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  American Autumn Shishapangma Expedition 2005: The Jokhang and Sera Monastery

Sunset on Shishapangma from Base Camp


Today was our first full day in Lhasa. We have one more full day, then off in the trucks to Shigatse.


We had breakfast in the frigid (45-degree) dining room. Good training, I guess. Having totally struck out on gear, Monty arranged with Nima (head of the CTMA) to get three 200m spools of fixed line and was given 14 pickets to use. We were planning on buying this stuff here, but there is absolutely no gear to be had that we can find.


We went with our driver (name I can't pronounce) and our cultural guide, Mima, to the Jokhang, the most holy shrine in all of Tibet. It is cold in the morning, but the days warm up to near 80 degrees F, and the sun is piercingly brilliant with a few white fluffy clouds.


The Jokhang was very busy today, well over a thousand pilgrims circumambulating the shrine clockwise, some prostrating themselves three times before taking another three steps. We went inside, and to my great disappointment could not take photos, nor could we see any of the chapels, as they were stuffed full of pilgrims. Mima took us on a private tour, avoiding the main lines, and did a good job of explaining in mostly-understandable English the significance of the rooms and chapels.


The main meeting hall contains a large gold gilt statue of the future buddha, and long rows of low cushions where the prayer meetings of the monks are held. It is impossible to convey this experience, only photos and a few words will give you an impression.


The overall feeling is one of an ancient place, full of tradition and spirituality. It is fairly dark, with the warm yello glow of yak butter lamps in various locations. To rip a hole in this serenity are several fluorescent lamps, a concession to visibility, I guess.


The Jokhang was built in the 7th century, and it feels that old. Many areas of the floor are black and greasy with yak butter offerings.  Quite a few pilgrims carry around a plastic thermos of yak butter, and pour a bit at each shrine. Many have prayer wheels that they spin constantly when they murmer prayers. Some are dressed in a traditional braids, with red scarves oven into their hair, and colorful skirts. The pilgrims are all ages, from the very old to the very young.


Monks are in attendance with their crimson robes doing various chores, filling lamps, helping pilgrims, counting bowlfuls of offerings. There is a general closeness and a bit of push-and-shove, but all are patient and appear deep in thought.


We leave very much too soon. We told Val we would be out in a half an hour, not sure why. Meeting her on the roof, we took in the stunning views of the Barkhor Square and the huge, regal Potala Palace on the high hillside. It draws the eye like no other.


After this we look for stuff to buy at the hundreds of booths lining all

the small alleys. One standout place was a Tibetan Crafts center, with stunning hand-painted buddha scenes in various aspects, jade carvings of many characters, some very good statues, and lots of turquoise jewelry, which is favored by the Tibetans. We spent quite awhile here and afterward buying things, while my tripmates were hungry and endured my shopping. I would not be back after the climb like they would, and needed to make use of the time.


Finally we were starving, after a not-so-quick stop at the Bank of China to change money, and a quick stop back at the Mountaineering Center to retrieve passports, Val headed out on her own and the rest of us went to the Sera Monastery. Val had seen the monastery yesterday. She had rented a bike to go there, which apparently turned out to be an interesting experience in itself.


Another amazing place, the Sera Monastery is one of the pre-eminent monasteries in the Gelupga sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the most influential sect. Here we can take photos, except in one chapel. Not as many pilgrims here, so we have some time to take in all the statues and ambiance of the place.


There is a large meeting room with a medium-sized (maybe 20 feet high) gold buddha, and the small shrine rooms are arranged around the edge of this main room. Here we can go pretty much wherever we like, and we all explore the rooms and alleyways, spinning some brass prayer wheels, then after much of this, see the question session by the monks.


This is a very animated thing, where one monk, standing, throws a question at another one (seated), and simultaneously loudly slaps his hand. If the answer is wrong, the standing monk rubs his hands one way. If it is right, he asks another. Frequently there is room for discussion, and they engage in animated conversation. There are tourists all over here snapping photos, probably 100 monks were in this area. Quite a sight.


Up on the hills above the monastery are many granite boulders. There are quite a few of these that have various pictures of buddhas and deities painted on them, as well as the "om" mantra carved in rock and painted. This was a hard place to leave, but the sun was taking its toll and we headed back for a bit of a rest.


Tomorrow we will tour the Potala Palace.




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