Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tibet 101

An introduction to life on the high plateau.

Let's skip straight to the good stuff:

The iconic Potala Palace occupying its majestic seat over the city of Lhasa

It's Tibet - everything is surrounded by mountains here

Been there, done that, haven't bought any t-shirts so far

The Palace lit up night... my camera making it slightly blurry

So, that's the Potala Palace - certainly the star attraction as far as Tibetan architecture is concerned. It's actually a somewhat daunting place as you start at 3,800m, and then end up climbing all those stairs to the top, but it's certainly worth the effort! Inside, it's filled with a variety of relics and memorabilia from the Kings and Dalai Lamas who used to occupy the place before the Chinese 'liberation'... But, unfortunately, there's to be no photography inside, so you'll just have to take my word that the golden stuppas and statues inside are awe-inspiring. Side note: paintings can actually be damaged by repeated exposure to flash, yet you can take all the pictures you want in the Louvre, Golden statues, as far as I can tell, are relatively immune to photography, yet the Potala is just one of many places that bans photography. Occasionally, such as in Burma, it has more to do with religious beliefs and traditions, but in Communist-'liberated' Chinese Tibet? <rant over>

The Potala can actually be easily split up into two parts - the White Palace,built in the 7th century, and the Red Palace, added in the 12th century. One of the more amazing facts about the place is that the White Palace was completed in just five(!) years back in the 7th century. Which strikes me as incredibly rapid, considering the immense dimensions and the inhospitable location of the place.

The rest of the Tibet architecture I did not find quite so awe-inspiring. The buildings tend to be squat and feature thick walls to try and protect against the frigid climates. The highlights - judge for yourself:

Much like in neighboring Nepal, there's a lot of stuppas everywhere in Tibet

Tibet is undoubtedly the land of monasteries (even after the Cultural Revolution had apparently reduced the number considerably) - Drepung Monastery pictured here

And the best part is that there's always an amazing mountain backdrop

Every monastery I've visited has been adorned with a pair of these golden tower things. I'm not sure about the religious significance, but they look pretty cool

The Pelkor Chode Monastery in the town of Gyantse featured this gigantic stuppa - the Gyantse Kumbum

The Kumbum houses an astounding number of deities (and rather scary looking deity-protectors). This one is a deity, but doesn't seem to like you very much, judging by the gesture

Ok, so I wasn't really supposed to take any pictures inside, but I just couldn't resist a shot of Buddha flicking us off. It's not like our guide, who was fairly useless generally, was around to enforce things.

So, if the architecture of Tibet (outside of the Potala) was fairly average, the people are anything but - your average Tibetan does not lead an easy life, yet every one of them appears to always be happy (noticeably more so than the vast majority of the mainland Chinese...), perfectly friendly, and just generally immensely fascinating. Well, especially the ones who speak some English - I've made friends with Permitsering, who had been a monk for 10 years, but has since left his monastery and is now learning English and aiming to become a guide - a fascinating fellow, who will certainly make a better guide than the girl who was in charge of us for parts of the trip. Pictures, ready to speak thousands of words:

Pilgrims spinning the endless parade of prayer wheels, while circumnavigating the Potala

Cute kids are here to pay respects too.

Insert [in]appropriate comment about pets resembling their masters here

Everynody is excited to get a picture taken with the crazy foreigners.

Lhasa's Jokhang Temple is actually considered the Holiest Place in Tibet (not the nearby Potala), so hundreds of pilgrims arrive daily to ceremonially (and repeatedly) prostrate themselves in front of it

In fact, we passed a few of these of pilgrims on the road out of Lhasa - people go on multi-month treks to visit the holy sites in Lhasa, and on the way you basically take three steps, then prostrate yourself on the ground: rinse and repeat. For however long it takes to get to where you are going - food is strictly whatever turns up, often as charity, and sleeping is as often as not just there on the road, wrapped up in a blanket, braving the seriously sub-zero temperatures... Amazing - these people take their religion awfully seriously!

And then, of course, there's the New Year. Chinese New Year falls on February 14th this year. The Tibetans also use the lunar calendar, so you might think Tibetan New Year would coincide with Chinese New Year - you'd be wrong, usually, except for this year, when they do coincide. I agree, it's all very confusing. So how do you celebrate a New Year? Why, with fireworks, of course! And if you want to imagine what fireworks in Lhasa look like, you first have to forget everything you know about fireworks back home. That nice, big, well-organized display put on by the city is here too, but in addition everyone on the street becomes an amateur firework operator. For the past two nights I've had a chance to survey the scene from rooftops, and it is simply amazing - there are fireworks going off everywhere you look! Some, simple firecrackers on the street, others, huge displays getting fired off into the air. I understand setting off fireworks is supposed to bring good luck in the coming year, so the more and bigger, the merrier! And this goes on for a good hour! The military, to their credit, doesn't seem too inclined to interfere - there are soldiers with fire blankets and fire extinguishers posted all over, but they seem to just be there in the roles of backup fire fighters, if something goes wrong (or so I'm guessing. The locals, I suspect, would prefer that the soldiers were engulfed in a few of the flames...). Pictures simply can't do the display justice, so I don't have any - this is one of those things you'd just have to experience for yourself!

1 comment:

b mathew said...

Happy new year Alex. I ran into Lott & the whole gang (Olivia, Stephanie, etc) at NW Tofu yesterday. Be safe!