Thursday, July 3, 2014

DAY 17 – 2 July 2014; In Lhasa

The hotel had given coupons for breakfast in the restaurant. I found it almost impossible to locate the restaurant for all directions were in Mandarin. I was told that it is on the 3rd floor. I reached what looked like the restaurant, but found a few people sleeping on the floor. Then I found a chap hurrying down the corridor with the breakfast coupon in hand. I followed him and reached the breakfast area. It was a Chinese spread. I helped myself to a couple of cakes, Baozi and three eggs. Another helping of cakes and Baozi and I was ready for coffee. The waiters in the restaurant looked perplexed when I asked for coffee; they asked me to have a glass of milk instead!

First on the agenda was the Potala Palace. The entrance charges are very steep – Yuan 200 for pre-booking (without which one cannot enter) and Yuan 200 for entrance ticket! I understood from Tensing, the local guide arranged by Navo, that the government restricts the number of tourists permitted to visit the Palace per day with the intention of preserving the structure and continuing maintenance. Large number of people circumambulate the outside ring of the Palace through out the day. The Potala Palace was the chief residence of the Dalai Lama till 1959 when the 14th Dalai Lama relocated to India. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and a museum. The construction of the Palace was begun in 1645 during the time of the 5th Dalai Lama. Wood, stone and clay are the only material used to build the 13 storey marvel which contains 1000 rooms, over 10,000 chapels and over 200,000 statues. The Palace is reputed to have taken 45 years to build. The natural materials used keep the interior of the Palace warm in winter and cool in summer. It even has skylight for free flow of air and light and a natural air-conditioning system where air blows up from the floor through slats. The wooden grill of windows is placed in such a manner that fierce winds are blocked. The Palace is an imposing sight from anywhere in Lhasa city since it is at a height of 3700 meters above MSL. The steps leading to the Palace can challenge the unfit. Before entering the main Palace I visited the Mint (which detailed the manner in which coins and currency where made during the time of the Dalai Lama), the Tavern (which showcased the manner in which wine was made from barley in the early days, initially to propitiate the deities) and the Treasure Hall (which had exhibits of treasure from the days of the Dalai Lamas). Entry to the second level of the Palace is restricted to only an hour by when the tour must be completed. The view from the golden canopied terrace of the Palace is majestic. The Potala Square is directly in front of it with a small memorial within it. The Palace was slightly damaged during the 1959 rebellion. However, large number of scriptures and invaluable works are said to have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The White Palace was the official residence of the Dalai Lama, the Red Palace was exclusively for prayer and monastic study and the Yellow building was from where the temporal affairs of Tibet were administered. The Palace also contains the tombs of the Dalai Lamas. The rooms used by each of the Dalai lamas were preserved to respect their contribution. Tensing, the guide, explained the significance of the use of white, red, black and yellow in the context of Buddhist monasteries. White signified purity, Red power, Black and Dark Blue and Yellow continuity. He also mentioned that the five colors of the prayer flags (signifying the five elements) were borrowed from the traditional Bombo religion that people believed in prior to the arrival of Buddhism in the 7th century into Tibet.

It rained heavily as we were touring the Palace. It continued to drizzle when we came out of the Palace and Tensing took us for a chai to one of the stalls close by. Here he bought a flask of sweet tea, tea with milk and sugar. The other option was to have Yak butter tea, which is salty. We decided to have lunch at an Indian restaurant. The options were either Hotel Namasthe or New Mandalay Restaurant. The latter was chosen as recommended by Tensing. The owner of the restaurant is a Nepali. The food was quite good.

The restaurant was in close proximity to the Jakhong Monastery and Barkhor Square. So after lunch we visited the Jakhong Monastery. It is arguably the most important and historically significant monastery in Tibet. The temple was constructed in 7th century AD during the rule of one of the most important kings of Tibet, Songsten Gampo. He took two wives, one from Nepal and the other from China. Both brought with them large number of Buddhist books and idols as part of their dowry and influenced significantly, with Songsten Gampo, the spread of Buddhism in Tibet.  The temple was constructed using a large number of Nepali artisans. Even though the temple has been rebuilt many times during succeeding generations many of the original elements remain such as wooden rafters and beams, door frames columns and finials. Along with Potala Palace it is undoubtedly one of the most important tourist attractions in Lhasa and is a World Heritage site too. It is one of the most important pilgrimage centres for Buddhists the world over.

After the Jokhang Temple it was a walk around of the Barkhor Square. It is a popular devotional circumambulation for pilgrims and devotees. The walk is more than a kilometer long. The square is also a major tourist attraction since it is also a large complex of restaurants and shops that sell Tibetan art and handicrafts. Popular shops were those that sold hats and semi precious stones. The square has also seen a few political demonstrations of significance. Therefore, the deployment of Police is quite significant.

Even though it had become incredibly hot by this time we took a taxi for a brief visit to the Potala Square. After a short while the heat took its toll and we decided to seek refuge in the hotel room. I decided to turn in early after dinner. With this in mind I strolled around the street near the Baiyi Hotel. I entered restaurants with the fond hope of eating some hot food. But none of them had a menu in English I could order from. I gave up the desire for hot food and went into the Baiyi departmental store, where I purchased cold chicken and water. It was still bright despite it being 8 pm. I sat on a bench in the street and polished off the chicken. The act, however, did receive stares from many passersby. I did not care, for the stomach had to be taken care of.

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