Our first day in Lhasa, we headed over to Drepung and Sera Monasteries, both set on mountainsides on the edge of town, both large and full of whitewashed Tibetan buildings, and both sporting large assembly halls, stupas galore, and more golden past, present, and future Buddhas, grotesque bulging-eyed teachers and disciples, monstrous fat and fanged Protector Buddhas, and more Tibetan scripture libraries than you can shake a stick at.
The two, both started by disciples of Tsongkhapa, kind of blend together, with the latter set apart by the interesting teaching practice of fight debating, in which hundreds of red-clad and shaven-headed monks take turns prosecuting each other in questions of faith, with one lunging and clapping his hands in the face of his seated testee, forcing him to defend the faith under duress. It’s quite a sight seeing all of this happening at once, and observing which monks are overzealous and which are on the verge of losing their cool. Tibetan Buddhism, with its emphasis on different manifestations of Buddha, strikes me as the Roman Catholicism of Buddhist sects, with plenty of extracurricular, borderline polytheistic loopholes for older beliefs to be assimilated by.
Our second day: Potala! It’s the winter palace of the Dalai Llama, built by the great King Songtsan Gumpo but reverting to the palace/monastery of the Dalai Llama theocracy afterwards, up until the 14th (and current, unless you’re Chinese) fled in 1959. It was actually his birthday when we saw Potala, but it was just a normal busy day there. We’d been passing it day and night for two days, but the morning we went was finally clear and blue, a beautiful backdrop to the imposing red, white, and yellow fortress.
The walk up is steep, but we made good time because the entry times are strict and you only get an hour after you enter. The inside, somewhat disappointingly, was much the same as the temples- gilt Buddhas and grotesque paintings mostly, although we did see several thrones of the Dalai Llama as well as the current one’s bedchambers, and reception rooms full of dazzling yellow drapery and small windows with gorgeous views of a city that didn’t exist in 1959 and snow-capped mountains that certainly did. At least outside, with its wholly unique Tibetan architecture and imposing hilltop location, Potala is one of a handful of the most impressive buildings I’ve seen.
After that we stopped by the office for a lunch of thukpa, savory spiced potatoes, and red pickled radish strips, and met our tour agency, Tibet Songtsan’s, office team. The agency is wholly Tibetan managed and staffed, commendable in an industry being usurped by the Chinese. We walked about how Tibet looked 20-30 years ago, pop culture, and website design. Everyone was extremely nice and interesting to converse with.
In the afternoon we visited Jokhang, the oldest of the temples by far (7th vs. 14th century-built). The inside was much the same, with red-robed monks lighting yak butter lamps and people leaving small offerings of money or beer to the golden deities. The view from the roof was beautiful, spanning Lhasa. Afterwards, Kong and I did a korra (walked) all the way around the temple. Here the Dalai Llama’s birthday had a noticeable effect, with may folks walking or prostrating themselves before the temple.
All around the temple were overpriced shops selling hidden jewelry (again, dead ringers for silver and turquoise Native American products), fur hats, and religious iconography. We went from there down the street to cheaper stalls selling identical products, and I grabbed a turquoise necklace for Jeonghee (I got her a gift from every country) and some curious rock candy-like substance a rural Tibetan was carving from a large, pink, plant-encrusted stone. It tasted like rose-flavored sugar- hard, but delicious. Later I believe we confirmed it was petrified honey. Then we walked to the meandering, flat Lhasa River, nabbed some green tea, and headed back to the hotel.
The Lhasa River also factored into our last sightseeing day, as we followed its twisty course for most of the way to Yamdrok Lake. It’s a beautiful, placid river, lined with yellow-leafed trees in full autumn splendor, with the occasional small town, hilltop monastery, and snow-capped mountain varying its background.
After the turnoff to Yamdrok, we climbed quickly and steadily up to nearly 5,000 m, a bit nauseating in its rapidity but well whorth it when the breathtaking sapphire jewel that is Yamdrok came into view. We unfortunately didn’t have the right permits to explore it closer, but the two viewpoints provided plenty of awe-inspiring views of the lake. As cold as it was, we saw three bare-shouldered wedding parties taking photos, and I can’t argue with their choice. The lake is a shade of blue I’ve never seen, incredibly deep and shining in the sunlight, with sharp-peaked snowy mountains providing the perfect surrounding. Simply spectacular.
My last view of Tibet was from the airport bus, where I met a young Tibetan man (who I won’t name) full of the information guides wouldn’t provide. A stark contrast to the image of Chinese and Tibetans dancing around Potala Square, he told of high property prices and a dearth of jobs do to the influx of Han immigrants, as well as a worsening of rights since the 2008 unrest. Now if a Tibetan gets in a traffic accident with a Han, he apologizes and pays regardless of fault, because the courts are so one-sided. Likewise, if a Tibetan and Chinese child fight, it’s always the Tibetan who is punished. I knew possessing an image of the current Dalai Llama was a crime, but even failing to fly the Chinese flag above your house is an offense deserving of jail time. We also discussed religion, the most interesting fact revealing why the Tibetan traditional funeral takes place. Offering your body to the vultures and eagles repays the debt you have to all of the animals you’ve eaten yourself, and pardons many other sins besides. An interesting and unconventional philosophy, which could only have come from such an interesting and unconventional place.