Monday, October 17, 2011

Yaking-it up in Lhasa

Sorry about the title, but I couldn't help myself! It's yak yak yak here. From names of places, to clothes, food, and yak butter tea. Yep, they even made tea out of yaks. Yak butter tea consists of yak butter, salt, and black tea. They drink it every morning because it gives you energy. I thought it tasted like salty yogurt, warm. Yum. Not.
We stayed on the Tibetan side of town, close to the market, and Jokhang Monastery. This temple was built in the 7th century and is the holiest temple in Tibet. People make pilgrimages to the temple and at all times of the day people can be found prostrating. Prostrating is kind of like a limited sun salutation, complete with legs tied together, knee pads, and hand guards. The reason for the protective gear is that they do it 1000 times! While saying a mantra. There's no way I could do that, I would lose count and have to restart about every 100 times or so. It is also very common for people to walk around the temple 3 times while saying the mantra, and either fingering holy beads and/or swinging a prayer wheel. A lot of the older population can been seen every where swinging prayer wheels and muttering mantras to themselves throughout the day. Like Catholicism,  people do these things to clear away their sins. In the morning I liked to get up and walk around the temple with all the locals, which was very peaceful.
Around the temple the streets are lined with local and touristy shops and stalls. The Tibetans aren't up in your face at the market, which was refreshing and lovely to be able to stroll through unbothered. Many enjoyable hours were spent wandering the streets, taking in the people and culture.
Another afternoon was spent at Potala Palace seeing where the Dali lama use to live. The place is massive and you have to climb a lot of stairs to get up there, hello altitude! The best part was when our tour leader almost got booted out for talking a picture in a no picture zone!
A quick note on altitude and acclimatization: for those of you who don't know, Tibet is pretty high. Lhasa is 13,000 feet above sea level and we will eventually reach 17,000 feet when we get to Everest. This requires a slower pace, we stayed in Lhasa for 4 days to give ourselves time to adjust and most of the group took some type of altitude medication. How does the altitude make you feel? Very short of breath. Climbing a mere 20 steps can leave you breathless, like you just climbed 5 levels at a run. There were moments of dizziness, sleeplessness, vivid dreams (I dreamt I was married to an Olympic swimmer and was making coconut muffins one night), headaches, and loss of appetite. Pretty much everyone in the group experienced some combination of these symptoms throughout the trip as we changed altitude. The best way to handle increased altitude is to increase slowly, take your meds, and drink lots of water.
Another factor of being up so high that it's cold, but the sun is also intense. I couldn't seem to keep enough sunscreen on to prevent my nose from burning. After the first day in Lhasa everyone in the group had rosy cheeks and noses from the sun. The sun can be a blessing and a curse. In the sun it is noticeably warmer and more comfortable, but can quickly go to being uncomfortably warm and blinding to the eyes. The sun often gave me more of a headache then the altitude.
There were lots of temples and monasteries in Lhasa that we toured. Another is Sera Monastery where you can watch the debating monks every afternoon. In a courtyard the monks gather to discuss buddhist theology, one monk stands and speaks, a few others sit and listen. When the standing monk wants to make a point he swings his right arm and claps his left hand sharply. This is suppose to represent the sword cutting through ignorance, which is a common symbol on the Buddah of wisdom. It was quite comical in a way to watch the monks debating, some were very jovial and almost comical about it, other were very serious and intense.
One night someone came up with the idea of going to the movies, which ended up bring really fun. First of, finding the movies theater was an adventure of its own. I wandered about Lhasa with a few fellow Intrepiders using our best charades moves, trying to explain to people what we were looking for. It took 30 minutes and about 20 people, but we found the theater. The movie was a French film dubbed in Chinese and a action/comedy. Even though nobody spoke Chinese you could still get the idea of what was going on. It was a fun and random evening out in Lhasa.
After several days of acclimatizing the group had a long day trip out to Nam-Tso Lake, the highest salt water lake in the world, standing at 15,400 feet. During the drive we had a couple of mountain passes, one of which was at 17,000 feet, a snow covered mountain that was covered with prayer flags fluttering in the wind. After only a couple of days in Lhasa you could really feel the altitude when we walked around the mountain pass.  The lake was insanely beautiful. The clear blue water was surrounded by snowy mountains on one side and velvety brown mountains on the other side. The walk up to the view point wasn't steep, but the thin air left me breathless. The view at the top was worth it though. Prayer flags can be found throughout Tibet, on tops of hills, at rivers, pretty much everywhere. Leaving colorful flags fluttering in the air, adding color and a bit of whimsy. This hilltop was no different, the ground was literally covered with flags, leaving us jumping around trying not to step on them.

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