Morning, American breakfast?
I woke up about half an hour before my alarm was to go off at 8am, confused about what time it was since it was still pretty dark outside. I learned later that sunrise doesn’t start until about 8:30am.
Looking in the mirror was slightly jarring my first morning in Lhasa. Oh no! My eyes were really puffy, my nose was bleeding and my feet were swollen. Additionally, I had a huge headache. I frantically messaged my guide, Gelek, and he told me to drink plenty of water and not to worry because these symptoms were probably just from the altitude.
I made it down stairs with half an hour to spare before breakfast ended at 10am, which was also the time I was to meet Gelek in the hotel lobby. I expected there to be Tibetan fare or something Chinese-ish (basic fare of porridge, mixed vegetables or steamed buns), but there was only one plate of something that looked like an omelet left that I could see on the far burner as I peered into the kitchen window. A Tibetan woman arose from stringing beads in the back corner as I entered the seating area and asked if
I wanted some “coffee milk tea.” I automatically said “I want” at the word “coffee” before she could finish. My small glass of hot coffee came along with a big serving bowl of sugar. Turns out my hunch about the plate was right as she reheated it for me and chopped some fruit. Who knows how long it was sitting there, but I was hungry and not about to turn away free food. The bacon was sweet, like the way Chinese sausages tend to be. My coffee, on the other hand, tasted strangely game-y, like lamb…
Off to Potala Palace!
The path along the main Beijing Middle Road was crowded and full of various clothing shops. The streets were narrow compared to the Lhasa Development Zone, with its new high rise buildings, that we drove through last night. I was awestruck as Gelek and I rounded the corner to see the majestic palace towering in front of me. This is the place I’ve visualized for years and years, and here I finally was!!
As red and white walls gleamed in the sunlight and multicolored flags waved with the breeze, I felt an overwhelming sense of happiness. I could have stood there for hours, if not for the waves of pilgrims intent on making their kora (pilgrimage route). They had no qualms about pushing loiterers out of their way.
The lines into Potala through security went pretty fast due to it being the “off-season” for tourists, of which I am grateful. I did have to chug my bottled water as liquids weren’t allowed inside. Gelek, not wanting to have his lighter confiscated, tossed it under a lamp post for safekeeping until we came back.
Potala Palace is incredibly important to Tibet’s history as it was initially built to house a deity. Not to go into too much detail, Potala is the world’s highest ancient palace at 3,750 meters (12,300 feet) and towers over 100 meters (300 feet) above Lhasa. It houses over 1,000 rooms. The white part was originally built first by Songtsen Gampo, the King who initially unified Tibet and encouraged Buddhism within the region. Tibetans also believe him to be the reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion – most people would recognize this Buddha’s mantra of “Om Mani Padme Hum.”
I’ve read various stories about why Songtsen Gampo chose the Red Hill for his palace. The one Gelek told me was that the King was attached to a cave (which we saw deep inside) within which he would seclude himself to meditate – sometimes up to three years! Another story is that Songtsen Gampo loved his third wife, Chinese Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty, so much that he built the palace for her. His other two wives included a Tibetan noblewoman and a Nepalese Princess Bhrikuti Devi. Both foreign wives brought large statues of Sakyamuni Buddha as dowries and are seen as positive figures in Tibetan history. Gelek and I were able to see Princess Wencheng’s Buddha later in the day.
The climb up the steps was pretty steep. Gelek, who grew up around Everest and still takes people up to as far as the third base camp, had a jolly time. I, on the other hand, had to keep stopping with the elderly to catch my breath and make sure my heart didn’t pop out of my rib cage it was beating so fast. Victory for me though – I didn’t need to use my inhaler! Gelek proceeded to tell me stories as I fought to catch my breath every few steps or so. He told me that Potala Palace has been the main headquarters of the Dalai Lama, leader of the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hats, one of the four branches of Tibetan Buddhism. They all have the same beliefs, but they disagree on how to go about practicing them. Most Tibetans here practice the Gelugpa style.
I was so relieved when we finally reached the first gate. The rest of the steps inside were thankfully not as high and much slower going due to people having to squeeze around each other in tight spaces.
Before the Cultural Revolution, thousands of monks used to live here, devoting much of their time to study and prayer. What we were able to see today was what had been able to be saved from the destruction of the revolution. Now that the Chinese government heavily regulates the number of monks a city can have, Potala Palace is used mainly as a museum to safeguard its precious relics and holy treasures: the most holy being a Buddha statue that emerged on its own naturally out of a sandal wood tree.
Inside the Palace Walls
Some of my favorite sites were the brightly colored frescoes detailing the history of the land and stories of different Buddhas and their reincarnations. Some of what we saw included the seat of the Dalai Lama (past and present reincarnations), where monks studied, and neat old 7th century ventilation shafts. I remember reading how the name “Dalai Lama” meaning “Ocean of Wisdom” was actually bestowed by the Mongols in the 1300s when Tibet was incorporated into the Mongolian Empire’s Yuan Dynasty.
Interestingly, I saw that pilgrims would toss khata scarves, like the one Gelek gave me, to the various Buddha statutes and offer a prayer. White colors were for purity and orange for gold. The Tibetan Pilgrims would also offer money and butter from their personal drink canisters to pour into long troughs of yak butter candles. Some brought butter in solid form to scoop onto the candles.
A personal side note on butter candles. I was hit by the smell for the first time around the 12th floor while gazing at the Dalai Lama’s reception seat. I soon noticed these candles everywhere. Gelek told me that they are for Buddha, and that now, because it is cheap, sometimes people contaminate the butter with wax, chemicals or animal fat, which is not good. Ventilation in a lot of the rooms was poor, and the smell of the butter candles a bit overwhelming. It had me feeling lightheaded at some points, the smell slightly rancid and sweet. Sometimes the smell leaned more towards lamb fat, but oddly at more ventilated areas, the smell reminded me vaguely of Spaghetti O’s. I have a feeling I will not enjoy trying butter tea after spending the day surrounded by the pungent perfume of Tibetan butter candles.
I really appreciated being able to ask Gelek anything that came to mind. He seemed to especially delight in pointing out to me which ornate stupas or buddhas had human remains inside. One even had a past Dalai Lama’s brain!
I learned an enormous amount of information in the span of a few hours, especially since Gelek was adamant I try to memorize the names and which items to identify certain Buddhas by. Reincarnation orders of names were just too complicated for me to wrap my head around, and I gave up on that end. Needless to say, after our trek up and down Potala, we were both hungry.
Gelek asked me if I preferred Western, Chinese or local food. I stated local would be great! Which seemed to be the right choice as it turned out he doesn’t like western food and thinks Chinese food in Tibet isn’t up to cleanliness standards. Westerners who visit often only eat Western food, I’m told. He took me to a little hole in the wall where we had cups of barley tea and some yummy potatoes and pork belly over rice. We bonded over having worked in restaurants in the past. He told what he saw behind the scenes was not good, and how there are always also news stories of Chinese restaurants in Tibet closing because the government found out they reused cooking oil – only to have them open up again somewhere else due to the owners having shady inside connections.
After we ate, we then strolled around town, making our way to Johkhang Temple. Gelek stopped and waited as I spun some prayer wheels. Each wheel has a scroll with a mantra, prayer, inside it. For those who cannot read the Sanskrit or only know the mantras by heart, the wheels offer an easy solution as each rotation symbolizes one prayer made. There was a giant prayer wheel inside a small building for the elderly who had trouble turning the medium sized ones. Some pilgrims walked around spinning individual handheld prayer wheels.
A weird sad note that I learned, stray dogs don’t have it easy in Tibet. I noticed Gelek wasn’t interested whenever I pointed out cute dogs. He told me that strays are often lured and captured in order to be sold as meat to parts of mainland China. Some trucks come seasonally just to hunt these dogs.
Johkang Temple and Barkhor Street
Our last stop of the day was to visit Johkang Temple and glimpse Princess Wencheng’s dowry gift of the statue of 12 year old Sakyamuni Buddha, once known as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. I have an awkward habit of picturing Keanu Reeves whenever Sakyamuni is present, having had to watch the movie “Little Buddha” on repeat when I was little. I can assure you that this Buddha looked nothing like Keanu.
I have read that only two statues were made of Sakyamuni according to his actual height when he was alive, and he personally performed at their consecration ceremony. Buddhists believe the statues to be him, and thus viewing one would be the same as viewing him in person.
Gelek told me that we must make a kora around along the blessed steps around the temple first before we can go inside. Along the way, we walked along Barkhor Street, the main bargaining area, and witnessed pilgrims full-body kowtowing each step of the way. Some brought mats, but many, including young children, were barefoot and used their shoes to protect their hands from the cobble stones. Some pilgrims prostrated on mats they brought right in front of the temple, moving a bead on their prayer strings each time they kowtowed. Gelek told me each string has 180 beads, which helps them keep track of their prayers.
The inner courtyard of the Johkang Temple was very peaceful. The sky was impossibly blue and sunny, as I learned it usually is, with wind chimes and colorful prayer flags waving. What I was able to glimpse of the buddhas inside was absolutely gorgeous. We couldn’t stay in one position too long as it was crowded down below. I was a bit disappointed the roof was now closed to tourists doing stupid things last year. People…
Looking back, it was a wonderful, exhilarating and achey day indeed. I can’t believe I made it up all those steps, and then some. Thank goodness Gelek saw me back to the hotel. I was so sleepy after this (phone says we walked over 22,390 steps)! I forced myself up from a nap to view the Potala Palace once more at sunset.
On next morning’s agenda is about a seven-hour drive along the Brahmaputra/Tsangpo River, which is holy to both Buddhists and Hindus. We will spend the night in the town of Shigatse where Panchen Lama (second in command to Dalai) is headquartered at the Tashilhumpo Monastary!