Heaving Breathing in Lhasa

Lhasa, Tibet

I managed to get about 8 hours of sleep, but it came in fits and starts.  I’d sleep for a couple hours, wake up, down more water, go back to sleep, wake up to use the bathroom and repeat.  Fortunately,  I was not feeling ill from the altitude, but I definitely felt the altitude when I had to climb two flights of stairs to my room.  That’s what 11,450 feet will do to you.

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Barkhor Circuit

I woke around 7:00 a.m. and got ready for the day with some eggs, toast and grapes.  My guide  was at my hotel promptly at 9:30 where we proceeded to walk down the narrow alley outside my hotel, took a quick right down yet another narrow alley and proceeded a few short blocks to the “Barkhor Circuit” surrounding the Johkang Temple.  The “circuit” is a route traveled clockwise by pilgrims three times – honoring the three jewels of Buddhism:  (1) the Buddha; (2)  the Dharma or the teachings expounded by the Buddha; and (3) the Sangha, the monastic order of Buddhism that practise the Dharma.

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Barkhor Square

Part of the Barkhor Circuit includes Barkhor Square right in front of the Jokhang Temple.  Barkhor Square has been the scene of innumerable Tibetan protests, self-immolation by monks and violence (including a shooting of a tourist) all in an effort to win Tibet its independence from China (never gonna happen).  As a result of these uprisings, the Chinese have cracked down and the square is like an armed camp with metal detectors, snipers on the tops of buildings and police everywhere.  In the midst of all this, the faithful continue to walk the circuit and to prostrate themselves in front of the Jokang Temple (consisting of folding one’s hands, bending forward, placing your hands on the ground and sliding forward into a prone position before pushing yourself back up to standing.  It is an impressive exercise and performed by young and old.

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Barkhor Square faithful prostrating

One we took in Barkhor Square, we lined up to enter the Jokhang Temple.  The temple is apparently the most revered in Tibet and the pilgrims were literally shoving past me and my guide to get in.  Rather than piss me off, this greatly amused me, especially when I saw that they did not get more than two people ahead of me.  It was as if they thought the place was about to disappear.  The noise was incredible with everyone chanting and speaking all at once.  And oh yea, every now and then someone would sound a drum or a gong.

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Inside Jokhang Temple

Anyway, once inside I learned that the oldest part of the temple was build in AD 652 to honor the two brides of King Songsten Gampo.  One bride came from China and the other came from Nepal.  The temple was expanded over the next 900 years and contains original paintings and carvings (which were quite frankly my favourite part of the place, but sadly no pictures).  The down side I was told is that many of the original contents of the temple such a statutes have been lost or “removed” during the Chinese revolution.

Nevertheless, the temple was an impressive three story building filled with tiny chapels, prayer rooms, and courtyards.  The smell of incense and yak butter permeated everything (yes you read that right … yak butter – it is apparently offered by the pilgrims and burned like candles.  It is an impossible odor to describe, but I will not be sad if I never smell it again once I leave Tibet.)

The number of pilgrims in the temple was astonishing, but for me, I did not feel the need to do any bowing or offering anything so I was able to move past the crowds once I got a look see into each room.

The unfortunate part for me is that to see each room required some climbing and this is where it got tough.  I climbed one flight of stairs and was absolutely winded.  Literally huffing and puffing.  The thin air does a huge number on you.

The other problem is how dry the air is.  I was constantly guzzling water to stay hydrated.   A surprising twist was how warm it was.  In fact, it was downright hot.  I had checked the forecast for the day, and it called for a 70% chance of showers and low 70s.  I wore a long sleeve sweater over a t-shirt and brought along a rain jacket, but by mid morning it was bright, sunny and HOT.

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The faithful on the Barkhor Circuit

After the temple, I asked my guide if we could walk back to my hotel so we could dump the excess clothing and grab my sunglasses.  We ended up doing one lap of the Barkhor circuit to get back to my hotel and the walk was absolutely fascintating.  We wound down narrow alley where vendors were selling prayer wheels, rugs, knee pads, fruit, cows heads, bread, incense, knick knacks and on and on.  In the midst of the selling, the pilgrims continued to walk, some prostrating themselves, others taking a break on benches and still others turning to stare at me.  It was interesting to say the least.

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The tea lady

Once the changeout occurred at my hotel, we wandered back through Barkhor Square and stopped at a tea house for tea.  It was a rather intersting place (I was the only Anglo in the joint).  We sat down at a community table, put a few RMB (Chinese dollars with an exchange of approximately  6.57 RMB to 1 USD) on the table and a woman came around with a tea kettle and filled your glass with a sugary, milky tea.  I am not a sugar in my tea fan, but it was surprisingly good.  The place was loud, a tad smokey (YUCK) and doing a hopping business.  It was definitely off the beaten path.

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Lunch of momos and chili potatoes

By now I was a bit hungry so my guide took me to the Tibetan Family Kitchen for lunch and let me just say this …. OH. MY. GOD.  I had Yak Momos (a little dumpling with yak meat) and chili potatoes (kind of like french fries only super spicey).  It was simply wonderful.  The woman who runs the kitchen made the momos by hand and they were these little pillowy bronzed morsels of goodness,

While I sat there and waited for my meal, the proprietors little daughter sat beside me (no idea why) and insisted on showing me her iPad where she stared mesmerized at the screen showing the latest kids video in Chinese and English.  While she stared at the screen she munched on dried apricots and would hand me the pit every time she finished one.  I finally got her trained to put the pit on the napkin, but the little one amused me for more than a half hour.

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The Tibetan iPad kid

The other classic part of the restaurant was that they encourage the tourists to write on the walls.  Two standouts for me:

  1.  It was the best, the greatest! Bigly delicious!  So tasty! It was really great!  D. Trump (USA)
  2. Go SeaHawks 8/23/2018 (don’t ask).

I sat and laughed at both throughout lunch.  I loved the sense of humour of the first one and the second one had to be a drunk Seattle fan (which is not bad either!)

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Someone with a sense of humour

Anyway, once I was finished lunch, I wandered around the shops for about an hour before I had to meet my guide.  I found a tiny prayer wheel on a spindle, which makes the perfect Christmas ornament.  Score.  But then I found a series of prayer wheels on a fixed wooden base, much like you see in the temples, only on a far smaller scale.  It was super cool and after some negotiations, I made the purchase.  I was thrilled with my find and decided that would be all I would buy in Tibet.  (I have a pretty neat collection of statutes etc. from each country I visit and the prayer wheel will be my find for Tibet.)

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Sera Monestary

Anyway, after the shopping trip I met my guide for a trip to Sera Monastery where we would watch young monks debate.  Now, I wasn’t sure what to expect since I don’t speak Chinese, but the trip turned out to be the highlight of the day for me.

The monastery is 5 km north of Lhasa driving towards the mountains and was founded in 1419.   The monastery is a shadow of its former self with only one college remaining and a lot of run down looking buildings.  However, the views around the monestary were spectacular with huge desert mountains surrounding the campus.

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View from Sera Monestary

Once we walked uphill (of course) to the various temples, we finally made it to the main attraction: the debating courtyard where the young monks test their wits against older monks.  The debates are held every weekday from 3-5 and by the time the debates were coming to an end, I was left wanting more.  I could have sat there for hours simply watching the spectacle.

So the setup.  The courtyard was filled with red clad robed young monks while two senior monks sat cross legged on chairs wearing yellow plummed hats.  There were large trees all around so a really pretty setting.

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The Debate Courtyard

Anyway, one by one, the young monks would get up, secure their robes and then proceed to argue their case on the topic they are given.  Whenever the young monk wanted to make a particular point, he would take a huge step towards the senior monks and slap his hands together.  There was a lot of hooting and hollaring from the peanut gallery, but whenever the young monk who was arguing made a particularly strong point, the senior monks would take off their yellow plummed hats.

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A young monk making his point

Now while I could not understand a single word that was being said, it was highly entertaining.  And despite the language barrier, I kind of got the gist of the points being made simply by the reacation of the other monks.  When a fellow was going down in flames he was shown the door very quickly.  While the more skilled and more entertaining monks would argue their point for almost ten minutes to the delight, laughter and choruses from the gallery.

I have seen a lot of things around the world, but I have to say that I found the time spent at the debates among the most entertaining and interesting activities ever.  The theatrics I witnessed had been going on for centuries and was considered a method for sharpening the intellect and logic skills of young monks.  It was without a doubt an afternoon well spent.

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A young monk making his point emphatically

So with the debates ending, I reluctantly headed back to the car where my driver and guide dropped me off at my hotel.  I got cleaned up, grabbed some dinner (which was not nearly as good as lunch so my bad for not going back to the Tibetan Family Restaurant) and called it a day.

Oh and one more thing.  If you have followed my blogs over the years, you may have seen me carrying a black bag over my shoulder.  This trusty Pacsafe bag has been to 25 countries with me and has been the perfect travel accessory allowing me to carry my camera, phone, passport, wallet, backup batteries and pen and notepad in one little carryall.  (You may remember this is the same bag that some guy in the Aswan bazaar tried to stick his hand in to grab my wallet.). The bag has double steel locks (and if I had been using them in Egypt the guy wouldn’t have had a chance) and is covered in mesh steel beneath the canvas.  It is the best.  Well today, my little security blanket gave me advance notice that it is time to find a replacement.  I put the bag over my should like I normally do and the loop over which I hook the shoulder bag broke.  I picked up the piece and it was completely worn through.  Fortunately, I was able to use the backup loop, but on checking the other side of the bag, it too was close to being worn through.  I guess it tells you how much I have stuffed into the bag and used it over the years.  Clearly the best $50 ever.  Hopefully when I return home I can find a replacement.  I love you little bag!