Homer's Travels: 2012 Asian Adventure - Up On The Roof ... Of The World

Sunday, September 09, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - Up On The Roof ... Of The World

Day Seven

Tibet.  The roof of the world.  The two days spent here were some of the more special ones on this trip.

We ate breakfast at the hotel.  We were the only westerners except for a couple, probably of European flavor.  The lack of westerners would be palpable as we moved around Lhasa.  We kind of stuck out.  The lack of westerners also emphasized just how lucky we were to be there.

On the bus and away we went to Norbulingka, the  Dalai Lama's summer palace.  The large complex includes several palaces/temples, a zoo (which we did not visit), and extensive gardens.  We went from palace to temple riding a couple trams.  The architecture and the gardens were incredible.  This is where we discovered that Buddhist monks, at least in Tibet, are camera shy and do not like their pictures taken.  The Buddhist have led much of the protests against the Chinese and exposure may result in  ... trouble ... for the monks.  In Tibet, and the rest of China I expect, to become a monk you must be licensed by the government.    These licenses are getting harder and harder to get and the ranks of the Buddhist monks and nuns is steadily shrinking.

Intricate carving on a column in Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's Summer Palace.

As I was looking at the gardens surrounding a temple, a gentleman in a suit came up to me and casually asked where I was from and how many days we were visiting Tibet.  I told him we were American and, having misunderstood, told him were were staying for sixteen days (The length of our stay in China).  When his eyes grew big I realized my error and said we would be in Tibet for two days.  That calmed him down and, as he walked away, he said that he was from Tokyo.  For some reason I didn't believe him.  In Tibet you always feel watched.

After the palace we stopped for lunch.  During our stay in Lhasa I expanded my culinary experience slightly by eating Yak meat.  It tasted like beef, naturally since yaks are bovines, and was a little tough.

After lunch we walked a block or so to Barkhor Plaza.  On the bus our guide had told us that he could answer any of our questions on the bus but in the plaza we had to be careful as there were microphones and people were listening to what we said.  You became keenly aware of all the check points we passed through.  At one point I was walking ahead of the group with another of our group and, apparently, this didn't make the police manning the checkpoints happy.  They talked to our guide.  Seeing the looks we were getting we rejoined the group.

Barkhor Plaza seen from the top of the Jokhang temple.
The Potala palace can be seen in the background on the right.
At Barkhor Plaza we went through a more rigorous checkpoint.  This plaza is famous for two reasons: The Jokhang temple, the holiest of places for Tibetan Buddhists, and the location of several recent self-immolations of Buddhist monks protesting the Chinese control.  This is where I felt the most watched.  Every now and then you would notice a person who didn't belong hanging around the edge of our group.  I am sure we were on video from several angles as well.  It was a bit oppressive.

As we waited for the group to get together to enter the Jokhang temple I noticed something on the ground near a group of police.  It looked like a large clamp, large enough to reach around the hips, connected to a long pole.  Next to it were two fire extinguishers.  They were partially covered by a tarp.  I knew what I was seeing.  The clamp was used to secure anyone attempting to self-immolate so they couldn't run around and the extinguishers were there to put them out if they succeeded.  It sent a shiver up my spine.  I noticed during the changing of the guard at least two of the soldiers carried fire extinguishers on their backs.

Jokhang temple is old, from the seventh century.  We passed by several people prostrating themselves in front of the temple.  This would be a common sight during our visits to temples.  Worshipers often prostrated themselves tens, if not hundreds, of times per day.

The temple was built for a King's two wives, one Chinese and one Nepali.  Both brides brought sacred statues from their respective cultures including a statue of Buddha said to be 2,500 years old.  Photography and all liquids are not permitted in the temple so I have no pictures of the beautiful statuary and temple interiors.  This prohibition of photography would extend to all the Buddhist temples we visited.

Tibetan women sitting in a shop.
The second from the left is holding a prayer wheel.
After the temple we shopped along the sides of the plaza before visiting a shop to see craftsmen painting thangkas.  The intricately painted cloth hangings were incredible detailed.  We didn't buy one here but we would find one in Nepal.

Painting a thangka.
Our first day in Tibet ended with a nice dinner out with the group.

Day Eight

Most of us woke up with headaches.  We later decided that while some of it was due to the altitude, a major component was all the incense we'd breathed in the day before.  Every temple we went to was full of incense smoke.  Some of our group bought surgical masks, a common sight on the street in Tibet and China, to help filter out the smoke.

Our second Tibet day was the big one for me as we were scheduled to visit the Potala Palace.  Due to the large number of visitors to the palace, you were given a ninety minute window to visit.  This means you had to arrive and climb the 300+ steps and be at the main palace door at a specific time and, once you entered the palace, your party had to leave by before the ninety minutes had expired.  Not making it would hurt the guide, possible resulting in them losing their guide license.

Circumnavigating the Gong De Lin Si Temple.
Our window for the palace was around 11:00 AM so we had time to visit another temple first to observe the Kora, a type of Buddhist pilgrimage and/or meditation.   The Kora consist of circumnavigating around a holy site while reciting a mantra or prayer.  Holy sites may include stupa, temples, the Potala Palace, even the city of Lhasa itself.  In Buddhism the Kora is always walked clockwise.  Other local faiths walk in the counterclockwise direction.  Holy sites such as stupa, temples, and the Potala Palace have prayer wheels along their exterior walls.  The prayer wheel contain prayers and mantras.  Spinning the wheels is the same as reciting the prayer orally.  As the pilgrims circumnavigate the site they spin the prayer wheels.   Many Tibetan carry small handheld prayer wheels which they constantly spin as they walk.  Everywhere we went in Tibet we saw people circling the buildings doing their Kora.

Prayer wheels at the Potala palace.
Arriving at the temple we joined the people walking around the stupa.  Next to the stupa were stacks of slate with prayers and mantras carved on them.  As we left the site we passed artisans engraving the slate stones.  I bought a palm sized stone with the mantra carved on it.  Another of the group bought a large piece of carved slate - we wondered if she would have problems getting that on the flight home but apparently it didn't give her any problems.

The Potala palace, home of the Dalai Lama.
Back on the bus we headed to the Potala Palace.  The views were magnificent.  While all of China was shrouded in clouds/fog/smog, the skies over Tibet were clear and blue.  We started up the stairs taking our time as we all were a little short of breath.  A few of the people in our group were elderly and they had to take it slow but we all managed to make it.  We arrived at the door a few minutes early and we got our tickets and went in.  The palace, home to the Dalai Lama before he was forced into exile in 1959, is magnificent.  Once again pictures were not allowed inside the palace so all we could take away were memories.  I have to admit I have never seen so many statues of Buddha in one place ... well ... I have now.  We made it out with only a few minutes to spare.

Nun gathering water ... this soon lead to a water fight amongst the nuns.
After a quick stop for lunch we headed for the Buddhist Ani Canggu nunnery.  We got off the bus and walked through the narrow streets passing stores, including a furniture store owned by our guide's family (We met his sister and aunt), before we arrived at a rather unassuming door.  Inside was a courtyard surrounded by the  living quarters and temple of the nunnery.  As we explored the nunnery we admired the cleanliness of the place and how well cared for it was.  The nuns were much more meticulous than the monks.  The nuns also turned out to be much nicer than the monks.  The nuns were fine with photography, the monks were not.  The nuns welcomed us, the monks were more aloof.  As we walked around there was a commotion in the courtyard.   Before we knew it water was flying all over the place as the nuns engaged in a water fight.  The nuns were smiling and laughing - releasing pressure before they reentered the temple to continue their prayers.  It was one of those spontaneous moments that makes traveling special.

The water fight ended and the nuns began filing into the temple.  We went up the stairs hoping to get a glimpse of the prayers.  Seeing us at the door, the nuns waved us in.  The monks would never had done this.  We stood lining the back wall as the nuns sat and chanted in unison.  They would do this hours at a time.  When they were not eating, sleeping, or working, they were praying.  A nun waved the Wife over and she went in and sat next to the nun.  It was very emotional for the Wife, and most of the women in our group. Tears were shed by some as we witnessed the deep devotion of the nuns.  I know this was one of the highlights of the Wife's trip.

Nuns praying.
Everyone who visits a temple gives a donation.  The donations are collected and a large portion of it goes to the Chinese government.  The nunnery had a store where they sold hand crafts.  All the money from these sales went to the nuns.  Our group made sure they were well compensated for their hospitality.

One hallmark of the General Tours is a visit with a family.  After the nunnery we went to a family's house  to see how the average Tibetan lived.  The family was a friend of our bus driver.  When we got there we discovered that only one of the family members would meet with us, the others afraid to be seen with foreigners.  Our hostess served yak butter tea, yak milk cheese, as well as the local Tibetan barley wine.  I skipped the wine and cheese but drank the tea - I wanted to be polite.  It was not to my liking but then I do not like tea in general.  We toured the house and admired their Buddhist shrine.  When we'd seen most of the house our driver came in and talked to our guides and we were hurried out.  Apparently the neighbors were a little leery about all the foreigners milling about.  The fact that we were making the dogs bark probably didn't help either.  As we pulled away from the house we all hoped we hadn't gotten the family in trouble.

A cup of yak butter tea.
That night, after dinner and some more shopping at Barkhor plaza we went to a live show.  The show was optional and we would have to buy the tickets.  Out Tibetan guide, a little wheeler-dealer, arranged VIP seats for the price of the cheap seats.  We were seated in the second row with almost no one seated in front of us.  A couple of little girls did sit in the front row in front of me.  Every now and then they would look over their shoulders at me and giggle.  The show was a mixture of music and dance and told the story of Tibet.  It was very entertaining.  The only mark on the night was, near the end of the show, a huge Chinese flag was lowered spanning the entire stage. You could feel the change in the atmosphere in the auditorium ... a definite chill.  The night ended with the dancers throwing silk scarves to members of our group (giving white scarves (Katas) is a form of welcome in Buddhism - we received three this trip - similar to Hawaiian leis).  The dancer in the picture below threw hers to the little girls.

Tibetan Dancers.
The two days in Tibet were some of the best of our entire trip.  You could feel the strength of the people even as they were being held down.  I have been in places with strong military presences (Guatemala during their war with the gorillas comes to mind) but I've never felt the sensation of constantly being watched like I did in Tibet.

As I said, we were lucky to get into Tibet.  During our stay here, except for the couple at our hotel, we saw no other caucasian travelers.  When we were at the temples and palace we were the only ones.  As we walked around we drew stares from the Tibetans.  This attention included the squeezing of butts by little Tibetan women - American women were a little more... big-boned than Tibetans were used to.  (The Wife's butt was squeeze by a nun ... she returned the favor.)  One of our group was even bitten - a gentle bite on the arm is a sign of endearment between mother and child in Tibet.

Two weeks after we left another monk self-immolated.  More followed.  I'm sure if it had happened earlier we would not have been able to experience Tibet like we did.  I just wonder how much longer there will be a Tibet to enjoy.

Pictures from days seven and eight (06/29 - 06/30/2012) can be found in my 2012-06 Tibet Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...


  1. I am constantly amazed by your travel stories! What a beautiful place, scary at times, but beautiful!

    1. Autumn: It was truely beautiful filled with beautiful people. I feel so fortunate to have been there. Keep reading, there's more to come.