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Just a Bunch of Empty Rooms?

Our Visit to Potala Palace

sunny 18 °C

Once again, our tour company let us down, this time failing to deliver tickets to visit the Potala Palace. Can you imagine coming to Lhasa and not seeing Potala? Not to worry, said our tour leader, "there's nothing to see" except for a "bunch of empty rooms".

The group was not convinced, so Lloyd and I (and two others) ended up lining up ourselves for tickets at 7.30am on Saturday morning for a Sunday afternoon visit. We easily secured 16 of the 5,000 available tickets, and duly reported to the Potala gates at noon on Sunday. Of course, our group "leader" never bothered to thank us for our efforts.


It was a fair climb up to the official entrance, and the thin air and midday heat had us all pausing to catch our breath. Once we reached the Eastern Courtyard, we had to put our cameras away, so I'm afraid you'll have to do with my written description of the interior, and frankly there's just no way I can even begin to do it justice. But here goes...


The structures we visited earliest in our visit were mostly wooden, and generally painted in bright primary colours: it reminded me of a giant doll's house and - indeed - there were a few empty rooms with little to admire except recently painted blue rafters or linear patterns in yellow, red and green on the walls. However, very quickly we progressed into a series of reception rooms for various Dalai Lamas which - happily - were not freshly painted, but dusty, dark and harmonious spaces. Some rooms included some quite lavish and almost superhuman-sized thrones belonging to particular Dalai Lamas. Other rooms were temples used by one or more Dalai Lama, and were littered with the now familiar offerings of small denomination yuan banknotes (though we did see one $100 bill) and silk scarves. Many rooms were lined with row upon row of square compartments housing ancient - perhaps going back as far as the 17th century! - scriptures wrapped in wood and faded silks. Monks wrapped in blankets policed each room, some happy to share a smile, others choosing to share their religion in soft, melodic chant as they rocked back and forth, cross legged, head buried in a book of religious text.

Since we couldn't take pictures inside, here are some Potala Flowers for you to enjoy....

The Potala was commissioned by Dalai Lama V (1617 - 1682), and it seems that he holds a very special place in the hearts of Buddhists. While every Dalai Lama is buried here (with the exception of Dalai Lama VI who turned out to overdo it a bit with the concubines), the tomb of Dalai Lama V is significantly larger. The tombs basically comprise a stack of rectangular, golden boxes, ornately decorated with precious gems and thousands and thousands of pounds of gold!

I can also report that Buddhists are cat lovers, having seen three cats happily settled and cared for within the Potala. One lucky feline enjoyed a rather comfortable looking bed in a blanket filled plastic tray stapled to a pillar about four feet off the ground and overlooking one of the Dalai Lama's reliquary stupas!

Of interest, there is no doubt that the Potala is at serious risk of being destroyed by fire. You'll be glad to know that Chinese officials are present to monitor the fire risk, which must be of great comfort to the Tibetans. Additionally, we did notice that some pretty high-tech security cameras were in place, presumably also for the Chinese to monitor the 'fire risk', although given the amount of destruction involved in installing cameras, we might have suggested that they just install smoke alarms and a sprinkler system instead. I guess the cameras serve multiple purposes?


Overall, we left the Potala mystified that anyone would have the gall to try and pass it off as a "bunch of empty rooms". The collection of reliqary stupas was unlike anything we have seen in any of the temples or monasteries visited to date, and certainly the scale of these tombs (think room size at least!)- in a very tangible way - helped us to understand the Dalai Lamas' significance to the Tibetan people. So yes - stand in line for those tickets (and don't forget your passport ) - they're worth their weight in gold.

On our way back down from the Potala, we saw the uglier side of Tibet tourism, with young girls offering to have themselves photographed in traditional costume for cash. The young lady shown below - you can see the pile of yuan just behind her - was actually being directed by the middle-aged man hiding in the bush above her. A second young lady (video to follow when we have a better internet connection!) was prostrating for cash - which to be fair we've seen a lot of people do (I guess in Buddhism it's ok to pay someone else to worship for you?), but we felt was something of an exploitation. For as long as they can bring in good money looking cute for tourists (and yes, we were guilty too) why bother to school these little girls?


After our wonderful visit to the Potala, we took a cycle-rickshaw back into town - probably grossly overpaying at 10 yuan (about US$1.25) for the five minute ride, but well worth it to avoid the life threatening event that is crossing a road here in Lhasa. After three days, we finally succumbed to a little shopping. In any event, so far we've only had thin fleece top layers with us, so we had always planned to add a sensible, wind-breaker layer to our kit at this stage so we don't freeze at Everest Base Camp! And, as a very popular acclimatization stop for the more serious mountaineer, Lhasa is certainly the place to shop for outdoor gear! We were shocked to find high quality jackets at maybe 10% the price they would be back home. We suspect our purchases may be a season or two (or three!) out of date, but we're hardly slaves to fashion (as anyone who knows us will attest) and $25 each seemed like a very small price to pay to ensure comfort over the next week.

Lloyd loves his new goretex jacket so much, he threatened to sleep with it on.

Tomorrow, we will leave Lhasa and head out in 4x4s to Gyantse and Shigatse (both at about 3,900 metres) on our way to Everest Base Camp. We'd like to assure our Mothers that we have no intention of climbing Everest. Well, not this time anyway. ;o)

But we can't leave Lhasa without mentioning the wonderful Summit Cafe where Lloyd was able to get his best caffeine fix since leaving London (albeit pricey by local standards), and where even I could get enthusiastic about the carrot cake. It became our haven during our time in Lhasa, offering comfortable chairs, friendly staff and cheap, fast internet access (16 yuan for an hour, or free wifi with own laptop). Life is just better with a good caffeine fix early in the day, no?

Jacquie working on the Blog. A labour of love, especially with a cup of tea and a slice of carrot cake!

Posted by jacquiedro 18:47 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world

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Lovely indeed! Perhaps I should have given you a copy of my pic w/ the current Dalai (free admission?), or perhaps not (free jail cell?)! Looks fantastic, next time take the hidden camera!

by rathyen

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