One of my goals when I went to China was to visit Tibet and find out why it always held such mystery for me and many other people. Was it the effects of the altitude? Was it the spirituality of the people, their isolation? I had to find out.
The Chinese government doesn't really make it easy to get to Lhasa unless with an organized tour group. But from the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province, many independent tour operators organize ad hoc small groups. They typically arrange for one-way airfare and two nights lodging in a hotel dormitory. For foreigners the fare is about US$200. My Chinese traveling companion only had to pay $150. Relatively cheap either way but still discriminatory. There are two flights a day from Chengdu to Lhasa; one at 6:05 AM and the next one at 6:30 AM. The same two planes pick up passengers upon their arrival in Lhasa and return to Chengdu. There is also one flight a week from Beijing and a few flights a week from Nepal. Otherwise, the airport is pretty quiet.
Walking down the steps getting off the plane didn't quite seem real. Maybe it was the altitude or the temperature. It was sunny and relatively warm. The air was a lot cleaner than either Beijing or Chengdu. It wasn't long before the other members of our "group" and I started feeling the effects of less oxygen in the air... difficulty breathing and slight headaches were really all we experienced.
Everyone advises taking it easy the first day so we loaded into our prearranged van and drove to the Yak Hotel to take a nap. Don't worry, its not a real yak. Real ones are about twice that size. The rooms behind me in the picture had private baths and clean air conditioned rooms. Our room on the other hand, was a dormitory for 6, with no heat and no bath. The toilet and showers were across the courtyard. Thank goodness they provided really heavy blankets because although the February temperature during the day can climb into the high 60's (Farenheit), at night it drops below freezing!
Since we all got up at 4 o'clock AM to catch the plane, we were really tired. After our nap bout 3 o'clock my friend and I met a French doctor whom we had met in Xi'An. She lives in Lhasa and does research on a disease that affects only Tibetans. She took us to Jokhang temple, the most holy site in Lhasa, for the monks' evening prayers. (Unfortunately I don't have many digital pictures of the Jokhang.)
Walking up to the entrance of the temple you have to be careful not to step on the pilgrims prostrating themselves inch by inch into the temple. Hundreds of them. Inside the smell of yak oil and yak wax is overwhelming. The monks sit on cushions arranged in rows most of them facing forward to the empty throne of the Dalai Lama. The rows of cushions are split in the middle by another row perpendicular to them where the elders and leaders sit. Other than the candles and the body heat of hundreds of people, there is no heating in the temple so the Monks wear heavy red robes which I don't think are washed very often...
"Tashi delek" our guide said to one of the monks who knew her. She hurried us through the temple up some back stairs to watch the sunset. The roof of the temple was amazing. Figurines and religious articles surround the central platform. To let the candle smoke out, there is a hole in the roof, through which you can see below long tables filled with candles burning. Each one lit by a Tibetan in prayer. Everywhere colors explode in the ornamentation of their structures. From the roof of Jokhang you can see the Potala Palace, our destination the next day.
Listening to the monks chanting and watching the pilgrims in supplication, I started to recognize a devotion that I haven't seen before in any other religion. Perhaps their faith is enhanced in defiance of the Chinese and in the hope their spiritual leader will return some day.
The following day we walked down the street (about 8 blocks) to see the Potala Palace. Its an incredible sight, sitting atop a hill in the middle of town. After climbing the long stairway, we reached the east entrance. Photographs were not allowed inside in many places, unfortunately. Even more than in the Jokhang, the Potala Palace drips with color all around. Even the walkways are important enough for very detailed artwork. One of my favorite examples is the adornment at the top of the columns along the walkway. The images of dragons seem to enhance the mystical nature of this place. From the roof of the Potala you can see for miles out over the valley and up to the surrounding mountains some 15,000 to 20,000 feet high.
Just outside of the city lies another important monastery, Drepung, the traditional summer residence of the Dalai Lama. At one time, hundreds of monks lived here. Today, few monks still live here but there is a new office of the Public Security Bureau whose officers live on the grounds to "protect" and keep an eye on the monks who remain. There are a few temples but mainly residences. Inside the main temple, sits the throne of the Dalai Lama, who hasn't been here since 1959. From the roof of the temple, you can see out over the valley toward the city of Lhasa.
The population in Lhasa is now 60% Han Chinese and in Tibet as a whole the proportion of Chinese is increasing all the time. Despite the daily pressure from Chinese culture, the Tibetan people amazingly hold tightly to their own. They live a nearly nomadic life herding their livestock up to the mountains in the summer when it rains and down to the valleys in winter. But what impresses me the most is their devotion to the Dalai Lama. Although they have been cut off from their spiritual leader for more than 40 years, their love is still strong and not likely to diminish. Do you have that kind of faith? I don't know if I do...
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