I arrived at my hotel room in Lhasa around 5pm and was grateful to find it empty. My roommate from Mumbai, who I had yet to meet, wasn’t there, which allowed me to wash 44 hours of train riding off me in undisturbed peace. That was preferable to greeting him with, “Hi, nice to meet you, pardon me while I hop in the shower.” My experience with Indians based on my time in Kolkata is that they’re pretty conservative, so I was surprised he wanted to share a room with a woman. I know Mumbai is more progressive, but still. In India, many hotels won’t even rent rooms to unmarried couples. Once I did meet Vivek, however, I learned that he previously worked in NY as a banker and had traveled quite extensively. Ok, maybe this won’t be so awkward. It was also a reminder that the more I travel, the less I realize I know. He had come to Lhasa a few days earlier so he knew his way around and had already scoped out a few restaurants- perfect. The next night we found ourselves at a little Korean joint eating bibimbap and soon tofu soup. I was actually bummed I hadn’t thought of coming to town before the tour started as I found that two days in Lhasa weren’t nearly enough.
Potala Palace and Jokhang temple
The next morning we met our tour guide, Tsewang, and driver (name embarrassingly forgotten), along with the other two people on our tour. Pim and her dad, Val, were from Bangkok. He was a successful businessman and she owned a spa. She had also written and published several Japan guidebooks in Thai. Random and very cool. I love meeting people who defy the college counselor definition of a career. An interesting quartet we were.
Our first stop was Potala Palace, winter residence of the Dalai Lamas. The place is enormous with 13 floors and more than 1,000 rooms. Nothing like a humble Buddhist dwelling to kick things off! Unfortunately this impressive example of Tibetan stone architecture came with many stairs, which was not unique to the Palace. Many places we visited required climbing. Typically this wouldn’t be an issue, but at 12,000 feet the climb was slow and laborious. Step, step, stop, breathe. Step, stop, step, stop, breathe. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. I felt like my heart might jump out of my chest and start screaming at me.
Visitors can wander around the Palace for as long as they want, and many Tibetan Buddhist devotees walk around the outside in what is called a kora, which means “revolution”. It’s done as a meditative practice and always in the clockwise direction. Some have prayer beads in their hands, chanting as they walk, while others spin a hand prayer wheel. If you buy a ticket and enter the palace, however, there is a very strict one-hour time limit and a hefty fine is levied for going even a minute over. All entrants are given a particular time to enter and tickets are time-stamped, limiting the number of daily visitors. This was the first of many regulations we encountered by the Chinese government.
Inside where photos are not allowed (yet security cameras are everywhere), we walked through different assembly halls with cushions situated around a main “throne” area where the Dalai Lama would sit. Instead of sand pits filled with smoky incense that adorn most Asian temples, here they have butter lamps. Yak butter is a big part of the Tibetan diet, so what better resource? Large, brass bowls are literally filled with butter and multiple wicks to create a giant candle. Similar to lighting an incense stick in prayer, Tibetans bring their own butter and either pour the liquid gold from a thermos into the lamp or scoop it from a container. It was odd and incredible to watch Tibetans in their traditional dress plopping butter into a flaming dish. I later learned that butter substitute (probably a form of wax or vegetable fat) is sometimes used as a cheaper option. With my affinity for all things butter, it’s a good thing I wasn’t tempted to sample it.
Potola Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and was built in the 17th century. There are two main parts of the structure: the White Palace, which was the living quarters for the Dalai Lama, and the Red Palace, which was devoted to religious study. Today it’s a museum. Libraries of ancient Buddhist scriptures and golden tombs from Dalai Lamas past can be seen in the Red Palace. For me, it was awe-inspiring. For a Tibetan Buddhist, I can only imagine the significance.
After the Palace we went to Jokhang Temple, which thankfully required few stairs. It is the first temple in Tibet and considered the most sacred, built in the 7th century. The building still remains, with a few newer additions, and is located in Bokhar Square. Many Buddhists can be seen doing the kora around the outside, but this temple attracts even more devoted pilgrims who approach in prostrate on the ground. Some are outfitted with knee and elbow pads as they do push-up-like motions as a form of penance, either in place, or actually as they move towards the temple. It was a bizarre, moving and compelling sight.The square was filled with shopping tourists alongside Buddhist pilgrims who had traveled from all over Tibet just to visit this temple.
After the temple we were on our own, so Vivek and I hit the Korean restaurant and then wandered around. We heard some live music and followed our ears to investigate. It was a total dive bar complete with long wooden tables and candles with wax from 1998 dripped down the sides. Locals were huddled together in groups around empty Budweiser cans. We took a seat, ordered tea that cost more than our dinner (a rare occasion when I didn’t want a beer), and turned our attention to the stage. The band was rock, and I couldn’t tell if they were playing covers of local music or their own, but they were actually pretty good. Names like Bob Marley, Metallica and Radiohead adorned the painted wall behind the stage, as if whispering encouragement to the performers. And then it happened: this Tibetan rock band busted into a rendition of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. Vivek and I looked at each other with enormous grins of recognition as we tapped our fingers on the table. Once again I found myself in the unlikeliest of places, yet it felt so familiar. I could’ve been anywhere in the world. By morning I was walking past the incredibly gilded tombs of Dalai Lamas from centuries ago, and by night I was listening to a local band play a Bob Dylan classic. If that isn’t a juxtaposition of colossal magnitude, I don’t know what is. It will go down as one of my single greatest days ever.
If you’re interested in traveling to Tibet and could use some logistical information about visas, travel permits and which tour operators to use, please read this article I wrote for Tour Matters.