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Attacked by angry Tibetan street vendors, and speechless by the Potala Palace

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published on November 19, 2009 with 1 Comment

As I did yesterday, I left the hotel at sunrise, wandered around the narrow passages of Old Lhasa, and joined a pilgrimage. Somehow, it feels different every time. New faces and more emotions.

I was once more captivated watching the devotion of the pilgrims, their colorful garments, and their elaborate hairdos embellished with precious blue and red stones.

As I followed the crowd, I felt as if someone was whispering in my ear. Tibetans are constantly mumbling mantras whether they are on a pilgrimage or just walking down the street.

Beautiful Tibetan Woman

Beautiful Tibetan Woman

Hundreds of pilgrims prostrated themselves outside Jokhang Temple. I sat and watched people walk by or stop in front of this sacred place. The elderly, children, and even toddlers followed the pilgrimage circuit. Some of them looked strong and healthy, but others were ill, some of them on crutches.

I sat in a corner trying not to interrupt the pilgrimage, but it was impossible to remain unnoticed. I was the only foreigner around. Tibetans, especially those from the countryside, looked at me with curiosity and smiled.

I am happy I came to Tibet in winter because there are very few tourists, but also because the town is full of Tibetans coming from the countryside on pilgrimages, as there is not much they can cultivate on their land during this time of year.

I had to return to the hotel to meet Nima.

“You better go to the Potala Palace alone,” said Nima as we walked to the car. “With guide, only one hour. Rush. If you go alone, you can go slowly. Take your time.”

I was glad that I would be by myself so I could go at my own pace.
Soaring from a hill into the sky, the Potala Palace is not only the most important landmark of Lhasa, but it also used to be the administrative center of the Tibetan government. It was the residence of the Dalai Lamas until the fourteenth Dalai Lama fled to India after the Chinese takeover and the failed uprising of 1959. Today, the Potala has been converted into a museum.

In front of the Potala Palace

In front of the Potala Palace

“Okay, you go now. Be careful. No photos. No video. See you at three in the Jokhang,” said Nima.

A zigzagging, steep path led to the ticket counter at the summit. In such high altitude, the hike felt as if I had run two marathons. I was out of breath, but excited.

Songtsem Gampo, the first Tibetan Emperor who unified Tibet, built the Potala Palace. From the outside, it looks like a huge, whitewashed fortress. It has 13 stories, chapels, halls, gold stupas, libraries, piles of Buddhist scriptures, shrines with decorative paintings, woodcarvings, jeweled ornaments, and thousands of rooms and statues. The complex is actually divided in two: the Red Palace—which is for religious studies and prayers—and the White Palace, which is where the Dalai Lamas lived and received their guests.

The pungent smell of incense and yak-butter lamps permeated every room, gallery, and winding passage.

Although the Potala Palace was the center of the Tibetan government for centuries, now a Chinese flag billows in the air at the top of the building. Chinese and foreign visitors outnumbered the Tibetans. The few Tibetan pilgrims that roamed around the palace touched every wall, shrine, and Buddha with devotion.

From the palace, there are beautiful panoramic views of each side of the growing city and the staggering mountains that surround it.
After nearly two hours, I was ready to return to the streets of Lhasa and wander around. But first, I needed to eat.

As Ellen warned me, Tibetan food is not the best. Last night, I went with Alan, David, and his son James to have dinner. The restaurant was cozy, but the service was slow and the food wasn’t the best—although, according to Alan, it was much better than what they ate the night before. On the menu? Yak tongue, yak leg—which was quite pricy—yak sausage, yak everything! I was starving when I arrived, but after an hour of waiting, I lost my appetite—and the food didn’t raise my desire to eat, either.

So, my mission today was to find a good restaurant. The Tashi Restaurant was supposed to be one of the best in town.

I was completely lost when I ran into Tashi, my contact at the travel agency.

“It is very close. I take you. Are you enjoying Lhasa?” Tashi asked.

“I love it!” I said.



“I am so busy,” Tashi said. “My brother’s wedding is tomorrow. Big Party!”

“Oh, no problem. Thank you for coordinating my extra day to Nam-tso,” I responded.

“Do you want to come to the wedding after Nam-tso? It is an all-day celebration!” Tashi said.

“I would love to! Thank you, Tashi. Just let me know the address,” I replied.

“Here is the restaurant. Enjoy.” He pointed to a small entrance.
The Tashi Restaurant was small, but the waiter spoke English fluently, and the food was pretty good. Tasteful fried-dumplings, a fresh salad and vegetarian fried-rice with actual vegetables! Alleluia! It was my first proper meal since I’d arrived.

With some extra calories on me, I was ready to keep exploring. I had two hours before I had to meet Nima again.

I got lost in the Tibetan quarter, and I loved it. The narrow streets were lined with old, whitewashed Tibetan houses and two-story buildings clustered with shops of all kinds. Any road I took led me to the Barkhor Square, the heart of the pilgrimage circuit. But there is so much more going on in this place.

Barkor Square

Barkor Square

Barkhor Square is a combination of deep religious devotion and shopping. Although I am not very fond of shopping (especially souvenirs), I decided to look at the merchandise in the street stalls.
All sorts of objects were on sale: jewelry, prayer flags, antiques, bowls, old silver daggers, precious stones, and the list goes on.

I always buy a rosary for my mom from every place I visit, so I checked one particular stall that was clustered with rosaries and necklaces.
I showed the vendor a bead rosary and asked for the price.

“One hundred and fifty, ″ she said. She also showed me a necklace for 180 Yuan. “Real Tibetan. No fake Chinese,” she said, pointing at the precious stones on different necklaces and rosaries.

“No, but thank you,” I replied.

“Hungry, give you very cheap,” she said. I cannot stand to see someone hungry. I bought the necklace and the rosary for 150 Yuan, which is about $25—half the price that she had initially said, but still a rip-off. I just wanted to help her.

When I was about to leave, a woman from the next stand grabbed my arm and pulled me to her stall. She wanted me to buy something from her as well. Every time I tried to walk away, she would push me harder and harder back to her stand, where she put things in my hand. I gave them back to her, trying to be as kind as I could. When I got her off me and quickly walked away, she yelled at me and ran toward me to spank me! I was in shock, but tried to ignore the incident and keep on walking.

Then a Tibetan man—who was also at nearby stand—came after me. He tried to sell me some earrings and a necklace. Once again, I was kind. I thanked him, but refused his offer.

“Chinese, Chinese!” he shouted at me. He was accusing me of being pro-Chinese!

Suddenly, I felt a strong punch on my arm. I looked back to find the angry Tibetan man.

I hadn’t done anything to him or the woman. I hadn’t even stopped at their stalls in the first place!

I confronted him. “Listen to me: if you touch me or hit me again, I will kick the heck out of you and leave you on this floor. Do you understand me?”

I was so tempted to hit him back. You don’t hit someone without a reason, and especially not a woman! I had kicked men before while traveling when I had felt threatened; I had done it in Egypt every time a man tried to touch me.

But I contained myself. If I had kicked him, the police officers or the military personnel that were all over the square would have come, and if I had told them about the incident, they probably would have beaten the Tibetan man . . . and God knew what else.

The Tibetan people have suffered so much and have been so repressed that I decided to let it go and apply the core of Tibetan Buddhist teaching: compassion.

No more shopping for me in Lhasa, though.

It was also time to meet Nima at the Jokhang Temple, the spiritual heart of Tibet.

Covering an area of about six acres, this temple is the most sacred in Tibet and therefore the ultimate pilgrimage destination.

Tibetan pilgrim

Tibetan pilgrim

King Songtsem Gampo brought Buddhism to Tibet. Songtsem Gampo built Jokhang to house Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha) statues brought to Lhasa by his two wives: Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal and Princess Wen Cheng of the Tang Dynasty.

After Songtsem Gampo became king, Buddhism was established in Tibet and continued to develop. One of the ideals of Buddhism is the lack of attachment. But Tibetan Buddhism comes from the Mahayana School, which has compassion at its core and teaches a middle path—moderation, not renunciation. The Holy One is Bodhisattva Chenrizi, the embodiment of Buddha’s compassion that works specifically for the Tibetan People. The Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of Chenrizi.

No wonder pilgrims consider this temple so sacred.

The Jokhang is a truly stunning four-story complex with a golden top, wall frescos, and old red, wooden columns covered with paintings. The main hall is over 1,300 years old! Decorated with jewels, a golden statue of Sakyamuni stood in the middle of the hall, where a heap of pilgrims tried to catch a glimpse of him while chanting mantras.
The top of the temple offered panoramic views of the Barkhor Square, the Potala Palace, and the mountains that encircled Lhasa. It was the perfect place to end another busy day.

Tomorrow, I will head to one of the most sacred lakes in Tibet—three hours away from here.

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  1. esa es mi Dani entre el amor (el casamiento) y la guerra (quick the guy !) !!!

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