Sunday, August 26, 2007

Itinerary. Lhasa, Tibet, China

Going to Tibet was my original inspiration behind this trip. I've always wanted to travel to this remote destination and more so now than ever as I think the cultural heart and soul of Tibet will quickly disappear as the Chinese government seems so determined to assimilate Tibet into the larger "mainland" Chinese society. I fear that when that happens, all that is unique about Tibet will be lost to the world.

Tibetan Prayer Wheel
By the time I reach Lhasa, I will be on the Intrepid tour so I can kick back a bit in terms of not having to plan out each of my travel days in advance. We'll a guide who can give suggestions on things to do and see. Of course, I've pored through my Lonely Planet guide several times and have read my share of fellow travelers' blogs to have put together my own "must see" places.

We'll be in Lhasa for four days to give us time to acclimate to the high altitude. At an elevation of 3658m (around 12,000 feet), Lhasa is the highest city in the world. Though I acclimated well to Cuzco, Peru, I'm still not taking any chances so I will take a slow pace for the first couple of days.

I'm expecting that just wandering around Barkhor Square will be an enjoyable experience for me. I've read that it's filled with lots of narrow streets, stores and restaurants - probably a bit on the touristy side but I'm sure I'll find a way to get a bit off the beaten path.

There's not doubt that for me, the iconic image of Lhasa is represented by the Potala Palace.

Perched on a hillside site 130 metres above Lhasa Valley, the Potala was the chief winter residence of the Dalai Lama until the current (14th) Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala, India after a failed uprising in 1959. Today the Potala Palace is a state museum of China.

Also to see in Lhasa is the Jokhang Monastery. Built in 746 AD by King Songtsen Gampo, it is the the spiritual center and holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism. Located in Barkhor Square, it's likely that this will be the first cultural site that I will visit as I'm thinking a slow walk around Barkhor Square will be a great way to acclimate to the high altitude. I read somewhere that you can join the pilgrims and slowly circumambulate around the Jokhang and spinning the prayer wheels as I go along. That would be a really cool thing to be able to do!

Another "must" see place in Lhasa is Norbulingka. Built in 1755 by the 7th Dalai Lama, it became the official summer palace during the reign of the 8th Dalai Lama. It has been described as having largest and grandest garden in the region and is often used by local residents as a picnic spot. With that in mind, I'm thinking it might be fun to pick up lunch in town and head on up to enjoy the grounds along with local Tibetans.

....and then there's Sera Monastery which was founded in 1419. Sera Monastery is one of the 'great three' Gelugpa (Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism) university monasteries of Tibet. The other two are Ganden Monastery and Drepung Monastery.

At its height, Sera monastery was residence to more than 5,000 monks and five monastic colleges. Today, there only several hundred monks currently in residence. I've read that the time to visit the monastery is in the afternoon because that's when the monks, after finishing their morning scripture classes, can be seen debating in the courtyard.

From the pictures that I've seen of Drepung Monastery it appears to be located tucked into foothills surrounding Lhasa. Drepung is stil a teaching monastery and like Sera, not inhabited by as many monks today as in its heyday. Apparently, China has placed a cap on the population of Buddhist monks - who by the way, practice celibacy. I don't know what opportunies there will be to interact with the monks at either Sera or Drepung but if there is an opportunity, I definitely will sign up for it - I have many questions to ask!

Lhasa will be my "big city" intro to Tibet. From that point forward, I will be moving through the country, heading south on the Friendship Highway towards the Himalayas. We will be travelling by road and I expect the ride the be a bumpy one! Each town will be more remote in location, and the surrounding landscape more dramatic. Accomodations will become less "comfortable" once we leave the city and I don't have any idea what to expect for food. I will definitely be living out of my comfort zone for two weeks but whatever the adventure is, I'm up for it! More on what I'm hoping to see on my road trip through Tibet in future postings - I have some reading to do first!