LHASA & ENVIRONS
Tibet's largest city, Lhasa, is also its most sacred and home of the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple and many of the plateau's largest monasteries. If you're picturing Tibet, chances are you're picturing the Potala Palace.
Sacked during the Cultural Revolution, it remains a symbol of Tibetan autonomy and seat of the government-in-exile of the Dalai Lama. A must see on any tour of Tibet, it's a treasure trove of traditional culture, an amazing architectural achievement and a World Heritage Site. Stroll through its 13 stories, housing 1,000 rooms, and you will have touched the heart of Tibet.
In Lhasa's old quarter you'll find the Jokhang Temple, the spiritual center of the country. Founded in the mid-7th century, today it hums with pilgrims saying prayers and spinning prayer wheels amid the smoke of yak butter lamps. Step out into the surrounding streets and be swept into a current of humanity making their clockwise circuit, called a kora, around the temples grounds. It's an electrifying experience to join the kora at Lhasa, like a water droplet uniting with a strong and ancient river. You'll pass pilgrims performing chaktsal, or ritual prostration, around the entire kora circuit.
Surrounding the Jokhang Temple is the Barkhor Market. Along the kora route around the temple and in the square, hundreds of merchants, traders and craftsmen set up shop to sell their wares to the people of Lhasa and the innumerable pilgrims. Everything from incense and prayer scarves, leather boots and yards of wool, plastic housewares and traditional turquoise jewelry, yak butter and Pringles, antiques and stereos can be found within the market area. A unique Tibet travel experience, it is interesting to visit the Barkhor area at several different times of the day, as it is continually transforming in character.
The Dalai Lama's former Summer Palace, Norbulingka, is a shady retreat from town and a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. Starting in the 18th century, the Dalai Lamas used this park as a retreat from the Potala, and eventually built administrative centers here so that they could spend the whole summer near the river.
Just outside Lhasa lies the Drepung Monastery, once the largest in the world. Essentially an assembly of colleges, it once housed up to 10,000 monks. There's lots of art, armor and atmosphere. Be sure to wander into the gigantic medieval kitchen-the monks don't mind. It's full of smoke and boiling pots of noodles and monks tending the fires. It's like stepping into another world.
At Sera the monks perform a clapping ritual every afternoon. They gather to grill each other on theological questions. If a monk answers incorrectly the others clap, and the sound reverberates throughout the chamber. It's good-natured, boisterous fun, and visitors can take part.
Perched at the edge of the Kyi Chu Valley, the spectacularly situated Ganden Monastery suffered greatly at the hands of the Red Guards. Now painstakingly restored, you can spend a fascinating day during your Tibet tour wandering through its courtyards, chapels, halls and rooms. Join the pilgrims circumambulating the monastery, some prostrating themselves on the ground with each step to amplify the cleansing effects of the ritual. You'll be immersed in a forest of colorful prayer flags, clouds of sandalwood incense, and experience firsthand the immense devotion of the Tibetan people.
DRAK YERPA CAVES
In the Kyi Chu Valley it is possible to explore the Drak Yerpa Caves, one of the holiest cave retreats in Tibet. They may be accessed via car or preferably via an interesting walk through small villages en route. The caves have been visited by Guru Rinposche and Atisha, the Bengali Buddhist who spent 12 years proselytizing in Tibet. King Songtsen Gampo also meditated in a cave here after his Tibetan wife established the first of Yerpa's chapels. At one time the hill at the base of the cliffs was home to a Yerpa Monastery. The monastery was largely destroyed as a result of the Cultural Revolution and there is unfortunately very little left to see. High atop the perch, surrounded by caves, you will see hundreds of prayer flags bearing witness to the power of Buddhism and prayer in Tibet. Some of the caves may be occupied by monks, who have once more returned to the caves after years of abandonment due to desecration by the Chinese Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. This is a very special Tibet tour excursion, affording a glimpse into a way of life that has existed for centuries among the deeply spiritual Tibetan people.
Tibet's first monastery, Samye, was built in the late 8th century and is modeled on the Odantapuri Temple in India. The temple compound is designed to resemble the Buddhist conception of the universe. The central temple represents Mt. Sumeru, the mythical mountain at the center of the cosmos. Around it are four temples, which represent the four continents and smaller temples that represent the sub-continents, as well as four different colored stupas, which face each direction. Tibet's first seven monks were ordained within the monastery and many early Tibetan Buddhist texts were translated and transcribed here. The stone tablet near the entrance, erected by King Trisong Detsen in 779, declares Buddhism to be the state religion.