AC/DC Was Right. It’s Long Way to the Top!

Lhasa, Tibet

So day 2 in Lhasa was going to be spent at the Summer Palace of the Dalai Llamas and then the original home (and subsequent winter home of the Dalai Llamas) Potala Palace.  If you have ever seen any pictures of Tibet, you have probably seen the picture of the Potala Palace sitting high above Lhasa.  It is iconic.  It is beautiful.  And it is bloody high.  I was dreading the climb in the thin air, but I had not come all this way to simply admire the building from the ground.

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Potala Palace – I’m climbing to the top

So after breakfast, I left the lovely Tashitakge Hotel (a small, original Tibetan home that was locally owned and operated by a lovely Tibetan family – highly recommended) and met my new guide “Hank” (his Tibetan name is too long so he goes by Hank).  Hank had been my original designated guide, but he had been at Everest and did not arrive back until late last night so in the interim, I had an “interim” guide.

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Tashitakge Hotel lobby

Anyway, Hank showed up a little late, but no matter, we were off and running by 9:45 a.m. with my original driver, Samteng.  We took a short drive to the Summer Palace in the cool morning air.

Now a little about the weather in Lhasa.  When you wake up in the morning there is a lot of cloud cover and it is rather cool.  The first day I was in Lhasa, I was convinced it was going to rain (in fact the weather forecast said rain) so I wore a sweater over by t-shirt and brought along a rain coat.  However, by mid-morning a minor miracle occurs as the clouds burn off and it becomes incredibly hot and continues to be hot throughout the day.  This morning was no exception so rather than overdress, I simply wore a light coverup over a t-shirt and brought along my sunglasses.  By the time we reached the Summer Palace, the sun was shining and the clouds were virtually gone.  Very weird weather.

As we approached the Summer Palace, my guide began to tell the story of the construction of the palace by the 7th Dalai Lama. Unforutnately, every time he said the words Dalai Lama, all I could think of was Carl Spackler and Caddyshack….. “Big hitter, the Lama- long, into a ten-thousand foot crevice, right at the base of this glacier. And do you know what the Lama says? “Gunga galunga…gunga- gunga lagunga.” So we finish the eighteenth… and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know… for the effort, you know?” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice…. I related this to my guide, all the while laughing. Unfortunately, my guide has not seen Caddyshack so he didn’t get it when I told him the story, and did not seem amused. My bad.

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Bamboo walkway at Summer Palace

Anyway, when we arrived, we made our way through the ever present Chinese security and down a walkway covered in bamboo, which can best be described as bamboo tunnel. The surroundings were made up of a number of beautiful parks that many of the locals use for picnics when the weather is good and to celebrate Tibetan holidays.  The gardens were actually very beautiful.

Now one of the benefits of the early start (at least early by Chinese standards who comprise the bulk of tour groups in Tibet) was that we beat the crowds and had the sight virtually to ourselves.  There was but a handful of people in the gardens as we walked towards the main buildings.

Now a little bit about the Summer Palace.  The first Palace was built in 1755 by the seventh Dalai Lama in the Norbulingka (which means ‘jewel park’).  Every summer he would move his entire entourage to the Summer Palace and administer the country from this base rather that stay year round at Potella Palace as had been the custom of prior Lamas.  The practice of moving the government to the Summer Palace during the summer months was continued by each of the succeeding Dalai Lama, who Each also built their own palace at Norbulingka.  So as a result, the “Summer Palace” actually consists of a series of palaces.  Perhaps the most significant historical fact is that the Summer Palace was from where the present Dalai Lama made his escape from the Chinese in 1959 dressed as a Tibetan soldier.  Unfortunately, no pictures allowed inside the Palace.

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The “new” Summer Palace

Anyway, first up was the “new” Summer Palace, aka Takten Migyü Podrang in the centre of the park, which was built by the present Dalai Lama between 1954 and 1956 and contained a myriad of interesting rooms, including an audience chamber, which contained beautiful wall murals that told the mythical story of the origins of Tibet (from the union of a bodhisattva – a spiritual being of enlightenment and a monkey in the Sheldrak Cave – HUH?)

After the interesting origins story, we moved on to the Dalai Lama’s private quarters, which consist of a meditation chamber and a bedroom as well as a myriad of gifts from around the world, including old radios from Britain and the Soviet Union and a really cute cat picture from Britain.  The rooms are maintained almost exactly as the Dalai Lama left them.

Next we visited one of the original portion of the Summer Palace known as Kelsang Podrang, which was build by the 8th Dalai Lama.  Unfortunately, the only area open to the public was main audience hall in the Summer Palace (no pictures allowed).  We did a brief walk thru and saw a myriad of candles burning, lots of buddah statutes, some amazing old painted wood (with Buddah scenes) and lots of pillows for monks to sit on during the ritualistic meditation and chanting.

After the visit to the Summer Palace, we went for a cup of tea while we waited for someone from the fabulous Tibet Highland Tours (my guiding company) to bring us my pass to obtain a ticket for the Potala Palace.  The place where we waited and had tea was pretty funky: a central courtyard off the street shared by a number of families and businesses, including the restaurant from which we were served tea.  While we waited, I watched the two women proprietors wash vegetables using a hand pump in the courtyard, begin to cook noodles and generally prepare the restaurant for the day.  It was rather fascinating.

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Elderly pilgrim I saw going to my hotel

Just as I was finishing my tea, my guide received a message that my timed entry to the Potala Palace had changed from noon to 2:00 p.m.  Since I had to be at the entrance 1/2 hour before my timed entry, it meant I had a an hour and a half to kill.  My guide suggested I go for a walk int the area, but since I had already done that, I opted to meander back to my hotel and use the bathroom (public bathrooms in this part of the world can be a little iffy if you know what I mean, but in no way close to those train conditions).

Anyway, I wandered through Barkhor Square and back to my hotel in the hot sun.  Fortunately for me, there was a pop up fruit stand near my hotel so I stopped and bought two delicious looking bananas.  I figured I was going to need some strength to climb this “mountains”,, but did not want to be weighed down by a heavy (i.e. momos lunch) so thought some bananas would tie me over.

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Ready for the hike up

After taking a quick nap, I met my guide at the Tibet Highland Tours office, walked a coupled blocks to meet our driver and then it was off to meet our goliath.  Unfortunately, the closer we got to the Potala Palace, the more daunting the challenge looked.  Now I was not particularly concerned about the approximately 1/2 hour hike.  What concerned me was my ability to breath in this thin mountain air.  This sea level gal is not used to climbing at 11,000 plus feet and I was more than a little concerned.

However, I was not going to back out so once we arrived, we showed the Chinese guards my pass and passport and headed inside to obtain my ticket.  The site is limited to 2800 visitors per day and upon entry you have a strict one hour time limit to get in and get out.  Fortunately, the timing did not begin with the hike up.

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Part way through the climb

Anyway, following the myriad of formalities, I finally had the ticket in hand and the climb began.  We were not more than the equivalent of three staircases up and I was already winded.  I looked up at the task in front of me and actually wondered if I could do it.  However, never one to quit, I continued upwards, huffing puffing, sweating and feeling like I just wanted it to end.  About a quarter of the way up, we stopped to rest with a myriad of other people.  I was glad to see I wasn’t the only one struggling.

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The view part way up

After a quick rest, we pressed on and stopped only one more time before we made it into the “White Palace” courtyard.  YAY! YAY! YAY!.  The White Palace Courtyard is the newer part of the Palce built within the last 400 years.   (Yea I said “newer”.)  Now unbenknowst to me, the climb had not ended.  So while I was busy celebrating, Hank was walking towards a staircase that led to the central Red Palace (where the original building was constructed in the mid 7th century, although the majority of this has been rebuilt).

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False victory

I followed Hank up the stairs and it was only then that I realized my climb was not finished.  By the time we reached the top of the Red Palace about 5 minutes later it was all I could do to stand up straight. I told Hank I didn’t care if I was being timed, I HAD to sit down for a bit and finish my water.  130 meters (427 feet for you Americans) straight up in the thin air was B.R.U.T.A.L.

So once I got my wind back, we proceeded to tour the 29 out of 999 rooms that were open to the public.  Now the upside of going to the Potala Palace so late in the day, the majority of tour groups have already come and gone.  I had been expecting long lines and a shuffle through the Palace, but there was hardly anyone around so it turned into a very enjoyable tour.

Anyway, inside the White side of the Palace, we visited throne rooms where the Dalai Lamas would receive official guests, meditation rooms and sleeping quarters.  However, the far more interesting rooms were in the Red side of the Palace.  Here, there were chapels, jewel encrusted thrones with massive – like the size of my fist massive- coral, agates and tourquoise – all considered more precious than diamonds in Tibet as well as other semi-precious stones and pearls, ancient Buddhist transcripts, gold encrusted statutes, tombs of long past Dalai Lamas each more elaborate than the next as well as a huge mediation hall.

However, perhaps my favourite room in entire Palace was King Songtsen Gampo’s Meditation Chamber (Chogyal Drupuk), which was apparently one of the oldest rooms in Potala Palace.  And believe me it looked old.  The walls were constructed entirely of mud and stained from centuries of candle burning (or make that yak butter burning).  The room contained a statute of the King, his two wives, his son, a few trusted advisors and a myriad of gold encrusted statutes and was incredibly tiny.  Normally there are huge lines to see the tiny little room, but there was no one but us, which made it all the more enjoyable.

The other room that was particularly impressive was the Chapel of the Dalai Lamas’ Tombs (Serdung Zamling Gyenjikhang).  The first thing you noticed upon entering the rooms was a ginormous 12.6m-high statute of the fifth Dalai Lama covered in almost 4 kg of gold.  On either side of the big Lama was two smaller statutes of the 10th and 12th Dalai Lamas, who both died as children.  These statutes were inflated with huge coral, tourquoise and agate stones and well as pearls.  I cannot do the room justice.  Unfortunately, like the other sites, no photos were allowed, and this was a real shame, because Potala Palace was a really incredible sight to see.

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A view to Lhasa from the top of Potala Palace

So with the Potala Palace behind me, we started the decent down the hill and who should we pass, but an elderly woman who had to be in her 80s.  I have no idea how she managed to make it up the hill, but I was incredibly impressed.

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Elderly woman leaving Potala Palace

Once back in the van, the drive dropped us off near the office and immediately made a beeline for Tibetan Family Restaurant for those fabulous momos.  My guide meanwhile was going to take my passport and head over to the ministry to obtain my “visa” for the remainder of the trip.  He figured to be back by 5.  (Tibet has “no go” zones for tourists unless you receive permission from the Chinese government to visit these areas and the visa can only be done shortly before departure with the presentation of the original passport.)

So I went to my favorite little restaurant next door to my tour guide office and ordered some spicey green beans and yak momos along with some ginger honey tea and waited for the return of my passport.  In the meantime, I was joined at the communal table by a very nice Italian fellow named Enrico who turned out to be an emergency room physician.  Enrico and I ended up spending about an hour and half chatting, eating the best momos and generally trying to wolf the world’s problems.  Entirely cool, funny guy!

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Enrico the Italian doc

By 5, Hank has still not returned with my passport so I paid my bill, said goodby to Encrico and went and sat int he Tibet Highland Tours office and had a lovely chat Dechen (her Tibetan name) about Tibet travel, Buddhism, and China.  While I sat there, they kept filing my cup with lemon tea.  Then the next thing I knew, I was being fed cookies and they little barley twists covered in powdered sugar (it may sound weird, but take it from a sweet tooth – incredibly tasty).  Almost an hour passed before the visa was delievered and my passport returned.  However, it was an incredibly enjoyable hour.  And before I left, Dechen insisted on giving me a gift: a handmade wall hanging depicting one of the masks used in a famous Tibetan opera.  The wall handing had apparently been made a one of the local orphanages.  It was an incredibly touching gift.

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My gift

So with my precious gift, passport, and visa in hand, it was time to call it a day.  I was absolutely exhausted.  Tomorrow I would leave Lhasa and head to Samye Monestary for an overnight stay, which is the beginning of my trip to Everest Base Camp.  I have no idea if I will have wifi along with way, so it may be a few days before you hear from me again.  Until then … over and out!

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Goodnight from Potala Palace.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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