Lhasa

May 6-8, 2009

This is the second of two posts about our week-long tour in Tibet.  The last post covered the overland route from Kathmandu to Lhasa.  This post covers Lhasa itself.

The City

As you roll into Lhasa, there are a few things that are impossible to miss.

First off, it’s a fairly large, modern city.  The roads are good, there are trees everywhere, and in the city center you find rows of brand-name shops.  There are various apartment blocks and billboards advertising new corporate parks under development.  Schools kids ride around town in their standard uniforms: warm-up suits.  It feels like a forward-looking western city.

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Rickshaw drivers just keep getting younger!  🙂

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The second obvious thing is that there’s a heavy military presence.  One of the first things our guide said as we reached  Lhasa was “don’t photograph the military”.  If the military sees you taking their photo, they’ll force you to delete the picture, or confiscate your memory card, or worse.  But with so many of them around it’s impossible not to catch soldiers in some photo.  It makes us think of the situation around monuments in the US, e.g. if you visit Lincoln Memorial in DC you’ll probably see a bunch of police around, and in some of those places photography is not allowed for security reasons.  Still, it’s strange in Lhasa to see so many guys in green fatigues.  Even stranger, one night we saw a couple of armored vehicles rolling through the narrow alleys of the Barkhor neighborhood!  It just seems like the kind of place where you don’t want to mess with authority.  And indeed we saw very few signs of resistance.

Soldiers patrolling the square in front of Jokhang Temple:

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One of the few signs of dissidence we saw in Lhasa (it may have just been juvenile):

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And the last thing you really can’t miss is the big Potala Palace.  More on that below.

Barkhor

There is one neighborhood in Lhasa that retains its old look: the Barkhor neighborhood.  It’s a labyrinth of alleys and it contains both Jokhang Temple and a market that stretches forever.  This is where our hotel happened to be (Trichang Labrang Hotel – a very cool place surrounding a relaxed garden).

Pnina in the Barkhor neighborhood:

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Textiles and religious items on sale:

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An advertisement for some dental services in the market:

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Twice, while we were walking around near Barkhor, we met Tibetan girls studying English.  They just came up to us to chat and to practice speaking English, and they were very nice.  One of them took a 20 minute detour to help us find our way to the Muslim quarter (below).  It sounds like all of them are hoping to become tour guides when they graduate; we wonder if there will be enough jobs for them all.

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The Muslim Quarter

At the eastern end of Barkhor there’s a small Muslim neighborhood.  Our book says that these Muslims immigrated from Pakistan about 500 years ago, and I guess that’s enough time for their Pakistani features to be fully bread out because they looked fully Tibetan to us.  The only way we could tell them apart was by their white caps.  As with Zanzibar, this was the kind of Muslim neighborhood where Pnina and I felt no concern speaking Hebrew or identifying ourselves as Israeli.

The Mosque in the Muslim neighborhood was under construction:

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A Muslim man wearing a standard white cap:

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Very sweet tea full of various nuts and flowers, from a restaurant in the Muslim neighborhood:

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Potala and People’s Park

On our first evening in Lhasa we walked over to the big square in front of Potala Palace.  The Chinese build this “People’s Park” and in some ways it resembles Tianeman Square in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing.  At one end there’s a big Chinese flag.  At the other end there’s a monument to the “liberation of Tibet”, with statues of Chinese and Tibetan working people with optimistic expressions.  In between there’s a huge open space where police march and photographers roam offering tourists a chance to don cheesy Tibetan clothes and to pose for a shot (many Chinese tourists take them up on the offer).  Around sunset you can catch a dancing-water show in front of the white monument.  It’s extremely contrived and it reminds us of the Bellagio hotel in Vegas, but at the same time it’s just really well done – it’s hard not to get caught up watching the fountains or the kids trying to run between the jets.  The fountains almost distract you from the real attraction, the Potala Palace itself.  But Potala is just so huge and imposing that nothing beats it.  We’re a little surprised that there wasn’t a picture or statue of Mao in the square.

Pnina in the square.  You can see the Chinese flag in front of Potala Palace:

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Looking in the other direction – the white monument:

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A Chinese tourist in costume Tibetan clothes poses for a photo:

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The Palace seen from an observation deck just west of the square:

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The dancing water show as dusk falls:

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This kid was awesome – he kept trying to launch his inflatable Power Ranger doll on a jet of water:

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Drepung Monastery

The next day our guide took us to Drepung monastery.  This one was established in 1416 and at one time it was the largest monastery in the world, home to ten thousand monks by the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama in the 1600’s (we get the impression that the Fifth Dalai Lama was an important guy – Tibetan Buddhism expanded in a big way under his watch).  Drepung survived the cultural revolution and still operates as a monastery today, though it has fewer monks.

A few more things we learned while there:

  • There are (at least) two styles of Tibetan Buddhism.  Manayana is the stricter form, in which once you decide to become a monk you’re committed for life.  Hinayana is the “reformed” style in which you can become a monk for a couple of years and then go back to normal civilian life.
  • Inside the temples you often see offerings of water in small metal bowls.  Why water?  Because that’s something that all pilgrims can afford (not everyone can afford to bring yak butter).
  • What’s the deal with the butter lamps?  Why do so many pilgrims bring yak butter and pour it into the various lamps?  The idea is that this light will help you see your way between lives.
  • Tibetans believe in 1122 Buddhas.  Every one of them was a man who lived some time ago and found enlightenment.  This reminds us of Christianity’s saints.  Besides the Buddhas there are also gods, thousands of them.  We’re confused about what part of this theology was described in the original scriptures and what part came about over the centuries.

The monastery complex was very large and we only saw a small portion.  We did get to see a throne that the Dalai Lama used to host teaching/meditation sessions when he visited.  We also got a nice view of the valley from above.

A pilgrim walks with his rosaries:

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One of the temples in the monastery grounds:

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Which way?

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Toy monks in the gift shop:

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A painting on one of the walls; it looked very comic-book like to us, and it’s obviously modern (notice the gas tanks):

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Sera Monastery

Another monastery we visited just outside of Lhasa.  The temples here were nice enough, but the real attraction was a garden where we saw dozens of monks debating.  Pnina and I saw this kind of thing near the Dalai Lama’s residence in Daramsala, but here the debate was much bigger.  Each teacher had several pupils sitting in a circle around him.  He would pick one and blast his question at him, ending with a loud clap of the hands.  Some of these teachers were real showmen 🙂  We asked our guide what the debates were all about but he had a tough time translating; the Tibetan language spoken by monks is pretty different from the Tibetan spoken by most people, and in addition there are dialect differences from one region to another.  Anyhow, it was still fun to watch.

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A teacher shouts his question at one of the pupils and claps his hand; it was almost WWF-like:

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Jokhang Temple

Jokhang temple sits in the middle of the old Barkhor neighborhood.  While there’s nothing bigger than Potala Palace, and while Potala was important as the old home of the Dalai Lama and the seat of government, Jokhang is the holiest temple in the Tibetan Buddhist world.  Why?  Among other reasons, because it contains the Jowo Sakyamuni statue which was part of the dowry brought by the Chinese Princess Wencheng when she married the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century.  To us it looked like yet another golden Buddha statue, but Tibetans see it as their most sacred object.  The temple also contains a smarll carving of a golden goat.  It’s so small and out of the way that I had to go into the room twice before I spotted it; it really seems like an afterthought, but again it’s one of the most important statues to Tibetan Buddhists.

Tibetan pilgrims flock to this temple.  You see them in front of the temple doing prostrations – a kind of “push-up” that goes from fully upright to fully flat on the ground.  Our guide told us that Tibetans aim to do 10,000 of these “pushups” in their lifetime.  The truly hard-core Tibetans travel all the way to Lhasa by doing these pushups (e.g. do a pushup, walk two steps, do another pushup, etc.).

Inside the temple the pilgrims go from one room to another, praying, donating money, and pouring yak butter into all the lamps.  It was so crowded that we didn’t bother trying to enter most of the rooms.  But the atmosphere was wonderful and there were beautiful shafts of light cutting into the dark.  We wish we could have taken photographs inside but it was strictly forbidden (unlike the other temples, here you couldn’t even pay for the permission to take photos).

Pilgrims bowing in front of the Jokhang entrance:

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Vendors near the entrance sell thermoses of hot (liquid) yak butter for pilgrims to donate inside:

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After passing through the crowds inside the temple, we spent time strolling around the perimeter (here photography was allowed):

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The view over the square in front of Jokhang temple.  You can see Potala Palace to the right:

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A monk wanders in the square below:

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Visiting Potala Palace

To go inside Potala Palace you need to register with the authorities a couple days beforehand; that’s probably the main reason why we spent three nights in Lhasa (which also gave us a chance to see other sights, so it’s OK).

This visit was very different from the other temples and monasteries we’d seen so far.  Potala is set up strictly for tourism.  At the entrance you need to show your passport.  Your bag is checked for security reasons and you can’t bring certain items inside (even water!).  There are velvet ropes to mark the allowed path and visitors are not allowed to stray.  Once you enter the building, you have up to one hour to be inside (why?  because “the building is brittle”, or at least that’s what the authorities say).  On this tour, for the first time, we had a Chinese escort along with our regular guide, who is Tibetan (in retrospect we find it surprising that the authorities didn’t force us to go with a Chinese guide the whole time, to make sure we’re fed their version of the story).  Most importantly, very few Tibetan pilgrims are allowed to enter Potala, and even they cannot cross the velvet rope.  This means that the pilgrims cannot pour their yak butter offering directly into the lamps, but must instead hand their pitchers to the caretaker monks.  These monks, by the way, are not allowed to wear robes.

So, while Potala is unbelievably huge, and while the rooms inside the palace are impressive, it lacks the atmosphere of the other sites, especially Jokhang.  It’s a sad place.  It feels like a cold museum.

As with Jokhang, photography inside is not allowed, but here’s the gist of what we saw.  There were rooms that served as the Dalai Lama’s residence – the room where he slept, the room where he received guests.  There were precious artifacts, e.g. solid gold mandala statues (showing the wheel of life).  And there were a few rooms, each with a stupa housing the ashes of one of the prior Dalai Lamas.  The largest by far was the 5th Dalai Lama: it was 12.6 meters high and covered in 3,721 kilograms of gold.

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After visiting Potala we were funneled into a large gift shop.  The prices here were outrageous, but it was still fun to see the crafts.

Carpets:

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Thankas – detailed drawings made by artisan monks.  They are often painted with real gold.  Some of them are mandalas, showing the Tibetan wheel of life:

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Palhalupuk Temple

Pnina and I visited one other temple on our own – Palhalupuk Temple.  This temple is located on the side of a rocky hill next to the Potala Palace.  We chose to go there because we heard it’s far less crowded, which was true.  Unfortunately, the temple was undergoing repair, so it was full of scaffolding and occasionally noisy.  Still, photography was allowed inside (a first) and the monks were friendly.

Before reaching the temple we stopped at the Golden Yaks statue – yet another Chinese monument to the liberation of Tibet:

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Artists carve Buddhist scriptures into rock slabs.  You can see hundreds of these slabs scattered around the temples and nearby hills:

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The temple sits on the side of a rocky hill:

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Bills inserted into a wire mesh inside the temple.  Most were 1-yen notes, not worth too much.  Still, it’s impressive to see so many of them together:

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A Yak-butter lamp:

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This monk was hilarious; after posing with me he grabbed my forearm and said that I’m too skinny and need to work out 🙂

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We Fuck the Fakeshit

All around Tibet we saw shops selling trucker-style hats with big text reading “We Fuck the Fakeshit”.  We don’t know what these hats are all about.  Maybe it’s just Engrish or maybe it’s a minor act of Tibetan resistance.  A few of the guys in our group thought the hats were awesome, so they each got one.  Soon the fad spread and we had an informal “We Fuck the Fakeshit” club.  Four guys from this club (the four Americans studying in Hong Kong) had to leave the trip one day early because of a screwup in their train tickets.  The night before they left we all went out for a proper farewell.  We started in a low-key bar, but then we moved to a lively Tibetan club.  There was a stage with rotating performers – mostly singers and dancers dressed in traditional clothes.  The packed crowd sat in tables all around the stage, drinking one room-temperature beer after another (cold beer is hard to come by in western China; the locals just don’t seem to mind warm beer).

At first things were civil.  We sat at our tables having our drinks.  Perhaps we cheered a little loudly, but nothing excessive.  Locals would go onstage to drape scarves around the singer’s neck and sit back down.

Then four local girls went onstage to dance, and this was our ticket to follow suit.  All of a sudden most of us foreigners were onstage doing our western dance all over the place.  Pretty soon the stage was full of dancers and everyone was having a good time.  A few people from our group started to worry that with our rowdy dancing we’re offending the locals.  I’m not sure if we were or not.  At any rate, by 1 AM the stage was so full of locals that there wasn’t enough room for us, and we left.

On the way home, one of the American guys decided it would be fun to take a picture of the soldiers that happened to march in front of us.  Now, if only he had the sense to turn off his flash, maybe they wouldn’t have noticed.  But he did use a flash and of course they noticed and turned their attention to us, and soon all of us was saying “oh shit”.  I can imagine all sorts of ways that this situation could have turned out bad, but luckily these soldiers were cool enough about it.  They made sure we erased the one photo and then they moved on.  Whew!

Starting the night with drinks in a posh bar:

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A dance performance in the club:

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Carlo onstage dancing with a local guy:

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More of us onstage:

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Final shot back at the hotel:

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By the way, Pnina and I held out – we never got our own We Fuck the Fakeshit hats.  I was hoping to find a place that does custom hats and to get one that reads “I Make the Fakeshit”, you know, just to be different.  But I never found a custom hat place, so the idea fell.

China’s View of The “Tibet Issue”

Before leaving Lhasa I happened to glance through a magazine in our hotel’s lobby, and by chance this issue had an article about Tibet.  I found it very interesting to see the language the Chinese use to describe the situation in Tibet.  Here are a couple quotes from the article…

The “Tibet Issue” was conceived at a time when Western imperialists were determined to invade and carve up China.  They wooed and promoted separatist forces in Tibet from among the serf-owning class, which likewise wished to split Tibet from China with the support of imperialists.  Between them, the two sides colluded and fabricated the “Tibet Issue”.  Today, Western anti-China forces, led principally by sinophobes in the upper circles of the United States, have inherited the legacy of the old imperialists by funding and supporting the Dalai Clique in order to oppose China and hinder its rise.  Meanwhile, the Dalai Clique takes every opportunity it can to engage in sabotage in its pursuit of “Tibet Independence.”  That unrealistic dream is the crucial reason for the prolonged existence of the “Tibet Issue.”

Western anti-China forces regard China’s development and rise as an incipient threat to their global hegemony, and they will use every opportunity and method to sabotage China’s peaceful rise.  And the ”Tibet Issue” is not their only card.  They will play other cards as well, such as the “Taiwan Issue,” “human rights,” “democracy,” and “fair trade.”

The article then goes on to describe the great progress made in Tibet since its liberation in 1951: one million serfs emancipated, bumper crops, religious belief respected, Tibetans making up 66% of military forces in the TAR, etc.  It also shows happy photos of all this success – a Tibetan air hostess, a doctor in the People’s Hospital in Tibet, and so on.

Our View

So now that we’ve been to Tibet, what do we think of the way Tibetans are treated in their own homeland?

First off, we should note that we only spent a week in Tibet, and this week was a highly controlled guided tour, so our view is naturally limited.  Having said that…

In general we think Tibetans should at least have the freedom to speak their minds, which is something they clearly don’t have today.  The heavy military presence is repressive and threatening; it’s not something you see in most of the rest of China.  It’s also unfair that Tibetans have little chance of getting administrative posts in their own land (those jobs are only given to atheists, which basically means Han Chinese).

But the situation is not strictly black-and-white.

Before China arrived, Tibet was essentially ruled by a religious dictatorship that tolerated serfdom and even slavery (this is not just China’s claim).  It was the ruling classes that had the most to lose when the Chinese arrived; these are the people that fled to India and never returned.  The people left behind, the working classes, were too uneducated to realize the plight of their condition.  It’s interesting that, once in India, the Dalai Lama moved to democratize the Tibetan administration and to bring about equality among all people, and equality is something that communist China also sought to bring to Tibet (at least in theory).

It’s obvious that China has invested a lot of money in Tibet.  Before its arrival there were few roads and no electricity.  Glass windows and concrete were recent introductions.  The only way for locals to get an education was to become monks and study at a monastery (there were no secular schools).  Since arriving, China has poured billions of dollars into the Tibet Autonomous Region, but it’s not clear who benefits most.  China gets more land for its expanding population and untold natural resources.  The Tibetans now have schools, yes, but still literacy in the TAR is lowest in China.

The Hans may already outnumber Tibetans in their own land (it’s hard to get reliable statistics) and they own the lions share of businesses; but most of these Han immigrants are just people trying to earn a living and support their families, and they may not be aware of the political implications of their presence.

Bonus Shot

While wandering around Lhasa trying to find an internet cafe, we happened to find this poster advertising a tattoo shop.  Notice the sample tattoo circled below.  Is that Osama bin Laden??  It’s strange that the shop chose to use this example on their poster.  Notice that it’s the only damaged part of the poster; someone else took offense.

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One response to “Lhasa

  1. Dude, I want one of those hats!

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