The Pilgrimage Ends here
11.23.2007 - 11.26.2007 64 °F
It is around 10:00pm. We are met at the train station by our Tibetan guide, Yangdron, the driver, Jor, and the GM of the travel agency. We are welcomed with ceremonial white silk scarves that signal the first day in Lhasa, the holy city to Tibetan Buddhists. The road that leads from the new train station to downtown seems too perfect, too quiet, almost sterile. We experience none of the quaint shanty-town feeling we’ve enjoyed the past days. Neither is there a sense of an “old neighborhood” like the hutong we enjoyed so much in Beijing. It all seems new and squeaky clean. You can almost imagine that even the crickets have been removed from this part of town. It feels odd. We can see the Potala Palace off in the distance, but where is the rest of the town. We begin to encounter the sounds and sites of rural China, as a more familiar town begins to grow in front of us – it feels a bit familiar in a Xining sort of way. But this short drive has given us an impression that there are really two Lhasa’s here – with different visions of what this city has been and is to become.
After a few kilometers of driving through Lhasa, we encounter the Potala Palace, once home to the Dali Lama. It rises from the floor of the city and seems to reach up to the sky. It is illuminated under 1,000s of bright lights, and the fresh whitewashing, recently done to celebrate a holy day, makes it glow. Under these bright lights, it is surreal and looks like it could be a Disneyland or Vegas re-creation of something that existed 1,000 years ago. So spectacular is the Palace, that we were left kind of speechless and gawking as we drove by. We drove a few kilometers more through town, which seemed tattered, though happily so, and we checked into our hotel, the Brahmaputra. It was anything but tattered. It was a virtual antique store with every hallway displaying cases of beautiful Tibetan antiques between room doors. We were taken to our room, and it was absolutely gorgeous, and over the top in its decoration and finishes. It too had beautiful Tibetan antiques sitting on tables that were all for sale. We didn’t look at all of the prices, but one of them would have bought a nice car back home. We threatened dismemberment and a sky burial if anyone broke that thing through horseplay. The hotel wasn’t the Lhasa we had expected. We expected austerity, and this certainly wasn’t austere. We had been told about difficulty sleeping above 12,000 feet, but we all slept well, wondering what we’d find in the day light.
The real Lhasa visit started the next day. A traveler’s first day in Lhasa is supposed to be slow, so you can acclimate to the altitude. We had no problem, thanks to the train and a few days in and around Xining. After some studying with the boys, we drove with Yangdron and Rebecca to lunch through downtown Lhasa. It was indeed austere, and simultaneously impressive. There were old buildings of handmade brick, next to a brand new hotel or government building with modern materials. We would pass a dirt alley with broken cars under repair, locals standing around kibitzing, while the very next street was fronted with wonderful shops and strolling shoppers. The same contrast that met us in Xining and other cities existed here too. But there was a difference. This city was packed with pilgrims. Pilgrims flow into Lhasa from all over Tibet and China and other parts of the world to worship Buddha. The streets are full of pilgrims, some brightly dressed, some wearing clothes that are filthy and tattered, lending the appearance that they may have traveled 1,000 kilometers by foot to reach Lhasa. They have. The sites of Lhasa are incredible. The Potala Palace, the Barkhor, the JoKahng temple, the Sera Monastery, the Himalayas are all worthy of a visit to Lhasa. However, the real reason to visit Lhasa is to experience the pilgrims, their deep faith and the fantastic rituals that they engage in. I’ll highlight a couple of experiences we had at different sites.
The Barkhor is a series of streets and what seem to be 10,000 shops that surround the ancient JoKhang temple in the center of Lhasa. Upon arrival in Lhasa, pilgrims gather in front of the temple, and then walk in a clockwise circle around the Barkhor area 3 times. This is an important ritual for pilgrims and it seems to form a river of people, meandering at a leisurely pace around the Barkhor. We found ourselves caught up in this river and it was amazing to be among the many pilgrims, and few tourists caught in the flow. The pilgrims’ joy of being in this river, seems to be held just under their very deliberate gaze, at the ready to burst through in the form of a broad smile or laugh. Many have lived their entire lives for this moment – and the joy of being there occasionally bursts through. Many pilgrims sit along the route begging for assistance, because many are flat broke by the time they reach Lhasa. We stocked up on candy and handed out pieces to pilgrims and their tiny children as we passed. We also handed out a few Yuan, but only on rare occasions.
One other thing we witnessed was a ritual called prostrating – perhaps the ultimate way for a pilgrim to show their devotion to Buddha. Try to imagine this: With your feet pressed together, raise your hands high above your head, fingers and palms pressed together, and pause. Then, pull your hands in the same position to your face, and pause for a brief moment. Next, bring your hands to your chest in the same position while dropping to your knees. Now, place your hands on the ground next to your knees, and slide them forward as you gradually lay prostrate on your belly with your face flat against the ground. Now it’s time to get up. Slide your hands back to your knees, while avoiding dragging your face on the ground, and stand up from your knee squat. Oh, and don’t separate your knees because that is quite disrespectful to Buddha. Now, do this 200 times a day. Not exactly lather, rinse, repeat, is it? This ritual can be seen in many places on the way to Lhasa, and some pilgrims do it every 10 feet or so, the entire way. There is some majorly hidden upper body strength going on in some of these pilgrims. It is hard to imagine a display of this much devotion to any god today. We saw children, mothers, grandmothers, men, and monks prostrating – and some do this every 5 steps or even fewer. Many, had plastic shields made from two liter soda bottles attached to their knees and hands – so they could slide better without damage, looking a bit like Tony hawk getting ready to drop into a super pipe without the helmet.
JoKahng Temple, the Sera Monastery and the Potala:
All of these places were incredible and spiritual, even if you have no concept of Buddhism. All were packed with pilgrims worshiping Buddha, and we were just along for the ride. We were getting an education, with Yangdron explaining the different types of Buddha, the rituals, history and the process we were witnessing. We learned a bunch about Buddhism and were told that we likely had more historic foundation and knowledge now than most of the pilgrims. Foundation however, isn’t important. Faith is.
Griffin and Parker were both blessed by a monk at the Sera Monastery by having charcoal from sacred yak butter candle wicks smeared on the tip of their nose before entering the Barkhor. The blessing is only available to children. Pilgrims lit-up to the kids as if they too were pilgrims. They smiled and laughed and pointed, loving the fact the kids had partaken of a blessing.
All of the places we visited feature this very odd circumambulation, where pilgrims walk around the temple or monestary 3 times before entering – the Barkhor being the best example, but we saw it everywhere. The Potala Palace has to be five kilometers all the way around, so it’s quite a walk. Prayer wheels, which are spun in a clockwise fashion surround much of the Potala palace and are spun by pilgrims as they walk. Many Pilgrims carry their own Prayer wheels for their entire pilgrimage, chanting, (more like humming under their breath) and spinning as they go.
We took a trip to a day trip to Lamdrok lake which is one of only four sacred Tibetan lakes. We drove for two hours through an amazing valley dotted with tiny villages, and climbed by car to around 16,500 feet to take in the lake view. There were tour buses packed with Chinese tourists racing up the mountain to this elevation if you can believe it. After arriving at the overlook we decided we are vastly more healthy than the older Chinese tourists to climb a tall hill that took us up another few hundred feet to approximately Everest Base Camp elevation (no joke). The view was stunning. Also stunning was how quickly you felt winded climbing this few hundred feet. The lake is beautiful, but it is also a rather sad site. You can easily see the declining lake level. The Chinese Government has built a hydro electric plant there and is now slowly draining the lake to provide power to Lhasa. There isn’t a river that replenishes the lake, and it appears no one has thought through how to fill the lake after it has been drained.
Our tour guide Yangdron, was a wonderful woman and someone that was such a pleasure to hang out with. After spending time with us, and talking with Rebecca, she asked if we would like to visit an orphanage that she is associated with. The name of the orphanage is the Chushul Country Nam Children’s Home. Orphanages in Tibet are very rare, because extended family usually takes care of children without parents, but this isn’t possible all the time and there is a growing trend as economic realities change extended families ability to care for an extra child. The orphanage houses up to 18 children and we met 13. The orphanage gets some money from the government, about 200 yuan (or $26 USD) per child per month, less than $2 per day – which is well below what it takes to live even at a meager level in Tibet. The rest of the money, if it comes at all, comes from private individuals like us or you. The beds are scant, heat is scarce, meat is very rare, and they just got a refrigerator (Yangdron bought it for them) to keep food longer than a day or so. We visited one day and brought school supplies and candies and returned the next day to bring some other things and take some pictures so we can share with you on this blog. We asked Yangdron how much money it would take to bring these kids to the standard of living that the little town surrounding it “enjoys”. She said that she’d recommend less money and more bedding, clothes and essentials – which you know definitely make it to the kids. She said we could mail clothing or other items to her and she would take it to the orphanage. We’re all in – and will be providing clothes and other essentials for these children. It’s not much, but it is a tangible way we can back some of the luck we’ve had over the years, giving these kids a much needed boost in life. If you would like to help these kids as well, please send Yangdron an email at Dronyang@hotmail.com or call her on her mobile at + 0086 13638980596. It’s so true when it's said that little things make a HUGE difference.