A Month in Lhasa (拉薩的一個月) Sept 2020

The Potala Palace – the most visible landmark in Lhasa.

In early September, we arrived in Lhasa and ended up staying for over a month. My first impression of Lhasa when we were approaching the city was that it appeared bigger than what I thought and from a distance, the Potala Palace stood on a pedestal but looked way smaller than I anticipated. As we drove across the city to get to the other side where our guesthouse was, we saw it from afar and it looked more modern than I imagined with numerous newish looking apartment buildings scattered around the city.

We were at a new restaurant on 11/F and about 5 kilometres away from the city centre. From the balcony, we could see a lot of modern looking residential apartment buildings.
These cycling rickshaws are still a popular transportation for the locals.

Tibet has the lowest population density among all regions in China with an average of only two people per square kilometre and about 6.5 million people in total (less than Hong Kong). But Lhasa is another story as about 560,000 people live in the city without taking into account of the vast number of tourists. The main road in the city centre is very busy with cars, buses and many colourful cycle rickshaws jostling one another.

One of the numerous shops inside the old city selling Tibetan monks’ clothes.

On both sides of the road, there are rows and rows of uniform looking Tibetan brick houses of two to three storey high with shops and restaurants on the ground level. It’s interesting to see random butcher shops selling yak meat among restaurants, boutiques and shops selling household products, yak butters and various knick knacks. The sidewalks were often quite crowded.

We never got tired of walking around these delightful backstreets inside the old city.

We did not visit the Potala Palace (布達拉宮) until much later. We spent much time exploring the numerous alleys in the old city surrounding the famous Jokhang Temple (大眧寺) and Barkhor Square (八廓街). On the surface, the open area surrounding the temple looked quite touristy with many souvenir shops, guesthouses and restaurants. There are also some renovated historic government buildings open to visitors. But as we ventured further into the zig zag narrow streets and away from the hustle and bustle, we saw more of how the locals carried on their daily lives. There was often a familiar aroma of yak butter in the air, which permeated the alleyways as it is a staple food in Tibetan households for cooking and tea. Every so often we got a whiff of potato chips (chunky ones) that were fried outside the small shops – a common snack for the locals.

We stumbled into this charming guesthouse and all the walls are lined with bookcases of cultural and arts books.
A typical butcher selling yak and sheep meat. The sign says it is halal and slaughtered at designated places.

Strolling around in the city on foot is the best way to immerse ourselves in its vibrant and yet laid back atmosphere as we explored the labyrinth of backstreets lined with small restaurants, noodle shops and small shops of all kinds selling clothes, fruits, furniture, religious ceremonial supplies, etc.

A street stall keeper was taking a nap.
The front of the Jokhang Temple is one of the most popular spots for tourists to take pictures. It was a quiet day since it had passed the peak season.
The locals were circling the Jokhang Temple and they spinned a miniature prayer wheel and chanted the mantra simultaneously.

One is required to show identity card at checkpoints to enter many popular spots in Lhasa such as the Potala Palace (including the Potala Palace Square), Barkhor Square (八廓街) and Jokhang Temple (大眧寺). There is always a constant stream of locals and circling the perimeter of Jokhang Temple as a form of prayer. They complete their prayer (the number of circles) in odd number (minimum three rounds).

The Tibetan woman was turning the prayer wheels (clockwise direction) outside as she circled around the temple in clockwise manner. You can see the mantra is carved on the prayer wheels. 

Outside the famous Makye Ame Restaurant (瑪吉阿米餐吧) with Huang and his wife Fang Fang. We did not eat there as there was a queue of tourists. It is supposedly the secret rendezvous of the 6th Dalai Lama and his lover.
The skin on the forehead of this pilgrim was broken from the practice of religious prostrations and he used the wooden clogs to slide forward to do the prostrations and also to protect his hands.

We saw tourists (mostly females) dressed in colourful Tibetan costumes and posed at the designated popular spots – standing against a certain doorway or in front of the famous Makye Ame Restaurant where legend has it that the 6th Dalai Lama used to meet his lover (瑪吉阿米餐吧). This sort of photography is very popular in China. There are a number of such shops in the Barkhor Square where they offer integrated services of costumes, makeup and photography. To us, it seems like the most impersonal thing to do as everyone has the same makeup, the same pose and expression against similar backgrounds and sceneries that we can hardly differentiate one from another – as if they were copied from the same mould.

Everyday we took the bus to the city centre. All passengers were required to wear masks. Most people on the street also wore masks.

 

Soon we got into a nice routine – breakfast in our room (always oatmeal and fruit and shared with our lovebird Lavender who simply loves it) followed by play time with our furry children; then we headed to the city centre by bus (RMB1 per person) to have lunch; a leisure stroll followed by teatime in Tibetan teahouses or coffee shops where we read or I wrote the travelogues; then we either walked or took the bus back to our guesthouse to cook dinner; more playtime with our furry kids and movie time before going to bed. We treasured our routine as it gave us a sense of constancy amidst our continuous moving from place to place.

Occasional indulgence of the tasty claypot rice with preserved sausage and preserved pork belly. The best part is the crunchy crust at the bottom.

We sometimes went to the eastern part of Lhasa to have Cantonese lunch at a rather good restaurant well hidden in the residential area and we had dim sum and then walked back to the city centre. There is another Cantonese restaurant in the city centre and it soon became our favourite lunch place – we loved its fried vermicelli (炒米粉) and clay pot rice (煲仔飯). We were heartbroken when we saw that the restaurant had changed into a clothing shop after our Ngari trip. We thought it closed down but later the dim sum restaurant owner told us – that restaurant is only in business for about six months a year and closes when the peak season ends and sub-rents it out.

Happy dim sum time!

We try to maintain a healthy diet and always prepare our own breakfast and simple dinner at the guesthouse. We stick to plant-based cooking which means no meat and dairy when I cook. I also cut out oil as much as possible. It does not mean that it is tasteless and bland. I just get more creative with herbs and ingredients that I did not use before such as legumes. We occasionally had meat when eating out. So in a way, our lunches outside are the main source of oil intake.

Super friendly dog in the neighbourhood of our guesthouse. We looked forward to his affectionate hugs when we went out.
Lunched at a Tibetan restaurant. Here, they used a big clay teapot with a lit candle inside the bottom to keep the yak tea warm. We did not have much Tibetan food as it was a bit too spicy for us.

We treasure little moments or treats of joy and contentment in life – be it over a cup of coffee or Tibetan sweet tea; a delicious dim sum lunch; taking in the colourful array of fresh fruits and vegetables in the market; or just a brief encounter of an energetic and friendly little dog that could not stop wagging its tail. And we got plenty of that in Lhasa.

The locals were betting with tiny shells. The woman in bright orange uniform is a municipal street cleaner.

Due to the high altitude, pressure cooker is a must have in Tibet to cook rice and noodles. The dim sum restaurant owner told us that they cannot make certain dim sums like shrimp dumplings (蝦餃) as they are unable to properly prepare the dough due to the lower boiling point. Hence, the shrimp dumplings are prepared elsewhere and delivered to Lhasa.

We had furry visitors every now and then in the front yard of our guesthouse and we always put out dried cat food as a welcome gesture. 

The guesthouse we stayed at is about two kilometres away from the centre inside a quiet residential complex. It is so well hidden in one of the narrow alleys that it took us over half an hour to find it when we first arrived. The guesthouse has two floors and we stayed in one of the two only en-suite rooms. All the other rooms are shared and rented per bed basis and need to share bathrooms. Our room has huge windows, which looks into the front yard. We loved our quiet room as it felt homey with its basic but comfortable furniture.

Daisy and I basked in the warmth of the sunshine in our room.

The guesthouse is run by a young man Yexiao (葉宵) from the eastern coastal province Zhejiang (浙江) and has a lively atmosphere as all the guests are relatively young. Some of them rent long-term as they work in travel photography and videography, which is in high demand in the peak season.

A popular semi-outdoor cafe cum bookshop in the Barkhor Square and they had live music performance downstairs.

 

Daisy was very curious and one time we saw her sneaking into the front yard through the gap of the window. We kept the windows shut from then on to play safe.

We did not find our guesthouse via the usual accommodation app C-trip. Instead, Kin asked our young Cantonese friend Huanglicheng (黃利成) who lives in Lhasa if he has any connections as we were hoping to rent for a few weeks. Huang immediately contacted his friend who owns a guesthouse and through him, Kin was hooked up with a network of guesthouse owners. Quite a number of them contacted Kin and eventually we picked Yexiao’s guesthouse for the spacious room at a very reasonable price. As the Chinese proverb aptly says – always rely on friends when you are away from home. Our travelling so far has certainly been made easier and safer with the help of many friends and people we met on the road.

We brought two palm-sized dried abalones on the road (Kin bought ages ago and I did not want to leave it in storage). How lucky that we met our new chef friend A Feng (阿豐) and asked him to do the honour of cooking it.

The first two weeks in Lhasa, it was mostly sunny and hot (around 25 degrees Celsius) during the day. Just wearing a cotton top was enough. But we always brought a jacket and scarf with us as once the sun set, temperature dropped dramatically by 10 degrees or more. It also rained heavily consecutively at night and got quite cold. But the rain stopped after the first week and it was sunny the rest of the time we were there.

Tibetan tea time. There are many teahouses in Lhasa and we often enjoyed sweet tea and sat at the local teahouse for ages. We ordered a small flask which was more than enough for us.

 

The people sitting next to us brought their own cups to drink tea – they take their tea time very seriously indeed!

Around mid September, we took a four-day short trip with two friends Harmony and Catherine. The morning after we returned, I saw a young man in the front yard whom I had not met before. He seemed rather shy and we said hello to each other. I saw him again the next day and he asked if we were from Guangdong and we immediately switched to Cantonese channel. His name is A Feng (阿豐) and he used to run a very popular guesthouse in Lhasa. He had sold the business and now he only stays in Lhasa whenever he has to take tourists on private tours.

A Feng was very meticulous when choosing the ingredients and he said that it’s important to always sniff and touch the produce to ensure freshness.
Happy shopping. At the back, there is a digital sign saying “Prevent crowd and crowd control, win the epidemic”. There are many similar signages and posters all over China (especially last year) reminding people to take precautions including wearing masks, wash hands and maintain distance and no gatherings.

 

A Feng (阿豐) is very kind and gentle and he is a fantastic chef who had worked in five star hotels and big restaurants. The next two days, we spent a lot of time together and he cooked lunches and a sumptuous dinner. He took us to the wet market, which is oddly located very near the Potala Palace Square. We had so much fun as he taught us how to select various things like yams and sweet potatoes. Kin and I love going to local markets wherever we travel and exploring it with a chef is even better. Everything (especially food) in general is more expensive in Tibet as most things are delivered over long distances.

A Feng invited his guests and us to a big dinner before we all set off to Ngari the day after. The young people work together in IT and they were still working hard right till before their Ngari expedition.
(from top right clockwise) Pork feet soup (which is not oily and super tasty and creamy; it’s time consuming to prepare), fried rice noodles, sliced fish in spicy and sour stew, fried vegetables and stuffed and fried beancurds, steamed yams.

We had a lovely time with A Feng and exchanged our personal stories and experiences. He was very curious about the current affairs happening outside China and it was a wonderful opportunity for us to hear his take on various topics despite our different backgrounds. A Feng is smart and yet he is humble and kept telling us how he appreciated talking to us and learning so much from us. We kept in contact during our Ngari trip as he took the young people on a two-week private tour to Ngari as well. But he already left Lhasa by the time we returned to the city. We hope to see him again when we are in Guangdong again.

We met with Kin’s colleague Feng Ling (鳳玲) and her husband and had such a great day together.

Kin’s colleague Feng Ling (鳳玲) and her husband did a three-week driving trip with their friends to drive from Guangzhou to Xinjiang. Their final destination was Lhasa where they booked a delivery service to return their car back to Guangzhou. More and more people use this kind of service to make the best of their holidays and they can fly home without the need to drive back. It was wonderful to see them and we spent almost a day together. We walked around the old city, had sweet tea and our happy time ended with a delicious Tibetan stone pot chicken (石鍋雞) dinner. The hotpot restaurant is quite famous and we got there before 6pm and just in time to get one of the last tables. Before long, we saw a queue outside.

Lovely reunion and delicious dinner.
Inside the Potala Palace Square (布達拉宮廣場) and Daisy looked a little cautious.

 

We also took our van to the Iveco customer service shop to fix our rear window. We had a minor accident a while ago before we entered Tibet. We got into a narrow street and when Kin tried to reverse, he did not see the lamppost. It was too late by the time I warned him. Luckily there was no serious damage except the glass of the left rear window was shattered. The owner of the guesthouse we stayed recommended a repair shop nearby but unfortunately the shop was unable to order the glass. We taped over the damaged window and decided to fix it when we got to Lhasa.

A chic vegan cafe and bakery in one of the alleys of the old city. There are a few stylish bars and restaurants nearby.

Our car dealer in Guangzhou, Mr. Chen has been very helpful ever since we bought our van. He is our go-to person for any issues with our van including insurance renewal and what to do when we have technical problems and accidents. He helped us a lot – he estimated the repair cost and suggested that a local repair shop could fix such a minor damage and only go to the CS shop if the local one could not do it. He also gave us the Iveco hotline number.

Lhasa at night.
Local shop selling all kinds of religious vessels and instruments.

When we found out the window could not be fixed locally, Kin immediately contacted Iveco (after he verified the number via internet to play safe). We were amazed by how efficient their service was – the new glass panel was ordered within a day and Kin paid via Wechat (RMB200 for the glass panel, about RMB200 for labour plus RMB100 for delivery) and was told that the glass would be delivered from Nanjing (南京) to Lhasa around seven days.

This teahouse near our guesthouse was always busy in the afternoon. At weekends, it got busy from morning onward.
Jokhang Temple under full moon.
We only took a photo outside the Tibet University as they did not allow visitors.

Kin told the CS shop that we would not arrive in Lhasa at least a few weeks later as we were travelling at such a slow speed. The funny thing was that since we had a known address in Lhasa, we started sending numerous packages we ordered on-line to the CS shop and we did not collect them until about six weeks later. I often joked with Kin that the CS shop must be wondering if we would ever come to pick up the goods. We have been very happy with our Iveco van and from this minor incident, we learned how incredibly efficient things can be in China.

The Potala Palace looked even more impressive at night.

After being were well rested from our one-month Ngari (阿里) trip, we finally visited the Potala Palace (布達拉宮). By then, it was free of charge as all entrance fees of tourist spots were waived from mid October. We still had to book on-line to fix the visit time slot. We had a quick lunch nearby and walked to the front entrance where we presented our booking QR codes. We saw the Treasure House on the ground level where many religious artefacts were on display. After about 15 minutes, the caretaker told us to leave to make way for the next batch of tourists.

Then we climbed the mighty steps that seemed never-ending to get to the unassuming portico into the Potala Palace. Even though we had well adjusted to high altitude, it was still daunting to climb those stairs. I could not imagine doing it within a few days upon arriving Lhasa. I saw a young woman slumped against her boyfriend’s leg with her face all pale and she was clearly suffering. Even the locals were breathless by the time they reached the first level of the palace. We definitely made a smart choice not to visit it so hastily.

Ever so impressed by the Potala Palace while dreading all the steps leading to its entrance.

The modern Potala Palace was built by the 5th Dalai Lama. It was the seat of government and the winter palace from 1649 to 1959 before being turned into a museum. It is named after Mount Potalaka and its interior took 45 years to complete. There are 13 storeys with over 1,000 rooms but only a limited number of them on the second and third storeys are open to visitors.

As we entered the first level of Potala Palace, we continued to climb more winding staircase to reach the central part, which is called the “red palace” for its crimson exterior. We got to the principal hall and a series of rooms of the past Dalai Lamas. Then we passed the richly decorated golden shrines of the Dalai Lamas and various chapels until we walked back down to the other side of the palace. Tibetan Buddhism focuses on the circle of life and also hell to remind people to be good and conduct good deeds. There is a small chapel devoted to hell in which all the paintings and carvings depict the image of hell.  

Behind me are the ancient Tibetan scriptures inside the ceiling high cabinets.

As we came out of the palace, we could see the lake which is a relatively new addition and attracts many locals and tourists.

As it had already passed the peak season, there were more locals paying respects to the Dalai Lamas than tourists. Although I am not religious, I was moved by the imposing ambience inside the palace and I felt greatly exhilarated when I emerged from the dark interior of the chapels and rooms to see the whole of Lhasa at my feet with clear blue sky and gentle breeze.

Huang’s wife Fang Fang is very cheerful and energetic.

We saw our friend Huanglicheng (黃利成) and his wife again after we returned from the Ngari trip. We visited the former Dalai Lama’s summer residence Norbulingka (羅布林卡). It is now the back garden of Lhasa and a favourite place for the locals to picnic and spend a leisurely afternoon. Afterwards, we took them to a Nepalese restaurant that we loved and they were surprised by how tasty the food was.

The atmosphere of the former Dalai Lama’s summer residence Norbulingka (羅布林卡) is more relaxed than the Potala Palace and beautiful with lots of trees and open space.

Autumn leaves turning yellow and so charming under the warm sunshine.
Kin and I loved this Nepalese restaurant and we decided to bring Huang and Fang Fang here for dinner.
Masala tea and Nepalese Shapale – a kind of deep fried mince beef pie. Even though we seldom eat meat, we could not resist this heavenly dish – juicy texture with lots of spices inside and crispy on the outside.

The following Saturday, Huang invited us to have hotpot at their home. Their apartment is on the outskirt of the city and it is an unfurnished apartment with no flooring and only the kitchen and bathroom are fitted out. It is common in China and is called Qingshuifang (清水房) which means bare unit. It is very spacious with three rooms and they share it with another friend.

Lots of washing and cutting to prepare our hotpot.
So nice to be having hotpot with new friends. It would not be possible without the pot and Ikea induction stove we brought over though haha!
I made a huge Japanese egg roll with the new egg roll pan that Kin bought on-line.

Huang took us to the wholesale fresh produce market to buy all the ingredients and he also made a tasty soup his mother taught him. We ended up having a hotpot marathon from 3pm till late evening and only took a short break for our stomachs to settle. We ate so much and were so happy to have such a cosy dinner gathering with friends.

This huge wholesale food market is near Huang’s home. It supplies all the food markets and stores in Lhasa.

As winter was approaching, we finally decided to leave Lhasa. On the morning of 12 November, Kin took the heavy luggage to the van first and drove nearer to our guesthouse. Just when I was carrying the last two bags to our van, I noticed it looked different from a distance. When I got to the side of the van, I saw the back side door was bent inward with an angular hole gaping at me and Kin was nowhere in sight. When he appeared (after checking the truck he bumped into was fine with hardly a scratch), I asked him what happened even though I sort of guessed that he must had bumped into something when he tried to turn round the corner as the passageways inside the complex were pretty narrow and packed with vehicles.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the damage on our van and of course it happened just when we wanted to leave the city!

I was very calm about the whole incident (secretly I was quite happy to remain where we were as I had developed quite an attachment to Lhasa) while Kin took pictures of the damage and followed up with Mr. Chen, our car dealer and helpful friend. I called the guesthouse owner him and said that we needed to stay one more day. I asked him if he knows any car service shop and he gave me a contact number. Kin also got another contact from our friend Huang and we compared quotes.

Repair in progress.

Within two hours, repair was underway at the service shop recommended by Huang’s Tibetan friend. We stayed at the shop for about an hour and were mesmerized by how the guy skillfully pumped the concaved metal back to the original shape inch by inch. We returned the following afternoon and found our van in perfect form. We could not see any traces of what happened to our poor van (and it only cost us RMB1400). Yet again, it shows how crucially important to have the generous support of friends in times of need.

The young mechanic (standing on Kin’s right side) did a fantastic job and made our battered van almost brand new again in just one day.

We always think on the positive side and consider these minor incidents as good opportunities for us to learn how to solve problems and be flexible. We also learn more about how things work in various places. So we were all set and finally waved sad goodbye to Lhasa and drove northward and headed towards Qinghai (青海).

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