Only Planet

One Child, One Year, One Planet. A family of three traveling around the world...

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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Lhasa Tibet: The Potala Palace

After four days in Lhasa, Loey and Dylan were still not acclimated, had to rest even after 15 minutes of slow walking, and were worried how well they would do walking uphill. I (Andy) really wanted to see the inside of the Potala Palace, the historical seat of the Tibetan government run by the Dalai Lama, so I headed to the palace on our last afternoon in Lhasa. It turned out to be the most incredible experience of the trip for me so far.

Although it had rained heavily earlier in the day, the sun had come out and it was warm as I climbed the road leading from the base of the hill up and around the rear to the palace entrance, admiring the views of the newly-snowy mountains surrounding me.

I passed flat stones with Tibetan writing carved into them and prayer flags strung to the few low trees on the hillside. The path wound around corners and up stairs, and I found myself in the east courtyard, with a tall building in front of me draped with Tibetan hangings, large sheets of white or black cloth with simple geometric designs in primary colors stitched to them, while the short pleated drapes over all the windows flapped in waves in the wind.

I entered the palace up a very steep stairway, actually more like a ladder, and made my way up more stairways and past shrines up to the living quarters of the Dalai Lamas, with windows looking down on the city below.

It was amazing to walk through and see the bedrooms and think about the people who lived and worshipped and taught there, especially because the rooms were all furnished and the statuary and decorations are still there. It seems like the palace is just waiting for the Dalai Lama to return. The magic is broken by the presence of Red Army guards in almost every major room.

I continued through various living areas, rooms lined with statues and with cubbyholes full of boxes containing religious writings, and the throne rooms of the various Dalai Lamas. I came up behind an extended family bunched up at the top of a flight of stairs (again it was more like a ladder). The young girl and the hunched-over great-grandmother seemed to be having a slow time of it, but they were managing remarkably well. All the pilgrim families were dressed in what looked like their best, though run-down, clothes in many different traditional styles. They carried stacks of 1 jiao bills (about 1.2 US cents) to leave at altars in each room and plastic bottles full of yak butter which they portioned out into the candle urns in each room. The people also made it their mission to pray at every major statue and to touch every pillar and door handle as they walked through the palace.

The path moved me on to a different area of the palace, meant more for worship than for living. There were rooms with enormous model buildings, mandalas, made of gold. Other rooms contained the enormous jewel-encrusted pyramidal gold tombs of the Dalai Lamas. The ceilings were lost in the shadows and dusty cylindrical cloth flags hung all around like stalactites. There were endless rows of Buddhas and other important religious figures depicted in gold, bronze and steel statues.

Just as the rooms started to seem all the same, the path led out of the building. While I took photos of the courtyard I was in, a large family group exited behind me. The patriarch of the clan approached me (he seemed to be the one in charge, even though he was probably about my age: he looked like the oldest man in the group). He motioned that he’d like me to take a photo of the family. I said OK and the dozen or so people gathered together, I took a picture, and then showed the small image to them.

Everyone wanted a look at it and they all seemed very happy about how they looked, from the young kids to the old folks. I took several more photos of the family and the kids and showed them around, to great enjoyment.

I walked down the hill to the palace exit a bit behind the family, then ran across the street to a photo store. I managed to get them to make a print of the group photo in about ten minutes, then I ran back outside to find the family, who I’d last seen browsing the clothing and souvenir stalls outside the palace walls (I didn’t think they could afford anything there, but they probably enjoyed looking at the goods as much as I did). I ended up making a fast walk all the way around the palace, with market stalls on the left side of the path and prayer wheels lining the right side for the whole way around. As I approached the place where I’d started, I finally saw the family again. I gave them the photo and everyone wanted a look at it—they were so excited! I was worried that they would wrinkle or tear it, but eventually everyone got a look. I then asked them if I could take another photo of the family in front of the palace. They were again very happy with how they looked in the photo.

Then three of the women asked me if I could take a picture of them in front of the palace and make a print of it. I said sure, and resorted to gestures and writing to get across that I’d have to go back to the photo store and come back in ten minutes. So the women got busy making themselves pretty, trading necklaces so that they each had a nice one. A necklace got stuck in the braids of one woman and they were laughing really hard as they tried to unstick it.

I took the photo, got it printed, then walked back and found the patriarch, the woman who had asked me to take the photo, and a young boy running toward me at our meeting point. I gave them the photo and they looked very happy about it. They made motions to pay me for it, but 10 RMB (US$1.25) is cheap for me compared to the joy it gave them, and it probably would be a lot of money for them to spend. I wanted a picture with the family and tried to get the boy to take it, but he cut off our heads. Another passerby took one of the four of us, and then we said goodbye and they walked away as I took some more photos of the palace. My experience in the palace and with the family was definitely the highlight of my trip so far.


Anonymous K.B. Brown said...

Hi Andy,
I've always wanted to visit Tibet and Potala Palace. Your travel-blog was the next best thing to being there myself. Thanks for the terrific pictures and descriptions. I especially love the photo of the three children. I'm sorry Loey and Dylan couldn't join you but I know how bad high altitude can make you feel.
All the best,

October 19, 2005 10:04 AM  

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