Tibet Adventures: Chapter 2 – Lhasa Monasteries

We’re eating again, this time the next day at a buffet with our tour group. We are seated outside, and I’m currently devouring a stack of deep-fried vegetables. There are actually quite a few vegan options here! A dog circles around our feet. “Can we get it some chicken?” Olena suggests, “He looks hungry!” I agree and go get some, and the little guy is quite pleased with his afternoon snack.

Whew, it’s been a busy day already! How are we doing you ask? You’ve heard about our first night at 3700 meters, so let’s go back to when we got up and boarded the bus to Drepung Monastery.

Drepung Monastery is the biggest Monastery in Tibet. It’s not as old as some other monasteries we visited (built in 1416) but it’s huge. It held the position of largest monastery in the world for a while, and because of the altitude, it was quite a feat to explore. With our guide, Kunchok, leading us, we snaked our way up and down stairways, in and out of prayer rooms, passing countless statures of every aspect of the Buddha and every Dalai Lama you can imagine. Until the 5th Dalai Lama had the Potala Palace constructed, it was the home of the 2nd -4th Dalai Lama.

One thing I would never get used to on this trip was the smell of yak butter. They use it for everything, including candles throughout the monasteries. When you think of Buddhist temples it usually conjures up olfactory images of fragrant incense, but here it really smelled like we were inside a dairy factory… on fire. I can’t imagine how these monks deal with it! Is there a Butter Lung disease similar to the Black Lung that coal miners get?

Speaking of the monks, there are about 400 of them living in this place now, which is nothing compared to the thousands who used to inhabit it. In its prime, we were told there were 10,000 monks living here. There are several orders of Monks, some holier and more revered than others. I found it quite confusing that we saw some monks walking around in fancy shoes while tapping away on iPhones. It was explained to me finally that the lower orders of monks don’t need to abide so strictly by the rule of no possessions. This isn’t Zen Buddhism, where one should renounce all possessions, so I guess they have slightly different rules. Anyway, I will never get used to the idea of a robed monk sitting in a chamber full of statues of the Buddha, smoking a cigarette and chatting away on WeChat.

What’s that on my leg? Oh, it’s that dog again. Looks like that bit of chicken wasn’t enough for him. I’ll go get some more…

We’re in bed again, trying to sleep. Actually, Olena is asleep next to me, but I’m having a bit of trouble and I can tell by my dad’s sighing that he’s as frustrated as I am. Like last night, my body and mind are completely exhausted, but it’s difficult to fight the feeling that I’m not getting enough air. My head hurts, probably from a combination of real physical symptoms and hypochondria-induced fear that I’m dying… Eventually, I fall asleep…

And wake up feeling pretty ok. The breakfast helps a lot; there are a lot of options for Olena and me. We stuff our faces, and prepare for the day’s agenda: exploring the Potala Palace. If you look at the back of a 50 RMB note, that’s where we are going. Notice the steps? Yeah, there’s a lot of them. We saw this building from a distance in the bus, and those steps are going to be a challenge….

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