Arriving In Lhasa
We took a one and a half hour flight from Zhongdian to Lhasa. We saw some great scenery from the plane. There was one huge mountain sticking up well above the clouds. We think it was Namche Barwa mountain at about 7756 meters high. We started to descend and could see small villages in the valleys below. Then suddenly the mountains opened up into a huge desert like plain.
The Lhasa airport was very modern. We got our bags and went outside to catch the bus into Lhasa. We could see beautiful mountains in every direction we looked. The airport sits about one and a half hours outside the of the city of Lhasa. We both had to pause for just a minute before going to the bus. We choked up a bit with the realization that we were actually in Tibet.
The bus to Lhasa is really cheap at only 25 yuan each. The taxis will cost you about 150 yuan. For most of the bus ride there were mountains and a river running in the distance to the right of us. On the left side were steep cliffs of rock. As we got closer to Lhasa more traffic was on the road. We passed by some small villages. They looked like they might be some kind of government housing. Along the ride we saw many stupas with strings of prayer flags trailing from them. We were quite shocked to see Chinese flags flying high from the Tibetan style buildings. We later found out they were government ordered flags. The people are ordered to put up Chinese flags on their homes as well.
We started to drive into Lhasa on a main road. There was a line of dozens of military trucks. It kind of made us nervous. Then suddenly in front of the bus to the left was the magnificent site of the Potala. This is the former residence of the Dalai Lama and where Tibet was governed from.
Finding A Hotel
We were dropped off in front of a big hotel. We read about how modern Lhasa was, but still couldn’t help but be surprised by the large hotels and modern looking stores. It’s not quite like they have McDonald’s and Starbucks here, but check back in a few years, you never know.
We checked out a few hotels on a main road. It is just a short walk away from many of the main sites. The hotels have jacked up their prices for several reasons, it is summer time, and now the train is up and running from China into Tibet. A case of supply and demand I guess. We had a hotel recommendation from the place that sold us our plane ticket in Zhongdian. It looked like it was a bit out of the way on the map, but we decided to check it out. We took a taxi to it for ten yuan, which is the fixed price to go anywhere in the town.
It is called the Flora Hotel. It turned out that it was only a short walk from the main attractions and restaurants. The staff are really friendly. The hotel is spotless with a modern western style bathroom. It is 180 yuan, the cheapest we could find for a double with bathroom.
This hotel is in the Muslim quarter of Lhasa, near the mosque. There is a visible ethnic group of Hui Muslims here. The original Muslim inhabitants of Tibet were largely traders and butchers. There are many open stalls of meat hanging. You get really shocked as you walk down the street and see half a cow hanging in front of you. One time we had just come across a delivery drop off. The carcasses were laying all over the sidewalk waiting to be hung.
I went inside to check into the hotel and finally had to go back outside to retrieve Jack. He was taking forever. He had found a little boy, who wanted to play soccer with him. All the locals had gathered around to watch Jack kick the ball back and forth with him.
The Elevation Takes It’s Toll On Us
Even though we had taken our time to come up gradually in elevation prior to Lhasa, it started to take a toll on us. The worst part of it seems to be while you are trying to sleep. We went downstairs to the hotel reception and purchased a can of oxygen. It is a pressurized can with a small clear tube that you attach to the top of it. The end has a piece that you put in your nose. Like how you have oxygen at the hospital. We both were having problems catching our breath, we just couldn’t seem to get enough air. I was suffering from the most intense headache. I took two pain killers earlier, but they were doing nothing.
The oxygen was like a miracle in a can. Within less than a minute of breathing with it my headache melted away. We both felt so much better. The days ahead got better,but we both had to laugh when it would be a major effort just to walk across our hotel room. The stairs leading up to it almost killed us. We just took it easy for the next day. You are supposed to relax until your body acclimatizes. We had another moment of laughter over what we were experiencing here. We were plastering our cracked open lips with chapstick, having to drink liters of water a day, sucking on oxygen and having to continuously put eye drops into our eyes so they didn’t dry up! It is the driest climate we have ever experienced. Our skin is looking like that of a 90 year old!
Walking The Barkhor
The big thing to do in Lhasa is walk around the Barkhor. The Barkhor is an 800 meter pilgrimage circuit or Kora. It is the most famous of Lhasas pilgrimage circuits. It circles around the most revered religious structure in Tibet, the Jokhang. The circuit is lined with street shops so it also serves as the main commercial district for the Tibetans. You walk with the crowds of people through the Kora, it is the most fascinating experience. Tibetans come from far away to do a pilgrimage here. They sometimes travel for days, weeks, or even months to get here. It is a feeling of stepping back in time as you are passed by people dressed in clothing you would expect to see centuries ago.
Most of the pilgrims are holding a prayer wheel on a stick. The round prayer wheel on top is spun continuously clockwise as they walk around the Kora. The direction of travel around the Kora is always clockwise as well. The people do many loops around it. Some people are prostrating the entire way around the Kora. This is where they stand with their hands in a prayer position above their head then they lower themselves to a crouching position and then fully extend their bodies on the ground with their arms and hands stretched out as far forward as possible. They stand up again take a step forward and continue this process around the Kora. There are some people so frail they can barely make it around the circuit. It may take them half the day, but they keep going on. Religion is everything to the people of Tibet.
We have walked around the circuit so many times now, each time is better than the last. We really can’t put into words what the experience is like here. We have seen very poor people giving money to someone they feel is less fortunate than themselves. We have had so many touching moments. The sweetest old ladies and men with their smiles here are truly infectious.
We exchange Tashi Deleks (hellos) with everyone. A lot of them want to touch us. We are not sure, but they may think we can bring them good luck. People are very superstitious here. One lady took my hand in hers and rubbed it onto both of her cheeks. Little kids everywhere love to yell out hello to us. A monk came up and touched Jack. A lady took his arm and continued to rub the hair on it in fascination.
Our experience going into the Jokhang was a bit less than holy. We must have chosen the busiest time to come. The Jokhang founding is estimated to be between 639 to 647 AD. There is a main assembly hall that has many small chapel rooms branching off from it. It was so crowded, everyone was standing in line waiting to go into the smaller rooms. Monks and some Chinese officials were trying to keep things moving by pushing people along. We were herded like cattle.
We had to squish into the small chapel rooms as others were trying to make their way out. The whole place was quite dark and dingy. Yak butter was everywhere, our shoes were covered in it. The yak butter is used to burn as candles. They are burning everywhere. Each small chapel has a large cauldron filled with yak butter with wicks burning in it. The pilgrims bring pitchers of melted yak butter with them and pour it into the containers as an offering. The whole place had a funny smell to it. Others said they had much nicer experiences than this, but obviously they went when it was less crowded. We did manage to get up to the roof top where there was some solitude. We got a nice view of the mountains. There was a covered area to get out of the blistering sun and listen to some relaxing Monk Chanting music.
Another must see is the Potala. This is a cardinal landmark that dominates Lhasa’s skyline. Its an amazing site and masterpiece of massive architecture. We saw our first glimpse of it when we were coming in by bus from the airport. It is a bittersweet experience to come here. The entire place lies lifeless and empty, reminding you that the Dalai Lama was forced to flee. This is where he governed Tibet from. It is quite ironic that the place gets flooded with Chinese tourists now coming to see the magnificent place that the generations of them before tried so hard to destroy.
There are actually two palaces here. The White Palace was the seat of the government and the Red Palace was used for religious purposes. There are many tombs of former Dalai Lamas and each one who came to live here would have his own section built for him.
The funeral chorten of the fifth Dalai Lama has over 3700 kg of gold. The fifth Dalai Lama constructed the Red Palace but died before it’s completion. There are Buddha images laden with gold, other images are decorated in pearls and other precious stones. Pictures are not allowed to be taken anywhere inside. All images of the current Dalai Lama have been removed.
It is only a small portion of the Potala that is accessible to the public, one would love to know what else lays behind closed doors. There are motion detectors and video cameras everywhere and access to the Potala is very controlled. We felt guilty that we were tourists allowed to come and be at the Potala while the Dalai Lama himself can not be here. The whole place now lies as a lifeless Chinese museum.
Across the street from the Potala is a huge square with a Chinese monument celebrating 50 years of supposed Tibetan independence. There was talk of a giant statue of Chairman Mao being erected here. I think the Chinese know this would be pushing things to the extremes. The Tibetans would riot and probably destroy it.
Outside the Potala there is a long kora walk that can be done. Devout Tibetans still do this walk even though it is now lined with tacky tourist shops. It seems it will take a lot more than what has come from the Chinese to break the spirit of the Tibetan people. You can see many pilgrims out front of the Potala endlessly prostrating.
While we were here the Chinese day that celebrates the independence of Tibet occurred. They plastered huge red signs with writing in Chinese across the front walls of the Potala. It made for very ugly pictures. We didn’t know what the writing said until someone told us it was for this celebration. It’s pretty daring that they stick the banners right across the Potala. It really makes you feel kind of ill, but the Chinese government truly believes they have liberated Tibet and it’s people.
The Potala Ticket Nightmare
We have to comment on the nightmare of getting tickets for the Potala. They have now started to limit the amount of people that can go each day. The ticket procedure is the most unorganized mess, like many other things we have experienced in China. There are far too many tourists wanting to get in each day, so it had created a huge problem.
There are now ticket scalpers for the Potala. Wouldn’t the Dalai Lama be pleased to know this! You have to go very early in the day and get into a line up. They don’t open the ticket office until 5pm. You can rarely get tickets for the same day, so you are standing in line for the next day. If you are lucky you may get tickets. You can only buy for the next day, no further in advance.
One of the problems is the tour groups have bought up the majority of the tickets. This leaves little left for the individual travelers. We stood in line for over five hours, we were fortunate to actually get tickets. The worse part of it was the line in front of us continued to grow the entire time as people budged their way in. The line behind us hardly grew. As well as this people would show up in the last half hour and pay off one of the many ticket scalpers. They would have people planted in the line to buy tickets for them. Each person in line was allowed to buy up to 4 tickets as long as they had their Chinese ID cards. The people would just hand over their cards. When the ticket office opened the scalpers would look to see if people getting close to the window had four ID cards. If they had less they would give them cards to buy more tickets and pay them off with a small amount of their profits. It was all very frustrating to watch.
We bumped into one couple who only had a short time to stay in Lhasa. They spent 8 hours one day and 6 hours the next in the line up and still got no tickets! They really need to get a control on this situation or people are going to stop coming here. They have now raised the ticket entry to 300 yuan. This now makes the Potala more expensive than other buildings in the world such as the Taj Mahal. We have heard people are now paying as high as 800 yuan (over $100 Canadian dollars) to get a ticket from a scalper. We can only imagine what the Dalia Lama would think about the Potala being exploited like this for money!
We met a group of people in a restaurant here. One couple was from San Franciso and two guys were from Vancouver. One of the guys from Vancouver is the grandson of a man in Nanaimo. He is the guy that founded the Military Museum in Rutherford Mall. He also wrote tons of letters to get the Nanaimo airport name changed to Collishaw airport. It is named after a war hero pilot that resided in Nanaimo. This is also the 2nd time on our trip we have met someone who has been to Hornby and Denman Islands, (two smaller islands near our home of Vancouver Island.)
Teeth For Sale
One of the funniest things we have seen for sale on the streets here is teeth, yes I said teeth! There are many people with large boards with fake teeth on them. Any kind you want, molars, front teeth, gold teeth, whatever you want. We’re not sure where or how they get them put in.
We spent our last few days in Lhasa wandering around and shopping for souvenirs. Our last night we did our final walk around the Barkhor. As usual we were greeted with Teshi Deleks and smiles. We are really sad to leave this place. We would love to explore so much more of Tibet, but our train leaves tomorrow. Other sites like the Terra Cotta Warriors and the Great Wall are calling us too. I could see us coming back to do an extensive trip through Tibet, exploring a lot more remote areas in the country. We said our last goodbye to Lhasa and Tibet. We feel really privileged to have been able to come here. We will remember it forever, hopefully if we come back again there will be some of authentic Tibet left to see.