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Lhasa's Palace. Monasteries and Temples

CHINA | Saturday, 20 March 2010 | Views [1192] | Comments [4]

Sera Monastery has a famous protector god that the young, infirm and hopeful are brought to to get a smear of ash from the burnt incense wiped on their nose for future health, wealth and well being.

Sera Monastery has a famous protector god that the young, infirm and hopeful are brought to to get a smear of ash from the burnt incense wiped on their nose for future health, wealth and well being.

I only had a five day break between jobs so it was always going to be a quick trip. The travel agency was nervous about getting the required Tibet Travel Permits for us because in the last few years a Tibetan religious festival at the end of the first month in the Tibetan calendar had turned in to a clash with the Chinese authorities and all foreignors had been refused entry to Tibet and all Tibetan areas of Qinghai and Sichuan provinces.

Long story short..... we got them and got in.

We were met by our compulsory guide, TinLi, though he was Tibetan, had a big smile, spoke good English and knew his history so was able to give us first hand experiences as well some amusing  - and sobering - stories of life in Lhasa. He asked us very seriously not to carry a camera inside Old Lhasa as some other tourists had had the card pulled from their camera, had themselves loaded on a train north and their guide 'disciplined'.

The authorities included army, police, SWAT and a lot of officials who are unable to make themselves conspicuous - it's a cultural thing to flaunt your authority. As we walked around we generally had an easy time of it, though we were watched very closely. One young guy in the black - serious cop - uniform was following us up a side market street keeping an eye on us one part of it. When I turned back in his direction he went in to his pocket and dropped some small notes in the bowl of a beggar lady sitting in front of him. It would've been funny if he hadn't bloody near given the old lady a heart attack. There were squads of ten in full riot gear - armed, shields, vests, etc - patrolling streets, positioned on rooftops and stationed in front of sensitive buildings and streets. It just had the feel of an uneasy peace the whole time we were there, and was getting worse as the festival date got closer with cars stopped for checks and people questioned and papers checked and even photos taken.

So there was only the one photo from the roof of the Yak Hotel where we stayed of Potala Palace and the rest of the time the camera stayed inside my shirt until Thiley gave us the nod. Day 1 was to be a road trip to the another monastery outside Lhasa, but the authorities had closed the place to tourists, so we went out the Drak Yerpa monastery with 108 meditation caves and 108 springs that has special significace to the Tibetans - so does the number 108 now. The current Dalai Lama preached to the faithful there just before fleeing to India. Some of these medidtation caves pre date Buddhism apparently. During the Cultural Revolution a lot of the caves were sacked and there are probably only 20 or maybe 30 caves converted to small temples today. This was our first taste of serious altitude and I'm happy to say though we constantly stopped to get our breath, we didn't suffer from altitude sickness that lays a lot of people flat for a day or two. If you're going to Lhasa, take the train from Xining as we did. It is slower than flying in, but you get a chance to acclimatise on the way in - as well as some nice scenery along the way. Fly out if yuo have to, but not in.

Day 2 we went out to 500 year old Sera monastery for a look. This was where out Tibetan guide came in to his own. Being local he knows what he's talking about as well as some amusing stories like when he helped carry the huge mural for the annual festival but was too short so he hung from it most of the way instead of taking any weight. We learnt all about all things Buddhist from a guy with a cheeky sense of humour but passionate about what he was talking about at the same time.

Apparently the Dalai Lama is a manifestation of their god of compassion and each one is a reincarnation of the previous one. The three evils that buddhists are meant to rid themselves of to reach nirvana (?) are hatred, ignorance and greed which are represented by the snake, pig and chicken respectively. The monks wear a hat with a rooster's crown, a belt to symbolise a snake and boots with a toe on them ike a pig's snout to constantly remind them of this.

At Sera monastery there is a hill covered in prayer flags and mantras written on rocks. In amongst this is the home to nuns who are not allowed to live inside the monastery. I thought one of their gods was the god of compassion ?  ?  ?

All through the place pilgrims came to pray, pay homage, top up the butter candles and leave money. We were there to see two guards oversee two monks with brooms and large sacks collecting the money that had been left by the many pilgrims that would be lucky to see a fraction of that quantity of money in this lifetime. We got to witness the monks debating,which was definitely a very interesting sight. These guys, young and old, shuffled in as you would expect them to, very subdued, but when the flag dropped - not literally - they became very animated. A standing monk asks a sitting monk a question and if they are correct in their answer there is an animated hand clap and smiles all round. If they get it wrong there is debate, or something like that. Apparently if they are totally wrong the string of beads that they all carry - with 108 beads - are circled above the head of the guy who has got it all wrong. A lot of the locals and pilgrims also showed a lot of interest though they weren't able to follow the conversations very well because there is a lot of scriptural language used.

The next day we walked to Potala Palace. The Yak hotel is in Old Lhasa which is traditionaly Tibetan. New Lhasa is Chinese and would be hard to pick from any other Chinese city if it wasn't for the Tibetan script on shopfronts and signs. Much the same as the Mongolian script in Inner Mongolia. Being way out of tourist season there weren't a lot of other people in the way or around except for the many pilgrims who were in town. A lot of them walk a clockwise circuit around the city and/or a smaller clockwise circuit around the oldest temple in the middle of Old Lhasa. We just walked up a million steps to get to the top of Potala Palace for a look around. Apparently Zhou Enlai - PRChina's first premier - had his own guards look after the Palace during the Cultural Revolution to stop the Red Guards sacking this place like they did most of China at the time. Inside the Palace are ancient scrolls, a collection numbering in the thousands of statues of different buddha, numerous statues of gods, buddha, past Lama and tomb stupas. I saw one of the Dalai Lamas' tomb stupa's write-up claiming it had a lot of different gems inlaid in to it and contained over 5000kg (that is the right number of zeros) as well. No wonder people were going out of their way to guard this thing. Another was said to contain 3000kg. Makes me wonder about the chicken - one of three evils. Why would you need that much gold? In one room workers were unpacking, cleaning, repairing and repacking scripture scrolls. It was all done by hand and with some methods straight out of history which was interesting to watch until one of them answered their mobile with the very Chinese "wei ?".

From there we walked back in to the heart of Old Lhasa to the Jokhang temple. The oldest part of the temple is over 2000 years old, though the majority was built at later stages. This is the oldest temple they have and the heart of their religious festival on March 14 - our calender. Around the temple is the Barkhor area and Barkhor circuit that the pilgrims walk while chanting, praying and dodging cops and military patrols. One of the hardest things to watch was a squad of ten riot police with shields and in full kit marching on the circuit in the opposite direction to the throng of pilgrims, and making sure they got room to do so. Picking a fight ? The whole circuit is full of stalls selling everything you would think you'd find in an Asian marketplace so it is reasonably busy. In the square in front of the temple two riot vehicles were parked for the heavily armed marching squads to circle. Ominously though there were also two ambulances parked out in full view. Ready and waiting.

Saturday morning we were put back on the train even though we were initially told we had tickets for the afternoon train. Hopefully nothing was going on there because if there was going to be trouble it was going to be a heavy hand that stopped it. On Friday night cars were being stopped and checked, people's papers checked and people photographed and streets and lanes closed off. The young kids swinging batons and wearing uniforms couldn't look us in the eyes but the old Tibetan people on the Barkhor circuit did, and would, and then had the broadest smile when we said "tashi delek" - Tibetan for hello.

Very interesting place, though I don't think I'd bother going back at the same time of year again. But definitely worth another visit. Seen and done the temples, next time I'd like to see the sites. Everest base camp, Mount Kailash and a few others I heard about and have forgotten names of now.

 

Tags: lhasa, monasteries, monks, tibet, yak

 

Comments

1

Hey bundynbeaches,

We really like your story and decided to feature it this week on the WorldNomads Adventures homepage so that others can enjoy it too.

Happy Travels!
World Nomads

  World Nomads Mar 22, 2010 4:00 PM

2

Love to read this. Sounds really ominious! Also sounds like a place of total contradiction. Te peacefulness of Buddhism and the violence there today. Just about to go watch your photos. I wish you had a video camera! I think you should get one!

  Moz Mar 22, 2010 8:41 PM

3

Enjoyed your story, the photos bought it to life. I will be takeing your advise and catching the train to Lhasa. Thanks Gumleaf.

  Gumleaf Mar 24, 2010 11:56 PM

4

Glad you enjoyed the place so much and I hope you get back there. I agree with world nomads a good story . CongratsB6RCG3

  Spencer Mar 25, 2010 10:38 PM

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