It is illegal to be in Tibet without a guide as a westerner so we were accompanied the entire time we were there. Our guide was from TIbet and she was very nice - although her english was just o.k. The first stop was the summer palace (Norbulingka) of the Dalai Lama. It was founded by the 7th Dalai Lama in 1755 and expanded by each of his successors. The park has multiple palaces, chapels, and buildings. The current summer palace was built for the present Dalai Lama in 1954 and where he left Tibet for India in 1959. The palace has an assembly hall where he held state and has a beautiful golden throne with colorful murals depicting scenes from his court.
Our next visit was to Sera Monastery. This monastery was founded in 1419 by disciples of the Gulugpa order and is famous for its warrior monks, the Dob-Doa. The largest and most striking building in the complex is the Tsogchen. It features wall-lenth Thangkas (we have a video of the inside in our video area). Thangkas are religious paintings that have been mounted on brocade that carry painted or embroidered images inside a colored border. There were inside every monastery we visited in all different sizes - but the ones we saw here were quite large. Also in the monastery is a throne that was used by the 13th Dalai Lama. At 3:30 everyday in the courtyard the monks assemble for debates. Their ritualized gestures - clapping hands and stamping when a point is made - make it interesting to watch (a video is available).
In the evening we went to watch the lights of Potala Palace - we have a video of this that you can look at as well. It did not matter what time of the day you looked up at that landmark in this city - it was amazing. On Saturday morning we headed to Potala Palace. It is built on Lhasa's highest point and was once the residence of Tibet's chief monk and leader the Dalai Lama. The climb up was not as difficult as I expected given the altitude - but I am glad we went the second day not the first. Also we only get one hour in the palace once we start - so lucky for us we were first in that morning...not as many people which was a really good thing. The palace is a vast museum, serving as a reminder of Tibet's rich and devoutly religious culture. The first palace was built in 631 and then merged into the larger buildings that stand today. The white palace was built in 1645 and was where the current Dalai Lama held court and lived. In his assembly hall we were so early in the morning that it was just the 3 of us in the hall with a monk chanting in the background and taking care of the statues that are still in the room. It was overwhelmingly peaceful. The red palace was built in 1693 and in this part of the palace there were also many chapels but also multiple stupa's. These are large decorated vessels that contain the mummified remains of former Dalai Lama's or important monks. The stupas we saw were huge and they all were done in gold with multiple jewels on them - they were beautiful - the largest one was about 43ft tall and made completely from gold. The stupa of the 5th Dalai Lama contains around 6,600 lbs of gold.... After going through the palace we went for a walk around the holy circuit that surrounds Potala Palace. It took us about 45 minutes and we must have seen about 1000 Tibetans walking at the same time....all carrying their prayer wheels.
In the afternoon we went to an area called the Barkhor. This is one of the liveliest neighborhoods in Lhasa due to its proximity to Jokhang. There is a pilgrimage circuit or "kora" that runs clockwise around the Jokhang and it is the holiest since the 7th century. Market stalls have always lined the route to serve the pilgrims who are staying in the area. Many of the buildings you walk around are very old - some even going back to the 8th century. We did also walk this circuit - it took us quite awhile since we did do some shopping along here, plus we wanted to people watch. It was very busy with lots of people everywhere. There were these huge incense burners out front which mark the start of the "kora" and they put juniper bushes inside them to burn.
We did go to Jokhang temple also in the afternoon. It was founded in 639 to house an image of the buddha brought as dowry by the Nepali Princess Bhrikuti on her marriage to King Songsten Gampo. The Jokhang is Tibet's most venerated site. Pilgrims bow and pray on the flagstones just outside the temple doors. There is a huge statue of Chenresig, the Bodhisattva of compassion in one of the chapels. The doors and frames were crafted by Nepalis in the 7th century and are among the few remains of the original temple. There is also a impassive statue of the 12 year old Sakyamuni to make offerings and pray. It is the most revered image in Tibet. The Inner Sanctum of this temple houses many important statues and you visit it by going clockwise. There are so many people the monks are present to keep everyone moving and manage the crowds.
One of the biggest challenges when going to all these monastery's was the sheer number of Buddha's and deities that they pray to, I felt like we really needed to have done more reading to truly appreciate and understand more about the religion. But everywhere we went they talked about the specific Buddha's which were a part of that chapel - and it never sounded like the same ones.
Lhasa was a really interesting and intense experience. If we had taken one more day we may have gone out from Lhasa to another monastery, but to get a brief glimpse of what that part of the world was incredible. We felt very fortunate that we could go and the people were wonderful.