Archive for the ‘Lhasa’ Category

I Was There!

11 May 07

My recent trip to Tibet was a bit of a rush and, unfortunately, I didn’t get to see as much of the land as I wanted. Still, I was completely moved by the Tibetan people’s religious fervor and devotion, as well as their ability to survive in such a harsh environment. They were friendly and curious about us, as we were of them.

The train that now links greater China with Tibet is controversial, allowing better access for thousands of Han Chinese. The Tibetans fear dilution of their fragile culture. I don’t think this fear is unwarranted. Our own experience of Lhasa is clouded by the fact it was Tibetan New Year, and many Tibetan pilgrims had poured into the city. The view of Lhasa we received was one of a Tibetan city, full of Tibetans, with a sprinkling of Han. (It was also Chinese New Year, so many shops & restaurants run by Han were also closed.) Turns out that Lhasa is full of Han Chinese, and the Tibetan majority is dwindling.

The Chinese “peacefully liberated” Tibet in the 1950s, whether the Tibetans wanted it or not. Their policies today continue along this line. Foreign Policy’s blog Passport reports this week a story on forced relocations of many rural Tibetans into socialist villages, often along highways. When I saw the pictures, I was shocked. These are the very villages I passed on my trip to and from the Yarlung Valley. I kept thinking how tidy and new they were – how very much alike they all were. Visit the Passport site to read a short passage on the “Comfortable Housing Program” story, (love those communist euphemisms) and visit McClatchy for journalist Tim Johnson’s narrated slideshow of his undercover visit to the area.

*Update*

As always, there is more than one side to this story… Thanks to a comment I received, I read a bit more about Tim Johnson’s story and the relocation issue. According to a few other websites, Mr. Johnson may not have accurately portrayed the details of the relocations. If you are interested in reading some more visit these two sites:

On Boing Boing and Mutant Palm 

Thanks to tddn for the tip!

Flickr Photo Sets

2 March 07

I now have all of our recent vacation photos, good and bad, uploaded to Flickr.

To see photos of Lhasa & Tibet click here.

To see photos of the train ride from Chengdu to Lhasa click here.

To see photos of Chengdu click here. (This set does not include photos of Sim’s Guesthouse, which I will be uploading later.)

Remember – I am not very skilled with a camera! Also, many of the photos have titles and descriptions, but others do not. I hope to update them all with descriptions, but I was a bit lazy. (Especially the Chengdu photos.)

Enjoy! Have a great weekend!

Into the Desert

24 February 07

Imagine desert mountains, a valley full of sand dunes and a turquoise ribbon running right down the middle. The water is incredibly clear and sparkles in the sun. Small, red colored, brushy trees line the river banks and yaks and sheep graze on the few bits of grass around. The wind stirs up the sand and carries it in the air. Everything is dry and brown. It is starkly beautiful.

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Yesterday we joined a small group of travelers and journeyed to the Yarlung Valley – a 3 hour trip down some pretty rough roads. We had a great time chatting with the other travelers – a group of former English teachers traveling through Tibet, Nepal & India, and a couple from Hong Kong & Taiwan. We rented a van and a driver to take us around.

This trip gave us an insight into more rural areas of Tibet. I have to say I was a bit surprised by the sand dunes and dryness of everything. Again, every place we went we observed the devotion of the pilgrims, offering money and yak butter inside the temples and fervently expressing their devotion to Buddha. We passed so many small villages and one mid-sized city. I’ve gotten a good impression of typical Tibetan houses. They are one or two story, at least 3 rooms, made of mud brick with small windows high up on the walls. Some have bigger windows covered in heavy cloth to keep the house warm. Most have a courtyard. Bright colors such as blue, red, white and yellow are favored for painting the window sills.

Our first stop was a small temple, part of a complex of 16 tombs of Tibetan kings. (6th to 9th century) While walking the kora circuit and observing the scenery, we met a woman from the local village. She followed us around with her small son strapped to her back. She held out her hand and offered me a small rock. I knew she was going to want money, but I felt touched just the same. The rock was nothing special, just something she had picked up off the ground, but it seemed to me she wanted to offer something in exchange for a bit of money. In Lhasa, you will see many pilgrims sitting on the kora circuit, singing, chanting or just looking for a bit of money. Donations are commonly given to these pilgrims – about 1 jiao or about 1.2 cents. Children and other beggars also ask for money. A common thing to hear is “hello! money!” It is advisable to carry around a stack of jiaos to give to the pilgrims, as offerings or donations at the monasteries, and if you desire, for the beggars. You can even make change out of the donation plates if you want!

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Inside the temple atop the tomb

The next stop was at a small temple perched high on a hill. It is called Yumbu Lhakang and is quite charming in its location and size. To get up the hill, we rode ponies and camels, although the walk is not difficult. The temple was built in the 2nd century BC. There are a few entrepreneurs there selling polaroid shots of tourists and pilgrims in front of the temple. To our surprise, the DH was asked to pose with several of the men (pilgrims, we think). We just assumed they would try to sell us the photos, but no, they wanted to be photographed with the big hairy foreigner! 😉

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The DH among the prayer flags behind the temple

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Spinning the prayer wheels

Our final stop, and the most difficult to reach, was Samye Monastery. Samye was the first monastery built in Tibet, in the 8th century. Its design is based on a mandala design, representing the universe. It combines Tibetan, Hindu & Han Chinese design elements.

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Tomorrow morning we will leave Tibet and fly to Shanghai.

We Tackle the Potala

22 February 07

The Potala Palace is absolutely magical. It sits high on a hill overlooking the city and it is difficult to imagine how it could have been constructed. It is really impressive, until you start the climb. Holy cow. I nearly died. Thank god we had spent at least a day acclimatizing. You cannot believe how many stairs there are! As we approached the entrance, we were surrounded by hundreds of Chinese soldiers. I am not sure if they were there for training, sightseeing or indoctrination, but I have to admit it is a bit strange to enter the Potala, former home of the Dalai Lama, with the PLA at my side.

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Potala Palace Entry

Above: A majestic view. Below: Notice the PLA soldiers entering the Potala.

Everyone says that there is not much to see inside, and I guess that is true. There are a few spectacular tombs of former Dalai Lamas, covered in gold and semi-precious stones and lots of beautiful and detailed wall paintings.

I had read that there was an involved process in getting entrance tickets, something like going the day before to get an appointment to return the next day to buy tickets, !? In the winter, you just walk up to the front door, pay 100RMB and go on in.

Directly across the street from the palace is a public park. If I am correct in my interpretation, a huge statue in the park memorializes the “peaceful liberation of the Tibetan people by the PRC.” No comment.

Potala Park

After the Potala, we headed back over to the Barkhor area to walk the kora again and do some souvenir shopping. The entire kora route is lined with souvenir stalls and shops. You’ve gotta do some hard bargaining, but there are some good deals to be had.

Shopping in the Barkhor

Back at the hotel, the DH, in his classic style, decided to take advantage of the brilliant sun to soak up some Vitamin D.

Rooftop Sunning

Our First Full Day in Lhasa

22 February 07

The sun doesn’t come up in Lhasa until 8AM. Nothing really seems to get stirring until even later. What this means for me is – sleeping in! I felt exhausted upon our arrival to Lhasa, mostly due to the altitude. We slept in until 10 and then decided to see what the city has to offer. First we stopped by the roof terrace of our hotel, to see if we could still get some breakfast. There was no breakfast, but there was a sort of Tibetan celebration going on. All the hotel workers were there, dancing around a pile of burning incense and cypress branches. As we looked around the city rooftops, we saw that people were doing the same all over the place. Some people were replacing the prayer flags that adorn most every rooftop, fluttering in the wind.

Lhasa Rooftop with incense
The Potala Palace from hotel rooftop. The haze is from
burning incense. Usually it would be brilliantly clear.

Downstairs in the lobby, the receptionist told us it was a “good day” and most shops and restaurants would be closed. Turns out that many restaurants and shops are closed all week for the Tibetan New Year, which falls the same time as the Chinese New Year. Some places are also closed just because it is winter.

Winter in Lhasa. You’d think it would be unbearably cold, right? No, not really. Not if temps between -7 and 10 celsius are unbearable for you. We found the weather to be incredibly comfortable – bright, sunny skies and cool breezes. All you need is the right gear. If you are only going to be in Lhasa, you can get by with jeans, sweaters and a good coat. I’ve worn my Chuck Taylor converse shoes everyday – that’s right, canvas shoes in the Himalayas. Of course, we are not doing any serious hiking.

Our first day we wondered around the old Tibetan neighborhood. It is made up of small, twisting and turning alleyways. You just never know what you will find down an alley. At the heart of the neighborhood is the Johkang Temple, revered by Tibetan Buddhists and the site of pilgrimage for thousands of Tibetans. The pilgrims walk a kora, or a clockwise circuit around the Johkang, through the small winding streets. Some pilgrims walk carrying their spinning prayer wheel, others prostrate themselves over and over again on the ground. Some just walk, chanting quietly to themselves. Eventually, they will enter the Johkang, and if you have the opportunity, I encourage yourself to join in line with them and experience what incredible passion and devotion they have.

Johkang Temple

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Incense & Prayer flags

Once inside, we had to pay 70RMB each, but the pilgrims enter for free. We then got back in line, moving slowly from Buddha statue to statue as the pilgrims pressed their foreheads against the glass in front of the statues, gave money donations, or poured some yak butter into the burning candles. The dim lighting, the strong smell of burning yak butter and the fervor of the pilgrims all combine to completely overwhelm. It was quite emotional.

At the end of the visit, tourists are allowed to climb up to the roof where there are great views of the Potala Palace and the Barkhor Square in front of the Johkang.

Barkhor Square

My parents both grew up in the Southwest US around the Navajo and Ute Indians. All of my life I have seen ropes of turquoise, coral and silver worn by family and friends. I have seen many Navajos on our trips back to visit the area. After observing many of the Tibetans more closely, I firmly believe that the Navajo had to have come from the same stock. There are so many similarities in their appearance, style of dress, jewelry, hair styles and lifestyles.

The rest of our day was spent walking, exploring and appreciating the city. It is so much smaller than I expected, after living in monstrous Chinese cities. It is also very dirty, and I think the dirt, litter, beggars and overall commotion may be a bit much for a new traveller. I love it. I love the pilgrims in their traditional dress, many of them quite old. I love how they smile at me and tell me Tashi Delek. They are genuine and kind and their wrinkles tell of a hard life but a happy heart.

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Muslim Mosque in Chinese style

Heather with fried dumplings

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Yummy street food – whatever you can think of fried, on a stick!

4 Days in Tibet…

21 February 07

Doesn’t have the same ring as 7 years, does it?

Us & The Potala

We made it! We arrived! We are on top of the world!