My third day in Lhasa, Tibet began with an “Invigorating” breakfast in the chilly atrium of the Intercontinental Hotel Lhasa Paradise. The outside temperature was about 30 (F). Once again, I was grateful that I had packed for such conditions. As usual, I ate a huge breakfast, at the suggestion of my son, Nick. I needed the energy to keep warm. Furthermore, I was unsure of the eating opportunities during the day’s activities and I may not have a chance to get a decent meal before my return to the hotel, that evening. Besides, the buffet breakfast was included in the price of the room!
My guide, Ciwang, picked me up at 09:00 and we set out on a full day of visiting the various Buddhist monasteries in and around the Lhasa region. Additionally, we planned to visit the lovely Norbulingka, the former Summer Palace of the Dalai Lamas. We proceeded out of Lhasa, Tibet, beyond the end of the western suburbs toward the Gambo Utse Mountain. The 4 lane highways were very modern and smooth. Even though there were snow patches just above the road, the highway didn’t appear to suffer from the extreme winter conditions. They were in much better condition than many of our roads in mid-western America. Ciwang admitted that the Chinese had built this modern highway system.
It was a bright, clear, sunny day in Tibet and the air in the country was pollution free. It was a lovely day for a road trip. The snow-capped Himalaya Mountains surrounded us. In the distance, I could see the back of the beautiful Potala Palace. Towering above the city of Lhasa, the Palace was truly magnificent to view from any side.
We traveled about 5 kilometers beyond the far most reaches of Lhasa. There, located at the foot of Mount Gephel was the Drepung Monastery, one of three major Gelug University Monasteries. The other two are Sera Monastery and Ganden Monastery. At these religious institutions, Buddhist men enter an extensive religious, spiritual, and personal training program to become Buddhist monks.
The Drepung Monastery was founded in 1416. Drepung is a Tibetan word that means, “Prosperity.” Soon, it had over 2,000 monks. Drepung Monastery is dedicated to the study of various types of Buddhism. Respected for its academic, political, and Buddhist reputation, Drepung has been referred to as the “Monastery of the Dalai Lamas.” It has been noted that in the 1930s, Drepung Monastery was considered to be the largest monastery in the world, housing as many as 10,000 monks! However, since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1950s, Drepung Monastery, as well as Sera Monastery and Ganden Monastery, have lost much of their independence and spiritual credibility. Furthermore, the monk population has been reduced significantly. Currently, there are an estimated 300 monks. This is due to a population cap enforced by the Chinese government that is inherently anti-religion regardless of sect.
According to my guide, Ciwang, before a monastic candidate enters the monastery to become a Buddhist monk, he must go to China to “Have them wash his brain.” I said, “You mean brain washing.” He responded, “Yes, they wash his brain.” I got the point and recognized one more example of ways the Chinese government subtly controls the people. No Google, no Facebook, no YouTube, and, now, no true freedom of religion. We should keep this in the back of our minds as we admire the ways and policies of China.
After parking the car, we walked among the campus buildings of the Drepung Monastery. The buildings of the monastery were predominately white. They served as living quarters for the monks and the students, dining facilities, classrooms, and, of course, several Buddhist temples. These temples were adorned with beautiful golden symbols and colorful hangings and other decorations. The buildings worked their way up the side of Mount Gephel. Toward the top of the campus, we were afforded a spectacular view of the valley and the city of Lhasa, off in the distance. While walking the campus of the monastery, I was struck by one thing. It was mid-morning on Monday and there was a noticeable lack of people in the area. The campus seemed empty! I can only imagine what the campus would have been like in its “heyday” with 10,000 monks!
Finally, two monks, in their crimson robes, walked by. After a brief exchange of greetings and pleasantries, the monks graciously allowed me to take their pictures and to have my picture taken with them. I am glad I took that opportunity because they were the only monks that we saw while at the Drepung Monastery.
It was mid-morning and the early morning chill was giving way to a milder temperature. It was time to say good-bye to the Drepung Monastery and make our way to Norbulingka, the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama. Driving down the side of the mountain, we passed through a small village. Ciwang asked if there was any particular souvenir that I wanted to purchase? After all, the only memento that I had from my visit to Tibet was a good luck hanging that I had purchased for my mail carrier, Yoyo. I asked him about the availability of small rugs similar to the rugs that I saw in the various Buddhist Temples? Ciwang’s eyes lit up! He knew just the place and is was just down the mountain and not much out of our way.
We turned off the main road and entered a construction site. On one side of the site was the rug store. We are not talking Rodeo Drive here! Yet, I hope that the lack of ambiance would allow reasonable prices. After exchanging pleasant greetings, the shop owner began showing his wares. I described the pattern, size, and predominant colors that I desired. This eliminated, outright, stacks of rugs and saved time. Going through one stack, I saw the rug I really liked but remained “poker faced.” Instead, I pointed to a couple of less desirable rugs and added the number 1 choice as an afterthought. That is when the sport of dickering began. To make a long story short, I feel I that got the rug that I wanted at a fair price. There were 3 indicators of this. 1. He didn’t try to sell me more rugs at that same price. 2. He didn’t enthusiastically encourage me to come back real soon. 3. He wasn’t smiling when I left. An additional indicator was Ciwang’s comment that I got a good price. The limits of my luggage restricted the size. I’ve included a picture of the rug in this travelogue.
Returning back to Lhasa on the same highway, we stopped so that I could take more photos of the back of the Potala Palace. The mid-day sun had chased away the morning chill, creating a very pleasant, sunny day. Our drive to Norbulingka took us to the western edge of Lhasa, not far from the Potala Palace. However, this palace is located in a much lower part of the valley and not exposed to the higher altitude and lower temperatures. Thus, it became the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas.
Norbulingka is a Tibetan word that refers to “Park of Treasure” and is aptly named because it is the largest man-made garden in the Tibet Autonomous Region. It should be noted that Norbulingka in Chinese means, “Jeweled park.” It, too, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Construction of Norbulingka began in 1755 and continued under various forms of construction from the 7th to the 14th Dalai Lama. Located on 89 Acres, the palace covers over 360,000 Sq. meters and has more than 374 rooms. This served as both an administrative and a religious center 1959. On March 17, 1959, the Dalai Lama fled the Norbulingka Palace to seek asylum in India.
However, today, the palace’s beautiful garden is a primary attraction. The Norbulingka and its magnificent garden has been open to the public since 1959. Filled with lovely flower gardens and numerous fruit trees, the garden has been referred to as a “Plateau Oxygen Bar.” On any given day, families can be seen having picnics, strolling the many paths that surround the palace, or simply smelling the roses in the gardens. It is truly an oasis of tranquility and a respite from the hustle and bustle of Lhasa.
All too soon, we had to leave the peaceful surroundings of the Norbulingka Palace. We needed to have lunch and make our way to the Sera Monastery, our last stop on my tour of Lhasa, Tibet. For lunch, we stopped at a roadside restaurant that was frequented by tour buses filled with Western tourists. I chose to have a green salad and a fruit salad with a bottle of water. I should have ordered just one item because the portions were way too large. I ended up giving half to Ciwang. The lunch was filling, but not memorable.
The Sera Monastery is one of the three major Gelug University Monasteries. This one was built in 1419 and located in the foothills on the north side of Lhasa. Once there, we had to park at the entrance to a village and walk up hill to the monastery. Again, I asked Ciwang why he saved the long climbs until AFTER lunch? Over the years, the monastery developed into a hermitage with approximately 6,000 monks. However, today there are only about 550 monks in residence.
We hurried to be at the entrance of the monastery prior to 15:00. At that time, the monks were called by horns and gongs to assemble in the courtyard of the monastery. There, we witnessed several hundred student monks that appeared to be paired off and participating in a Socratic method of debate. One would seem to ask the question and the other would respond and vice versa. It was interesting to watch the student monks dressed in their red robes and sandals with their short-cropped hair. Their focus and intensity were readily apparent. They were there to learn and not to show off to the group of non-Buddhist spectators watching them do their lessons. It was amazing to see such discipline and dedication among such youth.
Once again, the setting sun indicated that it was time to return to the hotel. The day’s activities, as well as the effects of the high altitude, were taking their toll. It took almost an hour to get to the hotel and I was exhausted. Ciwang said that we could leave the hotel at 10:00 to make my flight to Kathmandu. However, I insisted that we leave at 09:00. Again, my experience dictated that we needed to be at the airport early.
I really enjoyed my stay at the Intercontinental Hotel Lhasa Paradise. They had given me an upgraded suite and the staff was very friendly and helpful. I would recommend this hotel if you are ever in Lhasa, Tibet.
Ciwang arrived right on time and the trip to Lhasa Gonggar Airport was quick and uneventful. It was a bright, clear, and chilly morning. Once at the airport, we discovered that we couldn’t drop passengers off at the curbside near the check-in point. I still don’t understand why not. However, when in Lhasa…. We had to schlep my bags over a hundred yards to the security point for checking in. At that point the driver left Ciwang and me. Apparently, he lived in Lhasa and Ciwang lived near the airport. I tipped the driver and thanked him for doing a fantastic job. He seemed quite happy with the compliment and tip. Ciwang assisted me with my bags as far as he could. There, I thanked him, too, for his fantastic services and tipped him. He seemed very pleased with both. I felt like I was saying good bye to a good friend. I would recommend Ciwang to anyone as a guide for Lhasa and the surrounding area.
On my own, now, I navigated the security gauntlet and finally made my way to the Air China check-in desk which wasn’t open, yet. Ciwang was right. We didn’t need to be there that early. Yet, some of you who have been following my travelogues over the years know that Murphy’s Law has had a field day with me on past occasions. I’d rather be early and ready to handle any surprises than be caught with an unsuspected emergency that may cause me to miss my flight!
The line began to fill up with more passengers, mostly European and Australian. Many of the younger ones were heading to Kathmandu, which would serve as a stepping stone for reaching the base camp of Mt. Everest or for trekking the trails of the Himalayas. It was an unusual group of adventurers. All too soon, we boarded our plane that left on time. As we winged our way to Kathmandu, Nepal, I reflected upon my amazing visit to Lhasa, Tibet and pondered what new adventures and experiences lay ahead of me in Nepal.
I hope you enjoyed this second part of my travelogue on Tibet. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions.