Tibet, part 1: Monasteries, temples and other boring things.

Visiting China as an independant traveller is not very difficult, although as a Canadian, I had to provide the Government with my detailed itinerary to get the visa (you can change your mind as much as you want after you get it). The province of Tibet, however, is a different story. You need a special tourism permit and you must visit as part of a Government approved tour (it is not, however, a Government run tour).


The Potala Palace is the star attraction in Lhasa. It was built by the 5th Dalai Lama, probably the most important one in the line of 14. Before him, the Dalai Lama was the religious leader of the province. But no 5 united all powers under him, and the position of Dalai Lama became like that of Ayatollah in post 1979 Iran, or the Catholic Pope before 1870 (except for the weird selection process: in all three systems the absolute leader is selected by a few geriatric men, but the later two select one of their own, while the former selects a 7 year old kid).

The history of Tibet in the 1950s is extremely complicated, involving many warring Tibetan factions, the Republic of China (i.e. Taiwan), the People’s Republic of China (i.e. Beijing), and a slew of other people and interests. The bottom line is that during the 1959 Tibet uprising, it was no longer safe for the Dalai Lama to stay there and his Government was moved to India by the CIA.

I can’t help but wonder how the changes would have worked if they had been done in the 1980s, with Beijing trying to reform the province using soap operas and pop music, as well as abolishing serfdom and theocracy, thus bringing Tibet out of the Dark Ages in which it had been rotting for centuries. Unfortunately, Beijing intervened right before the Cultural Revolution, so “reform” was mostly done by destroying temples and killing people (as was done in every other part of China, except of course Taiwan). Needless to say, the Tibetans have little love for the Central Government, or the Han (China’s major ethnic group). The clearest illustration came in a very non-political discussion we had.

My fellow tourist: “I heard a new stadium is being built in Lhasa”.

Our guide: “I don’t know. I’m not interested in what they are doing”.


Back to the Palace. It costs a fortune to enter, but you can’t take pictures, so here’s the upper courtyard.


The best part is the view, including this super-typical Communist square Beijing built right in front of the Palace.


Lhasa from the Palace. A lot of Communist-style architecture, apparently quite recent, according to a traveller I met who visited in the 1990s.


Johkang Temple, the most important ones in the region, is another place where you can’t take pictures. On the roof it’s OK, and the Chinese tourists go crazy with weird poses of “them-in-front-of-the-gold-roof”.


Meanwhile, locals prostrate themselves endlessly, using a strange method resembling a push-up, done with hand-glider things and a little mattress. It hardly look pleasant, but they have no choice, because the old men told them they will be reincarnated as cockroaches, plankton or airport taxi drivers if they don’t do it enough times.


They also walk in circles around this major road encircling the temple, always clockwise, with prayer beads and other things. The street is packed with little shops, tea houses and restaurants.


The plaza in front of Johkang temple, with the Potala Place in the distance.


Zooming in on the lamp post, you see that religion is everywhere in Lahsa. I do remember seeing a lot of Swastikas on temples in Bali, but not on lamp posts.


And certainly not in my soup!


In all honesty, this is when my tour of Tibet became a little boring. It’s all about temples and monasteries. It reminded me of my visit to Bagan, in Myanmar, with its 3,000 temples. The truth is that once I have seen the biggest, the oldest and the most beautiful, I’m pretty templed out. At least this monastery, the Drepung, used to be the biggest in the region, with thousands of monks. It probably still is the biggest, but the central Government restricts how many men can become monks, and also prohibit minors from doing so. They probably number a few hundreds in the biggest monasteries today.


The central stairs are always reserved for the Dalai Lama, thus creating pedestrian traffic jams at the entrances.


The monks sit here and talk about stuff.


While they build gigantic Buddhas on occasion, they also make little ones by the thousands.


And sand mandalas, which were made famous by a Hollywood movie the name of which I forget. If you have never seen it, look closely, it’s not paint, but grains of coloured sand.


They spend a huge amount of time building these representations of the universe, and then destroy them, thus making some point about material things. You could make the same point by saying “you can’t take your wealth to the grave”, and then spend thousands of hours helping people in need instead of building sand castles with your buddies, but that would be boring.


The monasteries and temples are pretty much all the same, with gold painted God statues.


And old texts packed away in neat little fabric covered boxes. I got the impression the last time someone read the second one from the bottom, seventh pile from the left, Napoleon was about to attack Malta.


Photography inside the temples is a complicated business. As I already mentioned, in the UNESCO Heritage Sites, like Potala and Johkang, it’s simply not allowed. Elsewhere, you have to pay, and the really annoying thing is that you have to pay, per room! This one charges about $1.60 – the cheapest, that’s why I have a picture to show! – but it can go much higher. The temples are also technically difficult to photograph for many reasons. The rooms are dark and are lit by ugly energy saving bulbs hanging everywhere, like this one on the wall. The rooms are also relatively cramped, with stuff everywhere and columns every few meters. Anyway, note the gold lamps; they burn not wax, but yak butter. Locals bring it in solid form or melted in thermos bottles and offer it in the various lamps.


And they throw money on the statues.


The more arms the statue has, the more money it gets.


And of course, the God of Wisdom likes money more than all the others. Makes sense.


This big golden thing has a dead dude inside. He also likes money.


The problem is that when the statues are not looking – or otherwise busy – short guys in red dresses steal all the money! Because of this, destitute peasants and nomads from the countryside have to scrape together their meagre savings and travel to the provincial capital at great expense to give the statues more money.


Of course, the tourists help. Here at the Tashilumpo Monastery, built by the first Dalai Lama in 1447, the photography fee is $13 per room, or $250 with a professional video camera. The place houses the tallest Buddha in Tibet, at 26.8 m, but taking a descent photo is impossible anyway. One would have to set-up with ladders, a fisheye lens and all sorts of gear to get a descent shot of this monster statue caged in a small room full of columns, draperies and halogen light bulbs. I didn’t even contemplate it for a second.

So there you have it, me getting bored in Tibet. In the next post, me having fun in Tibet!


2 thoughts on “Tibet, part 1: Monasteries, temples and other boring things.

  1. Jumping from one Government RUN tour to another. That’s the way the travels sometimes happen. Anyway, keep going Colin.
    Best wishes for more fun, valentin

    • Don’t worry for me Valentin, tonight’s post will be about the fun things I did in Tibet!
      Hope you had fun in Africa.

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