Just to say we arrived safe and sound today. We were very pleased when we turned up at the airport to find we were on a new looking boeing, and not some old Russian jet for going over the Himalayas! Great journey - views of the Himalayan ranges, and with plenty of the bigger mountains having snow, even in summer. The biggest mountains around here are over 7,000m by the way. No wonder they seemed so close to the plane!
We had fantastic sunny days every day in Lhasa, and a rather hot 26 degrees average temperature. The sun is very gleary at this altitude, but again a very dry heat. Sitting at 3800m - that is as high as Mt Aoraki folks. Thats New Zealand's highest mountain by the way. And what we did notice straight away here was our difficulty in breathing. Neither of us have been this high before and we never really adjusted completely (but that may be because we were a little unwell on top of the altitude - although being this high may have caused us to be sick in the first place). As Nancy says, it seemed like we were in permanent air conditioning, when your lungs and mouth start to dry out rapidly with each step you take.
We found a lovely hotel where every morning we could have breakfast on the rooftop looking at the surrounding hills and of course the Potala Palace. Fantastic. One night we had some heavy rain, and in the morning, it was a lot more fresh, and there was snow on the surrounding hills/mountains - in the middle of summer.
We, of course, walked straight down to the Palace for a gander at this amazingly high Palace looming over the city in the afternoon. This is the home of the Dalai Lama (or was until the Chinese took over Tibet in the 1950s). He, of course, has not been back since. Stunning building, in a stunning setting. In the end, we did not visit the inside of the Palace. As many of you may know, the Chinese have amazingly just finished a trainline that goes over the Tibetan Plateau linking Lhasa with the rest of China. An amazing feat in engineering, but this train is going to have some pretty dramatic effects on the lives of Tibetan people - a lot of it probably pretty negative. The train is already booked up for three months in advance with the hordes from Beijing. And the Chinese, never ones to miss out on a commercial opportunity, have put the price of the Palace up to $36 US per foreigner. The Chinese pay a lot less, but they still have to pre-book back in Beijing as there are only 1,000 tickets available per day. Even if we had wanted to pay that price, we would not have been able to get a ticket. Sounds all pretty bad, but Nancy and I were very happy with our time in Lhasa. The Palace is really something to be viewed at awe from the outside. It sits on the slopes of Mount Marpori (Red Mountain), incredibly some 300 metres above the floor of the valley. It ranked amongst the worlds tallest buildings until the 20th century skyscrapers were built and is still the tallest palace in the world and listen to these stats - The structure is 117 metres high with over 1000 rooms - only a fraction of which are open to the public. It is also 400 metres east to west and 350 metres north to south. But from what we know of the Palace, it is pretty stuffy inside, and is definitely not a living part of Tibetan Buddhism. The Palace is run by the Chinese tourist authorities, and the practice of Buddhism is essentially banned within the palace, as are images of the 14th Dalai Lama. And although the locals still revere the place, we could not go, so decided to focus our attention on the living monasteries in the hills surrounding Lhasa, and the most revered sight, the Jokhang Temple in the old city centre.
The Jokhang Temple is Tibet's most sacred shrine, and pilgrims come here from all over Tibet. The ritual is that the pilgrims will start by walking around the kora (pilgrim) circuit around the temple. In the case of Jokhang, the circuit is called The Barkhor and it weaves its way around the 1300 year old temple. Viewing this is a very rich cultural experience. The sight of all the different Tibetan people with weathered faces and in their tribal costumes are incredible. And the vendors lining the Barkhor sell every kind of Tibetan stuff one can imagine. Yak/sheep/goat skin jackets, Tibetan horns, swords, daggers, helmets, saddles etc. Apparently, a lot of this is now mass produced in Nepal! But still looks old and crusty enough to make the whole thing look pretty authentic - weird! You can go down back alleys and see what the locals are more likely to buy, like Yak butter, meat etc. Still the faces of the pilgrims are the real highlight of this place, as they go around The Barkhor clockwise (must be clockwise and that goes for tourists as well!. There are prayer flags everywhere. And the pilgrims carry copper prayer wheels that they spin around while walking, and once inside the temple, they must again go clockwise and spin prayer mills as they walk. (prayer mills are installed around each temple/monastery and are like a larger version of the prayer wheel). We had to remind ourselves how lucky we were to be here. As I said, many of the pilgrims have travelled from all over Tibet to be here for this once in a lifetime opportunity. You could see that in their faces.
Inside Jokhang was packed with Chinese tourists, but this place was pretty dark and moody on the inside. Lots of surreal buddha, kings, dalai lama statues with freaky eyes. This is where the riches of Tibet are stored, including many ancient scriptures. The views from the rooftop are fantastic looking back to Potala, but also down on the pilgrims, where we discovered we were looking down on a spot where pilgrims stop to splay their bodies forward towards the front of the temple. Some of the pilgrims reproduce this all the way around the Barkhor!
We went to two amazing monasteries in the hills, both of them are part of the three pillars of the traditional Tibetan state and were founded nearly 600 years ago and was the regular residence of the Dalai Lamas before the reconstruction of Potala palace. The first one was Drepung Monastery,the largest and richest monastery in Tibet. The monastery is massive, but only 60% survived the Cultural Revolution where the Chinese government in its wisdom saw fit to shell monasteries and kill a load of monks!. At its peak there were over 10,000 thousand monks here, but is now growing again and has over 700 monks living there. The monks at both these monasteries are incredibly friendly, and as we found in Lhasa as well, it always brings a big smile if you say a few Tibetan words. We also found generally that Tibetans prefer to speak english to chinese - wonder why that is! Sera monastery is also on a big comeback, but is a bit smaller than Drepung. We took some great photos of both monasteries as the buildings, the rough rocky hillsides around them, and the kora pilgrim paths through the hillsides covered in prayer ribbons were all were very photogenic. Hope you enjoy the photos. Inside the temples, there were more of those freaky statues and ancient scriptures. We had one very big highlight at each monastery. At Drepung, we were lucky to see a mass monk reading (chanting) session where they read scriptures aloud. And at Sera, we saw the novice monks have a wonderful debating session about religious issues in a garden next to the main assembly hall. The monks try to make their point by clapping their hands or stamping their feet, or both. It is all very informal, but the gesturing is very entertaining. This session is also known by tourists as well, so there was a fair crowd in the garden!
On the food front, there was a lot of yak. In fact you can eat Yak in many ways (as with cows) Yak steak, burger, stew, curry, dumplings (called Momos here) and even Yak enchilada. The living Yaks we saw here were around the Sera kora circuit, but they were shaven!! We had seen the fully haired ones from a distance in Zhongdian. And we also got to have some Nepalese food here as well, not too surprising, given Nepal is only a few hundred kilometres away! Our recommendation on the food front is definitely Dunya restaurant, right next door to our hotel. It covered the full range of types of food, so we never had to go too far for a different meal!