Tibetan mountains

Tibetan mountains

On our flight from Chongqing to Lhasa we saw rugged, snow capped mountains.  A few years ago it took two hours to drive to Lhasa from their airport.  After the construction of a long tunnel it is now an hour drive.  Plans are currently underway to reduce this trip to 35 minutes.  In route we saw many low to the ground covered greenhouse structures where vegetables and small watermelons are grown.  We also spotted our first yak.  Surrounded by mountains, Lhasa sits on a plateau at an elevation of 12,000 feet.  For the rest of the day we took it easy in order to acclimate ourselves to the altitude.  We drank lots of water and avoided taking a shower the first night.

Potala Palace

Potala Palace

We tested our acclimation on the second day by climbing some 300 steps or thirteen floors to the top of the Potala Palace first built in 637.  It sits atop Putuo Hill and has more than 200,000 statues, temples, shrines, and historical Tibetan articles.  The Potala, now a museum, was divided into two sections, the white palace where the Dalai Lama lived and political business was conducted and the red palace which was devoted to religious study and now contains the bodies of several former Dalai Lamas.

1,300-year-old Jokhang Temple, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, is considered the Mecca of Tibetan Buddhism. The Sakyamuni Statue is considered one of the more unique holdings.  We did some shopping afterward at the Lhasa Tibetan Village Artistic Company.  The surrounding streets are filled with street vendors but their products are considered inexpensive fakes.

Happiness is on the Way Tibetan culture program

Tibetan Dancer

“Happiness Is On the Way,” a Tibetan culture program, featured gorgeous costuming, skilled choreography, colorful settings and clamorous music.  The most unusual aspect during the performance was that some Chinese audience members left and returned to their seats, sometimes more than once, during the performance.

On our seond day in Lhasa the sky was cloudy with a steady drizzle.  Snow had fallen on the mountains surrounding Lhasa.  Nevertheless, our excursion to Green Jade Lake, considered a holy site, went on as planned.  Before we started the steep incline up a mountain, we passed a bus that had flipped on its side.  The passengers, who appeared to be Tibetan, had escaped out the rear as the bus lay on its side.  A series of switchbacks took us up an additional 3,500 feet and left us breathless as we looked at the deep canyon aside us.  Oncoming vehicles approached our bus from the middle of the road.  Our driver vigorously honked before each curve.  Most of our group saw the Green Jade Lake for a fleeting minute.  I took a picture of a rock inscribed with details about the elevation, 4,441 meters (about 14,570 feet), and paused surrounded by thousands of prayer flags blowing their prayers in the wind.  Yaks were decorated for photographs, 10 yuan please.

After our descent we stopped in a village about an hour from Lhasa for lunch and then a visit with a local family.  The outside of these homes which were built within the last 2-3 years were inviting.  The inside is spacious but primitive by our standards.  Our hostesses presented us with silk scarves, offered samples of yak butter tea and homemade barley beer, and sang a song.  Many in our group had brought gifts of school supplies and other toys.  The balloons were especially popular with the young boy.

Our dinner at the Mad Yak Restaurant had two buffet lines, one with Tibetan food, which we sampled, and the other Chinese.  Again, we drank yak butter tea and barley beer.  After dinner we enjoyed a Tibetan music and dance show.  The costumes were especially colorful.

The Sera Monastery, founded 1,300 years ago by Jamchen Choje Shakya Yesh, continues to be a place of learning for Buddhist monks.  Many young boys, such as our local guide, start at age five.  He renounced his vows after 14 years, but many continue their learning for a lifetime.    Especially impressive were the vibrant colors and intricate designs of the three dimensional sand mandalas.  A wall covered with ancient texts in cubby holes from the floor to a very high ceiling held this bibliophile’s interest.  At the request of a follower, one monk, using gold ink to write on red silk the name of a deceased beloved, which would then be burned as prayers were presented.  When in the temple, one shows respect by removing any head covering and not taking pictures.  The security personnel, however, kept their hats on while closely monitoring the monks.

An interesting incident occurred at the Lhasa airport as we went through security for our flight to Chengdu.  A parcel belonging to a member of our party disappeared after it was screened.  Our national guide walked through the waiting area asking whether anyone had accidentally picked up this parcel which he described in Chinese.  When no one came forward, he reported the loss to security.  Each passenger’s identification is matched with corresponding video of the screening process.  A picture of the culprit was clearly visible and could be magnified with clear identifying marks.  It was then possible to track her within the boarding area where two security officers found the missing piece and escorted her away.  While in Tibet we observed pairs of police throughout public areas.  In the public square one cannot set anything on the ground.  Roads have checkpoints which allow passage only to authorized vehicles and passengers.  The Tibet Autonomous Region is under tight security.