As I wait my turn to ascend a ladder inside the Potala Palace, I watch an elderly Tibetan woman ahead of me. Dressed in a long traditional dress, with a loyal son at each elbow helping her rise, she slowly makes her way up, pausing at each rung. Her lined face shines in the dim light, her eyes glistening. Is it from the effort of the climb, or her delight at being at this holy site?
As a mere tourist, I had it easy. I flew to Beijing, spent the night in a modern hotel, and caught a flight to Lhasa the next day. She, on the other hand, is among the hundreds of pilgrims who travel from remote regions of Tibet, spending weeks on the road walking to this holy city on foot. For the faithful, it’s a pilgrimage they may make only once before they die. My heart goes out to this woman whose family members are taking the journey with her to ensure grandma achieves the blessings that will follow her into the next life.
Growth Threatens Residence of Dalai Lamas
Rising 13 stories atop Red Mountain in the center of Lhasa Valley, the Potala was the seat of Tibet’s theocratic government and residence of Dalai Lamas until the 14th Dalai Lama was forced to flee into exile by Chinese soldiers in 1959. For decades, Tibet remained a forgotten backwater in China. Then at the dawn of the 21st century, China’s government embarked on a huge program of development sending thousands of Chinese into the region, especially Lhasa, to build homes and businesses. Ethnic Tibetans became a minority in their own capital city, their culture eroding under mass migration.
Tourism, principally from within China, also brought changes. The number of visitors to Lhasa increased dramatically with the opening of the Qingzang railway in 2006, which made it possible to travel by train from Beijing to Lhasa in three days. To avoid overcrowding and to preserve the Potala, a quota is placed on the number of visitors allowed inside each day.
Inside the Potala Palace
The Potala reminds me more of a fortress than a palace. Built atop sloping walls, 16 feet thick at the base and reinforced with copper against earthquakes, it consists of more than 1,000 rooms containing tens of thousands of shrines, statues and religious objects. It dates back to the seventh century when Songtsen Gampo, the ruler who united Tibet, moved his capital here. The Potala that looms before me was built on the ruins of this first site by the fifth Dalai Lama, beginning in 1645. That building, the White Palace, was followed in 1690 by the adjoining Red Palace, built to house the funerary stupa of the fifth Dalai Lama who had died eight years earlier.
In Your Bucket Because
- You want to experience a rich culture that’s in danger of disappearing
- You want to tour Tibet’s most famous monument, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Good for those interested in the world’s religions and peoples
As I walk through the Potala, a strange silence surrounds me, as though I am entering rooms whose occupants just stepped out. I’m still puffing after my climb up a steep entrance ramp that takes me to an elevation of nearly 12,200 feet. My heart pounds as I make my way through the maze of rooms connected by stairs, bridges and wooden ladders. Red-robed monks stand in the corners, watching over Buddha statues and other sacred relics.
In the White Palace, which contained the living quarters of the Dalai Lamas, and was enlarged in the early 20th century to house offices, I walk into the East Main Hall. Most official ceremonies took place here. The throne of the Dalai Lama sits on one side of a room adorned with religious paintings. His private suite is upstairs.
The Red Palace was set aside for Buddhist religious study and worship as well as memorials to eight deceased Dalai Lamas. In the West Chapel, I am transfixed by the stupa of the fifth Dalai Lama whose mummified body lies within. More than 49 feet tall, the tomb is covered in gold and inlaid with more than 18,000 pearls, jewels and semi-precious stones. On either side stand the stupas of the 10th and 12th Dalai Lama, each dying in childhood.
Lhasa Religious Sites Earn UNESCO Status
Given the volatile relationship between Tibet and the Chinese government, I’m surprised so much of the Potala, its treasures and religious documents have survived. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when purges took place across China, much of the Potala was saved through the personal intercession of Premier Zhou Enlai. In 1994, the Potala was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2000 and 2001 nearby Jokhang Temple, the holiest site of Tibetan Buddhism, and Norbulingka, summer palace of the Dalai Lamas, were added as extensions to the listing.
As I descend from the Potala I pass three Buddhist nuns on the kora, a walking path for pilgrims that encircles the Potala. I move behind them as we come to a line of prayer wheels and watch each reach out to spin the bright brass cylinders. I touch each one, wondering how many prayers have been sent forth from this spot.
- The Chinese government often closes the Tibetan Autonomous Region to tourists without warning due to political unrest over the struggle for Tibetan independence. Have a backup travel plan.
- Visit the Potala early in the day. A quota on the number of visitors often is reached before visiting hours end.
- Many visitors who come directly from low elevations to Lhasa (11,975 feet) experience altitude sickness that can cause headaches, nausea, breathlessness and loss of appetite. Take it easy for a couple of days to acclimatize. Drink plenty of liquids and skip the alcohol.
- Out of respect for Buddhist tradition, don’t wear shorts or short skirts and remove your hat indoors. Don’t touch items on an altar or remove prayer flags or stones.
- Photos are not allowed inside the Potala.