April 18-20, 2018
Wednesday morning, we left the boat at 6:30 to visit the panda bears at the Chongqing Zoo on our way to the airport to catch our flight to Lhasa, Tibet. Pandas are beautiful, fun creatures to watch and we always enjoy seeing them but we were more intrigued by the fact that this zoo was more then just a zoo. We watched several groups of people doing Tai Chi together and in another area of the zoo people were playing badminton. The zoo seemed to be a meeting place for all sorts of activities.
|Tai Chi at the zoo|
Lhasa, Tibet is a city of half a million people situated in the mountains at 12,000 feet. Having experienced a similar altitude on our trip to Cusco, Peru we came prepared with medicine prescribed by our doctor. Or so we thought. Upon deplaning, Tim grabbed our carry on bag and quickly moved down the aisle to the gangway. Once on the gangway he needed to stop because he was so out of breath. We both needed to stop several times to catch our breath before we arrived in the baggage claim area. The same thing happened once we reached our hotel. The simple task of unpacking a suitcase had us both winded. Everyone we talked to at dinner was experiencing the same thing, many were having worse problems then us, including headaches and dizziness. After dinner we both went straight to bed and slept fitfully until morning.
Thursday morning’s tour was suppose to start at the Jokhang Temple but the line to enter the temple was so long that our guide decided to take us to the Barkhor Market first. We took a narrow pedestrian street towards the market where we passed through an area where over 100 people sat, spinning prayer wheels while Buddhist chants were being played over speakers.
|Group prayer - notice individual prayer wheels|
We also passed several small buildings that had a row of cylinders in the wall of the building. These were also called prayer wheels that people would spin as they passed, presumably saying a brief prayer as they did so.
Once we arrived at the main street of the market, again pedestrian only, we witnessed people walking down the street several steps, prostrating themselves on the street, crawling a few feet and then getting back up, taking several steps and repeating the whole thing over and over again.
|Praying in the street|
Our guide took us to a shop where he recommended we do our shopping saying that this was a government owned store, thus guaranteeing high quality goods. We discovered they were also higher priced. We were given time to shop so we did. Tim bought an authentic Tibetan trumpet for 63 US dollars. This was half of what the shop owner wanted for said trumpet. Probably not authentic. What we did buy that was authentic was a painting for the dinning room signed by the artist. We are looking forward to having it framed and hung.
Our guide was correct in going to the market first. When we got back to the temple the line was considerably shorter. The Jokhang Temple is the 1,300 year old spiritual center of Tibet. The Buddha in this temple is said to be the first one in Tibet. The crush of people trying to bow before this Buddha reminded us of the similar chaos we experienced at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. An interesting side note. Many of you are familiar with the practice of lighting votive candles in churches. In Lhasa temples there are large containers containing melted Yak butter that have several wicks in the container. Instead of lighting a candle one adds a small quantity of Yak butter to the container. While in line outside the temple many people tried to sell us Yak butter for this purpose.
|Inside Jokhang Temple|
After lunch at a local restaurant we were taken to a private home to see how a typical Tibetan lives. We were welcomed with yak butter tea, don’t ask, whole roasted barley, and fried bread. We saw three rooms: the lounge, kitchen and a prayer room where several monks were meditating.
|Lounge in typical Tibetan home|
The last stop of the day was the Sera Monastery, the second largest monastery in Tibet housing 600 monks. While we were unable to see one of the monks' rooms we did see the Grand Assembly Hall. The highlight of the visit was the debating yard where the monks gather each day except Sunday from 3:00 to 5:00 to debate. Lynda did not go into the Monastery because of the long uphill climb. Tim assumed that the debate would be a very civilized discussion of a particular topic between a few people representing each side of a topic. Nothing could be further from the truth. The debating yard was just what the name implies. It was held in a large outdoor area where over a hundred monks were paired off in groups of two. One monk would sit on the ground and the other would stand in front of the seated monk. The standing monk would start by expressing his point of view on the agreed upon subject. When he had made his point he would clap his hands and the seated monk would respond. This would continue for an hour whereupon the monks would trade places. The monks were debating with varying degrees of intensity. Some had very angry looks on their faces and there was even a pair smiling as they debated. At the back of the yard was where the older monks were located. Our guide told us that these monks had been doing this for 20 or 30 years so they took a much more leisurely approach to the whole business. There were also 6 monks sitting by themselves off to the side reading. There was no indication what they were reading. Probably not the latest John Grisham.
|Debating Courtyard at Sera Monastery|
The day concluded, after a 2 hour break back at the hotel, with a short trip to a dinner theater. The dinner was a buffet supposedly of Tibetan dishes although we don’t think French fries count as Tibetan cuisine. Dinner was followed by a show of typical Tibetan songs and dances, featuring traditional Tibetan costumes. The dinner was mediocre at best, the recorded music for the show was over amplified on a poor system, and the Yak Dance was the only portion of the presentation that held our interest.
|Yak dance. Not an actual Yak.|
The real highlight of the day was returning to our hotel, going to the bar on the top floor and having a drink while looking at the Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama, all lit up.
|Potala Palace from our hotel|
For almost 1300 years the Dalai Lama was both the political and religious leader of Tibet. The Chinese government has long thought that Tibet was rightly part of China. In 1959 the Dalai Lama was exiled and the Chinese took political control of the country. Our guides have assured us that Tibet has an autonomous government under the auspices of China. However, the flag of China flies everywhere, pictures of Chairman Mao along with the present Chairman are prominently displayed, and the military we have seen are all Chinese soldiers. Also until 1959, the Potala Palace was the home of the Dalai Lama. The palace has 1000 rooms and sits on top of a hill with a commanding view overlooking Lhasa. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
|Outside the Potala Palace|
The Potala Palace was also the first stop of the day Friday morning. Visitors must climb over 300 steps to reach the entrance to the Dalai’s quarters and the other rooms of religious significance. Lynda knew this would be impossible for her so Tim made the trek alone. There were many people besides Lynda who opted out of this tour. It was an arduous climb. Fortunately our guides made frequent stops on our way up for us to catch our breath. Photography was only allowed in the outdoor portions of the palace which left out all of the really good stuff and all of the really good stuff is beyond description. A couple of highlights: we saw the cave that served as the first temple for the Dalai Lama 1300 years ago and around which the rest of the palace was constructed. This cave also contained the original Buddha. The second highlight was the room that contained the tombs of the 3rd, 5th, and 11th Dalai Lamas. For some reason the 5th Dalai Lama was the most important of all of the Dalai Lamas and his tomb was the largest.All three tombs were made of gold. The 5th Dalai Lama’s tomb also contained over 1000 gems and a small piece of the brain of an elephant.The reason behind this was unclear. Surprisingly, there were not many monks around. In the Dalai Lama’s meditation room and in his private room there were monks quietly chanting as we passed through. There was universal agreement among the people Tim was with that it was worth the awful climb. Finally, in the spirit of full disclosure, Tim must admit that he could not help thinking about the wonderful scene from the movie “Caddyshack” where Bill Murray describes his experience caddying for the Dalai Lama.
|Courtyard at the top of the Potala Palace. The gold balcony in the middle is where the Dalai Lama would sit.|
The final stop of the day was at a Buddhist Nunnery. We did not know that there were nuns in Buddhism but Tim can testify to their existence. They dress in the same robes as the monks and have their heads shaved just as the monks do. We were fortunate enough to visit the small temple at the nunnery while a group of the nuns were chanting. They seemed to chant with more enthusiasm then the monks. Earlier in this post we mentioned prayer wheels. Inside these wheels are rolled up sections of scripture. In an adjoining work room we saw another group of nuns rolling up these portions of scripture to be placed in the prayer wheels. The last highlight of visiting the nunnery was the fact that we had to take streets to get there that contained shops that the locals actually shopped in. Not a sign of a souvenir anywhere.
This was our last day in Lhasa, a city we have thoroughly enjoyed. Tomorrow we fly to Xi’an where we look forward to once again visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors.