Yak butter tea, yak dumplings (momo), yak curry, yak cheese, yak noodle soup. If it had yak in it, we ate it. Yak butter tea? Super, super salty. I’ll stick with sweet tea from now on. Yak meat? Tastes like cow, just a little fattier. Yak are just cows that have adapted to higher altitudes, one adaptation being long hair, like buffaloes.
You can only visit Tibet as part of an organized tour, and it involves alot of paperwork, including a Chinese visa, a Tibet travel permit, an alien travel permit if you leave Lhasa, and another permit if you’re going mountain hiking. We signed up for a week tour, including two days in Lhasa, then an overland tour to the Nepal border, where we would visit a monastery and either stay there, with a view of Mt Everest, or cross over and actually stay at a “tourist” base camp (not the one the hikers use).
Three days before we were supposed to visit, a massive earthquake hit Kathmandu, which caused an avalanche on Mt. Everest. We checked with our tour company, they said we were good to go to Lhasa, and they would fill in the other days with other sites around Tibet, as the road to Nepal is now closed and likely will be for weeks.
So. We met our guide, and our “group”, which consisted of one other person, a very nice Indonesian lady. On our first full day in the capital city of Lhasa -12,000 feet above sea level- we visited the Potala Palace- traditional home and burial place of the Dalai Lamas- (from the Mongolian words “ocean of wisdom”)- and Jokhang Temple, home of a 7th century statue of Buddha, gift of a Chinese princess to her husband, the King of Tibet. Both places were beautiful, inside and out. My favorite parts were the amazing sand mandalas, so perfect and intricate. We learned about the “butter lamp offerings” that Tibetans give- they bring melted yak butter to the temple and pour it into the lamps there. When Buddhists die, they spend 49 days in darkness, in hell. If you made butter lamp offerings in your lifetime, you wil have a light with you in hell, for comfort. After 49 days, it will be decided whether you go on the “white path” toward enlightenment or the “black path”, away.
Our guide told us all about a Tibetan tradition, the sky burial. When a person dies, the body stays in the home for three days. Then distant family and friends- not close family- take the body to a mountain. They hire a special butcher, who takes out the internal organs, and basically carves up the body. Then carrion birds descend on the body, and within minutes, devour it. Then the bones are placed in a large hollow bowl or rock, and are pounded up, added to the internal organs, plus some barley flour and yak butter, and then the birds have a second feast. People paint a ladder on a rock on a mountain to indicate that their loved one’s soul has ascended.
The next day we visited two monasteries, Sera and Drepung. Being a Friday, we could watch the monks debate philosophy and religion with each ither. Interesting, but incomprehensible to us, as it was in Tibetan. Over ten thousand monks lived there before the “liberation” of Tibet by the Chinese in 1949. Now only a few hundred monks live in each. It was due to this “liberation” by China that the current Dalai Lama (the 14th) left Tibet in 1959. The “cultural revolution” of China was between 1965-1976 and resulted in about 45% of the religious buildings, art, and works destroyed. The Dalai Lama, age 81, lives in India, and can never return to China/Tibet. His book, “My Land, My People” is illegal here. Also, Brad Pitt is banned from China for his role in the movie “Seven Years in Tibet”.
Aside from the Dalai lama, the second highest lama is the Penchan Lama, meaning “all seeing one”. Chances are good that the two lamas won’t both die in the same two year period, so the one spearheads the search for the reincarnation of the other. This takes place two years after the lama dies, and involves multiple examinations of two year old boys in certain regions. Unfortunately, the current (11th) reincarnation of the Penchan Lama was chosen by the Chinese government without all the required Tibetan tests, and he resides in Beijing. He comes to Tibet for one month every year, but the Tibetans are reluctant to welcome him. So the Chinese made a rule that two from each family must come to welcome him each year or you wil be fined.
The next day we drove out to Namtso Lake, a sacred salt lake very high up in the mountains (5190 meters). We had to pass six checkpoints to get there. The Chinese don’t mess around. Amazing scenery, with mountains over 7000 meters next to us and snow everywhere. The Himalayas in the background, with Bhutan on the other side, and yaks decorated with ribbons and bells, plowing the fields.
The following day we went to Yamdrok Lake, another sacred lake. We brought along some prayer flags to hang. The five colors mean: blue for sky, white for clouds, green for river, yellow for earth, and red for fire. Our guide wrote our names and family and friends’ on them, said a Buddhist prayer, and we hung them in the wind. The Buddhist term for prayer flags come from the word lungta, Tibetan for “horse” and “wind”. Your good luck is supposed to gallop along the wind like a horse. You can also buy small prayer cards and throw them in the wind.
Traditional Tibetans have a fascinating style of dress. Not since Myanmar have we seen a culture that is still so unique, so shielded from western dress (even North Koreans basically wear pants or skirts, and blouses). Here, the Lhasa women wear black or brown, narrow wrap around skirts that go to their feet. On top of that they wear a narrow striped apron, usually in earthy colors, also to their feet. When it is cold, they wear a sheepskin coat, with the fur on the inside, and a canvas or heavy cotton backing on the outside, black to draw in the sun. The women and the men grow their hair long, and braid ribbons, cloth, bells, or cowrie shells into their hair, and then pull the whole thing up and do some kind of wrap around the head thing with their hair, Star Wars fashion. Many Tibetans have very rosy cheeks, a kind of permanent rosacea from the sun and the wind. Women often wear hospital face masks over their nose and lips to protect from the sun, and the men often wear a kind of cowboy hat. They resemble Peruvians. Tibetans over 80 years old wear a white vest with a sun and moon embroidered on it to indictate their age and status. Women from other provinces wear a thicker, sari-type garment wrapped and tied with a bright sash, and some wear a quilted dress/coat that is edged with bright colors and belted.
On Monday we drove towards eastern Tibet, to visit the first building that was ever built there, in the second century AD. People from the east are pretty poor, and when they visit the temples near them, or they pilgrimage to Lhasa, they bring offerings of yak butter, salt, sorghum, tea, or firewood. If they have nothing, they bring pure clear water from the mountain streams. Many of the provincial Tibetans make a pilgrimage to Lhasa every year, where they walk around main temples three times. Some of the really devout ones do the whole circuit in prostrations. They take three steps, then kind of dive towards the flagstones, doing a sort of body slide of 2-4 feet if they have a good slide going. They wear leather aprons to keep their clothes from being torn up, and I think it helps with the slide. They wear wooden or metal blocks on their hands, which they clap together over their heads, then on the ground at their shoulders, then on the ground at their mid sections. Then they stand up, and repeat. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, sliiiide, clap clap clap, mumble a prayer, repeat. They must have abs of steel. It takes hours to go around once.
Our last monastery was on Tuesday, Samye Monastery, built in the 8th century, in a combined Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian style. Lots of Buddha statues in here, and also butter mandalas, like the sand ones but vertical and made from butter mixed with sorghum flour and coloring, kind of like a fondant. Some are pretty amazing, and in January’s Butter Festival, they make huge, 20 meter high towers of butter, with all kinds of decorations and carvings. Tibetans believe that more colors equals more good luck.
And that is Tibet. Tomorrow we take a 24 hour train to Lanzhou, China, on the Silk Road. We probably should have flown, but we like sleeper trains, and we wanted to see the scenery of Eastern Tibet. I will finish up my China blog and post then, so be on the lookout. On Saturday we fly to Seoul, Korea.
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