A light drizzle greeted me in the morning when I woke up. The Tashilunpo Monastery is the showpiece of the city. The monastery would open only by 8.30 am, Yingchu told us. Accordingly, breakfast was to be at 7.30 am. By the time I reached the buffet hall there were quite a few tourists there. The buffet counters were a mix of the Chinese and Continental fare. There was Tsangpa (powdered barley, which is had with Yak butter tea), Mantou (plain steamed rice cakes), Baozi (stuffed rice cakes), rice porridge, boiled egg, variety of fruits and vegetables, ham, sausage, eggs to order, cakes and bread. I had huge helpings of both Chinese and Continental dishes. A few cups of strong coffee steadied me on course for the day. I completed the check out with help from Yingchu, of course. It was one of the best places we had lived in during the course of the journey.
The entrance fee to the Monastery is Yuan 80 per head. At the entrance Yingchu explained how the Buddhists comprised of many sects, the most prominent among them being the yellow hat Buddhists. Both the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama belong to the yellow hat sect. The back Tibet with Shigatse as the capital was the domain of the Panchan Lama, while front Tibet with Lhasa as its capital was the domain of the Dalai Lama. Panchan Lama gained prominence from the time of the 4th since it was only from then that the title started getting used. Since the Cultural Revolution in China the Panchan Lama was the acceptable spiritual leader of the Buddhists in China. The Dalai Lama had sought refuge in India with his followers, where he has set up his command station in Dharamshala. The Tashilunpo Monastery was established around 1440 in a small way. Over the years it got expanded under the guidance of successive Panchan Lamas to attain the status that it has today. The tombs of the 4th, 10th and the common one for the 5th to 9th Panchan Lamas are centres of worship and prayer. The tombs are guarded by engraved animals and guards! The highlight of the monastery is the huge Assembly Hall that can seat 2000 monks together. The hall also contains books on Buddhism. Devotees crawl beneath the stack of manuscripts and books; it is believed that this fills the person with strength and knowledge contained in the books. It is the same concept as that of the prayer wheels. Each wheel has a prayer encased in it. Turning the wheel in clockwise direction is deemed to be recitation of the prayer encased in it. This may have been enshrined to ensure that the unlettered and illiterate are not left out of the worship and prayer process. The buildings in the huge complex either have white or brown walls; thiose with white walls are non-prayer accommodation that is used for residence, storage, library, etc. the brown walled buildings are holy places that contain tombs or prayer halls. Offerings of devotees are normally Yak butter and cash. In one of the buildings I saw monks counting cash offerings. Every window and door has a curtain strung around it. They are just about a foot high. It looked as if it is only meant to protect the wooden portion above the window and door, besides being decorative. The premise has a huge white wall on which huge paintings are displayed during the 3-day Buddha Festival. Three panels are unfurled, one on each day of the festival, signifying the past, present and future.
The square in front of the monastery has a few pieces of sculpture depicting daily life. The place is also used by devotees to prostrate and say their prayers. I was told that devotees walk to Mansarovar and Lhasa saying their prayers and doing the four step prostration all through the route. Such pilgrimage takes years to complete. Lined on the either side of the road leading to the square are stalls vending artefacts, fruits and food. It had taken me more than an hour to explore the monastery and the surrounding areas. Thereafter, Yingchu guided me expertly to S202 (she said that the scenery along this route was better than the G318 and she was right) which took us to the city of Gyantse, where the Baiju Monastery is located. Baiju was also thrilled to see road signs in his name as well as a street named after him! The monastery is unique in the sense that it contains 77 prayer halls, each one different from the other. I chose to skip the Yuan 60 per head tour.
Leaving the city of Gyantse, for a short distance we took motored on S204. Yingchu soon realised that it was not the one we had to take to Lhasa. We drove back to Gyantse and took G307. On this route we had to observe two speed tickets of 36 kms each to be done in 45 minutes and the final one of 96 kms in 120 minutes. The road was in good condition and we had to wait just ahead of the check points at two places to comply with the speed restriction. The Kharola Glacier is an amazing sight on the way. The top of the glacier is about 5600 m and is one of the three major continental glaciers in Tibet, which feeds the Nyangchu River. The glacier extends like a white tongue on the gentle slope of the mountain. The snowy white of the glacier and the black rocks at the side and bottom of the mountain forms a wonderful contrast. This glacier is a favorite with movie makers, I understand. We had to hustle through photos due to the biting cold and jostling Tibetan ladies dressed in their traditional dress asking for money.
Lakes, like mountains, are revered by the Tibetans. They are deemed to be dwelling places of protective deities. The Yamdrok Lake is one of the four holy lakes, which even the Dalai Lama visits as a pilgrim. The lake is so sacred that it is beleievd that if the lake dries up Tibet will no longer be habitable. The fan shaped lake is more than 70 kms long. Fish in the lake provide economic sustenance to the people in the surrounding areas. We stopped at many locations on the way to savor the size of the lake. At one point we drove very close to the lake, which Yingchu said is a popular camping site. That was quite evident considering the heaps of empty beer bottles and soft drinks. The view of the lake from the Gampa La Pass at 4800m was irresistible, despite it being cloudy. If the sky had been blue it would have been quite another matter. However, chill winds got us back into the car in no time.
It was another 100 kms to Lhasa from the Pass. The highlight of that sector was the drive on the Freeway to the Lhasa airport. The maximum speed on the freeway is 100 kmph while the minimum is 60. It is beautifully maintained. The drive in cities and now the freeway gave me enough confidence on the right side of the road, of course with someone navigating from the front passenger seat, since with a RH drive overtaking is hazardous. We arrived right in front of the Tibet Baiyi Hotel, expertly navigated by Yingchu. After checking into the commodious three-bed room Yingchu took us out to experience a Hotpot dinner.
We took a taxi from the hotel to the restaurant, Wei Lu, located in a newly opened shopping mall some distance away from where we were lodged. The drive gave us a glimpse of the Potala Palace and lively walkways. The restaurant was noisy, not just from the lively chatter and loud laughter of customers but also from cheerful banter of the employees. Yingchu ordered Lotus root, Pork Balls, Spicy Beef, Tofu, Shrimp dumplings and lettuce. We had to fix a sauce in a bowl from among the huge display of oils, herbs, spices and chilli that was on a separate common counter. I mixed a bowl and went to the table that had four burners on it. the food came within minutes of the order. The first to arrive was a large bowl of frozen soup. The burner was turned on full and soon the soup started to boil. Then, one by one I put in the ingredients of the soup like spicy beef, pork balls, etc. they are cooked in the soup as it boils. As the ingredients get cooked they have to be ‘dished out’ from the boiling soup bowl and dipped in the sauce before being sent on their journey down the gullet. The food was delicious, the only embarrassment being the use of chopsticks. The dish is designed for chopstick users! However, clumsily using a combination of chopsticks and a soup spoon, I did full justice to the meal. Banana fritters helped ‘cool down’ the palate.
We returned by taxi to the hotel for a peaceful nights’ rest. It had been a long day – 390 kms and 12 hours. 5000 kms have been covered, which is more than 20% of the journey. As I turned in, my thoughts were on the visit to Potala Palace the next day.