We woke up on Wednesday, October 19, 2011 feeling a little better. We went to breakfast and found out that the time of our scheduled visit to the Potala Palace had changed. Instead of the morning, we were now scheduled for an afternoon visit. Only a designated number of people is allowed in at a time and only for 1 hour. We were given no reason for the change, but there were no complaints.
So now we had the morning free. What should we do? We could visit the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace, Norbulingka which was nearby, only a short cab ride away. We found out that 2 other members of our group had the same idea. Richard and his daughter Maria joined us. Richard’s wife died a few years ago, and Maria and he have been traveling together to various places. They live in Cleveland, Ohio. Maria has a PH.D, and heads the IT department of the Cleveland Clinic. Smart woman.
It was another beautiful day. It was morning and still cool, but the sun was shining and would soon warm up the day. Frank hailed a cab for us and found out how much it would cost. And soon we were on our way. There was very little traffic. We found our way into the Palace grounds and to the ticket office. There weren’t many people there, and so we had a pleasant walk through the pretty gardens and some of the buildings. The area was in a semi-state of disrepair. We saw monks working on the grounds and painting and fixing up the buildings and temples.
The original Palace was built in the 1740’s for the 7th Dalai Lama. The garden is the biggest man-made garden in Tibet. The grounds are 430,000 square yards, and there are 374 rooms in the various buildings. The one and only zoo in Tibet is there. We walked by it but didn’t see much. Successive Lamas used the Palace and built other buildings. In 1954, the 14th and present Dalai Lama built the newest Palace from which he also fled 5 years later. It’s a combined temple and villa reflecting the religiosity of the Tibetan people and the architectural style of Tibet. Because of its cultural value, it was listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 2001 as an extension of the Potala Palace.
We kept walking and started to think that maybe we should find the exit. We saw a tram coming by and hopped on, for some yuans of course. While riding around we realized we had missed the main attraction, the Takten Podrang, the 14th Dalai Lama’s Palace. So we got off the tram and walked over to see the Palace/Temple and its very pretty surroundings. The inside of the Palace was rather plain and not very well maintained.
We then found our way out where we also found a few others of our group waiting for cabs. We all found cabs and our way back to the hotel.
By the time we got back, it was almost time for lunch. After lunch we were going directly to the Potala Palace. We went to our room and got reorganized and were soon ready for our outing. We were going to a restaurant in the same vicinity of the Palace.
Lunch was served to us the same way as dinner the night before. And just about the same food too. We usually had a choice of a drink with the meal – beer, soda, or bottled water. I chose water this time in preparation for the big ascent.
After lunch we set off for the nearby Potala Palace. Reaching 12,359 ft at the topmost point, it’s the highest ancient palace in the world. Until skyscrapers were built, it was the tallest building in the world.
The original palace was 9 stories high, and it was built in the 7th century by the Tibetan king at the time for his bride-to-be. With ensuing wars, the palace was almost destroyed.
It was rebuilt in the 17th century by the fifth Dalai Lama, then the religious and political leader of Tibet, known as the Great Fifth and represents the architecture of Qing Dynasty era. It was completed in 1682, 15 years after his death, with the help of over 8,000 workers and artisans. And as far as I know, nobody was purposely killed during or after its construction. Tibetologist Giuseppi Tucci saw it as an “outgrowth of the rock underlying it, as irregular and whimsical as nature’s work.” To some it looks like a fortress. The walls are made of granite, and the roofs are made of wood. The Palace is composed of 2 parts, the Red Palace at the center and the 2 wings of the White Palace. In its 13 stories and 1,000 rooms, there are shrines, statues, a large library, chapels, beautiful paintings and murals, and the living quarters of the Dalai Lama. His apartment was placed in the east so as to get the first rays of the morning sunshine. Now he’s gone, and the Palace is a museum. When Mao was alive he wanted to blow it up, but fortunately he didn’t.
The Palace was only slightly damaged during the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese in 1959. Thanks to Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier at the time, it also escaped extensive damage during the Cultural Revolution which took place between 1966 and 1976. But still many volumes of scripture, historical documents, and works of art were removed, damaged or destroyed. In 1994, UNESCO put the Potala Palace on its World Heritage List.
To get to the top of the Palace, it is necessary to climb over 400 steps. I didn’t know about the steps until I got to Lhasa. And then I kept thinking of them. Could I do it? I thought I could climb 400 steps, but in this altitude? And also, could I get down? After my fall last January and doing so much damage to my shoulder, I feared going down steps without something to hold on to. But then again I wasn’t going to go all the way to Tibet without trying. So I tried to put it out of my mind until the time came.
Well, the time came. We weren’t all able to go in at once. Our group was divided into 2 groups. Danny took one group, and Frank went with the other. Frank’s group went first. Tony and I were with Danny, and we waited on the outside and took pictures and just watched what was going on around us.
We saw lots of people, mostly older, but young ones too walking around with a string of beads in their left hand and pushing them through their hand, something like rosary beads. And often in their right hand, they held spinning wheels. I assumed this all had a religious significance, and so it does. I learned that the spinning wheel is a prayer wheel or “mani.” It’s a metal canister that is filled with a roll of printed prayers and mantras. Each spinning of the wheel is equivalent to reciting however many mantras are written on the scroll in the canister. The rotation is maintained by a skillful movement of the wrist and helped by a weight attached by a short chain to the canister. It is believed that by accumulating enough good Karma through these prayers, they will be assured of rebirth in one of the 3 higher realms of cyclic existence, of the gods, demi-gods, and human beings. There were also rows of bigger prayer wheels along pathways circling sacred sites that can be spun by those walking around them.
The strings of beads, or “mala” consist of 108 crystal beads, and it is used to count the num, ber of mantras accumulated over a period of time. There were some people walking around with only the beads and moving their mouths. So I assumed that they were reciting prayers or mantras without the prayer wheels and counting them with the beads. We’d also see people prostrating themselves in front of the Potala Palace and temples, praying I assume. A very religious lot, I’d say.
It was finally our turn to go inside. It was easier than I had feared in my imagination. The steps are not narrow or steep. And every so often, the staircase is broken by intervals of slightly raised walks which helped make it easier to climb. There are also landings where we stopped and listened to Danny talk about what we were seeing. That gave us a chance to catch our breath. It wasn’t a rail, but there was a low stone wall along the way of the steps that could be held onto or leaned against. As we made our ascent, we went inside the Dalai Lama’s apartment, chapels, and other areas with beautiful decorations. But I have to admit, even though I was looking and listening, I was really concentrating more on the climb up, and thinking of the climb down. We weren’t supposed to take pictures, but some people did anyway including Tony. He only took a few.
I did make it to the top. I was tired, but very happy. The high altitude didn’t seem to have a bad effect on me, or Tony. At the top, we met up with some of those from the other group who had made it. I’m not sure how it all happened, but at some point, some of the group wanted to stop and go back down. Danny had led them back down. I didn’t even notice. Frank completed the ascent and was up there with us. He was happy too that he did it because most of the times he’d been there he would go back down with the people who didn’t want to complete the climb.
So we were up there. We stayed up there a little while and looked around and down at the spectacular view.
Now we had to make the descent. Since I had seen the low wall along the steps, my fear about going down had abated somewhat. But still… Tony was very helpful. For most of the time down, we held hands. Whew!
As we had been noticing throughout the trip, the Chinese people were very friendly. So many people would smile and say hello to us. And again, 2 young girls asked to have their pictures taken with me. I was starting to feel like a star.
When we got down, we joined up with the others. We were all tired. We went back to the hotel where we had some free time. I finally was able to write some postcards to my grandchildren. We also went up to the roof of our hotel because we heard that the views were good. They were, and of course we took some pictures. Then back in our room, we rested and got ready to meet the others for dinner.
On our way out, we realized we were missing one of our keys. There was one key we kept in the slot on the wall near the door which turned on the electricity. The other one we took with us to open and close the door. On the way down to the desk where I was going to ask for another key, I realized I left my handbag in the room. I bumped into Danny who went to the desk with me. Tony didn’t think I should have told Danny, and went off to join the others in the lobby. At the desk, they gave me another key. I went back to the room and got my purse. While I was there, I looked around for a minute. It was getting late. People got annoyed when anyone was late, so I just about ran to the elevator. The lights went out, and the doors slammed shut. It was all dark, but a teeny light came on in a corner of the ceiling. I found my little LED flashlight that conveniently came with my new travel purse. With the light, I looked at the instructions on what to do. I tried not to panic remembering the lights had gone out for a brief time in the morning. And the lights did soon come back on. I tried to operate it, but the car wouldn’t move. Then the doors opened and wouldn’t close. So I got out, and there were Tony and a hotel worker coming out of the other elevator. I went down with them, and we finally joined the others. Not everybody came along. Some weren’t feeling well, and some just didn’t want to go.
We went to another restaurant, very similar to the others. We really couldn’t tell one from the other. But we were hungry and ate and socialized with our fellow travelers and just had a nice time. We were getting friendlier with some people.
We got back to the room, and of course found the other key. It was in Tony’s camera case among other stuff that he had been photographing like tickets and who knows what, and had forgotten to put it back on his dresser. We went to bed and had another not so good night of sleep.