Anthony's Interesting Times 2004 travel blog

Potala again!

Palace in the Norbulingka

Mani stones

Juniper and murals, Nechung Monastery, Tibet

Fairly typical Tibetan murals (except more clear than normal), I think the...

View from roof of Drepung Monastery, Tibet

Tibetans in Drepung Monastery

Golok Woman, Drepung Monastery

Averagely wild looking Tibetan

Drepung Monastery

Lukhang, behind the Potala

My breakfast Potala view

Jokhang again

Jokhang detail


A ferequent conversation here in Tibet is the extent to which the Chinese are the bad guys and the Tibetans the good guys. Not surprisingly, most people here agree it is clearly more complex than that, even now. Undoubtably the Chinese were unnecessarily brutal in their attempts to undermine Tibetan religious culture. On the other hand Tibet was a backward, almost medieval sociery where most of the wealth and energy was being diverted into the Monasteries and temples. A lot of the Chinese sincerely believe they rescued Tibet from a downwardly spiralling time warp, and have given roads, sanitation, healthcare, technology, etc. The real issue is that this could all have been done without all the aggravation and destruction, though it is worth remembering that this wasn't just confined to Tibet, but throughout China also.

I've been on Western-type food for the last couple of days to try and settle my guts, but last night's yak burger and chips didn't seem to help, nice though it was, in some Nepalese place.

So this morning I finally got round to beginning to plan the next stage, bit slow, but there you go, I'm enjoying myself. So first off to the Nepalese consulate for my 60 day visa. Feeling quite fit, so I walked, and it is so great to be able to walk past the Potala Palace. Unfortunately though, I can't get my visa back till Monday a.m. so I'm not going anywhere this month. The doing it myself option looks more and more attractive, though my concerns are around the Everest end, where there is no public transport, and I don't want to overnight at 5,000 metres. Still, always a last resort.

Near the Nepalese consulate is the Norbulingka, a park where the Dalai Lamas traditionally had their summer residences. His current Holiness had the sense to have a new place built as soon as he was Lama'd, and a nice place it is too. It was actually from there that he fled to India, undoubtably the right thing under the circumstances.

The Summer Palace has a great view of what basically is a nice forest park, and is a strange mix of posh villa and Tibetan Temple. But note that it has a Western style toilet, not a Chinese squatty one, nor a Tibetan evil hole in the ground. It also has the kind of 50's furniture that even squatters leave outside people's houses. One of the best bits though was nearby, where mixed sex work gangs were stamping down temple roofs to song...great.

And then I went to just outside Lhasa to visit a couple of very nice Monasteries. Nechung was the smaller, and Drepung claims to have been the biggest monastery in the World before its 7,000 monks were culled by the Red Guard (there is about 700 now). Both were wonderfully atmospheric though; incense, darkness, chanting, butter lamps, no rats I could see, and small numbers of wild rural Tibetans. I even managed to get some pics this time, though as yet none of the really dangerous looking high-mountain types, mainly as I'm scared they will knife me if I even suggest it.

Nechung had even more than the usual share of gore, demons, pictures of hell and skulls. It also used to be the home of the State Oracle, before he was also inspired to leave Tibet. No important decisions were made without consulting him, and there is now a new one in exile with the DL.

And now I'm going to have to spend some time seriously trying to organise my Everest trip.

Saturday: The Western food idea seems to be working, and it was a nice place to eat, though I had one of the occasional blue periods that go with solo travel, and in my case are usually triggered by too much exposure to happy travelling couples.

On the plus side, I heard about some people wanting to go to Nepal via Everest Base Camp (or EBC as us 'Lhassies' call it), leaving Tuesday, taking seven days. Perfect for me, so I left a note for them, fingers crossed (no joy, as it happens). There is even someone trying to get a group together to go to Camp 3 on Everest, mad if you ask me, but amazing how things progress, when you think it was only 50 years ago you might as well have wanted to go to the moon as somewhere like Everest.

A note on Tibetan prayer, etc: A key element appears to be one of sheer quantity. I am certain there are more prayers said in Tibet than the whole of the rest of the world put together. Indeed, I know there are some of the hippy persuasion who believe that it is only thanks to this fact that the few of us left are not living on a nuclear cinder running away from giant cockroaches.

Prayer wheels are cylinders with prayers inside, or emobossed on the cylinder, and a revolution of the cylinder 'says' the prayers. There are smaller ones for personal use, like all the Pilgrims here have, which they constantly revolve. And there are larger stationary ones, some over 10 feet high. These can be in rows on pilgrimage circuits or outside temples, etc, as in my Jokhang pictures.

Prayer flags are prayers printed on flags, the idea generally being that the wind blowing through them says them, so a lot of prayers being said there as well, it being so windy in the Mountains. There are lines of these on rooftops, and between high points in the countryside, etc, as well as just wrapped round things.

Mani stones are stones with prayers (usually 'om mani padme hum') or buddhas, etc carved onto them. These are left outside, often whole walls of them, usually near sacred places. Prayer beads - common in most religions - are strings of beads that the person moves along while saying a prayer as they pass each one through their fingers. If they haven't got prayer wheels, Tibetans often have prayer beads. And last but not least, a phenomenal quantity of statues and pictures of lamas, demons, buddhas, gods., goddesses, etc, usually all piled in front of each other in the semi-darkness, togethr with whole libraries of scripture in every temple room. You can see why this feels like such a spritually powerful place.

Lesson over: This morning I visted two temples near my place: Ramoche and Tsepak Lakhang. As atmospheric as ever, not even the charging pilgrims and having to lift aside cold yak-butter-greasy hangings to get into some of the chapels could distract from the magick. I just wish I could capture the atmosphere in a picture so you could see! And then to a little park behind the Potala with a nice little temple called Lukhang on an island. And then on to more Everest planning.

But unfortunately a very stressed afternoon - I'm not used to stress lately! The root of it is my son Shea, who is meant to be opening my mail at home, one reason being so that I can keep track of my money. Well, he just hasn't done this, and won't seem to either, so after weeks of arguing with my bank by e-mail, I was left with no alternative but to ring them. Several pounds later they refused to tell me anything because I didn't know what my overdraft limit was, and refused to ask me any other more difficult questions that I actually knew the answer to, like what all my standing orders are, for example. Bastards, I was livid. And I still don't know whether I am wildly overdrawn, or whether I can afford to fund more time away.

Before all that stress though, I realised there was a monastery right opposite my place. It was downright medieval, and seemed to be full of families living there for some reason, but had a really nice small atmospheric temple, with some monk making a spooky racket banging drums and cymbals and chanting.

Sunday: I always have breakfast in this really nice Nepalese place (the Third Eye Restaurant), about a mile along the main road from the Potala Palace, and just opposite my hostel. And every morning I come out from there on to a quite empty street (Tibet wakes much later than China), with a view of the Potala Palace backed by mountains filling the street, and it gives me a thrill every time. Such a nice start to the day.

I was very sorry to hear of the death of John Peel, not only a key source of musical education in my youth, but a very human being too, as far as I could tell.

Still no joy on the travel partners, so much for all the good karma I should be generating. I was talking to these two Russians today (whose proposed trip was too rushed for me) who said in Nepal there is a central database, which I wish there was here, as it is so much work. It goes like this. There are about three main places foreigners stay, and another four they sometimes stay. And about four relevant travel agencies, all attached to one of said places. Every one of these places has an individual noticeboard that people advertise on. So mine and many others' days involve at least some trawling around all the noticeboards, e-mailing relevant people, or visiting their hotels to leave notes (hotels I may have just been to!). And everyone is doing this at once, and you never know when people are no longer looking either. Not as boring as it sounds, as everywhere is in the same small Tibetan area about the size of St. Pauls, and these are such great strets to wander, but I can think of other things I would rather do, like loiter around temples.

I wanted to change hotels today but couldn't, as the Nepalese Embassy still has my pasport, and you can't register in a hotel here without one. Good job I realised that before I packed up and checked out. And then I realised what I most wanted to do was go to the Potala again, even though it costs about seven quid, like a night in a mid-range hotel round here, or a nice meal for four. But it is such a fab place, and I may never have the chance again, so I did.

It was even better than before, as there were much less Tibetan pilgrims. I ended up going round with this nice English woman, which we both valued as we were having English withdrawal. And then I booked myself into a new guesthouse for tomorrow - http://www.pentoc.com/photos.html - cheaper and even more central and a bit more social life than my current place. And while I was looking at one of the noticeboards I got talking to this European couple who want to do about 7 days to the border, leaving on the 3rd, my best offer yet. One or two more people and we are laughing. Then another wander round the roof of the Jokhang Temple. And while I type this there is a monk in full red robes doing his e-mails on the next PC, that's Lhasa for you.

And lastly, just as I was finished for the evening, I now have two definite offers for groups to the border, so Wednesday I am off to Everest!



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