Friday, October 26, 2007

It's a Lhasa Kind of Day

We are in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. It's at an elevation of 3600m, twice as high as Kathmandu and about 300x higher than Toronto. On the flight from Nepal, we flew over the Himalayas; actually, it was more like we were at eye level with some of the highest peaks. They were beautiful.
In contrast to Nepal, Tibet is arid and desert-like in its beauty instead of lush and green. If Nepal is Jennifer Lopez, then Tibet is Gwyneth Paltrow. It's also considerably cooler -- Nepal was positively tropical in some areas though it was cooler in the mountains, and Tibet is warm during the day and absolutely and completely freezing at night -- and it's not even winter yet. We struggled with the temperature-control unit in our hotel room for about twenty minutes yesterday (no instructions, naturally) before going to the front desk to ask for assistance, where we were told that the block of rooms we were in didn't come equipped with heat -- air conditioning only. So I slept in full socks and long pyjamas, with a hot water bottle and four heavy blankets. We switched rooms, so there's heat. I am much happier, and so is BG, because I'm not complaining anymore. The good thing about the weather in Tibet is that it's chronically sunny. I've never seen such blue skies.
Lhasa is set in a perfectly flat area completely surrounded by jagged, dusty-brown hills. The airport was blessedly organized and modern; at security, they X-rayed our baggage and then scrutinized our printed materials thoroughly, looking for "Free Tibet" propaganda and photos of the Dalai Lama, two things that are forbidden by the Chinese government. We piled into a minivan and rode the new, wide, smooth freeway to Lhasa -- another improvement courtesy of the Chinese government.    
Buddhism is a central part of life for most Tibetans. We spent one morning in the Jokang, which is the largest and most important Stupa (temple) in Lhasa. It was positively buzzing with activity. From a distance, we could see huge fires built out front of the stupa. As we approached, we heard a rhythmic shh-shh-clap-clap-clap being repeated over and over and over. It was the sound of thousands of pilgrims prostrating themselves in front of the Jokang, over and over and over. Some of them do it up to a thousand times before even entering. People lined up by the hundreds to get into the stupa, and inside, hundreds more bowed to various Buddhas, Bhodisatvas, and statues, murmuring incantations and offering money and donations of yak butter. The intensity of worship was overwhelming, almost as much as the scent of incense and melted yak butter was in the air. I felt very much like a voyeur, watching these people experience something very personal and important.
In the afternoon we paid a visit to the Potala, which is the home of the Dalai Lama, whom we already have established has not lived in Tibet for many, many years. You are just going to have to take my word for it for now when I say that the Potala is awesome (and I don't mean that in a Bill-and-Ted's-Excellent-Adventure kind of way.) You can see it from any rooftop in Lhasa, and it towers over the city, sitting majestically on the side of a hill. The walls are brilliantly white, and it is massive, housing a thousand rooms. It was built in the 7th Century and is well-maintained as a museum, unfortunately, rather than the political seat of Tibet that it was meant to be. We climbed up a great many stairs to begin our visit on the roof, and worked our way clockwise through the Dalai Lama's sitting rooms, receiving rooms (for important political visitors), and studies, as well as rooms for worship and for burial stupas (for Dalai Lamas who have passed on.) This is the most impressive man-made thing I have seen on our trip so far.
Yesterday morning we drove out to the Gandak Monastery, which was a long hour and a half in a van blaring Tibetan pop music at high volume. The Gandak Monastery is at 4060m, so we had to drive up the side of a mountain on the narrowest switchbacks in existence. The van could barely maneuver the turn, they were so narrow. The Gandak Monastery is the oldest monastery in Tibet, and is the seat of the Yellow Hat sect, which the Dalai Lama belongs to. The Gandak Monastery used to be home to over 3000 monks, but currently, only 200 or so live there. It was also impressive, built in a style similar to the Potala on a smaller scale. A few of us crazies in the tour group (Did I mention we're part of a tour? Everyone's really nice.) decided to hike up to the top of a mountain next to Gandak Monastery to get a better view. It took a torturous, crushingly difficult 40 minutes to get to the top of the mountain, which was covered with prayer flags (tied to a cell phone tower!) We were right -- the views were amazing.
We spent the afternoon recuperating from a long day. BG has fallen prey to altitude, unfortunately, and is resting restlessly in our hotel room. Last night we were treated to an "authentic" Tibetan dinner and cultural show, so I got to try tsampa (roasted barley flour mixed with yak butter), barley beer, and yak butter tea. You may by now get the impression that yak butter is a big part of Tibetan culture, and you're right. The lamps in the stupas and in the Potala and monasteries are all huge vats of yak butter with wicks in them. The pilgrims fill them up, and the monks empty them again so the pilgrims can come back to make their offerings over and over. The yak butter tea is just tea with yak butter in it, and let me tell you -- it was not good. I don't know anyone who's come away from a yak butter taste test and had a good word to put in for it.
Tomorrow we leave Lhasa in a four-by-four vehicle to make our way to Everest Base Camp over the next four days, after which they'll return us to Kathmandu via minivan (hopefully minus the Tibetan pop music.) I'm expecting more dust, cold weather, and great views. I'm hoping to gain some great friends in our group, as they all have awesome British accents that I find irresistible. I'm hoping to meet some native Tibetans, and I'm hoping to learn more about this mysterious country that I'm in, before it becomes just another part of China.

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