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 Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk

Polishing the floor. Shigatse, Tibet

Polishing the floor. Shigatse, Tibet

Last year when I was in Tibet, we spent several hours wandering around in the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. It was a bright sunny day. The sun is very intense on the Tibetan Plateau, which averages about 15,000′. I ducked out of the sun into a hallway that connected a couple buildings and encountered this young monk. The floors were made of crushed stone and were polished smooth and glossy. This monk was polishing the floor. His “mop” consisted of a large bag of rocks with a rope tied around the top. Under the bag was a sheepskin. He walked slowly up and down the hallway dragging the very heavy load. Click on the photo to better see the expression on his face. His skin glistens with sweat and the exhaustion is apparent in his face. To the right, outside the frame, another older monk was supervising his work.

It is not uncommon for junior monks to do a lot of the grunt work in the monasteries. Years ago I was visiting with a Buddhist monk in a monastery in Hangzhou, in Eastern China, and he told me that when he first arrived at the monastery he spent a great deal of time sweeping courtyards and doing dishes. He slowing worked his way up to less menial jobs. In a sense they must pay their dues, or prove their worth. In another Tibetan Buddhist monastery I visited with a monk who was in charge of selling trinkets to tourists. He said it was not his first choice of jobs, but that he was willing to do anything to help out the monastery. I have never heard a monk complain about anything.

Even though the harsh sunlight coming in from the left blew out the detail on the bag and floor, I do like this photo. I’m glad I stumbled on this interesting scene. I wish I would have shot more and had taken some closer, more intimate shots of him. But, at monasteries you have to be careful not to be too invasive and respect the privacy of the monks.

It was shot with a Nikon D90 with a Sigma 17-70mm lens, at 24mm, 1/80 sec. f/4.5.

Tibet’s Libraries

Tibetan scriptures in the Sera Monastery, Lhasa

For most of Tibet’s history, monasteries have been the center of society. There were not only religious and political centers but were also schools. Anyone who was literate was educated in a monastery. It is no surprise then that the monasteries housed the libraries of Tibet. In fact, even today in Tibet and other Tibetan areas of China, those who who can read and write Tibetan were most likely educated in a monastery as written Tibetan is usually not taught in regular government schools.

These libraries not only housed printed books, but also the metal plates, and woodblocks used to print books. The Sera Monastery outside Lhasa still uses these ancient plates to print the scriptures used in monasteries today.

Library of plates in the Sera Monastery

The metal plates are framed in wood

Rows and rows of plates, floor to ceiling

A typical plate

These particular plates are used to print loose-leaf scriptures that are commonly used in monasteries. They consist of long strips of paper with text written the long ways across the page. Below is a poor quality photo of these books for sale, under a glass case.

Completed scriptures ready for sale

Typically a senior monk will recite scriptures using these long loose-leaf texts, and young monks in training will chant them after him. The photos below are from the Pachu Monastery (built in 1418) in Gyantse. They are not that great as the room was very dark. The senior monk sat cross-legged on an elevated stand with the scriptures open in front of him. A group of six young monks, between the ages of 14 and 18 years old, would chant the lines after him. They did not have scriptures in front of them; they had to rely on listening and repeating what they heard. They were a lively bunch of boys. When they took a break, I had a nice time chatting with them.

Senior monk reciting scriptures

Young monks taking a break from chanting scriptures

The printing room in the Sera Monastery also produced bound books of Tibetan scripture, history, science and other books. They were for sale right there in the printing room.

Tibetan books for sale at the Sera Monastery

In nearly all the main prayer halls of the monasteries I visited, Tibetan scriptures in bound books were placed at each monk’s station. They were usually well worn.

Well worn book of scripture on top of monk’s robes

Most monasteries have libraries of printed books wrapped in silk fabric and stacked on wooden shelves. These books were usually not behind glass or anything and anyone could reach out and touch them.

A large collection of books in the Pachu Monastery

Close up of the books wrapped in silk

The library at the small Chiu Gompa Monastery in Western Tibet

As a bibliophile I was fascinated with these collections of books. Being so close to them was a great thrill, even though, out to respect, we did not handle them. Unfortunately I do not read Tibetan, but I still found myself wanting to acquire some of these beautiful books. At a street stall near Barkor Square in Lhasa I found a woman selling the long loose-leaf scriptures. I bought a volume from her wrapped and tied in a saffron cloth. I had no way of knowing what I was buying so I asked her to pick a popular volume for me. She said it dealt with health.

I cringe to think how many libraries and books were destroyed during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. It is not like you can easily replace them. I know that many of the original plates were hidden during this time, so that books that were destroyed could be reprinted.

When I was doing some linguistic research in Yunnan Province (2010) and Tibet (2012), I learned that many Tibetans could not read or write Tibetan. In most government schools, Tibetan may be used as the medium of instruction, but they are not taught how to read and write Tibetan; they are taught how to read and write Chinese. Those who were literate in Tibetan were most likely trained in a monastery school. In the past, before the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1953, it was the practice for families that had more than one son, to send one of them to the local monastery to be educated. Many of these boys stayed and became monks. The literary tradition in Tibet was closely tied to religion and monasteries. Today it is mostly monks and nuns that can read and write Tibetan, though in some areas others are attempting to learn written Tibetan as well. However, this can be dangerous as these kinds of schools are frowned upon by the Chinese.

 

 

 

 

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 Road to Kailash: A drive across the Tibetan Plateau

Somewhere in Western-central Tibet

We drove 1,436 km (892 miles) from Lhasa to the small town of Darchen at the base of Mt. Kailash. This was not the shortest route, but it was the route we took. We drove for four days. The first day we drove south out of Lhasa to Shigatze. Just outside of Lhasa we crossed the Brahmaputra or Tsangpo-Brahmaputra River. It originates in Southwestern Tibet, cuts south through the Himalayas, runs through India and Bangladesh before flowing into the Bay of Bengal. This high up it was quite a small river, not too impressive. But this was also early in the season. By August it swells to several times this size due to the monsoon rains.

The Brahmaputra River a few miles outside Lhasa

We drove high into the mountains crossing three high passes, the highest of which was 16,500′. Tall heavily glaciated peaks, probably around 20,000′ high soared above the highway in places. On the way to Shigatse we stopped in the town of Gyantse and visited the Pachu Monastery, built in 1418. In Shigatse we visited the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. The next day we drove from Shigatze to Lhatse. The third day we drove to Sakya, then camped outside Saga. and the fourth day we drove to Lake Manasarovar and camped along its shores. On the fifth day we drove a short distance (about an hour) to the town of Darchen where we began our kora, or circumambulation around Mt. Kailash.

The first night we stayed in a hotel; the second night in a Tibetan guesthouse, and the rest of the time we camped out in tents. We would find a meadow on the outskirts of a small town and set up camp. Our party of seven had two Toyota Landcruisers, with two Tibetan drivers and our Tibetan guide.

The Landcruisers and our drivers outside Lhasa

Our Tibetan guide

Though Tibet is a bleak and barren land, it was stunning. We passed countless mountains, long straight highway, winding switchbacked highway, high mountain passes, lakes, dozens of small towns, truck stops, nomad camps, lush green meadows, herds of yaks, fields of barley and some wildlife. Below are my memories of this wild and lonely land. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Lhasa is below but out of sight in the plain below

Long straight highway

There are lots of yaks all over the Tibetan Plateau; they cannot live below about 8,000′

More yaks

Our camp outside the small town of Saga

Unnamed mountains above our camp

Nomad tents

Nomads herding yaks

Ploughing and planting barley

Tibetan woman walking along the highway; in rural Tibet, people do a lot of walking

Barley growing at 14,500′

Tibetan Mastiff; they are truly huge and imposing

Tibetans seldom eat fish, so the lakes are full of them

Mountain and lake

Truck stop in Western Tibet simply called Area 22

There are Sichuan restaurants literally in every city and town in Tibet

Billiards is popular all across the Plateau

Public transport in rural areas is piling onto the back of a tractor

The Tibetan Plateau is about 15,000′ high; the sun is very intense and it is very dry

A wild Tibetan donkey, called a kiang

Tibetan black-necked crane

Lunch break

On one of the higher passes, 17,096′

The Himalayan Range in Southwestern Tibet

Mountain above Lake Manasarovar

Lake Manasarovar outside my tent door at sunset

Sunset over Lake Manasarovar

Camp at sunset near the town of Zhongba

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.