Visiting Tibet has been high on my bucket list for a couple of years now.
Tibet is widely known as the previous home of the Dalai Lama and especially famous in the Western part of the world because of the movie Seven Years in Tibet.
The sacred capital Lhasa is the location of the awe-inspiring Potala Palace, where the Dalai Lama used to live during his time in Tibet. You could describe Potala as Tibet’s answer to the château in Versailles, France. A religious & philosophical kind of answer, with thousands of rooms, millions of candles, and the soft chanting of Buddhist monks. It is one of the most amazing places I have ever been too and even now as I write about it, six months after the trip, I still feel like I haven’t processed it completely.
During our stay there, we had an excellent guide, Tenzinny. He picked us up at Lhasa airport after we flew in from Beijing and a layover in Chengdu. Now this might seem like an effortless transit but one does not simply walk (or fly) into Tibet. A special permit from the Chinese government is necessary before you can enter. (I’m European, but I guess this goes for all non-Chinese travellers.)
Tenzinny arranged all the necessary documents for us before our trip, so team up with a good travel agency for a smooth trip.
In Tibet, locals lay delicate white scarves at the statues of their Holy Gods as a sacrifice. Just like in Hawaii and their luaus, it is also a typical object to welcome visitors into Tibet.
As we drove off into the Tibetan scenery with humble villages, we were quite astonished to find a grand and amazing hotel like the Shangri-La, where we stayed during our trip. A huge advantage was their oxygen lounge: at an altitude of nearly 4000 metres, we spent some time here on various occasions to balance our oxygen levels. The altitude may impact breathing, headaches and the oxygen level in your blood so if you’re planning to go, stack up on that Diamox to avoid altitude sickness.
We were here end of December. I don’t mind travelling during cold periods because it usually means less to no tourists! Also, after spending New Year’s Eve at Tromso, Norway a couple of years ago (-20°C), we like to consider ourselves ‘trained’. 🙂
The average temperature now was about -10°C; which meant layers on layers of clothing, scarf, gloves & hat to keep warm. Don’t underestimate it like another traveller we met did. You’re in Himalayan territory.
Dec. 30th: Visiting Potala Palace
Lhasa is a city bustling with people & cars everywhere. It’s very busy. Walking down the main road feels like being in any other larger Asian city, until at the end of the main road, as if ‘out of nowhere’, there she rises: Potala Palace.
We immediately notice a lot of people walking around the palace in the same direction. What’s even more curious is that they are not talking. Most of them keep their heads down, except for the occasional curious look at us. Tenzinny explains that they are performing a religious act they do every day in order to purify their sins. As you can tell by the above picture, it takes a while before you get around the entire area of the palace.
I’m stunned by their devotion.
There are men and women, young and old, children and elderly with some of them carrying babies. I feel blessed to see Tibetan faces. As the Chinese flag moves with the wind on top of Potala, I see these people marching on. I strongly recommend having a look at a book or article on Tibet & China’s history to understand my angle here.
I feel privileged to be here and witness the Tibetans’ traditions.
Next, we climb the (many) stairs of Potala and go inside. I can smell incense and I see mandalas, stupas, fruit and drinks spread in front of the statues of the buddhas as a sacrifice, and white scarves. There are monks in their beautiful red and yellow robes, there are candles with butter of di (female yak).
The views outside are incredible. Against the blue sky, there are mountains, often with icy peaks. Even though the sun is shining, it’s stone cold. From every angle, Potala is stunning.
There are statues of Future Buddha, who always had to be the biggest one in the temple. There are buddhas of Longevity, scriptures written in gold liquid, pictures of past Dalai Lamas. I see prayer flags, people bowing their heads, some worshipping with their bodies extended on the floor.
A lot of money is offered to the buddhas and also a lot of mandarins. Almost everyone is carrying a thermos: it turns out not to be coffee or tea but butter of di. The people themselves refill the temple candles, and there are hundreds of them. After realizing this, I notice how many flames there are.
I ask Tenzinny why they do this and he tells me that they do it so that wherever they may go after death, there will be light.
He also adds that Potala has more than 1000 rooms of which only 18 are open to the public today.
Some people look at us with curiosity, some kids encourage each other to practice their English and spontaneously greet us “goodmorning!”. Anthony and I look at each other and smile.
We continue our trip with visiting Jokhang Temple and the Barkhor area, which is the oldest shopping street of Lhasa. We can’t resist and buy prayer flags.
We see the same phenomena we saw earlier: people walking around the monastery to purify their sins. We decide to join them for a while.
Dec. 31st: Sera and Drepung Monastery
Both monasteries are learning centers for monks. We witnessed a philosophical discussion in the ‘Debating Courtyard’ where they challenge each other on their knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.
At one point in history, Drepung Monastery used to house 10 000 monks. We were very blessed to see and hear monks chant during a ceremony in the assembly hall of Sera, the same way that monks have been doing it in the past hundreds of years. The views are incredible here as well.
As we make our way around the monastery, and monasteries are like villages here, I ask Tenzinny where he has travelled to, but to my surprise, he told me that Tibetans are not allowed to travel. He has never been outside of Tibet.
This broke my heart. Our passports are gold. I can’t imagine that travelling is not a given right but a privilege. I instantly quietly vow to myself to spread more awareness about the beauty of Tibet and to encourage people to visit Tibet; since Tibetans can’t go to the rest of the world, the world owes it to Tibet to come and visit. Tenzinny is not upset; his face is calm and he expresses his hope that one day his daughter might be allowed to travel. I only feel a deep respect.
Before this trip, I wanted to explore Buddhism to prepare and understand the Tibetans’ way of life. If you’re interested, I strongly recommend “The things you can see only when you slow down”. by Haemin Sumin who is a Zen Buddhist teacher. It will be a mindopener (eyeopener just doesn’t cut it.)