When I arrived at my hotel there was a couple unpacking bikes.. I asked if they were doing the same tour as me and they said yes! They had been cycling from Bangkok to Kathmandu via China and learned when they reached China that they could not enter or cycle in Tibet without being part of a group. So they flew from Chengdu to Lhasa and joined the tour.
Lhasa is a city in two parts. There is a large Chinese part, which looks much like any other medium-sized Chinese city. Then there’s the Tibetan part. It’s centered on Johkang Temple, Tibet’s holiest site. Tibetans young and old make pilgrimages from all over to pray at the temple, which takes various forms: walking a circuit around the temple (always counterclockwise), twirling prayer wheels, putting prayer flags on the towers around the temple, and most interestingly: prostrating. To do this, the pilgrim (usually wearing gloves and kneepads) kneels then throws him/herself onto the ground, claps, then stands up. Sometimes this is done in place, or sometimes it’s a slow way of doing the circuit around the temple.
Also surrounding the temple are hundreds of stalls selling all sorts of things, from religious items like prayer wheels and prayer flags to sneakers to kitchenware. This makes sense when you realize that people come from all over to walk the circuit, and many of them can’t buy these things in their small village homes. There are also permanent shops in the Tibetan part. In one alley, there are 4 or 5 shops selling solar panels, SLA batteries, inverters, and so on… and each has a cat! (These are a few of my favourite things.)
So yeah, the Tibetan part of Lhasa is great fun to wander around and people watch. I walked through it whenever possible, even if it was a bit out of my way.
Another thing that I noticed in Lhasa is the huge police and army presence, stationed under shade structures all over and patrolling the streets. There are far more than, say, Belfast during the troubles. Well, the Chinese sure know how to run a police state.
The day after I arrived in Lhasa, the rest of the bike tour group showed up on a flight from Kathmandu. As part of the tour, we saw several other sights in Lhasa. First was Drepung Monastery, which is a huge complex on a hill overlooking the city. The public parts are mostly chapels. Visitors can make offerings at the chapels, either of money (usually 1 jiao notes, worth about 1Â¢) by holy statues or items, or of yak butter. This is carried in in thermoses and poured into large candles found in several temples.
We visited Norbulingka, which used to be the summer residence of the Dalai Lama. The weirdest part here was that his washroom was part of the tour, and people put money on his toilet! I joined in the fun and left 1 jiao, of course.
The next day we visited the awesome Potala Palace, which towers over Lhasa. This was the main residence of the Dalai Lama, the centre of Tibet’s government, and is still one of the main religious sites. We toured dozens of rooms filled with sacred objects, including the burial sites of several Dalai Lamas.
That afternoon we visited Johkang Temple itself. Inside there are many small temples where you can offer money or yak butter. I had a bunch of jiao notes, so I got in on the fun. I made my offerings to the less popular statues, then got really creative and made offerings to signs, light switches, a pool of water… don’t worry, Tibetans make these kinds of offerings too.
So yeah, that was Lhasa. The hard part is describing how beautiful the place was. Leaving was a little heartbreak, even though I have a lot of Tibet left to see!
(I arrived in Tibet on May 28 and stayed until June 1.)