No visit to Lhasa and Tibet is complete without visiting the palaces and religious places. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos inside most places. But the beauty of these places is etched on our brains forever.
This huge palace, dating from 631, is thirteen stories, 90,000 square meters and contains 1,000 rooms. It sits on top of the city’s tallest hill and can be seem from almost everywhere in the city. It is the, former winter residence and religious center of multiple generations of the Dali Lama from the late 17th through mid-20th century and currently serves as a massive museum that houses more than 10,000 shrines and 200,000 statues and relics.
Visiting is challenging as only 1,500 foreign visitors are admitted per day for no more an an hour. If we were not out within an hour once we entered the Palace, our guide would face a very stiff fine and wouldn’t be able to bring tourists in the palace in the future. But it is also very rewarding–not just for closed-up views of the paintings, the rooms and the relics (no interior pictures allowed) but for our extremely knowledgeable guide’s explanations of Tibetan history and Tibetan Buddhist beliefs and traditions.
The tour was divided into three primary sections: one for the exterior (which included numerous pauses to catch our breath as we walked up the many steps on our first full day at 13,000 feet) and one for the interiors of each of the two sections, each of which was built in different parts of the seventh century:
- The exterior and entryway into the palace are both fascinating. We learned how the exterior is repainted once a year (just before Tibetan New Years) with mixture of white paint, rock chips and yak milk that is donated by citizens and how some of this mixture is poured on the create a distinctive free flowing effect. Also how much of the red trim is actually small branches from particular types of bushes that are packed tightly together and painted. Also, that the lovely paintings in the entryway, which are painted with finely ground minerals and gemstones have retained their vibrancy for almost 1,000 years.
- The White Palace is a secular section that consists of offices, dormitories, a seminary and a printing houses. While the rooms that we passed through on the tour were mostly empty, they did provide a warm-up for the palace’s highlight;
- The Red Palace is the sacred section in which the Dali Lama lived, prayed with other high-level Lamas and received visitors during the winter months. Many of the walls are painted with religious images that are 400-1,000 years old and have compartment that contain thousands of ancient scriptures (both the paintings and scriptures which are preserved by the very dry air coupled with burning incense which keeps crawling bugs away), contains thousands of religious sculptures and icons (many of 1,000-1,300 years old) and huge, beautiful. gem-encrusted, gold and silver tomb stupas that contain the mummified or cremated remaIns of past Dali Lamas.
Outside the walls of the palace is another gora route with very long rows of stationary prayer wheels.
This is the most sacred temple in Tibet. Built in the 7th century, it is blend of Tibetan, Nepalese and Indian architecture that lies at the center of the Barkhor (Old Town). It is fronted by two tall prayer flag poles, by stupa-shaped furnaces for burning juniper bushes and by room dedicated to the burning of thousands of devotional yak butter lamps. Inside the compound is large courtyard in which ceremonies are held.
The temple, which is topped by beautiful golden roofs, is filled with chapels with ancient Buddhist relics, including two particularly nice representations of the thousand-armed, thousand-eyed Chenresig, of the Bodisattva of Compassion, and the most sacred relics of all, the ancient scripture and image of the Buddha brought by King Gampo’s two foreign-borne wives. The walls, meanwhile, are covered with beautiful Buddhist pictures, all with complex meanings.
The main assembly hall, at least when we were there, was filled with chanting monks, and there’s the section of temple that was reserved for the Dali Lama–an audience room with a gold fabric-covered throne and a living room under the most beautiful of gold roofs.
Pabonga Monastery , outside of Lhasa, was the place at which King Songsten Gampo was educated, in a cave, as a child. While the cave is devoted to the the king and his wives, the main temple contains a number of chapels devoted to protectors, to deities and to the storage of scriptures. When people visit these places, they leave behind small coins/bills as part of their prayers. They aso bring and leave behind yak butter for burning “candles:. Further up higher on the hill are chanting rooms full of monks and the bedroom in which the 13th Dali Lama slept when he stayed in the monastery.
Two of the most interesting things about the monastery are outside. First is the valley just outside the monastery which is string with ropes holding thousands upon thousands of prayer flags which people put up–a beautiful sight.
The second sight is more solemn: one of the primary spots around Katmandu at which sky burials are performed. After a person’s death, the bodies are brought to this site where the flesh and bones are cut into smaller parts and placed in an open spot. Officials then burn jasmine branches serve as a signal to giant Tibetan eagles, which soar continually around the nearby cliffs. At the sight of the smoke, 20-30 eagles swoop down and devour the corpse– bones and all–in about ten minutes. According to our guide, all people are supposed to watch at least one such sky burial to remind them of the impermanence of life and the need to do good deeds, both to be worthy of the majestic birds and also to ensure reincarnation as a higher order human.
Moneshan Monastery. From Pabonga, we took a very slow, one-hour (including a number of stops) uphill hike to the Moneshan Monastery. While the building was rebuilt after destruction during the Cultural Revolution, it is not open to visitors. According to our guide, many of the relics were damaged or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (by soldiers looking for gold, silver and gemstones) and the monks do not want people to see the ruined remains.
Chupsang Nunnery. We then took a mercifully easier one hour trek down (a greater distance) to visit and have lunch at a nunnery. But before visiting the nunnery, we took a short break to hang our own prayer flag (purchased, not handmade as are many of the locals’ flags) next to the stupa (which also has a lovely rock painting) above the nunnery.
As we learned, the nuns go though much the same type of education as the monks, and devote their time to similar duties of praying, chanting and educating laypeople. They are, however, separated from the monks and work totally independently of them.
We began our tour by walking through a number of chapels and then through the central chamber at which the nuns were chanting, here we noticed a fascinating distinction between the monks and the nuns. Although the monks generally ignored the visitors, the nuns engaged our eyes and even smiled at us.
We also had lunch at the Nunnery. After a taste of yak butter tea, which was far too buttery ,oily and salty for our taste, Tom returned to his new old standard of sweet tea, this version which he enjoyed even more than the first, since it had less yak milk and sugar than our previous cups. Lunch consisted of a simple, but very tasty noodle soup with yak meat, green onions and sesame seeds. Although there were far too many noodles for either of us to eat, we both drained every sip of the rich, delicious broth.
From here, it was on the the primary stop of the day, the Sera Monastery.
Sera is a famous university monastery that was founded in 1419 and is still regarded as one of the best in the country. The 1,000 student school, which has students from as young as six, is particularly well known for its method of teaching potential monks through an intensive theological debating process.
But before the debate, we walked by many of the university buildings and dorms (white with black ornamentation and roofs) and the lovely temple with the red bush tree designs, golden roof domes (symbolizing good luck) and center disk with goat and deer symbols (symbolizing Buddha teaching animals) that are reserved for temples.
The temple itself is one of the most beautiful we had seen in Tibet. It has a beautiful painting in the entry (although those on the interior walls are badly deteriorated). The chapels, meanwhile, had some of the most interesting, best preserved artifacts and sculptures we have seen in the country, one contained selection of pre-11th-century weapons that were voluntarily given up when the country adopted Buddhism. It had chapels dedicated to protectors; to the Buddhas of the past, present and future; one the the Sanctimony Buddha and one to applying a dab of yak butter ink to infants’ face for luck and health. And, since this was also a university, it also had one dedicated to the gold-hatted teacher, Tontaba and another to Migushiri, the Buddha of knowledge.
Then it was out to the courtyard to witness the unique form of pedagogy for which the university is famous. Although our guide tried to explain the process, it was all very confusing to us. One section of the courtyard was devoted to students debating each other on theological principles: one or two sitting and generally (but not always) asking questions and another standing and generally (but not always) asking them. The debaters emphasized and tried to demonstrate the validity of their points, and the errors of their opponents, by vigorously clapping, with the front of their hands to demonstrate confidence and correctness of answers and the back of their hands for disagreement. Or at least that is what we were told was happening, although it sounded like our guide was pretty confused himself.
The back of the courtyard, meanwhile, had a different form altogether, more like a traditional college colloquium, with a professor and a group of students calmly discussing issues. This we understood.
When our guide discovered that we were anxious to try all type of Tibetan food, and that we loved the first two preparations of yak that he had recommended, he guided us through three days of ever more adventuresome Tibetan food.
Che-Jiang restaurant in the Barkhor serves Tibetan, Western and a range of other cuisines. When we both requested yak, our guide recommended two dishes–yak sizzler (a flat-cut yak steak served on a sizzling hot metal platter with noodles, vegetables and a delicious meat stock-based sauce. Then came the shabaled, a ground yak patty baked into a pastry. While each perpetration had very different flavores, both were rich and tasty, without being at all gamey. We washed the meal down it Lhasa beer, made from the barley (the country’s primary crop) and fresh Himalayan river water.
It was light, and floral with a slight and pleasant sweetness.
Since we enjoyed the restaurant so much, our guide made reservations for us to eat their on our own (also included in our tour) the second evening at the same place. We tried the yak steak (which we considered the first night) and a yak burger (in an effort to see what these should taste like after the disastrous attempt at the lunch restaurant (discussed below). Although the bugler was pretty good, we were slightly disappointed by the thin, rather tough steak. We left with fonder memories of our previous evening’s yak sizzler and shabaled from the previous night.
Kyichu, our first day’s lunch stop, was far less memorable. Or at least, we will do our best to forget it. Our yak curry meat was half bone and fat. Only half of it was even edible, and not particularly memorable. The yak burger was worse still. It was so overdone as to lack any semblance of taste. We also tried another type of beer, this a green barley beer. Pretty nondescript compared with Lhasa beer. The only redeeming thing this restaurant has going for it is free wifi.
Sera Monastery. Our second lunch, as mentioned above, was at the monastery where we enjoyed a huge serving of noodles with yak meat, green onions and sesame seeds, the noodles were far too much for either of us: the broth was delicious.
Snowland Restaurant. Our last meal in Tibet where Tom had spicy lamb rib with sesame seeds (not too bad, considering it was vastly overcooked for our Western tastes. Joyce played it safe with pad Thai, which she liked, but tom found too bland and nondescript. We also shared an order of shabalab (ground yak in fried pastry, which we both thought was pretty good.
One cannot live, at least in Tibet, by food, beer and wine alone. Tea is a central part, not only of Tibetan cuisine, but also of its social life. Lhasa, for example has a number of large tea parlors which are packed in the afternoons. While one can certainly have green tea, black tea and barley tea, two of the most popular options include, what else, something from yak:
- Sweet tea, the favored afternoon social drink consists of black tea, a liberal dose of sugar and yak milk, which smells and tastes something like sweetened evaporated milk. Tom enjoyed it: Joyce did not like the smell or taste. Of course, Tom was happy to relieve her of any quilt from not drinking her cup by finishing it up. As mentioned above, he did, however, prefer the sweet tea we got at the nunnery, which had less milk and less sugar.
- Butter tea, made with, you guessed it–yak butter. After a smell and a small taste, Tom had more than enough. Far too buttery, oily and salty for him and he decided to stick with sweet tea–if he can ever find it outside of Tibet—which we doubt
Our Hotel in Lhasa
We can’t leave our discussion of Lhasa without a quick overview of the Sheraton Hotel that we stayed at. When we checked in asking for the free in room wifi password, we were told there wasn’t any. Joyce quickly pulled out their fact sheet which showed there was. They then gave us a router for our room for wifi. All well and good but the wifi rarely worked. When it did, it went up and down. We understand that problems happen and suspect the ISP was the issue, but what irked us was them telling us it worked until we proved it didn’t (as did all of the other guests). We guess they were in a state of denial. They also seemed to have an issue with other things not working. The printer was “broken” because the ink cartridge has to be rotated to spread out the ink over the page (it was not printing down the middle of the page) which Joyce pointed out as we needed to print out an application for a visa. That “fixed” the problem. The bathroom scale didn’t work in spite of our request to have it fixed, nor did the TV in the bedroom. Our room backed up against another hotel, where the hotel employees hung out by our bathroom windows chatting away until the restaurant closed. We are not sure why they don’t just brick up the window to cut the noise.
The hotel wasn’t all bad. Most of the people really tried hard to help us. But when things don’t work, they don’t work. We did find a great coffee house, Leaf Coffee, which had great internet as well as inexpensive imported wine. So all was not lost.