Our exploration of Lhasa began with a visit to the Potala Palace, a world famous symbol of the enigmatic power of politics and religion in this region. Being that it was a Sunday, there were scores of domestic tourists and devout pilgrims with whom we shared the over 400 steps and at times, quite close passageways. They were twirling hand-held prayer wheels called manis and fervently fingering prayer beads. The core of the building dates back to the 7th century, built to provide the Tibetan court with a place of worship and meditation. Later it was rebuilt in the 17th century to its present 13-story size and it became the Winter Palace of the Dalai Lama. We paused often on the steep ascent to catch our breath and to take in the panoramic view of the city and mountains beyond. The interiors were richly decorated with ornate murals, gigantic images of the past, present and future Buddhas, and butter-oil candles aglow. Cozy inner sanctums gave way to terraced courtyards – it was awesome and I’m happy to say that going down was much easier than up!
This afternoon we visited the Jokhang Temple, located in the oldest part of the city. It also harkens back to the 7th century and the four-story building has splendid golden roofs. Walking through the large square to get to the temple, one could really get a glimpse into daily life and the dogma and ritual associated with Buddhism. Elders were circumnavigating the temple – this practice is called making a kora and it is always done clockwise – others were tying ceremonial white scarves to poles laden with prayer flags and many still were rhythmically prostrating themselves repeatedly on the ground to the left of the temple entrance to symbolize that they had lain on their face for part of their journey. It was positively mesmerizing.
The basic understanding of Buddhism is essential in Tibet. Buddhism’s values, goals, disciplines and teachings permeate every aspect of life here and it is omnipresent. I wished I’d had some sort of condensed cliff notes on Tibetan Buddhism – just a few bullet points to remind us how it differed from Buddhist traditions and beliefs that I’ve observed in other locations like Myanmar and Laos, for example.
This evening, a picnic dinner was planned in a small village on the outskirts of Lhasa. We started with a visit to a private residence, home to a three-generation family. Every home, no matter how humble, has a prayer room with altar and iconography. We were offered boiled potatoes, fresh from our host’s garden as a snack served with a red chili paste as a condiment. Interestingly, these were the only potatoes we had on the trip, so it must not be a common staple. The picnic took place nearby at a public campground where several families had clearly passed the day – to my astonishment, I spotted a woman de-lousing her friend’s hair at the pavilion adjacent to ours – it was not the most appetizing thought before dinner! There was a babbling brook and the valley was very attractive; the only downside was all of the power lines and transformers that marred the landscape. Toasts with strong Chinese liquor (which tasted like av-gas!) were made and local singers serenaded us as the temperature fell like a stone with the setting sun.
Monday morning, we visited the Drepung Monastery, which in its heyday, held 7,700 monks in residence and was the largest-scale monastery of its kind in the world. Over 2.5 million square feet, it is situated at the foot of Mt. Gambo and that meant more steps! After lunch, we made our way to the Sera Monastery, another gargantuan set up – more like a village – and it housed around 5,000 monks until the revolution in 1959 when its colleges were destroyed, ancient texts burned and many monks massacred. Today, it is a smaller scale situation and a highlight is to be there at 3 p.m. sharp when the monks file into a walled courtyard and pursue a lively “debate” session. There was shouting, martial-arts-like leaps in the air and sharp clapping of hands – all in all, quite a spectacle and the antithesis of the monotone chanting of sutras that one associates with this peaceful philosophy.
We went to take a look at the Shangri La Hotel which is the other five-star property in the city. It also has fabulous views of the Potala Palace from the other side. Although the rooms were a bit smaller, they still appeared comfortable and the public areas are very attractive – especially the Oxygen Lounge where guests can go and top up on O2 and presumably shake off any AMS symptoms. We opted to have dinner there, which in retrospect may have been a mistake, as many of the items on offer on the buffet could feature highly on Andrew Zimmern’s Food Channel sensation, “Bizarre Foods.” There was loud and incongruously Mongolian-themed musical entertainment and thank goodness, one of our traveling companions, Chris, a Frenchman who had visited Tibet frequently, scared up a few bottles of Sancerre which helped us screw up our courage to navigate the murky waters of the buffet – truly some of the weirdest stuff imaginable – my top five include:
- Lamb offal – (Did they mean “awful?”) Three ways: braised, stir-fried, and boiled.
- Pastoral Hand Meat (Do we think that is hooves?)
- Sheep Lung (self-explanatory…)
- Garlic Cowboy Bone (I’ve heard of cowboy steaks before…but this was new!)
- Milk Dregs (As far as I’m concerned the word “dregs” should never appear on a culinary menu.)
Luckily, I found a soup station with a clear broth and you could select various condiments – reminded me of a Vietnamese pho. Abby ate roasted pumpkin with hot sauce – a truly bizarre combination…as always, at times like this, I murmured my mantra, “rice is your friend” as we discovered later in the trip as well. Chris proposed a nighttime stroll in front of the Potala Palace which is dramatically lit after dark and it was truly magical. We wandered through parks and gardens with fountains aglow in fluorescent tones –it was obviously “date-night” in Lhasa with many young couples out for a stroll. We returned to the St. Regis in a posse of bicycle rickshaws in need of a good night’s sleep as tomorrow we would commence our journey to the mountains and anticipation ran high.