Thurs, Sept 26, 2013
By 2:00 we left for Lhasa. Once again, the scenic drive was fantastic. Today we drove much of the way downstream along a river. At some points it was wide, and at other times, it was just the road and the river at the bottom of a massive canyon. Also interesting, is that the Chinese are building a fast train between Lhasa and Shigatse and we saw much of the ongoing construction – including miles of tunnels under/through mountains – quite an engineering feat.
We arrived in Lhasa just after 7:00. Lhasa is the capital of Tibet and also the largest city with an important historical past. As we drove into town, we could see the Potola Palace, perched on the only hill in the middle of the city. We also saw all the progress – this city is growing quickly due to an influx of Chinese development. Like other parts of China I saw last year, Lhasa is like a “Crane City” for the dozens of construction cranes that flank the city. They are even building an amusement park just outside of the city. The entrance to the city is basically a large toll booth style police checkpoint. One of the passengers joked “I always imagined the gates to Lhasa would look like this.”
We arrived at the hotel and found out for the next 2 nights we will be staying at probably the nicest hotel of the whole trip – the Lhasa Gang Jian Hotel. This has been certainly the cleanest hotel since Kathmandu. And everything seems to be in working order – the toilet flushes, the shower is hot, the shower has nice pressure. It has all the western amenities – an elevator, big fluffy towels, and even a bathroom scale. I’m happy to see I’ve lost a few pounds on the trip so far despite the constant snacking and sharing of cookies and chips on the truck.
I didn’t feel like joining the big group for dinner so I headed to the night market which was nearby the hotel. Some Muslim ladies were frying up all kinds of things on sticks – I chose several veggies, vegetarian dumplings, tofu, and an egg and she fried these and added spices – all of this for $1.50.
I continued to the spectacular lit-up Potola palace. There is a lighted fountain show in the evening and the square was filled with Chinese tourists.
Fri, Sept 27
I woke up a little early to see the sunrise on the Potola Palace. It was certainly the start of rush hour and you could already see the pollution entering the air. Back at the hotel, we had the best breakfast buffet yet.
At 10:30, we had a guided tour of the Jokhang Temple with our Tibetan guide, Ciwan. Construction on Jokhang started in 647 in what is now the center of old Lhasa. This was a really beautiful temple, with lots of little chapels along the outside walls. Lots of locals were doing their daily prayers, which involves 108 repetitions of kneeling, out stretching on their stomach on the ground, then standing with a prayer motion above their head. If you’ve ever done or seen “Burpee” exercises from cross training, it looked like this without the jump. Even more local people were waiting to enter the temple to pray to the various Buddhas. Many of them brought melted butter as an offering in the form of burning butter candles. The art work in this temple was extremely nice – shame we couldn’t take any photos inside. This is a rule at many of the temples here – especially those with many tourists and high entry fees.
Our tour ended on the roof where there were fantastic views of the surrounding mountains and the Potola Palace.
Three of us went with our guide to a Tibetan Tea House. I might not have ventured into this place otherwise, but it was a great place to interact with locals and see a way in which they spend their day. We first got small glasses (about 3-4 liquid ounces) and then set a Chinese yuan bill on the table. A lady with a pot came along and gave us a sweet tea – a mix of tea, yak milk, and sugar. Each refill of the cup costed 0.7 yuan – about 12 cents. She would keep on coming around and filling the cup and making change with the money that was on the table as long as you wanted refills. You could also get food at the tea house – noodles, dumplings, or rice with a little bit of meat and vegetables for 5 yuan.
After lunch, I did a bit of shopping, searching out for a Tibet refrigerator magnet to add to my collection. There are a ridiculous number of shops selling all kinds of Tibetan stuff – mostly jewelry and brass pots and religious goods. What is lacking is the kitschy stuff – I only saw one shop selling T-shirts and they had about 3 of them. I walked around the old town a bit and visited a couple small temples. I also stopped at the huge supermarket. It’s alot of fun to look at all the weird products and try to figure out what’s inside. There were alot of packages with pictures of yaks on them – possibly yak jerky? Some of the snack foods look downright nasty. The Chinese certainly have different tastes than Americans. Even the recognizable foods have strange flavors – a box of Oreos with half peach and half grape flavored filling anyone? And that might one of the tamer flavors.
At 6:00 the group met for another group dinner. Nothing too fancy – I just had fried noodles with Yak meat. Nearly every dish in Tibet has yak as it is much cheaper and more abundant than beef, chicken, etc. About half of the group headed down to the Potola square because I told them how great the lit-up palace and fountain show was. This time we checked out the mob of people and we discovered there is nightly light aerobics in the square so some of us joined in! There was a small circle in the middle, with a larger circles outside that. From the outer circles we could watch what the inner circles were doing and follow that. Sometimes we were walking in circles, sometimes we were nearing the inner circle. There were stomps and arm gestures. There had to be at least 2,000 Tibetans doing the exercises – mostly people about 20’s but a few kids and a few older folks. It was a blast and since we have 3 more nights, I might be back!
Sat, Sept 28
Another great breakfast at the nice hotel before we have to move to a cheaper hotel for the next 3 nights in Lhasa. The new hotel was awful and I have a high tolerance for bad hotels.
We had some free time before a later guided tour so I set off to use up the free time. I visited the small Ramoche Temple. Here I saw a sort of one-man-band monk – he was chanting, playing cymbals, and a big bass drum at the same time. I spun all of the prayer wheels as I walked clockwise around the temple.
I continued walking to see the Mount Everest mountaineers’ statue and then walked to see the Lhasa Department Store – the old state department store that is very expensive.
At 2:00 we met our local guide and took the public bus to the Sera Monastery. Sera is on the edge of Lhasa at the foot of a mountain and is the second largest monastery in Tibet with 3 different colleges. But what makes Sera most famous is its daily debates between monks. For 2 hours every afternoon, monks debate about philosophy. A standing monk asks a question with force – much animation and clapping and pointing. A sitting monk then needs to answer the questions. Another sitting monk acts as a judge.
We returned by bus to town and much of the group had dinner at the Tashi Restaurant that’s become a favorite amongst the group with its great service, food, and prices. I had some Yak momos (steamed dumplings) and steamed mixed vegetables.
A few of us went to the Potola square for the nightly dancing. Interestingly, there was a deer in the square. No one seemed to know where he came from but lots of people were trying to feed it (it didn’t like apples but did like grapes) and get their picture taken with it.
Sun, Sept 29th
Last day in Lhasa! I will be glad to get out of the big city. After a breakfast of yogurt and half a pomelo (sort of like grapefruit but milder and like 4x the size), we had a 9:00 am appointment to visit the Potola Palace, the most famous symbol of Tibet. This meant we needed to arrive at 8:30 to go thru several checkpoints. It was almost as bad as the TSA – no liquids, lighters, matches, or knifes and involved a brief pat down. Apparently in the past, there have been protesters that have lit themselves on fire here to protest the treatment of Tibetans. After several entry gates, collecting the whopping $50 entry fee, and checking our passports, we had a steep ascent to the top of the palace. The light and clouds this morning meant we got some very good photos of the exterior.
From here, we had only one hour inside this building, where we were not allowed to take photos. Our guide pointed out seats and tombs of many of the past Dalai Lamas. Also, pictures of some of the past Dalai Lamas up to the 13th. The photo of the current and 14th Dalai Lama is not allowed to be seen here as he has been banished
Potola palace is also the winter home of the Dalai Lamas. In all, there are 1000 rooms in Potola but we only saw a small fraction of them.
After Potola, and since this was our last day in Lhasa, a few of us headed west to see some sites there. Several brides were having their wedding photos taken outside the palace.
Just after leaving Potola, I noticed a door and window in the side of a hill with people entering and exiting – of course I needed to check it out and it turned out to be a Tibetan Tea House in a cave like structure. So, we decided to stay and have some sweet yak milk tea and noodles for lunch. There was a single set of seats on the outer walls, then a table, then an aisle, meaning that we just looked across the aisle at the other diners and tea drinkers. A couple beautiful Tibetan women sat opposite of us and everyone was taking pictures of us as the only foreigners in the place.
We continued walking and took pictures of two large gold Yak statues. Workers were starting to adorn the statue with fake poinsettia flowers, with the red to signify China National Day which starts on October 1.
We continued on to Norbulinka, the largest city park in Tibet with several of the summer palaces of various Dalai Lamas from the 8th to the current (14th). It was interesting to see the various change in furniture styles. In the summer palace of the 13th, there were quite a few vehicles, including a tricycle, wheelchair, and horse buggies. In the summer palace of the 14th, there were sitting rooms, a bedroom, and bathroom with running water. Some of the furniture looked like 50’s era. All of the palaces were very nice but not very “palatial”.
We caught the bus back to our part of town and checked out the huge pharmacy with the interesting Chinese medicines. Most of the boxes were in Chinese, but one of the more interesting bottles with English was called “Essence of Kangaroo.”
Tonight, we had reservations as a group at one of the fancier restaurants at town, called Dunya. We’ve decided to celebrate a fake birthday since there were no actual birthdays in September amongst the group members. The theme of the night was to wear something you wouldn’t normally wear so there’s a whole mix of costumes – people dressed in spandex with their underwear on the outside, silly hats, a guy in a rice bag, a nerd, a samurai, pageant contestants, etc. I had some Indonesian style noodles with chicken and peanut sauce that wasn’t very good. Probably my most expensive but least tasty meal of the trip.
I had to walk by this monstrosity on the way back to the hotel… China opening their version of Times Square, a luxury mall, only a block from the historic Potola Palace
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