Monday, October 8, 2007

Lhasa. The Potala Palace.


A simple red wooden door beckons you inside the Potala Palace, the former Winter Palace of the Dalai Lamas.

Flashback to the day before. The number of visitors that are allowed to visit the Potala Palace is strictly limited to 1000 (??) each day. To get into the Potala Palace, you must get a permit that will allow you to buy a ticket. To do this, you must line up at the permit counter the day before. Each person is entitled to 4 permits and you must present your passport to get a permit. Since there were 7 of us in the group, two had to line up. I volunteered to go with Baikuntha. I met him in the lobby of the hotel at 7:15am, we hailed a taxi and a short ride later, we were where we had to be to get the permits.

It was around 7:30am when we got in line and there we stood for two hours!

There were maybe 30 people in front of us and we were about a third of the way back.


Baikuntha patiently waiting. It as a cold, brisk morning so both of us were bundled up in jackets.

The counter opened up promptly at 9:30am and by 10am we had our permits for 11:20am the next day - meaning we had to be at the checkpoint at the Potala Palace not a minute after 11:20am to get in. A minute late and we would be denied entrance. The Chinese run a tight ship!

Once we had the permits, we hailed a rickshaw for the ride back to the hotel. Here, they have built bicycle lanes so rickshaws and bicyclists do not have to share the road with cars, buses and other wheeled vehicles - a much more relaxing ride than in Kathmandu! Rickshaw drivers wear yellow vests so you can easily spot one!.


The next day, the gang met in the hotel lobby at around 10:30am. It was a beautiful morning so we decided to walk to the Potala - about a 30 minute walk that would give us an opportunity to see the city.
In due time, we arrived. Set on a hilltop, the Potala is an imposing view - a huge complex of interlinked buildings. There are about 1100 rooms in the Palace and 60+ are open to the public.
Since we arrived ahead of our 11:20 timeslot, we were allowed to enter past the checkpoint. We bought our tickets at the ticket counter....


....and entered the courtyard located at the base of the Palace. A good spot for photos.




Looking up at the Potala, you could get a better sense of its architecture and size - it's huge!

The brown zig zag lines in the photo below mark the stairs that you need to climb to get to the front entrance of the Palace.
This is our second full day in Lhasa and none of us had yet fully acclimated to the altitude but somehow you forget all this - even when confronted with several hundred steps (and there are several hundred) to climb. It was just a little over 100m up from the base of the Potala to its entrance and ordinarily that would not take much time to climb but at this altitude, it took us well over half an hour!!
We climbed, one step after another, and when we needed a breather, we would stop and enjoy the view of the city below.
We could also see the newly constructed park, located directly across the street from the Potala., that was built by the Chinese in honor of Chairman Mao Tse Tung.
At the top of the stairs was another courtyard.


We entered one of the chapels and began our tour.

Typical of the other monasteries that we would visit, entry halls are very often ornately painted.
Photography was not allowed inside but we viewed numerous chapels and rooms where the Dalai Lama would do his studies, entertain vistors, etc. The style and design of the rooms was typical of Tibetan monasteries though perhaps a little larger and more ornate. Since the chapels are open to the public, Buddhist devotees and pilgrims were worshipping as well as leaving offerings of yak butter and money.
After the tour was over, we were on our own to spend the rest of the day. My plan was to head to Norbulingka Palace (Summer Palace of the Dalai Lamas) via the kora that surrounds the Potala Palace. Well, that was the plan :-)
Potala Palace viewed from the kora.
Armed with my map, I joined the kora which winds through a beautiful park. On the way, I passed by a small kora that surrounded 5 stupas. Devotees were walking in a clockwise direction. There were benches nearby so I sat down for a few minutes to watch the scene.
At one edge of the garden lies the King Dragon pond - ducks were enjoying their swim.
Located in the middle of the pond is the King Dragon temple - a small Tibetan monastery and from what I can tell, something that had been fairly recently built. After just having seen all the chapels in the Potala Palace, I was not at all interested in seeing yet another chapel so I didn't cross over the bridge.
....and I came across these - were manual versions of treadmills and elliptical machines that we use in our gyms. Local Tibetans were giving the machines a try - giggling all the way. It was odd to think that any Tibetan, given then their activity filled lifestyles, would need to exercise at all!
I kept looking on the map to try and orient myself but no luck. I had no clue where I was though I could tell on the map where the Norbulingka was located. I walked and walked in all directions but never found the Norbulingka. Probably just as well as it would have been yet another set of Tibetan monasteries and chapels and I would not have been interested in going in. (I found out later on that I hadn't walked far enough towards the west - was at least 1km off the mark!)

After spending quite a long while in the park, I decided to head back to the hotel. Of course, I got lost and ended up wandering in some neighborhood streets. Eventually, I managed to find my way back to the hotel. I stopped at a Chinese supermarket on the way and bought some munchies. Back at the hotel, I put my feet, enjoyed some snacks and marveled at the photos on my digital camera. I still can't believe that I'm actually in Tibet and I'm excited about the days that lie ahead!!