Lhasa and the versatility of the yak
I’m writing this on the winding mountain road from Lhasa to Gyantse. It’s a seven hour journey and we’re only a couple of hours in but have already seen some stunning lake views and prayer flag strewn mountains.
During our stay in Lhasa we visited the Potala palace, the Jokhang temple, the Sera monastery and attempted some more geocaching (unsuccessfully-too many people around).
The Potala palace, former home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government, is a stunning 13 storey red and white building set in the hillside overlooking Lhasa. Tours around the palace are time-limited due to the number of visitors but inside you can see endless rooms of Buddhist statues and the tombs of the 5th-13th Dalai Lamas.
The Jokhang temple in the centre of Lhasa is the most revered temple in Tibet. Around the temple is a pilgrim circuit known as the Barkhor. Buddhist pilgrims walk this market stall-lined circuit with prayer beads or perpetually spinning prayer wheels in hand. Prayer wheels come in a variety of shapes and sizes, all containing a scroll with a prayer written on. The idea is that the spinning of the wheel releases the prayer into the world. Whilst most pilgrims walk the Barkhor circuit some, wearing aprons and with paddles strapped to their hands, launch themselves to the ground in an act of prostration with every step.
At the Sera monastery you can watch monks debating the finer points of Buddhist philosophy. On our visit, rather than the usual debating, some young monks were being examined. This appeared to consist of (from what we could gather since we don’t speak Tibetan) the young monk stepping up to a microphone in the middle of a hall of seated monks and answering the questions posed by three elders. The young monk paces back and forth in constant motion while answering and clapping his hands together in an exaggerated manner after every few words, presumably to strengthen his point. Occasionally when the young monk is taking too long to answer or has perhaps said something controversial the watching monks all jeer in unison. Not all that unlike the houses of parliament. All I can say is I’m glad my viva wasn’t like that!
All of the Bhuddhist sights are beautifully decorated with colourful fabrics covering walls and ceilings and thousands of statues of different Buddhist deities and their various manifestations. They are also filled with the atmospheric burning incense and yak butter candles.
Yak butter is an incredibly versatile thing; being used for candles, yak butter tea, and probably all of the things you would usually use butter for. Yaks themselves in fact appear to be used for everything, I can tell you now that yak steak, curry, stew and enchiladas are all very tasty, as are yak cheese and yoghurt. Yak wool is also in common use, or failing that you can buy a nice warm looking yak skin jacket or hat. Yak dung can be dried in the sun (complete with hand print if you so desire) then used on walls or roofs for insulation/structural integrity/decoration. Yak dung can also be used as fuel for your stove. I think it’s safe to say that no part of the yak goes unused – as James on our tour (who even ate yak lung) said “the yak is the Swiss army knife of the bovine world”.
We ended our time in Lhasa with a visit to the local nightclub. It was actually a pretty good club, it appears that the done thing is to buy your beer in bulk at the beginning of the night, I’m talking about 30 bottles to be shared by the group, and find yourselves a table as a base for the night. Occasionally in clubs or restaurants in the UK you may get people trying to sell you a rose. Well in Tibetan nightclubs you can buy electric glowing roses and hearts, giant stuffed teddy bears or even candyfloss! What was quite nice was the tier of fruit we had for the table. I also managed to make friends with a Tibetan girl who made it her task for the evening to keep taking me (and sometimes the others in our group) to the dance floor. The only dodgy thing about the place were the squat toilets with mirror doors…