High and lows of Lhasa
Traffic belches black fumes against the brilliant blue sky; truckloads of Chinese soldiers rumble through the streets. Add to this theme park Tibet: plaster cranes and brass yaks stand at the Beijing Street roundabout. A Tibetan woman in a stetson is digging a trench at the side of the road. She waves and blows a huge pink bubble of gum.
Suddenly, visible through all the tat and satellite dishes, rises the vast airy bulk of the Potala Palace, its walls a dramatic pattern of whitewash and red ochre and capped with gleaming gold stupas.
The palace was once the Dalai Lama’s winter residence and seat of the Tibetan government, now it’s a lonely symbol of Tibetan culture at the Chinese end of town, hurriedly rescued from plunder and neglect under communist rule.
The ancient capital Lhasa ("Holy Land" in Tibetan) is one of the world’s highest cities, at 3658m above sea level, and dates back 1400 years. In 1949, newly communist China declared it part of the motherland and began a period of occupation. Its Han Chinese migrants outnumber the locals.
Chinese and Western tourism is booming, with more than a million visitors expected this year; add to this the recently opened rail link to Tibet, the Pan Himalayan Beijing Lhasa railway.
Best site: The imposing Potala Palace, whose image graces the back of China’s 50 yuan banknotes, dominates the city. I stand in front of it and gaze up, trying to ignore the renovations, which include a Tiananmen style square to commemorate Tibet’s "liberation".
It’s a steep climb to the palace. The air is thin and I huff and puff, stopping for photographs and swigs of Coca Cola. Inside the palace, I am borne along with a crowd of assorted tour groups, in and out of dimly lit prayer halls painted in shades of vermilion and saffron. There are gilded statues of Buddha and grotesque deities; showcases of figures in gold, copper and brass, some encrusted with moonstones, emeralds and rubies, and racks of ancient scrolls, thangkas and carpets.
I linger at the Dalai Lama’s
cheap ray bans former living quarters, a group of tiny brightly coloured rooms decorated with paintings and carpets, until a guard moves me along. The air is thick with dust and mildew and the odour of yak butter lamps. Shy monks play with kittens tethered on strings. Outside on the roof terraces, I am dazzled by the light and the view of towering mountains across the city.
Best lunch: In Lhasa’s old quarter, the Dunya Restaurant at the Yak Hotel offers a mix of wholesome Western, Chinese and Tibetan dishes, prepared under the watchful eye of a
fake ray bans Dutch co manager. A yak burger with salad and fries seems merited after the morning’s exertions. Iron rich yak is delicious, with little fat. And then there’s the secret house speciality, a pot of "altitude relax tea". A yak burger costs RMB35 ($5.70).
Best spiritual tourism: Resisting the urge to take to my bed (that thin air again), I head around the corner to the heart of the old quarter, a traditional ghetto which hints at what Lhasa once was. It’s a popular haven for Westerners attempting to embrace what is left of Tibetan culture here, and as a result its bustling streets are jammed with backpacker hostels, bars, internet cafes and gift shops, and its roads with bicycle rickshaws, minivans (their horns blaring), and LandCruisers heading out to Mount Kailash or the Nepalese border, beyond Everest Base Camp.
At its heart is Barkhor Square and the Jokhang, Tibet’s most sacred temple. I join a stream of pilgrims, prayer wheels in hand, as they shuffle along its walls, circumambulating a clockwise route while intoning mantras. Other devotees rise, then prostrate themselves in front of the temple’s 7th century portals. For a small fee I join the stream doing a circuit inside the temple. Pillaged by China’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, the Jokhang has been restored.
replica ray bans Monks sit at small desks chanting sutras beneath an army of security cameras.
Best shopping: Hundreds of stalls line Barkhor Square, selling every possible Tibetan artefact, from prayer wheels to jewel encrusted yak skulls, from bear and tiger paws to felt boots and yak felt stetsons worn by locals to ward off the fierce mountain sun. I haggle for fun with some women, their hair piled high, threaded with turquoise and corals, their cheeks burnt black by the sun. Skinny children in rags are in hot pursuit hoping for some small change. Many of the nearby shops are Chinese run but I am in search of what remains of old Tibet so I wander the narrow back streets, children in tow, and find Tibetan workrooms selling traditional costumes and fur trimmed hats and a Muslim quarter where caged birds chirrup to the gentle hum of sewing machines.
Best irony: Designer monks in Ray Bans and Timberland boots chatting on mobile phones stand out in sharp contrast to their impoverished looking colleagues, their pallid complexions the result of years of deprivation and appalling monastery food; these are the ones doing the praying. The monks allowed to live in monasteries are limited in number and are kept under police surveillance. It is said spies are installed in their ranks.
Best side trip: The Ganden Monastery, about 40km from Lhasa, is famous as a site of traditional sky burials in which bodies are dissected and left on stone altars for eagles to consume, releasing the spirit for the next incarnation. The monastery was bombed to the ground when the 1959 uprising was suppressed, but has been rebuilt (with an adjoining police station). After a hair raising drive in a tinny van, zig zagging up winding narrow roads to an altitude of 1370m, I walk the low "kora" (the pilgrim’s circuit) around the monastery, at the back of which is a rubbish dump but there are breathtaking views of the Kyi chu Valley.
Bones are tied to tree branches, alongside paper money; tattered prayer flags flutter from saplings (it is said each time the wind blows, a prayer is released into the air). Cheerful pilgrims cart hessian sacks of mulberry leaves up to the burial site: when they are burned, carrion birds are attracted by the smoke.
Yaks loll amiably amid groups of picnicking locals on a hillside covered with wildflowers. A boy in a sheepskin coat a chuba calls me to his workshop to buy a woodcut.
Best dinner: The Snow Leopard Hotel, off Barkhor Square, is deservedly popular for its food, attracting foreigners and Tibetans. Ravenous after a day in the mountain air, I gorge myself on mushrooms grilled with wild ginseng and vegetable mo mos (dumplings). There is also local beer or the potent chang, a traditional barley alcohol.
Back at the Yak Hotel, cocooned against the traffic and the nightlife karaoke bars and brothels and lulled by the distant strains of Hindi pop music, I down a half carafe of red and take a pot of altitude relax tea to bed.
Best preparation: To ward off altitude sickness, ask your doctor to prescribe Diamox tablets and start taking them
discount ray bans according to instructions before arriving in Lhasa. The ultra violet light is strong, so sunglasses, hats, sunscreen and lip balm are essential. Summer days are hot, but the weather can change quickly and evenings are chilly. Bring a fleece or a shawl and small gifts such as pens to give to the many children you will encounter.Articles Connexes：