Momos, Monks & Monasteries
A late breakfast in a restaurant just off the Barkhor was a great fusion of East and West, as a plate of steaming momo and a frothy cappuccino were delivered to my table in quick succession. The half-moon shaped momos, or Tibetan-style jiaozi, were crammed with meat, vegetables and ginger, and the perfect way to warm up after early morning exposure to the chilled Tibetan air. An attractive Tibetan waitress invited me to order some yak butter tea, and for a moment I was tempted by my newfound surroundings to take the culinary plunge. Recalling for an instant the taste of rancid cheese and old socks that had assaulted my taste buds on an earlier trip, however, I chose to decline.
No trip to Lhasa is complete with a tour of the supremely imposing Potala Palace. Perched on Marpo Ri (Red) Hill, 130 meters above the Lhasa valley, the huge red and white structure rises up a further 170 meters and is by far the greatest man-made edifice in the whole of Tibet. Originally intended as a wedding gift, the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo had the first Potala built for his new wife, the Tang Dynasty Princess Wencheng, in 614. Rebuilt after the 17 th century, the present PotalaPalace is divided into the Dalai Lama's living chambers, and those areas housing holy stupas and various Buddhist halls.
Climbing the steep steps to the Potala's main entrance, I felt the effects of altitude kick in for the first time. It was disconcerting to be overtaken by Tibetan mothers and kids, passing the wheezing foreigner with gracious smiles. Still, I told myself it was good practice for the intended ascent to Everest Base Camp later, and lingered longer than usual in photo-taking to catch my breath.
The interior of the Potala is a seemingly never-ending succession of dark, smoky rooms, each invariably home to one or more oversized golden Buddhas and giant, candle-lit cauldrons filled to the brim with molten yak butter. Greasy soot coats roof beams and stone floors, saturating everything with the stench of stale butter. Much like the British Museum in London, it is unfortunate that very few of the Potala's myriad treasures are viewable today. The tomb of the Fifth Dalai Lama, three storeys high, is made of a staggering 3,700kg of gold, and hints at the untold fortunes withheld from public scrutiny.
Another must-see in the Lhasa area is Drepung Monastery, formerly the largest in the world. Foolishly opting to save some money on a taxi ride, I was dropped off at the foot of Gambo Utse mountain after lunch, and found myself struggling to walk up the incline to the monastery entrance. Cursing my body and taxi driver at regular intervals, I eventually made it to the monastery complex, muscles burning and panting like an overweight bloodhound.
After several years hacking his way through London's PR and advertising jungle, and another couple of years in recuperative sabbatical in France and Korea, Daniel Allen's quest for a more Bohemian-styled life of art and journalism led him to the Chinese capital, Beijing.
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