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Breathless in Lhasa: Acclimatizing on the Roof of the World

Well, Almost! Jokhang Temple and Sera Monastery

sunny 16 °C

Our first night in Lhasa was less than ideal, in large part as our room at the Hotel Sai Kang overlooked the noisy, main drag. At some point during the night, I suffered a mysterious – and happily shortlived – fever that left me drenched in sweat top to toe. Lloyd’s own altitude adjustment left him with a severe headache upon waking (although that may have had something to do with the '628ml+/- 10ml' bottle of Lhasa beer he drunk the night before), but I was so excited to wake up feeling “well” after the fever that I had us both up and out to breakfast just after 8am. We enjoyed eggs, bacon, coffee and tea at the eerily quiet but adequate “Tanganye Café”, once again frustrated by the lack of toasting applied to “toast” in this region of the world.

After breakfast, we stroll up Yutuo Lu towards the Jokhang Temple. Tourists are in the minority here, and we are vastly outnumbered by pilgrims and morning worshippers, all in traditional Tibetan dress. For some, a visit to the Jokhang is part of their daily, early morning ritual. For others, the Jokhang represents something of a pilgrimage, and we see groups of Tibetans in their most glorious costumes being photographed in front of the Jokhang’s impressive façade. We feel humble and privileged to be allowed to share this experience with them. As we approach the gates, souvenir vendors become less numerous, replaced instead by entrepreneurs selling yak butter in flasks, silk scarves and other items for the pilgrims to offer to the idols within. But we are more immediately consumed with the thirty or so individuals prostrating themselves on the tiny courtyard in front of the Jokhang. At varying speeds, Tibetans move from a standing position, hands together in prayer, and then kneeling before lying completely on the ground. Many use wooden planks to ease the motion of their hands, which results in a constant, sand-papery din around us. It doesn’t matter what we believe. You can’t fail but be touched by the demonstrations of faith and the feeling of ‘goodness’ all around.


Finally inside the Jokhang, we join the non-pilgrim conveyer and shuffle around several darkened rooms filled with brightly painted Buddhas and Protectors. Pilgrims mutter prayers as they pass each Buddha. You name it, there’s a Buddha for it, and it seems you must make an offering to each and every one – the Buddhist version of covering all the bases? Lloyd observes how much more convenient it is for so many to have but one God. Buddhists dressed in red robes scoop up the heaps of small denomination banknotes, and keep an eye on the yak butter offerings to make sure that the whole thing doesn’t go up in flames. As an active place of worship, no photos are permitted, but the dark, warm atmosphere is comforting despite the poorly circulating air – thick with incense – which makes it all the more difficult for us to breath.

A fantastic picture taken by Lloyd on the Jokhang Monastery Roof

Many Monks are Visitors here too. This monk is enjoying the rooftop view over the Potala which we'll visit in a few days.


Back outside, we enjoy a spectacular view of the Potala Palace from the roof of the Jokhang. The sky is clearing, and it promises to be a beautiful day. Perhaps for different reasons, some Pilgrims also seem very happy with the day, and they banter light-heartedly, occasionally breaking out into spontaneous song, as if to reinforce the warmth we can’t help but feel for Tibetans.

The first thing we really truly notice that distinguishes the Tibetans we meet is their smiles. While we have (and still to a lesser extent) have been surrounded by people whose mouths seem able only to hack, spit and shout, here in Lhasa a tremendously bright and sincere smile can be found returning any grinning glance from you. It’s a welcome relief, and seems to match the pace of life here somewhat. While Lhasa is in no way a Tibetan enclave (there do seem to be more Chinese than Tibetans), there approach to people seems much different. Beyond smiles, the Tibetans seem to actually see you, instead of walking through you. With as little as they seem to have, the appearance of happiness or at least a positive attitude seems to permeate a large number of their population. Maybe it’s partly attributable to their faith? Perhaps the lack of oxygen? Whatever it is, we like it and enjoy giving and receiving the most simple and basic of human gifts: the smile.

Walking back to the hotel, we enjoy a one yuan (about US$0.17!!!) bag of chips cooked freshly on the street. My Dad would be in heaven here: potatoes peeled, cut and fried right in front of you. Only our general caution against street food prevents us from buying a five yuan bag!

No ketchup needed..... a little salt and I'm on Top of the World on top of the World (almost).

A little laundry later, and we’re off to the Sera Monastery. I know we should be ashamed to admit it but we’re already feeling a little “monastery’d out” after almost three weeks in China. But we find ourselves shuffling past some more enormous Buddhas. This monastery was founded in the 15th century, and decorations high above our heads include vast collections of ancient weapons, and shelf upon shelf of silk-wrapped scriptures. Of course our real reason for visiting Sera is the Monastery’s famous debating monks and, come three o’clock, we find ourselves in a picturesque tree-filled courtyard, surrounded by camera-laden tourists hungry for the ‘action’ to begin. In the courtyard, about 100 monks dressed in glorious red robes are sitting with crossed legs in apparent contemplation. Shortly after three, a gong sounds and we half expect the monks to start sumo-wrestling.

In the midst of the chaos, one Monk quietly contemplates why 100s of tourists find him interesting.

What follows is probably one of the most surreal experiences we have had. The monks pair off, with one of the two sitting cross-legged, and the other standing to present his arguments. As each standing monk makes his point (remember, this is all in Tibetan, so we can only guess that the seated monk will challenge the point), he swings his arms widely, bringing them together with a very loud clap of the hands directed at the seated party. At the same time, he raises his foot and stamps it to the ground as if the quality of the argument will be improved by the volume of the accompanying actions.


Responses range from mock or real laughter, physical taunts (like clearing out the wax from the opponent’s ears), to serious consideration and response. While I can’t comment on the content or quality of the debate, I can tell you that the noise from fifty or so debating pairs was quite something. As time passed, the debates seemed to become more physical. Pairs expanded into groups, and the younger monks seemed to ham things up a bit for the tourists who flocked to the areas promising the most action. Some tourists took it upon themselves to actually wander into the debating area in order to get better pictures. This was completely unnecessary as, at most, you were but a few feet from the monks at any time. We found the invasion disrespectful and distasteful, and Lloyd took it upon himself to, um, encourage some of the invaders to move back to the periphery. We sincerely hope that the actions of a few anxious to secure the ‘best’ photos will not result in the permanent exclusion of tourists at this sight, for this was a special experience that we will never forget.

Posted by jacquiedro 08:59 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world

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Just read your Interview, glad to hear that you had the same shambles of a Tibet tour as I did. This is rubbish and if the Chinese government insist on us being "baby sat" then they need to keep on top of what is going on.

Enjoy Nepal

by djrkidd

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