Friday, August 24, 2012

My Tibet Adventure 3 - Some of the sacred places in Llhasa including the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple

Note:  If you didn't read my first and second posts about Tibet, you might want to start there and then come back to this one.

Potala Palace
A not so itsy, bitsy palace in the sky

After breakfast, we’re off for the Potala Palace, which sits on the highest point in the city of Llhasa.  It’s the home of the Dalai Lama, even though it’s unlikely he’ll ever get to see it again.  The last time he saw it was in 1959.  To get to the palace we’re told, one must climb 350 steps.  At this altitude, that sounds intimidating. Our guide assures us he thinks we'll have no problems. I’m sure hoping he is right, but memories of the stairs from the lake to the parking lot are a fresh memory from yesterday.

Upon arrival at Potala Palace, despite the warning of 350 stairs, I guess they did a mid-course appraisal of this group and particularly the one old guy in the group (me) and it caused them to seek, and be granted, access to the Palace via the second level.  God bless whoever had that idea.  It saves us 1/2 to 2/3 of the stairs to get to there.  Once there, you still have more than 100 stairs to deal with inside the palace.  Furthermore, there isn’t much time for relaxing and getting your breath back, because you're on a tight time schedule.  They only allow a tour group to be inside the palace for one hour.  Of course, out of the 1000 rooms, this means you only get to see about 16. And it is packed to the gills.  This is one of the most sacred buildings in Buddhism and there is a LOT of Buddhists in the world, many which make an once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the Palace. 

Inside the palace, the police are everywhere and they can be quite forceful (they scream a lot) in moving the crowd along.  Still, the views from the palace are magnificent and we’re fortunate to have a day with light clouds floating across the sky.  Perfect for photography. However, you can't take any photos once you enter the palace.  Which is unfortunate because the treasures and art inside the Palace are stunning.  CT addresses the problem by buying each of us a beautiful hardback copy of the official palace guide (stamped by the palace staff for certification). It’s a wonderful gesture and gift.

As you take the tour of the palace, it's quite easy to see why Christians and even the Chinese have so many issues with the Buddhist faith.  The tour underscores those differences dramatically.  Still, for Buddhists, this is clearly a sacred place.  This palace is also a monumental engineering feat, especially given the times in which it was built and the fact that it is designed to withstand earthquakes.

We leave the palace and go to the ceremonial area directly across the street, where better pictures of the front of the palace can be obtained.  We find a very heavy Chinese military police presence here.  We’re told this is because this is one of the locations where they fear the monks will set themselves on fire.  (In fact, the day after we leave Tibet, a monk does self-immolate).   Bob sits down a package to take a picture with his camera and an officer runs over to tell us you can't set anything down on the ground.  These folks are really twitchy. But OK.  Apparently they're worried it might be an explosive device.  So we take turns juggling packages for each other while the other shoots pictures.  

We leave the palace area all together and head for lunch.  It’s a lovely rooftop restaurant with a covered area. The Tibetan food is more to my liking than the Chinese we had already experienced, this having some bread, veggies and lots of tomatoes and cucumbers in it. It makes for a very civilized and enjoyable lunch.  Afterwards, CT wants Bob and I to pose with the attractive Tibetan restaurant ladies on staff (thorns between the roses I guess, to further emphasize their beauty).  The ladies are very flattered but are good sports and join in. Someone in the group shoots a number of pictures of them. 

Thorns in the midst of roses
Jokhang Temple
The TSA has nothing on these people

In the afternoon, we go to the Jokhang Temple in the center of old Lhasa.  Built in 647 AD, this is clearly another important religious and cultural symbol.  Getting into the building is only slightly easier than a TSA screening in the US.  Once in, the police are heavily present, most with fire extinguishers strapped on their backs.  It seems the Tibetan monks are also known to self immolate in this very plaza. 

Once inside the temple, one truly needs a play card to keep track of all the Buddhas.  This is an amazingly complicated religion further multiplied by the length of its history.

After the tour, we have thirty minutes to shop in the bazaar in front of the Jokhang Temple.  It's a place where the art of negotiation is alive and well and many members practice their skills.   I prove to be a little rusty on my negotiation skills on one item, but warm up and do much better on the next, to the point the salesperson bemoans to Dibble that I got way more discount than I should have (yes, it might have been for dramatic effect, but she said it with such meaningl!)

Dinner is to be another major affair with an alumni group and four young men who rode their bikes from Chechung to Lhasa, one of whom is taking the tour with his parents and us.  After watching the bikers on the road, I’d assumed they were at least partially crazy to deal with that road, the lack of oxygen, so many vehicles in so little space and a drainage ditch running next to the road lanes that would swallow a bike and leave a bikers legs badly damaged.   Instead, what we find out at the dinner is that these are very impressive young men that have overcome all those challenges and speak with eloquence about the experience.  They are all poised and articulate. They carefully think and compose their answers to questions about their trip. I find myself wishing we had more youth like this back home.  The father of the young man who is traveling with us mentions the danger of the trip.  I marvel that he didn't stop his son from doing it. It shows an desire to let his son experience character building that will undoubtedly serve this young man well, but at a tremendous potential sacrifice on a personal level.  I’m not sure I could have done the same. 

It further reminds me of our guide telling us about he and his wife's loss of their first and only child, a four month old.  He very calmly related the story, with no visible emotion saying only that because his wife had to work such long hours standing on her feet, he thought maybe that was why they had lost the child.  This story was further accentuated by his telling us, as we had toured the religious sites that day, the Buddhist belief in reincarnation and how the soul is recycled.  Perhaps that is partially why he was so at peace with that life event.  What I found even more striking was when he told us about how Tibetans handle disposition of the dead, with cremations being reserved for the highest in society, monks, leaders and such; air burials, where the body is hacked into pieces, the meat stripped from the bone and the bones left on platforms high in the mountains for the birds to pick over first followed by the meat and flesh of the human being placed on the platform.  Next down on the list was the water burial, where the body is tossed in the river to be consumed by the fish.  This level is for those who die from unnatural causes and for children or those whose life is taken for other reasons.  I watch him closely as he describes this level as I realize this would have been what he and his wife had gone though.  One can only imagine the gut wrenching that must entail yet he seems totally at peace with it.  The ground burial, so common in North America, is reserved for those who are thought to harbor evil, murderers and those people who mistreated others in life.

What brings the story to an even fuller circle is when he later describes why Tibetans don't eat fish.   Which is of course, because they see it as eating your dead.  Another reason is their belief that if one must take life, you should make as little impact as possible.  Thus killing a Yak would feed a family for a year, but to eat fish you would have to take many lives for just one meal.  I can’t recall encountering people like the Tibetans, who so carefully measure life in all its forms.  The world could learn some things here.

Tomorrow, Sky Lake and hotel experiences in Tibet.  

If you want to see more pictures from the trip, you'll find them on my FLICKR site