Tibet, Part Two

My last post about Tibet was a bit of a downer, wasn’t it?  As my friend Sally reminded me, “not every place is lovable”, but as with all travel, there are always positive elements, whether it be a greater understanding of a particular culture or country, or an increase in self knowledge.

We not only saw the exterior of the iconic Potala Palace, we were also able to climb to the top and visit some of the interior on our way up.  Built by the fifth Dalai Lama in the late 1600’s on the site of Songzen Gampo’s palace, it became the winter residence of successive Dalai Lamas.  Photographs are not allowed of any of the interior rooms, but they were so dark, smoky and gloomy, it would have been difficult to get a good shot anyway.

The red sections were administrative; the white sections were religious
The red sections were for religious studies; the white sections were the living quarters of the Dalai Lamas

The palace, 13 stories high, offers a great view of the city of Lhasa.

The view from the top of the Potala
The view from the top of the Potala

Here’s a different view, showing the  modern city the Chinese have built around the Potala.


It was so hard to imagine a small child being taken from his family and brought to live in this massive place, surrounded by monks who were charged with his instruction.   The current Dalai Lama was two years old when he was identified.  He spent two years in a monastery near his family’s home in Amdo, then moved to the Potala two years later.

The summer palace, the Norbulingkha (Treasure Park) has a very different feel to it.  This was built in the mid 18th century by the 7th Dalai Lama.  It is actually quite close to the winter palace. The largest horticultural park in Tibet,  it includes a private zoo, which wasn’t open when I visited.  At one time it housed an elephant that was a gift from the Maharaja of Nepal.  P1150883


Heinrich Harrer conducted lessons with the 14th (current) Dalai Lama in the summer palace.  It was from this site that the Dalai Lama departed in 1959 to escape from the Chinese.  Another fun fact:  According to Harrer in his book “Seven Years in Tibet”, women were not allowed in the Norbulingkha because it was believed that they would have defiled the gardens.  P1150890

Two famous monasteries in Lhasa are located near the palaces.  The Drepung monastery was being repaired, so we only visited the Sera Monastery.  I was disappointed because I had learned in my pre trip reading that Tibet’s creation story was told in murals at the entrance of the Drepung Monastery, and I had hoped to see it.  P1150660

What we DID see were the Sera monks interacting in an outdoor courtyard.  That yellow hats on their shoulders?  It made me smile–all I could think of was Woodstock, Snoopy’s little friend.  P1150673

The detail on the exterior of the buildings was exquisite, however it was nothing compared to the tombs of the Dalai Lamas inside the Potala.  Those looked like wedding cakes–5 to 7 tiers high, covered with carvings and encrusted with jewels and precious stones.  P1150668



We arrived in Lhasa on 5/14, which was the start of a 15 day “festival” celebrating Buddha’s birthday.  For Tibetans, a festival consisted of either walking around a sacred site, or prostrating themselves as they slowly made their way counterclockwise, praying as they went.


Leaving Lhasa, we traveled to Gyantse, where we visited the Palcho Monastery.


Here, you were allowed to take photos, as long as you paid a fee.  In the distance, you can see the red fort that dominates the landscape.

Plastic bags filled with offerings are scattered throughout the monastery.  Devotees leave food, money, grain, white scarves (called Kata), whatever they have.

This monastery was built in the 1400’s; its interior looks very much like the interiors of the other monasteries, small chapels, very dark and smoky.  I used a flash and the highest ISO possible to get these photos.

The founder of the “red hats”. Red hat monks are allowed to marry. “Yellow hats” are not. The Dalai Lama is a “yellow hat”.
I asked why this statue's face was covered. Our guide said he can only be seen by those that complete a complex list of devotional activities.
I asked why this statue’s face was covered. Our guide explained only those that complete a complex list of devotional activities are allowed to view his face.
I have no idea which color hat these monks belong to–it looks like they hedged their bets with yellow, red and black. Plus, their hats come with bangs and braids.

The other special feature of the Palcho monastery is the Kumbum Podang.  (Don’t you love the name?)  A Kumbum is a stupa that is also a  three-dimensional mandala. The first five floors of this structure are square and the remaining four are circular.

Unfortunately, this building was also being repaired so we were unable to go inside, but according to Wikipedia, it has 76 chapels and shrines and is also known as the Ten Thousand Buddha Pagodas.  Why?  Because it contains ten thousand images and murals of Buddhas.


Gyantse is also notable because in 1904, the town and monastery were attacked by the British, led by Francis Younghusband.  The Tibetans were armed with outdated weapons, but they had been assured by their religious leaders that their victory was preordained.  In addition to their weapons,  they were protected by talismans that they thought would repel bullets.  They were mowed down, and the buildings were shelled.  

In 1959, the Chinese attacked the complex and it was also damaged during the cultural revolution.

After one night in Gyantse, we traveled to Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city and the location of the Tashilhunpo Monastery.  This monastery has been the home of the Pachen Lama, the great scholar, and is where most of the prior Pachen Lamas are entombed.

This photo was taken in Gyantse--no interior photos were allowed in Tashilhunpo.  The top photo is of the 10th Pachen Lama and the bottom is of the 11th as a child.

This photo was taken in Gyantse–no interior photos were allowed in Tashilhunpo.  The top photo is of the 10th Pachen Lama and the bottom is of the current (11th) as a child.

The 10th Pachen Lama was taken to China as a child to be educated.  Although he initially supported the Chinese incursion into Tibet, after returning home and seeing the impact on his country, he began to speak out.  This resulted in his being tortured and imprisoned in China for 16 years.  After his release, he married a Han woman, had a child and returned to Tibet.  He died suddenly in 1989, at the age of 51 shortly after giving a speech critical of the Chinese government.  His resting place is an amazingly beautiful tomb, with gold carvings and jewels, similar to that of Dalai Lamas in the Potala.

The entrance to the tomb of the 10th Pachen Lama

There was considerable controversy over the selection of the 11th Pachen Lama.  The Dalai Lama’s choice disappeared after being named and the Pachen Lama chosen by the Chinese, now in his 20’s, is still being educated in China.

Entrance to the Tashilhunpo Monastery
Entrance to the Tashilhunpo Monastery
Inside the Monastery.  No photography allowed inside the buildings
Inside the Monastery. No photography allowed inside the buildings
Look who is doing the manual labor
Look who is doing the manual labor
The Mandala surrounded by two deer is seen on most buildings
The Mandala surrounded by two deer is seen on most buildings
How can you tell which shoes belong to whom?
How can you tell which shoes belong to whom?
Apparently they are able to figure it out!
Apparently they are able to figure it out!

Because we were in Shigatse for two days, we were able to wander through the city on our own.  Marilynn, my energetic buddy, and I climbed to the Shigatse fort that overlooked the city.

Shigatse Fort overlooks the city.  As with many buildings in Tibet, it is being repaired, so no entry allowed.
Shigatse Fort overlooks the city. As with many buildings in Tibet, it is being repaired, so no entry allowed.
From the fort, you can get a good view of the city.  Not sure what that bike is doing on top of the building!
From the fort, you can get a good view of the city. Not sure what that bike is doing on top of the building!
He was as interested in us as we were in him.
He was as interested in us as we were in him.

For some reason, the ride back seemed far more pleasant than the ride to the two cities.  Perhaps it was because we traveled  back along the river or maybe it was because  we knew what to expect for toilet facilities?

Impromptu bathroom stop
Impromptu bathroom stop
Scenery along the way back to Lhasa


After Shigatse, it was back to Lhasa for our return to our gorgeous hotel in Nepal, the Gokarna Forest Resort.  Great food, margaritas, beautiful surroundings, greeted by our wonderful Nepali guide Binoy– we were SO very glad to be back in Kathmandu!



Three Days in Kathmandu

Kathmandu assaults your senses.  It is dusty, dirty, noisy, chaotic, crowded.  Take a deep breath and you will get a lungful of incense, enough to keep you coughing for a few minutes.

We toured the three major cities of the ancient Malla kingdom: Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur.  (That’s what happened when you had three sons–you split up your kingdom so they could each have a place to rule. )

We saw the impact of the earthquake everywhere.  It is heartbreaking  to see that one year later, people are still living in makeshift shelters.

Home for a family
Home for a family
Boudhanath Stupa
Boudhanath Stupa
Timber supporting Kathmandu buildings
Timber supporting Kathmandu buildings
Rebuilding by hand
Rebuilding by hand

Still, there are parts of the cities that were not damaged, allowing you to experience their grandeur and the beauty.

Plaza in Bhaktapur as seen from the balcony of the New Cafe Nuatapola, where we had a delicious lunch
The Five Level Temple
The royal family's bathtub
The royal family’s bathtub
Complete with snake sculptures
Complete with snake sculptures

While preparing for this trip, I read about the living goddesses, known as the Kumari.  (The post  “Follow the Yellow Brick Road, Part Two has more information about the goddess.)

After our visit, all of the women in our group felt so sorry for this sad looking little girl, who was chosen when she was three years old.  I couldn’t help but compare her to my happy, active nieces.  Of course, we don’t know what other options were available to her.  Maybe sitting on a “throne” placing tikkas on the foreheads of gawkers was the better alternative.

The Kumari is not allowed to walk
The Kumari is not allowed to walk
Peter is receiving her blessing.
Peter is receiving her blessing.

Despite the hardships they have endured, the Nepali people’s beautiful spirit shines through.




The hawkers are everywhere.  The problem is if you buy from one, you are mobbed by many others.  Still, I couldn’t resist this woman’s sweet  smile, especially after she told me if  I wanted to buy more than one, there would be no problem.


Okay, so I bought more than one.  Sisters, cousins, nieces, friends…you know the drill…gifts are coming your way, but you may have to earn them.  There may be a quiz!

This next one was more of a hard sell.  “Madam, blessings for you, blessings for me”, chanted continuously while she walked beside me for the equivalent of five city blocks.

imageOkay, so I got blessed.  I now own the necklace the lady on the right is holding.  I expect those blessings to be coming my way!

Follow The Yellow Brick Road- Part Two

You ready to climb aboard the bookmobile express for a trip to Nepal?

A few years ago, when Borders broke my heart by going belly up, I softened the blow just a tad by randomly grabbing books from the travel section, one of which was Snake Lake by Jeff Greenwald.  At that time, I had no idea the book was about Nepal. Not only that, but the thought of visiting Nepal never crossed my mind.  I didn’t even have the vaguest idea of where it was. As I mentioned in the last post, elementary school KILLED any interest in geography.  Good thing I’m a firm believer in lifelong learning!

Snake Lake is about Nepal’s political turmoil, starting with the student riots in 1979, thru India’s 1989 trade embargo, ending with the April 6, 2000 protest at Ratna Park.  It’s about more than just politics, though.  This very personal account has it all— romance, loss, and a spiritual journey that allows you to view Buddhism through Greenwald’s American eyes.

Two Australian writers, Amy Wilsee and Mark Whittaker, were fascinated by the 2001 murders and suicide of Nepal’s royal family.  Their quest for the back story leading to that gory night is documented in Life and Death in Kathmandu.  What I found most compelling, however, wasn’t the main event,  but two of their interviews:  one with a former Kumari (a living goddess- more on that later) and the other with a Maoist guerilla.  Initially, the Maoists were a group of committed idealists, focused on stopping the corruption and violence inflicted on villagers by the power structure.  Over time, as more joined the movement, the Maoists devolved into an unruly mob that inflicted as much violence and terror as they had initially fought against.

Although Jeff Rasley’s book  Bringing Progress to Paradise raises some interesting questions about the ethics of culture change and the impact first world intrusion into third world has on these remote villages, I don’t recommend the book.  Much of it chronicled his trek to the remote village of Basa and quite honestly, I thought he was a bit of a jerk to the friends that made the trek with him.

Little Princes by Conor Grennan, is a better choice if you want to learn how good intentions can sometimes lead to undesirable consequences.   After graduating from college, Conor decided to volunteer in an orphanage outside of Kathmandu.   Over time, he was surprised to discover that the children actually weren’t orphans at all.  

During the political turmoil, the Maoists had been entering the villages, abducting children and forcing them to fight.  When approached by a man who offered to bring their child to safety, families scraped together money, selling what little they had.  Unfortunately, the man who promised to care for their children was a trafficker who either sold them to be servants, or forced them to beg on the streets of Kathmandu.  The children were told that their families had all been killed.   Little Princes describes Conor’s efforts to return the children to their remote villages so they could be reunited with their families.  The book also made it clear that well-meaning tourists can inadvertently contribute to the problem by giving money and clothing to the child beggars.  Many times the children are forced to turn everything over to a trafficker, so the tourists are unwittingly contributing to child trafficking, making it profitable for the trafficker to continue.  Little Princes was a thought-provoking book that gets to the heart of the issue that many travelers to third world countries face–how to help without creating unintended negative consequences.  

So, what did I learn from my Nepali reading?  Well, I’ll share 10 of my discoveries now, again, not in any particular order–just random facts that caught my attention.  There’s much more, but  like my Bhutan post, I will save the rest for when we are on site.

  1. Nepalis believe the goddess Taleju takes up residence in a young girl (who then becomes known as a Kumari ), until the girl reaches puberty.  At that time, the goddess moves on to inhabit the body of another pre-pubescent girl.  What happens to the dethroned goddess, the young child, who had been taken from her family, placed in a palace, her feet not allowed to touch the ground, carried through the streets during festivals, decked out in red, with a third eye painted on her forehead?  Why she becomes mortal again, returns to her family and is expected to live a normal life, happily (?) ever after.
  2. What are the job specifications to become a goddess, you might ask?  Well, for starters, this 2 or 3 year old girl needs to have: a neck like a conch shell, a body like a banyan tree, eyelashes like a cow, thighs like a deer, a chest like a lion, a voice soft and clear as a duck’s…there’s more, but you get the idea.
  3. While in the Kathmandu area, we will be staying at the Gokarna Forest Resort.  Gokarna Forest used to be the hunting reserve for the Nepali royal family.  Not only that, but at the entrance to the Resort, there is a 200 year old pipal tree, where, in the very sappy movie, Little Buddha, under that very tree, Keanu Reeves was tempted by the demon Mara.
  4. Yes, I did indeed borrow the Little Buddha DVD from the library, and sat through the whole thing, including Keneau Reeves portrayal of Buddha, complete with his pre-enlightenment long, stringy hair.  What can I say?   It was a cold gray day.  I had nothing better to do.  The sad part?  I didn’t learn about the pipal tree until AFTER I had seen the movie, and trust me, I wasn’t going to go back to look for it.
  5. Swayanbhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple, is one of the oldest Buddhist sites in Nepal.  As you might guess, wild monkeys have inhabited the temple complex for many years.  And why not?  The food offerings that the pilgrims leave are mighty attractive.  Unfortunately,the temple was damaged by the 2015 earthquake, so I don’t know whether we will have the opportunity to visit it when we are in Kathmandu.
  6. Speaking of offerings at Swayvanbhunath  pilgrims always leave a portion for Hariti, the world’s grandmother and protector of children. Legend has it that Hariti originally was an ogress who lived during Buddha’s time.  To feed her 500 children,  she kidnapped other people’s children and turned them into dinner.  Buddha decided to teach her what it felt like to lose a child, so he kidnapped her youngest.  (With 500 kids, I wonder how she realized one was missing–but maybe that’s just me?) After Hariti learned her lesson about compassion, Buddha returned the child, then helped Hariti with her food problem by sharing with her the offerings from  his followers, the start of the practice that continues to this day.  
  7. Another Buddhist legend tells the story of the birth of Padmasambhava, who was also known also known as Guru Rinpoche.  Padmasambhava means “lotus born” because he emerged fully formed from a red lotus blossom that appeared in the center of a lake. The Lotus is the symbol of enlightenment.  Preview of coming attractions:  You will hear about Padmasambhava again when we get to Bhutan.
  8. The oldest Hindu Temple, Pashupatinath, fortunately was not damaged by the earthquake, so if we visit it, I’ll be sure to look for the magnificent sculpture of Nandi, the bull that Shiva rides.  Hindus come to this temple when they are ready to die, believing that dying on this sacred site guarantees that they will be reborn as a human.  Cremations take place on banks of the Bagmati River, which flows by the temple.
  9. The royal family’s palace is now open to the public.  It is a rather dismal abode, with lots of animal heads hanging from the walls.  (Most likely the animals they killed in their royal preserve at Gokarna Forest, which would seem to be a violation of Hindu–and Buddhist beliefs.)  Anyway, the palace sounds like a major disappointment–sorta like Graceland, not at all what you would imagine– which may be why it didn’t make it into our itinerary.
  10. Chez Caroline’s, a restaurant that was mentioned in one of the books I read (I can’t for the life of me remember which one), still exists.  According to the internet, the restaurant is in a “historic Rana Palace”.  I sure hope it isn’t the one with all the stuffed dead animals!  Who knows, maybe on one of “dinner on own” evenings, we’ll venture there.  If we do, I’ll be sure to report back.

Well, I warned you these were random facts that caught my fancy.

Our last and final stop along the yellow brick road will be Tibet.  Hope you come along!