Thursday, 27 March 2014

Day 4 - Lhasa

Set in the Yarlung Tsangpo valley at an elevation of 3,650m above sea level, the breathtaking city of Lhasa serves as the administrative and provincial capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The city first rose to prominence in the 7th century AD under the Yarlung empire when Songtsen Gampo moved his capital to Lhasa as part of his campaign to unify Tibet. The status of the city was relegated as other monastic cities outside Lhasa rose in importance after the collapse of the Yarlung Empire. In 1642, the fifth Dalai Lama shifted the capital back to Lhasa after successfully defeating the Shigatse Kings with the aid of the Mongols and initiated the construction of the Potala Palace over the ruins of the original palace which was constructed by Songtsen Gampo.

Jardin Secret Hotel 雅汀舍丽花园酒店

Jardin Secret Hotel is a four star hotel located along Jinzhu West Road in the western part of Lhasa City. During our visit, the hotel was particularly popular with foreign tour groups with the hotel lobby being swamped with Germans & Americans visitors in the morning.
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The hotel is divided into two separate accommodation wings which are accessed via its own lift lobbies, and after a long day of travelling, our tour group made an error of heading straight for the nearest lift only to realise that it leads to the wrong wing of the hotel! Instead, a corridor connects both wings on the ground floor and guests had a view of a small outdoor Tibetan themed garden while walking to the rear wing of the hotel.
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The rooms are comfortably furnished with soft beds and modern flat screen television sets. In addition, free WiFi is also available throughout the hotel. The aft wing of the hotel faces the Lhasa River and offers a view of the new city centre which is being developed on the opposite bank of the river.
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Each room is also thoughtfully stocked with 2 bottles of oxygen to help guests who have trouble breathing in the rarefied atmosphere. However, the oxygen bottles are not complimentary but are available for purchase at a reasonable price of RMB30 (~S$6) each.
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A sumptuous breakfast buffet spread is offered at the hotel's ground floor restaurant every morning, with foreign guests being able to select continental breakfast favourites and a spread of porridge and noodles to cater to the discerning Asian palate. In addition, more adventurous guests could also sample the famed yak butter tea at will without the pressure of having to finish a cup at a proper Tibetan tea ceremony.
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The hotel also offers a complimentary shuttle service to popular places of interests in the city and to Lhasa Gonggar Airport.
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With a late start to the day, we decided to head out after breakfast and explore the area around our hotel. The buildings in the city generally are not very tall which gives the city a more provincial feel than that of a major capital city. A small, but prominent police post is present at each junction in the city, and although it is generally not advised to photograph them, the ubiquitous nature of such structures ensures that they would creep into most photos of the local street scene!
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As with many other Chinese cities, Lhasa's public bus system is predominantly operated by the state-run city bus company with a fleet of Chinese buses. A fleet of non air-conditioned Yutong front engined buses and Yaxing rear engined citybuses were noted to be operating on routes that ply the grid-like layout of the city's streets. A front engine Yutong on Service 19B was photographed picking up a full load of passengers at a traffic junction near our hotel along Jinzhu West Road.
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Lhasa's public buses are adorned in an attractive blue and white based livery with traditional Tibetan motifs painted on the side and along the roofline of the bus. The electronic destination signs of the buses also display the route details in Chinese and Tibetan, as shown by this Yaxing working on route 18.
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Potala Palace 布达拉宫

Constructed at the side of Marpo Ri in the middle of the Lhasa Valley, the iconic Potala Palace is one of the most recognisable architectural landmarks in the world and is often regarded as the spiritual seat of the Dalai Lama.

For many travellers, visiting the Potala Palace is an adventure in itself as there is a strict quota of 2000 tickets per day at the time of our visit to limit the impact of tourism on this sacred monument. Independent travellers would have to secure their tickets on a first come first served basis at the ticketing office located at the western end of the palace at noon the day before their visit, and it is common for queues to start forming at daybreak as anxious visitors await to secure their desired timeslot. Fortunately, one of the few perks of having to travel in a tour group is that this menial, but essential task had already been done by the tour agency's representative beforehand and our tour group simply had to turn up on time at the palace.

Tour groups are only allowed to enter the Potala Palace from the eastern gate which is accessed via the Zang Gyab Lukhang Park 宗角禄康公园. Located behind the palace grounds, the park features a small temple built on a lake which was created when the earth was excavated to be used as mortar in the construction of the palace. Today, the park functions as a gathering place for the locals and we caught sight of a colourful folk dance performance by the senior citizens as we walked through the park.
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Marpo Ri means red hill in Tibetan, but the massive earthen mound upon the palace was built appeared anything but the colour under the intense morning sun. The whitewashed walls of the eastern end of the palace stood out prominently against the cloudless blue skies.
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Upon reaching the side of the palace grounds, we were waved through after a cursory check of our tickets into a small commercial centre which featured an entire row of shops selling cakes of yak butter and Tibetan prayer objects. The cakes of yak butter are used as an essential ingredient for making yak butter tea which is widely consumed throughout the region.
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Apart from culinary uses, the versatile yak butter is also used to lubricate the massive Tibetan prayer wheels which are mounted in a row outside most Tibetan temples. We joined the procession of pilgrims to give the wheels a spin to accumulate more karma, where a full clockwise revolution of the wheel is generally regarded as having chanted the inscribed verse once.
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A row of colourful niches are set into the side of Marpo Ri and are decorated with richly coloured thangka of dieties and guardians. A ledge allows devotees to proffer offerings and top up the enclosed lamp with yak butter.
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In a similar concept to Muslims who make it a lifelong ambition to visit Mecca at least once in their lifetime, Tibetans similarly aim to make a pilgrimage to the Potala Palace & the Jorkhang at least once in their lifetime and often empty out their life savings in doing so. Donned in a protective leather apron and protective knee pads, the pilgrims make the arduous journey from their hometown by repeatedly prostrating every three steps (often known as 三步一拜) to show their sincerity. It is also a unique sight in Tibet where it is common to find many wizened old ladies and men twirling a handheld prayer wheel and clutching a string of prayer beads with their other hand.
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The multiple tiered structure, narrowed window frames and whitewashed walls of the palace help to minimise the heating effect of intense UV radiation from the sun at such high altitudes.
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The Potala Palace was inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994 for its exceptional cultural significance, and had been gazetted as a protected monument by the Chinese government in 1961. In fact, such as its importance and uniqueness that it was relatively untouched by the devastating Cultural Revolution in the 1960s at the request of the former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. After we were given ample opportunities to take photos of these two plaques, we were guided into the eastern gate where a thorough security check of our passports and personal belongings were performed before we were let into the grounds of the palace.
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With its iconic status, it is perhaps not surprising that the Potala Palace is one of the most photographed structures in the world and had been reproduced in various miniature world theme parks with varying degrees of accuracy across the globe. However, the actual structure struck me as being much larger in scale than I had imagined, and the natural allure of its gilded eaves and earthen walls piqued my inner curiosity of what laid within it.
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The Potala Palace actually refers to two separate palaces which were built at different periods in its history and serve different functions. The white palace, or Kharpo Podrang, was first to be built in 1645 and house the living & official quarters of the Dalai Lama. The adjacent red palace was built at a later date and housed various chapels and stupas which house the remains of past Dalai Lamas.
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The main entrance is located at the southern end of the palace compound and caters to independent travellers.
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The former village of Shöl greeted us as we entered the palace grounds after clearing the security formalities, but the manicured hedges and restored buildings prove to be of little interest to us as our eyes were drawn to the awe-inspiring view of the Potala Palace that lay behind the village.
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With its strategic location at the foot of one of the most important religious buildings in the world, Shöl had ironically functioned as Lhasa's infamous red light district and the site of an inn which was purportedly favoured by the sixth Dalai Lama. The settlement features the reconstructed residence of the monk police chief and an exhibition hall but our tour group gave a tour of these buildings a miss with our tight schedule.
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Our ticket reservations were once again checked at the base of the entry ramp to the palace and we began our initial ascent to the palace entrance. After walking a short distance up the ramp, our tour guide pointed out an unassuming stone pillar which was preserved from the original palace constructed by Songtsen Gampo. The stone pillar was used to secure the reins of horses in the past when ancient travellers crossed the rugged terrain on horseback.
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The structures in the village of Shöl were representative of traditional Tibetan architecture to withstand the unique diurnal range and intense UV radiation at high altitudes. The hill of Chagpo Ri (药王山) with its modern broadcast antenna & ancient temples could be seen just beyond the village in the background.
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In a test of endurance for perhaps all visitors except the fittest, one have to scale up a series of ramps and steep staircases to the top storey situated 117m (about 25 storeys) from the main entrance to tour the palace. With the palace located at an altitude of 3,700m above sea level and a time limit of 1 hour, it is literally a breathtaking journey at the roof of the world.
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A portion of the original access stairs to the Potala Palace had been sealed off to the public for safety and security reasons. The uneven & steep stairs would certainly pose a fair amount of physical strain to most visitors with the thin atmosphere at such an altitude.
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The Potala Palace opens its doors to visitors daily from 9am to 3.30pm in the summer season but visitors would only be admitted based on the timeslot specified on the ticket. This is to further limit the number of visitors on the palace grounds at any one point in time for conservation efforts & crowd control. The local tour agency had managed to secure a desirable entry time of 10am for our group which allowed us a more comfortable climb up the entrance ramp in the cooler hours of the day. However, the thin air and intense mid-morning sun still proved to be challenging to the elderly members of our tour group, and we took a fair amount of time to ascend the deceptively gentle & wide ramp. Numerous stone benches are strategically located along the ramp to allow exhausted visitors to rest before continuing their climb up to the main entrance of the palace.
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Chagpo Ri (药王山) is located across Beijing East Road from the Potala Palace in a south-westerly direction and the elevated perspective offers one of the most popular views of the palace. In addition, one can also pay a visit to several noteworthy religious sites such as the meditation retreat of King Songtsen Gampo & his spouse, Princess Wencheng who was instrumental in establishing Buddhism as the main religion in Tibet. Although Chagpo Ri means "iron hill" in Tibetan, its Chinese name is in reference to Lhasa's main Tibetan medical college which was situated on the hill since 1413 but was destroyed in an uprising in 1959.
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Situated directly across the Potala Palace on the opposite side of the main thoroughfare, the expansive Potala Square (布达拉宫广场)is the site of the Monument to the People's Liberation of Tibet (西藏和平解放纪念碑). Built at a cost of US$1.7 million, the 37 metre tall concrete spire was based on an abstract interpretation of the profile of Mt Everest(often referred to as Quomolangma in China) and was unveiled in 2002 to commemorate 50 years of liberation of Tibet by the People's Republic of China.
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The pace of development in the capital city of Lhasa had picked up significantly with the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the traditional charm of the old city centre had given way to the bleak urban sprawl which now had extended across the Lhasa River to the mountain ranges in the south.
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Looking back at the second of four ramp sections which lead to the main entrance of the Potala Palace from the village of Shöl at the base of the palace grounds.
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With most of the tour members tired from the 30 minute climb up the entrance ramps, our tour guide took the opportunity to point out the ubiquitous black yak hair curtains which can be found draped across the doorways of many Tibetan buildings and homes. The coarse yak hair helps to retain heat in the building when it is cold while allowing for sufficient ventilation on hot days.
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The main entrance structures are perhaps the only opportunity for visitors to legitimately obtain photos of the palace interior as photography is strictly forbidden in the main white & red palaces. Richly painted in vibrant red and blue hues, the intricately carved roof beams point to high level of detailed craftsmanship in every corner of the Potala Palace.
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Unfortunately, we did not have much of a respite as we were prodded up by the growing crowd to another set of stone stairs up the building to the ticket office where our tour guide exchanged our ticket reservation for actual tickets.
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As with many other signature attractions in China, the ticket for the Potala Palace is jointly issued with the China Postal Service and serves as a postcard after it is used. The ticket features a view of the palace at dusk from the official lookout point atop Chagpo Ri.
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A further set of steep stairs led us to the external courtyard of the White Palace known as Deyang Shar. Visitors can stock up on drinks and make use of the toilet before proceeding into the inner sanctum of the Potala Palace.
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Looking pristine in the strong late morning sun, the nine storey Kharpo Podrang or White Palace was the first palace to be constructed and housed the Dalai Lama's residential quarters and audience chambers. With a final group photo with the White Palace, we had to keep our cameras before proceeding into the White Palace. The walk up the entrance ramp earlier turned out to be a warm up for the task which lay ahead as visitors have to scale up steep rickety wooden staircases to the roof of the White Palace to begin our tour. For tour groups, there was an additional time pressure as we had to complete the tour of both palaces within an hour.
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Following the exile of the current Dalai Lama, the interior of the White Palace had been remodeled into a museum as visitors are able to peer into the different roped off rooms and chambers. A monk is posted discreetly at every corner of the building to oversee the flow of visitors and ensure that the ban on photography is strictly adhered to. In contrast to the grandiose scale of the palace, the individual rooms in the white palace are small and cosy with limited headroom.

After being ushered through the mysterious hallways of the White Palace, the trail continued on to the Red Palace, or Marpo Podrang. The Red Palace was constructed a period of time after the White Palace and served as the religious & ceremonial heart of the compound. Guided through opulent chörtens which held the remains of past Dalai Lamas, we could only gawk at the numerous chapels which housed some of the finest Buddhist art & sculptures in the world. In exchange for a small tip, some of our tour members were also able to present hada 哈达 at the Chapel of Arya Lokeshvara, or Phagpa Lhakhang which reportedly dates back to original palace built by King Songtsen Gampo. Containing a revered 7th century sandalwood image of Arya Lokeshvara, the Phagpa Lhakhang is the spiritual centre and the most sacred portion of the Potala Palace.

We followed the trail through other chapels with our tour group being split into two - our tour guide took care of the English speaking members while our tour leader provided a commentary and explanations in Mandarin. While Buddhist temples often feature in virtually every China tour itinerary, it was a surreal experience to experience such intricate opulence and weave through the halls with the unmistakable odour of yak butter lamps at one of the most sacred sites in the world. Unlike the White Palace, the Red Palace is still a fully functioning religious site and we caught a glimpse of monks carrying out their duties in the roped off sections of the palace.

We exited through the rear entrance of the Red Palace after our tour where the Dalai Lama boarded his personal transport through a curtained off portal set to the side of the building.
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The western ramp at the rear of the Potala Palace offers a commanding view of Lhasa City to the north, with many visitors taking the chance to obtain some photographs while others browse the numerous souvenir stalls with religious items on sale.
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View of Lukhang Lake and Lhasa City to the north of the Potala Palace with the Nyenchen Tangula mountain range forming a seemingly impenetrable barrier to the rest of the plateau beyond.
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Hardy trees and shrubs had adapted to the harsh conditions and line the whitewashed walls and ramparts of the palace. The cloudless blue skies and conservative earthen hues employed in the decoration of the palace exterior almost gave it a Mediterranean feel and was a stark contrast to the harsh and barren eastern ramp of the palace which we had scaled up earlier in the day.
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Liuwu Bridge 柳梧大桥 could be seen in the distance to the west and links Lhasa City proper with the upcoming development on the opposite bank of the Lhasa River.
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Exit marker with the UNESCO symbol inscribed on it. In comparison to other UNESCO sites in China which had succumbed to the local authorities' greed for tourism, the strict quota and rules had helped to preserve the authenticity of the Potala Palace as an architectural and cultural heritage site.
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It was significantly easier to walk down the exit ramp of the palace, with most us feeling little to zero effects of the oxygen deprivation which we had encountered when climbing up the entrance ramp to the palace.
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The exit ramp leads around the length of the rear palace grounds and the scenery was noticeably less scenic than the entrance ramp as trees obstructed the view on the north side of the ramp and the southern side of the ramp was dominated by the steep barren slope of Marpo Ri.
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While much effort had been made to decorate the main facade of the palace on the southern side, the rear of the palace was decidedly plain looking with barely a trace of the intense burgundy hues and gold sculptures present on the main facade.
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The exit ramp led back to the Zang Gyab Lukhang Park, and it was a short walk under the comfortable shelter of the trees in the park back to our coach. We certainly could not help but feel a tinge of pity for the arriving visitors who had chosen (by luck or otherwise) to climb the entrance ramp to the palace under the scorching midday sun! Our group was also not spared the aggressive sales tactics by souvenir selling touts on our way back to the coach park, and it was only with a couple of stern words by our coach driver & guide that we managed to shake them off.

A short 7 minute long ride along Beijing Middle Road brought us to our lunch location at Tibet Steak Restaurant 西藏牛排餐厅. It was certainly something different from our usual round table meals as we were split up into groups of 4 to occupy the booths in the kitschy western themed restaurant. Although the mashed potatoes were dry and lacked the usual accompanying gravy, the other western dishes such as pasta and pork chops were surprisingly decent. We were also served a hearty selection of staple Chinese vegetable and meat dishes as well.

Jokhang Monastery 大昭寺

Located in the old quarter of Lhasa City to the southeast of the Potala Palace, the Jorkhang Monastery is considered to be the most sacred and revered structure in Tibet. Built in the 7th century AD by King Songtsen Gampo to house an image of Akshobhya which was brought as part of the dowry of his Nepali wife Bhrikuti, the monastery is the focus of the long and arduous pilgrimage undertaken by many Tibetans in their lifetime. In addition, the monastery also serve to house a revered image of Jowo Sakyamuni which was brought by the King's other Chinese wife, Princess Wencheng.

We took a leisurely stroll after lunch along the pedestrian street which sold a wide variety of cheap bazaar and prayer items.
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The pedestrian street leads to Barkhor Square 八角广场 which was cleared in 1985 to form a central space in front of the Jorkhang. Wrapped in brightly coloured prayer flags, a pair of traditional prayer poles or darchen stand erect in front of the Jorkhang with the accompanying stone incense burners being rebuilt as part of the extensive re-modelling of the square.
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In comparison to the grandeur and magnificent gilded eaves of the Potala Palace which we had visited earlier in the day, the Jorkhang seemed almost underwhelming with its unassuming facade of yak hair curtains and simple golden roof ornaments. However, one could certainly feel something special about the monastery as pilgrims streamed past us and prostrating themselves in a most reverent manner. The faint waft of the yak butter lamps further added to the mystical nature of the monastery as we stood transfixed watching the spectacle in front of us while our tour guide attempted to sort out our admission tickets. As with other major attractions in Lhasa, passports and the appropriate travel documents have to be manually presented and scrutinized before a foreigner could be sold a ticket and granted admission.
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The ticket to the Jorkhang features an unusual lenticular print of the temple complex at the front and a brief introduction of the temple's history in Tibetan, Chinese & English at the back of the souvenir ticket.
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The intricate amount of detail in the construction of the Jorkhang mirrors that of the Potala Palace, but had unfortunately been desecrated through the course of history. As such, many of the carved pillars and roof beams in the Jorkhang today are actually carefully restored sections. The original roof beams of the Jorkhang had uneven, rounded cross section of the logs as little processing had been done to the harvested logs before they were being used for construction purposes. In comparison, the newer restored roof beams have a square cross section for increased durability and load bearing capability, as well as significantly more lustrous paint work.
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After passing through the main entrance of the Jorkhang, we were ushered into a well kept courtyard, or dukhang which functioned as the focus of ceremonies during festivals. The northern side of the courtyard was noticeably better appointed than the other three sides as it housed a throne on the ground floor which was previously used by the Dalai Lama during important events.
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The inner sanctum of the monastery lies just beyond the dukhang and housed the revered Buddhist images upon which the Jorkhang was built & consecrated. In addition, the inner sanctum also housed several richly painted and detailed thangka which chronicled the journey of Princess Wencheng to Tibet, and the construction of the monastery on the site of Lake Wothang after it was filled in. As with the Potala Palace, photography is strictly prohibited in the inner sanctum of the Jorkhang. However, we did spot more than one determined visitor who had successfully sneaked several photos of the inner chambers during our tour of the inner sanctum.
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After completing the tour of the inner sanctum, we proceeded up to the upper levels of the Jorkhang which provided a better view of the dukhang and the richly gilded roofs of the monastery.
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Most of the chapels on the upper floors of the Jorkhang were closed to visitors during our visit in the afternoon, but we managed to observe an elaborate prayer session which was performed in the rear courtyard of the monastery from the roof of the Jorkhang.
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While the revered chapels in the heart of the Jorkhang are the true attractions of the monastery, many visitors actually visit the religious site for its excellent roof terrace which affords a good view of the Potala Palace perched atop Marpo Ri to the northwest.
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Barkhor Square is one of the most sensitive and heavily patrolled places in Tibet as the serene plaza was transformed into the site of some of the most violent political protests in Tibet in recent times.
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Symbolising Sakyamuni's first disciples, the gilded statue of the two deers flanking a Buddhist chakra wheel is prominently erected in the middle of the roof of the Jorkhang and exuded a brilliant glow in the late afternoon sun. This symbolic portrayal of Buddhism had became synonymous with the Jorkhang and is repeated on the yak hair curtains in the main courtyard, or dukhang of the Jorkhang as shown in the earlier photos.
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Barkhor Street 八角街

Loosely referred to a complex quadrangle of streets that surround the Jorkhang in the old quarter of Lhasa, the Barkhor is the city's main shopping district and forms an integral part of the spiritual heart of the city together.

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The Barkhor circuit is perhaps the most famous of Lhasa's numerous pilgrimage circuits and traces the main street that forms a ring around the Jorkhang. Due to the renovation works during the time of our visit, most of the shops were unfortunately shuttered or operating on a significantly reduced scale without the raucous street stalls which the Barkhor is famous for.
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The sterile appearance of the pristine whitewashed walls of the preserved buildings in the Barkhor were prevalent for much of our walking tour as our tour group simply followed the tide of visitors and locals in making a clockwise loop of the market.
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The significance of the Jorkhang to the founding of the provincial capital is reflected by a Tibetan saying "Jorkhang is founded before Lhasa City (先有大昭寺,后有拉萨城). As such, the old Barkhor market was built around the kora which traces a path around the monastery, and by extension, various prayer poles or darchen as well. While some prayer poles commemorate specific locations such as the location where the ancient king Tsongkhapa planted his walking stick, others had been erected for other reasons or simply as a place of worship.
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A total of 4 pot-bellied stone incense burners known as sangkang demarcate the extremities of the Jorkhang monastery. This particular sangkang is one of the two located along the Barkhor circuit at the rear of the monastery along with the now ubiquitous sight of greased prayer wheels.
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For reasons unexplained to us, our tour guide and leader were particularly uneasy over us photographing street scenes in the Barkhor and attempted to hurry the group through the circuit. I could certainly remember how the face of our usually charismatic tour leader blanched shortly after I took this photo when his back was turned. Taking a much needed respite from their kora, the friendly group of Tibetans however, had no qualms with their photo being taken and even smiled for the camera after nodding their assent!
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The high steppes of the Tibetan mountain ranges are conducive to the growth of a peculiar and valued type of traditional Chinese herb known as cordyceps, or 冬虫夏草. Officially classified as a medicinal fungi, many Tibetans make a living by braving the harsh conditions to scourge the steep mountain slopes for the caterpillar shaped cordyceps sinensis which is regarded as having the best medicinal value and correspondingly fetches a high price on the market. The trade of cordyceps in Lhasa is concentrated in the streets west of the Barkhor and we passed by an entire row of shops trading in the same fungi while walking back to our coach!
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Tibetan Mineral Museum 地矿博物馆

On the pretext of an educational cultural visits, virtually all Chinese tour groups would find themselves in one or a couple of state owned showrooms during a guided tour where they would be encouraged to purchase authentic products at a 'discounted' price. Along with the rapid development of tourism in Tibet, it is perhaps inevitable that such a practice would have spread to the roof of the world. Thus, we found ourselves in the suggestively named Tibetan Mineral Museum located in an industrial quarter of the city after a 25 minute ride from the Barkhor.

A wall sized poster at the entrance shows the distribution of different minerals that are mined in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
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A separate hall houses a smaller replica of a gilded mandala which we had admired earlier in the day at the Potala Palace. These are three dimensional forms of the mandala which are often depicted in traditional Buddhist paintings, or thangkas.
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We were then ushered into a small classroom where we were given a presentation on the famed Tibetan Dzi beads and given a crash course in telling apart a fake Dzi bead from a genuine specimen. Following which, the presenter extolled on the various benefits of wearing such beads and released our group into a gallery of smiling sales staff poised next to rows of gleaming display cabinets.

With the bulk of our tour group availing ourselves to the comfortable chairs instead to swap travel stories, the expression of the sales staff were noticeably less cheerful when we left an hour later for our dinner.

Dinner was at Rong He Restaurant 蓉和酒楼 and it was again another excellent meal with a good choice of contemporary Chinese meat and vegetable dishes. Some of our tour group members also decided to sign up for the optional Tibetan Folk Show (RMB 280 / S$57) or a full body massage at RMB 180 / S$37.

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