TIBET: A VISIT TO THE ROOF OF THE WORLD
By Pam Euston
“Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” His Holiness, The Dalai Lama
Today we fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. We’re up early as we have to snake our way through bumper to bumper traffic with an occasional cow or two in the middle of the road, further hampering our progress to the airport. Our flight out of Kathmandu was typically late due to the foggy conditions in the mountains surrounding the city. Finally we arrived in Tibet’s capital after an hour flight.
We were met by our guide Tenzin Yarphel and then set off for our hotel, an hour drive from the airport. Before saying anything else, he cautioned us not to take pictures of any Chinese officials or soldiers as this will get us in BIG TROUBLE! The only good thing that the Chinese have done is to improve the infrastructure of the country. The main roads are as good as those in the U.S. and everything is very clean. We finally reached the Shangbala Hotel in the middle of Lhasa, got checked in, ate dinner and then everyone headed for bed.
We were up early again and after breakfast, met Tenzin and walked a short distance to the Barkhor Circuit where we joined the centrifugal tide of Tibetans circling the Circuit. What a scene: pilgrims and prostrators from across Tibet, stalls selling prayer wheels and turquoise, Muslim traders, Khampa nomads in shaggy cloaks, women from Amdo sporting 108 braids, thangka artists and Chinese military patrols with assault rifles. It really is a fascinating microcosm of Tibet, and a target rich environment for souvenir shopping. What the Chinese think these people are going to attack them with is beyond me. The only thing close to a weapon they possess is a yak whip and that’s no match for an AK 47.
We got in line for the Jokhang Temple and an atmosphere of hushed awe hit me as I inched through the dark, medieval passageways of the temple. Queues of pilgrims shuffled up and down the stairways, past ancient doorways and millennium-old murals, causing a myriad of shadows on the walls from the light of butter lamps that flickered in the gloom. This is the beating spiritual heart of Tibet, the country’s most revered religious site. Welcome to the 14th century! Tibetan Buddhists come from hundreds of miles, prostrating themselves as they walk, sometimes taking years to reach the Jokhang. It was built sometime between 639 and 647 and is a must see if you ever visit Lhasa. In the afternoon we visited the De Ji Orphanage which is supported by OAT travel dollars. Go to www.oattravel.com for more information on Overseas Adventure Travel.
Today is the day I’ve been waiting for…we are going to visit the Potala Palace which looms over all of Lhasa. Even surrounded by a sea of Chinese development, this towering, majestic building dominates Lhasa. I found it hard to take my eyes off of it. A visit to the former home of the Dalai Lamas (Dalai Lama means “Ocean of Wisdom”) is a spiraling descent past gold-tombed chapels, reception rooms and prayer halls into the bowels of a medieval castle. It is nothing less than the concentrated spiritual and material wealth of a nation. The Potala Palace served as the residence of the Dalai Lama, until the 14th and current Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959. The highest palace in the world, it stands on top of Red Hill, at over 12,000 feet above sea level. In the Zang language, Potala means “the sacred place of Buddhism” and consists of the White and the Red Palace. The Dalai Lama lived in the White Palace; the Red Palace consists of temples. It consists of thirteen stories and 1,000 rooms and was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994. In 2000 and 2001, Jokhang Temple and the Norbulingka were added to the list as extensions to the sites.
After lunch we toured the Norbulingka Palace which translates as “The Jewelled Park,” built in 1755. It served as the traditional summer residence of the successive Dalai Lamas from the 1780s up until the 14th Dalai Lama’s exile in 1959; it was from this residence that he fled to India. It is situated in the west side of Lhasa and covers 89 acres and is considered to be the largest man-made garden in Tibet. The only photograph of the Dalai Lama allowed in the country is in a dark corner of one of its 374 rooms.
After several days in Lhasa, we boarded our bus and set out for Gyantse on the Tibet Friendship Highway which snakes its way back and forth up the mountains from Lhasa to its end at the defense highway of Kathmandu, some 585 miles. This is the only international highway in Tibet and is very important to pilgrims who make their way from all around the country to the spiritual center of Lhasa. We left Lhasa at 9:15 am and arrived in Gyantse at 5:00 pm. Along the way we stopped at Yamdrok Lake, one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet. The lake is 45 miles long and covers 246 square miles at 14,570 feet above sea level. It is surrounded by many snow-capped mountains and is fed by numerous small streams and has an outlet stream at its far western end. Like mountains, lakes are considered sacred by Tibetan people, and are believed to be the dwelling places of protective deities, therefore investing them with special spiritual powers. Everyone from the Dalai Lama to local villagers makes pilgrimages to these lakes. The lake is revered as a talisman and is said to be part of the life-spirit of the Tibetan nation. This is the largest lake in southern Tibet, and it is believed that if it dries up, Tibet will no longer be habitable.
Our next stop was at the Yam Dork Yak Restaurant where the welcoming sign read, “Dear Adorable Friends. Welcome to our yak restaurant. Thank you.” We had, what else, yak soup. And, I finally got to sample yak butter tea. Some people prefer to call it “soup” while others liken it to brewed socks. However you describe it, your first mouthful is the signal that you have finally reached Tibet. I had to taste it but decided that the only thing worse than hot yak-butter tea, would be cold yak-butter tea. Guess it’s an acquired taste.
Then it was back on the bus and onward toward Gyantse. At 18,241 feet we stopped at the Kharola glacier; this was the highest elevation we reached on our journey. We had traveled two hours from Yamdrok Lake, passing many small villages as well as yak and goat herds. This isn’t a big glacier but it’s spectacular from the highway, and is close enough (about 300 yards) to walk to. Finally, at 5:00 pm, we checked into the Gyantse Hotel.
Our next stop was a visit to the Palkhor Monastery, originally built in 1418. It is important due to the fact that it is the base location of three sects of Tibetan Buddhism. Therefore the design and layout of the monastery is a synthesis of the three sects. It is also famous for its Ten-Thousand Buddha Tower (Palkhor Tower), the calling card of the monastery. The Ten-Thousand Buddha Tower consists of nearly one hundred family halls for worshipping Buddha, one overlapping another. People call it “towers within towers”, which makes for a very vivid feature in this spectacular building and is the reason for its name. Ten-Thousand Buddha Tower, contains 10,000 figures of Buddha in the shrines, murals and family halls for worship.
By now we have become very familiar with prayer wheels, prayer flags and prayer beads. A prayer wheel is a cylindrical “wheel” on a spindle made from metal, wood, stone, leather or coarse cotton. Traditionally, the mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition based on the lineage texts regarding prayer wheels, spinning such a wheel will have much the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers. Buddhist prayer beads are a traditional tool used to count the number of times a mantra is recited while meditating.
A prayer flag is a colorful panel of rectangular cloth, often found strung along mountain ridges and peaks high in the Himalayas. We have seen thousands of them on our journey. They are used to bless the surrounding countryside and for other purposes. Traditionally they are woodblock-printed with texts and images. Prayer flags come in sets of five, one in each of five colors. The five colors represent the elements, and the Five Pure Lights and are arranged from left to right in specific order: blue symbolizes sky, white symbolizes air, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth.
We froze during the night. Like our hotel in Lhasa, the front door was open all night and a huge wool rug covered the doorway. We never could figure that one out. After breakfast, we boarded the bus and set off for Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet. At lunch we sample some local barley beer which ranked slightly lower than the yak butter tea…a really acquired taste to be sure. Finally we reached our destination and checked into the Monasawa Hotel.
The next morning we were off to visit another monastery, the Tashilhunpo founded in 1447 by Gendun Drup, the first Dalai Lama. Located on a hill in the center of the city, the full name in Tibetan means: “all fortune and happiness gather here” or “heap of glory.” We spent all morning here, had lunch at a local restaurant and explored the city. Tomorrow we return to Lhasa.
It took all day to drive back down the highway to Lhasa. Bags had to be outside our door by 7:00 am the next day and after breakfast, we boarded the bus for the one hour ride to the airport. We said goodbye to Tenzin and our driver Kalsang, boarded our Airbus and flew over the Himalayas to Kathmandu. Sangeeta met us at the airport and before returning to the Gokarna Forest Resort, we made a detour to visit Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple as there are holy monkeys living in the north-west parts of the temple. The Tibetan name for the site means “Sublime Trees”, for the many varieties of trees found on the hill. The local Newari name for the complex, “Singgu” means “self sprung”. For the Buddhist Newars, Swayambhunath occupies a central position and is probably the most sacred among Buddhist pilgrimage sites. For Tibetans and followers of Tibetan Buddhism, it is second only to Boudhanath. It is a complex of shrines and temples and is one of the oldest religious sites in Nepal, dating back to 464 AD. Although the site is considered Buddhist, the place is revered also by Hindus.
Today we leave for home. After an hour ride to the airport, it was finally time to say goodbye to Sangeeta. She has become more than our guide but a warm friend who has enhanced our visit to her country with her knowledge and humor. We touched down at JFK early on April 24, our heads full of memories of the beautiful places we had seen and the friendly people we had met on our month-long odyssey.
Almost two years after visiting Tibet, I am still inebriated by the masterpiece of the nature and people of this mysterious land and am eager to share my impressions of it with friends. Tibet is known as the “roof of the world.” Its height not only lies in the natural altitude, but also is reinforced by its religious heavenliness.
Tibet is a sacred place, a profound spiritual experience and a place that you want to whisper. Colorful prayer flags flutter along river banks, mountains and roads, blessing all those who pass by. A country where every lake has its own legend. I had read that the Tibetans were devout Buddhists but it was when I saw them with my own eyes that I came to realize just how devout they are. Every day, as we traveled through the country, I could see them dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes walking while kowtowing, with all parts of their bodies touching the earth, murmuring the Buddhist lection. All were heading for the same destination…the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. Some take years to make this pilgrimage.
As the Dalai Lama says, “Go to Tibet and see many places, as many as you can; then tell the world.” You should go if you get the chance, you won’t be disappointed and your life will be richer for the visit.