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Pals, People, and Palace

Lhasa, China

I survived the 54 hour trip and arrived in Lhasa in one piece! The two things I wanted the most were a nice, comfortable room, and a hot shower. There was a bit of snafu with the hotel I booked online (turned out they can't accept foreigners. Then why the hell do they have a English website?). No matter, a good somaritan found me a hotel that's nicer (it has to be, it's 'certified' to serve foreigners). In fact, they gave me a suite at a lower price than I would've paid at the first hotel. I was in heaven!

I have to at least talked about the trip getting here. From Urumqi I double back down the Hexi Corridor in Gansu province. I'd been in Gansu and Xinjiang for almost two weeks now, and I'm glad to leave them behind. Not that I've got anything against the place; quite the contrary, I loved Dunhuang and Kanas. This culturally rich region is also one of the poorest in the country, yet most diverse both ethnically and geologically, but I"m just looking forward to the next leg of my journey.

I got myself a soft sleeper to Lanzhou (capital of Gansu) for some quiet & comfort. After the last few days bunking with roommates, it was 'Me Time'. I slept, then I slept more on the 21 hour train ride, then I got on a bus for 4 more hours to Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, bordering Tibet, and the start of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The province has often been overlooked, with its more famous cousin Tibet in the south, and history-laden Gansu to the east, and the vast Xinjiang to the north. However, the province is home to hundreds of monasteries, countless nomad camps dotting the grasslands, and birthplace of Dalai Lama. Xining is not on the equal footing with Lanzhou in terms of historical significance, but that has helped it developed into a very modern city in just a few years. Driving into the city, I lost count at 84 the number of construction cranes I saw busily putting up skyscrapers in addition to the ones already standing. Lanzhou, on the other hand, looked cramped and had very little construction (it is also one of the most polluted city in China, I'm glad my experience consisted of going from train station to bus station 200 meters away).

I've been looking forward to the train ride to Lhasa. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the highest railway in the world and an engineering marvel. I also chose the train because of Lhasa's altitude (3,800 meters, aptly named 'Rooftop of the World'), and many have fell victims to Acute Mountain Sickness (altitude sickness). The train ride's gradual climb up the mountain range offers me a chance to acclimatize vs. flying. I got on the train at about 11pm (it was delayed 3 hours) and went straight to bed, by morning (7am) we were still in Qinghai province, but miles away from any recognizable civilization. The train wound its way thru valleys and canyons, sometimes making big loops depending on what the mountains have to say. To the northwest I spot the Kunlun Mountain Range, with its snow-capped mountain tops year round, and somewhere in there is Shangri-la, immortalized by James Hilton.

We had to climb over Tanggula holy mountain (5,000 meters) in order to cross into Tibet. Sometimes we'd be moving at a snail's pace despite two locomotives pulling; it's hard to notice we're climbing. The conductor carefully monitored the oxygen level, and turns on the oxygen vent whenever necessary. Once we passed the mountain ranges the scenery didn't change much, grasslands stretching as far as eyes can see, and antelope sightings became the only entertainment on this monotonous portion of the ride. 48 hours into this trip and I was barely holding on, growing more claustrophobic by the seconds, any romance associated with train travel were the last thing on my mind. Incredibly, we arrived on schedule (what happened to the 3 hour delay in Xining?), and I was one of the first to get off the train and smell the fresh air.

Having showered and half-decent sleep on a hard bed without people constantly around me, I was ready to explore Lhasa. The city is divided into two sections and the western part, mostly ethnic Han, was bland and offered nothing interesting. I naturally gravitated toward Barkohr (Tibetan section), with its colorful and rich humanity. The neighborhood was a maze; addresses and names are useless here and even the locals were completely clueless beyond their immediate surrounding alleys. No maps of the area exist (no one brave enough to take on the monumental task), and the whole area is an interesting mix of stores, produce market, communal housing (apartments, or rooms, sharing a court yard and other facilities. You'll get the idea if you've ever seen the movie Kung Fu Hustle, but on a much smaller scale and lesser conditions). I had to meet someone there and went to six places that had the same name. After phoning him for help, he came to get me and even he had difficulty finding where I was.

The central feature in Barkohr is the Jokhang Temple, the holiest temple in Tibet. My first visit there was early in the morning, when locals and pilgrims came to pray. Many of the pilgrimages took months to get here; the trips would have been considerably faster if they didn't stop every 3 steps to bow, kneel, and kiss the ground, all the while chanting the sutras. I joined the crowd of worshippers who were circling the temple grounds as part of their ritual, called Kora (you always walk clockwise, with the temple always to your right). While I'm not religious at all, the walk was nonetheless a powerful spiritual experience. I revisited the temple in the afternoon to catch the monks engaging in lively debates of the scripture. While one was seated, the other would recite a passage, interpret its meanings, then snap his hands and make a motion toward the other. The gesture signified a sort of enlightenment, and when it was done in a tiny courtyard with hundreds of monks, it became quite a sight to see.

I met my Tibetan friends for dinner in Barkohr at the hotel own by one of them. He rescued the building from being torn down, and spent 4 years to restore it, hiring foreign architects to preserve the original Tibetan architecture design, and modelled the interior after the Potala Palace, with intricate woodwork and modern touches (furniture in the restaurant were from Italy, china and silverware from England, and salt shaker from IKEA, he laughed about it). I regretted not staying at his hotel, with its rich ambiance and hotel guests full of colorful characters (mostly ex-pats who have been coming to Tibet for 30 years). In contrast, my hotel was a bland business hotel with zero personality. We had a wonderful dinner (the chef was a Tibetan who studied at a 5-star hotel in India), enjoyed interesting stories from two guests who were frequent travellers to Tibet and Nepal, and just an unforgettable evening, by far the best night I've had in China, and one of the best nights I've had, period.

The next morning I rose early to visit the Potala Palace. For crowd control, I had to stop by the ticketing office the day before to pick up a voucher that would guarantee me entry at the specified time. From the outside, the Potala Palace is everything you'd expect. It dominates the city (you could see it from the train coming into the city), and there's a strict restrction on building heights in Lhasa to ensure its residents can see the Palace from any locations without obstructions. Words fail to describe its magnifcence and I couldn't believe I was standing right in front of it, even though my hotel was right next to it and I've walked pass it several times, during the day, at night...I was still in awe of it.

To visit Potala Palace, you have to be prepared to climb stairs. It was built in the 7th century by the greatest Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, and was later used by Dalai Lama was both the political and religious seat of the Tibet. The Palace was meant to induce awe-inspring feeling and to dominate its visitors with a sense of grandeur. The intricate details (murals, woodwork on the paneling and columns) and the volume of relics was incredible and became a bit sensory overload after awhile. I highly recommend that you study the history of Tibet and its religion before you visit, then go by yourself instead of joing a tour group. Tour groups functioned like a conveyer belt, time-stamped when they go in, and have only one hour or otherwise the guide would be penalized. They were truly 'walking tours' with the guide speaking and walking non-stop, leaving no time to study and appreciate in any great length. By contrast, I spent nearly 3 hours there and felt I glossed over quite a bit. Like I said, one can only take in so many statues relics.

Perhaps it was due to the way I was brought up, the Tibetan religion (and on the whole, the Eastern religions) always had a mythical quality to it that set them apart from the western religions. I've always felt that religion and culture are so intertwined for Asians that we have a much healthier view of religion as a philosophy (religion, by definition, is an institution of Men). However, I must admit that this experience allowed me to reconsider that all religions are highly politicized and the Dalai Lamas are no different from Popes, who can be corrupt, deceitful, and promoting hero-worshipping in the worst kind of way. Seeing the pilgrims and what they go through on their long journey to Lhasa, I'm not sure whatever they get back in return was worth the effort they put in, yet on the other hand, it is not my place to judge as long as they're willing and peace of mind can be achieved.

NOTE: I'm merely stating my thoughts and do not wish to engage in any debates about religion, so please do not leave comments (especially inflammatory) regarding the last passage.

My stay in Lhasa drew to a close and it was well worth the trouble of getting here. What made the place so special was the friends I met here. That's the one thing I've learned from this journey, which is that people made places special above everything else (history, culture, sights...). Lhasa was special because of the friends, Dunhuang was special because of the people there. I hope to be able to revisit my friends again and have them show me the many other faces of Tibet.

permalink written by  Chihyau on July 6, 2010 from Lhasa, China
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
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Trip continues to sound amazing. I hope Mongolia lives up to high standard set by Tibet. Reminder - I have no interest ingift of dry yak dung. Pls leave by the roadside on your yurt stay trying to relive 'Hero' desert sequence.

permalink written by  Bianca s on July 10, 2010

Kung Fu Hustle! Now theres a good reason to make KFH2 so you can have some more things to compare your trip to!!lol

That palace looks AMAZING!!!! Im going to add it to the list of things to visit, so thanks for the intel!

permalink written by  Robert on July 12, 2010

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