Tibet: Lhasa

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Tibet

What a spectacular, spectacular day.  I didn’t sleep very well last night because the room is very hot (despite the cold air outside), the guest house is right outside a parking lot with an echo, and the Diamox that we are taking for the altitude is a diuretic; Jon slept like a rock though.  Either way we really don’t care because today was so great!


We started out the day by going to Jokhang – Tibet’s holiest temple – which houses the Jowo Sakyamuni, Tibet’s most revered image of Buddha.  Tibetan pilgrims come from all over the country to worship here – and for many this is a once-in-a-lifetime trek.  Once they get to a holy place, there are a number activities the pilgrim must do.  One is called the kora, which is the act of circumventing the temple or shrine in a clockwise direction a certain number of times.  Doing this at sunrise or sunset is especially meaningful to them.  Also, prostration (chaktsal) is a powerful way to show their devotion.  To give you an idea how this looks, the correct sequence of a chaktsal is as follows:

  1. Stand.
  2. Move hands above heads and clap hands together.
  3. Touch hands to forehead, throat, and heart.
  4. Bend over and put hands on ground.
  5. Kneel.
  6. Slide hands in front of body.
  7. Lay on stomach.
  8. Touch forehead to ground.
  9. Move hands and body back to kneeling position.
  10. Stand.
  11. Repeat over and over again.

Most pilgrims have brought their own mat on which they lay flat, and have wood or cardboard on their hands so it’s easier to slide forward and backwards.  If they don’t have a mat, they often have a very heavy apron.  Regardless, this is very hard work and these pilgrims look as though the trip has been as grueling as it sounds.

Pilgrims praying outside the Jokhang

Inside the temple, we were greeted by a few different sights.  First there was the darkness of the first-level courtyard, lit only by the few hundred candles marking the entrance to the shrine.  Second there were the many pilgrims walking clockwise around the shrine (this act is called a kora), praying and turning the brass prayer wheels.  And finally, there was the monk standing on a ladder watering chrysanthemums on the second level.  He was supported on the ground by two of his fellow monks who were holding the hose at various leaky places.  This, I suppose, was our first up-front encounter with Buddhist monks and we were quite struck by the peaceful picture of the monk watering the flowers.

We walked inside the shrine to catch a glimpse of the Jowo Sakyamuni  and were surprised to see people pouring liquid into the candles wherever they could.  This is actually Yak butter, and it’s the pilgrim’s contribution to the temple.  It keeps the candles continuously burning and adds a sickly sweet smell to the building.  (It also makes the floor very slippery).  The Jowo Sakyamuni was a lovely sight, although difficult to see because there were so many pilgrims around it and we felt bad taking up space.

So we climbed the stairs and went to the second level, marveling at the colorful ceiling-work and Buddhist statues.  While we were waiting for the rest of the group to finish looking around, we ended up speaking to a monk who was sitting on a platform.  Jon and I were on the edge of the group, so we didn’t hear everything that Sangaye had to say.  But we did hear that he taught himself English starting three years ago, using only a dictionary and  we were quite impressed because his English was very good.

After a while, Jon and I left the group to find the loo and to make our way to the rooftop.  45 minutes later, Ken and Lisa were still talking to Sangaye but most of us were on the roof.  After they were done, Ken and Lisa came to find us because they had offered – because Sangaye spent so much time talking to them – to do something for him.  It turns out that his two brothers are dying from Tuberculosis and cannot get medication.  He asked them if there was anything they could think of to do that wouldn’t be suspicious to the Chinese Government.  So they came to ask the Doctors – Sid and John – if they knew of anything.  Keep this in mind for later on, because it sent out little group into quite a tizzy for a while this evening.

Lunch at Mad Yak’s

After pictures on the rooftop of the Jokhang, we went with Kath, Susan, and John to have lunch at Tashi I which is supposed to have delicious cheesecakes.  Unfortunately, Tashi’s mother had passed away so it was closed.  Instead, we made the trek down the street to go to Tashi II.  Of course, this was closed as well.  Across the courtyard from Tashi II was a place called Mad Yaks which had very colorful Tibetan interior and seemed promising.  It was quite good!  We ordered lots of food and shared everything including Yak meat, tzamba, fried rice, and delicious egg rolls.  We had so much food for about $2.00 each.


Jon and I walked around the Barkhor Kora market looking at the many different stalls and observing the Tibetan people.  A sparkly bracelet caught my eye and – while it was pretty – it wasn’t what I was looking for.  Unfortunately, I had already picked it up and the lovely Tibetan woman excitedly came around the stall to talk me into buying it.  She gave me two other thin bangles that should go with the bracelet and smilingly quoted a price of 50 Yuan.  Because I really didn’t want them and hoped to discourage her, I said that I would only pay 10 Yuan (about $1.10).  Little by little, she came down in price despite our entreaties that we really didn’t want to buy them.  The clincher came when she pointed to her small children and told me to take the bracelets for 15 Yuan.  She was so nice, and we were so touched by her good humor that we gave her 20 Yuan and took the bracelets.  She then grabbed by hand, touched my cheek and said “so nice!”, put a silver ring on my finger and said good-bye.  Now, whenever I looked at my new sparkly bangles and ring I have to smile and admit that they really are pretty.

Ani Sangkhung Nunnery

While the above bargaining was going on, Mark and Laura found us and entertained themselves by watching us cave in and buy the bracelets.  They were on their way to a nunnery and – since we had no other plans for the afternoon – we tagged along.  We had a difficult time finding it, and ran into Ken, Lisa, Sid, and Gabrielle who were looking for the same thing.  Together we found it and had the most unbelievable time.

The Buddhist nunnery probably dates from the 7th century, but it was a monastery until the 15th century.   Their hair is just as short as Buddhist monks, and their attire is the same long red/orange robes.  The nuns were so happy to have visitors and their faces were beaming with beautiful smiles!  They have an endless sense of humor and teased each other mercilessly.  They were definitely frolicking when we got there.  When we first walked up, two nuns on the steps beckoned us in with huge smiles.  And then another nun snuck up behind them and dunked a bag of water over their heads.  For us, this was completely unexpected.  But after a while it became apparent that this is what their days are like.  Later, the water nun snuck up with another bag of water, but they were expecting her and somehow broke the bag so she was soaked and laughing hysterically.

They loved to pose for pictures and – those that could – were thrilled to practice their English.  They also loved my digital camera and one of them wanted to take a picture of me to see how it works.  As Jon was snapping photos of them, they gave Jon the address of the nunnery (in Chinese) so we could send pictures.  Then an English-speaking nun translated it to English.

At 4:00, they had to go into the temple for prayer time and we regrettably thought we had to leave. But they pulled us in to sit with them.  There were seats along the perimeter of the room, but they much preferred that we sit with them on their cushions.  So I sat and listened to the beautiful chanting and singing.  This if funny, though.  You would think that this is such as solemn affair, but – at any given time – at least 1/3 of the nuns were goofing off.  Some of the nuns near Gabrielle had gotten hold of her guide book and were looking at the pictures, and photos of her kids were being passed around.  Other things they were doing during the chanting: giggling, pointing at my blond hair, whispering to each other.  I half expected the head nuns in the middle of the room to shush them or at least give the delinquent nuns a glare.  But nothing happened and this made the afternoon all the more enjoyable.  Tea was served and passed around to us.  It’s tea and yak butter, which is very sweet and sort of gross.  But good manners dictated that we drink it.  The chanting was lovely, and the end of each chant sounded like a tape player whose batteries wore out.  All the nuns would slloooooow down at the same time until the lead nun started up with a new prayer and chant.  We stayed for an hour and half and then left to rest before the events of the evening.  But before we left, I was pulled aside by one of the nuns to help her with her English exercise book.

Jokhang Debates

At 6:00, we went to the rooftop of the Jokhang to see the monk debates, but it didn’t start until 6:30.  So we sat in some chairs at the gift shop/cafe and waited.  While we were there, a little girl came up to us and said “Hello”.  A little old lady was behind her cheerfully encouraging her to speak to us.  Apparently, the little girl had learned English and her Grandmother wanted her to practice.  This is what we gathered from our disjointed conversation with 5-year old Tse Yang.  She had a little book in which hand-written English phrases were jotted down.  So she went through the whole thing: “Excuse me.. can I talk to you?  What is your name?  My name is Tse Yang.  I am 5 years old.  Where are you from?  Why did you come to Lhasa?  What do you think about Lhasa?  etc… etc…”  She was so cute, so I took a picture:

Tse Yang and her Grandmother

When I showed her the digital picture, she seemed a bit unimpressed, which was disappointing because all the other children I’ve photographed loved to see themselves.  But I suppose that she’s tired of having to practice her English whenever her grandmother tells her to.

At 6:40, the debates began.  Tomorrow we’re going to go to Sera Monastery to see the debates which is supposed to be incredible.  So this was sort of warm-up for us and besides, we had to be back at the Pentoc Guest House at 7:00 for the group meeting.  Basically, the debates involves one Buddhist monk who stands and makes his argument, and one (maybe two) monk who sits and listens and refutes.  When the standing monk finishes a major point, he stamps his foot and claps his hands together in a large movement to emphasize his opinion.  The sitting monk will just sit there and listen and quietly counter the argument.  There were about 15-20 groups of monks debating.  Of course, we couldn’t understand anything they said but it was still fun to watch.  We only stayed for about 15 minutes and then we had to leave.

Group Discussion

We met at 7:00 with the group in the meeting area of the Pentoc Guest House to discuss tomorrow’s events.  But first we had to discuss Sangaye’s tuberculosis concerns. (the monk from the Jakhang).  The issues were a bit awkward to discuss, but asked ourselves: Can we do anything?  Can we get medicine?  If not, should we give him money?  Can the Red Cross do anything?  Remember that Tibet is under the control of China, so this is somewhat dangerous.  We don’t want to do anything that will land Sangaye (or us) in a Chinese prison.  Regardless, we decided that Kath would go to the Red Cross under the guise of a travel leader and ask a few pointed questions.  Then someone will get back to Sangaye.

Dinner at Makye Amye

I had Yak steak for dinner and it was very good (albeit chewy).  We ordered chocolate brownies for dessert but had too many for the table so there was one left over.  I wrapped it up in napkins, intending to give it to some pilgrim on the street.  On the way out of the restaurant – out of nowhere – a precious little boy hurled himself at me and wrapped his arms around my legs.  I remembered the brownie and said “Do you want this?”.  He took it immediately and smelled through the napkins.  When he smelled that it was chocolate his little face lit up so bright!  Then he smiled up at me and ran away with his new treasure.  The Tibetans in the square found this very amusing and laughed and smiled at us as we walked back to the hotel.

Tibet: Lhasa

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Tibet

We met in the lobby of our Kathmandu hotel at 7:00AM this morning and all 13 of us got on a bus to go to the airport.  Our flight to Tibet didn’t leave until 9:50, but Kath (our trusty guide) says that the International Airport is always a nightmare.  And was she ever right!  There were about 60 people in line for the one security gate and X-Ray machine and it was not moving quickly.  Then we had to check into the flight and this took a while as well.  Then we had to go through customs and clear another security check.  By the time we got through to the lobby it was time to get on the plane.  I’m glad we saw what a nightmare this was, because Jon and I will be leaving from this airport at the end of the month to go to Hong Kong.  So now we know what to expect.

Our Foray into Smuggling

Kath has asked us for a few favors.  First of all, there is a school for the blind in Lhasa which teaches blind children to read and write in braille, to speak a few different languages, and also teaches them a skill or trade so they can return to their village.  It’s an initiative that Intrepid Travel is very closely tied to and we’ll visit the school while we’re in Lhasa.  Kath says that the the only supply of braille paper they get is what Intrepid travelers bring to them.  So we carried two reams of braille paper on the plane.  This is an honorable cause, so of course we were willing to help!

The other favor was for a “lovely restaurant” where we’re going to dinner tonight.  Apparently they can’t get a Chinese liquor license to purchase liquor so they’ve given Kath a list of “urgent” alcohol to bring.  We stopped by the Duty Free Shop in the airport and picked up 13 bottles of liquor (rum, vodka, gin) to bring to them.  We all got quite a kick out of our new “smuggler/boot legger” status.  But this is just as honorable a cause as the braille paper, right?  So we’re doubly good people today!


The flight was quick and uneventful save for one thing: EVEREST.  We were sitting on the right side of the plane which is the wrong side to see Everest.  But needless to say when we flew past it everyone on the right side scrambled over the people on the left side to see out the windows.  That’s a big friggin’ mountain!

View of Mt Everest from the plane


We touched down in Lhasa about an hour later, but the time change is 2 hours and 15 minutes because Tibet is on Bejing time.  So we are officially 12 hours ahead of US East Coast time.  Lhasa is at 3500 meters, and – just to put this in perspective – this is how high we climbed after two days on Kilimanjaro at Horombo Hut.  But this time, our bodies haven’t had time to adjust on the climb since we flew from one level to another.  Regardless, Jon and I learned our lessons from our bouts with altitude sickness on Kili and so we started taking Diamox two days ago.  Hopefully the Magic Pills will make the adjustment a bit easier.

Kath says we’ll stay in Lhasa for 4 days to acclimatize to the altitude.  While we waited to clear Chinese customs, there were quite a few people from our plane who were already feeling the effects – one of whom had to be carried away on a stretcher.  Bummer.  A few people in our group weren’t feeling too great, but all in all we were OK.

We boarded a bus to make the 2 hour drive to Lhasa.  Because Lhasa is situated so close to mountains the only place they could put an airstrip is far out of town.  The weather was lovely and the ride was very scenic.  Tibetans are beautiful people and we’ve all been surprised that they look so different from the Nepalis.

Pentoc Guest House

We checked into our hotel in Lhasa – the Pentoc Guest House.  We’re definitely not traveling on a high-fallutin’ trip here, because the rooms are small and the showers and toilets are both on different floors.  But we can get back into our “camping mode” mentality pretty easily.  And we’ll have to keep this mentality because – apparently – there will be a few days coming up where we won’t have access to showers at all.  No worries!  I have been there – done that.  I’ve taken a bottle shower in the Serengeti and I’ve gone 4 days without showering on Kili.  This will be a piece of cake.  (Famous last words, right?)

We rested in the hotel for a while, with instructions not to do anything overly exerting because our bodies are adjusting.  At 7:00, we met and went to dinner and brought our bootlegged liquor to the restaurant which was naturally very happy to see us.  It’s owned by some Tibetans and some Europeans, so they call it “Durya” which means “World”.  Jon ordered Momos for an appetizer which are Tibetan dumplings and pasta for dinner.  I had some soup and vegetable chow mein for dinner.  It was yummy and we all felt a bit better after having eaten something.  (However, we have 3 altitude casualties who didn’t make it to dinner at all – hope they feel better!).  The owners gave us each a free tea or coffee or dessert for bringing the liquor and I had some “Altitude Relaxation Tea” which is supposed to counter the effects of altitude sickness.  I guess we’ll see if it works tomorrow!