Lhasa was not at all what we were expecting. The city is quite sizable, although securely hemmed in by mountains, it is also immensely vibrant with a heady mix of Chinese new enterprise and Tibetan religious fervor. Its many temples, monasteries and the Potala act as focal points and dominate the fabric of the city as well as lending a sense of pride and identity. A heavy and highly visible police presence after recent rioting is the most striking detraction.
We arrived earlier than expected having made little use of our planned contingency. So we decided to start sedately, mostly wandering the streets around the Jokhang monastery. These are alive with pilgrims making the kora around the monastery as well as less focused Chinese, Tibetans and tourists browsing the hundreds of small market stalls, shop fronts and restaurants. The atmosphere is intoxicating, friendly and easy to get happily lost in. We made few purchases but bartered for prayer flags, Nepalese and Tibetan clothing, antiques and jewellery – “cheapie, cheapie; how much you pay; just lookie lookie?”

In the evenings we treated ourselves to our first “Western” food since we had left “The West”. This included a steak (Yak) and a curry (Nepalese) washed down with a beer (Tibetan barley). We were also reintroduced to fellow tourists, including two Scots who had somehow managed to smuggle themselves and their push bikes past check points to Lhasa, without obligatory guide or permits. Perhaps cyclists are less obvious targets for official extortion. We had to admire their clear British lunacy as well as good humour in spite of the physical endurance their route required. We were to meet them often as they travelled our route down the Friendship highway. 
After a day or so’s rest we started behaving like proper tourists. My cousin, Duncan, was to be joining us from Australia for our final week in Tibet so we reserved the Potala for his arrival. Our first significant sight was the Drepung monastery: founded in 1416 the monastery is an immense collection of temples, chapels and more mundane living and administrative buildings. Their white tapered flanks and red tipped roofs rise as terraces up a side valley from Lhasa, with a dominating view of the city. We were soon exhausted: physically from the many staircases and circumnavigations and mentally from the mass of little understood religious iconography weighing heavy on our minds. The only sight with any significant relevance for us was the giant kitchen, one of four that would cater for the past glories of 7-10,000 monks in its giant fixed cooking pots. Although the monastery was a profound and educational experience, we would have to do things differently if we were to reach anything near understanding.

With that in mind we hired a local Tibetan guide for our next day. Although Leon has been excellent company, and is more enlightened than many Chinese, his knowledge of the Tibetan culture was not up to our constant questioning. We spent the late Sunday morning touring the Jokhung temple, one of the earliest temples in Tibet. Built by Songsten Gampo during his reign in the 7th centuary, it was intended for his Chinese bride - other temples were erected for his Nepalese and Tibetan wives. As we toured the inner temple, and were talked through the icons on display, a more cohesive picture of the interrelationships between the figures became apparent. Occasionally we were able to see the links with significant figures in other parts of Tibet that we had visited, such as Kailash and the Guge Kingdom. Although still largely ignorant, we left the monastery with a better feel for the complex personalities and scriptures that have been woven together to make Tibetan Budhism.

Sunday is also an important holiday in Lhasa and a busy day for pilgrimages. We decided to make our own Koras, starting with a circumnavigation of the Potalla in the early morning before breakfast, and then in the early evening we walked around The Jokhung monastery with thousands of other pilgrims. Where our Kora of the Potalla was a quiet and contemplative walk past many hundreds of prayer wheels in the pre-dawn, our walk around the Jokhung was similar to swimming with the flow of a river as we kept our place amidst others to the rattle of prayer beads, friendly chatter and occasional chanting. At the front of the monastery we passed prostrators: making a noise like the wind in trees they kneel down on narrow, padded prayer mats and skid their hands out to full prostration, pieces of cardboard or slippers cushioning palms against the flag stones. The whole experience was immensely uplifting and strangely sociable on a grand scale.

Duncan arrived the following day from Sydney via Bangkok and Chengdu. Although we had been cajoling him for months to join us, circumstances meant that he had left it very late to organize a VISA and permits so looked a little shell-shocked to have dropped in to Lhasa with so little apparent effort. We had been saving the Potala for Duncan’s arrival so booked our tour for the following day.
The Potala is the most recognizable of Lhasa’s sights and not surprisingly as its immense, glaringly white mass dominates the centre of the city and the skyline from miles around. It was built by the fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century to be his palace and administrative centre. The 5th Dalai Lama was so revered that his death was kept secret until the completion of the palace 12 years later. The Potala is one of those buildings that you cannot believe you are being allowed to enter: right from boldly marching through the front gate to the final ascent up the immense staircase in front of the palace we kept feeling that we should be called back to earth. Once inside the impression of awe is diminished only by the small-scale light and warmth of the royal apartments, meditation rooms and reception chambers. There are some extraordinary sights, of golden tombs for the past Dalai Lamas and ornate chapels, however the overall impression is one of a government functioning through subtlety rather than power. One other thing that we noticed was the incredible blue sky that every photo of the Potala seemed to contain, something to do with the alpine glare of the white walls, this photogenic property probably helps to keep its image in everyone’s imagination.
The Potala conquered we spent very little additional time in Lhasa before heading back down the Friendship Highway towards Kathmandu.

Comments (6) Comments are closed
6 Saturday, 30 January 2010 19:56
Tina Cooney
Hi guys, Just catching up with your trip - fantastic - amazing pictures but not so sure about the beard John !!!! Looks like you two are really enjoying it and look very relaxed. So whats next ?
5 Monday, 11 January 2010 09:04
Paul & Kate Hansen
Hi John & Ruth, what a fantastic trip so far! I was in touch with CDP recently and Matt gave me an update on what you were doing. Looking forward to reading all about the next half. Take care, Paul and Kate.
4 Thursday, 07 January 2010 16:16
Jan and AnnPat Gooch
Hi John (and Ruth). To think it all began with lots of fun at Craignay with wee skis and lots of speg bog!
3 Thursday, 07 January 2010 04:47
Dan & Kirst Stewart
Hi John & Ruth,

You guys are awesome! Paul Hansen has just given us the link to your site & your journey is great. We love the photos too.

All the best & we will keep an eye out for the landy driving through the Melbourne streets (it's just a bit further down the road from Nepal).

Dan & Kirst

PS: Kirst gave birth to our lovely little girl (Ava Grace Stewart), born 24th Dec 09.

PPS: We have moved to Melbourne (still waiting for you to come & stay with us).
2 Saturday, 26 December 2009 00:06
duncan and frances
Hoping you are having a fantastic Christmas, a bit different this year!!! Much love and good wishes for 2010. xx
1 Friday, 25 December 2009 04:30
Aunti Ali
Merry Christmas! I have already swum today, Christmas Day, in that classic 'mill-pond smooth' Indian Ocean. 35C is suggested for today in Perth, WA; a bit different from the 0C predicted for Edinburgh (-8C overnight). Make the most of your first (?) Christmas outside Scotland/England/Europe, wherever you are. With love and all best wishes.

Last Updated (Friday, 04 December 2009 05:58)


Lake Manasssarova to Lhasa

Following our semi-kora we followed the usual pilgrim’s route to Lake Manassarova, or Maphan Yun-tso, the holiest lake in Tibet, as well as one of the highest at around 4580m. Apart from its incredible beauty in the shadow of 7728m Mt Gurla Mandhata and its proximity to Mt Kailash, the lake also has more hot springs nearby, which were just the ticket hours after our trek. The lake also has to classify as the coldest place we have yet stayed in Tibet, partly due to altitude but mostly due to the strong winds that seem to plague this small water-bound region. Although still below freezing, the cold is not so bad during the day when the strong, high altitude sunlight gives a psychological boost, however during the night we had to develop tactics to cope. These included pre-heating of sleeping layers while fully dressed as well as taking to bed all manner of items that require warmth to function: These included cameras, mobile phones, water bottles, clothing to avoid the early morning shock and eventually jerry cans of diesel when the fuel started to go waxy and could not be poured. Intimate bed time moments were limited to blown kisses through chapped lips across the gap between his and hers sleeping bags. We also started to dread the late night runs to the outdoor toilet. Tibetan long-drop toilets have no cover to speak of and the back of the long-drop is open, presumably to allow for periodic emptying, however it also has the effect of allowing the wind to blow back up the drop, which can occasionally make dropping a challenge.

We spent two nights at the Lake, recuperating before the long driving days to Lhasa. This included a day trip to Purang on the Nepalese border, skirting Mt Gurla Mandhata, which looked strangely achievable from our perspective of 4800m. Purang is a town made prosperous by cross border trade as well as the first significant signs of farming we had seen since Xinjiang. Homes were much larger than we had grown used to, sometimes with a second floor and often with a courtyard for animals and further security. We spent some of the day wandering around the “trade centre” – a market for Chinese and Nepalese goods: pots and pans on one side and Nepalese clothing, spices and sugar wrapped in leaves on the other. Not being a significant market day, the traders mostly spent their time drinking sweet Nepalese tea and playing Chinese poker.
The following day we started our drive to Lhasa. Initially confident that we could cover the distance in 2-3 days, we were quickly disillusioned when the tarmac and then dirt road ran out and we were faced with the dreaded “road under construction”. More dust and rutted mayhem than ever before due to the increased volume of traffic destroying even the detours, we resigned ourselves to the pounding as 2-3 days became 4-5.

After our second day averaging 30-40km/hr we eventually concluded that anything would be better than the main road. So it was an easy decision to take another of our favourite county tracks, disregarding the distance it would add to our journey, or that much of this extra would be on the Friendship Highway, a road that we had hoped to see fresh on our drive from Lhasa to Kathmandu.
This turned out to be an excellent decision. The road headed South before skirting the Nepalese border and the heart of the Himalayas.  Although the driving was hard we saw some of the most outstanding scenery of our trip so far. Initially over hills and past lakes dotted with nomad’s felt tents we ended the morning climbing over one of the most impressive 5000m passes we have experienced into a valley surrounded by 6 and 7000m peaks beyond.

Although exhilarated by the drive we were a little surprised to find ourselves at the town below, Dzongka, having assumed that we would be skirting habitation. After many long discussions with confused locals we eventually established that our turnoff was the other side of the pass that we had spent the past hour struggling over. Sometimes in Tibet maps are vague, there is no one to ask directions and signposts are a luxury not to be wasted on locals and fools. The high pass was a little less exhilarating the second time around.
Once back on the main road the scenic treat continued. We found ourselves off the main track by some unforeseen detour and heading down a dry river bed, cliffs on either side obscuring our view. We continued following the vague tracks marking the way until the cliffs suddenly opened out and we were driving above a beautiful and deserted lake, Himalayan peaks towering all around us. One of the most uplifting sights of our trip.

The many tracks continued to skirt the lake, with an occasional Landcruiser sending up plumes of dust, before heading East towards the Friendship Highway, immense mountains parading on our right hand side.
We finally reached the Friendship Highway and pristine tarmac, blessedly finished earlier this year, in early evening. We had one final treat before the light failed completely and we found our hotel. Just as the sun was dipping on our stretch of road the highest mountain of them all came into sight. For about 20km we had a view of the North face of Mt Everest with Lapchi Gang and Cho Oyo to the West. As the sun dropped the peak remained the last lit: changing colours and still uplifting even in the distance. This is our first glimpse; we hope to get a closer view on our way back down in 2 week’s time.

Our dash up the Friendship highway was a little less momentous, largely as we were doing our best to avoid experience in anticipation of the return journey to Kathmandu. One experience we couldn’t avoid was the increase in population, traffic and interference that these bought. We had grown used to our significance in isolation, so it was a shock to see signs of tourism in amongst the still haunting landscape. Signs also of Chinese administration, including slogans on signboards every 10km or so: “Lets build a beautiful Tibet together ; Conservation of Tibet starts with us; Keep our skies blue and waters clear; Accidents happen in a blink, be cautious.” Although reassuring to see these, very laudable, policies stated clearly, they still somehow jarred in their setting.
We also encountered our first speed check points of Tibet. These are small booths from which an official prescribes the time after which you may arrive at the next little booth, a known distance down the road. These prescriptions are based on the vehicle and driver’s capability, and being a foreign liability ours were particularly stringent. One restriction required us to travel 25km in 35 minutes, an almost impossible challenge in the circumstances. Of course, this has caused small enterprises such as roadside cafes and car wash stations to spring up just prior to the check points – a testament to the enterprising nature of the locals.
Unfortunately, these unforeseen delays caused us to arrive into Lhasa late in the evening, only just diminishing from the experience of our first sight of the Potala Palace: immense, flood lit and standing as a proud landmark over the city.

Last Updated (Friday, 04 December 2009 05:59)

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