Explore some of the great sites of Tibetan Buddhism.More Asia
It stands sentinel at Lhasa, as it has for hundreds of years. On the site of a fortress palace that dates back to AD637, it was the Great Fifth Dalai Lama who began the building of Potala Palace in 1645, and it was the main residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against China's occupation of Tibet. Today it is a museum, but still a most revered holy place.
Rising 13 storeys, it contains more than 1000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and some 200,000 statues. I stand in a square surrounded by handcrafted windows and bright door surrounds, mandalas painted on orange walls.
Throughout the palace, so much has been decorated by hand. Inside, in the North Chapel, the crowned Sakyamuni Buddha and Great Fifth Dalai Lama sit together, as massive statues.
And as we emerge from incense and chant, there is Lhasa spread before us.
Originally built in the seventh century, Dalai Lamas have added to the original, and today I join the faithful in what for many is Tibet's most important temple. Of four storeys, its Buddha statues are mesmerising. Monks chant and ring bells as part of each cycle; a reverberation of voice and chime. But it is the large seated statue of Maitreya, the Future Buddha, that I stand before longest. And as I do, a shaft of sun, smoky with incense, falls upon it.
We are privileged to stand for a long time watching the monks at prayer. They sit in lotus position, wrapped in maroon cloth, on low carpet seats, and follow the scripture chant sheets before them. Bread is brought. Smaller temples are lined with scriptures.
There is a checkpoint into the square at Jokhang, where I must show my passport, and police and army presence. Photographing these officers is ill-advised, and some carry fire extinguishers, for this is somewhere that monks and others have set themselves on fire in protest over Chinese control of Tibet. On the side of the square there's a fire engine and anti-self-immolation kit comprising a hoop on a long pole and six extinguishers.
On the northern edge of Lhasa, Sera Monastery is most commonly known for its animated debating of Buddhist teachings, which visitors are welcome to watch (and which featured in these pages on October 20). The monastery was founded in 419.
I get glimpses of Ganden, about 40km from Lhasa, as I round the hairpin bends climbing up to this 4260m monastery.
It perches on the mountains, near the crest, and sparkles white and gold. We walk among its buildings and inside its temples. This is one of the three great monasteries of Tibet, and the mother monastery. In a small temple, a monk sits - a long throat chanting, guttural.
A mass of prayer flags is strewn across the mountain side like streamers from a party popper. And in those mountains at Dakyirpa (or Drak Yerpa), 16km from Lhasa, are caves that used to be used by meditating monks.
It is certainly one of the most beautiful Buddha statues I have ever seen. I have crouched in through a cupboard-like door on one of the levels of the tiered Kunbon Stupa and looked up, and there is that golden face with blue hair.
It is simply beautiful. This stupa in Gyangtse (which is said to be the most traditional of the "old Tibet" towns left), dates back to 1427, and has 77 chapels, like this one, in its six floors. There are 10,000 murals and they are the last of their kind in Tibet.
Founded by the First Dalai Lama, Tashi Lhunpo is still very much alive, with hundreds of monks and new accommodation being built.
It's like a small city, with schools and hospital, but these monks also get out, and Tashi Lhunpo monks are famous for travelling the world with their sacred and ritual music and chanting. There are four main chapels, and I circumambulate these with pilgrims, who add yak buttermilk to the candle bowls. And in a square, donated clothing is sold. The monastery has been the traditional home of Panchen Lamas, the highest-ranking lamas after the Dalai Lama.
• Lhasa is included on Travel Directors packages including the 25-day Himalayan Express tour which has departures on April 12, May 4, September 7 and October 5. The tour connects with the Himalayan Express train in Lanzhou, China, for the journey to Lhasa and also visits Gyangtse, Shigatse, Tingri, Everest Base Camp (conditions permitting) and on to the border town of Zhangmu. Then it's on to Kodari and Kathmandu before flights to Bhutan. The tour costs $14,597 per person, twin share.
The 20-day Himalayan Adventure begins in Beijing and travels by train to Lhasa following the same route to Kathmandu by bus before flights back to Australia. The tour costs from $7997 and has departures on April 20 and October 5.
The 18-day Riding the Roof motorcycle tour follows the same route from Lhasa to Zhangmu, then the group rides into Nepal to Dhulikhel, Pokhara and Kathmandu, before flying home. There are departures on May 12 and October 6 on the tour which costs $10,997 per rider and $10,497 for a pillion passenger.
All tours include international and domestic flights, taxes, visas and courier fees, all accommodation, meals, ground transportation and transfers, entrance fees and tips and gratuities. For Travel Directors phone 9242 4200, call at 137 Cambridge Street, West Leederville, or see traveldirectors.com.au.
• Stephen Scourfield and Tony Evans from Travel Directors will speak about the Himalaya tours on December 1 at 2pm in West Leederville. Bookings are essential. Call 9242 4200.
• Singapore Airlines flies from Perth four times daily (from October 28 to March 30), with direct connection from Singapore to Beijing. Travel agents and singaporeair.com.Stephen Scourfield travelled as a guest of Travel Directors and Singapore Airlines.
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