We woke up on Thursday, October 20, 2011 ready to get the most out of our last full day in Tibet.
After breakfast, we took off for the Barkhor District. It’s the oldest and busiest section of Lhasa filled with a lively bazaar. The sacred Jokhang Temple which we were to visit that morning is located at one end of the outdoor mall. All Tibetan Buddhists aim to visit the Jokhang Temple at least once in their lives. On the bus, apropos of nothing, Danny shared a proverb with us. “If a man can walk, he can dance. If he can speak, he can sing.” Not sure of the reason he mentioned it, but I wrote it down in my notes because I liked it.
On the way to the Temple, we passed the Potala Palace and saw many people walking holding prayer wheels and beads. It looked like a special parade, but it is something that happens every morning. The religiously devoted Buddhists walk around the Palace in a clockwise direction 3 times which takes about 2 hours, and then go to the tea house.
The Dalai Lama is supposed to be the reincarnation of Buddha, and the present Lama is the reincarnation of the previous thirteen. The Dalai Lama is revered by all Tibetans even now when the present one is in exile and not allowed to return to Tibet.
Before entering the Temple, we went inside a government operated souvenir shop which was next door to the Temple. It was multi-leveled and had everything, most of which was expensive. We looked around, and the only thing we purchased was a T-shirt for Tony. After we left the store, we walked over to the Temple.
The Jokhang Temple was built in 642 by King Songsten Gampo, the first ruler of united Tibet. His two wives are credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet. The Temple was constructed to house a life-sized statue of Buddha at age twelve. The King’s second wife brought it with her from China as her dowry. The Temple has been expanded over the centuries, but its core is the original from the 7th century.
The Temple became the spiritual center of Tibet with the statue of Buddha being the holiest object in Tibet. Since the Chinese occupation in 1951, the Temple has also taken on a political role as the focus of Tibetan cultural identity and resistance. During the Cultural Revolution, part of the Temple was used as a pigsty, and another section housed Chinese soldiers who spent their time burning scriptures.
Now the Temple is open to pilgrims and tourists, but it’s carefully monitored and controlled by the Chinese government. Only 100 monks are allowed to occupy the Temple at any time.
A Dharma wheel flanked by two deer is a motif on the Temple. The Dharma wheel symbolizes the wheel of life, and the deer symbolize Buddha’s first sermon delivered in the deer park at Sarnath in Varanasi, India. That was a time when out of respect believers did not depict the Buddha. World travelers as we are, we were at Sarnath in February.
Pilgrims come from all over to give their offerings to the chapels in the Temple. We joined them. It was very dark and crowded inside with many, many pilgrims and a few tourists. The maze of chapels are dedicated to various gods lit with votive candles, and the air is thick with the smoke and scent of incense. I could hear the constant hum of prayers and see the spinning prayer wheels. They bring offerings of containers of hot melted yak butter to pour on the zillions of votive candles all over the place. In the crowded and dark environment it seemed very dangerous to me, but they seemed to know what they were doing. There were drippings of butter on the floors which we had to watch out for. The pilgrims also had those white scarves I mentioned before as offerings. There were people of all ages. Even in this sacred and holy place, people were curious about us. A lot of people said hello or at least smiled. There was almost constant movement, but we did get a look at the holiest object, the statue of Buddha. It was all lit up by the many surrounding candles. I should mention that we were not allowed to take any pictures inside the Temple.
I was glad I had the opportunity to visit this very special place, but I did find it creepy inside and was happy to leave. I find it incomprehensible to be so devoted to any religion to such an extreme.
After the visit, we were given an hour of free time to walk around the bazaar area. The Temple was at one end of the long pedestrian mall. There were many stands up and down along the mall on both sides with all kinds of jewelry, crafts, and other different products for sale. We were supposed to meet back at a designated restaurant that was near the Temple.
Tony and I walked around and looked at the various goods being sold. I bought a red Tshirt with 5 yaks on it saying “Yak, Yak, Yak, Yak, Yak”. I thought it was cute. We found some place to sit down for the remainder of our hour and watched what was happening around us. It was a beautiful sunny day with a very clear sky. Because of the altitude we had been warned that the sun would be strong. Most of my body was covered, but I did have sun block on my face. There didn’t seem to be any pollution as far as we could tell, but we did notice many people wearing masks. Some were plain, but many were multi-colored. Some even had interesting designs on them. Many young people wore them. I started to think it was more of a fashion statement than a concern for bad air. Some of our group wore masks in the Temple because of all the incense inside.
The whole scene was very bright and colorful. Along the center of the mall were zigzagging displays of flowers. The wares in the stands were colorful. The people for the most part, including the pilgrims were dressed in bright colors. The bright sun and the multitude of colors were a visual feast. We also saw the arrival of soldiers who began marching along the mall. We didn’t know if this was a usual occurrence, or there happened to be more pilgrims than usual to oversee. I tried to take pictures of them without drawing their attention. Finally, it was time to meet for lunch.
We met up with the group to have another meal like the others, many dishes brought out one at a time with no serving spoons. After lunch, we had a choice of going back to the hotel or to stay in the bazaar area. Tony went back to the hotel with some of the group. I stayed to walk around some more hoping to purchase some souvenirs. Some of the stuff looked appealing to me when I had wandered around with Tony. Those of us who stayed were given a time and place to meet. I had become somewhat friendly with one of the women in the group, Jane. Her husband John stayed also, but he went his own way. Jane and I walked the whole length of the mall while looking at various goods. She was looking for an ATM machine, but we never found one. I had enough cash to lend her if needed. We both bought some jewelry and scarves. She also bought some yak yarn. We bargained with the vendors and felt that we got good deals, but you never know for sure. What really counted though was that we were happy with our purchases, and the vendors were happy too. Everybody was very friendly and nice. It was generally a good experience. After we bought enough, we walked back to our meeting place. We had some time to hang out and look at the happenings near the Temple.
After everyone was together, we walked to where we were to meet our bus which was away from the bazaar area. It was a long walk, and I started to feel tired. I thought it was probably the altitude. I wasn’t able to walk as briskly as I usually do. We finally got to our destination, but the bus wasn’t there. We had to wait a while until it appeared. I sat down on some steps to rest. Eventually, the bus came, and we went back to the hotel.
Tony and I decided not to go with the group to dinner that night even though it was included. We rested, and I packed.
Later, we went down to the hotel dining room for dinner. We saw Beverly from our group and had dinner with her. Tony and I shared a pizza, a welcome change, at least for me.
After dinner, we went back to our room. I finished packing, and we went to bed. I woke up during the night, and couldn’t breathe. I started to think very bad thoughts like maybe I’ll get brain damage without enough oxygen. And more. I tried to relax and calm myself down, but I couldn’t. I really didn’t want to give in and call for oxygen, but after what seemed like an eternity to me, I finally woke Tony and told him how I felt. I asked him to call the main desk and ask for oxygen. In a matter of minutes, a young woman came to our room with a vial full of liquid oxygen. She set it up with the tank in the room and showed me how to use it. I tried to ask her for how long I should use it. She knew no English. I pointed to the clock, and she wrote down some numbers which didn’t make much sense. She left, and I just used it until I felt better which I did after a short time. Why didn’t I do this before, I asked myself. I learned the next day that the numbers she wrote down pertained to the pressure I should try to keep it at. Oh well, at least I felt better and was able to finally go back to sleep.