Blessed to be a witness

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Friday, March 18th

Peeing at the Potala

We finally made it. We got up early enough to get in, and the front gate was open, so we got about a quarter of the way up the front of the building before we were turned back, and had to retreat to the side entrance we'd found the day before. Nice one, Chinese tourism people.

Yes, the sky really is this blue

We ascended the ferociously steep 115-metre hill to arrive panting at the base of the palace. The palace was open to pilgrims, and on the way up, smiling Tibetans would wish us "Tashi delek" - "good day", some shaking our hands, one even saying "how'd you do?" They wanted nothing but contact, something that put me to shame, since ninety per cent of anyone who greets you in the Tibetan quarter of the city is begging or selling something. The foreigner-price tickets were as steep as the hill, at 100 yuan, but it was worth the money.

Again, bereft of directions, we asended the White Palace floor by floor, occasionally circumnavigating the shrines the wrong way, and being pointed back by helpful monks. Here we were surrounded by chanting monks and prayer-wheel spinning peasants saying their mantra to strings of rosary beads. I don't know if it was the altitude, or the heady smell of incense and burning yak butter, the murmuring and droning of the worshippers, definitely gave me a feeling of... something. I'm not religious, but as we went through shrine after shrine, working our way around huge gold mandalas and up ladders, I became awestruck and not a little moved.

This feeling was soon to evaporate as we arrived on the roof of the Red Palace, and I took advantage of the WC. It's an amazing piece of architecture, but they sure didn't know plumbing. The toilet overhung the hillside, and was a slit in the floor with wooden blocks either side of it for your feet. I peed twenty metres down through thin air before it joined everything else on the hillside that had dropped through that hole over the past five hundred years. Heaven forbid one should drop one's wallet down there.

The 14th and current Dalai Lama's rooms were still there on the top of the palace, with some of his personal effects in place, such as an ornate clock. Though pictures of him are banned here, and references to him are few, they had at least preserved this. The only bad thing about the view from the roof was that the Potala Palace wasn't in it. Tomorrow we hope to climb the similarly steep hill opposite the palace to get the best view in Lhasa.

After lunch we tried to get to the Norbulinka, a park that contains the summer palaces of the Dala Lamas, including the last one built by the 14th before he fled Tibet, but the damn thing was shut until June. Again, surprise surprise, merely a fluttering paper sign in Chinese proclaimed this fact, though the fat, lethargic Chinese guard also gleefully informed us that it was closed. They really need to do something about tourism in this city, particularly because, apart from growing Chinese exploitation of the land around it, tourism makes up a significant part of the economy.

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