Whew. Lhasa. The Shagri-La. A truly different world.
The arrival to the train station is quite remarkable. Stepping out into the cold and fresh snow, the train station is massive. Its whole design does seem remarkably similar to the Potala Palace. Contextual design or an architecture of power? The first night is spent in the Yak Hotel with no heat. It is COLD.
The next morning we went to have breakfast on the rooftop restaurant. WOW. I was totally unprepared and had to say WOW out loud. Couldn’t help it. The sun was hitting the snow covered mountains. All around were the tops of the buildings of old Lhasa with their roofs all at basically the same level, and they were all capped with Buddhist prayer flags blowing in the wind. One of the most amazing sights I had seen in a long time. We spent a good part of the morning and day trying to book a flight to Kathmandu (only international flight and by road it would take 5 days). We stopped in some hotels, but no one could figure out to operate the heater. They all had heat, but couldn’t get it to turn on…..it is low season. No tourists, prices cheap. Sweet. Except for the cold. Eventually we switched rooms and got it to work.
Lhasa felt like a totally different place, unlike anywhere I had been, at least the old part of town. The main part of the old town is centered around Barkhor Square, which serves as the entrance to the Jakhong Temple, one of the most sacred sites for Tibetan Buddhists. We later found out that we were pretty lucky because there were a lot of pilgrims in town this time of year. It is common practice for Buddhists to circumbulate around sacred buildings in a clockwise direction. It is hard to describe watching this mass of Tibetans (most who had come from far away rural areas) moving together and then stopping to postulate (full praying from on the stomach to standing upright). It was nice to be in a place that wasn’t so tourist driven (at least at this time of year) and be in a city that fully embraced (well seemed like it on the surface) and accepted the poorest of the poor in the pure spiritual terms. Everyone seemed to fit in quite well. Right here, right now, it feels as if the poor drive this city and very much hold its essence.
As the sun set, we just watched the people. Every minute was another amazing sight. We had just run into two Koreans that we had met on the train, and then another American who was on the train (he was doing video blogging about the impact of the train, but couldn’t talk about it). And low and behold, we then ran into the monk whom we had befriended on the train. Small world this is. Something feels totally different and special.
That evening, we met up a Tibetan friend of a friend who invited us to her family’s home for dinner. We had tons of food (yak meat, yak jerky, yak cheese, yak butter tea (uhhhhh), momos (Tibetan dumplings with yak meat) and tons of other traditional food. We had a fantastic conversation and learned tons about Tibet these days. I will speak in general terms so as to not put anyone at risk. Our friend runs an NGO and he is never sure who is around listening or engaging in conversations. Apparently, Chinese are paid to sit in restaurants all day to listen to people’s conversations. I will spare you the history of Tibet (check out wikipedia), but the Chinese have a very powerful hand controlling all of the country. More later. Such gracious people here. Wow, I am blown away with the hospitality, humbleness, and sincerity.