Wednesday, March 26, 2008

CD182: Winter Holiday - Tibet

Since its been over a month since I have RETURNED from my winter vacation I figured it was probably about time I sat down and wrote about the last leg of my journey.

PLEASE NOTE: Due to the sensitive nature of current events in China, please DO NOT respond to this posting with any political comments or questions. Please keep in mind where I live and who I work for. Attempting to ask me anything will only serve to potentially get me in trouble here. Thank you and now for the interesting travels.

After spending Chinese New Year in Shanghai and a quick weekend trip to Suzhou, Andreana and I met back up in Shanghi for our great adventure: Tibet! We didn't realize until we got to the airport that we'd have a layover in Xian so our total flight time would be about 5 hours. We were preparing for landing in Lhasa when the flight attendants came and re-closed the curtains between coach and first class - we knew this wasn't a good sign. Minutes later after the questioning murmurs got fairly loud, they finally came on the loud speakers and announced that the Lhasa airport was closed and we would be going back to Xian. How we managed to get less than 20 minutes from the airport before they knew the airport was closed is beyond me, but at least they were prepared and we had enough fuel to get back. After a lot of confusion back at the airport, the airlines told us we could not have our checked luggage and they would be putting us up in a hotel with dinner and breakfast provided and a rescheduled flight for early the next morning. After over 14 hours of traveling, we'd ended up about 2 hours from where we'd started early that morning.

At the hotel we met 2 Australian girls and an American couple. The Aussies had been delayed once already to Lhasa, and the Americans were almost  a week behind schedule waiting for flights into the city. We hoped that we would be the trick to ending their bad luck streaks, and thankfully we were! We were able to call our tour company and make arrangements so they were there to great us at the airport. We were given white prayer flags at the airport by our tour guide, but there is more ceremony when you get lei'd in Maui. The trip from the airport to Lhasa use to take almost 2 hours but they have recently built new roads, bridges, and even tunneled through a mountain to make it about 45 minutes. Thankfully Andreana's mom had thought to send her a prescription for anti-altitude sickness pills or perhaps thankfully we have strong constitutions - either way, neither one of us were feeling the effects of the altitude sickness so we were able to catch some of the sights we had missed due to the flight delay instead of using the day to adjust.

Note: Most of the history behind the places we traveled in Lhasa and surrounding areas were from what we read in my Lonely Planet book. Our 2nd tour guide was up front and told us at the start that there would be things he could not answer us about. The history of the area is quite interesting although quite sensitive. The biggest points of interest are the Lamas, the Uprising of 1959 and the Cultural Revolution. The current Dalai Lama has not lived in Tibet since 1959 and currently lives in India. The current Panchen Lama lives in Beijing, and if I remember correctly has not returned to Tibet since he left as a child. Many temples, monasteries, etc were damaged or destroyed during the Uprising and the subsequent Cultural Revolution. Restorations have been done in many locations, but the scars and stories still remain. The population of Lhasa is more than 50% Han Chinese which is due mostly to the Chinese government offering Han Chinese people great incentives to move to Lhasa. The new train that connects Tibet to the rest of China has further facilitated this rapid immigration.

The first place we went was the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lamas, Norbulingka. The various temples and buildings that were open were beautiful, but the grounds themselves weren't too much to talk about. In all fairness, we visited in February and the gardens aren't really going that early. Much of the Palace and surrounding area is still in need of repair.

Our hotel was in an area called Barkor, just up the street from Barkor Square and Jokhang Temple. We were afraid these things would be kicked off our itinerary so we walked there ourselves and joined a huge group of pilgrims as they circumambulated the temple. (In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, things are done in a clockwise pattern and never clockwise. This includes walking around and inside temples and the spinning of prayer wheels.) I had my first taste of yak and must say it's quite tasty. I then attempted to eat it at every meal thereafter.

The incredible masses of pilgrims were awe inspiring. For many of them, they will only travel to Lhasa once in their lifetime. The truly devote prostrate themselves all the way from where they live into the city taking months to do so. Prostration is complex: while standing, your hands are put in a prayer position then touched to your head, throat, and heart, and then you kneel keeping your hands in prayer position followed by lying full on the ground with your arms stretched straight in front of you. If you are prostrating to or around a sacred place, you would then step forward the length of your body and repeat the process until you reach your destination. If you are prostrating in front of a sacred place such as a temple, you would most likely do it 108 times. Our arrival to Tibet came during the beginning of the Tibetan New Year so the number of pilgrims was high - there are many particularly auspicious days around the New Year when Tibetan Buddhists feel it's a more powerful time to do their pilgrimages.

For our 2nd day in Lhasa we went to the breath-taking Potala Palace. The Potala consists of the White and Red Palace and numerous additional buildings making it the massive formation on the top of Marpo Ri (Red Hil). If you do nothing else, please look at my pictures of it to try to get an idea of what I mean. Most of the building leading up to the palaces are Chinese government offices and their presence is strongly felt. It was previously the winter palace of the Dalai Lama and within its walls were the Tibetan government offices, chapels, schools for religious training,  and tombs for the Dalai was in a sense a self-contained city. The Potala is the final resting place of 3 previous Dalai Lamas. Around the Potala is another popular pilgrimage kora (circuit) and almost the whole path is marked with prayer wheels.

Important religious articles are prayer flags, prayer scarves, yak butter, tsampa, prayer wheels and prayer beads. The prayer flags are probably the best known to foreigners - they are red, white, yellow, blue and green with each color representing a different element. Prayer scarves are usually white and are often brought by pilgrims to leave as offerings. Yak butter is what is used for the candles within the temples and chapels and can be given as either the butter or as oil. Yak butter along with tsampa (barely flour), fruit, chang (barely beer), water, sweets, seeds, tea and money are often left at altars. Different buddhas get different gifts - it all seems quite complex. Prayer beads can be anything as long as there are 108 of them. Prayer wheels usually have the prayers of the Compassion Buddha in them. The Compassion Buddha mantra (
Om Mani Padme Hum) is the most common. It is written on flags, scarves, small papers that are thrown into the wind, and carved into stones.

After the Potala we went to the outdoor Kumbun Pagoda of the 1000 Buddhas. They have all been painted on to a giant rock face. Next to the paintings is a large group of people who carve the Compassion mantra into small flat stones. Those stones have then been placed into a large pyramid shape at the top of a nearby hill. There was also a room of 1000 yak butter candles - 1 for each Buddha.

At the Sera Monastery later that day, we were privileged to arrive at the assembly hall when the monks were busy ready scriptures and chanting. Most of the monasteries in Tibet no longer have as many monks as they use to as their number are being controlled and being a monk is not as "popular" as it use to be. Here our tour guide was able to talk us into visiting the kitchen where we got to see some monks working hard at making yak butter rice and yak butter tea for their fellows. We were finally able to try yak butter tea after failing many times before. I wouldn't say it was delicious, but I wasn't expecting it to be. It is tea made of butter after all. It was an experience however and now I can cross "Drinking Yak butter tea at a monastery in Tibet" off of my list of things to do.

We ended up with enough time to fit in another visit to Barkor Square and The Jokhang - this time going into the temple. After the Potala, I didn't feel the Jokhang was nearly as impressive although it's considered a holier place for Tibetans. The lines were incredibly long and the military presence was stifling. Most of the chapels were blocked with heavy chain-link curtains we had to peer through.

The next day we headed out of Lhasa along what we term the Southern Friendship Highway - the longer way to Mt. Everest. At the 4794km peak of Kamba-la we were able to ride some yaks and get an amazing view of Yamdrok-tso, one of the 4 holy lakes in Tibet. Apparently foreign tourists have been known to swim in it, the Chinese use the water as any other (for washing clothes, fishing, etc), and the Tibetans circumambulate it (a 7 day walk) and revere the wrathful deities that live there. It was an amazing shade of deep turquoise and quite stunning set off by the surrounding brown hills.

We stopped briefly in Gyantse to visit Pelkor Monastery and its impressive Kumbun (or stupa) that is over 35 meters tall. The Pelkor is interesting because it is the only complex that brought together all 3 different orders of Tibetan Buddhism in one place. We continued on to Shigaste were we spent the night and were free to explore ourselves. Andreana and I found some fun outdoor markets and the hugest prayer wheel I have seen to date.

Before leaving Shigaste the following day, we visited Tashilhunpo Monastery. This monastery is the seat of the other lama lineage, the Panchen Lamas. This is the burial site of the Panchen Lamas and home of the largest gilded statue - a 26 meter figure of the Future Buddha. The day ended near the town of Shegar. We were slightly confused as we thought we were spending the night at the Everest Base Camp and couldn't figure out why we couldn't see Everest. Due to some...politically charged activities of a recent foreign tourist, its now almost impossible to stay at the actual base camp. The military presence on the highway is very evident and we had to stop frequently to show our documents and go through check points. Where we stayed was literally in the middle of nowhere about 3 hours from Everest. We had no water, no power, and nothing to do. Thankfully it was just for 1 night...and the night sky was amazing!

Early the next morning we rose before the sun did and headed to the base camp and Mt. Everest. There was 1 final check point where we had to again show permits and register our passports before we could pass. Then, at the road that leads to the base camp, we had a military inspection then a military escort to the actual camp. Before we got out of the car, the officer made it very clear to us about what we could and could not do. We had to take anything we wanted to use out of our pockets and show it to him then. We could not walk past certain points or we'd be fined...and who knows what else. What most don't realize is Mt. Everest Base Camp is actually a working military base. So, this tourist I mentioned earlier who decided that he had a statement to make, really just served in making it a lot more difficult for the rest of us. We managed to get out of the car, followed by our escort and walked up a small hill to get a good view of the mountain. Absolutely amazing. It's the strangest thing to see something in real life that you never thought you would.

After taking about a million pictures of the mountain and in front of the mountain, we went back down the street to "The Highest Monastery in the World". Tibet just doesn't get enough of this....they have "beer from the top of the world", "restaurant at the top of the world" and even a marker for "the highest toilet in the world". The monastery was rather drab and in need of serious repair, but they get to see Mt. Everest every day so life can't be too hard. We then took our escort back to his check point and took the long drive back to Shigaste. With nothing else to see in the area, we just stayed for the night and headed back to Lhasa the next day. Safely back in Lhasa we took one last stroll through the Barkor, stocked up on necessities, and packed for our trip home.

We decided to take the newly completed train from Lhasa back home - the full length of the route which takes about 3 days. We had lucked out that the whole time we were in Lhasa the weather was nicer than in while we were traveling around the rest of China. As we were leaving Lhasa on the train, it started to snow! What luck. They hadn't had much snow in the previous weeks so it hadn't been too bad of a winter for them. The train was supposed to be the ideal way to travel as the Tibetan plateau is quite beautiful. There was a lot of yak, and a lot of hills (brown hills, white hills, brown hills again)...I wasn't too awe inspired. is the highest train in the world.