Monday, February 15, 2010

Lhasa Continued . . .




Our travels in Lhasa continued . . . and we went to Potala Palace!! The residence of the Dali Lama until 1949 when he fled to India to avoid persecution. The Chinese have now turned the palace into a museum and entrance is strictly monitored.


It contains over 1000 rooms and 10000 shrines . . .


. . . and, what felt like, 1 000 000 steps . . .





We made it to the top! Here is 'The White Palace' - the former residence of the Dalai Lama.


Here's our guide, Sim, hanging out with us outside the Palace catching our breath before heading in . . .


Photo's inside were strictly forbidden (and I didn't want to take any chances with the Chinese security guards). The inside was amazing, though. Room after room filled to the brim with statues, shrines, and artwork. Every square inch was accounted for. We followed the Tibetan's as they weaved a path from room to room - praying, chanting, making offerings - while some of the smaller Tibetans, like this little guy, practiced their 'hello's' with us about a thousand times . . .


Here's a view from the back of the palace looking over the Chinese part of Lhasa.



After leaving Potala, Shawna and I went for a bite of lunch and then we were off to Jokhang Temple. Jokhang is the holiest and most important temple in all of Tibet. It was about a 2 minute walk from our guesthouse - right in the middle of Barkhor Square. The temple was amazing inside (like every temple we saw during our journey) but the really awesome part about this one was that we were allowed on the roof. We were lucky enough to catch some of the monks relaxing in the midday sun . . .


. . .




. . . the view from the top was INCREDIBLE!!! You can see Potala Palace in the background, two prayer poles covered in flags, two massive incense burners, and the people prostrating in front of the temple.


We stood there for a long time soaking it all in . . .
video

After the tour was over, our guides left us to wander around Barkhor Square . . . so we did some shopping!

Check out the Yak Butter - - best deal in town . . .


Check out the Yak Meat - - best deal in town . . .


Shawna had a particular fondness for the Tibetan aprons - can you blame her? Look at all the colours!


How do you like my new duds? Sim helped me find the coat and got me a great deal. I was happy (and warm).


All of that shopping made us hungry so we hit up another restaurant to try out some more Tibetan cuisine . . . what a life!

Thenthuk (Tibetan yak noodle soup) and potato momo's ( fried dumplings) -- REALLY delicious!


See you all next time as we make the journey to Gyantse via the 5000m Kambala Pass and Tibet's holiest lake . . .

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Lhasa, TIBET

After our epic 48 hour train ride, we arrived at our guesthouse in Lhasa. We dropped off our bags and went for a walk to find some dinner. Being in one of the highest cities in the world, we knew that the altitude could be an issue so we took it easy. Walking around at 3500 Meters is really tough! With only 68% of the oxygen that is in the air at sea level we felt like we had just climbed a dozen flights of stairs. It took a couple of days to get used to it but we were lucky to have avoided any altitude sickness. (We've read that some tourists have had to leave Tibet shortly after arriving due to the effects of the high altitude.)

Our guides picked us up the next morning and took us to the first stop on our itinerary, Drepung Monastery. One of "The Great Three Monasteries in Tibet", this was the official residence of the Dalai Lamas until the 5th Dalai Lama built Potala Palace.


Our guide told us while walking around the temple that we followed - and were followed by - many Tibetans that were on pilgrimages from the countryside. During the winter there is little to be done on the farms so the farmers and their families come to Lhasa to visit the most sacred temples. Many of them walk hundreds of kilometers or more to get there. And, for some, if walking is too comfortable they will prostrate all the way there - hands together, touch forehead, touch throat, touch heart, hands on the ground, kneel down, lie down, stand up, repeat for up to 2 years until you make it to Lhasa (really!!).

In the picture below you can see the prayer wheels that circle the monastery. All of the monasteries we saw in Tibet were surrounded by rows, upon rows of prayer wheels. A prayer is placed inside and when spun the wheel sends the prayer out into the world.


Drepung is the largest monastery in Tibet and, at one point, housed as many as 10 000 monks.


See the steps in the center? They are reserved for the Dalai Lama . . .


I asked our guide how long it would take to boil a pot of water in one of these devices. He said "that depends on the weather." (Ask a stupid question . . . )


Here are some snaps of the inside of the temples. I wish I could have taken more photos on the inside of all of the buildings we visited but it wasn't exactly easy. Not that it was forbidden (you could pay the monks a fee - usually between 5 and 20 USD) but it was really awkward!! We stood out like sore thumbs. You could have counted the number of foreigners we saw the entire week in Tibet on one hand. Last thing we needed was to draw more attention to ourselves by paying the monks a small fortune to blind the Tibetan's with our camera flashes while they prayed. Anyway, I was able to take a few . . .


The inside of the temples were always crowded with people. They would all carry a bag of crumbly yak butter and make offerings by adding some to the giant candles. The smell of the butter mixed with incense was amazing . . . something we'll never forget.


Here is Drepung's main assembly hall. This is where the monks would gather to pray. Today, there are only a few hundred monks living at Drepung. The Chinese government has put a population cap on them and many have fled to India.





We weaved our way through the Monastery - clockwise (we walk clockwise following Buddha's path to enlightenment Interestingly, there is one sect of Buddhists that walk the other way - our guide said they are going opposite to Buddha in an attempt to bump into him along the way). We eventually made it back to the beginning.


Next, we went to Barkhor Square, the heart of Lhasa, for lunch and some shopping. Barkhor Square is situated directly in front of Jokhang Temple. Jokhang is the holiest and most important temple in all of Tibet so you can always count on a crowd. Mainly Tibetan's - some prostrating in front of the temple - some shopping - some just hanging out. As you can see, there were soldiers, too. It's rather unsettling watching a pack of teenagers with machine guns doing circles around the praying Tibetans . . . the Tibetan's ignored them . . .


The circuit around Jokhang Temple was quite amazing. The traffic of people is constantly flowing clockwise and it seems if you get anywhere near the crowd you get swept away with them. The crowd was mostly made up of Tibetan's 'circumambulating' the temple. Walking around the holy place as a sort of prayer-ritual. The rest of the people were checking out all of the magical and mystical items at all of the stalls. We were shopping alongside the people who have traveled into Lhasa from the countryside - buying new prayer beads and wheels - clothing and food . . .


I can't emphasize enough how conspicuous we were while walking the streets of Lhasa. At any given time there were at least a half-dozen eyes on us. Checking us out, smiling, pointing, staring . . . if there's anything that teaching in Korea was preparing us for . . . it was this. So we were used to the attention, however it made taking candid photographs of the people a little bit difficult. When we saw this little bundle I had to stop and snap a few . . .


I call this my 'National Geographic' moment . . .


The stalls had some really amazing trinkets. We wanted 'one of everything' but we had to keep a check on our dwindling funds and our dwindling backpack space. (By the time we left China at the end of our trip I was throwing out old clothing in order to fit everything in our packs . . . )


Here, we were following a lady making the trip around Jokhang - notice the prayer wheel she's holding - in constant motion from morning to night . . .


One benefit of visiting Lhasa in the winter was the clothing. Everyone is wearing their amazing winter coats and hats . . .


After lunch, we went to Sera Monastery. Another of 'The Great Three Monasteries in Tibet'. Sera is famous for the debating monks. Every afternoon, the monks gather in the courtyard to have an animated debate. They argue about scripture, religious philosophy, and the answers to 'impossible' riddles.


When the monks make an argument they 'clap' their hands in the face of their opponent . . .





Here's a short clip of the action . . . it was really reamrkable . .
video

Our guides set us free for the rest of the evening. We weren't quite done sightseeing for the day (if that's possible) so we went in search of Lhasa's Muslim Quarter. In the photo you can see the Mosque towering over the city. We couldn't get too close to the Mosque but were glad to find it before dark . . .


We'll have some more pictures and stories up soon . . .

Monday, February 8, 2010

T27 - The Train to Lhasa


Here's the T27 - the train to TIBET!! We had to take a 48 hour ride from Beijing to Lhasa so we opted for the soft sleeper car and we're glad we did . . .



It was quite modern and comfortable - 4 bunks to a room and a TV in each bed (they didn't pickup any channels . . . but it's the thought that counts).

There were some nice sinks in the halls - the facilities looked pretty clean at the beginning of our journey. . . but things kind of deteriorated as the trip went on - let's just say that 100 people sharing a couple of tiny, squat-style toilets on a moving train is a recipe for disaster!




Well, at 9PM we were off and running into the night. Luckily, I was wearing my trusty G-Shock watch with an Altimeter Function (and some people said I'd never use it . . . ). We were able to keep track of our rising altitude. The Qinghai-Tibet railway is the highest in the world - reaching over 5072 Meters (16 640 Feet) at its highest point, Tanggula Pass. Because there is a severe lack of oxygen at that altitude they pump in extra oxygen for each train car.

0 M


1195 M - going up . . .


There was a dining car on the train, too! We ate there a couple of times and the food was not too bad considering we were on a speeding train in the middle of China.


Check this out . . . don't know the exact science behind this one but it seems like the altitude was taking its toll on this bag of chips. We gawked at it for a while but ultimately decided to open it before it burst . . . I'm sure our roommate would have been quite upset to have a bed full of exploded chip crumbs!


3010 M Up, up, up . . .


We started to get our first glimpse of the Tibetan terrain . . . the view from the train was really incredible. At this point, we were getting really excited for our impending arrival in Lhasa.


WOW!! 4975 M = 16 322 Feet!!


Our roommate was pretty nonchalant about the entire affair . . . WAKE UP!!! We're almost there!!!!


Well, time for lunch . . . noticed that everyone was eating the same thing - stir-fried celery. Figured it must be pretty good . . . not exactly the case. After umpteen requests and refusals for some other delicious looking items on the menu, we realized it was all that was left . . . "we'll take two!"

In this photo, you can see a group of monk's over Shawna's shoulder. They were sleeping in a bunk just down the hall from us. It was funny, they seemed more curious about us than we were about them. I wish we could have spoken more to them but their English wasn't too good and well, let's just say my Tibetan is a little out of practice. We didn't get much farther than "Hello" and "Where are you from?" along with a lot of smiles!


When we started to see some sheep and yaks we knew we were getting really close . . .




Arrival! 48 hours on a train seemed like a daunting task but went by rather quickly. We were, however, quite relieved to be off the train and into the fresh air of Tibet!


Our guide and driver picked us up from the station, dressed us with the traditional white welcome scarves, and zipped us off to our guesthouse in Lhasa.


. . . to be continued . . .