TIBET Part 2: The Turtle Pack


This story began in Part 1, which you can read here.

We arrived successfully in Lhasa, passed through the foreign visitor office and got collected by our tour guide and draped in traditional white silk scarves to welcome us. Luckily we were not being afflicted by altitude sickness at all and checked into our hotel to have our first showers in over 2 days. Clean and refreshed, we left our room in search of replenishment in the form of food and beverages and found them on the open rooftop viewing deck of the hotel we were in. The smells wafting from the small dining rooms we walked past were mouth-watering and soon we had scanned the menu and ordered a meal and hot teas of our own. The wind was chilly but fresh and there was this sharp contrast to the rest of China: the air was visually clear and for the first time in months we inhaled oxygen not tainted with the scent of coal, rubber or O3 and it was magical. After dinner we headed straight to bed and had a great night of sleep, once again on a mattress being cuddled by duvets and pillows.


The following morning we woke up fresh and headed down for breakfast in the hotel restaurant, where we found ourselves surrounded by more humans of Western descent than we had collectively encountered over our time in China. Russian, German, French and English filled the air as tourists and travellers chatted amiably with friends over plates off fruit, eggs, toast, porridge, noodles, dumpling and rice. We stocked up on our own foods and enjoyed a meal that would energize us for the first day of the tour we were about to embark on. Des and I looked around the huge dining hall, wondering if/who would be part of our small group to share the upcoming experiences and adventures with us. This fact was unveiled after breakfast when we gathered in the lobby to head out for the day. Introductions were exchanged and we found ourselves amongst the most wonderful company made up of mostly Americans but dotted with a Russian, a Brazilian, his Chinese girlfriend and two Singaporeans. Chatting and laughing loudly, our tour bus jerked into life and began the short 10 minute journey to deliver us all to our first location for the day: the historical Potala Palace.

Our tour guide Dhargyel was a local Tibetan and had an extensive knowledge of the region’s history and culture. His demeanour pleasant and patient, the tour of Potala palace began with a brief introduction of the construction and use of the palace from him and a lot of questions from all of us, each of which he intricately responded too with detail and accuracy. Red sections of the building were religious sections for monks, white sections were government spaces for official offices and official conduct and the golden sections at the very top were the living quarters of the 12th and 13th Dalai Lamas. We were only going to be allowed into a few sections of the huge abode which included the tombs of the Lamas and the two original rooms of the palace built in the 7th century by the 5th Dalai Lama. Excited to proceed, we ambled around the courtyard taking pictures and waiting for our booked entrance time which was at noon. The courtyards were dotted with restaurants, a small shop selling trinkets and incense (a small pack of which I purchased) as well as a museum which was free to enter and enjoy.  Doing so, we walked through the two story exhibit trying to take in all the visual stimulus it offered which ranged from paintings to tapestries and golden teapots to statues of goddesses. We had not even entered the main attraction for the day and it was already slightly overwhelming to experience all there was to see, albeit only in the best of ways. Soon our free time had run out though, and we were in the queue waiting to enter the Potala palace and take on all the steps it had to offer. A few people in our tour group mentioned that their research had said it would be about 1000 steps to reach the entrance to the section we were allowed in and Judy – who was in Tibet to tick a few items off her bucket list – said she had her step counter attached to her waistband and was ready to go.

We began our ascent across the massive rock steps worn smooth by the feet of pilgrims, monks, government workers and visitors over the centuries, often arching our necks to look up to our goal location where we would enter the palace at the top. Zig zagging backward and forward, we held up a steady pace, taking the occasional break to breathe in deeply or admire the view. Desmond and I had joined Judy and her neighbour from across the street in Arizona, Marcia, and Marcia’s daughter Cecilia, as a mini group who stuck together for the incline. Judy had spent the last few months training to climb steps and set the pace for us to follow. Giggling whenever she took a break, she dubbed us “the Turtle Pack” in a humorous engagement with her speed. Truthfully, for someone over the age of 70, I was pretty impressed with her pace and was just keeping up myself whilst  being quietly thrilled that I could proceed at a speed that worked well for me without actually being the one responsible for setting it. The details surrounding us were incredible and Dhargyel chatted to us, informing us that all the curtains on the outside of the palace were made of Yak hair because it’s weather and water proof and that the palace gets white washed with Lime from the mountains once a year at the end of October. After quite an enjoyable walk, albeit the most exercise I had done in months, we reached the top where we would enter the palace.

We crossed into the palace, not stepping on the threshold as Tibetan custom upholds, to the inside of the Potala. From this point on you are going to need to trust my descriptions of the experience as we were not allowed to take photographs inside. To say that it was ornate and exquisite from the instant we entered would be a complete understatement. Walking through, pillars were carved with detail by the human hand, statues and mandalas (in the form of both 2D mandalas and 3D sculptures) were everywhere and the walls and ceilings were painted and carved into decorative patterns. In many places, notes of 10 and 50 cents were slipped into crevices or walls as offerings from visitors to this space. We moved through the rooms, occasionally passing monks who live and practice there, before arriving at the rooms containing of the tombs of the Dalai Lamas. We saw the first tomb for the 5th Dalai Lama which is stated to be beyond financial value, made of gold and covered in priceless stones, gems and materials. Following that, we learned of the lack of the 6th tomb due to the Dalai Lama having been lost and subsequently what followed was the viewing of the tombs of the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th Lamas in turn. Pausing and marvelling at each, often bowing or giving an offering if desired, these tombs towered above us often surrounded by statues of buddhas or protectors. The bodies of the Lamas would have been either cremated or mummified and were lain inside these monoliths with relics and objects to bless them and to honour their contributions to the governance and spiritual lives of Tibetans during their time of leadership. The detail and depth of this experience is exceptionally hard to convey to others, having been so completely submersive but also somehow blurry, as we had a 1 hour time limit inside the palace and so very much to learn and see during that time. I would rise and fall through the sense of belonging here and being an outsider, recognising some figures and statures but seeing so many things I didn’t know about and wanted to learn more. It felt like I needed weeks inside this space to look at each centimetre of each room with the attention it deserved whilst speaking to the monks, historians and guides to learn all there was to know about this place. That was not the purpose of this holiday however, and I had to simply let hundreds of tiny things fly by me as we walked through rooms and moved up and down small staircases, getting only the highlights and key points of each chamber.


The tour of the palace came to an end after we had seen the living quarters of the 12th and 13th Lamas, which were as saturated with beauty and detail as the rest of the palace, viewing where they slept, ate and meditated during their lifetimes here. I wondered if the 14th Lama, now exiled from Tibet and unable to return due to being perceived as a threat to the Chinese government who fear another Tibetan uprising and rebellion for independence, would one day be entombed here as well. However, I decided it was more respectful not to ask questions that there may not yet be an answer to. After this we stepped back out into the sunlight to the aerial view of Lhasa to make our way back to the ground at the foot of the mountain. All religious buildings and holy spaces are circled clockwise in Tibet, so we began our descent back down the whitewashed stairs to the exit that was on the opposite side to the entrance where we had begun, leaving our place in the bright blue sky where Des was avidly watching the eagles circle and soar at the pinnacle of the palace. My legs were wobbling after all the stairs and inclines that we had undertaken in the last hour but my mind hardly took notice, being in a hyper-active space trying to recall each detail and fact and write it all to long term memory. Reunited with our group at the bottom – each having made our way down at our own pace – we were dropped back at the hotel to find lunch with a 3pm meeting time set to head to the famous market and Jokhang temple. We all scuttled off to find a lunch snack and anything we may need from our hotel room (for example, charged camera batteries and new memory cards) before our scheduled afternoon adventure.

It was mid afternoon and we all gathered in the foyer of the hotel and then escaped out a secret back door that led to an alley way that took us directly to the Barkhor street market. The market exists in a large circle that surrounds the Jokhang temple – toted as the holiest temple in Tibet – and consists of countless shops with local handcrafts on sale, prayer flag pillars at each corner, intermittent incense stupas and the occasional stand of big prayer wheels. This is a popular site for pilgrimage and the market was filled with shoppers alongside locals and monks, all proceeding around the market in a clockwise direction. Many people carried small meditation aids such as beads or handheld prayer wheels. There was quite an infectious feeling to it all and it was exciting to be in the broader environment even before reaching the temple entrance. Whilst waiting to go in, we were approached by some pilgriming monks who asked for photographs with us and we were all too happy to oblige. Upon entering the temple, we stopped in a courtyard with a running water fountain, candles and once again, many ornate pillars, doorways, walls and ceilings. Dhargyel gathered us all to inform us that this temple acted as a meeting place for monks and was also home to the oldest Buddha statue in the world, dating back 2500 years, which was brought here from India. Again, we were prohibited from taking photos inside. So putting our cameras away we entered the building and moved slowly through the cramped aisles filled with locals, tourists, monks and pilgrims who were offering blessings and burning incense in front of the various statues and mandalas inside. The environment buzzed and was almost suffocating due to the thick smoky air and heat from the many people. The buddha stood at the back of the inner clockwise circle in an embedded room that only monks were allowed to enter, but still shone brightly in the dim light. Since it’s arrival in Tibet, it has been fully gilded in gold offered by people and has been further surrounded by gold items and offerings provided by visitors to this holy space.


Once we emerged, slightly blinded by the sunlight glinting off gold ceilings, and gathered with the group where we were briefed on our itinerary for the next day before being released back into the market space to enjoy what remained of the afternoon and evening with our own activities. Des and I walked around the market, continuing clockwise of course, and had a great time perusing the trinkets on sale and people watching. Deciding that we would shop upon our return, we settled into a happy few hours of photography and filming to try and capture the daily life in this central space of Lhasa. We returned to the hotel with aching feet and the biggest smiles before hopping once more into the tour bus to head to our welcome dinner for the evening with our new friends and travel family. A buffet style meal was greatly enjoyed whilst barley beer was tasted over shared stories and reflections from the day. This was followed by a beautiful show of local dancing and a quick photoshoot with the performers at the end. We were all well fed and eager to get home to begin preparing. Tomorrow held the first leg of our journey to Sagarmatha and we all said goodnight and headed to bed for a good night’s rest. Putting our camera batteries on charge and packing a small travel case – as we would be leaving our suitcases behind in a storeroom at the hotel – we completed our checklist of tasks for the evening and climbed into bed to dream deeply of the start of our pilgrimage to the great Mount Chomolungma.


– to be continued –