditate and reflect on their own. It was certainly amazing to watch and listen to their very lively debates!
We leave Lhasa tomorrow on a 3-day journey to the Nepalese border. We both have a similar impression of Lhasa: it is one of an oppressed Tibet. There is a very strong presence of China’s military and police. They stand guard on the rooftops, in the middle of markets and on every street corner.
We are told they are there to prevent riots from breaking out. We get the feeling it’s only a way for China to flex their muscles. Also, it is apparently illegal to have any pictures of the Dalai Lama or have the Tibetan flag (regardless of how small). We learned that there are actually Chinese officials who are employed to randomly search Tibetan homes for these contraband items and prosecute offenders with jail time.
Despite the fact that Tibetans are forced to live under the Chinese flag, and we see them as clearly oppressed, they have been nothing but friendly, warm and welcoming to us. Heck! Mindy even learned how to make vegetarian momos (similar to dumplings) from the cook at our hotel. They were delicious, by the way!
Thanks for reading and we’ll post again soon with our tales from the Friendship Highway!
Lots of love,
Ligeia and Mindy 🙂