A Hundred Thousand Images in Tibet

Gyangtse is the archetypal Tibetan town. With its population of around ten thousand it used to be the country’s third largest town but has now been overtaken by ten larger cities. Largely overshadowed by its bigger neighbours, Gyangtse still retains something of the feel of old times with its traditional architecture, its stunning location and its friendly locals.

We installed ourselves in a hotel which was vast and has clearly been used to hosting official party congresses. Its large dimensions were, however, tempered by some of the most exquisite modern murals and decorations I have seen.

Next morning we took a quick look around the market of this mainly agricultural town.

We then walked along what is popularly known as ‘cow street’ because of the number of these quadrupeds tethered outside the characteristic flat-roofed (because there’s little snow that falls in Tibet) houses. The buildings were full of exquisite details.

Dominating the town was the dzong or fortress, a landmark in the infamous Francis Younghusband expedition to Tibet of 1903-4 which not only was the first time a English person entered the forbidden city of Lhasa but also turned out to be a large-scale invasion with negative consequences for Anglo-Tibetan relationships. The fact was that British Army Gatling guns were a highly unequal match against Tibetan ancient flintlocks. Statistics vary but in one encounter, reckoned to be the highest altitude battle ever fought by the British army, five thousand Tibetan army personnel (largely monks) were killed with just five British casualties.

Sir Francis Younghusband afterwards sorely regretted his aggressive approach which was frankly a political one involved in the ‘Great Game’ where the British and Russian Empires thought that each other had designs on the vast and largely unexplored expanses of central Asia and even India itself! (This story forms the background of Rudyard Kipling’s masterpiece ‘Kim’ –a must-read book and one of my favourites). From Younghusband’s early explorations, which took him to all parts of the Chinese subcontinent, through the shameful Tibetan expedition, to his last years as a spiritualist writer of such books as Life in the Stars, The Light of Experience, Dawn in India and The Living Universe we have someone who personifies both the best and worst of the British explorer-imperialist.

But does it really require an unnecessary slaughter of Tibetan monks to see the Divine Light, develop faith in cosmic rays and believe that on our earth there are extra-terrestrials with transparent flesh hailing from the planet Altair?

The highlight of Gyangtse, however, is not the fort, which is dedicated to the Tibetan and Chinese martyrs of those early twentieth century years, but the ‘Kumbum’, or one hundred thousand images – an astonishing, perhaps the most astonishing, building in Tibet. The Pelkhor Choede (to give it its proper Tibetan name) is a chorten, or shrine, housing an accretion of statues of the Buddha and his acolytes and avatars and built in the shape of a three-dimensional architectural mandala. I only wish I had a drone with me to take pictures of this wonderful building from above so that its complex intersections of circle within the square, so characteristic of Mandalas, could be seen.


The Kumbum dates back to 1427 when it was commissioned by a Gyangtse prince and was an important Buddhist centre. There are nine mandala-like levels with 108 (that auspicious Buddhist number again) chapels

Exploring the nine levels of the Kumbum is a real adventure as one climbs up towards the top (just a ladder at that stage) where the statue of the supreme Buddha (Shakyamuni) is kept. Each floor comprises little chapels with avenging and defending deities and the walls are covered with those one hundred thousand murals, probably the finest in the whole of Tibet, fortunately saved from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and best viewed with a flash light (which we stupidly forgot to bring….)

No photos, however, can capture the wonder of this building and its treasures.

The Palcho monastery where the Kumbum is placed is equally worth a visit with its lines of prayer wheels and its large assembly hall. It’s a pity that the number of monks here are just a fraction of what they used to be.

I could have spent days in Gyangtse – perhaps hiring a bike to visit the surrounding country which is delightfully rural. Certainly I had to be dragged away from the Kumbum – the magic of that building had me in raptures. For once the significance of Mandalas encapsulated me for I was actually inside one as I rose higher and higher to the top and enjoyed a wonderful view of the landscape looked over by the final statue of Shakyamuni, the Supreme Buddha.

Sadly too, the Kumbum marked the last stop of our travels in Tibet. From now on we would be homeward bound….







The Ride of a Lifetime

Our journey to Gyangtse took us along a branch of the famous ‘Friendship Highway’ which joins Lhasa with Kathmandu. This has to be one of the world’s most spectacular roads and I only wish I was doing it on a motorbike (I’ve done many of the big alpine passes, the Stelvio, the Gavia and the Col d’Iseran and feel that riding on two-wheels is truly the best way to appreciate these incredible vistas. You do become part of the landscape when biking).

However, we did have frequent stops on our little bus and enjoyed the rarefied mountain air and breath-taking views to the full.

The actual road is 920 kilometres long and reaches heights of above 5000 metres (well over 16,000 feet). It was built in the nineteen sixties to cut the journey time between Nepal and Tibet from almost two months to just a handful of days. Very often it is closed sometimes due to political reasons but largely because of landslides.


The first part of our journey took us past some rocks with ladders painted on them.What was the meaning of them I wondered? The best version I heard was as follows: the ladders are painted to represent a divine bond between Tibetans and the Gods. These are spiritual ladders which allow one’s spirit to ascend to the heights more easily or, alternatively allow the Gods to descend upon the earth and sanctify it with their blessing.

On our journey to Gyangtse we crossed three mountain passes. The first one was Gampa La pass, height 15,748 feet, which is a little less than thirty feet lower than Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc (15,777 feet high).

An extraordinary sight greeted us from the top of this pass, so richly decorated with prayer flags. It was the view of one of Tibet’s’ four sacred lakes, Yamdrok-So. (The other three sacred lakes are Lhamo La-tso, Namtso and Manasarovar).

The intensity of the lake’s turquoise colour pitted against the highly sculptural barrenness of the mountains surrounding it and with a distant view of a snow-capped peak was stunning.

The lake is over forty-five miles long and twists and turns like an undisciplined snake across quasi-lunar landscape. It’s sacred to the Tibetans as it is regarded as the transformation of the goddess Dorje Gegkyi Tso.

For lakes, like mountains, are sanctified by Tibetans as they are the abodes of protecting gods. We were not just driving through some of the most spectacular scenery we’d ever come across, reaching heights we’ve never attempted before on Earth but we were also performing a pilgrimage which so many Tibetans undertake. Yamdrok-So is the largest lake in south Tibet and it’s said that if its waters run dry then Tibet will no longer be a habitable area – a severe warning indeed!

The lake also has associations with Padmadambhava, the second Buddha, who introduced Buddhism to Tibet. We did not have time to detour to Samding monastery which was a real pity as it’s the only male Tibetan monastery to be headed by a female incarnation – a Dalai Lamaess, in fact. I couldn’t verify this as I couldn’t verify that the monastery has been rebuilt since it was one of the thousands destroyed during the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

If you’re interested in more of the history of Tibetan Goddess reincarnations then there’s a book by Hildegard Diemberger (2007) called When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty: The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet. You can get it on Kindle at https://www.amazon.co.uk/When-Woman-Becomes-Religious-Dynasty-ebook/dp/B0092X8WHE/re . Definitely a Christmas book for some!

The lake has good fishing and I noticed quite a few yaks grazing on its shores. Yaks are happy at these altitudes. It would be very cruel to bring them lower down.

Our second pass, the Karo La, was the highest at 16,551 feet. It passes the foot of Noijin Kangsang mountain with its glacier. We stopped here too and looked at the local stalls filled with trinkets set up by villagers .

There was an outstation here and I can definitely vouch that the toilets here are not to be highly recommended.


However, we should be grateful for small mercies. With the lack of trees it’s difficult to find any sort of privacy. Perhaps women travellers should wear long Tibetan skirts to do their business by crouching without embarrassment.

Noijin Kangsang is 23,641 feet high and was first climbed in 1986 by a Chinese expedition. I realised it was this snow-capped mountain that we saw from a distance over the turquoise waters of lake Yamdrok-So. I’ve heard that it’s not too difficult to climb so it could be an economic way of grabbing a Himalayan peak for the first time. Next visit?

You’ll notice from the photographs that Tibet seems largely barren. The mountains aren’t prettily dotted with extensive forests as the Alps or the Apennines are. There are few opportunities for refuge from sun or the rare snowfalls and strangely the snow line only seems to start above 20,000 feet. If you want pretty mountain landscape go to the Austrian Alps. If you prefer powerful natural sculptures and vast areas of impressively desolate purity then Tibet is the place.

There was a third pass to negotiate at only just over 14,000 feet before we descended to follow the fertile Nyang Chu valley which would lead us to Gyangtse.

This was truly a breath-taking ride in all senses of that word. ‘Mozzafiato’ as one would say in Italian. I have only praise for the driver of our little bus!



Heated Debates at Sera Monastery, Tibet

In the afternoon of our second full day in Lhasa we visited the same monastery which Don Ippolito Desideri, the Jesuit from Pistoia mentioned in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/11/27/a-morning-in-lhasa/ , stayed at back at the start of the eighteenth century and, indeed, where he was given his own chapel by the chief Lama to practise his devotions.

Sera is one of Tibet’s three great teaching monastic universities, the other two being Drepung and Ganden (which we did not visit) and is situated on the slopes of Wangput mountain a little outside Lhasa at a height of 13,000 feet. The mountain slopes also contain nineteen hermitages where those monks seeking greater seclusion towards their search for enlightenment may stay, and four nunneries too.  (It should be stated that Tibetan nuns, recognised by their very short hair, have played a leading role in the Tibetan resistance movement.)

The word ‘Sera’ in Tibetan means wild rose and, indeed, the site is still surrounded by wild roses. The original monastery was founded by Jamchen Chojey of the great Gelugpa (yellow hat) order in 1419 and houses a little over five hundred monks.

As sadly with so many other monasteries in Tibet Sera suffered grievously during the Cultural Revolution with widespread destruction of its colleges and an untold number of monks (ranging into the hundreds) slaughtered.

As a result of this massacre many monks fled south into India and established a parallel Sera monastery at Bylakuppe near Mysore. This Sera mark-two monastery houses around six thousand monks, nearly six times the number at the original site in Tibet. I must visit it next time I’m in the sub-continent.

Fortunately there is little visual evidence of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution at Sera, Tibet. We found the monastery a very serene place filled with happy pilgrims and monks. The buildings looked very well cared for and intact and there was some work taking place to replace the drainage system in parts. I do feel the Chinese want to draw a curtain, as much as the rest of us, over what was going on in Tibet during those critical years between 1966 and 1976.

Sera has some fine buildings including a large assembly hall but it is particularly famous for two things.

First, is its fine collection of wood blocks used for printing books. In the workshop I was able to obtain a copy of that masterpiece of Tibetan literature, the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan Book of the Dead. To have my copy of it from Sera monastic University was indeed tremendous. All I’ve got to do now is to learn Tibetan (although I do have the Evans-Wentz translation.)

(My copy of the Bardo Thodol – liberation through hearing – from Sera Monastery)

Second, is the monastic university’s debate sessions. We were in time for the afternoon one and came across yet another of those extraordinary sights one encounters in the mountain kingdom. In the debating courtyard I noticed around a hundred pairs of monks, one sitting meekly on the ground the other striding around him and outstretching both hands clapping them and wildly twirling his auspicious rosary of 108 beads.

What did all this noise and kafuffle mean I wondered? Translation please!

Actually, each pair of monks represents a question-and-answer session. The standing monk or teacher questions the sitting monk or pupil. The arm gestures and clappings signify the beginning and the end of each question. If the teacher is annoyed by the student he circles around him (clockwise of course) three times.

If anyone thought of Sera debates as something on the lines of the Oxford Union then think again. The ‘debate’ is, in fact, a religious quiz. Questions are generally closed ones by nature of the replies the novice is allowed to give and the subjects could relate to the relationship between Dharma and Karma, the nature of Samsara, truths about a Bodhisattva, even if a yak can be enlightened, the four noble truths established by Gautama etc, etc. I do wish more could have been explained to me about the questions asked but they are all on doctrinal matters.

Afterwards I discovered that the Tibetan argument takes two forms to defeat wrong ideas and clarify understanding. The first type of argument proposed by a teacher is that of a syllogism made up of a thesis and a reason stated together in one sentence. The second is that of a consequence, similar to a syllogism but an expansion of the pupil’s answer.

Let’s try to give a ‘western’ example:

Listening to Beethoven’s fifth symphony is a transient experience because the sound starts and then after just over half-an-hour it stops. It is thus a product. The minor premise is that music is impermanent because it is a product of instruments starting and ending to play.

The major premise is that all products are transient. Everything (and everyone) has a birth and a death. It follows from the major premise, too, that sound is transient

The pupil can thus answer in one of at least three ways at the premises launched to him by the teacher.

(1) “The reason is not established,” = denying a minor premise;

(2) “There is no pervasion,” = denying the major premise;

(3) “I accept it,” = accepting the argument and the conclusion.

They then may have to take the ‘consequence’.

The session did look and sound an odd way to question novices on their knowledge of the Dharma and Buddhist doctrinal matters. I would have been truly scared to be a novice at Sera! It was, however, fascinating to watch. But when I thought of the debate as a combat sport, spiritual rather than physical, it began to make more sense to me.

Two main rules had to be observed by those non-monastic spectators attending the debate: one was to keep silent – this was pretty easy as nothing could be heard above the general discussion mayhem; the other was that photos could only be taken using a cell phone. I think this second rule was a desperate one since it’s quite rare to find a Chinese or even a Tibetan person without one of these items of technology in their hands (that includes monks as well) and it just seems natural to take a picture of this astonishing event…


Actually, this system of debate, or ‘closed dialectic’ as I’d rather prefer to term it, goes back a long way. It originated in India several thousands of years ago and apparently there was a similar thing going on among the Greek philosophical schools.

Developing one’s awareness of the ultimate Truth and opening the doors of perception is indeed a systematic ritual. Whether, to outsiders, the ritual looks like the next thing to a pub argument is irrelevant for behind it all there are strict rules of procedure which both the teacher and pupil must observe.

Incidentally, the system continues in Italian schools where oral examinations are as important as written ones and certainly in other religions although the rules of engagement may differ. I suppose in England the dreaded interview is the closest one gets to it.

The word ‘argument’ also needs clarification. In English ‘to have an argument’ is usually taken to mean having an often rough disagreement between two (or more) persons. One can also use the word in the context ‘My argument for the existence of the yeti is etc.’ Argument or ‘argomento’ in Italian means something quite different than its usual English use, ‘L’argomento dell’Opera è’ means ‘the ‘plot of the opera is’ – argomento is never used in the context of a rough exchange as in English. It generally means a discussion or ‘point’.

Certainly the debating sessions, for which Sera is particularly famous, seemed to me to draw a fine line between ‘litigare’ and ‘discutere’. I’m sure, however, that the novices, quickly learnt where they went wrong! Everyone, anyway, left on good terms.

Sera Monastery has a big festival called Sera Bengqin on the 27th day of the 12th month of the Tibetan calendar (which is around February). It’s one of the coldest parts of the year but I’m sure that the crowds of pilgrims will do much to warm one up.

It was great to see something of the monks’ daily routine at Sera but we were raring to see more of the country outside Lhasa. Our wish was to be satisfied, for next day we would be travelling through some of the most spectacular country I’ve ever seen and surmount three mountain passes, two of which would approach 17,000 feet in height.

Potala Palace

Everyone’s got their own list of ten buildings they want to see in their lifetime. My own particular ten (which do change from time to time!) are the following

  1. The Pyramids (and the Sphinx)
  2. Petra, Jordan
  3. Angkor Wat
  4. Potala
  5. Avebury (not Stonehenge which you can’t even get close to)
  6. Chartres Cathedral
  7. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
  8. Taj Mahal
  9. Musikverein, Vienna
  10. Cracow main square.

Note that I haven’t mentioned anything in Italy. Since that country contains seventy percent of the world’s heritage sites I think it would be a little unfair to include anything from it!

I’m glad to remark that I can now die happily since all ten on my list have now been seen, the most recent being the Potala palace of Lhasa which I visited earlier this month as part of our journey to Tibet.

We waited for our second day before visiting this wondrous palace since it does include a lot of steps to reach the top and it does require a couple of days to get used to strolling about at twelve thousand feet above sea level on just two thirds of the oxygen supply you’re normally used to breathing back home. We didn’t suffer any undue effects since I’d been suggested a Chinese medicine which worked wonders (or was it the placebo effect?).

Despite the fact that the Potala has been somewhat isolated from the rest of Lhasa, with the demolition of an old village in front of it and the construction of a grand ceremonial square, this magnificent palace still dominates the city like no other building possibly could. Its massive, but strangely gracious shape, looms ever in the background like a beautiful white and red dragon, supinely resting on the hill after which it is named.

Seeing the Potala for the first time is surely one of the noblest sights that can be seen in one’s lifetime.

The visit arrangement was complicated: permissions, passports, daily visitor quota numbers, timed tickets and just one hour to see the palace (although I’m sure we spent rather more than that) were happily arranged for us beforehand. Otherwise, it can be like wanting to see Leonardo’s ‘last supper’ in Milan without booking weeks ahead.

Be prepared for a lot of sometimes steep and irregular steps. Any effort, however, was whisked away from me by the sheer beauty and grandeur of what I was approaching – the sheer otherworldly nature and exoticism of this former seat of religious and temporal power in the mountain kingdom.

People say that the Potala is now just a lifeless museum because its rightful inhabitant, the Dalai Lama, has been in exile for almost sixty years. That’s true and not true, for the Tibetans treat the palace like a shrine and leave their offerings in terms of yak butter candles and little banknotes everywhere and there is a religious quietness about the whole environment.

We were so lucky not only with the weather – the white-washed walls (which were being repainted by a bevy of women at the time) stood out brilliantly against a true blue sky of cerulean intensity – but with the fact that we weren’t besieged by too many other tourists, mostly Chinese. We never felt ‘overcrowded’.

No photographs are allowed in the interior although one can take as many as one likes from the outside. There is, however, a very good illustrated album one can purchase to show the amazing treasures of the thousand odd rooms which the palace encloses. You could also see the film ‘Kundun’ I’d mentioned in a previous post since much of it was shot inside the palace.

Here are a few facts about the UNESCO world heritage Potala. Its two colours divide its main areas: the white part is where the living quarters of the Dalai Lama were housed; the red part is dedicated to religious shrines and chapels, The hill on which the palace is built is called Mount Potalaka and is the abode of Avalokitesvara, a Bodhisattva (i.e. a person who attains Moksha or liberation not for his own sake but for that of all humankind, putting his fellow beings’ liberation above his own).

The present building dates from 1646 although it is, of course built on a much earlier and smaller palace. Its dimensions are around one thousand three hundred feet long and one thousand one hundred feet wide. Its sloping walls are over ten feet thick. And its thirteen floors rise to a height of almost four hundred feet. Its top is one thousand feet above Lhasa street level.

I was very, very moved by my visit to the Potala with its sudden transitions of darkness and light, its unexpected confrontation with both compassionate and war-like divinities, its thangkas, its still existing living quarters of the fourteenth Dalai lama, its amazing views from the upper windows, its variety of steps, ladders: the surprising changes of level left me with an impression that I had entered into a fantasy-world-dream. For all it mattered I could have stood on a different planet in a parallel solar system.

I would rank my visit to the Potala as one of the greatest visits to any building anywhere in the world and I am so glad that my ten great buildings to see have now been concluded. I’m sure, of course that readers will say ‘but you must add this…and this… to the list.’ Ok then, Madurai Meenakshmi temple here I come (again)…

Let these photographs tell some of the rest of that unforgettable second morning in Lhasa’s Potala palace:

Lhasa’s Summer Palace

In the afternoon of our first full day in Lhasa we visited Norbulingka. This was the Dalai Lama’s summer palace and was largely built between 1755 and 1783 by the seventh Dalai Lama. The name translates as ‘jeweled park’ and, indeed, the palace, which actually consists of various large pavilions, is placed in a very beautiful park not too far from the Potala, or winter palace. Like the Jokhang and the Potala, Norbulingka is a UNESCO World heritage site.

Sadly, it was from the south gate of this palace complex that the present 14th Dalai Lama had to make his escape from Tibet in 1959 when he realized he would otherwise end his life as a prisoner of the Beijing government.

Unfortunately, like so much else in Tibet, Norbulingka and its park was damaged during the first years of the Cultural Revolution but since 2003 it has been in phase of restoration and we found the park and palace a great delight after the morning’s hustle and bustle in the Barkhor. Families were out enjoying the wonderful sunshine of Lhasa and there were many picnic places.

Again, however, we were too late to see two things: the full splendour of the flowers in the park and the Sho Dun Festival which is held in the middle of August. It’s also known as the Yoghurt festival since the monks are offered yoghurt in an event which includes dancing and pageants.

Here is a photograph of the festival as it was in 1993:


We did, however, see aspects of a film they were shooting using the palace as a backdrop. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the film set but took one of some of the extras who were patiently waiting for their next entrance into the scenario. I wonder what the name of the film was.

Of course, Chinese films can be absolutely spectacular and riveting. I’ll never forget the first time I saw ‘Crouching Tiger, Creeping dragon.’ Unlike the decaying situation in the west there are on average twenty new cinemas being opened in China every week and a multimillion dollar ‘cinema ‘city’ has just been approved for construction. At the same time, some films like ‘Gundun’ and ‘the Last Emperor’ made from a western point of view are still controversial items under China’s strict political and cultural censorship laws.

For me the most fascinating and moving part of Norbulingka was the new palace pavilion built for the present Dalai Llama between 1954 and 1956. It’s sad to think that His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso spent just three years here but everything has been kept or restored exactly as it was when he lived here. Among the Dalai Lama’s tutors was Heinrich Harrer (mentioned in my previous post) who introduced the young lad to western influences and did much to ease his isolation and somewhat formal existence. It was incredible to see the Philips wind-up record player mentioned in ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ and other items including a Russian radio. The walls of the ‘new’ palace are beautifully decorated with over three hundred paintings illustrating history of Tibet and the whole complex is built in a wonderfully traditional Tibetan style.

I am so glad that the whole Norbulingka is being restored to its former splendour. Fortunately, the ancient skills still exist for such works to be carried out. I only wish that one day the present Dalai Lama could be allowed to visit the place where he grew up and recognise that it still retains an enormous importance not only for the Tibetans but now for the Chinese themselves. After all, it is part of the extraordinary history of a country and we all know that an Orwellian deletion or re-writing of history means the death-knell of any civilization and its people.

A Morning in Lhasa

I realised I would not expect to see the Lhasa depicted in old black-and-white films. I had prepared myself for a city, which counted just around ten thousand inhabitants in 1950 and which had now evolved into a large metropolis of over half a million people, largely modern Chinese in aspect, with skyscrapers and wide avenues.

Landing at the airport this is what seemed to be the case. Would I ever taste even the minutest flavour of a Lhasa, whose name means ‘Home of the Gods’, I’d read about in old travellers’ tales and, especially something of the city  people like Heinrich Harrer had spent seven years in? (Incidentally Harrer only died in 2006 and spent the rest of his life fighting for Tibetan rights. There’s a museum dedicated to him in Hüttenberg, Austria – definitely a must-see when I’m next in that country).

The skyscrapers around the new railway station which, also in 2006, has linked Lhasa to the Chinese railway network, prognosticated my anxiety that I would come across a thoroughly different Lhasa: a Lhasa where half of the inhabitants would be Han Chinese and where the last thread of isolation from the outside world would be broken in 2020 when a rail-link will connect it to Kathmandu through the world’s longest tunnel, under Mount Everest itself.

These fears were there with me and one should always be prepared for them but Lhasa still turned out to be an unmissable place – a city of incredible history, of astonishing life and, underlying it all a sense of deep-seated Tibetan faith and ancient values which are so strongly embedded in the psyche of these wonderful people that it would take a very long time to eradicate them. With inner sadness I would encourage anyone to visit Lhasa for it remains one of the most unforgettable places you are ever likely to stay upon this planet.

I’d come across Tibetan hints while still in Italy. There was the Tibetan bridge at Vagli di Sotto (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/10/10/a-tibetan-bridge-in-the-garfagnana/) and only after visiting the lovely city of Pistoia between Florence at Lucca had I realised that the first western traveller to arrive at Lhasa was Ippolito Desideri, born in Pistoia in 1684, trained as a Jesuit missionary and reaching the ‘Home of the Gods’ after a perilous journey lasting months, in 1716. Moreover, there are several Tibetan monasteries in Italy – a positive result of the forced diaspora of so much of the country’s population after the 1959 invasion. A friend of mine recently told me he’d first met the Dalai Lama at Pomaia, near Pisa. (See the post at https://lamiatoscanaitaly.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/pomaia-the-little-tibet-of-tuscany/ )

The wonderful thing about Desideri was that he was entranced by Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and tried to reconcile his own strict Roman Catholic beliefs with them. Desideri was given his own chapel at Sera monastic university (more on that later since it is one of the three great Tibetan monasteries we subsequently visited). The ruler of Lhasa at that time was Lhasang Khan who gave Ippolito full permission to teach Christianity and encouraged him to learn Tibetan.


How wonderful for a Jesuit to be able to debate with the Buddhist monks of Sera way back in the early eighteenth century and learn their particular mode of dialectic! How amazing to find Desideri compiling the first ever Tibetan grammar for the western world. How pioneering of him to study Tibetan culture for the first time and produce a book called ‘Notizie Istoriche del Tibet’ which described Tibetan customs and culture as he found them during his stay there. Incredibly, this book was not rediscovered in the Jesuit archives until the end of the nineteenth century and was only translated into English as recently as 2010.

My wife was also particularly intrigued by her name-sake: an amazing French woman Alexandra David-Néel, explorer, writer esoterist, opera-singer, spiritualist and anarchist who died in 1969 aged one hundred. Alexandra reached Lhasa under cover in 1924. But that’s another story to write about…..


(Alexandra David-Néel)

There is still a frisson in reaching Lhasa even today when special permits have to be issued and where, regrettably, one is under frequent observation by the authorities. However, it’s really worth it and our first morning in Lhasa beat all expectations and provided us with one of the most remarkable travel experiences of our lives.

There is still a part of Lhasa which is thoroughly Tibetan in feel and that is the district of Barkhor, an area of alleys, crowds of pilgrims and many interesting shops. In the centre of Barkhor is Tibet’s most sacred shrine, the Jokhang, which contains the statue of Jowo Shakyamuni, sculpted by artist Vishvakarman under the celestial guidance of the God Indra (c.f. so many Catholic statues crafted under Godly guidance e.g. Florence’s basilica della Santissima Annunziata and Lucca’s Volto Santo). The statue represents the Buddha aged twelve and was brought to this city by Chinese princess Wencheng Kongjo as dowry when she married the Tibetan King Songsten Gampo around 600 A.D.

The temple itself is a wonderful place to explore (although photography is discouraged, indeed, almost impossible, since the press of pilgrims, the smoke from the Yak-butter candles and the general mystic darkness of the interior is quite overwhelming). However, anyone who has been into the Jokhang in the morning will understand the impossibility of describing the atmosphere of intense devotion present there. I think I only got near this atmosphere when visiting the monastery of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland. The force of devotion is almost frightening: truly the fear of God is palpable. Just looking at Jowo Shakyamuni’s face filled me with transcendent feelings that seemed to reach the confines of astral planes. It was truly overwhelming.


I also think that since in Lhasa there’s just 68% of the oxygen you breathe at sea level that must have something to do with how I felt!

Here are some photos we were able to take of the Jokhang temple. Do note the omnipresence of the Chinese state even in this most sacred place for Tibetans. The red flag flies everywhere and one must go through more than one check-point to reach the sanctum sanctorum.

The Jokhang is associated with two kora or pilgrim routes. One is within the temple and the other is outside the temple and circumambulates the Barkhor district. Here are some photos we took of the external route. You’ll also spot that there’s a mosque en route. Muslims like Christians have lived in peaceful co-existence with Tibetan Buddhists for over a thousand years. Oh I wish it were so for so many other parts of this massacred world we live in. Note also the prayer flags, the juniper incense raised from the four great braziers which line the Kora and the prostrations of the pilgrims who come here from all parts of Tibet.

Somehow we did find the true Lhasa that morning; our hotel the ‘Kyichu’ was beautifully placed centrally so we could forget the modern city and immerse ourselves into something which those historical travelers must have felt when they first entered the ‘forbidden’ city: forbidden because it used to be so difficult to get to…forbidden because there are still so many unsolved mysteries to be unraveled in Lhasa.






A ‘mini-Potala’ at Ganden Sumtsenling

Sometimes called the ‘little Potala’, Ganden Sumtsenling is within easy reach of Zhongdian and is situated at a little over eleven thousand feet in height.

First we passed through further typical rural landscapes in this area. Note the dzo (a cross between a cow and a yak) and the frames put up to dry the hay,

Thanks to our gradual ascent we didn’t suffer from altitude sickness which, if acute, can lead to death. The last thing anyone should do is to get to Tibet in one day from near sea-level. Of course, AMS can affect some people more than others. Perhaps living in an Italian village already close to two thousand feet in height can help a little.

My first sight of Sumtsenling monastery was quite awesome: the gilded bronze roofs shone in the true blue sky and behind, the pre-Himalayas framed a stunning view. Sumtsenling is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan and also its most important centre of religious excellence.

Dating back to seventeenth century and founded by the great fifth Dalai Lama (credited with the unification of Tibet) Sumtsenling forms part of the yellow hat sect of the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa order. (But please don’t mention the present fourteenth Dalai Lama’s name publicly, together with the island of Taiwan if you find yourself in that part of the world…).

Unfortunately, this majestic monastery which once housed two thousand monks, suffered damaged during the now largely discredited cultural revolution of the 1960’s and was actually bombed. It was restored in 1983 and is now home to around seven hundred monks.

It’s free to photograph the exterior of the monastery but one has to pay ten Yuen (a bit over a pound sterling) to take snaps of individual chapels and interior shrines. This can amount to quite a bit, and since no flash can be used, and the interiors can be very dark, there’s little point in paying. Moreover, it seems to me that no photographs can truly capture the extraordinary atmosphere of these monasteries; you just have to go and experience them yourself for, as yet, no virtual reality experience can encapsulate any particle of their arcane ether.

Sumtsenling’s greatest interior treasure is the almost thirty foot tall statue of Shakyamuni, the original Buddha, also known as Gautama or Siddhartha (remember Hesse’s novel?) whose teaching form the basis of Buddhism, and who lived around 500 BC.

Many years ago I was privileged to visit the deer park at Sarnath, India, where the Buddha received Moksha or enlightenment after 49 days of mediation and the age of thirty-five, truly a Dantean ‘Midway the path of life that men pursue’. These photos have been digitised from the colour slides I took there when I was still in my teens.

I always find it strange that in a Hindu-based civilization Buddhism did not immediately take root in India (although Buddha is considered one of the ten avatars, or earthly incarnations, of Vishnu in Hindu belief).

In case you are fully aware of the features of western monasteries but are unsure of what makes up a Tibetan Buddhist one here are its main features. (You can see them all in our photos above). They are arranged, almost campus-like, around an often walled area and are not necessarily interconnected like western ones are:

  1. An often elaborate entrance portal
  2. A steep flight of steps up to the main chapel where an image of the Buddha is kept with permanently lit candles made from yak butter in front of it.
  3. An assembly hall where the monks gather for lessons and the recitation of the scriptures.
  4. Chapels where idols of different aspects of the Buddha and previous lamas are kept.
  5. Murals illustrating stories from the scriptures on the inner walls of the chapels.
  6. A library of manuscripts, many of which are written on palm leaves and stamped with wooden blocks.
  7. Dormitories for the monks
  8. Prayer wheels arranged around a Kora (pilgrimage route – always perform it clockwise please!).
  9. Gardens and agricultural outbuildings.
  10. A shop selling books and religious items.

It’s a pity that we weren’t in time for the monastery’s biggest festival at the end of November. Called Gedong it’s where religious mask dances are performed, including the Cham which impersonates  the battle between forces of good and evil in the form of animals, gods and ghosts. However, we were glad enough to visit this impressive monastery and were glad that its sacred nature and the ancient religious rites of the monks are now being rather more respected than in previous decades.

Our last evening in Shangri-la was spent attending a spectacular show at the local theatre illustrating traditional stories from the area,. It was clearly a touristic honey-pot but the standard of presentation was high.

We should have taken the plane to Lhasa from Diqing Shangri-La airport but no direct flights were available so instead we took a flight to Kunming over increasingly impressive mountain ranges.

Kunming, itself would have been a fascinating place to visit but we were limited to admiring its Changshui airport built by that impressive American architectural partnership Skidmore, Owings & Merrill who have also built the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (height 2722 feet). I loved the waving support structure of this airport terminal. Yes, even airport buildings can have their fascination – if you can forget Heathrow, that is!

From Kunming we flew to our main destination in our adventure – Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and one of the highest cities truly placed on the world’s roof. From the aircraft cabin porthole I could see the landscape becoming ever more arid. Truly Tibet is the roof of the world but it is also a rain-shadow area and in large part a kind of high-altitude desert, a sort of moonscape, in fact.

Finally, the Eastern China airlines touched down on the Gonggar airport serving Lhasa and a new phase of our travels began.



How to Live Well in Yunnan

Some of the farmhouses in Yunnan would shame even the finer ones in our own little area. We were able to visit the farmhouse of a family in Shangri-La province and were bowled over by its grace and magnificence.

A Tibetan-Yunnan province farmhouse consists of an ample two or three storied building with the animals generally kept on the ground floor, a large courtyard which is high-walled in with an entrance portal  and some smaller buildings built on each side of the courtyard.

The dimensions of the main house are truly vast and the decoration is simply miraculous. Just the wood used to frame the house comes from mammoth-girthed pines. The beams and windows are particularly intricately carved.

In summer the main house is used to accomodate up to four generations sleeping around a fire whose smoke leaps up through a hole in the ceiling in a mediaeval style reminding me of the arrangement at Penshurst place in southern England. In winter the smaller rooms on the sides of the inner courtyard are used to house the occupants because it’s easier to keep them warm.


The furniture, cupboards and chests of the large mansion, a sort of piano nobile, are elaborately carved and beautifully painted. I have never seen such wonderful rural carvings before except perhaps in Nepal.

The floor planking is something to die for…


It seems that, like the Tyrol, wood-carving is an activity that happily passes away the long winter nights and is also used to represent the prestige and standing of a family. At the very least, it shows just how much people in this area delight in objects of beauty and elegance.

The latest trend is to enclose the inner courtyard with a huge conservatory-like structure. This means that the area can keep warm even in the minus 15 centigrade temperatures of winter and, with the use of solar panels (which are truly expanding investment now in an ever more-eco conscious China); life becomes ever more comfortable in an area which has always been noted for its extreme climatic conditions. I’m not too sure whether these super-conservatories enhance the nobility of these houses but they certainly help conserve heat.

In every case we were treated with true courtesy during our visit.

Swine before Pearls?

On our first full day at Zhongdian (AKA Shangri-La) we took a journey in the surrounding environs to visit Gyalthang Ringha monastery, a sweet little temple with a multiplicity of prayer flags surrounding it.

Since prayer flags are such a universal item in Tibetan, Nepalese and Mongolian culture it may be useful to say something about them here.

Prayer flags are largely hung up at temple and mountain passes and their main purpose is to bless the countryside around them. Their use predates Buddhism and is associated with the primeval Bon religion.

Prayer flags are usually printed with wood blocks and their different colours relate to aspects of the universe.  The colours, arranged from left to right, are blue, symbolising sky and space, white standing for air and wind, red representing fire, green standing for water and yellow denoting the earth. These are the five universal elements, or pure lights, of life itself.  In Tibetan alchemy it’s the balance of the five elements which produce health and harmony in one.

But what’s written on the flags themselves? There are prayers and mantras transmitted by the gods or devas containing important formulae to protect one against the demons or asuras which permeate our universe. Truly our lives are a battle between good and evil – such is the nature of the primal force which creates and destroys the universe – the arcane dialectic between life and death.

Prayer flags also assist the souls of the dead to reach the sphere of the gods. Indeed, on many of them there’s a horse galloping in an upward direction which symbolises carrying the spirits of the dead, Pegasus-like, to the higher regions and escape from the relentless wheel of samsara or reincarnation.


This quadruped is called a wind-horse or ’lung ta’ (strong horse). It bears three jewels on its back representing represent the Buddha, the Dharma (or divine law) and the Sangha (or Buddhist community). If you are suffering bad luck then hanging a prayer flag with a lung ta can change your bad times to good fortune. It’s truly worth trying, I’m sure. Just hanging up a prayer flag will bless you with good fortune. (Incidentally, the animals on the corner of a prayer flag are known as the four dignities and they are the dragon, the garuda – or heavenly  eagle -, the tiger and the snow lion).

As prayer flags fade they become part of the universe and add their little quota of peace and accord to the cosmos.

I often think how different the significant of flags are between those in the part of the world we were visiting and which stand for peace, and those in the west which so often represent nationalism and all the partitions of humankind that that word brings – war and devastation. Nothing could be further apart than the evil black flags carried by terrorist groups and the harmonious colours of the Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the high places of a country which so singly has sought those things which are really of the highest matter to us – reconciliation, amity and divine love.

There is so much to learn about Tibetan Buddhism and I have just scratched the surface. Imagine what it must be like for a protestant (or indeed someone of any other religious persuasion) to enter into a Catholic shrine and try to make sense of it all. It’s because religion is itself a metaphor for all those aims that we would ideally wish life to be and metaphor is itself dependent on the environment which surrounds one, whether it be high snowy mountains, vast rocky deserts, icy expanses, infinite oceans or impenetrable forests.

Anyway, to get back to more earthly concerns. During our visit the Gyaltang Ringha monastery had also inmates which were not strictly admitted to it. Some pigs had wandered into its confines, perhaps to seek more earthly nourishment. We helped one of the monks to let the swine out in the surrounding woods where I’m sure they’d find plenty of food to scavenge for.

Like the monks and our adorable Tibetan guide, Anna, we burnt pine incense needles in one of the big braziers as an offering to the gods :

Gyalthang Ringha was an unassuming temple monastery but one which was little-known and largely free from sight-seers. It was truly a place to fill one’s ambiance with serenity and joy. We felt very happy there….