Lhasa, Tibet, China
21.08.2011 - 03.09.2011 15 °C
21st August 2011
And tour number two is underway. We’ve had our introductory meeting, a whistle stop tour of Kathmandu and now we’re sat at the airport waiting for a flight to Lhasa – the highest city in the world. The next two weeks are a trip of a lifetime on their own, and I’m incredibly excited to be going.
Lhasa itself sits at 3700m and Tibet is officially an autonomous region of China. The population of Lhasa is 50% Tibetan and 50% Chinese. We arrive in Lhasa and have our bags searched. Our tour leader has already prepared us for this: the authorities are looking for any trace of information about the Dalhi Lama, and so we hide our guidebooks in our dirty laundry. As a group, we manage to keep two of the three lonely planets. The fourth is discovered and confiscated.
My first glimpse of the Potala palace is from the rooftop of the Joksang temple – one of Tibet’s most revered temples and also one of its most smelliest. The stench of Yak butter, given as an offering, is nauseating. Set against a backdrop of snow capped mountains, Lhasa’s most famous residence doesn’t fail to impress. The suns rays shine down from amongst the clouds, illuminating the palace. It’s simply breathtaking.
We wait a day or so to adjust to the altitude before climbing the 200 steps up to the palace. We’re given an hour to look round (the length of time the ticket is valid and clearly not enough time). We enter this forbidden place and are greeted with a treasure trove of rich culture and history. Left in disrepair, dust has settled heavily over everything. We walk around the tombs of past Dalhi Lama’s, through reception rooms and studies, monasteries and bedrooms. Pictures of the current Dalhi Lama (number 14) are forbidden, so pictures of the 13th Dalhi Lama occupy the most sacred sites instead. In the corner of every room hangs a security camera that watches your every move. We’re strictly told not to discuss politics whilst we’re here.
In the afternoon, I join the throngs of pilgrims as they circle the Joksang temple. Wearing traditional Tibetan clothing, spinning prayer wheels and murmuring prayers, they walk along in a constant state of meditation. A single prayer wheel contains a hundred prayers rolled up inside. Spinning the wheel pushes the air through the paper, effectively reciting them on behalf of the pilgrim. Every so often, I spot a pilgrim from eastern Tibet who has walked all the way to Lhasa to pay his respects at the temple. Eastern Tibetans are considered the least fortunate in society and it’s a good deed for any Tibetan (and tourist) to help them out. Dressed in a thick leather, shoesmiths apron, with wooden blocks fixed to their hands, they move through a series of prayer like poses, rather than walking. They begin by standing upright, reaching up to the sky before kneeling on the floor and sliding the wooden blocks along the floor until they are laid flat with their hands together behind their head. They then return to a standing position before repeating the process again. Some are just young boys.
The following afternoon we take a hairy taxi ride from central Lhasa to the Monks debating chamber. In the main temple, we receive a blessing from a monk. As we climb the steps to the entrance, a monotonous chant can be heard. We sneak inside the entrance to see inside a semi circle of monks, dressed in red cloth, reciting the days prayers. We stand and observe the scene for a few minutes, before the monks split into smaller groups and begin debating. A group of students are sat on the floor asking a teacher questions. Once the question is asked, the teacher hops onto one foot, throws his left arm behind him, swinging it full circle over his shoulder, before bringing it down to meet the other and clapping, whilst simultaneously shifting from one foot to the other. Apparently this means it's a fair question. They then launch into their argument. It's fascinating to sit and watch although some of the monks seem to be doing it for show and some seem more interested in the tourists...
The influx of Chinese to Tibet is surprising. Incentivised by generous cash and tax incentives from the Government, the population of most cities is now 50% Chinese and 50% Tibetan. There’s often fighting between the younger generations especially in bars and nightclubs, and for this reason, it’s recommended we avoid them.
Military roam the streets and uniformed guards sit in perspex boxes on street corners. As you’re walking around, it doesn’t take long before armed guards march past you in groups of five and come to a halt. They stand in a line – one facing forward, one behind, one facing left, one facing right and one in the middle. And inside the temples and palaces guards sit dressed in orange.
Later in the trip we spend some time in a traditional Tibetan village where we’re told spot checks and fines are common place for not displaying appropriate regalia. The country is changing and fast. It’s sad to think what further changes will happen when the current Dalhi Lama passes away and the current Panchen Lama (chosen by the Chinese) appoints a successor.
I’m lucky to see what’s left of Tibet. This incredible place may not be here for much longer.