Well I've made it safely to Tibet and as I said on the last blog the train journey was AMAZING. My first night in Lhasa was spent wandering (SLOWLY!) around the old town and searching for food. Because of the proximity to Nepal and India, Lhasa has lots of cuisine to choose from and I was very excited to see some paneer (Which actually turned out to be bad cheese but never mind!)
Lhasa itself is very beautiful but I found the military presence a little disconcerting! Everywhere you turned there were army men with BIG machine guns standing guard…over what? I have no idea. But they were even on the rooftops of buildings which was a bit scary! I found out from my guide the next day that there had been religious festival that weekend, when people from all over Tibet made a pilgrimage to Lhasa as it is a very holy city. This was apparently the reason for the military, in case things got out of hand…I'll say no more on that! Now, I'll warn you that this blog will be a bit "teachery", so scroll past it all if you're not interested in Tibetan Buddhism!
My first day was amazing, though I was still suffering from a banging headache due to the altitude! Lhasa is 3600 metres above sea level so the air is a little thin! To get to Tibet I had to sign onto an organised tour and go through all sorts of permits and other boring paperwork. You are not allowed to travel through Tibet independently. This made the whole thing more expensive which is a pain but in a sad way it's nice to let someone else do all the organising for a change! Because it is all organised for you, 2 days of guided sightseeing is included in Lhasa before I start my trip to Kathmandu. Anyway, the first stop on my tour of Lhasa was the Potala Palace…WOWWOWWOW. My first glimpse of it was amazing, almost touching the clouds! The palace itself was first built in the 7th Century, but after the Cultural; Revolution (Chinese/Tibetan problems….) it was refurbished in the 17th Century, now standing at 13 stories high. The 5th Dalai Lama decided to use this as his residence and all the Dalai Lamas have resided here since. Unfortunately, the 13th (Present) Dalai Lama is in hiding in India after some more China/Tibet issues last year….
Although the palace was BEAUTIFUL, there was, unfortunately MANY steps!! I was pretty out of breath by the time I reached the top but it was well worth it. The guide I have is VERY knowledgeable, and explained loads about Tibetan Buddhism, but my head was spinning from all the info! It was a lot to take in. The basic things I can understand are that each Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of the last. The present Dalai Lama is the last reincarnation, and the 14th (Next) has already been identified as an 8 year old boy in a village outside of Lhasa. The past Dalai Lamas were identified by information written by the Dalai Lama on his death bed, eg. The village, age etc of the child who was to become the new Dalai Lama. Make sense???!
Other stuff I managed to grasp was that 108 is a lucky number in Tibetan Buddhism, and the present Buddha (Sakymuni) had been reincarnated 108 times, as all Buddhas need to be. I'm going to stop with the RE lecture now as I've still got loads more to tell you!
After the Potala Palace I visited the other main sight in central Lhasa which was the Jokhang Temple. Again, this was built in the 7th Century and is a VEY important part of the pilgrimage for travelling Tibetans. All around the palace were Tibetans "Prostrating" themselves in prayer and leaving money by the various statues of the Past, Present and Future Buddhas. Also inside Tibetan temples are the tombs of past Lamas (Including Dalai and Benchi, there are 4 altogether, but the Dalai Lama and Benchi Lama are seen as the highest.) and other holy men. Most Tibetan monasteries and temples are the same inside. Duplicate statues of Buddhas and Lamas, many tombs and areas for the monks to worship. Most visiting Tibetans leave money and offerings at different stautes and tombs depending on what they are praying for. For example, many Tibetan students will leave a pen or pencil with the Buddha of knowledge, say some prayers and collect it before their exams hoping it will bring them luck! There are also Buddhas of long life (Which are obviously visited by the elderly) and statues to bring babies and infants good health and happiness. One thing I found that was a little strange though is the C h i n e s e government now take all this money that is offered to the Buddhas and use it to pay the monks a "Salary" each month, rather than allowing the monks to use it for construction as it was in the past…Once again, I have no comments to make!!
That night I was invited to dinner at the "Mad Yak Restaurant" which was….interesting! We were served Chinese and Tibetan food, I took the plunge and tried a piece of Yak which was YUK. And also sampled the barley cake, which tasted like the hay from a cowshed!! However, the spiced potato was awesome! Tibet grows a lot of barley and potatoes, hence there being so much of it on the menu. I also tried the Barley beer, a homebrew, which was actually quite nice! The highlight of the night was the Tibetan dancing, pretty much a tourist event but really nice to watch!
The next day I went to the two biggest monasteries in Tibet, Drepung and Sera. The Drepung Monastery was the largest, at one time holding almost 9000 monks. After last year's "troubles" very few remain at either Monastery. The Drepung Monastery was high up in the hills and, once again there were MANY steps! Thankfully I was more acclimatized today so it was much easier. We spent a few hours wandering around the various chapels (Not all of which are open to women…) and took in the stunning views around the area. Every chapel contained a chanting monk, banging gongs and prayer flags were EVERYWHERE. It was really beautiful.
The Sera Monastery was next and here was my favourite of all the sights in Lhasa so far! The Sera Monastery again used to hold many monks until last year but there were 2 amazing things that made it my favourite. The first were the workers on the top floor, they were flattening the floor as part of some construction and whilst they were doing so were singing and dancing in prayer! It sounds weird but it was really cool. It was all synchronized, with the women doing one verse and the men doing another, and they were all beating the floor simultaneously! After that I went to the "Debating Courtyard" where the novice monks debate Buddhism and Philosophy under the watchful eyes of the higher monks. Buddhism is very deep and there are loads of things the novices need to understand before they can become a higher monk so they debate and discuss for around 2 hours every day. Again, this probably sounds weird but it was SO interesting to see. They were in small groups with one monk standing up and asking the questions of the others. To receive a response they would step in towards the seated monk, clap their hands and point at them to answer. At some times in looked as if they were going to have a fight but obviously they didn't! Once again, another amazing thing to see.
So that was my first 2 days in Tibet, and they were fantastic, The people I've met so far have been fabulous and the Tibetan kids are just too cute for words! Tomorrow I start my overland jeep trip to Kathmandu via Everest which I'm REALLY excited about! And after that it's India to see pops and gain even MORE weight!
Hope you're all well,
PS. Apologies for the lack of pics on my blog, Tibetan internet isn't so great! But I'll try and get some up soon.