Gasping for Air in Tibet: Kora in Lhasa.
For two days now, the shadow of the Potala Palace hung over us. From every corner of Lhasa, we could see this white-and-red giant, and we couldn't wait to finally climb.
The Potala is a monster. 13-stories high, it has over 1000 rooms and was, at one point, the tallest structure in the world.
Regulations are tight. You only have two hours inside, tickets run out fast, and you can absolutely take no pictures.
The queue was full of Chinese tourists and a couple of Tibetan locals coming to visit this holy site for the first time. As westerners, we were an oddity, and we found people sneaking shots of us. Luckily, most of them were incredibly picture-worthy, and they were happy to reciprocate.
A group of nomads from the mountains became our companions during the queue. After that, they were always one step behind us, taking pictures!
The Potala Palace is magnificent. Imposing.
And at 3,750 meters above sea level, a very tiring climb.
It's sheer size is staggering.
By the time we reached the top, my heart was about to burst.
The last place we're allowed to take photos.
Only a small part of the Potala is open to visitors. Amazing prayers rooms with silk streaming from the roof, the Dalai Lama's (previous) living quarters, shrines with Buddhist art, and tombs from previous Dalai Lamas.
It's the tombs that amazed us the most. Golden stuppas studded with precious jewels, some of them are 12 meters tall and contained within rooms that can barely house them! You have to inch closer and stretch your neck upwards to see their tip stretching up to the next floor.
We managed to sneak a picture of the biggest steppe. Granted, not a great picture.
Every room is exquisitely decorated with gold, silver, and silk.
And then we had the long climb down, which is also exhausting.
But at least we had company. Our nomad friends.
The Potala Palace blew my mind. In all my travels, I had never seen anything like it. It's uncanny. There's absolutely no way I'll ever forget my first glimpse of it as we entered Lhasa.
The Potala Palace is one of the holy sites of Lhasa, which means people do Kora around it. (Kora is a buddhist form of worship in which the faithful walk in circles around sacred sites, like monasteries, temples, and the Potala Palace.)
There was a large crowd going round and round when we arrived (a circumference of more than a kilometre). But despite all that, the Potala lacks a Tibetan atmosphere, which is why our next stop, the old quarter, has stuck in my mind even more.
Much has been destroyed since the 1950's, but a good part has been rebuilt. The Barkhor Street Circuit is now a recognised UNESCO site (so is the Potala Palace), and contains one of the most sacred sites in Tibetan Buddhism, the Jokhang Temple. Pilgrims go round and go round for a kilometre, the most fervent kowtowing all the way.
It is a display of all aspects of Tibetan culture. Monks, nomads in their traditional clothes, pilgrims from nearby villages who walked for days to reach Lhasa...
Originally dating back to the year 652, the Jokhang is stunning. Domed with gold and built around an inner courtyard, the view of the Potala and the old quarter from its roof is amazing.
Jokhang is considered the spiritual heart of Lhasa, at the center of a network of temples. It's in a busy area of the city, with sprawling shops and streets all around, where people engage in long rituals of kora.
The inner courtyard is flanked by beautiful corridors and colourful pillars.
Inside, the monks debate (more about that in the next post). Outside, the faithful kowtow over and over.
After visiting this amazing temple, we joined the kora outside. Needless to say, it was an incredible experience. A journey into the heart of Tibet and its people.