21 May 2017

Lhasa, Tibet: Temples, Pilgrims & Palaces

Lhasa kept giving me everything but the dizzying altitude had sent me sick, waking up with what felt like a hangover and a nosebleed I hadn't paid all that money to rest! Dosed up with a handful of un-named tablets and a bottle of oxygen I was set for the final day of discovery. I held it together as Jokhang Temple, Barkhor Street and the Potala Palace awaited. Oh, Lhasa!

I had almost stumbled upon Barkhor Street during my first day in Lhasa, Tibet whilst on my incense shopping mission, saving the best for another morning I had found a sight never to forget. Fashioned in a true Tibetan style those Barkhor Street shopfronts set the scene effortlessly, acting as a cure for my altitude sickness I was living for the atmosphere and energy felt during that Lhasa morning. I adored the feeling of old time crazy that could be felt in the air, the elder Tibetan pilgrims may have hobbled along with all their might but they were on a spiritual mission! Of course, I was impressed by the fluttering Tibetan prayer flags that fluttered above the buildings along Barkhor Street. This Lhasa hotspot was supposed to be on the itinerary but I found with the extensive free time between seeing Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace it wasn't difficult to get what I wanted from that buzzing street!

I noticed during the morning a circular clockwise motion was adopted by all, a certain direction had to be adopted the pilgrims, apologies Lhasa I walked in the opposite way at times. I'm sorry! After leaving the hotel after breakfast we took a side street, that alley led us away from the main Beijing East Road to Barkhor's inner heart it was like a holy tributary of alleys that led to a huge square, within that square the sky couldn't get any bluer with the odd cloud floating by I had the perfect photo opportunity. What was that spinning all around, people had their prayer wheels close to hand, acting as another magical sight that Barkhor Street served to me. I was more than living for Barkhor Street, not soaking enough in during the morning I headed back down through one of the alley ways from my hotel to recapture the chilled pandemonium that was occurring in the heart of Lhasa's old city. Don't pay attention of what people might say, those checkpoints are fine! 

Stepping into a darkened courtyard gave me my first taste of Jokhang Temple, one of Lhasa's main highlights I was looking forward to see what all the fuss was about. making our way into the temples inner shrines it was another attack on the senses for all the right reasons, the infusion of colours and sheer detail of the figures took my breath away for sure! I adored the golden figures of the Tibetan Buddhas, their feminine like faces shone with a golden glow, with eye brows on-point and hair so blue it must of been more like Indigo! Showcasing more than two hands those golden figures gave judging stares to maybe ward away evil spirits but I definitely share a facial expression as cutting as theirs was! I had heard whispers before visiting Tibet about Princess Wencheng, displayed in modest fashion in the temple I'm sure she was the temptress during her time. I got completely lost in the beauty of Jokhang's inner corners. Yes!

Leaving those fierce looking Buddhas behind us, we stepped back into the light, giving us the chance to see the rich tones of Jokhang's upper levels and the views over Barkhor Street that gave a Birdseye view of the Potala Palace. Looking for something nice for my best one I was shocked at the price they wanted for a small bracelet, that was a no! I appreciated the golden rooftops of the that glittery Lhasa temple, mixed with a maroon brown and terracotta red style I was in the right place at the right time, my Tibet trip had showed me so much up till that point but Jokhang Temple gave me a picture postcard view of Lhasa within a pocket of tranquility. Snapping away like nobody's business I gazed over the bustling Barkhor Street, the hurrying of the pilgrims looked amazing from that minor height. Leaving the best feature till now I wasn't expecting to see the Potala Palace until that afternoon but from the right it stood with purpose, I was living in a dream LXA! 

Passports ready, it was time for the final part of my Tibet trip to commence. I believe the best has been saved till the very end, known as the home of the long line of the Dalai Lama's the Potala Palace stood before me. Concurring my second Chinese Yuan note, I stood at the foot of the Potala Palace with a 50 Yuan bill as it depicts the regal Potala Palace, after Hangzhou's 1 Yuan discovery along West Lake I wasn't doing too badly for 2017's travel accomplishments! Ascending up the 700 ft to the top entrance at the right side of the palace the altitude change had me feeling strange, taking some deep breaths of the already thin air I made it to that point of safety. That moment felt very real, the nature of the Potala Palace meant things were pretty rustic with no lifts or even banisters it was a right old experience from the bottom to the top! Oh, the clouds knew to make a swift exit, my Potala visit was flawless T!

Adhering to our time slot we made our way from the rooftop courtyard to the red part of the palace to see the heart of the Potala Palace. The status of the Potala Palace sounded like a mysterious, shrouded in secrets galore but we were allowed to see inside one of the non-restricted parts without any problems. The rest areas of the former Dalai Lama's were exquisite, adorned with soft furnishing and a chilled overall feel it felt like a special place. Bestowed with UNESCO World Heritage status, I could of easily lived within those pockets of calm within the Lama's former quarters, they were so opulent. From its strong yet magical appearance to its soft and spiritual inner core I couldn't get over what the Potala Palace showed me during that unforgettable weekend. Returning to Barkhor Street for one more time I ditched the hype to enjoy one last milk tea in a simple Lhasa tea-house. It may have broke me financially but my trip to Lhasa, Tibet was sure worth every last Yuan!

Living For Lhasa! 

Joseph Harrison 

17 May 2017

Lhasa, Tibet: Like A Prayer...

Refreshed from my train journey from Lanzhou I was ready to begin my Lhasa city tour. Being part of a group wasn't something I was used to but for that experience it was good to be forced into an unfamiliar situation. From Drepung Monastery to Sera Monastery I was shown a myriad of beautiful and timeless sights, although being above sea level was crazy!

Was it the effects of altitude or have I already mentioned about my first moments in Lhasa's old city before? That's tough because before my official tour began I conducted my own tour during my first afternoon in Lhasa. Captured to the right is Beijing East Road, I loved the traditional style of the buildings as the street buzzed with the Tibetans everyday motions, city life existed in the city's oldest quarters! It was a blessing not to have to change any currency because everything was sold in Chinese Yuan, the less I mention the C would the better in this blog. A language I hadn't heard before was being chattered all around me, that was the Tibetan language that along with the Sanskrit writing had its own tone and energy. I loved Lhasa, well the old city had something the new side couldn't compete with, that was character. Passing the Potala Palace on the corner I was curious to see it before the itinerary took us.

My hotel was standard to be honest, I opted to share a room because I wasn't prepared to pay the single room supplements and I wasn't there for the room for it was all about Tibet! Staying at the Gang-gyan Hotel just off Beijing East Road I was able to walk to Potala Square within fifteen minutes. Standing before was the mighty yet very serene Potala Palace, the centre of Buddhism and a world renowned Tibetan icon that relates to the same as the Vatican does for Roman Catholics. The serene blue skies quickly clouded over, it wasn't meant to be for getting photos during that moment but I appreciated that time all the same. Aside from the sights I was part of a group of fourteen people who had come from around the world to visit Lhasa, mostly based in Mainland China people in the group hailed from Brazil, Ireland, Spain, U.S.A and Germany. Straight after the Lhasa tour the remaining thirteen people and the tour guide were heading to Shigatse then to the Everest Base Camp. Go T!

Standing 3,700 ft above sea level it did feel strange to ascend any higher than that but Lhasa's Drepung Monastery was going to move its hilly location for yourself truly! My first holy site during my once in a lifetime tour looked mighty fine, perched upon one of the thousand mountains that can be seen around Lhasa I gazed in amazement as the white washed stone walls stood so bright in the crystal clear sky, the detail of that 14th century sacred monastery was unbelievable! With snatched photo opportunities I made the best to capture as many moments to seize Drepung's mystical look for myself. Going inside the many rooms and shrines showed me things that I never previously seen before. Following the rules it was forbidden to take any photos inside the many accessible buildings within the Drepung Monastery, obviously I followed that rule along with the people in my tour group. T, I was living a dream!

How, the sheer detail of the shrines and figures within the Ganden Phodrang blew me away, taking careful notice of our tour guides direction it was easy to get carried away for the items on show were nothing like I'd ever seen in a temple-like place before. Prayer scrolls had been crafted with much thought and were displayed within a wooden cabinet, the religious text had been wrapped in a undeniable beautiful cloth to protect them. We were being schooled from then on about the dear Dalai's as they would be a recurring feature in the tours programme. The musky smell of incense filled the air, along with the dimmed redden light it was truly immense to see the golden items and figures that were on display. If I could of taken photos it would of not captured the true beauty of realness of what was before my eyes. Leaving the warren-like rooms behind us we spent some time exploring inside the main hall that welcomed the prayer of the monks who lived at Drepung. 

From Drepung Monastery it was a short drive to Sera Monastery, before seeing the monks debate it was time for a light lunch. It was a chance for some of the group to get to know each other, being an independent traveller most of the time it was nice to have people to talk to from different places but for that trip only. As 3 pm neared it was time to see the monks debate at Sera Monastery, another of the three most important holy sites in Lhasa. For some strange reason camera were banned for photos but smartphones were allowed to take photos, such a bizarre rule. Perching in front of the questioning monks it was such a intriguing sight, younger and less experienced monks answered questions asked by the older monks, if their answer wasn't correct they would literally get a clap back! The debate was quite interesting to see, the language wasn't Mandarin it was spoken in the Tibetan language! Yes!

The experience of seeing the monks debate at Sera Monastery was amazing, it something that I had never seen before, another once in a lifetime sight in Tibet for me to remember forever. Children seemed to be the main focus of the local people's visits to Sera Monastery as they would queue from morning till closing time to get a blessing for their children, children must still be highly prized in Tibet as well as they are in China? The visits to Drepung and Sera Monasteries were out of this world, from the timeless collections and relics that were on display at Drepung to the insightful debate at Sera, it was giving me life for sure! Returning back to the hotel for a little rest it was nice to put my feet up and re-hydrate as the high altitudes and thin air had made me feel thirsty and tired. The evening ahead would bring us a welcome dinner including a questionable series of Tibetan acts, the food was good but it was amazing to rest before the next day of sightseeing. Rest!

Oh, Those Monasteries!

Joseph Harrison

13 May 2017

Lhasa, Tibet: Heaven On Earth!

Tibet was the big one, the trip that almost didn't happen, through the craze of cancellations I made my two day journey to the Tibet Autonomous Region from Wuhan, China at the end of last month. Taking one flight and an overnight train beginning in Central China to the Wild West of Tibet took some going, it was an experience for the better! That upper bunk!

Securing some extra days off work I was enabled to book the trip of a lifetime to Lhasa, Tibet. Choosing Tibet Vista didn't take much thought as the itinerary and date worked for me just fine. Deciding upon the four day Lhasa short trip I was excited to see the main highlights that the holy city of Buddhism had to show me. Booking a train from Wuchang to Lhasa would of taken me two days but I got dealt a bad card, the travel company who took care of the train tickets let me down majorly, calling up on my Tibet Vista advisor, Jim Pel suggested that flying from Wuhan to Lanzhou then taking the overnight train to Lhasa would be the best bet! The day arrived for me to jet off to Lanzhou, boarding my Hainan Airlines flight from Wuhan Airport was a breeze, no stress. Descending into Lanzhou's Zhongchuan Airport in the dead of night was exciting still, the landscape was so different! Was I in China, T?

Waking up bright and early in my Lanzhou hotel I was pumped for my first sleeper train experience in China. Choosing the Hualian Hotel was a winner, located within a stones through from Lanzhou Railway Station I was afforded more than six hours sleep due to its convenient location. To think I was only halfway at that point did blow my mind a little! Producing my Tibet Travel Permit to the ticket guard to retrieve my ticket was an unnerving moment as she took the document and my passport off for inspection. Packed with some snacks I missed my chance to try some Lanzhou noodles but I was all about boarding my Lhasa bound train. Z917 was due to depart at 11:16 and it sure did just that, scrambling under the platforms to platform five was an effort but I was on-board after another short inspection, my Chinese language skills were being pushed to their limits! I was bound for a twenty three hour and fifty five minute train journey that would arrive into Lhasa the next day at 11:10 in the morning! Lanzhou would be seeing me again for some of that mian! But let me just get myself together, please?!

The hard sleeper cabin looked fine from the outside, not much different compared to the soft sleeper apart from the upper berth, trust me to have been allocated one of those for my first overnight train! I'm not most agile of people, in-fact I'm damn right awkward but I got a grip of that situation, with the help of a Chinese guy who looked around my age I had my important bag stowed away at the foot of my bunk, but there was no ladder to reach the bed so I had to climb at least ten foot to the top each time I needed to get back up, getting down wasn't so bad as I found my footing quite quickly. It was to be for one night only and I could deal with that for the experience alone. The short trip from Lanzhou to Xining flew past literally, another Muslim city within China's northwest that I have to visit! The landscape changed dramatically as we left Xining, soon enough it was only the harsh open landscape for miles.

With no door to close on each compartment it was great to hear the chattering Chinese conversations, I had packed with me some instant noodles and a few other bits for the journey including a beer or two to get over the height and craziness of my sleeping situation. Day turned into night, with lights out at 10 pm prompt it gave me the chance to have a sound sleep, the change in oxygen was something to deal but with the motion of the train and the surprising good quality duvet I slept soundly until 7 am. My actual camera is shockingly bad for moving shot so I relied on my iPhone heavily, making our last stop in Gansu Province the previous night after 9:30 pm we had reached the Tibetan side of the vast Plateau. The views that passed me were unstoppable, unforgettable and unimaginably beyond anything I had previous expected them to be. I adored the simplicity of the Tibetan homesteads as it felt like the train was passing through a Tibetan wild west! Loving life!

Getting off the train was a relief to say the least, it hadn't felt like I had imagined it was going to be as the journey time flew past. Going through the exit of Lhasa Railway Station I was ushered into a separate building without my documents in my possession, another passport and permit check needed to be done! For a moment I didn't see the Tibet Vista logo or even my name but after looking close enough I found 'Phurbu' who was my tour guide. I don't do group tours but travel in Tibet is restricted for citizens who aren't Mainland Chinese people, I was prepared to adapt my way of travelling for this special once in a lifetime trip. Lhasa's new city looked like a shell, complete with a brand new feel that didn't give me life but we were on the way to the old city that would be the winner of that competition! It felt amazing making it to Lhasa after such a long journey and waiting for close to a year made it worth everything! Go, T!

Passing the Potala Palace didn't feel real, the symbol of the Dalai Lama passed me by as the minibus made its way to my hotel, it was reality but it felt like I was dreaming! Beijing East Road bustled and got on with its hustle serving its white-washed Tibetan style buildings, the old city had so much life it made the new city look sterile and dormant! Checking into my hotel didn't take much stress but my previous reception experience challenged a few issues that I had during the first night. Lunch was tasty, I had a Tibetan Bobi that was like an Indian Chapati served with chicken and a cool Raita. Making the most of the free time I found a quiet Tibetan tea lounge, I had some milk tea and tried Yak Butter tea for the first time, ordering a potato dish for my tea was amazing, that dish had an Indian flavour for sure! Chilled out and centred I went mad by buying a tonne of incense sticks as Tibet was the one! The tour would start the next morning, I was so in love with Lhasa!

Heavenly Tibet...

Joseph Harrison 

26 April 2017

April: Through The Years...

So, April has come around with equally exciting opportunities for new memories to be made. Looking through the years I'm going to see what 2012, 2015 and 2017 served to me during the month of April. From my time in Newark, NJ to working in a hotel as a receptionist after my graduation its sure been a mix of experiences. Oh yes, China saved me! April slayed after all!

Turning back the hands of time it feels right for April 2012 to make a comeback. My third month during my Newark days in New Jersey served nothing but straight up Ironbound Realness! The whole time around April 2012 stands as a blur at this moment but I still remember the simple things, well maybe some of the more major moments if I take a few moments to think about them. Working as a Passenger Services Agent for a British flag carrier airline gave me all the insight to the workings of a pre-departure flight experience at that point. My third month working at Newark Liberty International Airport was character building to say the least, well the commute was an eye-opener if nothing else! Breaking from the state-line of New Jersey I got myself on a Pennsylvania bound train to experience Philadelphia for the day, I should of stayed overnight but that would of got me into trouble! The Northeast Coast was on fire!

Lady Liberty had my attention, fresh from my assault of Philadelphia I was good with staying closer to my Newark, NJ location. Boarding a Liberty Ferry across Jersey's stretch of the Hudson River unlocked the key to Ellis Island Immigration Centre and the legendary Statue of Liberty in one afternoon! I was schooled about America's immigration boom and how those dreamers were processed after their epic voyages to the supposed 'New World', it was so much more than I had previously expected. Saving the best for last it had to be the lady herself, standing on-point with her binding tablet. A gift from the French this NYC icon served nothing but truth and freedom, I was blown away by her strength as she stood poised to ward the evils away from New York City and it's New Jersey sister! I tried to open my eyes as it felt like I was dreaming, but as sure fire I was living that moment for real! April 2012 and it's exact events might be hazy but I remembered greatness!

April 2015 saw me in very different circumstances than my Jersey days at the airport, I had finished university and was working as a hotel receptionist at a Walsall hotel. To escape that situation I used the best of my West Midlands location with two day trips away from my hometown to Leicester and Cambridge. Leicester served an Indian spice to my April day of discovery, I used that East Midlands city as a distraction because I was in the middle of hatching a master-plan to reach China, I thanked Leicester for its sanctuary. The hotel had its moment, earning my coins to get where I wanted to be was the reason, I was experiencing a job that fitted my degree but I was desperately seeking a new international adventure. Biding my time I had faith in April 2015 to lay the foundations to my then next move. Days out like I had to Leicester at that point made all the difference. April 2015 done!

A second outing was just the ticket, going further south than Birmingham I trekked down to Cambridge for a lovely spring day. That upper class student city served a sense of Oxford with its historic school houses, showing me how the other half get the chance to study. I had the best experience at UCB in Birmingham so I wasn't bitter by what regal buildings Cambridge offered its student whatsoever. Punting impressed me much, that scenic view wasn't just pleasing for my sight it got me away from my daily routine. Kings College and the winding River Cam gave me a sense of something I needed at that point, my life was in the works at that point if truth be told. Stopping in my brothers uni dorm the night before my early morning coach I was reminded of my former city life. Life had changed beyond belief for me since my uni days but I had my priorities straight at that point, it would of only been a matter of weeks before I had my golden ticket. I just had to go a little further!

In the present, during April 2017 I stand with my feet firmly on Chinese soil, I got what I wanted and even though I almost had it taken away from me I made every moment of this month count! Hangzhou, China had me covered for the Tomb Sweeping Festival as I had a trip booked that was as pretty as a picture. Touching down on-board my China Southern flight from Wuhan I wasted no time, admiring the Feilai Peak Scenic Area to see the mystical looking grotto's. Like a prayer I found Hangzhou's Lingyin Temple without stress, embracing the busy nature of the temple I got my photos and a great feel for that colourful place of worship without much thought, there was something about my 22nd destination within Mainland China that I loved! I had kicked the woes of April 2015 away like a football and scored the winning goal! Oh, teaching is still blessed! Yes, I'm still at the kindergarten and I hope that remains.

China Highlights had me booking up my third trip in less than two years, being the second trip of 2017 with that company after my Harbin extravaganza, I was pumped for the day of Hangzhou delights I had been promised. Concurring the first Chinese Yuan note, the 'Three Pools Mirroring the Moon' gave me life for certain as the beauty of Hangzhou's West Lake blew me away without question. Lunch was enjoyed a the Chenghuang Pavilion, those delectable Hangzhou snacks satisfied my stomach without a doubt! Breezing through a museum about Chinese Medicine was over in a flash, I'm just not a museum type! Picking my own tea leaves within the plantations where Hangzhou's famous Green Tea grows was an experience for certain, I looked the part throughout! I'll be ending April 2017 with my Hainan Airlines flight to Lanzhou in-preparation for my overnight train to Lhasa! Through the three April's mentioned I have been blessed in different ways, blessed never stressed!

Amazing April!

Joseph Harrison