Transsiberian, Day 19: Tibetan Buddhism, sex, monks and shopping

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

I slept really well last night despite the altitude sickness, and feel very well rested. My throat is a little sore, but it’s not that bad. I go to explore breakfast on the fifth floor, as that’s where our guide informed us that breakfast is located. I ascend the staircase in our building and discover the fifth floor is a rooftop. Ok.

I return to Shanika’s room and she informs me that the dining room is on the fifth floor of the neighboring building where reception is located. Ah.

Visible from the glass-walled rooftop patio restaurant as I start reaching for a plate in the buffet setup is the sun rising just over the mountains. A woman gestures for me to sit. It’s odd they have a full buffet setup but they won’t let you set up your own plate. Maybe they just don’t trust a foreigner to do it.

The woman gets me green tea and a full plate. The food is plentiful, with toast, eggs, bananas, apples, broccoli and bacon piled high. "Health" apple jam, which tastes like regular jam, is offered on the table, and no meal would be complete without some semblance of yak. This time it comes in the form of butter, which I slather on the two slices of toast. Calvin, with his lovely Mandarin skills, requests three additional slices of toast for me. Thanks, Calvin!

Our guide meets us promptly at 9am in the hotel to pick us up for the Potala Palace. According to Calvin's blog, "Originally built in the 7th century AD by King Songtsen Gyalpo for his 2 foreign wives, it was destroyed by lightning many years later before being rebuilt by the 5th Dalai Lama in 3 years, with subsequent extensions leading up to the 13th Dalai Lama to transform the palace into what it is now. It is officially the winter residence for the Dalai Lamas (and their tombs), with the palace in Norbulinka as their summer residence."

Just like at the Jokhang Temple, there are pilgrims walking clockwise laps around the palace in prayer. We see the palace on a hill and look at each other with a collective exhausted sigh. We have to climb that? We're already so tired.

We end up taking breaks every few landings. We don't appear to be the only ones, though, as we see plenty of elderly people doing the same. (ha)

We went into the rooms of the Dalai lama’s former home, where you couldn’t take pictures, but I took notes so I could best describe the scene. The room is full of colors. The walls were bright teal with murals of the history of the Tibetan people and Buddhism. The floor is covered in bright carpeting with squares filled with matching flower shapes in alternating colors, with the rugs reaching up to the throne. Gold silk curtains covered the windows of the balcony that led to the plaza where the Dalai lama would watch dance performances. The ceiling is a sheet of patterned silk, and the room is lit by two spherical white lamps that upon closer inspection are comprised of glass flowers. Cylindrical banners hung from the ceiling throughout, made up of smaller silk tie with pointed tips, all in mismatched patterns and colors. Other banners have a square pyramid on top with flat sides hanging down of the same pointed tip silk pieces, both types of banners with tassels hanging from the tips. The silk is in shades of gold, red, green, blue and purple. Red painted pillars form the room’s main structure, with intricate designs painted on each, above which are 3D carved designs of horses and flowers. The throne is in the center of the room, covered in donations from pilgrims and scarves not unlike the ones we were draped with upon our arrival in Tibet.

The stairs in the palace were quite steep during our descent, and some signs indicate a stick figure falling down the stairs, as a warning that you could fall. But I like to think that it was a proper suggestion to just butt slide down the stairs since I think that would have been the most effective way to exit, had there not been so many pilgrims throughout.

Next we were off to the summer palace, Norbulingka. It reminded me a bit of the Temple of Heaven Park, in that it's a large park with several religious buildings inside. The park is beautiful but I'm sure its even more gorgeous in spring or summer, with all the blooming plants. We go into a couple of temples and photography isn't allowed just like the previous sites. However, we see a local guy in traditional Tibetan clothing snapping pics on his phone. When he sees us looking at him doing so, he grins and sticks out his tongue and continues happily snapping away.

We hop in the bus to head off to lunch. It gets increasingly apparent that the driver smokes packs of cigarettes in the bus while he waits for us, as it smells stronger and stronger of burning tobacco when we get in the van. Well, good thing it doesn’t also reek of gasoline or we’d have a problem on our hands.

We go to the Tibet Steak House, which has a logo of a yak dressed as a waiter, so our guide picked well. We order lots of yak, almost getting the "yak sizzler" but instead ordering the "yak steak." If there were an Outback Steakhouse for Tibetan food, I'd bet that both of those items would be on the menu. We get spicy szechuans noodles, noodle soup with yak meat, yak meat stew with potatoes, cheesy dumplings and yak meat momo again. I also order a yak milk milkshake, since the picture looks like an American diner milkshake and I knew it wasn't going to look like that at all. It didn't, but it was surprisingly good, with actual chocolate ice cream!

After lunch we head over to the Sera Monastery. We get to see Tibetan sand paintings, which are so delicate and beautiful. I can't imagine the time and effort it takes to make such artwork. In the room with the sand paintings is a wall-to-wall stack of boxes containing yak butter. YUM.

In one of the halls of the temples, there are a series of religious figures. After seeing so many similar-looking statues, we come upon a few that are two figures, facing each other. Mihaela asks Kelsang if one is a child or something. Calvin and I look at each other as Calvin says "SEX" and Kelsang non-jokingly responds that the figures represent the tantric corpus of Buddhism. That's right, SEX. Mihaela laughs. She probably thought they were having sex, but didn't want to be offensive. But they were. They were having sex. Kelsang explains that Buddhism is practiced through both body and mind. Tantric sex is the way to connect with the body.

In the monastery grounds is a park where we watched dozens of monks debating one another over the practices of Buddhism. There are monks sitting on the ground while others stand in front of them debating, then dramatically slapping their hands together to indicate that their point has been made.

We all head back to the hotel, but I am still feeling some energy. Plus, there's still sun due to the singular time zone! I ask if anyone would like to join me to go to the local bazaar, and Shanika happily obliges.

We walk through the crazy sidewalk traffic to the bazaar. Vans and mopeds are parked on sidewalks, causing pedestrians to walk in the road, dodging moving vehicles every few seconds. There's incessant honking and shouting, but no one reacts, because to them, this is just a Saturday afternoon.

The bazaar is enormous. It's more like a giant mall, if you removed all the storefronts and just made it one giant open space. There are three stories, with escalators. There are vendors selling jewelry, cosmetics, shoes, clothing, scarves, spices, nuts, yarn, trinkets, antiques and more. Upon seeing me, a green-eyed white girl, the vendors express a cheerful "hello!" My favorite reaction to seeing Shanika and me was "Hello! Hello! Looky looky! Please how much!" I think the buyer is supposed to ask how much, but they tried!

I buy a postcard here, despite the design not being a favorite. I just need a prop to show other shop owners so I can be like "DO YOU HAVE THESE?" Shanika gets a bracelet and some lip balm. I think she ended up getting a normal flavor, but there was broccoli lip balm. I repeat: there was broccoli lip balm. And she did not purchase it.

On our way back from the bazaar, we pass a bunch of stores, including a bakery selling fluffy sweet rolls with whipped cream inside. Purchase made, stomach satisfied. We also got cookies. Look, if I see some golden brown goodness and smell even a whiff of sugar, my wallet is out.

We stop in a couple of stationery stores as well, where I find some cute pens and erasers for souvenirs. The stationery stores are similar but not identical, with an odd combination of goods. One of them sells loads of different pens, pencils and leads, gluesticks, pencil cases, paper, notepads, balls. Lots of different soccer balls. The next store sells markers and more paper goods and...jump ropes. Also, weights. There's gotta be some pretty buff school kids walking around Tibet.

I purchase a pen with a turd on it for Calvin because his immaturity will surely appreciate it. And when I gave it to him, he loved it.

After no luck finding any post cards, I decide to go back with Shanika to the lunch restaurant from yesterday, since they sold post cards there. I finish off my extra stamps purchased in Xi'an on these cards and the quest is over.

Shanika and I return to the hostel and the whole group is exhausted. Everyone hangs out in Calvin's room listening to music or sleeping. We collectively decide we're too tired and/or lazy to even seek out dinner, so we stay in the hotel room into the late hours. Calvin jokes that this is the ultimate sendoff for me, as we both look around, seeing Shanika and Mihaela asleep on the two beds, Taylan making herself oatmeal with the hot water boiler, and everyone else on their phones or laptops. I end up joining Taylan with the exciting dinner of oatmeal around midnight.

I try to check in for tomorrow's flight and can't find information on it anywhere, which ends up causing minor panic. I thought I might have an Yvonne situation on my hands. After three calls to three different numbers for AirChina and using up Taylan's Skype minutes and waiting on hold for a total of 20 minutes, I got it sorted. Apparently I can only check in for my flights tomorrow at the airport, in person, because they don't have my passport information. Phew?

Tomorrow morning I'll be leaving before everyone else, so just before I head off to bed, Calvin plays for me "Time to Say Goodbye" by Andrea Bocelli and Sara Brightman. He loves to bring on the cheese.