After 22 days of living in a tent and about 1450 km on the seats of our bikes, we arrived in Lhasa on July 5th.
We were quite surprised when we ran into luxurious green vegetation and nice warm air about 20-30 km outside the city. The last 20 km into town we biked through an avenue of tall trees, which provided us with both shade from the sun and protection against the wind.
We speeded in towards the centre of town and checked in at Yak Hotel, which is at the top of the list in the Lonely Planet guidebook. We were accommodated in a room for four costing 150Y per night. The room didn’t have a private shower, but nevertheless we were equally satisfied with the common shower, which had hot running water 24 hours a day. Not something to be taken for granted here in Lhasa.
We didn’t have much planned for Lhasa. Mainly, we were looking forward to just relaxing for several days and eating a lot of good food. The thought of good food was particularily important to us now, after having survived mainly on oatmeal and noodles for the past 3 weeks.
But there was one thing we planned to do in Lhasa, and that was to visit the palace where the Dalia Lama had resided before being forced to flee from the Chinese in 1959, the Temple of Potala. This is the gigantic red and white temple that sits on the top of a small mountain in the middle of Lhasa city.
However, a visit to Potala involves quite a lot of red tape, something that our Lonely Planet guide from 1999 didn’t mention. According to the guide, all you have to do is pay 40Y to get into the Temple. But it’s not that easy today. At the entrance we were greeted by a number of guards who motioned us on to a woman and a policeman just inside the gate. The woman was sitting and handing out slips of paper with a specific time written on them. We had to produce our passports, and she wrote down each of our passport numbers on a piece of paper with a time written on it. Our slips said 12:40 PM. But we weren’t able to buy our tickets right away. The ticket could only be bought 20 minutes before 12:40, at the earliest. Since it was only 10:30 then, we took a long walk to the Chinese part of town before going back to buy our tickets. During the course of the last 5 years, the price of the ticket has increased to 100Y.
It was strictly prohibited to take pictures inside the Temple. There were monks and guards in nearly every room and half-hidden video cameras where there were no guards. Nevertheless, we can reveal that on the inside the temple is striking. With the aid of closed doors, guards, and small fences, we were guided throughout a somewhat confusing multitude of rooms, corridors and large hallways spreading over several storeys. We entered the Temple through a door on the one side and exited through a different one on the other side.
In the rooms there were thousands upon thousands of Buddha figures of all sizes and colours. Absolutely every wall and ceiling was decorated with paintings and embroideries in vivid colours. Most of the woodwork was covered with the most imposing carvings. Several of the rooms were being restored, including the room that contains the most impressive content of all, a 12.6 metre drop supposedly coated in 3.7 tons of gold.
According to one of the Tibetan guards we talked to inside the temple, 70 monks were working on restoring the temple, all beind paid by the Chinese government.
The temple toilets are worth a visit on their own, whether one needs to use them or not. The toilet itself consists merely of 2 rectangular holes in the floor, but as the empty space beneath is, in principle, endless, it rarely needs to be raked out. Even the 400 years that have passed since the Temple was completed hasn’t been long enough for the space to get filled up. According to the same Tibetan guard mentioned earlier, this was one of a total of two toilet facilities for the whole Temple, which is said to have more than 100 rooms.
The day before going to Potala, we visited a temple called Jokhang, which is situated in the middle of the Tibetan part of Lhasa. The temple lies near a well-known site in Lhasa, Barkhor Square. The square was cleaned up by the Chinese in 1985 and is now a favourite spot for tourists like ourselves and hundreds of street peddlers. From the roof of Jokhang you can get a good view across Barkor Square and across to Potala. The temple itself isn’t so interesting. Actually, it’s the view that holds the most interest, and not least the pious Buddhists stopping in front of the temple and throwing themselves on the ground time and time again in subjection and prayer. Since none of us is particularly religious, we find it hard to understand the point of it.
The trip ahead
We’ve now been in Lhasa for about 5 days, our batteries are fully charged again, and we’re feeling that it’s time to move on. We’ll be taking the southernmost route to Shigatse for about 350 km. Shigatse is the largest city between Lhasa and Katmandu. This road is considered to be to worst of the 3 possible routes, as it’s mostly unpaved. But it’s also said to be the most spectacular route when it comes to the landscape, and the one most tourists choose. Heavy traffic takes the road a little to the north, which is both more direct and paved.
We’ll probably be sending a report from Shigatse, if we can find an Internet café there.