Thursday, October 12, 2017

Tibet - Lhasa

I have been lucky enough to have traveled to quite a few countries, closing in on 50. However, when the plane touched down just outside of Lhasa it was probably the most excited as I have ever been to arrive someplace. Yes, I understand Tibet is not an independent country any longer, being an autonomous region of China since 1959. This was still the mysterious Tibet.  The Dalai Lama, prayer flags, yaks, Potala Palace, Lhasa, Buddhism and Mt Everest and the decent movie 7 Years in Tibet . I envisioned a glorious history and a peaceful people marked by upheaval and oppression since the Chinese full takeover in 1959.  I would find myself correct on both accounts.

My day started at 4:50 am. I stayed at  Yan Guo's apartment as she was concerned I would sleep in. She was more adamant that I would not get a taxi.  "No taxi would pick up a foreigner wandering around at 5:00 am and sometimes you look scary". I was really not sure how to take that but she told me that when I look scary she feels safe. A good thing I guess.

I have learned to pick my spots with Chinese girls especially when they are helping you. They get singularly focused and committed to the task so do not get in their way. You must just sit back and let it happen because they do not hear anything you have to say even if you were to mutter something. She ordered a Didi (Chinese Uber) for a 5:15 am pick up. A good girl indeed.

Sure enough we received the call at 5:00 am that the car was waiting. She walked me to the car and told the drive where I was going because regardless that I could do it myself, she was in charge to make sure it was done right. I am pretty sure she gave directions to the driver, who smartly sat and listened to this focused and a bit of a crazy woman at 5:00 am. Chinese woman is in charge, sit quietly and nod in approval. A normal taxi would have cost 150 rmb, my Didi was 100 rmb. Coffee money! A personal message to the worlds taxis drivers. "Evolve!"

I have mentioned before the ease of processing at the Xi'an airport and this was no different. I did had to provide my "Tibet Travel Permit" which was sent to me by the travel company. I was airborne with Sichuan Airlines flight 8599 on time at 7:40. We had a short stop at Gannan Xiahe Airport (GXH)  We all had to leave the plane while it was refueled (90 minutes?) and half the passengers left. We boarded again in about 30 minutes later with a smattering of new passengers who were mostly Tibetan. The change in  facial features was obvious. This airport also gave me my first exposure to the military presence that is evident throughout Tibet. Military soldiers, helicopters, planes, air traffic and radar installations. I snapped off a few quick shots then hid my camera and walked quickly. Nothing to see here, move along!

As we approached Lhasa the Himalayas were towering below us. It was a bit cloud covered but they they were close enough to touch. It was bedlam in the plane as passengers were climbing over each other to have a look and take photos. I was not the only excited person on the plane.  I was met at the airport by a driver who had my name on a huge sign which I really like. A combination of ego and safety. Forty five minutes later I entered my first of what would be many police checkpoints as we entered Lhasa. I did not care, I was entering Lhasa. Entering Lhasa....that sounds like doggy porn.

We were staying at the Thangka Hotel which was a nice 4 star. More important to me it was a 5 minutes walk to Jokhang Temple and Barkor Street and a 15 minute walk to Potala Palace. Years ago I would have save a few dollars and shared a room. Now, no freaking way I payed the single supplement. I tossed my bag into my room, met a few fellow travelers for a brief orientation which was wrapped up by 2:00. I now had the rest of the day to explore Lhasa.

Since the uprisings of 2008 all foreigners coming to Tibet are required to be a part of an organized tour. Mine is 9 days and it includes all hotels, transportation, travel permits, entrance fees to various monasteries, temples and the Potala Palace. I decided on Explore Tibet for two reasons. Price and the company is Tibetan owned and operated.

I wanted to see the Palace but I was not waiting 2 days as a part of our itinerary and it was easy to find with the map I was given. I am accustomed to walking the streets of China but the streets of Lhasa had a different feel to them and I think I actually strolled. People smiled as we passed each other and initially I found an un-hurried pace. Honking horns and chaotic drivers even had a muted tone to them. Either that or I was starting to feel the effects of altitude.

I found a bench, sat down and just took it all in. Potala Palace home of the Dalai Lama, thousands of years old and right in front of me. The stories that seeped through the bricks could fill libraries. Like any good tourist I took photos from every conceivable angle including across the street in a nice little park that I found out later had a dubious history, more on that later.

It is the prayer walk around the palace that gives another dimension to it's importance. Walking clockwise you will find long rows of prayer wheels and pilgrims on their daily ritual. The walk takes about 30 minutes for a tourist but much longer for the worshipers. It was soothing to see the dedication and true believers of Buddhism going through their rituals. Always clockwise, always slow always chanting quietly.

After a few hours I was really starting to feel the effects of a long day and the altitude. I walked over to Bakhor street which surrounds Jokhang Temple. The same situation here where people walk the streets clockwise. If you happen to go counter clockwise you certainly feel like a salmon going upstream. Years ago when few foreigners came to Lhasa you would have been vilified to walk counter clockwise, now it is just accepted as what it is. However most followed the tradition, myself included. I am not a religious person but it was quite spiritual to be a part of such a simple and important tradition.

As I write this I am listening to Crisis What Crisis by Supertramp.  The album was released in 1975 making it 42 years old. Holy Crapola!

I like these lyrics from Track 7, Poor Boy

So many people I know, get old way too early 
Just to impress you with the money they've made 
One drop of rain, they complain
It's the same about the ways they're earning


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Tenzin Norbu said...

Beautiful pictures of my homeland
Thanks for sharing!