ultramarinus – beyond the sea


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.


DAY 1: TRICHANG LABRANG HOTEL (赤江拉讓藏式賓館) and Surrounding Neighborhood, Lhasa (拉薩), Tibet

From the Airport Shuttle Bus Station near the Potala, we flagged down a taxi for the last bit of journey for reaching Trichang Labrang Hotel.  Trichang Labrang is located in a small alley called Lugu Lane No. 5 (鲁固5巷) in the Barkhor (八廓) Old Town near the famous Jokhang Temple.  Our taxi dropped us at one of the entrances of Lugu Lane along Jiangsu Road.  In the labyrinth of small alleys, it took us a moment to figure out the way to reach the hotel’s main door.  The courtyard building has been part of the old city for 300 years, and was once a former residence of Trijang Rinpoche, a former junior tutor to the current 14th Dalai Lama.

We entered the hotel through a courtyard.  At the reception, each of us was greeted by the staff with a white scarf.  The hotel was full of charming Tibetan touches, and dotted with vintage decorations in the common areas.  The rooms were basic, decent in size and colorfully painted, but might need a renovation soon.  A pleasant veranda overlooking the entrance courtyard connected all rooms and common areas on the upper level.

The area around Trichang Labrang Hotel is a quiet residential neighborhood in the Barkhor Old Town.  With a vibrant street life, it is only a stone throw away from the popular tourist area of Barkhor Street and Jokhang Temple (大昭寺).  Over the course of our stay in Lhasa, we had the opportunity to wander around the centuries old neighborhood around our hotel at different times of the day, discovering interesting small shops and eateries, and historical courtyard complexes and community Buddhist temples along the way.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe main entrance of Trichang Labrang Hotel could be easily missed. It was located at a T-intersection of two alleyways in a peaceful residential neighborhood in the Barkhor Old Town.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis playful little dog of the hotel hung out around the neighborhood and was a friend to many neighbors.  Sometimes it sat on the chair at the hotel door to welcome us, sometimes it stretched under the chair to enjoy a peaceful nap.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe colourful painting on the hotel main door reminded visitors of its heritage and history.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe entrance courtyard of the hotel seemed under used but we loved the vine that stretched like a large canopy sheltering the fierce highland sun.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe hotel rooms on the second and third floor open around a veranda overlooking the courtyard.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is a beautiful old photo of Potala Palace hung on the veranda wall.  The photo captured the moment of Lhasa long before it was modernized.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn old sewing machine outside of our room.

08The interior of the room was not as charming as the public space. It was spacious and had touches of Tibetan decoration.  The accommodation was basic and equipped with a kettle and a humidifier.  The ceiling mounted heat lamp in the bathroom was quite handy as it heated up the space while the shower water slowly warmed up.  We generally had a fine stay except for the annoying mosquitoes that sometimes woke us up in the middle of the night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOutside of the hotel, the alleyway to the right would lead us to the main street Jiangsu Road in a few minutes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese playful dogs around the corner from the hotel loved to chase each other.  They ran from store to store to get people’s attention, and barked at strangers occasionally.  Every store owner seemed to know these dogs very well.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADeep fried potato chips seemed to be a popular snack in Tibet.  It was usually served with chili powder.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a beautiful to watch the colorful prayer’s flag dancing in the air against the blue sky above the alleyways of the Barkhor Old Town.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe love strolling along the streets in Barkhor Old Town, either north to the area around Jokhang Temple or east to an area with several Muslim mosques alongside with Buddhist temples.  In the east neighborhood there was also Pandatsang (邦達倉) Compound, another historical courtyard complex where we ended up enjoying two good Tibetan meals at the courtyard restaurant “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱们的藏餐馆).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of the alleyway in front of our hotel, Angela discovered a small Buddhist temple popular with local pilgrims.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom our hotel enroute to the Barkhor Street (八廓) and Jokhang Temple (大昭寺), we would need to pass through a number of old shopping alleyways and a security checkpoint.  Quite a number of shops were owned by young people whose merchandised offered a more unique and personal touch to the local culture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen night fell, the shopping alleyways with atmospheric shopfronts turned peaceful. Many stores, such as the Tibetan textile shop and western cafe in this photo remained open till late in the evening.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We often passed by the same neighborhood convenient store where we get bottled water.

18Finding our way back to the hotel at night was often a pleasant walk after dinner.

19 Our wayfinding was primarily based on special “landmarks” where we would need to make a turn.  Despite every alleyway looked the same, this method of finding our way worked pretty well.

20The alleyways could get quite dark at certain spots, but we never felt unsafe walking around at night.




Leaving all daily troubles behind, we left Hong Kong for Chengdu on a Friday evening in mid September.  By the time we arrived at the provincial capital of Sichuan two hours later, it was almost 11pm.  We had several hours to kill at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (成都雙流國際機場) before our connecting flight to Lhasa at 6am the next morning.  At Terminal 1 of Chengdu , we sat down at a quiet corner in the departure hall until 3am.  Then we exited the terminal, and walked over to Terminal 2 for our Lhasa flight.  We were sleepy as expected, and could only managed to get a bit more rest on the 2-hour flight.  After an hour into the flight, the sun was already up above the clouds.  As we approached Tibet, we could occasionally see beautiful snow-capped peaks sticking out of the clouds.  During the descend, after our plane passed through the thick layer of clouds, we were excited to find the glorious terrains of the Tibetan Plateau below.  The Yarlung Zangbo River (雅魯藏布江) and Lhasa River (拉薩河) near Lhasa Gonggar Airport (拉薩貢嘎機場) glowed under the morning sun.  Our plane made a few turns before touching down onto the runway strip surrounded by patches of yellow trees. We didn’t prearrange any pick up from the airport.  There were plenty of airport buses outside the airport and only costed us 25 RMB each (compared to 300 RMB for taxi and 500 RMB for private pickup).  The ride to Central Lhasa took roughly an hour.

DSC_8652It was almost midnight when we arrived at Chengdu.

DSC_8653.JPGAt 3am, we walked over to Terminal 2 for our Lhasa flight.

DSC_8687Occasional snow-capped peaks appeared above the clouds.

DSC_8711Despite exhaustion from the sleepless night, the excitement of seeing the mountainous landscape below kept our eyes opened until landing.

DSC_8720Descending below the layer of clouds was like entering a different world.

DSC_8721Under the clouds, the rugged landscape and the river valley received the first morning light of the day.

DSC_8729The flow of Yarlung Zangbo River (雅魯藏布江) offers a touch of colour to the otherwise dark brown terrain near Lhasa.

DSC_8738Under the light of morning sun, Yarlung Zangbo River (雅魯藏布江) glowed in the dark and rugged terrains.

DSC_8747The flood plains of Yarlung Zangbo River (雅魯藏布江) near the airport were dotted with yellow trees.

DSC_8753Surrounded by rugged mountains, Lhasa Gonggar Airport (拉薩貢嘎機場) is a simple airport that connects Lhasa to several Chinese cities including Chengdu and Beijing.

IMG_2337The bus ride out to Central Lhasa took about an hour.  The journey passed by river valleys and through mountain tunnels until reaching the suburb of Lhasa.

IMG_2354The bus passed by the majestic Potala as it approached the station nearby.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the bus station at the shadow of the Potala, our exploration of Lhasa officially began.

JOURNEY ABOVE THE CLOUDS, Tibet 2017 (西藏之旅2017)

It has been many years since I dreamed of visiting Tibet.  Yet it only took us a little over a month to plan for this trip and invite our Canadian friend Maggie to join.  The itinerary consisted of two parts: 4 days in Lhasa and surrounding monasteries, and 6 days on the road climaxed with a close encounter with Mount Everest’s north face at the Everest Base Camp.  Apart from occasional hassles of security checkpoints, our Tibetan story was largely filled with breathtaking scenery, photogenic monasteries and joyful laughter among the three of us.

Under rapid modernization in recent years, Tibet has been changing drastically.  Since the opening of Qinghai-Tibet Railway, more highways and rail roads are being constructed every year, connecting Tibet with the rest of China.  Modern infrastructure has brought in a large influx of local tourists and commercial goods.  Given the inevitable social changes and urbanization of Lhasa, we were delighted to discover that the local Tibetan lifestyle is still going strong at many places, especially at Buddhist monasteries where locals pilgrims and monks still practise their traditional rituals, and at rural areas where farmers still live off the land raising yaks and sheep, and farming the famous Highland barley.

For 11 days we had the blessing of promising weather, even the infamous gusty and freezing weather at Everest Base Camp and Namtso Lake didn’t come to trouble us while we enjoyed the spectacle of the Milky Way and shooting stars over snow-capped mountains.  The rich culture of Tibetan Buddhism was equally spectacular and visible almost everywhere from vivid prayer flags at mountain passes to the myriad of prostrating pilgrims around Jokhang Monastery and the majestic Potala in Lhasa.  For us, the centuries old spirituality was inseparable from the Tibetan landscape.  At the land of mystic Shangri-La where heavenly landscapes coincide with the spirituality of the Buddhist Mandala, we had experienced a marvelous journey that defied fatigue from a red eye flight, occasional altitude sickness, and days of awful toilets.

DSC_0385Our first part of the trip concentrated on exploring Lhasa, the sacred capital of Tibet.  Walking the clockwise kora (pilgrimage) on Barkhor Street around Jokhang Monastery was an interesting experience that we had everyday during our stay in Lhasa.

DSC_1963Our second part of the trip was an remarkable road journey of ancient monasteries and spectacular scenery of snow-capped mountains and pristine lakes.  We were fortunate to enjoy beautiful weather and clear sky while admiring the starry sky from the Everest Base Camp and Namtso Lake.


Leaving Huanglong behind, our taxi drove northwest into the mountains.  The ride to Jiuzhaigou-Huanglong Airport was roughly an hour long.  The mountainous scenery along the way was pleasant under the sun.  The airport was busy with passengers designated to either Chengdu or Chongqing.  Our flight to Xian only operates during peak tourist season.  It was already dark when we arrived at Xian after the 1.5 hour flight.  Stepping out of the airport, we could immediately tell the difference in the air, from the refreshing highland air of Sichuan to the typical urban smog of a Chinese big city.  It was raining heavily and we decided to take a taxi returning to Hantang House, the guesthouse that we stayed at in the first half of the trip.

Hantang House is a simple guesthouse hidden in an alleyway within walking distance from Xian’s Bell Tower.  Given the affordable price, central location, youth hostel ambience, good selection of international beer and local ice pop, we were quite happy with the stay.  We dropped down our backpacks and walked out to a nearby shopping centre for dinner.  Originally we opted for a popular hotpot restaurant, but eventually gave up when we were told that the wait for a table would be 2.5 hours.  We ended up going to a fish based hotpot restaurant in another shopping centre.  In the next morning, we walked across the alleyway to Xiaohe, a street eatery right outside of our guesthouse.  That was our second and the last opportunity to taste the spicy noodles and local burger made with crispy baked bread.  At the lobby of Hantang House, we said goodbye to the friendly cat which always greeted visitors whenever it was awaken.  We sat around the high wooden table in front of the lobby reception and waited for the American lady whom we would share a taxi to the airport.  Our short trip to Xian and Jiuzhaigou had come to an end.  This concludes our record for this trip.

IMG_7942.JPGThe mountainous terrains near Huanglong reminded us that we were at the southern region of Minshan Mountains.

img_7959Enroute to the Jiuzhai-Huanglong Airport from Huanglong.

dsc_0441Ascending to the sky from Jiuzhaig Huanglong Airport, we could see the a series of snow capped mountains in the area.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHidden in an alleyway, it took us a little while at our first night to find our way to the front door of Hantang House.

dsc_7256The lobby of Hantang House resembled a pub.

dsc_7258The front desk of Hantang House.

dsc_7769Xiaohe, the local eatery just across the alleyway from Hantang House.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALocal burger with fried egg and mixed vegetables in baked bread.

img_8381Spicy noodles were quite delicious, though we had to causally sit on tiny wooden stools at the sidewalk to finish them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAXiaohe Eatery and its table and stools on the sidewalk.

dsc_7752We said farewell to the cute cat at Hantang House.

dsc_7761The friendly cat in the lobby was part of the hospitality of Hantang House.


Our posts on 2016 Xian and Jiuzhaigou:

DAY 1 – NIGHT ARRIVAL, Xian, China
DAY 2 – BIG WILD GOOSE PAGODA (大雁塔), Xian, China
DAY 3 – MING CITY WALL, Xian, China
DAY 4 -FIRST GLIMPSE OF JIUZHAIGOU (九寨溝), Sichuan (四川), China
DAY 5 – ARROW BAMBOO LAKE (箭竹海), PANDA LAKE (熊貓海) & FIVE FLOWER LAKE (五花海), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 5 – PEARL SHOAL FALLS (珍珠灘瀑布), MIRROR LAKE (鏡海) & NUORILANG FALLS (諾日朗瀑布), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 5 – LONG LAKE (長海) & FIVE COLOURS LAKE (五彩池), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 5 – RHINOCEROS LAKE (犀牛海), TIGER LAKE (老虎海) & SHUZHENG VILLAGE (樹正寨), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 6 – ASCEND TO FIVE COLOUR POND (五彩池), Huanglong (黃龍), Sichuan (四川), China

DAY 6 – DESCEND FROM FIVE COLOUR POND (五彩池), Huanglong (黃龍), China

After the Five Colour Pond, we stopped by a colourful Buddhist temple known as Huanglong Ancient Temple (黃龍古寺).  Outside the temple, we sat down on a bench and took out the sandwiches brought with us from our guesthouse.  It was chilly and we quickly finished our lunch and began our walk downhill.  From about 3600m above sea level at the temple, we followed the designated path and descend to other major sights of Huanglong.  The Five Colour Pond was only the first of many travertine pools in Huanglong.  Next came a series of clusters of turquoise pools including Flamboyant Pond (爭豔池), Azalea Pond (娑蘿映彩池), Mirror Pond (明鏡倒映池), Bonsai Pond (盆景池), etc.  Gentle waterfalls over white calcified terrain and the dense evergreen forests created a picture of visual contrast, while occasional yellow foliage stood out as brushes of vivid highlights.  Our descend to the park entrance took a little over two hours.  We made it just on time, about five minutes before 2pm when our taxi driver would come pick us up for the airport.

Unlike Jiuzhaigou where our experience relied heavily on shuttle buses, Huanglong was primarily a hiking experience.  Visiting Huanglong was a pleasant hike of meandering through the surreal calcite terrains at high altitude.  Huanglong was less crowded and in a way less touristy.  The three days at Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong were physical demanding, but were also highly rewarding.

dsc_0178Huanglong Ancient Temple (黃龍古寺), where we took a lunch break at its forecourt.

dsc_0206Elevated boardwalks provide most of the park trails.

dsc_0214Huanglong Middle Temple (黃龍中寺), another old temple that we passed by during our descend.

dsc_0222Most visitors, including us, ascend to the Five Colour Pond by cable car, then walk down to visit the various sights on our way to the main park entrance.

dsc_0255Flamboyant Pond (爭豔池) was another popular site with surreal turquoise pools.

dsc_0287Gentle waterfalls and the delightful sounds of running water were all over Huanglong.

dsc_0300Azalea Pond (娑蘿映彩池) had a higher concentration of shrubs in the pools.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABonsai Pond (盆景池) was another interesting spot where trees and shrubs grow from the calcite waters.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeven Mile Golden Sand (七里金沙) and a golden tree stood out from the mountainous background.

dsc_0309Golden Sand Pavement (金沙鋪地) looked like rolling hills covered with a white and golden carpet.

dsc_0311Close up of crystal clear water.

dsc_0380Mirror like turquoise pools on our way down.

dsc_0407Flying Waterfall on Lotus Platform 蓮台飛瀑, a gentle waterfall flowing on the yellowish calcified landscape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWashing Cave 洗身洞 where local tourists loved to take photos.

dsc_0419Close to the bottom, the boardwalk arrived at the last main attraction, the Guests Welcome Pond (迎賓池).

dsc_0431The main concentration of turquoise pools of Guests Welcome Pond (迎賓池).

dsc_0437We reached the park entrance minutes before 2pm, when our taxi would drop by the roadside to pick us up for the airport.