Anthony's Interesting Times 2004 travel blog

Monks and nuns cleaning votive candles amongst clouds of juniper smoke

Prayer flags, juniper furnace and Tibetans

Pilgrims prostrating

The Potala from the roof of the Jokhang, Lhasa

Part of the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Tibetans in the Jokhang

Inside Jokhang

The Potala Palace, Lhasa

Part of the roof of the Potala

Towards the Potala roof

Looking up at the Potala (from the former red-light district in the...

Tibetan pilgrims

More Tibetans

Monks in Barkhor Square outside the Jokhang


Not a good start to Tibet,I am afraid. I got food poisoning in Chengdu, and spent the whole night vomitting and the rest, not nice at all,and then up at 4.30 wishing I was rich enough to just get another plane ticket when I was better. It was frankly quite a hard journey; bus to airport, usual waiting around, two hour flight with people climbng over me to see mountains out of my window, and then two bumpy smoke-filled hours by bus from the airport to Lhasa. But luckily I wasn't sick again until I got to my room, when I was very sick. I saw the Potala on the way, which looked great, but felt so crap I spent the next 20 hours sleeping, trying not to be sick, and feeling very sorry for myself. I couldn't even get sympathy by text, as my texts were blocked again.

However...this morning Day 2, feeling a whole lot better, though a slight headache from dehydrationn and altitude (3,700 metres, 12,000 feet). I am in this really nice Tibetan Guesthouse in the Barkhor area, the old Tibetan part of the City that surrounds the Jokhang, the main Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Lhasa, and therefore the most important temple in Tibetan Buddhism. My room is very Tibetan (in decor, not hygeine, fortunately) though has no heating, so is a bit cold. It is (manageably) cold here, but also clear sunny skies for almost the first time in China, as all the Westerners were exclaiming with amazement when we got off the plane yesterday.

There is a maze of streets in the Barkhor area, and I got quite lost trying to find the Jokhang, but had a great time as a result ending up in lots of little, extremely crowded temples. There were hundreds if not thousands of Tibetan pilgrims, many of whom looked fabulous, like they had just left Genghis Khan's camp to come to town, Geronimo meets Braveheart. Many of them also smelt very bad (mostly of rancid yak butter), particularly when I was crushed in the middle of hundreds of them. It seemed that some had decided not to wash as a protest since the Chinese invasion 50 years ago. There were also huge furnaces around the place burning offerings of juniper (lots of it). Dense clouds of juniper smoke and rancid Tibetans are not helping my lungs adjust to the thinner air.

Many had their own prayer wheels, some really big ones,with special holsters. All the prayer wheels had whirly bits flying around them that had to be watched to avoid harm in a crowd. The pilgrims were also even worse than the Chinese for shoving, etc, and appeared to be in a great hurry to work their way round the admittedly long route. But it was all incredibly atmospheric, making me wish I was a better photographer and didn't think it was rude to take pictures of people just because they look amazing, which some of them really do.

Most interesting are the pilgrims who prostate themselves along the ground. They do this along pilgrimage routes,and there were about a hundred outside the Jokhang doing it, though they at least had little mats to lie on. It was quite a human affair though, with breaks for food, mobile conversations, and even for the younger ones to flirt with each other. They have these sort of gloves to protect their hands as they slide them along the ground, and when I was on the roof of the Jokhang above them, all I could hear was the hiss of these hundreds of gloves rubbing along the ground.

I eventually found the entrance to the Jokhang. I couldn't get in the inner bit at all for the constant press of several hundred Tibetan pilgrims, despite being there for a couple of hours, but it was even more atmospheric than outside, and definitely showed me Tibetan culture and religion is far from dead, though admittedly you would think it was if you were in the 'new' Chinse part of the City. I spent most of the time on the roof instead, which had great views of the Potala Palce and the mountains surrounding Lhasa.

And in the afternoon I wondered around outside the Potala, following the pilgrim trail there. I was up for visiting the Palace, but it was shut anyway. There are a hell of a lot of Tibetan beggars here, including monks, but all seem happy with a one jiao note, colloquially known as a 'Mao' (except the monks, who seem to expect more - that's what an education does for you). One Mao is worth about half an English penny, maybe that is why they are called Maos, as they are not worth much. Similar amounts are put on the various shrines, etc in the temples. There are even people around the pilgrimage routes and temples just to change bigger money into fistfuls of Maos.

Day 3: Discovered last night they have this thing round here called Bobis, which are essentially tortillas as we know and love them, though without the guacomole. Also, reading my guides, I realised I have mild altitude sickness - which at least explains the constant headache and cough, though at least the headache wore off for most of this morning, which I was glad of as I toiled up the hill to the Potala.

The Potala has always been a lifetime dream, but as I had come to realise that it was a secular palace and seat of government, albeit a religious one, and because I thought it might be heaving with tour groups, I wasn't expecting too much. But I have to say, it is one of the best places I have ever been.

In common with a lot of Himalayan places and temples, it is half-dark - mostly lit by butter-lamps, which immeasurably adds to the atmosphere, and it is hugely atmospheric. It is a warren of dark pokey rooms absolutely packed with statues, hangings, gold, jewels, gems, colours, offerings, stupas, scriptures, demons, lamas, etc - extremely colourful. It reminded me of the Vatican in terms of the sheer wealth of treasure and religious stuff, but unlike the Vatican, it felt spiritually very much alive and kicking and full of atmosphere. It was not touched during the Cultural Revoltion, in contrast to almost all of the other temples in Tibet, which were destroyed. Even the tour groups didn't seem to distract from the atmosphere, which to me at least was powerfully spiritual, quite overwhelmingly so.

Adding to the atmosphere (and to the yak butter smell), were hordes of Tibetan pilgrims, working their way round against the flow of paying visitors. There was one amazing scene that blew me away a lot, where there were thousands of little brass oil candles burning and about fifty monks and nuns all sat chanting and pretty much blocking the way, it was downright magical. And just more of the same kind of thing, for hours. People are not allowed to take photos inside (and for once people respected this), though I think it would have been very hard to capture the atmosphere. Great views from the roof, where I wrote some postcards, though irritatingly my texts were blocked again.

On a different note, the toilets were really terrible, and I did wonder what visiting heads of state used to do when they came to see the Dalai Lama. He had a new Summer Palace built with sanitation (as opposed to a very smelly hole with a very big drop like in the Potala) so maybe he used to meet them there.

And undeniably a lot of a poor country's wealth had gone into the place, four tons of gold and 15,000 gems on one stupa alone. However, I don't think it needed the Chinese or their heavy-handed approach to balance things out.

And I need to start planning how I am to get to Nepal. There are essentially two choices. The more expensive - at least a hundred pounds each- is to get together a group to hire a 4WD - the cheaper and more adventurous/risky is to use public transport (very infrequent in some areas) and hitch. There is something quite appealing about the idea of hitching to Everest, but I think I am going to try the softy way first.

Having already done about half the job application, I had a realisation in the Potala, that though I wanted the job very much, I did not want a job that far away, and that I should and could have faith that I would get something OK closer to home, though maybe not as well paid! See, hang around these kinds of places long enough, and you turn into a hippy.

This afternoon I went back to the Jokhang to see if I could get to see the Inner bit. I am reliably informed that even to see the Jokhang earns good karma, so as I made it inside, and even had the place pretty much to myself - except for a couple of nuns and a Hamelin's worth of rats - I must be just full of good karma by now. I look forward to it.

It was less frenetic, though the beggars (mothers with babies) more insistent. The main door was shut, and large numbers of disappointed pilgrims were going past, but I just waited for someone to come out and then went in. It was the usual dark and atmospheric thing, with rows of monks' cloaks waiting on benches for something to happen. It didn't feel as atmospheric as the Potala, perhaps because I couldn't fully relax, as it was absolutely crawling with rats, all fat off the huge troughs of yak butter that fuel the lights. (I wondered why there were so many cats wandering around the Potala). The rats were quite disconcerting, as they were all over the floor, above my head on various shelves and statues, etc, and I nearly squealed like a Westerner when I was looking closely through some chain grill and a rat climbed down it on the other side.

After a while I seemed to have the place to myself, which was both remarkable and enjoyable. Then I found out this was because everyone else had gone except for some nuns cleaning the lamps. When I got them to let me out the locked door, there were a about 200 Tibetan pilgrims pressing to get in, who got short shrift off the nuns. I felt embarassed as I pushed through them that I had been in and they weren't allowed to (I don't know why, I think it was just because it was closing time). And then just wandering around the pilgrim circuit and Barkhor Square, shopping and absorbing the atmosphere. A hippie's wet dream in shopping terms. I still haven't managed though to get any pictures of the really wild-looking Tibetans though, and some of them do look really wild, I can assure you.



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