Potala Palace

This is it. The main place. It would be wrong to call this the most sacred place in Tibet, as the Samye monastery, and the Jokhang monastery, kind of take those honors. But the Potala holds a special place in the hearts of the Tibetans, as the Dalai Lama used to live there. The previous Dalai Lama's had lived there, and for the most part, are all buried there. At least, that's what I'm told. The Potala palace holds a unique honor among Tibet's monasteries however; all Tibetans must make the journey, by any method of transportation (which usually means "by foot"), to the Potala palace every year, to pray. Compared to the other monasteries in Tibet, this one was absolutely packed.

A few things to remember as we go through this venerable institution. First, Lhasa sits above the twelve thousand foot altitude, with the Potala sitting at about twelve thousand five hundred feet, or maybe even thirteen thousand. I forgot to bring my altimeter with me that day. The entrance to the Potala Palace starts at the bottom, by the front gate. After traversing the gate, one starts climbing the outside stairs to get to the Palaces' main entrance. Walking around at twelve thousand feet is not all that bad, as long as you don't walk really fast. Climbing steps starts to become a chore. Which, in a roundabout way, made the visit to the Potala palace one hell of an experience....

Here is the view from the main entrance gate. In the foreground, are the remains of a small village which surrounded the Potala palace. You can see the two sloping grand staircases to the right. The village has largely been torn down around the Potala palace; one reason for the demolition was to make space for the large plaza that was built by the Chinese in front of the Potala palace. The Chinese like their large plazas, just look at Tiannenmen square. As opposed to Tiannenmen, which is usually largely inhabited by Chinese, the Tibetans don't seem to congregate much in this one.

Which brings me to what made this entire visit, well, fun. You see, all Tibetans must make a pilgrimage to the Potala once every year. They bring their belongings on their backs, and trudge the family along for the ride. Well, maybe not a ride. Public transportation is not widely developed throughout Tibet, so these pilgrims make do as they can. If wheels aren't available, which they generally aren't, then the feet must do. So they walk. And walk. And walk.

Which makes for one mighty mean Tibetan. Or, so one would think. They come from all corners of Tibet, which might not be a very large area as compared to the United States, but, it has a lot more "hills". And since you can't really go to Just For Feet to get the latest and greatest in footwear, their tootsies can't exactly be happy. Especially when they get to Lhasa and find that they have to climb these damn stairs.

And climb they do. And after they get to the top of these stairs, there are many, many more, all inside the palace. The path winds upward through many areas of the palace, until you eventually get to the roof. And then, it's a short trip down to the "exit". Way in the back. At the top of a road, which winds its way up to the back of the palace from the main drag below. The "exit" where all the Tibetans bid their farewell to the Potala, before walking down the long driveway back down to the main drag. The "exit", where all the foreigners, well, enter. You see, we get driven up to the back entrance, and walk down through the palace to the main drag.

I guess too many foreigners were dying on the steps.

Outside the rear entrance gate lie a row of prayer wheels. The Tibetans, upon leaving the sacred Potala Palace, spend some time here turning each wheel in a clockwise direction as they say their prayers.

They spend a lot of time praying here....

But back to the whole story of going up through the Potala palace. This is what makes it all very interesting. I learned that you don't get in the way of a Tibetan who is planning on lowering his or her head below the level of a certain Buddha statue to pray. You don't get in the way of a Tibetan who plans on putting yak butter into one of the many yak butter lamps (If I had a nickel for every yak butter lamp....) You especially don't get in the way of a Tibetan who has walked god knows how many miles to eventually have to walk all the way up those damn stairs. Especially when you're wearing much better shoes than he does. (And you had access to a recent shower). Now imagine all of this as you and two other foreigners are moving in one direction, and the few thousand Tibetans are moving in the other. Through narrow passageways. Up and down narrow steep stairs. On stairs and floors which are coated with slippery yak butter, a by product of many centuries of yak butter lamp emissions.

Comical doesn't describe it. Five years of training with the Shaolin monks wouldn't have possibly prepared me or any one else for the fights that almost occurred. I envisioned the Tibetan newspapers, as I walked and battled my way through the small corridors, made for people who were largely half my size. "Big bald foreigner slaughters hundreds. Execution tonight. Bring your own yak butter". I had to laugh my way through the entire place, between battling my now constant head pain, and the thousands of church going Tibetans. It was quite the experience. For a religious people, they sure do know how to push.

The much beloved (by the Chinese) large square in front of the Potala palace. The wall down below is part of the main gate to the Potala palace. The Tibetan village, that used to exist here, was both inside and outside this wall. The square was built after the Chinese occupation, to "commemorate" the existence of the Potala palace. To the right of the square are some Chinese businesses, one being a "discotheque"; to the left, some outdoor stands where both Chinese and Tibetans sell their wares. In the back, a Russian Mig jet. I still haven't figured out how this square "commemorates" the Potala palace, but without a doubt, it is very typical Chinese. I can understand all the little, barely surviving, merchant's stands on the left, and can kind of understand the existence of the Chinese discotheque on the right. (The Chinese love American styles, but they tend to mimic them about ten to twenty years after the fact). As for the Mig jet, I'm still trying to figure that one out. Now, to the right of this picture lies a predominantly Chinese area, with it's typical Chinese construction. To the left, the remnants of the Tibetan community which resided in Lhasa. And to the far left, lies the Jokhang monastery, surrounded by a "modern" Tibetan village. One could imagine this area to be reminiscent of what Lhasa used to look like before the "liberation".

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