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Travels: 24 hours in Lhasa

November 24, 2009

Take a train to Tibet on the worldroof plus tours around Tibet
Sydney Morning Herald
November 21, 2009

Louise Southerden mixes with monks and pilgrims
in the breathtaking heart of Tibetan Buddhism.

Yak-butter lamps, murmuring monks, prayer wheels,
prostrating pilgrims - you don't have to be
interested in Buddhism to visit Lhasa, the
capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but it helps.

Buddhist temples and rituals, monks and
monasteries occupy a central place in the lives
of most Tibetans. That's not all there is to
Lhasa, of course. Fifty years of Chinese
government has brought much development, for one
thing: new roads, the railway from Beijing, new
rules. Still, Lhasa retains its essential
Tibetan-ness, especially in the quarter called
the Barkhor. Base yourself here and there's a
good chance you'll feel the beating heart of Tibet.

7am
Rising at this hour means getting up in the dark,
even in summer - China has only one time zone and
Lhasa is more than 4000 kilometres west of
Beijing - but it's worth it because this is when
the city is most alive. After breakfast (the
aptly named Snowland Restaurant has great
pancakes), join the procession of pilgrims
walking clockwise around the Potala Palace on a
half-hour pilgrimage circuit called a kora.

Snowland Restaurant, next to Snowland Hotel on Zangyiyuan Road in the Barkhor.

9am
Two things can take your breath away in Lhasa:
the altitude (it's 3600 metres above sea level)
and the Potala. Situated on a hill overlooking
the Barkhor, it has an imposing presence - and a
lot of steps (about 300). Once a self-contained
world, with chapels, schools, tombs, even jails,
the Potala is now an enormous 13-storey museum
comprising a White Palace (where Dalai Lamas once
lived and received visitors) and a Red Palace
(containing the elaborate tombs of the fifth to
the 13th Dalai Lamas). Because it's so popular,
only 2300 tickets are issued daily so a time slot
must be booked the day before by your guide.
Security is tight, too, and photography inside is forbidden.

Potala Palace, Beijing Donglu (Beijing East
Road), entry 100 yuan ($16), open 9am-3.30pm.

11am
After seeing what was once the Dalai Lama's
winter palace, it makes sense to visit his summer
one: Norbulingka, a short drive west of the
Potala. The current 14th Dalai Lama lived here
until 1959; it is the place from which he fled,
disguised as a Chinese soldier, to begin his life
in exile on the other side of the Himalayas, in
Dharamsala, northern India. It's also where
you'll find the only remaining picture of him in
Lhasa: a painting in a dimly lit corner (images
of His Holiness are banned in Tibet). Unlike the
Potala, Norbulingka looks eerily familiar. It's a
two-storey house with chrysanthemums lining the
garden path, 1950s furnishings and bathroom
fittings, even a radio. There used to be wild
deer and a zoo in the grounds; now there's a pond
inhabited by ducks bought in the market and released here by locals.

Norbulingka, Norbulingka Road, entry 60 yuan, open 9am-6.30pm.

1pm
Tibetan offices and shops often close for long
lunches but there are plenty of tourist-friendly
restaurants that stay open, such as Tibet Steak
House, which serves sandwiches and pizzas if you
don't fancy yak steak (there are yak pizzas if you want to compromise).

Tibet Steak House, 49 Middle Beijing Road, open 8am-10.30pm.

3pm
Lhasa's two great Gelugpa monasteries (Gelugpa is
the "yellow hat" sect of Tibetan Buddhism), named
Sera and Drepung, are both worth visiting. Sera,
built in 1419 and five kilometres north of the
city, is best in the afternoon, when you can see
Buddhist monks debating. Pop in to a chapel or
two, such as Yamantaka, where parents bring their
children to be blessed by a horse-headed Buddha.
Then wander to the shady courtyard where you'll
see 20 or 30 pairs of maroon-robed monks: one
monk stands, firing existential questions; the
other monk, seated, tries to answer them. It's
all in Tibetan, so it's like watching a
foreign-language movie without subtitles, but it's energetic and fun.

Sera Monastery, entry 55 yuan, open 9am-5pm, debating is on weekdays 3-5pm.

4pm
Back in the Barkhor, head for Jokhang Temple, the
most revered and popular temple in Tibet. If
you're lucky you'll see monks chanting in the
main meditation hall. One of the most interesting
things about monasteries in Tibet, however, is
the Tibetans who visit them: Khampa women with
pieces of coral, turquoise and bone braided into
their hair; nomads from outlying districts who
bring melted yak butter in thermoses to pour into
the lamps; people stooping under cabinets piled
high with Buddhist scriptures to receive
blessings. From the roof there are views of the
Barkhor, the mountains surrounding Lhasa and the Potala.

Jokhang Temple, entry 80 yuan, open 9am-5.30pm.

5pm
The kora around the Jokhang takes about 20
minutes and is an ideal way to browse the
souvenir stalls on Barkhor Street, which
encircles the temple. There's everything from
cheap (and probably Nepali-made) prayer wheels,
turquoise necklaces and strings of mala beads, to
chubas (long coat-dresses), striped aprons worn
by married Tibetan women and cowboy hats (hats
are big in Tibet, in both senses of the word,
because the alpine sun is so strong). There's a
labyrinth of backstreets to explore, too, where
you might even glimpse old Lhasa: women sitting
at sewing machines in cobbled alleyways, tiny
shopfronts selling monks' robes, tables stacked
with slabs of yak butter, children playing on wooden carts.

6pm
When you've completed your kora, find a spot to
sit and watch people prostrating on the
flagstones in front of the Jokhang's west-facing
entrance in the day's last light. Their
concentration and dedication is something to
behold. Many wear wooden paddles and heavy canvas
aprons to protect their hands and chests as they
slide along the ground. It's a popular hangout
for Tibetans and tourists alike; don't be
surprised if a young Tibetan wanders over to practise her English with you.

7pm
One of the best spots in the Barkhor, especially
on summer evenings, is the rooftop terrace of the
New Mandala Restaurant, which has views across to
the Jokhang. For less than $10, you can feast on
yak-filled momo (Tibetan dumplings) or a yak
burger with fries, some tsampa (barley flour, a
Tibetan staple) with yoghurt and a Lhasa beer.
Don't expect to see fish on the menu: Tibetans
would rather eat yak because, in line with
Buddhist ethics, they believe if an animal gives
up its life, it ought to feed as many people as possible.

New Mandala Restaurant, Lubu Road, in front of Jokhang Temple, open 7am-10pm.

9pm
It's a 10-minute walk from the New Mandala to the
paved square in front of the Potala, via a
man-made lake, where you can see reflections of
the floodlit palace - the lights are switched on
about 8pm and turned off about 10.30pm. From the
square, where fountains are synchronised with
rousing orchestral music, it's hard not to be
impressed: the Potala is even more striking at night than in the daytime.

10pm
There's not much in the way of nightlife in Lhasa
- most Tibetans head home as soon as the stalls
on the Barkhor close to watch TV or play mahjong.
Take a pedal-powered rickshaw back to your hotel
and hold on - it's not for the faint-hearted. If
the altitude is giving you insomnia, head for the
Tibet Summit Fine Art Cafe, run by an American
photographer in the courtyard of the Shangbala
Hotel, for a late-night espresso, frothy chai or slice of New York cheesecake.

Tibet Summit Fine Art Cafe, 1 Denjielin Road, see thetibetsummitcafe.com.

Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Helen Wong's Tours.

***********
FAST FACTS

Getting there
The nearest major airport is Chengdu. For about
$1000, China Eastern Airlines flies to Chengdu
via Shanghai. (Fare is low-season return from
Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.) Most major
Asian airlines fly into Chengdu via their hub
port — for example, Cathay Pacific flies via Hong
Kong. Air China has a one-way fare from Chengdu
to Lhasa for $246, including tax. Australians
require a visa for China and a Tibet travel
permit. Independent travel is not permitted in Tibet.

Touring there
Helen Wong's Tours has several itineraries,
including a seven-day Lhasa and Chengdu tour,
from $3470 a person, twin share, not including
international air fares and visas; and a 20-day
Tibet and Yangtze tour, from $6990 a person, twin
share, including air fares, visas and a two-day
rail journey from Beijing. See helenwongstours.com.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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