Lhasa – Aug 6 to Aug 14, 2010
We, my Bike China cycle group, arrived in Lhasa on our bikes about noon. And then, after drinking in the Potala for a while, we had a lovely afternoon sitting in front of Abu’s parent’s neighbourhood store having snacks, drinking beer, meeting the neighbours, celebrating our cycle trip completion. About 4:00 pm, we checked into a Chinese style hotel, reserved for us by Abu’s mother. The hotel is a block away from Barkhor Square, possibly the most important people place in Lhasa. Our group is booked in for five nights, until Aug 11 when the other four leave for their respective homes. Abu will stay with us during our stay together here; we need three rooms anyway and he makes the sixth person. Our rooms are small, but it is nice to pull everything out of the panniers and dig into the box we had sent from Golmud. I stacked my stuff at the foot of my bed, but with a bit of rooting around I can find anything fairly quickly. My roomy for the five nights is Edmund; two old guys stumbling through the night to the bathroom, hopefully not at the same time.
We have three days left in our Bike China contract and that means that we will have our driver, guide and van to help us hit the major sights. There is some concern that you cannot go to these sights without a guide and a permit. I am still not convinced, but we have them and so we will take full advantage of their services.
We all headed our own way before we would meet for dinner. I headed straight for the Barkhor Kora and thoroughly enjoyed the hectic but friendly atmosphere. The Barkhor is a little less that a km around and you won’t get lost if you just follow the procession, mostly older Tibetans swinging prayer wheels dressed often in fine traditional clothes. In Barkhor Square, in front of the Jokhang Monastery, there are hundreds involved in their prostrate praying in the mist created by smoking alters. Even more people are milling around. Amidst all of this are many Chinese soldiers, often in full battle regalia. The Jokhang and Barkhor are the physical centre of Tibetan Buddhism, and seems to be where the periodic bouts of Tibetan resistance to the Chinese Occupation begins.
The Barkhor is in the centre of the old town, and is where the highest concentration of Tibetans is seen. Besides walking the Barkhor one of my favourite activities is just wandering the maze of streets in the old town. It is all market and you can see people from every part of Tibet here, often indicated by the some aspect of their dress. I can recognize Khami men, with their red scarves wound into their hair, but there are other distinctive features that would no doubt identify people from other regions, should I be more enlightened.
A few of the Prime Attractions in Lhasa
Over the next three days, with our guide, Hua Dan, providing good insights into the relevance of each sight we hit…
We were at the Jokhang early one day and benefited from the Tourist’s preferential entry. The real pilgrims are lined up almost all the way around the Kora at times. Hua Dan did his best to explain the relevance of each chapel as we made our way through the crowds. Included are statues of past, present and future Buddhas and special chapels recognizing images brought to Tibet by King Songtsen Gampo’s Nepali and Chinese wives in the 600’s AD. Both wives were Buddhist and were responsible for helping to bring Buddhism to Tibet. As in all crowded chapels the most impressive thing is the reverence displayed by the pilgrims. The Jokhang has changed and evolved over the centuries but has usually been the most revered site in Tibet. The Jokhang suffered lot during the Red Guard period, but has been mostly restored since 1980. I particularly enjoyed the time I spent on the roof watching and listening to women working and chanting in unison. I am not entirely sure what the work involved but they were grouped in a square doing a stomping dance, tamping with long sticks in cadence with their chanting. I heard them again on other occasions as I walked around the area.
The Sera Monastery
About 5 km north of the central Lhasa, the Sera is one of three great Gelugpa (yellow hat) monasteries in the Lhasa region. We will visit all three. The Sera, at its peak, housed 5000 monks, and as such is like a small walled town. Touring the monasteries with our guide causes me a bit of a problem. Whereas I appreciate his commentaries on the history and relevance within the chapels, it is the atmosphere of the buildings and the setting that I most appreciate and retain, and so I prefer to wander at will snapping photos as I go. Often the chapels do not allow photos, although by paying a few Yuan we could take photos in some chapels. The Guardians to the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas (sons of Buddha, as Hua Dan explained) are often more interesting that the Buddhas themselves. I also like the colourful frescoes, often found in the entry foyer, and usually in fairly good state even in buildings that have been deserted. There is often a “Circle of Life” among these frescoes. At the Sera, I stayed with our group a while and then went wandering, particularly enjoying the intricate pathways, the deserted buildings and the people doing restoration work.
We went to the Sera in the afternoon because in the afternoon the monks are involved in debates. About 40 monks of different hierarchical level pair off and debate issues of relevance. One monk stands, states a question, slaps his hand and points to a sitting monk, who must give a response immediately. The young monks are the most active in slapping their hands and shooting back the answers. We assume the answers have been learned and are part of the dogma. There was a small group of elders whose discussion was very quiet, in comparison, and likely dealt with more weighty matters. It was all very raucous as the monks seemed to greatly enjoy the activity. It is a great tourist attraction.
The Dreprung Monastary
The largest of the Gelugpa monasteries, it once housed around 10,000 monks. It is said that one of the Dreprung Colleges, the Loseling with monks primarily from Kham, had 180 estates and 20,000 serfs who paid taxes to the college. Mostly I wandered on my own, entering often small little chapels and getting lost in the labyrinth of pathways winding among the buildings, many of which are still deserted. But I wanted to do a Kora, and once on the pathway, leading high above the monastery I was mostly alone amongst the painted rocks and prayer flags. I caught up to an elderly monk making his way down the tricky path. He was very friendly but refused my offer to help him down the trickiest part. He might have done this walk countless times and most certainly walked with Buddha and so was likely safer than I.
Our guide had got us an afternoon appointment for the Potala and once in through the gate we had an hour to make our way up the thirteen stories of narrow stairs and ladders to the roof. Not even on the roof were we allowed to take photos. The white parts (lower) of the Potala were built by the fifth Dalai Lama in about 1650, the red (upper) part were added about fifty years later. The Dalai Lamas (5 through 14) lived in the Potala until the current Dalai Lama left for India. The upper part contains literally tons of gold in the funerary stupas of past Dalai Lamas. We walked through a small number of the 1000 rooms that at one time served as schools, jails, and the seat of government in addition to being the Dalai Lama’s residence. Today of course it is only a museum, but it is the incredible presence that it still retains that so captures the world’s imagination. It is said that then premier Zhou Enlai deployed his own troops to protect the Potala from the zealous Red Guards, who were bent on destroying it. I will greatly miss being able to walk around a corner and see it rising silently and majestically above the modern world.
The Ganden Monastary
The Ganden is the last of the three great monasteries that we will visit as a group. It is 50 km east of Lhasa, on the road to Kham and possibly 1500 km to Sichuan and Yunnan. There were no security checks and I struggled with my decision, made by now, not to just head on down this road that leads back out to China proper. Paul had wanted to cycle to the Ganden and back, but I really wanted to do the Kora, and so again we all rode in the van. And it was a good thing for me as the last 9 km rose dramatically a good 500 m out of the valley. All, even Hua Dan, were now convinced that doing the Kora would be a good thing, and so we headed up a ridge, festooned as always with prayer flags. As we ascended the ridge, the Ganden, set in a secluded amphitheatre not unlike the setting for Namche Bazaar, continually drew our looks. At the top looking down on the Kyi-chu valley that we had come in on we could see the patchwork fields and the braided river. Looking south, to where the Samye-Ganden trek would come in I was able to pick out Hepu La, the final pass on what could possibly have been my next venture.
At the monastery we mostly each went our own way and again the streets and ruins attracted most of my attention. The setting here is certainly the most interesting of the monasteries we have seen.
Doing one cultural sight before and one after noon, afforded us the chance to do some walkabouts to see the street scene in Lhasa, which in many ways is actually more appealing than the attractions, at least to me. We ate well, often together and often at the Tibetan Steak House, a few doors from our hotel. We think that Paul had six Chicken Tikka meals there, and I had almost as many. We ate Tibetan, Western, Indian and Chinese, all of it pretty good to us. We often had coffee and treats in the Summit Café before bed time. Some, tired of Chinese breakfasts, also hit the Summit for breakfast coffee. Gabor, who had been lusting after chocolate cake throughout our bike trip, soon got his fill at the Summit. There are plenty of souvenirs that can be picked up here, and I envied in a small way the other’s ability to do so. My purchasing days are still a long ways off. I think that Juliet did the best job, although Gabor didn’t show me his fridge magnets so I shouldn’t make that call.
I think that we all really enjoyed Lhasa. It is so clean and ordered, particularly compared to rural Tibet and Qinghai. The people all seem incredibly friendly, both the Chinese and the Tibetans. There is a significant military presence, particularly near the famous attractions, but it becomes easier and easier to ignore that. The thousands of people performing Koras, spinning their prayer wheels as they walk, visiting the religious sights and the devotion they show is quite moving. We see some foreign visitors most places we go, but there are really not that many, considering how important Lhasa is. The Permit thing seems to be keeping people away. The majority of tourists here, other than religious tourists, are Chinese in appearance.
Away from the Buddhist attractions the people are a mix of Tibetan and Chinese in appearance. The young Tibetan people seem more attracted to the clothing, electronic and entertainment shops of the new town; the older ones are possibly here from other parts of China and Tibet and so are here to visit the Buddhist sites.
I was getting little positive results from my efforts to find a next venture, after Lhasa. I had wanted to cycle on from Lhasa, either on to Kathmandu or east through Khami into Sichuan or Yunnan. There is a cycle touring guy in Lhasa, and I enlisted Abu’s help to talk with him. He had no other foreign riders and I guess it is not allowed that I cycle with the Chinese that seem to come every day, without the need for permits. He indicated that I would need four different permits; I would need to find my own guide and vehicle; it would cost about 15,000 Y, etc., etc. I was deeply tempted just to head off and do it without a permit on my own, but I guess old age brings cold feet.
My next priority was to go on a good trek; the one that seemed to work for me is five days. I went into four different agencies over three days and got absolutely no reaction from anyone. Finally, on the way to the Summit one night, a woman agent gave me some good tips on how I might do it on my own without a permit. I spent a day on this, putting together at least a mental approach; it would involve buying some local transport tickets. On our first day without our guide services, while the others were off to the Norbulingka with Abu, I headed off on my bike to begin the preparation process. My first action was to get a train ticket back out to Qinghai, on Aug 17; that would allow me to do my hike and then I would begin cycling in China from Qinghai. Three hours later, I staggered out of the train booking station with a ticket out on Aug 14; there would be no hike. The bureaucracy killed me. During this run-around, I had decided that if things were this tough, and I also had to figure out how to get bus tickets and on and on, that I was better off just heading for the Silk Road and doing what I could over there, where bureaucracy is less.
We had a nice final dinner in the steak house and on Aug 11 everyone headed off to the airport. It was a bit sad to see everyone go, but I am beginning to look forward to the next part of my trip. I relocated to the Kyichu hotel, with a bit more atmospheric and with a better internet service.
I spent a few hours at the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer residence, experiencing Shotun, the second most important festival in Lhasa. Thousands stream into the palace grounds to picnic and watch Tibetan dancers perform. A part of this festival involves consuming the wonderful Yak yoghurt that we have come to enjoy. Mostly I just enjoyed people watching, particularly young boys or girls, possibly around 12 years old, leading a grand parent around the grounds. I am so impressed by the friendliness of Lhasans(?), both Tibetans and Chinese. There is always a smile and a “tashi dela” in response to my overtures. I got to know the city quite well as I was out and about on my bike every day, mostly exploring, going nowhere in particular. I also spent more time wandering the old town and doing the Barkhor.
I had two meals with Abu and his parents in their little store. There is a vegetable and meat section and a hard goods section. Abu, his dad and I ate at a little table wedged in between the two sections. His mother did the cooking in a back room, one dish at a time, and his cousin would bring the dishes out when ready. Soon there were dishes on all the surrounding shelves. Abu’s mother would join us when all dishes had been cooked, but by then man locals had dropped in to sample a dish or two as they came in to pick up their produce. Abu’s dad would be up and down during the whole meal serving people, often whacking-off a piece of meat or helping people choose from the broad selection of vegetables. When not serving others he was ensuring that my beer glass was full and constantly offering toasts.
On my last night Abu came for dinner at my hotel in the garden and we talked about his future and he worried about mine. I brought my computer down so he could determine whether my proposed trip was safe or not. While doing that we both checked our emails, and a friend of his from Chengdu indicated that there might be room in his company for an engineer and he was offering to help Abu with his resume. While on the Silk Road, Abu emailed that he indeed had a job as an engineer in Chengdu. I got emails from three of my travel friends and Juliet sent an ebook guide on the Silk Road.
It took me a bit less that an hour to shoe-horn my bike into my bike bag. I have too much stuff, but this afternoon I am off to catch the train to Xining. I am looking forward to the train ride, but mostly to getting on the road again.
Lhasa has been wonderful and it is sad to leave Tibet without seeing more. But that is the way things are and there are so many other things to do, that the sadness is but a momentary thing.
I have a bit of feeling about the Tibet-Chinese situation, but it can only be superficial. My best connection and feeling comes through my time with Abu, my 23 year old Tibetan/Chinese guide. But he is such a well-balanced, bright young guy, that I am sure he is not truly representative of all. He is highly educated, and that is in large part because of Tibet’s connection with China. He also now has a very good job, also in China. And his father is Chinese. I also saw a lot of good economic opportunity in Tibet, because of the connection with China and almost no serious poverty. And so, while I am strong advocate of self-determination for people, I am could not really say whether Tibet would be better off on their own or whether the majority of Tibetans would choose to go off on their on if they could. I guess time will tell.