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2.110559 - CHINESE MUSICAL JOURNEY (A) - TIBET: A Cultural Tour with Traditional Chinese Music (NTSC)
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Tibet – A Cultural Tour with Traditional Chinese Music


1. Potala Palace

As Lhasa’s principal landmark, Potala Palace is one of the great wonders of world architecture. Located on a small hill about 2,000 metres northwest of Lhasa proper, Potala Palace is a structure of massive proportions and an awe-inspiring place to visit.

Potala Palace lies dormant like a huge museum. Marpo Ri, the 130 metre high Red Hill, which commands a view of all Lhasa, was the site of King Songtsen Gampo’s palace in the mid-seventh century, long before the construction of the present-day Potala Palace. There is little to indicate what this palace looked like in the past, but it is clear that royal precedent was a major factor in the fifth Dalai Lama’s choice of this site when he decided to move the seat of his Gelugpa government here from Drepung Monastery.

Potala Palace consists of the White Palace and the Red Palace. Work began first on the White Palace in 1645. The nine-storey structure was completed three years later, and in 1649 the fifth Dalai Lama moved from Drepung Monastery to his new residence. The circumstances surrounding the construction of the larger Red Palace, however, are subject to some dispute. It is agreed that the fifth Dalai Lama died in 1682 and that his death was concealed until the completion of the Red Palace twelve years later. There are two different versions in some other accounts, but in any event, the death of the fifth Dalai Lama was not announced until he was put to rest in the newly completed Red Palace.

There are numerous elements of historical heritage and cultural relics inside Potala Palace, such as the famous rock paintings. In the west wing of the assembly hall on the ground floor is one of the highlights of the Potala, the awe-inspiring Chapel of the Dalai Lamas’ Tombs. The hall is dominated by the huge 12.6 metres high chorten of the great fifth Dalai Lama, gilded with some 3,700 kg of gold. Flanking it are two smaller chortens containing the tenth and twelfth Dalai Lamas, who both died as children. Richly embossed, the chortens represent the concentrated wealth of an entire nation. One of the precious stones is a pearl said to have been discovered in an elephant’s brain and thus, in a wonderful piece of understatement, “considered a rarity”. Eight other chortens represent the eight major events in the life of the Buddha.

A morning visit to Potala Palace can easily be combined with a circuit of the Potala Palace kora and an afternoon excursion to some of the temples nearby. The pilgrim path that encircles the foot of Potala Palace makes a pleasant walk before or after a visit to the main building.


2. Lhasa River

Lhasa River in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China originates from the southern foot of Mount Nyenchen Tanglha, passes Lhasa City, and flows into the Brahmaputra River in Qu Shui County. The lower reaches of Lhasa River open out to become the major farmland of Tibet.

Also called Ji Qu in Tibetan, Lhasa River is one of the five major tributaries of the Brahmaputra River, covering a drainage area of 32,471 square kilometres with a length of 551 kilometres. It makes up 13.5% of the drainage area of the Brahmaputra River, ranking first among its five tributaries.

As the mother river of Lhasa City, Lhasa River contributes a great deal to the development of Lhasa City. The river is popular with people in Lhasa City, who drive or walk to its banks or the valley in crowds for leisure on weekends or holidays. There they pitch tents, go fishing or bathing, drink buttered tea, and eat different delicacies brought from home, enjoying the bright sunshine.

The Lhasa River Bridge and Qing Zang Railway all cross Lhasa River. The five-star hotel Lhasa River Grand Hotel is a good choice for visitors from different places.


3. Jokhang Temple

Jokhang Temple, also known as the Tsuglhakhang in Tibetan, is the most revered religious structure in Tibet. Thick with the smell of yak butter, echoing with the murmur of mantras and bustling with awed pilgrims, the Jokhang is an unrivalled Tibetan experience to all visitors.

It is estimated that Jokhang Temple was founded in 647AD. Construction was initiated by King Songtsen Gampo to house an image of Mikyoba (Akshobhya) brought to Tibet as part of the dowry of his Nepali wife, Princess Bhrikuti. At the same time the Ramoche Temple was constructed to house another Buddha image, Jowo Sakyamuni, brought to Tibet by his Chinese wife, Princess Wencheng. It is thought that after King Songtsen Gampo died, Jowo Sakyamuni was moved from the Ramoche Temple for its protection and hidden in the Jokhang by Princess Wencheng. The image has remained in Jokhang Temple ever since, and it is the most revered image of Buddha in all of Tibet.

Over the centuries Jokhang Temple has undergone many renovations, but the basic lay-out is ancient and differs from that of many other Tibetan religious structures. One important difference is the east-west orientation of the building.

Just inside the entrance to Jokhang Temple are statues of the Four Guardian Kings, two on either side. Beyond this is the main assembly hall, a paved courtyard that is open to the elements. During festivals, the hall is often the place of ceremonies.

The inner prayer hall of Jokhang Temple houses the most important statues and chapels, as well as extraordinary Tibetan religious art treasures. Tibetan pilgrims go round the central area of statuary in a clockwise direction. There are generally long queues for the holiest chapels, particularly the Chapel of Jowo Sakyamuni. Pilgrims rub the doorways, touch their heads to revered statues, throw seeds as offerings and pour molten yak butter into the heat of a thousand prayer lamps. It is easier to view the most popular chapels immediately after the temple opens or just before it closes around noon. The complex is open in the afternoon but many chapels are closed then.

The inner prayer hall of Jokhang Temple houses the most important statues and chapels, as well as extraordinary Tibetan religious art treasures. Tibetan pilgrims go round the central area of statuary in a clockwise direction. There are generally long queues for the holiest chapels, particularly the Chapel of Jowo Sakyamuni. Pilgrims rub the doorways, touch their heads to revered statues, throw seeds as offerings and pour molten yak butter into the heat of a thousand prayer lamps. It is easier to view the most popular chapels immediately after the temple opens or just before it closes around noon. The complex is open in the afternoon but many chapels are closed then.


4. Drak Yerpa Hermitage

For tourists who are very interested in Tibetan Buddhism, Drak Yerpa Hermitage, about 16 kilometres north-east of Lhasa, is one of the holiest cave retreats worth visiting. King Songtsen Gampo’s Tibetan wife established the first of Yerpa’s chapels, and King Songtsen Gampo also meditated in a cave there.

The peaceful site offers lovely views and offers a good day trip from Lhasa. Every morning, when pilgrims and visitors come to Drak Yerpa Hermitage in groups, the hill at the base of the cave-dotted cliffs will be filled with the smell of yak butter and the murmur of mantras. Every afternoon, when they gradually leave this retreat, Drak Yerpa Hermitage returns to its original peacefulness and serenity. Day after day the place remains imbued with sanctity.


5. Sera Monastery

Sera Monastery is about 5 kilometres north of central Lhasa. As one of Lhasa’s six great Gelugpa monasteries, Sera Monastery once had a monastic population of around five thousand monks at its peak.

Sera Monastery was founded in 1419 by Sakya Yeshe, a disciple of Tsongkhapa, also known by the honorific title Jamchen Choje. The Main Assembly Hall, Sera Me College, Sera Je College, and Sera Ngagpa College constitute the main buildings of the monastery.

The main assembly hall is the largest of Sera’s buildings and dates back to 1710. The central hall is particularly impressive and is noted for its wall-length thangkas and two-storey statue of Jampa. There are also important statues such as the figure of Sakya Yeshe, the founder of Sera and the highly revered statue of a thousand-armed Chenresi.

Sera Me College dates back to the original founding of the monastery. It specialises in the fundamental precepts of Buddhism. The central image of the impressive main hall is a copper Sakyamuni.

Sera Je College is the largest of Sera’s colleges. Built in 1435, it has a breathtaking main hall, hung with thangkas and lit by shafts of light from high windows. Several chortens hold the remains of Sera’s most famous lamas. This college specialises in the instruction of itinerant monks from outside central Tibet.

To the north-east of Sera Je College is Sera’s debating courtyard. There is usually debating practice here from around 3pm to 5pm on weekdays, which provides a distinctive welcome relief from gazing at Buddhist iconography.

A Tantric college, Ngagpa is also the oldest structure at Sera. The main hall is dominated by a statue of Sakya Yeshe, surrounded by statues of other famous Sera Lamas.


6. Namtso Lake

Namtso Lake is the second-largest salt-water lake in China and one of the most beautiful natural sights in Tibet. Approximately 240 kilometres north-west of Lhasa, it is over 70 kilometres long, reaches a width of 30 kilometres and is 35 metres in depth at its deepest point. When ice melts in late April, Namtso Lake becomes a miraculous shade of turquoise and there are gorgeous views of the nearby mountains. The wide open spaces, dotted with the tents of local drokpas (nomads), are intoxicating.

The Nyenchen Tanglha (Tangula) range, with peaks of more than 7,000 metres, towers over the lake to the south, which has an altitude of 4,718 metres. It is safer for visitors not to travel here until they have been in Lhasa for at least a week. It is not unusual for visitors to get altitude sickness on an overnight stay at the lake.

Most travellers head for Tashi Do Monastery, situated on a hammerhead of land that juts out into the south-eastern corner of Namtso Lake. Here at the foot of two wedge-shaped hills are a couple of small chapels with views back across the clear turquoise waters to the huge snowy Nyenchen Tanglha massif which is 7,111 metres high.

There are some fine walks in this area. If time allows, it is worth walking to the top of the larger of the two hills. There are superb views to the north-east of the Tanglha range, which marks the border between Tibet and Qinghai.


7. Ganden Monastery

Ganden Monastery, 50 kilometres north-east of Lhasa, was the first Gelugpa monastery and has been the main seat of this major Buddhist order ever since. If there is only time for one monastery excursion outside Lhasa, Ganden would probably be the best choice. With its splendid views of the surrounding Kyi-chu Valley and fascinating kora, Ganden is an experience unlike the other major Gelugpa monasteries in the Lhasa area.

The monastery was founded in 1409 by Tsongkhapa, the revered reformer of the Gelugpa order. Images of Tsongkhapa flanked by his first two disciples can be found throughout the monastery.

Ganden means “joyous” in Tibetan. The main buildings of Ganden Monastery include the Tomb of Tsongkhapa, Chapel of Jampa, Assembly Hall, Residence of the Ganden Tripa and the Debating Courtyard.

The Ganden Kora is a simply stunning walk and should not be missed. There are superb views over the Kyi-chu Valley along the way and there are usually large numbers of pilgrims and monks offering prayers, rubbing holy rocks and prostrating themselves along the path.

Inside Ganden Monastery there are numerous precious cultural and religious relics.


8. Shannan Area

Located in the southern part of Tibet, Shannan, the birthplace of the Tibetan people, remains the holiest place in Tibet. There are twelve counties, 24 towns, and 56 villages in Shannan District, with a population of 318,000, 96% of whom are Tibetan people.

In the Shannan Area summer is short and cool; winter is long, dry and windy. Summer is the best season to visit the region. With an altitude of about 3,700 metres on average, Shannan is adjacent to Lhasa in the north and borders on India and Bhutan in the south. The total border stretches some 630 kilometres.

As the cradle of the Tibetan people and Tibetan culture, Shannan Area gave birth to numerous remarkable people during the long history of Tibet. It boasts countless precious cultural relics and magnificent natural scenery, such as the dazzling Yamdrok-tso.


9. Barkhor Street

More often than not the first stop for most newcomers to Tibet is the Jokhang Temple in the heart of the Tibetan old town, but even before venturing into the Jokhang Temple, it is worth taking a stroll around Barkhor Street, Tibet’s most interesting kora (pilgrimage circuit), a quadrangle of streets that surrounds the Jokhang Temple and some of the old buildings adjoining it.

Barkhor Street seems to possesses some mystical spiritual quality, as it is difficult to avoid making the whole circuit again. Spiritual wares and tourist souvenirs are sold along the way, prayer flags, block prints of scriptures, turquoise jewellery, yak butter, Tibetan boots, and T-shirts. It is an area unrivalled in Tibet for its intoxicating combination of sacred significance and busy market economics. This is both the spiritual heart of the Holy City and the main commercial district for Tibetans.

Barkhor Street is the part of Tibet that has most resisted the influence of the modern world. For the first few visits to Barkhor Street, it is best to follow the tide of pilgrims, but there are also several small yet fascinating temples to see on the way.

Barkhor Street is a place to which a visitor may wish to return time and again.


10. Yumbulakang Palace

Yumbulakang Palace is considered the oldest building in Tibet. A tapering structure that sprouts from a craggy ridge overlooking the patchwork fields of the Yarlung Valley, Yumbulakang Palace is a remarkably impressive sight in a fine setting.

The founding of Yumbulakang Palace stretches back into legend and myth. The standard account is that it was built for King Nyentri Tsenpo, a historic figure who has long since merged into mythology. Legend has him descending from the heavens and being received as a king by the people of the Yarlung Valley. More than 400 Buddhist holy texts are said to have fallen from heaven at Yumbulakang Palace in the fifth century. Murals depict the magical arrival of the texts.

Some accounts indicate that the foundations of Yumbulakang Palace may have been laid more than two thousand years ago. The most impressive feature of Yumbulakang Palace is its tower, and the prominence of Yumbulakang Palace on the Yarlung skyline belies the fact that this tower is only 11 metres high.

The ground-floor chapel is consecrated to the ancient kings of Tibet. A central Buddha image is flanked by Nyebtri Tsenpo on the left and Songtsen Gampo on the right. Other kings and ministers line the side walls. There is another chapel on the upper floor with an image of Chenresig, similar to the one found in Potala Palace. There are some excellent murals by the door that depict Nyentri Tsenpo descending from heaven.

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