I debated whether to call this post, A Dream Come True, and perhaps I should have. I had wanted to go to Tibet and visit Potala Palace for 25 years. In November last year, I finally boarded my flight to Tibet, I was beyond excited! Would it be all that I hoped it would be..?
Lhasa is located at over 3,600 metres and there is approx 40% less oxygen, so it is best to take it easy, and try not to get too excited ( I found this a bit tricky, haha). Altitude Sickness does not affect everyone, and there is no rhyme or reason as to who suffers and who does not. Symptoms include dizziness and a shortness of breath. Our group was made up of 15 people, with ages ran from early 30s, to early 80s. Some of the American travellers had some kind of medication with them to help them acclimatize.
The drive from the airport to the hotel took about an hour and everyone could feel the affects of the altitude to varying degrees. In each hotel room there was two cans of oxygen, some hotels have oxygen piped into the rooms.
What is important to note here is that not all symptoms are the same. Personally, I did not feel dizzy or particularly short of breath, but, my right hand turned a bluish grey colour and my feet went numb. I assumed (wrongly), that it would pass, so I lay on the bed for a while. A little while later I got up and found myself vomiting profusely and unable to stand up. The long and the short of it is that the doctor was called and I was taken to the clinic, put on a drip for a few hours and oxygen tanks until the next morning. The point of me telling you this is not to scare you, but to tell you that if you do go to Tibet, and you feel a little peculiar, do not dismiss it, tell someone asap and get the right treatment. Also, choose a hotel that has a complimentary oxygen lounge, I went there a few times each day and it really helped.
So, after all that drama, you will be pleased, or relieved to know that the next morning, although still feeling a bit fragile, I was feeling better, good job as we were going to Potala Palace in the afternoon. No way I was going to miss that!
Approaching the palace you find yourself walking side by side with pilgrims who have come from all over Tibet and beyond. Security measures are in place and Oxygen cans are confiscated (although you can collect them again later). There are over 400 steps to the top of Potala, although it feels like a lot more. The key is to pace yourself and stop regularly, this is not a race and no-one is keeping note of how fast, or slow you are going. Half way up there is an Oxygen stop, take advantage of it, put on the little "headset" (see photo below) it is definitely worth it. Even those not affected by the altitude sickness can benefit from a few minutes of pure oxygen.
Onwards and upwards..
It is permissable to take photos on the ascent, but not once you get inside the actual monastery itself, so forgive the limited photos.
As you climb, you are overtaken by toddlers, women carrying small children, elderly pilgrims, the young and the old, they all smile and nod. "Tashi Delai" they say, smiling and nodding. Just so that you know, the approproriate response is also "Tashi Delai", which only serves to make them smile all the more. Our guide tells me that it is a kind of greeting/blessing and even if you are shy, it is worth saying it in response, just to see the smile it causes.
Step, nod and smile, Tashi Delai; Step, nod and smile, Tashi Delai...
Through a doorway and you are almost at the top, a large open courtyard opens out infront of you, it is busy with tourists and pilgrims many of whom will be keen to take your photo. I made many new friends that day, this lady in particular, took many photos with me and laughed and laughed. It is a happy place at the roof of the world.
Leaving the courtyard to enter the monastery, no further photos will be allowed. At the very top I buy some prayer beads, just simple ones to remind me that I made it and my dream came true. I am already happy.
Inside the monastery it is dark, not totally, more dim perhaps. The monastery is lit with butter lamps, thousands of them and the smell can be a little, overwhelming, so it is a good idea to take a scarf to cover your nose from time to time.
As you move through the monastery, you pass monks in various rooms, some reading, some sleeping, and one was on his mobile phone. The pilgrims leave money, in all the rooms, there is money everywhere, so much so that you begin to wonder if it is actually just monopoly money (it isn't). The pilgrims give donations and stop to pray to numerous Buddhas and dieties.
I ask our guide if one of the monks might bless my new prayer beads, the first monk declines and tells us to try in the next room. Not expecting much, I was surprised to find that the next room was the holiest part of the monastery. Here one of the monks did indeed take my beads, he took them and place them of the highest altar in the monsatery and blessed them. I am blown away, this gesture has made my visit to Potala Palace one that I shall never forget.
As you progress through the monastery, you discover stone buddhass, gold buddhas, big ones, small ones, it is hard to take it all in and certainly impossible to remember who they all are. The room that touches me most though, is heavily draped in fabric, the walls, the ceilings, the pillars, it is where the monks congregate to pray. Rows upon rows of fabric draped benches, their deep reddish cloaks and saffron coloured headpieces are folded neatly on each bench. The monks file in, kneel and chant, every hair on my arms stands up, my skin tingles and it is one of the most incredible things I have ever experienced.
Descending from the Palace is easier, I guess going downhill always is, certainly does not seem so hard on the lungs. As with the ascent, the path is made up of large stones and the steps are not deep, so it is more of a gradual climb and descent, although in a few places the path is broken up.
Interestingly, some of the ladies in my group were in their 70s and they seemed to climb the endless flights of stairs like mountain goats! Like I said, there is no way to tell who will be struck down with altitude sickness and who won't.
At the bottom, we sit for a moment gazing up at where we have been, and watching some of the new arrivals turning the prayer wheels.
I sit quietly, smiling and contemplating what I have just experienced, I am supremely happy, but also a little sad to think that the Dalai Llama might never be able to return here.