Even for a seasoned traveller, Lhasa inspires unlike anywhere else
By Pim Kemasingki
Over the centuries, countless explorers attempted to enter the spiritual heart of Tibet – Lhasa. Most failed, and many even died in their attempt. The lucky few who managed to see the magnificent Potala palace at the top of the world would return home to spread their stories and inspire wanderlust in generations to come. Many of us dream of visiting a special faraway land – places like the pyramids of Egypt, stunning rock carvings of Petra in Jordan, or Mali’s exotic Timbuktu. Yet as amazing as I found the majestic pyramids, adventuring in Petra, and walking the streets of mysterious Timbuktu, nothing beckoned me as much as Lhasa. This was the one place in the world that I really had to visit.
Although I am not a spiritual person, I have long felt compelled to see the land of the lamas and its Himalayan peaks, know the secrets of the awe-inspiring Potala, and feel the incomprehensible devotion of prostrating pilgrims.
Nothing prepares you for your first glimpse of Tibet. Walking off that aeroplane into air so thin you fear it will disappear altogether, against the backdrop of snow-topped mountains poking the heavens, was one of my most thrilling moments.
The two-hour bus ride into Lhasa from the airport – driving alongside a glittering plait of meandering glacial-blue rivers, from valley to valley in a land which is so silent that you can almost hear the prayers offered up from the web of prayer flags connecting villages and mountains – was just mesmerising.
Lhasa is first glimpsed in the iconic building that dominates its skyline, the imposing Potala. It doesn’t disappoint. The grandiose city-of-a-building of white towers, where former Dalai Lamas are entombed in stunning golden crypts, sits erect on a hill, jutting above into the sky. Though Lhasa is now swamped with recent arrivals of Han Chinese settlers, modern buildings and shopping malls, somehow all of China’s imported eyesores are eclipsed by the Potala.
Every day, hundreds of devoted pilgrims make their weary way into the holy city, some fulfilling the dream of a lifetime, others on return trips, and all doing so with great reverence for having the honour to be visiting this capital of Tibetan Buddhism. Some Tibetans come by plane from other countries, many others by bus from monasteries or towns scattered around Tibet. They prostrate themselves, raising their palms pressed together above their head, then to their forehead, mouth, and chest, before repeating the movements after each step, sometimes for thousands of kilometres and many months, all the way to Lhasa.
Although Lhasa’s altitude of 3,595 metres above sea level makes it hard to be active for the first three to four days, there’s plenty to enjoy just in watching these pilgrims making there way to holy sites along the kora – pilgrim routes leading to holy sites. The most popular is the Bakor kora, which encircles the Jokhang temple – the spiritual heart of the city – and also goes through the city’s main commercial centre.
Maroon-robed monks and nuns murmur prayers as they circle the temple for hours, days and even weeks at a time with barely any rest. Fur-clad warriors from far-flung regions of the Himalayas trade with each other. Filthy beggars dodge cantankerous Chinese soldiers.
In this fascinating area you can wander into a small temple and sip butter tea with monks, haggle with vendors over the price for a stunning thangka painting, or join the pilgrims in spinning hundreds of shiny bronze prayer wheels surrounding temples. For more peaceful contemplation, make your way up to the roof of the Jokhang temple and spend an hour or two looking at the bustling square and view of the city.
More peaceful still is the atmosphere of Ganden Monastery, 40 kilometres out of Lhasa. You may have to stop often on the steep kora leading up the 4,500-metre-high temple – for both shortness of breath and the need to appreciate the stupendous 360-degree view of the Kyi-chu Valley. Dotted the hillsides along the kora are shrines with the burning embers of juniper incense, and holy rocks that are shiny from being rubbed by so many pilgrims. A sky burial sight is also just off the main kora, where traditionally Tibetans dismembered the bodies of the dead and left them to the elements – and vultures.
Today Lhasa is more easily accessible than in centuries past or even a few decades ago. From Bangkok, you fly northward to Chengdu in China, and from their head westward to Lhasa after a change of aeroplanes. May to early November is the best time to go, when you can avoid the punishing cold of the Tibetan winter.
Although I arrived starry eyed, it was not possible to experience Tibet without being weighted down by the heavy implications of China’s occupation. The destruction of monasteries and other Tibetan buildings and the continued attempted destruction of Tibetan culture is seen everywhere and is a most sobering reminder that the Tibet seen by tourists today is only a shell of what it once was.
Yet I was not in any way disappointed by Lhasa. As my fellow traveller and owner of China’s Imperial Tours, Guy Reubin said, “Like romance in Paris and legend in Egypt, there is something in the coincidental admixture of history, geography and people that throws out this weird feeling, which I can find no better word to characterise but the annoying word ‘spiritual’. It is not tangible, but it also does not have to be proved by any miracles, since it’s in the air, on the pavements, in the buildings and along the dirty, litter-strewn streets of Lhasa’s Tibetan quarter. The place is spiritual.”