Friday, 18 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Place of the Gods

There is absolutely no independent travel for Non-Chinese nationals in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). You are required to obtain a special permit and must have a tour guide to visit Tibet. You don't need to join a mass group tour, but you must at least make private arrangements through an authorized travel service. This has been the rule since 2008. There are also limitations to how many nationalities can be on a permit at once too. Make sure you check what the current status is if you ever choose to visit. It is why I am using the ever-awesome G Adventures. I still feel like an independent traveler without breaking the law!

Lhasa literally means the "place of the Gods". Sitting at 11,450ft on the northern slopes of the Himalayas, it is not hard to see why, it is one of the highest cities on the planet and the administrative capital of Tibet. There's over a 1,000 years of cultural and spiritual history leaving an impressive heritage.

In the eastern part of the city, near the Jokhang Temple and Barkhor neighborhood, Tibetan influence is still strong and evident and this is where you will see traditionally dressed Tibetans engaged on a kora (a clockwise walk around the temple), often spinning prayer wheels. You just have to block out the sight of all the Chinese military and police. They're every where including watching from rooftops and, rumour has it, not all monks are what they seem..... The western part of Lhasa is more ethnically Chinese in character. It is busy, modern and looks similar to many other Chinese cities. The population of the city before the Chinese takeover is said to have been between 20,000 and 30,000. Today the city has a population of around 500,000, and Chinese residents easily outnumber ­Tibetans by about 2:1.

In 1416 Drepung Monastery was founded by a disciple of Tsong Khapa, a 14th century Buddhist Master. It was the biggest and richest monastery in Tibet and it's Lamas helped to train each new Dalai Lama. It was also home to the Nechung, the state oracle. At its height, there were over 10000 monks and it governed 700 subsidiary monasteries as well as owning vast estates.

The monastery is found just outside of the city and up on a mountain... as you might expect to find a monastery. This was where I spent my first morning in Lhasa. It was incredibly peaceful, exactly how I envisioned how Tibet would be.

That is until I got yelled at by a monk who didn't believe I'd thrown in my ¥20 to take a photo (I did) and he even started fishing through this huge cauldron of cash just to find my two notes. Good luck with that. Whatever happened to enlightenment?!? So, allegedly the monks pray and live peacefully on the grounds, which are huge. If you're lucky you will also get to pee with a nun in the "toilet". In case you missed it, they charge you to take pictures in most areas of the monastery that are indoors. There's a very strong aroma of burning yak butter that will singe your olfactory bulb and linger for days.

After a spot of lunch and, admittedly, a nap I headed to another monastery. Sera Monastery was founded in 1419 by Jamchen Choje Shakya Yesh, another one of Tsong Khapa’s disciples. It became famous for its tantric teachings, while Drepung drew fame from its governing role. Sera was smaller than Drepung, with 7,000 monks, but was very rich and comparable in power. The monks of Sera were apparently considered clever and dangerous. Good job then that I didn't get yelled at by one then. There's an assembly hall, 3 colleges and 33 houses with a total area covered of 114,964 sq m making it the 2nd largest monastery in Tibet. 

All monasteries I visited have had something special about them, however what makes Sera Monastery unique is observing the Buddhist monks debating at 3pm. Their style of debate is far more physical than anything you will witness in the Western world. Not only does questioner stand and the responder sit on the ground, but the questioner uses various arm and hand gestures to communicate about the question and the response. The debate can become very animated and despite the fact that you haven't the foggiest about either the language nor the rules of the debate, the debate is both intense and interesting. A delightful fascinating experience and they happily let you take photographs without a charge!

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