The Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

The Potala Palace

The Potala Palace

The Potala Palace was the political center of  Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism since it was constructed under the direction of the 5th Dalai Lama in 1645. It is built on a hill, called “Red Hill” in the center of the Lhasa valley midway between the Sera and Drepung Monasteries, and near the old city and Jokhang Temple, the spiritual center of Lhasa.

View of Lhasa from the Potala Palace

View of Lhasa from the Potala Palace

Looking the other direction at Lhasa

Looking the other direction at Lhasa

It is an immense building with walls 5 meters thick at the base and 3 meters thick at the top. It is 16 stories high and has over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines, and about 200,000 statues. This was the home of the current Dalai Lama until he fled to India during an uprising in 1959. The palace is now a museum with only about 20 monks present to keep it up. In the past as many as 300-400 monks lived in the palace.

Potala Palace at dusk

Potala Palace at dusk

The Potala Palace at night

The Potala Palace at night

The palace is divided into two parts, the White Palace and the Red Palace. The White palace was devoted to secular things and was where the Dalai Lama had his quarters as well as offices, a seminary, and a printing house.

The White Palace

The White Palace

Courtyard in front of the White Palace

Courtyard in front of the White Palace

Side view of the palace

Side view of the palace

The white part of the palace

The white part of the palace

Potala Palace windows

Potala Palace windows

The Red Palace was devoted to all things spiritual and contains many different halls, chapels, libraries, and other places of worship. You can see the Red Palace in the center of the building above. I’m sure at one point in time the palace was on the outskirts of town, but now it sits right in the center of the city. There is a large boulevard that runs right in front of it and there is a large plaza-type park across the street. Most of the buildings all around in that area are Chinese and are not any different than any other Chinese city. Lhasa’s old town, the really interesting Tibetan part of the city, is about a 20-30 minute walk from the Potala Palace.

The street in front of the palace

The street in front of the palace

The number of visitors is restricted each day to prevent damage to the structure. I spent some time in Lhasa in May of 2012 and visited the Polala Palace. Visitors are only allowed in certain parts of the building. In fact, most of the halls are blocked to the public, including the former residence of the current Dalai Lama. The palace is a fascinating labyrinth of winding hallways, rooms, prayer halls, and so on. Tibetan pilgrims make up most of the visitors to the palace. They bring butter to add to the butter lamps as an offering; they also leave cash donations as well. Unfortunately, but understandably, photography was not allowed inside most areas of the palace. Of course, they wanted to sell you a very expensive book with photos of the interior.

Ladder in the Potala Palace

Ladder in the Potala Palace

Red door in the Potala Palace

Red door in the Potala Palace

Potala Palace frescoes

Potala Palace frescoes

Door handle

Door handle

Detail of another door handle

Detail of another door handle

One evening I strolled all the way around the hill where the palace stands. There are prayer wheels around most of the way and pilgrims regularly circumambulate the palace. At night the Palace is illuminated with bright lights. Behind the palace is a large park with a stage for performances. The evening I was there a Tibetan opera was being staged.

Prayer wheels around the Potala Palace

Prayer wheels around the Potala Palace

Looking up at the back of the Potala Palace at night

Looking up at the back of the Potala Palace at night

The back, side of the Potala Palace

The back, side of the Potala Palace

The whole time I was in the palace I had a strong desire to wander off and really explore the place. There were so many closed doors, blocked hallways, and entire buildings that we were not allowed to enter. I have read that it really is a spectacular building full of relics, art, scriptures, and so on. Who knows what mysteries lie behind those closed doors.

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The Debating Monks of Sera Monastery

Debating monks of Sera Monastery

Debating monks of Sera Monastery

The Sera Monastery is one of the three most important monasteries in Lhasa, the Holy City of Tibetan Buddhism. The others are the Drepung and Ganden Monasteries. They are dedicated to the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and are, or at least were, university monasteries. In earlier times life in Tibet revolved around the monastery. The monasteries played the role of religious center, education center with schools and universities, hospitals, marketplaces, and so on. Even now, much of a young person’s education can still be had at a monastery. The Sera Monastery was built in 1419 on a hillside in the north part of Lhasa.

One of the unique things about Sera is it’s long tradition of debating. As part of the their training, monks participate in a series of debates. These debates are held in a courtyard of crushed stone. Senior monks grill junior monks on various doctrine. The junior monks are seated, while the monks questioning their knowledge of Buddhist scripture fire questions at them, accompanied by dramatic hand slapping. The hand slapping is a signal for the seated monk to respond.

Debating monks

Debating monks

20120513-DSC_8690The debates are held each day. Though it seems pretty entertaining to the visitor, it is serious business and an important part of the training of these monks. Tibetan Buddhist monks are never without their prayer beads. In fact, most lay people in Tibet also carry prayer beads.

The debates last one to one and a half hours. It was noisy and the air was charged with energy.

Hand slapping is part of the ritual

Hand slapping is part of the ritual

Junior monk debating

Junior monk debating

The short video below best shows how these debates are conducted. I found this religious training fascinating. I have always loved Buddhist temples and monasteries for the peace and tranquility that I feel there. This was a little different because it was so noisy and lively.

The Pilgrims of Tibet

Typical pilgrims with prayer wheels

One of the striking things about Tibet is the religious devotion of many of the people. At every temple and monastery there are throngs of Tibetan pilgrims paying their respects, praying, prostrating, replenishing the butter lamps, and making cash donations. It seems that there are more women pilgrims than men, but you see all ages, but mostly adults.

This first series of photos were taken at the various Buddhist temples and monasteries in Lhasa, Gyantze, and Sakya. Most of the women in this part of Tibet wear a colorful apron. It is common practice for pilgrims to circumnavigate the temple complexes, spinning their prayer wheels, and spinning the many large prayer wheels that are placed around the perimeter of these complexes. Pilgrims often travel long distances to various monasteries to pay their respects and gain merit for their devotion. I saw many groups of pilgrims eating picnic lunches on the grounds of these monasteries.

This woman was actually begging outside the Sera Monastery in Lhasa

The Doors and Windows of Tibet’s Monasteries

When I was in Tibet in May, we visited quite a few Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. I am fascinated by doors, and to a lesser extent windows. I’m not sure what draws me to these colorful doors; it probably has something to do with what lies behind them. I found myself so many times wandering around a monastery and wondering what was behind some lonely door. I wished I could wander at will, especially at the magnificent Potala Palace in Lhasa. It is almost like a small city with countless halls and rooms. Of course, the tourists are only allowed to see a very small portion of them.

The doors and windows in this post are only a portion of what I shot. They are mostly brightly colored, though some of the out of the way doors look neglected, and used. They are in no particular order, and are from the following monasteries:

Lhasa:   Jokham Monastery, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, Potala Palace

Gyantze:   Pochu Monastery

Shigatze:   Tashi Lhunpo Monastery

Sakya:   Sakya Monastery

I thought about labeling where each photo was shot, but I decided it probably doesn’t matter. If you would really like to know where a door or window was shot, send me a message and I’l let you know.

Mt. Kailash Kora, Part 2

 

We woke up to a beautiful clear day. The day we arrived in Darchen it was snowing and the pass got a few centimeters. The forecast was calling for more snow, but we lucked out and had clear skies all three days of the kora.

We got an early start this morning. Our Tibetan guide, Tenzin, said it would take 3.5-4 hours to reach Drolma La Pass. From where we camped it was about 6.4 km and 762 m higher. That doesn’t seem like much of a climb, but when you are starting at 16,500′ and climbing to 18,550′ it is pretty significant. Stephen, Brad, and I left together. Bruce, Susan, and Tenzin followed behind. Susan was struggling a bit with the altitude. We felt pretty good as long as we didn’t try to go too fast.

We began to see more and more Tibetan pilgrims heading up. Many of them do the kora in one day, which brings more merit than in the traditional three days. Bu the ultimate is to do full prostrations all the way around. This usually takes 14-16 days, but can be done in as few as 8 days as our guide had done previously. Tenzin had also done it in a day. This time with us was his 68th kora. He did not think he would make it to 108 as his knee had been bothering him the last few times. Tenzin was a very devout Buddhist. He always had his prayer beads in his hand, always, in the car, at camp, hiking. He never left them and they were well worn.

Tenzin’s well-worn prayer beads

Pilgrims hiking up toward the pass

Right out of camp we climbed a long series of switchbacks. At the top of this section the trail flattened out a bit, then descended before it turned into snow as it headed up toward the pass.

Trail heading up to the pass

Heading up this snow slope, we had our last look at Kailash, then it was obscured by other mountains.

Last look at Kailash

We pass several pilgrims heading up to the pass. Some of them were doing prostrations. I was blown away by the devotion of these simple, sincere people.

Pilgrims heading toward the pass

Prostrators taking a break on the way to the pass.

I was particularly impressed with this girl. She looked to be about 13 or 14 years old and was cruising up through the snow doing full prostrations. You can see the marks in the snow from her hands. They will mark on the ground the extent of their reach, then stand up, walk to that point and prostrate again. I have a short video clip of her on my Flickr photostream.

Young girl doing prostrations

Stephen and I would take about 30 steps, then stop for a moment to catch our breath. As we got higher that became 20 steps, then rest, then 15 steps and rest. We were certainly feeling the altitude. The highest I had been before was a mixed ice and rock climbing ascent of Mt. Meeker in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. That peak is 13, 911′.

Stephen heading up toward the pass

We finally arrived at the pass covered with prayer flags and the traditional Tibetan white scarves. Brad had arrived a few minutes before us. There was one other Western guy there as well as a few Tibetan pilgrims. It took us 2.5 hours from our camp. We felt pretty good about that.

Matt on Drolma La Pass, 5723 m (Brad’s altimeter read 18,550′)

Prayer flags on Drolma La Pass

Looking back the way we had come

We had first seen this pilgrim at Drirupuk Monastery. He had a huge prayer wheel that he was constantly spinning. He looked to be in his 60’s but was probably younger than that as Tibetans typically look older than they really are.

Old pilgrim on Drolma La Pass

The views on the other side of the pass were spectacular. The mountains really were amazing. The photos do not do them justice.

Unnamed mountains on the other side of the pass

The trail heading down from the pass was steep and very icy. It was pretty treacherous in places. I love the downhills and like to hike fast, so I left Stephen and Brad and headed down.

Heading down the icy trail

Pretty soon we were out of the snow and on very steep rocky terrain descending into another valley heading south. Where the steep section met the valley floor I decided to stop and take a break and eat a snack.

One thing that I did not anticipate on this trip is that with high altitude comes less oxygen to your extremities. We spent about 7 nights about 15,000′ and I had cold feet every night. I even wrapped my feet in my puffy jacket inside my sleeping bad and I still had cold feet. This was really strange because I seldom have cold feet, even ice climbing and winter camping. My hands were fine except for the day we hiked over the pass. I was wearing a pair of midweight windstopper fleece gloves and my hands got very cold. It was quite windy up there which contributed to it. When I stopped to take a break, I was down out of the wind and it was much warmer. When I took off my gloves I was surprised to see that my pinky fingers were a bit purple and swollen. After about an hour they were fine again.

Cold hands

Stephen, Brad, and the rest of our group including our guide showed up shortly and we walked a short distance to a tent guest house. We decided to wait here for the Serpas and yaks. Tenzin wanted to make sure they knew where we would be camping. We relaxed inside for about an hour until they finally showed up. We then took off down the valley. We were under the impression that it would be a short distance to our destination, which was the monastery at Dzutrulpuk, the sight of Milarepa’s cave. Milarepa was an 11th century poet and  Buddhist yogi.

The trail followed a gentle valley along a peaceful river, grassy fields, and clear streams. Our short hiked turned into hours as we trudged down the valley.

We turned right and headed down this gentle valley

Tent teahouse along the kora route

Hiking down the valley

Mani stones

We continued to encounter pilgrims also hiking down this valley toward Darchen.

Typical dress of women in Western Tibet

Pilgrims hiking down the valley

Footprint of an early Buddhist saint

In the afternoon the winds picked up and soon they were roaring down the valley. We came to expect this. It seems that every afternoon the winds would pick up. We experienced this all over the Tibetan Plateau. With the wind it got pretty cold. We decided to wait for the yaks as we were not exactly sure where we would be camping for the night.

Bundled up against the wind and cold

As we sat waiting it got pretty cold. I put on all my warm weather clothing, which consisted of a long sleeved base layer, fleece hoodie, Patagonia Nano puff jacket (a lightweight puffy jacket), and a hardshell jacket. I found an large rock, curled up behind it to stay out of most of the wind and took a nap. We ended up waiting about two hours for the yaks.

Trying to stay warm and nap

We got camp set up, ate dinner, and went to bed. Total distance for the day was jsut under 23 km. The following day was a short 2-3 hour (about 10 km) hike to the mouth of the valley where we were met by the Landcruisers and drivers. We returned briefly to Darchen, then began the long drive back across the Tibetan Plateau.

It was a very memorable trek. I was most impressed by the devout pilgrims making the circumambulation and the spectacular scenery. It really was breathtaking (literally and figuratively). I have newfound respect for high altitude mountaineers. It is really tough breathing up there and we were only hiking on a trail. I have spent most of my life climbing and I can’t imagine difficult technical climbing at high altitudes. Pretty amazing. The wild landscape and the people of Tibet left a deep impression on me and I hope to return someday.

Mt. Kailash Kora: Western Tibet (Part 1)

North Face of Mt. Kailash

For most of the month of May (2012) I was traveling in Tibet. The highlight of the trip was a kora (circumambulation) around Mt. Kailash (6658 m, 21,843′), or the Tibetan name Gang Rinpoche (“Precious Snow Mountain”), in Western Tibet. This consisted of hiking about 50 km in three days. The high point was Drolma La Pass at 18,550′.

Just getting to Kailash was quite an adventure, consisting of driving overland from Lhasa in Toyota Landcruisers for four days covering 1436 km (892 miles). I’ll save that for another post. In this post I will describe the actual kora around Mt. Kailash.

Mt. Kailash is a sacred mountain, considered the heart of the world and the headwaters of four major Asian rivers (the Indus north, the Brahmaputra east, the Karnali, and the Sutlej west). For Tibetan Buddhist, Hindus, Jains, and the Tibetan indigenous religion Bon, it is considered the most holy of pilgrimage sites. It is said that a kora around Kailash will erase your sins, and 108 koras breaks the cycle of rebirth and assures one of nirvana at death. Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and believers of Bon all converge on this holy mountain to make the circumambulation. Young and old alike practice their devotion by making this pilgrimage. We saw pilgrims from all over Tibet making the long, arduous journey to Kailash.

First look at Mt. Kailash, the south face, on the way to Darchen.

The starting point of the kora is the small, nondescript Tibetan town of Darchen. It consists of two streets, one of which is paved for about one and half blocks, then deteriorates into a rough dirt road.

Main Street in Darchen

The upper part of town

Darchen from above

Roadside entertainment in Darchen

We arrived in Darchen in the afternoon and stayed in a very rustic Tibetan guesthouse. It consisted of a bare concrete room with four single beds, a single lightbulb, a washbasin, and a thermos of hot water. Typical Chinese pit toilets were located a short walk across the courtyard. For those of you who are familiar with Chinese squatter toilets know that they can be very smelly, to the point that it is difficult to breathe when doing your business. Well, try not breathing in a very stinky, dirty pit toilet at 15,000′. Not a simple task.

We ate in the Tibetan teahouse located at the guesthouse. The next morning, five of us set off for the Kailash kora. Traveling in Tibet requires that you have a guide with you at all times. Our guide was a thirty something Tibetan man named Tenzin. He was a very pleasant guy. He knew his Tibetan history and was very attentive to our needs. He was also a devout Buddhist and this kora for him was number 68. He had completed it in as few as 14 hours, and had done full prostrations around the mountain in 8 days (it usually takes 14-16 days). He was pretty hard core. Also traveling with us were four Nepalese young men (2 sherpas, and 2 Newaris) that arranged all our camping gear. In Darchen Tenzin hired three yak herders and 6 yaks to carry our gear. This felt a little funny to me as I have backpacked a great deal in the U.S. and am used to being totally self sufficient and carry my own gear. But this is how it is done in this part of the world.

The beginning of the kora was about 3 km from town and began in a wide river valley.

Beginning of the kora

At the start of the kora

We carried day packs, while the yaks carried all our camping gear. My day pack consisted of snacks for the day, warm clothing including a puffy jacket, fleece jacket, and a hardshell jacket, and my photography equipment.

It stared off very easy up this wide valley with little elevation gain. It was a beautiful sunny day. At 15,000’+ it is never too warm, but it was very pleasant. For most of the day I hiked with just a lightweight long sleeved base layer and a fleece hoodie.

Looking back down the valley we hike up

Dramatic rock faces below the west face of Kailash

West face of Mt. Kailash

Close up of the west face of Mt. Kailash

We followed this partially frozen river up the valley

Pilgrims stack rocks making cairns at various places along the kora

After about 8 km we saw the first of many prostrating Tibetan pilgrims. The ultimate in devotion is to do the entire 52 km kora in full prostrations. This consists of laying full length on the ground, over and over again covering the entire distance. These very devoted pilgrims will usually hike ahead estimating how far they will be able to go for the day, stash their camping gear, then walk back to where they started and begin their prostrations. They will typically wear a heavy apron to protect their body from the rough ground. They will also wear shoes or sandals on their hands to protect them as well. I was amazed at the devotion of these sincere, religious people.

Prostrating pilgrims

Pilgrim camp

Prostrating pilgrim taking a call on his cell phone

After about 12 km the trail began to turn east and climb up another river valley. Along this portion we began seeing Hindu pilgrims on the way down. According to another Tibetan guide that we met, these Indians did not want to go over the pass as it was snowy and icy and they were on horseback. It’s no problem with yaks, but quite serious for horses. Most Hindu pilgrims ride horses, instead of walking.

Indian Hindu pilgrims heading down

Tibetan woman leading a Hindu pilgrim

After hiking about 20 km, and climbing to 16,700′ we arrived at the Drirapuk Monastery. It was not a very steep climb, but was steady and with the altitude it was certainly no walk in the park. Slow, steady hiking was the key. Try to go too fast and you were very soon out of breath. The views of the north face of Mt. Kailash from the monastery were spectacular.

North face of Mt. Kailash from Drirapuk Monastery

North Face of Mt. Kailash

Drirupuk Monastery is set high on the cliffs across the valley from Kailash. It is a very small monastery with only a few resident monks. They were friendly and were willing to allow us into the monastery to look around.

Drirupuk Monastery

Pilgrim at stupas. Monastery in the background

Monk waving from the roof of the monastery

From the monastery we had to hike down to the bottom of the valley, cross a frozen river, then up the other side to a group of tent teahouses.

Tent guesthouses at 16,700′ below the north face of Mt. Kailash

We met up with the yaks and headed up the valley about a half mile to a meadow area where we set up camp. It was a beautiful, wild setting surrounded by high peaks.

Camp at 16,700′ below the north face of Mt. Kailash

Yak herder unloading a yak

The view from my tent door

I felt pretty good for most of the day, but by the time we got to camp I was pretty tired. My legs felt fine, but the altitude was really getting to me. I had a headache and was not too hungry. My friend gave me a Diamox tablet (for altitude sickness), and it really helped. By morning my headache was completely gone and I felt great, full of energy.

TO BE CONTINUED

See lots more photos of the Mt. Kailash kora at:

Tibetan pilgrim.

Exploring Shangri-la

The city of Shangri-la looking toward the old town. Buddhist temple on the right and a huge prayer wheel on the left.

The city of Shangri-la has a population of around 120,000 and sits at 3200 m (10,498′). That may sound like a pretty good sized city, but on Chinese standards, it’s pretty tiny. The city consists of an old section where all the Tibetans used to live and a new section recently built up by the Chinese. This is typical of many Chinese cities—the original older city, and a newly developed section. For example, a couple years ago I was in Qingdao visiting an academic program there. I was staying in the new section of town and I didn’t like it. It was very modern with lots of new shiny skyscrapers, and shopping areas, but it was all very bland, with very few people on the streets.  It was even hard to find a decent restaurant that was reasonably priced. The border between the new city and the old was stark. Literally cross a street and it was like the old China that I know and love—tons of little shops and restaurants, crowds of people on the streets, old architecture, lots of character.

A street in Shangri-la's new town

Shangri-la’s old town was charming and quaint, but a little too “restored.” That is, they went a little too far with tourists in mind. It is full of little restaurants, coffee shops, stores selling all kinds of tourist trinkets, and guest houses.

Shangri-la's old town

Click on the link below to see a photo of the old town taken in 1999 (photo courtesy of Michael Paul)

Zhongdian Old Town

The new city is rather typical of most Chinese cities, bland concrete architecture, wide streets, and generic stores. But Shangri-la is still predominantly Tibetan, and that is who you see on the streets and in the markets. Yes there are Chinese run businesses and restaurants, but there is still a huge Tibetan presence. Tibetan women in this part of the Tibetan realm have a distinctive dress. Nearly all the women in the city seem to wear pants (oftentimes jeans), a bright blue apron. sometimes with a white apron over the top it, and a distinctive headdress that sometimes consists of bright fuchsia yarn wound together, or a woven scarf. They are very bright and colorful. Some women also wear brightly colored blouses or vest-like coverings.

Tibetan girls on the street

Traditional Tibetan headdress

One morning while out exploring we came upon a thriving street market. This is where we had our first taste of yak cheese. Though a bit strong and somewhat smoky, I kind of liked it. Michael was not too thrilled about it though.

Street market

Yak cheese

We then stumbled on an indoor market selling meat, produce, and other things. In Chinese we would call this a 农贸市场 nóngmào shìchǎng, or a farmer’s market. I love these kinds of markets and we had a great time wandering around taking pictures. The highlight was when Michael slipped on a big chunk of pig fat on the ground and almost went down.

Fresh market. The characters in the upper left say cài shìchǎng or "vegetable market"

Traditional shopping baskets

These kinds of markets sell an astonishing array of goods, from fresh meat and vegetables to dry goods and live animals in some cases. Below is a sampling of goods.

Chili powder

Fresh chilis, ginger, corn, and I think rhubarb

Tea

Fresh mushrooms

Fresh noodles

Roast duck

Chopping block

Fresh bacon

Frogs (not for pets)

Another day we were wandering around on the outskirts of town and came upon a mushroom market. July and August is wild mushroom season in this part of Yunnan Province and many Tibetans roam the mountains picking mushrooms to sell in the markets. This is one way for rural Tibetans to earn some cash.

Mushroom market

Bringing in the harvest

Wild mushrooms

More yak cheese

The road to Tibet, a few hours drive away.

TO BE CONTINUED.