Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Did We Climb The Everest?

"You climbed the Everest?" asked Ileana's mother, when we called to say good morning. How could we? Only very few people do that and we are not even trekking for a couple of hours. But as I thought about this question, I realized that there is a different meaning, we didn't reach the top, we didn't even go up much, but we did climb a bit of the Everest. We were at the 5200 meters mark, on the highest mountain in the world, we had our katas with our names, flying high in the wind at the Everest base camp. It is by far the hardest thing we did in our travels, it is a very long and difficult journey. It's no small thing to reach Lhasa, and from there it is still a lot more to go.
Yamdrock Lake panorama
We left on Saturday morning, on a new highway, the road that goes to Lhasa airport. After an hour, it became just a regular sealed road. The first day it was mostly driving, first through the Kamba-la pass at 4794 meters, by the Yamdrock Lake, down at 4488 meters. It is one of the four holy lakes of Tibet and we saw how the lake retreated after some Chinese chose to disregard the Tibetan beliefs and swam and fished in it. It is a magnificent lake, a beauty, unfortunately in the cold weather it is just a very quick stop. We stopped for a minute to see our first glacier of this trip, the Kharola Glacier, at 5560 meters.

Kharola Glacier

We got to Gyantse, visited the Pelkor Chöde monastery (Baiju Temple) and took a tour of the Gyantse Kumbum, the largest stupa in Tibet, a spiral of many chapels. We didn't visit the fort, high above the city but we took pictures of it, and learned with surprise that the Tibetans are sorry that they were not conquered by the British. If they would have done that, "we might be independent now, other countries conquered by them got their independence, but with the Chinese there is no chance."

We ended the first day of travel in Shigatse, at a brand new four star hotel, Tashi Choe Ta. Unfortunately, the heat didn't work, but we slept in freezing luxury. The second day was a quick visit to the phenomenal Ta Shi Lhun Po monastery, without our guide, she went to get the Everest pass. Then we drove for a few hours, we lunched in Lhatse, the music capital of Tibet, and kept going. Toward the end of the day we got the first glimpse of the Everest:

First sight of the Everest mountain
We spent the night in Qomo Lagma Hotel in New Tingri (Shegar). This was a two star hotel, they had electric heat, but no water and the electricity stopped at some point during the night. We were up at six, getting ready in the dark, it was a great chance to use our head-lamps. The guide was also ready but she couldn't get out of her room, the key wouldn't work, she jumped out of the window. Nobody was awake at that hour, it was really cold and really dark. What? Nobody awake at 7 am? These Tibetans must be really lazy! I don't think they are, this is another chinese gift, having to follow the Beijing time. The sunrise was around 8.30 am! We saw it in another pass, it was so cold that only three of us got out of the car. We could see the five ranges of the Himalayas, including the Everest, it was a phenomenal view and worth the early wake up time, passing through checkpoints and all the rest.

Second sight of Everest, still 80 km away, sunrise at 8.50 am

At around 10 we had some breakfast in the best quarter star restaurant anybody could imagine. The girls liked it so much, they didn't want to leave.

We would have never guessed that you can have pancakes here

Again, getting to the Everest base camp is no small feat. It is a 102 km ride on a decent unsealed, bumpy road. Occasionally the driver would get off, on some sections of the older road, to catch a break from all the bumps. It was exhausting and it seemed it had no end. At the 94 km we arrived at Rongphu, the highest monastery in the world. A few nuns were preparing and later eating their lunch. There was nobody else around. Usually, from there, the cars can go no further and there is an ecological bus or trekking. We went with our car, past the empty tent city, up to the last barrier. The chinese military was not there. We walked past the barrier, up on a little bump. The whole top of the Everest was ahead of us, unobstructed view. It was awesome. With the expert help of our driver, we linked the katas that we got on our arrival in Lhasa and put them along to many prayer flags. The kata is a white piece of cloth, maybe similar to what people might get as a welcome to Hawaii. The wind was blowing, it was a little cold, but the sun was shining and the sky was perfectly clean. We only saw one little cloud in our 12 days in Tibet. It was by design, I chose this time of the year because of the perfect views. Other people might come in the summer months, it's warm and pleasant, but frequently cloudy, sometimes the rain would wash out the roads. I think that we were the last tourists of the year to make it to the Everest Base Cap. There was a small group of Chinese that got there an hour before us. Our guide has no more clients for the rest of the season. Most hotels and restaurants had no other customers. We spent maybe an hour around the base camp, I made two phone calls, leaving a message for my mother and having a short conversation with Ileana's mother. The signal was spotty, but in the right place it was enough. Again, she asked us if we climbed the Everest, our misunderstanding, then my reconsideration. Maybe we did climb a little of the Everest. We got as far as mere mortals do and we are proud of ourselves. Most of all we had an amazing experience that we will remember for the rest of our lives.
Rongphu Monastery and the Everest

No need to prove anything!

Carrying the katas

No comment
Never enough pictures

Unexpected reaction

Somebody can jump!!!
Returning, we took the "better" road. Hard to understand this statement. We went for many hours on some vague pass over the mountains, between valleys, sometimes on short patches on ice, sometimes through water, and all the time over bumps and bumps and bumps. We all took it well, the children laughing in the back every time they were sent up jumping to hit the ceiling.

Will we ever get somewhere?
This was the "good road" for hours and hours

God Bless You! Tashi Delek!

When we almost got to the real road we saw a tractor turned on the side in the ditch. Ileana and the driver rushed to help, there were so many people there, two infants, a miracle that nobody got hurt. Getting to Old Tingri, we were supposed to sleep in the best hotel and watch the sunset over the Everest. The hotel had no heat and no water, the people who knew how to make some electricity were gone to some meeting. The alternative was to sleep in the common room of a guest house, that would have had some fire made in the evening, but still no heat overnight. We made a tough decision to push it further. Next hotel, in Nyalam, would have heat and, of course, rooms. It was a four hour ride, most of it in the dark, after getting some nice shots of the sunset over the Everest.

Trying to get a good picture of the sunset
Arrived in Nyalam, at Snowland hotel, we got heat, communal bathrooms, and two decent three-bed rooms. By the heater, the temperature got up to 17C. Probably in the bed it was more like 12C. We slept until 9 am. Our guide came to take us for breakfast at 10, but we decided to have a brunch at the border. And so we got to Zhangmu, or in Tibetan, Dram, the little border town. Amazing, how this little town exists, one road with hundreds of trucks, houses built on the mountain, they call it the road to hell, prone to earthquakes and land slides, if something happens they are stuck without any exit. The guide and the driver made no secret that they would like to get out of there as soon as possible, but we were early for our van to Kathmandu. 

The craziest border town?
We had another decent lunch, and then passed the border by foot. The first walking border, getting through several Chinese check points, saying good bye to our driver and our guide, crossing the Friendship bridge and we were in Nepal. It was hard to say good bye to her, she was like a little part of our family, the first eight days in Lhasa but especially the next four days on the road we got to love her. We cannot thank her enough, she made our Tibet trip so special. I cannot even think how terrible it could have been with a bad guide. She was fantastic, she got really close to the children and they got close to her. Hopefully we would meet again, sometime in the future, somewhere in this world. Maybe in this life.

Kai Li Sho.



Tashi delek, Tibet!
Hello, Tibet!
First impressions
On the platform of the train stations there are many military men with white scarves around their neck. We exit and take some pictures. My family is ahead of me and has already met our guide. She is putting white scarves on their neck too. I want to take a picture but immediately a soldier blocks my way. I realize he is forbidding me to take pictures. I confirm and cover the lens. It seemed senseless because he was the last soldier along the exit corridor.
We meet our guide Tsewang Lhamo (pronounced Tehwan). It means Long Life Fairy. She tells us that those scarves are kata and they represent the clean heart that welcomes us to Tibet. I look outside the car window and it doesn't seem special: a flat Chinese city, with few people. And then we enter the real Lhasa, the Tibetan one, the old Lhasa, where there are lots of people, so different from the Chinese, with lots of townhouses that have a wide black stripe painted around their windows and with multicolored valences above doors and windows.
We stay at the Yak Hotel in heated rooms. The windows face the street. We can see in both directions the glass cases with soldiers, five inside and one outside, surveying. They have helmets, transparent shields, batons and guns. At half distance there are guardians, dressed in police-like uniforms. Through the same window we can see the sun setting over the mountains.
Altitude sickness
While in university I learned bout the mechanisms of adapting at high altitudes. I grew up at sea level. How do you feel at 11,484ft? In the beginning everything seems normal, only you don't have energy. To go up a flight of stairs? You need 5 min, by the end of them you think you are already dead, or if not, you will die soon because you have NO AIR. 
At 14,764ft, even after 9 days of adaptation, you wake up in the middle of the night, thinking you are suffocating. The best therapy would be a coca tea, but we don't have it, so we drink plenty of water, close to a gallon a day. That means you wake up several times to go to the bathroom.
And now in a random order, what I noticed:
In Lhasa there are people who are on a pilgrimage. This starts sometimes far away, at one end of Tibet. Why? For the sins from this life and the previous ones. With the prayer beads like a bracelet on their wrist, with protectors for knees and shoes, with handles made of wood or metal in their hands they will prostrate until Lhasa, at the Jokhang temple. Standing they will put their hands together, raise them to their forehead, face, chest, take a step, lean and slide on their hands until their forehead touches the ground, then they slide their hands above their heads. 
If they are in front of the temple they will move one of the 108 prayer beads. They get up, leaning against those handles, take a step and again the salute, the prostration, in all this time saying the prayer words: Om Mah Nee Pad Meh Oon (written Om Ma Ne Pad Me Hung). When they are close to the city they have to go around the old Tibetan city clockwise and after that they could enter it and go toward the Jokhang Temple. They will go around this one too, they will prostrate countless times in front of it and they will bring their smell gift (juniper branches over burning charcoals in a clay oven painted in white, outside the temple). And in the morning they will enter the temple and they will bow their heads in every chapel, every inch of a fresco and every statue, they will touch all the vestments, bring their gift of dee (di- yak female) butter (with a spoon or pouring it from a thermos) in the big vats with burning mucks that are in front of the different Buddhas (of the Past, of the Present, of the Future, Compassion, Longevity, Wise, Medicine, Science, etc.) At every altar they offer some money.
Others are doing kora: they go around the temple turning the small prayer wheel in their right hand and the prayer beads in their left hand, one for each prayer of Om Mah Nee Pad Meh Oon. The same word is found on a prayer wheel hand printed, rolled and sealed by the nuns in the prayer wheels, all of them turned clockwise. Their prayer is for everybody: for the gods (Om) demigods (Ma), people (Ne), animals (Pad), hungry ghosts (Me) and living things from hell (Hung). It is permanent because it is written on the prayer flags that are hung in the wind and every time they move it's like they are saying the words.
They are so absorbed in their prayer that it seems only their bodies are moving, their souls gone with the prayer. I was standing in front of Jokhang Temple trying to take some pictures, they were moving around obstacles, their sight lost in the distance.

There are other monasteries where they are doing a pilgrimage, turning the big prayer wheels strung around the walls of the temple or on the mountainside, they worship the image of the Buddha that appeared on rocks (and man painted over so you could see better).

The few monks (they can become monks after a long and complicated approval process from the Chinese government, that puts a cap on the number) spend their time praying together three times a day in the Main Hall, emptying the vats of the solidified butter into some big bags (the Tibetans will buy this "blessed" butter to use it in their homes), sweeping and cleaning the barley seeds that are put around the statues by the Tibetans in hope that next year they will have a good crop, gathering the offered money and putting them in locked box (they will be taken by the Chinese government, together with the ones resulted from selling the entry tickets), printing the scriptures by hand (the words spoken by the previous Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama, Gamen Lama) sewing new vestments for Buddha and the scriptures, making mandalas from colored sand, debating the scriptures (Sera Monastery). 

The young monk learns by himself and when he meets in the afternoon with the other ones - he has to answer some questions (or cautions, as Tsewang says). The one who answers sits on a pillow in the courtyard. The one who asks stands: holding the prayer beads in his right hand he starts asking the question, and by the end of it he slides the beads on his left arm, toward the shoulder, raises his left foot and his right arm, punctuating the question mark with slap of his hands and a stamp of his foot. This is to awaken the ones from hell. It the young monk's answer is correct, it will help the ones who are suffering.

There are main holy places: the houses and caves where different Lamas prayed and lived, the high places, the four salt water lakes and they are all a reason to do a kora, no matter how long it takes: an hour, a day, a week (Yamdrok Lake).
Tibetans celebrate their birthday on New Year's Eve (they have a lunar calendar). The child receives his name from the monastery's abbot or from a High Lama, a name that can be different from the parents'. Young people who want to start a family live together and after the first child is born they will have a religious ceremony of marriage and the baptism of their child (unfortunately they have a high divorce rate because of the arranged marriage and modernization). People past 80 years of age can wear white garments or sewn on their clothes the sign of the sun and the moon (a circle over a crescent) And when they die they have three types of burial: fire, water and sky. The first one is easy to understand. For the latter two it is the idea of returning in the nature, by giving back to living things: fish and vultures.

Life in the city
On the main street there are many stores, one next to each other: here is a traditional tailor shop, next to a restaurant, next to a pharmacy, to a butcher's shop with yak meat on the counter. On the side streets there are stands with fruits (apples and mandarines), wool, clothes, jewelry, footwear, food. From time to time you can hear Tibetan music. People are moving in every direction. The majority of women are dressed in a traditional way: a dark colored skirt ankle length, with an striped apron in front, and a short coat that closes on the right side, lined with lamb fur. On their head they can wear a headkerchief or the modern ones, a fedora (they are also wearing high-heels). All of them have long hair (plaited in two long braids or in a low bun).
The Amdo women (a region of Tibet) wear their hair braided in many thin braids that in the end are braided together and clipped with a jewelry. On their head, around their ears and their waist they wear their precious things: turquoise and agate big as river stones, sometimes set in silver. The Amdo married men have long hair braided with a cord that ends in a tassel (black or vivid red) that they arrange around their head and the tassel on the left side of the face. They wear a very long coat, tied around the hips with a scarf, with longer than arms sleeves, the right one hanging behind their back (the winter ones are lined with lamb fur, the summer ones have two sides). I saw an old man carrying a baby in that coat! The children (infants and older) are wrapped up in blankets and tied on the backs of their mother. When they worship at  the temple, they also lean on one side, so the child could touch with his forehead the holy objects. The ones who are walking, they behave themselves, they follow their parents example, have the same respect for religion, wait for the adult to give them their attention, to hold his hand. Holding hands is for every age and sex.

Between all the sallow faces you can see sometimes the round, white face of a Chinese, usually with an arrogant expression. Less than that a European face (it is winter time and low season). Frequently you can see military faces (young Chinese, some of them with their first mustache, looking all over the place to find the seeds of revolt), policemen and SWAT (they have women in their ranks). The former ones are mixing between pilgrims, interpose themselves between temple and the ones who prostrate (big no-no), talk with disdain to women, though their husband is present, forbidding standing. Only their presence and it creates tension!
The traffic is continuous, fluid, the rickshas ring their bell to let you know they are free, cars turn around in the middle of the intersection, motorcycles snake through, and the garbage car has a song: when people hear it they come with their waste bags, boxes, pails and empty them while it is rolling.

Life in the country side
Their homes are from rocks or adobe, rectangular, with two floors. On the first floor live the animals, whom with their being will heat the humans living quarters from above. In the middle there is a hearth or a stove, with the cooking vessels close by. Under the windows and all around the walls are benches covered with carpets, that in the night time are used as beds. In front of them are low tables made of painted (with floral or religious models) and lacquered wood, that are used as cupboards. At the one pane windows there are multicolored frames and drapes in electric colors. The ceiling is covered in various fabrics or nice quilts. 

The yard is surrounded by a tall wall on which they dry cakes made of dung and straw. They have different qualities: of yak, of cow, of sheep or goat. Once they are dry, they fall down and are deposited in an orderly fashion on the top of the wall. They are an efficient combustible, but it burns fast.
The shepherds walk and spin the washed and gilled wool that is woven as a wreath on their wrist. The spindle has a cross on the lower part around which they will spin the thread. The women walk from one hamlet to the other knitting. The weights are carried in a basket tied with a scarf across the shoulders. Transportation can be a cart pulled by a small horse or a donkey, but the majority have a motorcycle or a small tractor that pulls a tow.
The children learn to read and write with their families or with the monks. They learn through songs and repetition. We were in Old Tingri and we were going out to eat, when I heard a child voice singing. I looked up and saw a little girl, next to a pane-less window,  trying to take advantage of the last rays of sun. She was singing and following a text. Beside her, her mother was weaving at a loom.

As usual I admire the inventiveness of people who don't have much. The horse eats his grain in a cut out basketball. In the winter time they wash their clothes in a tire that has one side sealed up with an old tire tube.
Traditional food
Butter tea
You make black tea, put salt and butter, mix them in the blender, pour some more hot water or tea and serve. If you take a sip, they will refill it.
In a bowl mix some barley flour, a little sugar and butter tea and then mix with your pointing finger clockwise, until all the tea is absorbed. Then you keep your thumb on the outside of the bowl and mix with the other four fingers until you make a big clot named bac. You break a piece that you knead some more between your fingers, leaving their impression on it and then you eat it.
You can eat tsampa as a soup, adding some flour in the butter tea. It is nutritious and satiable.
Barley wine (chang)
It is served in little ewer with a long neck at room temperature. Before drinking Tibetans dip their middle finger in the glass and then, touching it with the thumb, they sprinkle for Dharma, Sakya (?) and Buddha. It is a light, perfumed and a little bit sweet wine.
It is a drink made of yogurt, mixed or not with a fruit (banana, apple, peach), some sugar and water. Very good!
What I liked
I liked Tsewang. A young woman with a talent for languages (beside English she understands punjabi, Nepali, Chinese - which she will officially study after we leave). She asked us to consider her as a relative, to ask for her help anytime, to ask any questions (and she added, because these are the rules, with the exception of political ones). This didn't stop her to answer with Tibet at Maria's question "Nevertheless, what country are we in?", to tell us not to take pictures of the military because they will confiscate the memory stick and that are signs of unrest in East Lhasa. She developed a relationship with the children, especially with Maria, played with them, made a cake for Ioan's birthday. The majority of information that I wrote is from her (and much more, religion related). Thuje chey, Tsewang! (pronounced thu-chee-chyeh)
I liked the traditional food, the Tibetans way of being calm, pondered, patient.
But maybe what I liked most was the trip through Tibet. The vistas were from postcards. Sunrise in the 5050m Pang-la pass, Yamdrok lake with its turquoise color, the heights with their prayer flags, the hamlets with their few people. 

The road to Everest has at least 5 checkpoints and on the hill it is written with stones Zhong Guo (China). But after you pass them and climb the hillock on which is a plaque "Mt. Qomolangma Base Camp  5200m" (in American - Everest Base Camp 17,060ft) and you see the snow blowing from the top of it thoughts choke you: of thanksgiving, God helped us; of joy, we are here; of relief, we survived the altitude and cold; of marvel of how beautiful things are; of pride, we brought here a little of Romania.
We leave on a different road, a Martian landscape: as long as you can see white round rocks scattered on sand and somewhere lost, a creek with frozen banks. We get out of the creek's bed and follow the road, up and down. A herd of wild goats starts running. Further on a hawk circles some yaks. We get away from the tallest mountain in the world for a few hours now and still we can see it at sunset. We stop for a last photo and say our good byes.
"Kha lee shoe Tibet! I'm leaving, Tibet!"
"Kha lee pay! I'm staying."

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Even Dogs Understand English

Are we in a different country? The children seem to think so, but don't ask the Chinese military and police which is well armed and guards every roof and every corner. We arrived in Tibet after more than 72 hours of not seeing any European or anybody who understands one word of English. I thought for a while of how deep the language difference is, even common sounds for pain or excitement have no similar meaning. The written language even less. But we found it funny, not frustrating, and we survived the days in Xining and the long train ride. What might have been one of the highlights of our trip around the world, was just a sorry excuse, the advertised shiny high speed train that makes the pride of China, was just a dirty, slow, loud, smelly, barely functioning concoction.
Advertisement for travel to Lhasa

The trip was made even harder by the lack of privacy and the suffering of two sick children. Ileana Ruxandra was just barely recovering and I was just starting to feel the beginning of my turn. The landscape was magnificent, but as Maria said "I watched the best of it for half an hour", theoretically there should be English announcements along the way describing the passing landmarks. There was none. The train stopped for one minute (instead of six) in a scheduled station, then for half an hour in the dessert just waiting for something. We made faces with three Tibetan children and admired the efforts of the Chinese conductor to keep the bathrooms working.
Arrived in Lhasa we were welcomed by our guide and Ileana had one first brush with the Chinese army, (they would't let her take pictures) hopefully the last one as we also learned pretty quick to ignore them. We all love our guide, it's a mandatory expense, there is no choice, but being a young, smart and funny Tibetan girl she would give us much more information and much more help then we would ever dream of. The fee for her services is $40 per day and it would be the same if she would spend every minute with us or none at all. We had a plan, suggested many months ago by an agency in Chengdu, everybody said that it is a good plan. Our 11 days here were to be spent half in Lhasa and half on the road to Nepal. After getting out for two minutes and watching five little elderly women holding hands crossing the street, I knew I wanted more. There are six worthy attractions in Lhasa, they can easily be done in three days. We cut one and did the other five one a day, took two days for recovery, and adding the arrival day, we ended up with eight days in Lhasa. We mutually agreed to speed up the trip to the border to make it in only four days. After the kids got through their sickness, I also took a day off to recover from mine. Lastly, Maria, who never gets sick (!), had a day under the weather and stayed home.

Lhasa and Tibet are sensitive and difficult subjects for travellers. We all know more or less about the issue, Americans might have heard of somebody called Dalai Lama and their president bowing and making nice to the Chinese, pretending to be strong and independent, but scheduling the visit of the Dalai Lama so it doesn't bother the Chinese "friends." Besides the pretence of independence of America, the events of 2008 when we all praised the Beijing Olympics while the Chinese army shot people in the street - what else do we know or should we know about Tibet?
Starting with the utopic story of Shangri-La, the Tibet holds a special attraction, being unique in its natural and cultural attractions. For a while there was even talk about the traveling community boycotting the Tibet, to protest the Chinese occupation, but I have no idea how much is this a present issue, and it was not a preoccupation for us as we think with our own minds.
I read a bit on different versions of history, arguments for an independent Tibet but also the Chinese version of their "liberation." I came here open minded and curious to discover what I can with my own eyes. I leave Lhasa with a clear personal conclusion that this is a different country, under occupation and probably in danger of disappearance.
People at Jokhang
On the second level of Jokhang Temple

Mandala at Sera Monastery
We chose to stay at Yak Hotel, on Beijing Boulevard, in the heart of the old Lhasa. Crossing the street, it only takes a minute to get to the Jokhang Temple and Barkhor plaza. Spending a few minutes in the street is overwhelming, it is a combination of overstimulation and altitude adjustment, so repeatedly over the first few days I got down, walked a bit and then returned to the peace and quietness of the hotel room. On Ioan's birthday we visited the Jokhang Temple, spent a lot of time there. It is phenomenal, the 1300 year old temple, with the empty chair of its ruler, "His Holiness", whose name or picture doesn't exist by China. The next day, I cancelled the program after returning tired and sick from the Nepalese Consulate. Then, one per day, we went to Sera Monastery, Potala Palace, Ganden Monastery and last, Drepung Monastery. They are all pillars of the Tibetan religion and repeatedly we could observe Tibetans exercising their beliefs, sometimes ignoring, almost walking over us, sometimes smiling and watching us curiously. At Sera Monastery, in the afternoon, we watched the monks debating. Potala Palace, now a museum of the Chinese cultural values and a World Heritage Site is another one of the most important monuments of humanity and supposedly one of the highlights of our trip around the world. As the winter palace of the Dalai Lama, it is an impressive construction, the children loved it but we were somewhat disappointed. We were lucky to have time, they fine people who stay more than an hour in the summer, but there are no tourists this time of the year. Even so, it was crowded with small, dark rooms. I did not understand why a seven year old kid who dies, being even a Dalai Lama, might need a coffin, called stupa, made of tons of gold and precious stones, especially while your people are clearly very poor, dying of hunger, constantly under threat of being occupied by the big neighbor. It made me feel a little more understanding toward Bonaparte, that French buffoon with a ridiculous sarcophage at Les Invalides. The next day, the Ganden Monastery was probably the best of all sites, mostly because we did a special kora circling the mountain. Drepung Monastery, without Maria, we saw the highlights of what used to be a 10,000 monk monastery before the "liberation." With the help of our guide, we learned about the different Buddhas, the 14 different Dalai Lamas, the different kings and Pancha Lamas, and we learned an amazing number of things about Tibetan beliefs.
Monks during debates at Sera Monastery
An evening visit in front of the Potala Palace
Approaching Ganden Monastery
During the kora of the Ganden Monastery, on the other side of the mountain
Approaching the end of the kora and getting into the Ganden Monastery
Next to Drepung Monastery

Of course, besides the religious sites, there is also the old commercial Lhasa with all the traditional commerce, and life here seems to be much like in any bazaar. The Chinese razed a big part of the old town, made a large, nice looking commercial street. Apparently, one reason was for the army to be able to intervene more efficiently, just in case. Ileana stood there and took some pictures, nobody bothered her, but she could see how the police or the army was picking on Tibetans to keep moving.

New modern commercial street
Walking just a few blocks, you get in the Chinese Lhasa, large clean boulevards, luxury stores, their people, looking and acting like the middle class Chinese of all the other cities. I have no idea who can shop in all these luxury stores, in my mind there is a planned discrimination, probably just trying to push out the old Tibetan commerce and bring in the rich Chinese.
I ended my time in Lhasa visiting alone the Tibet Museum, a couple of rooms in a huge building, a Chinese thing, obviously propaganda. I walked back to the hotel through the Chinese Lhasa, huge government buildings with soldiers guarding them, Chinese people in their own element and occasional Tibetans, lost in an unnatural decorum. I arrived in front of Potala Palace - there is a huge plaza, at the opposite end being the liberation monument. I barely took a look at it and I noted the irony, the pilgrims use the clean slates of rock for their prostrations, face to the palace, bottom toward the liberation monument. Some hip young Chinese use the monument as background for sexy pictures.

Police station being built near the Potala Palace
All over the place, Chinese military patrols. This year the main form of Tibetan protest has been self immolation, "successful" in at least eight cases, so now one of the guys in each patrol has a red hydrant, while the others have sticks or machine guns. In just a few days, I saw police stations popping up at several street corners. They were putting the walls one day, then caulking the windows, then next day they are functional with several policemen inside, next to the cage that holds 5-6 very young Chinese soldiers. I asked the guide why now, she thinks that something might be going on in East Lhasa and they are getting "ready." My first thought was that they just want the police inside for the winter, but again why now?
At Ganden, the road was in pretty good shape, but it was divided at the end, a horrible road toward the monks, littered with donkeys and stray dogs, and a perfectly good road leading to the police station, recently built above the monastery, after the events of 2008. Why do they need a police station in the middle of nowhere, on top of a mountain, with nobody around just some three hundred pitiful monks who chant all day, clean up yak butter and light candles? Why do they forbid the once a year 24 hour kora around the mountain of the Drepung Monastery? As always for the wrongdoer - the fear. And that obviously eats the victors as their victims keep going undisturbed and serene, mumbling their unending prayers. They don't care much about this life, they wait for their reincarnation and work toward their enlightenment.

How did I see the "natives"? They are certainly different then the Chinese, they look so, they dress differently, they act differently. Their religion and music, their language and writing, all come from India, nothing brings them close to China. Some are clearly on a mission, they are in Lhasa for the religious sites, doing their pilgrimage. Even the youth seems much less preoccupied by the typical youth themes. Even outside of the religious locations, people of all ages seem very religious, in a parallel world, until you catch their eyes and they start to smile. They are not really beautiful, maybe just a few of the children, they are small, short stature, slim, sometimes very, very dirty. Some are obviously very poor, but most of them seem to be just poor. Their best food might be just bad, but some dishes are plain horrible. They might be smart, but make no effort to show it. They might hold the universal truth, but at least in my impression, what they do with their lives doesn't really make sense. It is hard to understand their religion and it's manifestations. Why would people choose to prostrate all the way to Lhasa, sometimes for hundreds of miles? I would never be able to understand, but I could never imagine a harder thing for one human to do. But above everything, I felt that we were welcomed, their guests in their occupied land, they made us feel great and I think we are so lucky that we could meet a few of them. We are so thankful that we could be here. We were sick and tired, hungry and cold, but we were happy in Lhasa.

My random thoughts about Lhasa end here. Maybe we'll learn more about Tibet in the next four days, traveling to the Nepal border. So far, the same old story of the big power, conquering the little one, making up a story to justify their presence, rewriting history and then touching it up with arms, tons of propaganda and a rail line. Even if their version of history might be right, the Chinese don't belong in Tibet and they should go. But they will never go, just like the white people never left America, they put the Indians in reservations and now they let them run casinos, it seems that might be the future of the Tibetans, to provide entertainment and cultural diversity to the all mighty unstoppable Han Chinese. Is there anything left for the rest of us to do about this? A handful of visiting Russians, a family of Romanians, maybe a couple of Australians, unfortunately that is no hope. But at least in Lhasa, people watch Indian movies and try to speak English, even a dog understood and followed my directions when I asked her to join Ileana in a photo. 
With the dog that understands English

And in the last moments in our last room of the last monastery I had the impression that I might finally find the good side in the horrible smell of burned incense and yak butter. There is always hope.