Pilgrims, prayerwheels, palaces and processions

12 Jun

(which I think is a confession that I can’t find a good movie title or song with Tibet in the title. ‘Seven Years in Tibet’? – a bit TOO long, I think. Bruce Dickinson’s ‘Tibet’? Dull, dull, dull.

Anyway. Lhasa. Tibet. It’s been a dream for me for years. There is something unique about this country, even though it’s been annexed by China for over 60 years. The people are fabulous, and there’s a wonderful peacefulness about the place. Lhasa itself is set like a jewel in amongst the mountains – slowly being transformed into a modern city, but still, as yet, retaining that spiritual core.

Having been met at the station with ‘Tashai Delek’ (hello) and a traditional silk scarf, I am whisked off to the hotel. It’s an odd one, with Tibetan prayer flags in the coffee lounge (a lounge which mysteriously disappears on the second night), and Chinese graffiti on the walls. I have a Canadian roomie, but the Australian group decide they would like a better hotel. We’re just round the corner from the Potala Palace though.

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Just time for a wander round town, which seems to be one huge market, selling everything from Tibetan Prayer Wheels to turmeric. And the most incredible flaky pastry creations that are a bit like Chorley cakes but much much better. Would confessing to eating four be embarrassing? OK, I won’t confess then.

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The lack of air at this altitude (around 4500m) isn’t bothering me – until I climb the stairs. At which point I am out of breath and wheezing. Maybe take it easier next time.

Monday

Off to the Potala Palace, the residence of the Dalai Lama until he left the country after the Chinese invasion in 1950. We’re up against the gun here, as tourist groups get an hour to see everything. It’s a bit of a race round Tibetan Buddhist icons, images of Dalai Lamas from number 5 to number 13, various gods, guardians, sages, bodhisattvas – and the past, present and future Buddha.

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No cameras allowed inside either, which makes it really hard to remember everything. Darkened rooms, glorious doors, offerings of money and those silk scarves everywhere (I wonder what happens if you miss a god out when you do your rounds putting an offering on the altar for each one? There are some gods in there I wouldn’t want to mess with. Gorgeous tapestries, wonderful paintings, and the ever present sputtering yak butter candles. The tombs of the individual Dalai Lamas. The Dalai Lama’s study room, lounge, massive libraries of books in cloth packages… all beautiful.

I’m a bit disconcerted by our tour guides instructions to enter the ‘first caff’ but realise that he meant ‘cave’ after a few moments.

We pass the Mandala of Time, and the revolving prayer drums – and I can see exactly where Terry Pratchett got the idea for ‘Thief of Time’ from. I even think that I’ve spotted the statue of Wen the Eternally Surprised.

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And then it’s all over, far too fast. The richness and prosperity of the building, the decor, the statues – the sheer amount of gold in some of the tombs and the images is mind boggling.

Gorgeous views of the city lying spreadout below, though

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Lunch is spent testing some Tibetan delicacies – the menu is in English, but without any description of what it is. So while I can read it, I am no clearer as to what I am ordering.

And then off to the holiest temple in Tibet, the Johkang Temple, built in 647 A.D. Inside the temple we’re again regaled with Buddha images, prayer-wheels and murals. Again, no photos inside, but it’s even darker and smokier..

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Around the temple the pilgrims form a route called barkhor. At night, many will troop around the temple spinning their prayer wheels and clicking their prayer beads. The true devotees will walk in a routine – hands above the head in prayer, hands to the mouth, hands to the heart, then prostrate themselves on the floor. Then get back up, walk three steps and repeat. Many of them have protected their hands and knees with wood or cardboard. As well as around the temple, many can be seen making a larger circuit throughout the streets.

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And around the temple is the biggest market I have ever seen in my life. Directly in front of the temple, Barkhor Market is a tourist trap of thangkas, prayer flags, jewellery, rugs, incense and anything a devout Buddhist might dream of (and a few things he probably didn’t). Further away it becomes a local market selling vegetables, clothes, and more..

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I join the merry throng around Barkhor – it’s a huge crush with the locals making their pilgrimage. It’s a special time, too, in celebration of the Buddha’s birthday – bringing even more onto the streets.

When I eventually make my way to find somewhere for dinner, I find that Lhasa shuts up shop at 9pm. So, quick noodle purchase and I am done and ready.

Tuesday

There are some fabulous views of the Palace from the place where we get breakfast… and today we have worked out that the pickles and the rice soup are to be eaten together.

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Outside of Lhasa today, first of all Drepung monastery. founded in 1416 and once the home of 10,000 monks. This was the home of the Dalai Lama before moving to Potala Palace. It’s not as imposing a sight – but it’s a lot lighter and airier, it seems. We visit the Dalai Lama’s study, his reception room, his prayer room – and the ‘no photography’ rule is starting to get annoying. I only have 45 minutes to explore this, as I need to go and see the police to sort out my visa – which, to cut a long but tedious story short, is granted. Hooray!

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Lunch is on my own, but it gets spent in the local coffee shop putting the finishing touches to something I am going to release in the next few days. Exciting – and scary!

We spend the afternoon exploring the Sera monastery which was founded in 1419. Here we get the chance for photographs.. at 20 Yuan per room. Perhaps not.

The really interesting thing is that in the courtyard are hundreds of monks debating in little groups. The Buddha statue in the temple is actually leaning slightly toward the debate. Debate follows an interesting pattern – the speaker will make his case and then throw his prayer beads over his arm, smack his palms together, and extend his hand to his listener – who will then respond. The gesture is supposed to free the listeners mind from the illusions of the world (the illusions of the world is a key Buddhist tenet).

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It’s fascinating to watch, to see the debates move around and arguments made and lost. Some seem more serious than others, so we are not sure if it’s a debate on the future of the world or last night’s television.

In the evening I take a walk around the Palace for some more photos – I find a group of monks having fun on a pedalo, and kids playing in Zorb balls on the lake. I also find I am walking the wrong way – as the pilgrims stream towards me, I recognise that I am walking anticlockwise round the palace – the correct direction for prayer is clockwise.  There are more pilgrims in the square, a dog in a drainpipe..

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Lhasa – a crazy combination of old and new, devout and profane, commerce and tranquillity. And lots of yak butter.

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