Lhasa, Tibet’s Mystical Holy City – July to August 2006

Our Last Mountain Pass!
Because we had biked so hard and rested so little, my legs almost stopped working entirely a few days before we reached the capital. The last mountain pass was especially difficult. A hailstorm pelted us with ice bullets and a fierce wind tried its hardest to push us back down the mountain. Each time that we thought we were in the clear, we turned a bend in the road and headed back into the thick of the storm! The road got steeper and steeper as we neared the summit, and we thought we would expire. And then…we reached the top! It was our highest pass yet, at 5100 m. (16,830 ft.). The sky had cleared by the time we reached the summit, and we had a clear view to the snowy peaks beyond. And, as it was our last uphill, we were ecstatic! We stayed a couple of hours at the top to enjoy our conquest. Millions of colorful prayer flags fluttered in the wind. Men ran to arriving jeeps and buses to sell the flags, while women sold food and young boys played billiards under a canopy of flags.

And then…we headed DOWN! It was the most enjoyable descent we had ever experienced; firstly, because it was a gradual, almost non-stop descent for 150 km., and secondly, because it was on paved road! We followed the river past bright green mountains framed by a bright blue sky. Big herds of furry yaks meandered in the hills next to black nomad tents with decorated motorcycles parked out front. We reached the Tibetan plateau, where the valley and the river gradually widened. That plateau took us to Lhasa…Tibet’s Holy City, the mystical Buddhist kingdom long dreamt of by many a foreigner.

Arrrival in Lhasa, Tibet’s Capital:
Lhasa has long been dreamt of by both foreigners and the Tibetans themselves, who see the city as a deeply spiritual place and an important pilgrimage destination. Until we entered Tibet, the people whom we had met along our path always asked us what city or what country we were traveling to next. In Tibet, there simply was no question. It was just assumed that our final destination was Lhasa. It was the only destination worth traveling to. For the Tibetans, there simply wasn’t any life or any world beyond this city. Many Tibetans had never been there and would never have the means to go. We showed them the few pictures that we had in our guidebook so that they could see a bit of what the city and the monasteries looked like. They talked about Lhasa like it was a faraway, magical place.

Traditional Tibetan Lhasa was not disappointing. But I say “Tibetan Lhasa” because there is now a “Chinese Lhasa” and a “Tibetan Lhasa.” In effect, the Chinese have overrun Tibet’s capital, turning it into a growing Chinese city. Only 4% of the city now belongs to the traditional Tibetan quarter.

Lhasa is thought to have changed more in the last 20 years than in the last 1000 years. The population prior to the Chinese takeover was between 20,000 and 30,000 and is now close to 200,000, majority Chinese. The city is clearly divided into an eastern, Tibetan quarter and a western, Chinese quarter. The difference in ambience and architecture is striking. The Chinese part is commercial, with wide streets, shopping, and traffic. The Tibetan part has narrow, winding streets, low wooden houses, and courtyards. It is still the spiritual heart of the city, where pilgrims congregate and monasteries remain. The Chinese are tearing down Tibetan buildings at an alarming rate, and there is fear that almost none of the original Tibetan architecture will remain in just two or three years!

In 1980, there were only 1059 tourists, 95% foreign. In 2002, 140,000 tourists. By 2004, 1.2 million, 95% Chinese! That has increased yet again after the train line opened in July. Infrastructure and hotels are overloaded. The daily number of tourists had increased sixfold overnight, from about 1500 per day to 9000 per day! The great majority of that number are either Chinese tourists or Chinese entrepreneurs who come to take advantage of the boom in tourism. Prices have skyrocketed.

We arrived a few minutes after dark in the new section of the city, to find ourselves on a street with gauche street lamps and in front of a line of hotels with blinking lights. We searched for a hotel for two full hours – they were all full! We were very definitely feeling the effects of the new train line.

A Dutch cyclist introduced us to a Chinese cyclist, who showed us to his friend’s music shop in the Tibetan quarter, where we were offered free room and board for as long as we wished to stay in Lhasa. Lily, the convivial owner, liked to be surrounded with people, and had several other friends and travelers staying there, sleeping on the floor at night when the music shop closed. As the only couple, she even offered us a mattress in the only separate room so that we could have some privacy!

On the night that we arrived, it was late, and I was told that if I had to go to the toilet, I would have to find a dark corner in the street to go! There was no running water in the old houses of the Tibetan quarter – only a public fountain and public toilets in a nearby courtyard, but that was closed and locked after dark (even in the public toilets, there was no door at all, and men were supposed to wait for women to finish before walking in, but they didn’t always remember to do so!). It was the first capital city – or maybe the first city ever – where I was told that I had to go to the toilet in the street! It was normally bad enough, trying to go quickly and trying to hide in the shadows from the men walking by, but then I happened to get food poisoning on top of it! I spent a couple of days getting sick in the street at night! It was god-awful.

We lived and cooked meals with Lily and her friends. I washed my clothing, my hair, and my dishes with the local women in the courtyard next to Lily’s music shop. It was the Tibetan quarter, but we found it much easier to speak to the Chinese, because it was the young Chinese entrepreneurs in Lhasa who spoke some English. And we had trouble enough with the Mandarin language, let alone Tibetan!

The Mystical Holy City:
The Tibetan quarter of Lhasa is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. It as if Time stopped centuries ago and things have continued without changing to the present day. Pilgrims from all over Tibet come to Lhasa to pray and perform religious rituals. The streets throb with a sense of deep religiosity.

The focal point of the Tibetan quarter is the Jokhang, which is the most revered religious structure in Tibet. Filled with about two dozen small chapels and scores of religious statues, it is the spiritual heart of Lhasa, mysterious and hypnotizing, with its somber darkness, strong smell of yak butter candles, colorful statues, and chanting pilgrims shoving their way in line through the courtyard and inner chapels. Small chapels line the walls of the first and second floors, filled with statues of blue Buddhas, Tibetan kings, and red or green demon-gods with several heads, third eyes, or skull necklaces. A monk in one chapel plays the gong and cymbals while muttering under his breath. After turning the bronze prayer wheels in the circuit of the inner sanctum, many pilgrims will prostrate themselves (for up to days at a time) at the entrance of the Jokhang.

Encircling the Jokhang is the famous Barkhor, the holiest of Lhasa’s devotional circumambulation circuits. It is thronged with pilgrims, beggars, camera-toting tourists (a new phenomenon), and stalls hawking everything from jewellery to prayer flags, wheels, and beads to tiger and leopard skins to antelope horns, jewel-encrusted yak skulls, and bears’ paws. It is very lively and colorful.

The Barkhor area is utterly fascinating, and its mix of religiosity, commercialism, and pilgrims in traditional dress, along with the smell of incense and yak butter candles makes for an exotic brew. In addition to the pilgrims swinging prayer wheels or thumbing prayer beads while chanting under their breath, one also finds scores of maroon-robed monks and beggars (often one and the same) walking the narrow alleyways and market area. The display of deep religious fervor is most impressive.

The Barkhor is not only the spiritual heart of the city, but also the main commercial district for Tibetans. In the last few years, as more and more Chinese shopkeepers have arrived, they have shoved out the Tibetan shopkeepers. A lot of tourist items and souveniers are now aimed towards Chinese tourists.

The monks in Lhasa are certainly unlike those we had seen in S.E. Asia. They seem not to follow even the most basic of rules: they beg shamelessly, they touch women (not inappropriately, but they shouldn’t have even the slightest contact) , they drive motorcycles and cars, and they even own cell phones! Some even hit on Western women! A lot of Western tourists were disappointed by this unexpected behavior.

Outside of the Barkhor Circuit, there is tons to see and do in Lhasa. We had been looking forward to visiting the Potala Palace (the Dalai Lama’s former residence and political and spiritual seat), but it was unfortunately off-limits to us because its price had skyrocketed in one month from 100 yuan to 300 yuan – and sometimes four times that for blackmarket tickets! People waited in line all day just to buy tickets for a one-hour visit of the world’s largest religious building that would take place one or two days later, and then they were only allowed to see three rooms. The Chinese built a huge, Tianenamen-style square across the street from the palace, where Chinese tourists played dress-up and had their photos taken in local costume.

One of the most interesting things that we saw was the colorful rock carvings (there are more than 5000) on the Chagpo Ri Mountain. Prayer flags top the summit, and pilgrims prostrate themselves in front of the carvings in typical Tibetan fashion. .

Although we visited Drepung Monastery, once the world’s largest, we preferred the smaller monasteries in town, which were more alive and interesting. Pilgrims turned the prayer wheels that were located outside the temple. Temples often had large statues of Buddha and smaller statues of other Tibetan personalities, such as gods, demons, and kings.

We visited a Tibetan restaurant in a cave next to the Potala. Long rows of tables lined each side of a central walkway and there was a choice between Tibetan noodles and rice and yak curry. It was very local – only Tibetan men with their braided hair and women in local dress, selling jewellery and decked out in their wares. Then there was the sweet milk tea at a local teahouse, where men sat together in long tables and drank from small cups. A coin in the middle of the table would call over a woman, who would pocket the coin and fill your cup. Yummy! Less enticing for me – but enjoyed by Stephane – was the winehouse, where a pitcher of barley wine was served for only 37 cents!