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An ancient Buddhist adventure awaits

2013-08-09 13:26 Global Times Web Editor: Wang YuXia
Buddhists and tourists participate in the sacred sunning of the Buddha ceremony to mark the start of the annual Shoton festival at the Zhaibung (Drepung) Monastery in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, Aug. 6, 2013. [Xinhua]

Buddhists and tourists participate in the sacred "sunning of the Buddha" ceremony to mark the start of the annual Shoton festival at the Zhaibung (Drepung) Monastery in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, Aug. 6, 2013. [Xinhua]

Tibet has long been considered the dream place or Mecca for every backpacker, not only for Chinese tourists but also for adventure-seekers from other countries. Still, many hesitate to visit Tibet out of concerns for how they might adversely react to the high altitude there. Summer is then the best time for these travelers, who hope to fulfill their Tibet dream, to take the brave ascent as oxygen levels can reach as high as 80 percent of that on the plain and reduce altitude-related health risks compared to other times of the year. Those inspired by the hot season may also want to consider the annual Shoton Festival as an additional reason to pack their bags at this time. And the Global Times delivers this must-experience Tibet itinerary to give mountain-loving travelers one final push. 

Buddha thangka at Drepung Monastery

The Shoton Festival, continuing until August 13 this year, is one of the most important yearly events for Tibetans, which falls in June on the Tibetan calendar. In Tibetan, "sho" means yogurt and "ton" means fest, so the "Shoton Festival" is also known as the Tibetan Yogurt Festival.  

The festival is said to date back to the 11th century, when monks were strictly ordered to obey the disciplines of Buddhism. Not killing living things was one of the most important ones to follow and so they would stay inside their temples from April to June (on the Tibetan calendar) to avoid situations where they might be faced to break the rule. It made for a long winter as the ban was not lifted until the end of June, when monks were once again allowed out to enjoy nature. In celebration, the local people prepared picnics with tasty yogurt and performed Tibetan dramas at the festivities. The tradition passed down from generation to generation and eventually became known as the Shoton Festival. 

The opening of the celebrations, known as Great Buddha Display or "Sunning Buddha" in Drepung Monastery in Lhasa must be the most remarkable ceremony of the festival. As early as 8 am, with the first ray of sunshine drawn, a giant 500-square-meter thangka of a Buddha portrait slowly appears, covering the hilly slope behind the monastery. The sacred ceremony appeals to thousands of believers and touching travelers, who put their palms together devoutly to worship the Buddha. 

Locals walk around the painting, throwing white scarves on it and chanting. Even if you are not a Buddhist; you will be touched by the worshipping and solemn atmosphere. 

But even without the festival, the monastery is not something to pass up on your visit to Lhasa. Drepung Monastery, on Gambo Utse Mountain to the west of Lhasa, is the largest monastery in the world. During its prime, the monastery, the name of which literally means "rice heap," saw as many as over 10,000 monks studying in it.

Filled with a lengthy history and favorable reputation in terms of Buddhism studies, the splendid monastery buildings include six main halls and various Buddha statues, and is well-worth a half-day visit. 

The monetary has unscheduled sutra debates, which generally start from 2:30 pm. If you happen to walk on by at the right time, the scene of monks debating on their belief is an interesting scene to include in your tour. A lasting photographic memory of it will cost you 15 yuan ($2.45).  

The admission fee for the monastery that opens from 9 am to 1:30 pm is 50 yuan. You can take a public bus or a taxi to the foot of the mountain foot, but you'll have to walk for about half an hour to reach the gate of the monastery. Remember not to photograph any Buddha statues or monks without permission. 

Traditional Tibetan operas  

A total of 12 theater groups are in Lhasa for the festival this year. Since the period of 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso (1876-1933), each of them has been performing at the Shoton Festival. Among them, six troupes belong to the old school of "white masks," including Bindaiba from Qonggyai County, Zhaxi Shoba from Nedong County and Tazhongwa from Nyemo County. Because of their simple moves and arias, they have a more subdued appeal. With more complicated moves and arias, the school of "blue masks" are growing in popularity and their troupes include Goinba from Ngamring County, Gyanggar from Rinbung County, Xangba from Namling County and Jormolung formed in Doilungdeqen County, but now based in Lhasa. Catch the performances on the stage at Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's successive summer residence. Most of the operas feature stories from Buddhist folklore as well as local tales including Prince Nor-bzang and Princess Wencheng. Other cultural performances like the "yak dance" and "sheepskin drum dance" are also a special treat for the eyes and ears.

Although watching Tibetan dramas may dominate your travel plans, as some of them can run from the morning to the late afternoon, wandering around in Norbulingka like the locals may be a good alternative option for backpackers wanting a more leisurely activity. Norbulingka, known as "Treasure Garden" or "Jeweled Park," is the largest and most-popular park in Lhasa. It features Gesang Palace that was built by the 7th Dalai Lama from the 1740s and the palace has undergone a series of expansions and renovations since.

The palace consists of 374 rooms and the main complexes on the grounds are the Gesang Palace, Tsokyil Palace, Golden Linka and Takten Migyur Palace. These typical Tibetan architectures take full advantage of their surroundings, hiding behind leaves and flowers and forming a consistent, pleasant view for visitors.

Gesang Palace is the oldest sector in Norbulingka. However, the most arresting spot is said to be Tsokyil Palace, a stunning Han-style pavilion that excels in its delicate beauty for relaxation. Apart from that, there is the three-storey Jensen Palace used primarily for meetings and rituals. With an imposing appearance it sits alone in the west of the garden, with its roof glowing under the sun. In 1954, the 14th Dalai Lama built Takten Migyur Potrang, meaning "Eternal Palace" in Tibetan, an unexpected attraction known for its splendid murals.

Home to over 100 species of rare plants, local and introduced, the park area also possesses rich natural as well as cultural value, which makes it a great venue for picnicking, shows, dances and traditional Tibetan games such as ring tossing and archery, especially during Shoton Festival.

The admission for Norbulingka is 60 yuan. Additional fees are charged if you wish to visit the sanctuaries inside. Norbulingka opens every day from 9:30 am to 6 pm. Take bus No.2 at the Tibetan Hospital and stop at the entrance gate of the park. 

Barkhor Bazaar and Jokhang Temple 

Barkhor Bazaar and Jokhang Temple are the second most well-known must-see sites among travelers after Potala Palace. Barkhor Bazzar is a busy street surrounding Jokhang Temple. But locals prefer to call it Bajiaojie instead of its name in Chinese "Bakuojie," which was influenced by the many Sichuan people who settled in Lhasa as in Sichuan dialect, "jiao" is similar to "kuo." And in fact, the street doesn't have eight points as the translation of "Bajiaojie" would suggest, a misunderstanding by many travelers who make the assumption based on the name.

Travelers from around the world visit the bazaar for an exotic shopping experience among street vendors or to simply follow the Buddhist worshippers on the ritual pathway on the street. Those worshippers from every corner of Tibet come to visit Jokhang Temple and walk around the temple to pay their respects to Buddha.  

 "You can't say that you've been to Lhasa until you've visited Jokhang Temple," is a popular saying among keen travelers seeking the ultimate destination in Tibet. Follow the crowd cleanse your spirit at the temple. 

When you finish the temple visit, you'll find plenty of choices for souvenirs at the bazaar from various kinds of Tibetan silver accessories to Tibetan medicine or the popular Tibetan knives. But remember to mail it home from the nearby post office as you won't be allowed to take the knife with you on the plane

Also be sure to save time to taste sweet tea at Guangming Teahouse at the bazzar. A good spot to eye locals among tourists, the place offers a calming atmosphere and the sun shining through the windows adds a nice warmth. Place just a 10 yuan-note on the table and you'll receive more servings of the flavorful tea than you can drink - feel free to politely resist before 20 cups are poured for you. 

The city of Lhasa is full of surprises. Take everything in at a nice, relaxed pace. It's not a place for rushing. If you manage only one excursion while you're there, then reserve a day for Potala Palace - you won't be sorry you did. 

Rules of Thumb

When to go: Summertime is the best time for a trip to Tibet as oxygen levels tend to be higher and the weather sunnier. Best to avoid the winter season unless you are drawn to the bitter cold.  

How to go: By train or by plane. Major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai have daily flights to Lhasa. But many people prefer to fly to Xining, Qinghai Province and then transfer to a train. This helps tourists acclimatize before arriving in Lhasa. It's also an option that is full of pleasant scenery along the way. 

Where to stay: Lhasa offers hostels starting at 50 yuan a day as well as starred hotel rooms at hundreds of yuan per night.

What to eat: So long as you're not a vegetarian, it's hard to go wrong with Tibetan beef dishes. And when you can't stomach any more Tibetan cuisine, the plentiful Sichuan restaurants around are another tasty option. 

What to prepare: It's a wise idea to start on Rhodiola a week before your trip. This should help prevent you from getting high-altitude sickness. Also be sure to pack a warm jacket as the nights cool down substantially, even during the summertime.  

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