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Living On A Prayer

An at first rather surprising sight, it soon becomes a staple: People in traditional Tibetan dress clothes throwing themselves onto the sidewalk, getting back up again, taking one or two steps forward only to cast themselves back down onto the ground. These are pilgrims working their way to a temple or monastery, their fervor in direct proportion to the amount of trouble or need they see themselves in. Every morning, in the wee hours of dawn an entire procession of pilgrims is on their way crawling to the Jokhang Temple at the center of Lhasa.

Lhasa – Jokhang Temple

Then one notices the many locals walking about with prayer mills, lowly mumbling to themselves, circling the Jokhang Temple or Potala palace, the monastery on top of the sacred mountain in the center of Lhasa where many of the Dalai Lamas are buried. Buddhism is very central in the lives of Tibetans and especially the older generations. All over the city they can be seen with their prayer mills and their peculiar forward motion.

Getting up to Potala Palace is a piece of work, too. Over 1,000 steps up the hill, and no elevator of course. At this altitude, this can make you catch your breath quite a bit. It’s worth the effort though. The palace inside is very beautiful – as to be expected from the most holy place of Tibetan buddhism. Taking photos inside the palace was not allowed, but not because it’s such a sacred place, but it is controlled by the Chinese government, and they want the tourists to buy the book …

The palace has over 1,000 rooms, the earliest ones built as early as 700 AD. It also hosts the very elaborate toombs of several Dalai Lamas. Today, the Chinese Army occupies parts of the palace, officially to protect it, but rather making sure that today’s leading monks don’t preach what the central government doesn’t want to hear.

It’s very difficult to get a ticket for this palace, since, naturally, every tourist in town wants to go and see it. Tickets are strictly rationed and travel agency employees are often the only ones who have the nerve to stand in line several days in order to secure their quota, which can easily evaporate if a local official thinks he needs the tickets instead.

Also, if you do get a ticket, and I got so lucky thanks to my travel agent (and worth the trouble of putting up with a government minder most places I went), you are strictly limited to one hour within the walls of the palace. And bring your passport and travel permit if you’re getting a ticket and when entering the palace. This is the only place I got ever checked for either document. Still, all the hassle was worth it as the view from the hill onto Lhasa is absolutely spectacular.

Lhasa – Potala Palace

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