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)