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 . .
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 . . .