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DAY 2: NIGHT VIEW OF POTALA (布達拉宮), Lhasa (拉薩), Tibet

Across the street from the Potala lies the 600m x 400m Potala Square (布達拉宮廣場).  Every night, at the centre of the square the large musical fountain attracts a small group of spectators to watch the dancing water jets in front of the architectural icon of Lhasa.  The once mystical scene of the Potala with flickering candle lights at each window is now replaced with consistent flood lights illuminated from below.  Today, after the palace museum closes for the evening, there are hardly any light appear from inside the palace windows.  In the evening, stream of pilgrims pass in front of the palace, and so as the busy traffic on Beijing Road, and groups of tourists by the musical fountain at the Potala Square.

We didn’t come for the fountain show, but for the water puddles on the floor.  According to Pazu of Spinn Cafe, the water puddles of the musical fountain provide a great opportunity to photograph the splendid reflection of the Potala Palace.  All we needed to do was to wait for the moments of gaps between the water jets changed their programmed movements.  The uplights changed colours simultaneously as the water rose and fell.  Beyond Beijing Road, the well-lit backdrop of the Potala seemed a little distant and lonely.

DSC_9379.JPGAfter a nice chat with Pazu of Spinn Cafe, we took a taxi to the Potala for its evening view.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANear Potala west entrance, we crossed Beijing Road via a pedestrian tunnel and arrived at the enormous Potala Square.

DSC_9417We walked to the musical fountain near the centre of Potala Square.

DSC_9406Then we waited for the photogenic moments when the water jets stopped and the tranquil reflection of the palace appeared on the ground.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWatching the tourist silhouettes posing in the reflection was quite a pleasant scene.

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DAY 2 : SPINN CAFE (風轉咖啡館), Lhasa (拉薩), Tibet

Pazu Kong (薯伯伯), a young gentleman from Hong Kong, traveled to Tibet in 2006 with Oat, his travel buddy from Thailand.  They spent three months on the road from Thailand to Lhasa.  Once arrived, they decided to stay at the sacred city and opened a cafe in the Barkhor Old City.   Since then, Pazu’s Spinn Cafe (風轉咖啡館) has become a Lonely Planet recommended hub for travelers (from Hong Kong and elsewhere) to gather and seek for travel advises.  Pazu also arranges jeep hire for travelers.  We learnt about Pazu from his book “Spinning in Tibet, Selling Coffee in Lhasa (風轉西藏)”.  Written in 2009, his book offers a glimpse of his interesting Tibetan experience.  About a month before departure, we contacted Pazu for our jeep hire.  We asked for an experienced Tibetan driver to take us to the Mount Everest Base Camp, Namtso Lake and a few other destinations along the way.  Upon arrival in Tibet, Pazu told us to drop by Spinn Cafe to leave our ID for him to apply for our Everest permits.

After our visit to Jokhang Monastery, it was still too early for dinner.  We decided to drop by Cafe Spinn.  From Jokhang, it was just a few minutes’ walk to reach the cozy cafe at an alleyway behind the touristy Dan Jie Lin Road.  At Spinn Cafe, Pazu was busy serving another group of Hong Kong tourists for their jeep arrangement.  He looked talkative, energetic and friendly.  We settled down at one of the low tables in the cafe.  While waiting for Pazu, we ordered a specialty drink made with local goji berries, and toyed with a pulse oximeter on the table to examine the oxygen level in our blood.  Soon Pazu came to sit down with us after he bid farewell to the other group of tourists.  We first talked about our jeep arrangement, then soon drifted to Pazu’s hiking experience in Southeast Tibet, his recent travel diary in the Middle East, recommended alternative sights in Lhasa, social issues of Hong Kong, and so on, until Pazu had to leave and meet up with his friends for dinner.

DSC_9364Looking from outside, we could already sense the cozy atmosphere in the Spinn Cafe (風轉咖啡館).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Spinn Cafe (風轉咖啡館) is a great place to take a break after a day of sightseeing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPazu Kong (薯伯伯) was really friendly and informative as we chatted about Tibet and other topics.

DAY 2: JOKHANG MONASTERY (ཇོ་ཁང། / 大昭寺), Lhasa (拉薩), Tibet

Maggie and I arrived at the Trichang Labrang Hotel at around 2pm, and were delighted to find Angela feeling much better after a good rest.  We decided to head out together for a decent Tibetan meal.  Recommended by Pazu, the owner of Spinn Cafe in Lhasa who also helped us to arrange a 4 wheel drive for our 6-day excursion, we decided to go to a nearby restaurant called “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱們的藏餐館).  We walked east from our hotel towards the Muslim neighborhood, searched for a while until finally arrived at the old courtyard compound called Bangdacang Compound (邦達倉大院) where the restaurant was located in the courtyard.   “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱們的藏餐館) offered many options of Tibetan and Chinese dishes and we had a delightful late lunch under a parasol and atmospheric Tibetan flags.

At 3:30pm, we finished our meal and walked out to the Barkhor Street towards Jokhang Monastery (ཇོ་ཁང། / 大昭寺).  At the heart of Barkhor old city, the Jokhang is often considered to be the most sacred destination in the entire Tibet.  Despite not all chapels were opened in the afternoon, we still wanted to visit the Jokhang before it closed for the day.  We entered the monastery through its side door next to the ticket office.  Immediately we arrived at a series of courtyards.  We followed a designated route around the perimeter of the central courtyard to reach the entrance of the main hall.  Similar to prayer halls at other Tibetan monasteries, rows of monk seats occupied the centre of the hall.  Small chapels with religious statues flanked three sides of the hall.  The main chapel at the centre housed a small statue of the Buddha called Jowo Shakyamuni.

Considered as the most sacred Buddhist image in Tibet, the statue was brought to Tibet from China by Wencheng Princess (文成公主) during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century.  She came to Tibet to marry Songtsen Gampo, the King of Tibet.  To consolidate the foundation of Buddhism in Tibet, Songtsen erected a monastery to house the Jowo Shakyamuni.  Known as the Jokhang, the monastery soon became the primary pilgrimage spot for all Tibetan Buddhists.  The oldest part of the Jokhang dates back to 652.  Since then, the monastery had gone through up and down times, depending on the popularity of Buddhism and political situations.  The monastery was damaged in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolutuon, and took eight years to restore during the 1970s.  In 2000, Jokhang was inscribed in the World Heritage list as an extension to the Potala.

After the main hall, we walked one level up to the roof terrace, where we could admire the golden ornaments of the architecture.  Unfortunately the roof terrace where visitors could enjoy the view of the Potala was closed for renovation.  We could only wander around the roof for a little bit before heading back down.  Our tour of the monastery was brief but it offered us a decent introduction to Lhasa’s history and Tibetan Buddhism.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABangdacang Compound (邦達倉大院) was only a few minute walk from our hotel.

02“Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱們的藏餐館) is located in the courtyard of the Bangdacang Compound (邦達倉大院).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe ordered yak meat and pancake.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe mushroom momos (Tibetan dumplings) were good and deserved a longer waiting time.

05The forecourt of Jokhang is always busy with pilrims.

06Inside Jokhang, the first courtyard beyond the ticket entrance was rather peaceful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked around the inner perimeter of the central courtyard to admire the wall paintings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was late in the afternoon with few tourists.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking up, we could see parts of the golden ornament on the roof of Jokhang.

10At one side of the courtyard, there was a seat reserved for the Dalai Lama.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABeautiful decorations could be seen everywhere in the building.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked around the central courtyard to check out the wall paintings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe wall paintings had undergone extensive restorations in recent years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABeyond the main hall were living quarters for monks.

16After walking around the courtyard, we entered the main prayer hall through its old entrance door.  Unfortunate photography was not allowed in the interior.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the roof terrace, we were overwhelmed by the extensive golden decorations.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA long courtyard near the main hall indicated the start of monk living quarter.

19On the roof terrace, the golden roof and decorations were clearly shown.

20Details of the golden ornaments on the roof.

21After visiting Jokhang, we walked over to the monastery’s forecourt where devoted pilgrims performed all kinds of worshiping rituals.

DAY 2: DREPUNG MONASTERY (འབྲས་སྤུངས་ /哲蚌寺), Lhasa (拉薩), Tibet

Tsongkhapa was a famous teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, whose activities led to the founding of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism.  Drepung Monastery was found in 1416 by Jamyang Choje Tashi Palden, one of Tsongkhapa’s disciple.  He was also known as the second Dalai Lama.  Soon after, Drepung had become a large institution consisted of lamaseries and colleges, forming a religious community of several thousand monks at the foot of Mount Gephel.  Drepung remained as the residence of Dalai Lama until the 5th Dalai Lama moved to Lhasa’s Potala Palace.  Today, a few hundred monks resided at Drepung.  Compared to many Tibetan monasteries, damages caused by the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s was relatively small for Drepung.

Along with Ganden Palace, the residence established by the second Dalai Lama, the four Dratsang (college and administrative organization) still exist today at Drepung Monastery.  After our kora hike, we started our brief visit of Drepung from Gomang College (果芒扎倉).  As one of the four Dratsang, Gomang has its own main Sutra Hall and a number chapels.  We were able to visit most of these spaces, including the flat roof above the Sutra Hall, despite we could not take photos inside the building.  We spent roughly two hours to wander around Drepung Monastery and its main buildings, including Loseling College (洛色林扎倉), Tsogchen Main Assembly Hall (措欽大殿), Ngagpa College (阿巴扎倉), Ganden Phodrang (甘丹頗章), etc.  The entire monastery was like a village with stairs, courtyards and winding alleyways connecting different buildings.  There weren’t many tourists around, except two groups of Western tourists in front of the Main Assembly Hall.

After a thorough wander in the monastery compound, we waited a bit at the parking lot and asked around for the minibus.  No one seemed to know when the minibus would leave.  We decided to follow several pilgrims to walk down to the main gateway.  The walk took about 20 minutes.  We walked past the main monastery gate and continued along the main retail street out to the main road.  Before we reached the main road, we flagged down a taxi who was willing to take us back to Central Lhasa.

DSC_9118A monk carrying a water container in front of the Gomang College (果芒扎倉).

DSC_9115A pilgrim with a bead necklace walking up the entrance stair of the Gomang College (果芒扎倉).

DSC_9141Gomang College (果芒扎倉), the second largest Dratsang (college) in Drepung, was the first building that we visited at the monastery.

DSC_9125The beautiful wall painting at the entrance of Gomang College (果芒扎倉) seemed recently repaired.

DSC_9132It was awfully hot with the sun above our head, but we couldn’t resist not to visit the flat roof above Gomang College (果芒扎倉).

DSC_9146Resembled a village, the Drepung Monastery is a huge compound with lots of buildings and alleyways.

DSC_9154Wandering around the alleyways in Drepung Monastery was quite pleasant especially when there weren’t too many tourists around.

DSC_9158After a while, we soon lost track on how many buildings we had visited as most halls looked quite similar with their white walls, golden roof decorations and entrance setting.  Despite of their similarities, every single building we visited looked gorgeous both outside and inside.

DSC_9162With the powerful highland sunlight, most monastery windows are protected by textile awning canopies.

DSC_9181With 183 columns and an area of about 1800 square metres, Tsogchen Main Assembly Hall (措欽大殿) is the grandest structure in Drepung Monastery.  The plaza in front of the hall is also the largest square in the compound.

DSC_9197The roof above the Tsogchen Main Assembly Hall (措欽大殿) is well worth a visit.

DSC_9198The row of windows on the left is actually celestial windows for the main assembly hall below.

DSC_9201A group of local tourists posted for photograph on the roof terrace of Tsogchen Main Assembly Hall.

DSC_9211We meandered through narrow alleyways and stairs between buildings.

DSC_9221Occasionally we would pass by small stupas where pilgrims would circle around in clockwise direction.

DSC_9219Loseling College (洛色林扎倉), the largest Dratsang (college) in Drepung Monastery, was another highlight in the monastery.

DSC_9240Before the establishment of the Potala, Ganden Phodrang was the residence of the Dalai Lama from the 2nd to the 5th Dalai Lama.

DSC_9241Our visit of the Drepung Monastery ended at Ganden Phodrang (甘丹頗章).

DAY 2: KORA OF DREPUNG MONASTERY (འབྲས་སྤུངས་/ 哲蚌寺), Lhasa (拉薩), Tibet

Ganden (དགའ་ལྡན་/甘丹寺), Sera (སེ་ར་དགོན་པ/色拉寺) and Drepung (འབྲས་སྤུངས་/哲蚌寺) Monastery are considered to be the three great Gelug (格魯派) or “Yellow Hat Sect” university monasteries of Tibet.  Established in 1416 and held 7700 monks in its heyday, Drepung Monastery was one of the largest monasteries in the world.  The taxi ride from the Potala to Drepung Monastery in the outskirt of Lhasa took about 15 minutes.  Upon exiting the main road, our taxi passed through a busy street with religious shops and stopped at the outer entrance of Drepung Monastery.  We were told that a minibus could take us up to the monastery at the lower slope of Mount Gephel (更丕烏孜山).  After a ten minute wait, a minibus arrived.  We were lucky to squeeze in the bus along with a full load of pilgrims.  After only a few minutes, our minibus arrived at the monastery’s main parking lot.

Before the sun get too hot, we decided to walk up the mount behind Drepung Monastery on the kora trail.  We followed the pilgrim path west of the compound towards a large platform several storey high.  The large platform was the Thangka Exhibition Platform used during the Shoton or Sho Dun Festival (雪頓節) to display the 40m wide x 80m long Buddha tapestry.  To witness the fantastic ceremonies of Shoton Festival, we came a month too late.  To do the hour-long kora trail around the monastery, we came just at the right time of the day with the perfect weather.  We were a little worry on whether we would be affected by altitude sickness during the hike.  The actual kora trail began in a woods beyond the Thangka Exhibition Platform.  We followed several Tibetan pilgrims to enter the ascending trail.  The trail winded up the slope of Mount Gephel behind the monastery, and led us to a number of colourful prayer rocks.  At the trail’s highest point, we were captivated by the singing of a group of women who were busy fixing the flat roof of a monastery building, and by the view of the distant mountains.  We walked on the trail for roughly an hour before descending to the other end of the monastery.

DSC_8970After a brief taxi ride, we were dropped off at the main gateway of Drepung Monastery at the foot of Mount Gephel.

DSC_8985A minibus took us from the main gateway up to the parking lot in front of the monastery complex.  Instead of visiting the monastery buildings right away, we ventured to the path left of Ganden Podrang towards a cluster of rock paintings and the huge Thangka Exhibition Platform.

DSC_8986Along the path there were many prayer wheels for pilgrims to circumambulate around the complex.

DSC_8993Lots of small offerings were left below the prayer wheels.

DSC_8999For pilgrims of all ages, interacting with the prayer wheels is a popular must-do to begin a monastery visit.

DSC_9013We could clearly see rock paintings above us, as well as the uncounted paintings of “ladder to the paradise”.

DSC_9026The Thangka Exhibition Platform looked gigantic as we walked past it.  Too bad we were not here for the Sho Dun Festival.

DSC_9032The kora trail began at a prayer wheel adjacent to a small creek.

DSC_9034There are many small shrines and rock paintings along the kora trail.

DSC_9039The vivid colours of the prayer rocks allow visitors to see from afar.

DSC_9041Half way up the trail we had a close encounter with a yak/cow.

DSC_9047A bird landed on a prayer rock at the high point of the trail.

DSC_9052With the occasional pilgrims on the kora, it was not easy for us to get lost.

DSC_9057Small shrines were constructed at certain locations along the kora path.

DSC_9061

DSC_9068A group of women staff were fixing the roof at Ganden Podrang.

DSC_9087Beyond the last prayer rock on the trail, we began to descend back to the monastery level.

DSC_9097We entered the monastery complex from the side.  It was good to enjoy Drepung Monastery when not many tourists were around.

DAY 2: FIRST GLIMPSE OF POTALA (ཕོ་བྲང་པོ་ཏ་ལ་ 布達拉宮), Lhasa (拉薩), Tibet

A fine night of rest had rejuvenated our bodies.  Angela decided to rest a little longer at the hotel to tackle her altitude reactions.  Maggie and I headed out at around 6:45am for a special mission.  We walked to the nearby main street Jiangsu Road and hopped on a shared taxi (all taxis in Lhasa are shared taxis, meaning that the driver can take other customers along the way as long as everyone are heading for the similar direction).  We got off near the west gate of the Potala Palace.  Our mission was simply to queue for a time slot of our visit at the next day.  Apparently during the high season (May to October), visitors of the Potala can only line up for a time slot a day in advance.  On the actual day of visit, one would then need to arrive at a specific checkpoint at the given time slot, in order to get onto the main path that goes up to the ticket office high up in the palace.

We were told that even obtaining a time slot the day before would involve considerable amount of queuing time.  Luckily we were not visiting Lhasa during the hottest time of the year, namely in August or the October 1st golden week of the Chinese National Day, when visitors would arrive at Potala’s west gate before 5:30am to guarantee a visiting time slot for the next day (according to bloggers online).  It was mid September and we were told to come at around 7:30am for the queue.  We arrived at around 7:20am and there were about 40 people standing in front of us.  Every individual visitor must have an ID in order to obtain a single time slot ticket for the next day.

The sun wasn’t entirely up yet at 7:20.  The sky was getting brighter by the minute.  We stood at the parking lot in front of the reservation office, and admired the majestic Potala under the morning sun.  At around 8:40am, Maggie decided to get some takeout for breakfast.  She set off to a small eatery over at another parking lot nearby.  Two minutes after she walked away, the queue began to move.  I had no choice but to follow.  Fortunately I had the ID of my two travel buddies with me, so had no problem reserving a 9:20am time slot for everyone of us in the next morning.  Time was still early after we got our reservation tickets.  Maggie and I decided to hop on a taxi to visit Drepung Monastery in the western suburb of Lhasa.

01We arrived at the time reservation office at 7:20am.

02There were about 40 people standing in front of us.

03While we stood at the queue, the sky to the east was getting brighter.

04Most shops near the reservation office were tourist related such as travel agents.

05_01At around 8am, the morning sun began to cast a golden glow onto the sacred palace of Potala.

06The golden glow on the Potala lasted for about 10 minutes.  The splendid architecture of the red and white palaces created a perfect harmony in a majestic manner.

07At around 8:15am, there was no sign that the reservation office would open any time soon.  We watched the golden glow gradually disappeared on the Potala.

08After we got the reservations for the next day, we walked over to the main street in front of Potala.  The street was full of pilgrims walking the kora around the palace, which takes appropriate half an hour to complete.

09Devoted pilgrims stopped in front of the Potala to read prayers and spin their ritual wheels.

10As we walked east along Beijing Road in front of the Potala, we passed by the central gate of the palace where we would return the next day for our visit.

11Looking from the southeast, the Potala looks as if surrounded by rows of young evergreen.

DAY 1: KORA AT BARKHOR STREET (八廓街), Lhasa (拉薩), Tibet

After we put down our bags into the hotel room, we couldn’t wait but to venture out into the alleyways of Barkhor Old Town.  Soon we arrived at a security checkpoint where we needed to show our ID and put our bags through the x-ray.  A little further beyond the checkpoint was a much wider stone paved street where almost all pedestrians moved in one direction.  We knew we had arrived at the famous Barkhor Street (八廓街).  We were all sleepy from the red eye flight.  Angela got a bad headache from the high altitude.  We had no particular itinerary for the day.  We took our time to walk around the Barkhor Street, taking in the energy and Tibetan atmosphere of the ancient street, and dropping by the nearby Summit Cafe and Spinn Cafe for brief breaks.

Kora (སྐོར་ར) is the term for a pilgrimage circumambulation for Tibetan Buddhism around a sacred site or object in the clockwise direction.  In Lhasa, if not the entire Tibet, the most popular kora route is undoubtedly the Barkhor Street (八廓街), the pedestrian circuit around the Jokhang Monastery (大昭寺).  For over 1300 years the stone paved circuit was the most sacred pilgrim route for Tibetan Buddhists.  Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo erected the Jokhang Monastery in 647, and the pilgrim path around the temple soon followed and had since then evolved into Barkhor Street.  On the hand-polished stone pavers, uncounted pilgrims stepped on the Barkhor everyday, some would even perform prostration while moving clockwise along the Barkhor.  Apart from prostrating, some pilgrims also spin their prayer wheels, chant mantra, or count their rosary beads.

Nowadays, other than its spiritual identity, Barkhor Street has also become a prime tourist destination of Lhasa.  Souvenir shops have lined up along both sides of the famous street.   For tourists, following the local pilgrims to stroll along Barkhor Street is compulsory.  Beyond souvenir stores and gemstone shops, visitors may find religious shops selling all kinds of items for the pilgrims.  For us, the Barkhor Street was the place that we walked by several times each day during our stay in Lhasa.

01The route from our hotel opens to the Barkhor Street at the south side of the Jokhang Monastery, near a colourful flag post.

02Many locals were dressed in traditional clothing while walking the kora on the Barkhor.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA turn near the colourful flag post led us to the square in front of Jokhang Monastery, where a group of pilgrims and tourists congregated.

04At the Jokhang Square, local pilgrims passed by another colourful flag post.

05There were constantly pilgrims prostrating in front of the Jokhang Monastery.

06Visitors can no longer get in the original main entrance of Jokhang Monastery.

07The original main entrance of Jokhang Monastery has become a small plaza for prostrating pilgrims and spectating tourists.

08Going north from the Jokhang Square, the Barkhor Street gets narrow again into a retail street.

09The Barkhor Street is flanked both sides by traditional Tibetan houses.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlong the Barkhor, there are quite a number of benches and seating areas for the pilgrims.

11Makye Ame is a famous restaurant bar at the southeast corner of the Barkhor.  Legend has it that Tsangyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama, met the girl he loved at this bar in the 17th century.

12There are also hidden courtyards behind the traditional Tibetan houses on the Barkhor, where young artists and artisans gather to promote a new generation of Tibetan culture, as well as cool cafes and interesting bookstores targeted at the local youngsters.

13Late afternoon is a popular time to walk the Barkhor, when the fierce highland sun becomes a more bearable.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApart from Jokhang Monastery, there are a number of historical buildings at Barkhor, including this former office of the Qing government representatives.

16Smaller in scale than the famous monasteries, local Buddhist temples such as this one on the Barkhor Street is equally interesting with vibrant worshiping scenes.

17Both pilgrims and tourists love to interact with the Buddhist prayer wheels.

15Inside the small temple there is a much bigger prayer wheel where pilgrims move clockwise with the turning wheel inside.

19Police has a strong presence at Barkhor Street, with security stations set up at certain spots.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATea shops and shopping centre of gemstone shops dotted around the Barkhor Street.

21Before sunset, Barkhor Street can get pretty crowded with pilgrims and tourists.

22Among all the pilgrims and tourists that we had seen on the Barkhor Street, probably this old man and his seven dogs had captured the most attention.