05.06.2013 - 23.06.2013 24 °C
We arrived in Lhasa at about three in the afternoon to a very busy, modern train station. After a security check we were able to leave the station and we were met by Dawah, our guide, who draped a traditional khata, a white scarf designating greeting and well wishes, around the neck of each of us, after which we were taken to our hotel.
Two mistakes people make when arriving in Lhasa is that because they took the train, they think they are acclimatized to the altitude of the city. Wrong. Second, they underestimate the intensity of the sun and that it takes only a nanosecond to sizzle.
Lhasa sits at an altitude of some 3,490 m (11,450 ft) and the 47-ish hours it takes to get from Beijing to Lhasa by train does not give your body a chance to adjust to the altitude simply because while travelling on the train, you are going up and down to different altitudes, not remaining at any one high altitude giving your body a chance to acclimatize. I discovered this when, upon arrival, I jaunted up three flights of stairs at the hotel and just about needed resuscitation at the top. I took it a bit easier the first few days we were in Lhasa and just walked around as much as I could, also discovering that standing up quickly was not a good idea.
The first thing that struck me when I exited the train station was the intensity and clarity of the light. I gather this has to do with there being less dust, water vapour and other grunge in the air, and the UV radiation being higher due to the altitude. This intensity results in the sunlight of the city to be very bright, and colours of the city being very bold and fiery, especially the reds, oranges and yellows. The higher UV radiation is dastardly and it does not take long to get utterly sunburnt. A +50 broadband sunscreen, clear zinc cream, sunglasses and hat are crucial. As is drinking heaps and heaps of water.
Our first few days were spent exploring the old town of Lhasa, mainly visiting the Barkhor area which surrounds the Jokhang Temple with its continuous line of pilgrims circling the temple in a clockwise direction, spinning their portable inscribed prayer wheels or spinning the prayer wheels lined up on the walls, chanting the entire time. Many pilgrims were prostrating themselves in front of the temple, lighting, blessing and burning joss sticks.
The old section of Lhasa imitates the architecture once found in the city and you can't help but think that it still exists only as a showcase. Once you venture outside the old town, you step into a mirror image of mundane, boring, flat and architecturally devoid Beijing.
One pleasant surprise was when Martin, Pius and I ventured to the south east of Jokhang Temple towards the Lhasa mosque which sits on the edge of the Muslim section. We got there following a labyrinth of streets lined with shops selling every conceivable good and we would never have found it without the guidance of Dawah. We were not allowed into the walled area of the mosque. A short distance away, we did have the opportunity to visit the Tsamkhung nunnery, one of the three nunneries in Lhasa, imbibing in a rather tasty yak-butter tea in its tea house which seems to be a very popular gathering place for family groups.
We visited a few of the many monasteries and palaces in the vicinity of Lhasa: Drepung, Sera, and Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dahli Lama. My favorite was Drepung because of the way the buildings were nestled within a surround of peaks and the open grounds with trees casting shadows onto the ground giving a respite to the sun. Inside the temples, we passed through a maze of dark rooms, each poorly lit and dedicated to different deities and dalai lamas. Outside in the courtyard, the monks in their red robes were ‘debating’ which consisted of a senior monk asking a seated junior monk a question about Buddhist scripture. Once the question was asked, the monk lifted his foot followed by stomping his foot on the ground and clapping at the same time. This was the signal that the junior monk was to answer the question.
The whitewashed Potala Palace is the monastery most people associate with Lhasa and Tibet. It was easy to see the wealth in the palace, as many of the stupas and buddhas were gold plated and set with semi-precious stones, coral and amber. It was another labyrinth of dark aisles and rooms: the chambers we visited were dark with incense burning in brass bowls and yak butter lamps and I confess I lost track of what deity or lama was who after a while given their very long names and especially given all the other monasteries we had visited.
As part of our acclimatization process, we did a short kora around Ganden Monastery which is about 40 km outside Lhasa which was at the top of a road with some rather impressive hairpin turns. The monastery was totally destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but slowly rebuilt forming a lovely amphitheater on the top of the hill.
We first did a tour of the various buildings within the monastery and then walked the kora around the monastery. The kora gave us stunning views of the adjacent hills and valleys, and also the chance opportunity to view a sky burial as this was being carried out adjacent to the trail. Out of respect to the deceased and their family, we did not loiter but the remains were evident on the rock slab and the area was surrounded by vultures, both on the ground and circling around in the sky. We then made a four hour trek over Ganden Pass which sits at an elevation of about 4,400 m. We were not totally exhausted by the end of the trek, but we all appreciated and enjoyed the butter tea served to us at the end of the trail by a local family.