After my hectic arrival into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, I was dropped off at the Yak Hotel and told that I could spend the evening walking around on my own, with a meet-up time planned for the next morning to officially start my tour. I still wasn’t feeling well, so I took a nap for a bit then decided to try to see some of the city.
I walked through some nearby alleyways and markets then stumbled upon Father’s Vegetarian from a marker on my phone’s map. Awesome. They were friendly, and I ordered some dumplings, but, by the time they came, I was feeling sick again and asked to have them boxed up. Smart move, since I started vomiting as soon as I returned to the hotel. After I puked and puked some more, I went to sleep, hoping I’d be able to get myself together for the tour the next day. I didn’t want to miss anything.
I woke up around midnight, actually feeling hungry, and ate my dinner, then went back to sleep. When I woke up in the morning, the food was still inside me, and I was feeling a lot better about the prospect of a good day, since I was 12 hours vomit-free at this point.
When I joined up with the group, everyone was over 50, so I was actually glad that we’d be going at a slower pace, and I wouldn’t be the slow one, recuperating from being sick and the weak feeling in my joints afterward.
Our tour started with a visit to the Drepung monastery, which has incredible views over the city of Lhasa and the surrounding mountains. We went through nearly all of the rooms, but pictures aren’t allowed inside any of the buildings. Suffice to say that it was awesome.
Outside, we encountered some monks debating, which wasn’t planned, so we were lucky on this. The debate style is this: monks of equal rank ask each other questions to check their learning. After the standing monk asks a question, the sitting monk answers. After the standing monk has exhausted his questions, they will trade places. There is always a senior monk available to check answers and make sure everyone is learning properly. Questions are introduced by a slap of the hands, starting with the right hand raised to the sky, then brought down to loudly slap the hands together, calling the receiving monk to “wake up from ignorance” and prepare for learning.
After leaving Drepung, we were given the option to have a break for lunch and the traditional “Welcome Dinner” after we finished for the evening or to have a “welcome lunch” now, so that we would be free in the evening, after finishing the tour for the day. I was glad that we chose the lunch, so that I could go back to the room and rest sooner.
The lunch was quite good, and they brought us way too much food, served communal-style (which is quite common).
We spent the afternoon at the Sera monastery, which was also beautiful and interesting, but didn’t blow me away or seem a whole lot different than Drepung.
The draw of Sera is the planned debates at 3pm every day, which large crowds gather for in the courtyard. We watched this for a bit, until it became rather monotonous, since we didn’t understand anything that was being said.
After being dropped off at the hotel, I rested for a bit before going to Father’s Vegetarian for dumplings again. It was close and an easy walk, which I needed, because the combination of altitude + recovering from being sick had really worn me out during the day. The steps at the monasteries didn’t help, obviously. I definitely went to bed early, thankful that I still had the room to myself.
We walked from the hotel to the Jokhang Temple, which is just unreal. Imagine a large square out front with hundreds of people prostrating themselves in prayer. Tons of incense burning from giant pots. Hundreds of people performing kora (a pilgrimage of walking around holy sites/objects in a clockwise direction, done for both prayer and exercise) around the temple. Inside resides the only remaining statue of Buddha made during his lifetime.
The story of how this Buddha came to rest here is interesting: a political marriage between the King of Tibet and the princess of the Chinese Qin Dynasty, with the statue as the dowry. The statue was later switched to this temple in a swap with another statue, to protect it during a war; if the other side won or the Chinese tried to reclaim the statue, the Tibetans would set them up to take the wrong one.
The courtyard inside the temple was really amazing, and you could see hundreds of pilgrims lined up to visit every room in the temple. To get this honor, you have to be in line quite early (some before sunrise), because there’s just not enough space. We only saw the highlights, which were still impressive.
The views from the roof, however, were the best part of the temple for me. The views over the courtyard. The views to the city. The Potala Palace in the distance. Just awesome.
After visiting the temple, we were given time to walk around the pedestrian areas nearby, with a full 90 minutes of free time. I walked around a bit, got some lunch at a nearby restaurant, and tried to get some coffee at a nearby coffee shop. I didn’t pay for it, but I got free grounds in my coffee. Yay?
In the afternoon, we went to the amazing, epic Potala Palace. This is also known as the Winter Palace, and it is IMPRESSIVE. The stairs to get up to it are intense (especially for those of us not used to the altitude), but the reward is worth it. This residence was built by the 5th Dalai Lama and used up until the current, 14th Dalai Lama was forced to leave Tibet during the Chinese takeover. It served as both a religious and political headquarters for the Tibetans.
The view from the top is also amazing, and the “no pictures” inside means you’ll just have to trust me that it’s unreal.
In true human fashion, they’ve also commercialized the space around the temple to death, but the once-private park to the rear of the palace is very serene and green, which is rare in a bustling & growing city like Lhasa.
For dinner that night, I checked out a place called A Lotus on the Water, which I had discovered during my free time at lunch. I noticed it, because I was trying to take a picture of a Gelato Café for my Italian friends, thinking it was hilariously out-of-place, then I noticed this “vegetarian restaurant” sign above it. A Lotus on the Water is one of the BEST restaurants I’ve been to this year. The menu was incredible, and I had a hard time deciding, so I got 3 appetizers, just to try more things. Luckily, the menu had pictures, because there was no English to be spoken here. GREAT meal.
That evening, I had to figure out what to do the next day. There’s something going on in Tibet with the Chinese government, and no one is quite sure what it is. There’s been a massive increase in how much propaganda the government is putting up, businesses are required to have pictures of Communist Party leaders/fly Chinese flags, foreigners are being banned from Tibet for a while (starting the day after my tour ended), and the planned 2 days with overnight camping at Lake Namtso had been changed, due to a new regulation that no one is allowed to camp out at Lake Namtso. Instead of 2 days, it would be a day trip on the 2nd day, with the result being that I now had a free day on my own, without guide, to plan for Day 4.
I also settled up with the hotel for the remaining nights, since there was confusion during my arrival, and I had finally received the reimbursement from the tour company earlier that day.
I asked a friend who had been to Tibet recently (same tour with same company), and she recommended that I check out the Mosque and Muslim quarter, which she had been surprised to find in Lhasa. I was shocked, too. All you hear about with Tibet is Buddhism, so I marked this down and planned a route for my amazing day. Foreigners really don’t get to spend an entire day on their own, walking around Lhasa; this used to be permitted, but guides and tour groups are now required. I had a great day feeling the rare freedom (and accompanying exuberance) that came with seeing new parts of the city on my own.
I started by walking west, past the Potala Palace, to the Summer Palace. This isn’t on many tour group itineraries, and I don’t know why. It’s impressive, and it’s also a rather infamous location. If you’ve seen or read “7 Years in Tibet,” you will know the Summer Palace as the location where Mao Zedong and representatives from the new Chinese government met with the Dalai Lama and changed the course of Tibetan history.
There’s even a plaque outside, noting this, but the room and the “history of Tibet” mural are off-limits to visitors currently. Again, something is going on in Tibet. I was sad that I couldn’t see the “history of Tibet” mural, because I was really keen to see the piece that the Chinese government has added to the end of it for the “current” history of Tibet being part of China.
I had been told by the tour company that I wouldn’t be able to go into anything without an accompanying guide, but I went into every temple and every open room at the Summer Palace, bought an entrance ticket, etc. without any issues. From there, I took a taxi (point at the map and ride in silence with a language barrier) to the southeastern part of the city, near the University. I walked around here for a bit, but it wasn’t super interesting. I had lunch at the Wonderful Vegetarian, though, and it was definitely wonderful. The fried dumplings were on point!
From here, I walked back toward the center of the city, stopping at the Grand Mosque and the Muslim quarter. This was definitely one of the best parts of the city. It was really interesting to see ethnically-Tibetan people with beards (rare) and Muslim prayer hats hanging out around a Mosque & halal butcher shops and the other common scenes you see around a Mosque in the Middle East. It was such an interesting contrast.
From the Grand Mosque, I walked westward through the alleyways to the Anitsangkung Nunnery. After seeing so many monasteries and monks, I was interested to see this nunnery. I felt bad that I had arrived while they were all eating lunch, because they work so much, and I felt like I was disturbing their rest time, but they kept insisting that it was OK to come in and look around, so I tried to be brief. The nunnery was small but still incredible and had a great feeling of peace, in contrast to the hectic street and market outside.
From the nunnery, I figured that I would keep walking through the old town (“Barkokr”), back through the Jokhang area to my hotel. En route, I discovered a 2nd, small mosque, a really funny fast food place, and a trade school.
After resting at my hotel for a bit and talking to my new roommate for a bit, I wanted to check out one last temple at the Ramoche Monastery. I had a hard time finding the entrance and actually found my way onto an apartment building’s roof first, with a view looking over the temple courtyard. I decided not to go into the monastery, because I couldn’t justify paying to see another monastery that probably wasn’t any more spectacular than others I’d already seen.
For dinner, I went to Zong Lion, a place with a GIANT “vegetarian food” sign directly next to the Jokhang Temple. It was mediocre and rather expensive. I guess it’s true: location, location, location. I paid for the views from the windows looking over the temple courtyard and the praying pilgrims.
I went back to the hotel and prepared for the day trip to Lake Namtso. The weather there is supposed to be rather unpredictable, so I packed a day bag with cold weather and rain clothes, just in case. Since we were leaving early, I went to bed early. A 2nd roommate arrived, and he definitely cannot be described in any way other than to call this guy an asshole. He really was. He has zero concept of shared spaces. During the middle of the night, I threatened to turn on the lights and fight him, because he had woken me up so many times in his drunken stupor of noise, bumping into my bed, opening the window, playing music, etc., all while I and the other roommate were trying to sleep.
I loved Lhasa city, and I’m really glad I went. I’ll save my final thoughts on Tibet for after my post on the trip to Lake Namtso.
Next post: Day trip to Lake Namtso, life-changing conversations, and feelings about my trip to Tibet.
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