Friday, June 27, 2014

Iconic Lhasa

Most images of Lhasa include the Potala Palace. This is the seat of the Dalai Lama and is currently unoccupied. There is a silver lining to this, of course. If it was occupied, it wouldn't be open to tourists. On our first full day in Lhasa, we went to the Potala Palace. One of my comments back to the guide and his travel agency was that this should be done on the last day instead of the first.

The Potala Palace is on a hill. Not only that, but it is 13 stories high and you have to climb to the top and then work your way down. I am sure it would have been a lot easier after we had acclimatized to the altitude. I warned the guide that we would need to take it slow. I remembered my 3 days in Cusco, Peru. Cusco is all steps and slopes and I would go up 3 steps, stop and catch my breath, then go up 3 more. Lhasa was easier. I could do 5-10 before I had to stop and catch my breath!

As soon as we entered, we saw a number of Tibetans dancing. This is a lovely dance, sort of like country line dancing. It is meant as exercise. We saw it in Xining also. I love the idea that someone brings the music and sets up and everyone around can join in and exercise together. We should see if we can start something like this in the US.


That is our destination. We started behind it, walked around and then entered and started up the slope. All around us are people. Tibetans don't go anywhere without a prayer wheel and/or prayer beads in their hands. If they need their hands, the beads go around their neck or are wrapped around like a bracelet.




These people are all engaged in completing a kora. A kora is a clockwise perambulation around a sacred place. There are 3 kora routes around Lhasa - an inner, a middle and an outer. The inner one is just around the Potala Palace. The outer-most one is around the old city with the middle one somewhere in between. Since we were visiting in a sacred month, there were large numbers of people walking a kora in most of the places we visited. Some people do it prostrating themselves at every step.


Prayer bells along the kora route.


There are two parts to the palace. The white part is administrative offices. The red part is the Dalai Lama's living quarters. The few yellow buildings are special ones.


The entrance to the palace.



Starting to head up the stairs. You start with stairs and a few slopes, and then more stairs..

The only good thing about climbing is the view you get when you look down!


The transmission tower is on Medicine hill, where there used to be a temple. There is still a college of medicine there. Tibetan traditional medicine is quite well-known.

We finally reach a building! But there are more steps to climb. But now we can see beautiful interior decoration like this doorway. The rooms inside the actual palace, where the Dalai Lama lived and worked, are out-of-bounds to cameras so I can't show those to you.

This is the entrance to the Dalai Lama's quarters. There are 3 sets of steps going up. The center one is for the exclusive use of the Dalai Lama. At this point we have climbed through the outer buildings and gates.

I hope you can see how the roofs are receding....


The rooms inside are not big except for the assembly rooms. There are beautiful statues in every room and decoration everywhere. It is all quite colorful but also dim because there aren't a lot of big windows. There are no pictures of the Dalai Lama anywhere. Where he would have sat, there is an effigy crowned by a picture of the Buddha of Mercy, of whom the Dalai Lama is an incarnation. I will contrast this later after we get to Shigatse.

After climbing all the way to the top, we worked our way down the palace through the quarters and then start down the hill to the city.


We always hear about the wonderful things in the Vatican Museum, or the Louvre, or the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We don't hear about the beautiful, sacred and wonderful things in the Potala Palace, the National Palace Museums of China, Japan and Korea. There are as many sacred and spiritually empowering objects in Asia as there are in Europe. Tibet is a very spiritual country and its people live their lives immersed in their religion. I was humbled by it.





Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The 24 hour train ride into Tibet

We booked a soft sleeper which was very comfortable. There are 4 berths, two below and 2 above, in each compartment. All are well cushioned and sheets, pillows and a quilt like cover are provided. In contrast to first class sleepers on Indian Railways, the lower berths don't fold up into seats. On the Indian trains, the berth has a tall back and a narrower seat. During the day, you lift the back up and you have a nice comfortable seat to sit on. Everyone sits on the lower berths during the day. At night, you fold down the back and get a wider bed to sleep on. At this point the occupant of the upper berth takes his- or her-self off to the upper regions. This also provides a bit more space between the berths during the day.
The Chinese train didn't seem to have this fold down feature. There was a cushioned back rest on the wall and the berth was wide enough to sleep on. This meant it was not all that comfortable during the day to sit on and my back was not happy despite using pillows as cushions. There is a door which can be closed off at night for privacy. Above the door, there is a space to put suitcases. You have to lift them up over the top berth's height to get them in there. We did it in two stages. Put them on the top berth. Then climb up onto the top berth and lift them up the couple of feet to slide into the space. The space was large enough for 4 carry-on sized suitcases. One could also put suitcases under the lower berths if they were not very high. Our roll-along carry-on sized suitcases did not fit. They were too tall when laid flat on the ground.
The prices are higher for the lower berths. The occupant of the upper berth, if not related to the occupant of the lower berth, has to stay up there or sit politely for a while on the lower berth. It definitely is not something that my upper berth companion did a lot. There are also fold down seats in the hall way outside the door that one can use to look out of the window on the other side. She spent some time on those seats also but they don't have backs. I couldn't sit on them for too long. Since we had one upper and one lower berth, I spent most of my time on the lower berth.
The train has large windows - all the better to see the surrounding vistas. In looking back at my photos, I remembered that I took most of the pictures with our DSLR camera because they were so beautiful. Therefore, you are stuck with the few that I took with my phone, which is my primary means of photography.
We left at 4 pm from Xining. At first we rolled past grasslands that had sheep and cows grazing on them. There is also a lovely lake that one passes about an hour out of Xining. Darkness came way too early, around 8 pm. We had brought food - some rotis that Indians use as travel food, and snacks. We also had ready-to-eat shelf stable meals, disposable plates and spoons and a metal container. All Chinese trains, and train stations, and airports, have hot and cold drinking water dispensers. Tea containers are ubiquitous and people refill them regularly at these places. My plan was to get hot water in the metal dish and heat up the bag with the meal, changing the water out as needed. But we had no appetite so we stuck with just the rotis and snacks and water the entire 24 hours. We didn't even investigate the dining car because it was packed when we looked. We had 4 bottles of water that we went through without any difficulty.
Our traveling companions were a Chinese business man, on the lower berth, who was going to Lhasa and a Chinese woman, on the upper berth, who was getting off at an in-between station. The train goes from various places to Lhasa and I don't know where our train originated. Her station was due to arrive at 2 am. She spoke some English, he spoke none. The train goes over a high pass during the night and oxygen is pumped into the coaches to compensate for the thin air. We had read that oxygen masks would be provided, which would deliver a better flow of oxygen in case it was needed. But no amount of asking got us any masks. The train attendant who checked our passports, Tibet permits and tickets said he'd bring them later but none materialized at any point. The oxygen did flow from the vents in the wall, though.
We had started taking medication for high altitude the day before we left. We used this in South America also, and didn't see any reason to avoid it. But we were worried about getting sick inspite of the medication. We needn't have been. We didn't get any symptoms of altitude sickness but we did find the thin air physically exhausting. It wasn't too bad on the train as we didn't do anything except sit around. I had brought knitting but I spent a lot of time sleeping, watching the scenery go by and taking photos.
The man brought peanuts in the shell and boiled eggs which he shared with us. The woman had a noodle bowl (very common picnic and travel food in China) for dinner and a number of seedless cucumbers for snacking. Cucumbers and cherry tomatoes are considered fruits here and are sold in the fruit shops and I've been given cherry tomatoes for dessert along with cut fruit. Peanuts in the shell, or nuts/seeds in the shell are also a common travel food in China. It helps pass the time and provides for snacking. Sunflower seeds in the hull are also popular. We ate a few of the peanuts but declined the eggs. He had a friend on the train who visited us from time to time. The friend was more talkative than our compartment-mate. I have a Chinese dictionary on my phone and we used that and a lot of pantomiming to communicate. We plugged in my multi-USB charger into the one outlet and charged all our phones at once. My husband's bluetooth headphones were of interest and I tried to get them to work on the Chinese Android phone but couldn't find the setting to pair the headphones with the phone.
The woman did some translation while she was there as she spoke some English. She said she was rusty as she hadn't spoken since she left school. But her English was a lot better than my Mandarin. We used the dictionary with her also to ask about the oxygen masks. The train attendant came and woke her up about an hour before her station, so she could get ready. I thought that was a nice service, but I would have set my own alarm anyway.
I found the upper berth quite comfortable and slept well but was still tired due to the altitude (or the sitting around, take your pick). I slept in so missed some of the early morning light on the mountains. My husband said he got some beautiful photos but I haven't had a chance to look at all of them yet. Hence no photos from that set here.
The water on the ground was frozen in the morning. We passed streams and puddles that were frozen white. There wasn't any snow on the ground though.
That rose in the middle of the photo is the decor in the cabin. There was a table near the window with the rose in a vase and a thermos on it. Our cabin-mate was using the rest of the table for food so we didn't get to use much of it at all.
You can see more of the interior decor here.

We didn't see any trees in the morning. It was all tussocky grass like this. Beautiful lakes occasionally. We also got a bit of commentary via the PA system describing the geography of the area we were going through and also how the train system is being environmentally sensitive. There were fences and we could see yaks and cows grazing. I was surprised at the fences but I'm not sure why.
Lots of power lines everywhere along the train route. That didn't surprise me at all.
One of the lakes we passed. As I said, the vistas were so wide that I decided the DSLR with its telephoto and wide angle lenses was a better vehicle to capture the scenery. One day, I'll post some more photos taken with it.

Time seemed to go by slowly at times and fast at others. I expected to be bored out of our minds half way through the trip. I had brought playing cards, knitting, books on my iPad, and my China guide book to keep me occupied. As I said, I knit a bunch but that was it. Before we knew it, we were rolling into Lhasa.

Lhasa station is brand new. It is huge, like most new Chinese stations and airports. We had a rolling carry-on each and then either a backpack or a messenger bag. We also had a plastic bag each with things we needed on the train like toilet paper, water bottles, snacks, etc. as it was not easy to open and close our suitcases on the train. So everything we needed was in the backpack, messenger bag and these two small plastic carry bags.
Usually, when exiting a train station, you have to show your ticket and it is usually collected. In this case, we were asked to also show our passports and were promptly escorted to a police checkpoint outside. There were a few Chinese nationals who had to go through this also. They don't have passports, just their ID cards. The police lady made a copy of our passports and the permit and let us go.
The sun was hot and bright at 4 pm. We had to haul our luggage and ourselves a few hundred yards out of the way to the checkpoint and then back over and out to where the cars, guides and families were waiting.

I thought I would die as we walked down towards the people waiting. It was hot, I was out of breath, my messenger bag felt heavy and the suitcase felt as if it was loaded with lead. We met our guide who draped silk scarves around our neck - a common sign of respect in Tibet. Then we had to walk another quarter of a mile to the car park before we could rest. It was the second worst time during the trip - the first being in the station at Xining.
But I survived and we drove off to our hotel to rest. A bit later, our guide met us in the lobby and we walked to the Barkhor for dinner. I was surprised by how tiring it was to walk on flat ground but it was doable at a slow pace. My heart kept racing and I felt as if I was walking through molasses. But the food was good and we were soon tucked into our beds, looking forward to the delights of the next few days.
Oh, and the toilets on the train. Not nearly as bad as I expected and perfectly functional. I had read horror stories on various blogs and it was nothing like that at all. The train overall was not the cleanest that I've seen but it was acceptable. The high-speed trains between Shanghai and other Chinese cities are very clean and set a very high standard. This was more like your average US commuter train. But given that people were on it for days, it was understandable.
One interesting phenomenon in China is that you will see the cleaning crew lined up waiting to get on board. They are usually grouped by coach (1-2 per coach) or for a few coaches (5-7 people) with their cleaning equipment all neatly standing in line. This is also true in the airports. One day I noticed a group of uniformed women clustered under the jetway in an airport. I wondered what they were doing there, till I realized that a) it was raining and b) they had cleaning equipment with them. They were under the jetway for protection agains the rain! They are always uniformed. Uniforms are very popular in China and you can tell staff by their uniforms, whether they are cleaning staff or admin staff, or shop/bank staff, or even the people manning the information booth in the mall.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Cable wranglers

For some reason, I have a lot of cables. I travel with a lot of cables. Cables to charge my phone and my tablet, my laptop power cord, and last but not least, at least 3 sets of headphones. I am a headphone freak. I have different headphones for different things and I am paranoid that one of them will quit on me so I have spares.
I have been looking for a good way to handle the cables when they are rolled up. They always become tangled when I store them. I have seen cable ties but none of them appealed to me. As a result I have been dreaming of making my own, searching the web for ideas, etc.
In December, I bought some Sugru for another purpose. But since I wasn't sure how much I would need, I bought 2 packages. Each has 3 individual pouches of Sugru. They only last about 6 months as it dries up. I had stored the packages in the refrigerator, which is supposed to make them last longer. But I was still worried about their becoming unusable and therefore, I wanted to use Sugru for my cable ties, if I could. But I couldn't find a good solution with all my searching.
And that is why I designed my own. It is a pretty simple design and it works quite well. I made a few small ones over the weekend, which work well for the headphone and the charging cables. But they were too small for the laptop power cord.
I made one more today and documented the process.

1: the package of Sugru
2: the materials needed - Sugru sticks to most things but not skin or plastic wrap.
3: Everything ready to make the power cord wrangler - lay a piece of plastic wrap on top of the working surface; wrap the pencil or pen (aka the mold) in plastic wrap
4: Cut open a pouch of Sugru; knead it a bit to soften it up; gently roll it out into an even snake; flatten the snake a bit by patting it on the plastic wrap; wind it carefully in a spiral on the pencil/pen mold; leave to cure for 24 hours

After it has cured, you have a cable wrangler. These are the smaller ones I made last weekend. As you can see, the one I made today is a bit longer. I used a whole pouch for one wrangler vs. making 2 from a pouch like I did earlier. I hope this will be enough to hold the power cord neatly. If not, I have 2 more pouches and will make one with both pouches.
I hope this gives you some ideas on what you can do to custom build your own cable wranglers.
We will return to Tibet with the next post. I have the train photos organized so we will go on the train to Lhasa.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Xining - our gateway to Tibet

I was a little nervous about Xining as it seemed way out there. I didn't doubt for a minute that it was a lovely city located in beautiful scenery. I was worried about what we'd get to eat, what the bathrooms would be like, and where we would sleep. I am quite adventurous when it comes to seeing places but I have two non-negotiables: clean bathrooms and beds. The food is usually the least of my worries, but I came back from the Yangtze River cruise with a bad case of food poisoining. It lasted 4 days before I went to the doctor and got antibiotics. I didn't want a repeat of that experience, especially at the beginning of a trip. So we packed a ton of food - ready to eat meals that needed heating, Indian travel food (a type of chapatti that keeps for days and can be eaten at room temperature), snacks - which weighed down our suitcases. I also had packed for every medical issue - from skin rashes to colds and stomach upsets. I usually travel light and this was the opposite. It was Boy Scout packing - be prepared for every eventuality.

The hotel in Xining was OK. Clean but barely so. The bathroom was clean and functional but there was a moldy bath mat in the corner and the shower grout had mold on it also. The bed was hard with a pillow that felt as if it was stuffed with straw. It was labeled a 4-star hotel but I would have rated it about a 2. Anyway, it satisfied our needs and we were only there one night.

The next morning we headed out to the Kumbum monastery. It is the birthplace of TsongKhaPa, the founder of the Gelugpa or Yellow hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. He was the teacher of the first Dalai Lama, who is the head of the sect. It is about an hour drive from Xining.

The monastery is gorgeous. I can't show you most of it because we couldn't take photos inside. I recommend you do a search for images of the monastery and you'll see how rich and colorful it is. It is set on a hillside

There are vendors at the entrance selling all sorts of tourist kitsch. Fake Tibetan dresses - more Mongolian than Tibetan, I think - and the ever present beads and prayer necklaces.

Looking back at the entry plaza from the gate, you can see the hills and the buildings around the monastery. There are pillars in the entry plaza. I'm not sure what they mean. The guide couldn't explain either.

We bought our tickets and headed in. The first thing you see is this set of chorten. Apparently this is the only monastery with 6 in a row.

Then there are the golden roofs.

This is the small golden roof. The larger one is over the building that houses the tree where TsongKhaPa was born. Tibetan architecture involves a type of wood that allows buildings to breathe. We saw more of this in the Potala Palace. It is the section between the windows that is made of this wood.

We saw a lot of worshippers prostrating themselves. They take a vow to do 100,000 prostrations if something they want happens. They arrange to stay in the vicinity for weeks or months and spend the entire day prostrating themselves. There were a large number of them at Kumbum. It was impressive to see so many people exhibit such intense devotion.

We came out into this central courtyard after going through the various shrines. The building you see is the outside of one of them.

This is another view from the same courtyard but one that shows the golden roofs of the shrines better.
There was a lot of going up slopes as we walked through the monastery. It was tough. Xining is not as high as Lhasa but it is still higher than sea-level and we were slow and got out of breath fast. People recommend staying 3-4 days at Xining to make adjustment to Lhasa easier. But we only spent a day there and then a day on the train.

After walking through the monastery, we went to the library. The set of buildings around the library included this gorgeous carved wooden one.

Just on the other side of this building is a climate controlled one that contains the famous yak butter sculpture. The monastery is known for this. The monks make the sculpture in the winter, mixing mineral colors with yak butter to make the sculpture. It is then kept in this cool building all year.

Yes, all that is sculpted out of yak butter. One of the things we learned was that there are two kinds of yak butter. One is not actually yak butter, it sounded as if it was made from palm oil, and is used for the lamps in the temples. The other is yak butter and is consumed in tea and other consumables. Many worshippers bring bags of the 'yak butter' and spoon it into the lamps as they go through the shrines. This variety comes in plastic bags. Some people also bring it in melted form in thermoses to the temples. I never saw the consumable one in raw form.

Once we were done with the monastery, we drove back to Xining and had lunch. Then we had 2-3 hours to kill till our train. The guide could have taken us to some other place in Xining - it is supposed to have a lovely mosque - but she didn't. We weren't prepared with our guide book so we didn't know to ask. We hung out at a coffee shop till it was time to head to the train.

At the train station, we had a l-o-n-g walk from the car to the station. It was hot (mid-day) and sunny and we were hauling our suitcase. We only had one carry-on sized suitcase and a bag for each of us and the suitcases rolled. But it was still work to drag them to the station. Once inside, we got to sit in a special waiting room for people with tickets to the soft sleeper section of the train. I wanted to go to the platform early but the attendant at the waiting room wouldn't let me. This train station is a temporary train station as they are rebuilding Xining's train station. The new one will open next year.

When it was time, she finally let us go. But, as I had feared, we had to climb up a set of steps to the platform. Because of its temporary nature, there weren't any escalators. Yup. altitude, stairs and suitcases. Not a good combination. Plus, the train was already there and we knew we had to find our coaches before it left. So we hauled everything up the stairs and found ourselves at the tail end of the train. Our tickets said we were in coach +1. We were at coach 14. Yikes!

We hustled up the length of the train, feeling as if our hearts were going to jump out of our chests. It was one of the worst physical moments of the trip. We got all the way to the front, stopping periodically to ask where our coach was. Well, we didn't ask often enough. Once we got to the front, we were sent back to about coach 5 or 6. I had been looking for a coach numbered +1 but didn't see it. Completely out of breath and exhausted, we got on and found that our suitcases did not fit under the lower sleeper bench.The only other place was an alcove above the door - above the upper sleeper bench. We did not have the energy to get the suitcases up there. We just collapsed on the lower bench and caught our breath. Our two companions in the compartment did not speak English. One knew a smattering, the other none at all. I used my Mandarin-English dictionary to ask about oxygen masks. The train is supposed to provide them as we go through a pass that is at 16,000+ feet. We never got the masks despite our asking the attendants multiple times.

But that is a story for the next post...

Saturday, June 7, 2014

A visit of a lifetime

I realize I have been silent for a long time. I have not lost my desire to blog, don't worry. I just have been incredibly busy at work. Since the beginning of April I have only been home a week here and there. Most of the travel has been business travel but there were two vacations, which are now added to my blog backlog.

But I want to give you a description of the trip we just took. Photos will come later as I need to organize them. I didn't want to wait to record my first impressions so here's a text only post.

We went to Tibet for 6 days. I was very nervous - nervous about the altitude, nervous about bathrooms (yes, I am picky about those), nervous about falling ill. You see, we took a 4 day cruise on the Yangtze river in April and I came home with a horrible case of food poisoning that lasted 4-5 days and needed antibiotics to end it. Fortunately that started right as we returned so I was home for most of the illness. I was afraid that it might repeat while traveling. My fears were all unfounded.

We flew to Xining, which is in a province to the north and east of Tibet. Its altitude is 2200 m/7200 ft. We visited a lovely monastery there - called the Kumbum or Ta'er - which is the birthplace of the founder of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is the current head of the Yellow Hat sect. Our objective was to start getting used to the altitude gradually. It was tough. The monastery sits on a hill (as many of them do) and climbing was hard, but we took it easy.

Later that afternoon, we took the train to Lhasa. It is a 24 hour train ride that goes over a pass that is 5072 m/16640 ft. I thought I would die as we boarded the train. We kept trying to get to the platform early but the train staff wouldn't let us. Then, when the train pulled in, we found we had to haul our suitcases up a flight of steps and then the length of the platform as we looked for our coach. With the higher altitude in Xining, this meant my heart was racing and I was gasping for breath. But we made it.

We had a soft sleeper which means two berths, one above the other; 4 to a compartment. We were told that the service was good but we didn't notice any service at all. There are announcements about the landscape and locations in Mandarin and English. The service consisted of ticket-checking, passport/permit checking and that was about it. Foreigners have to have a travel permit in addition to a Chinese visa to visit Tibet and have to go with a travel agency - no solo trips.

Oxygen is pumped into the train as it goes over the high pass and we were told we'd get oxygen masks in case the oxygen mixed with the air wasn't enough. No masks materialized, but fortunately we didn't need them! The train provides pillows, sheets and blankets. We had packed food (over packed food) but neither of us had much appetite so we didn't eat much. We tried to drink a lot of water as hydration is important to avoid altitude sickness. We were also taking Diamox for the same reason.

The scenery was everything we had expected. We started in grasslands that fed sheep and cows. Then there were tall mountains, flat plains - mostly devoid of trees - with lots more sheep and yaks, and lakes. I brought books, cards and knitting/spinning to occupy the time but spent it mostly looking at the scenery and taking photos.

On arrival in Lhasa, I experienced my next near-death experience. On the train, we pretty much weren't doing much. But when we got to Lhasa, we had to walk, dragging our suitcases, through a huge, brand-new station, to a police checkpoint where they made copies of our passports, and then out along a long path to where the guide was waiting. Then we had to go a quarter of a mile or so to the car-park. It was around 4 pm and sunny and HOT! Between that and the 3490 m/11450 ft altitude, I was breathless and exhausted. All we did though was go to the hotel and rest. But walking to dinner was taxing.

On the morning of the third day, we want to the Potala Palace - the winter home of the Dalai Lama - if he was in Tibet. Most of Lhasa is flat but the palace is on a hill. And then there are 13 floors of the palace to climb! We took it slowly but were very tired once it was done. The palace was everything I expected and more. Gorgeous views, incredible treasures, sanctity and antiquity. It was poignant to see a picture of the thousand-armed Avalokitesvara  - the Buddha of Compassion - instead of the Dalai Lama.

After lunch we went to the Jokhang temple - which was mercifully flat. I felt really calm and serene in these places, which have had centuries of worship in them. The temple contains a statue of the Buddha which is said to be over 2000 years old - blessed by the Buddha himself. It is the heart of Tibetan Buddhism.

We went to Shigatse by car the next day, climbing over 3 high passes which are around 5000 m. We didn't do much at any of them except get out and take photos. Therefore, there wasn't any altitude issues except for the fact that just getting in and out of the minivan caused hearts to race. It was an 8 hour drive over windy mountain roads with bumps due to frost heaving. We made a brief stop at Gyantse to visit another monastery.

The hotel was quite modern but it was on a main road so it was very noisy and I couldn't open the windows due to the noise. The room was warm so sleep was tough. Tibet gets quite warm during the afternoon - up to 28C/80F - but cools down to 11C/50F at night. The sun is very hot due to the altitude.

Our next visit was to the Tashilhunpo monastery, home to the Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is second only to the Dalai Lama. The current Panchen Lama is in Beijing but the monastery has the same air of veneration and sanctity that the Potala Palace and the Jokhang temple have. There was climbing here and it wasn't easy but it was getting easier. And it wasn't as high as the Potala Palace!

We then headed back to Lhasa by a flat road that wound along the Brahmaputra river. It was not a bad drive but there are many police checkpoints along these roads. Sometimes they want to see our travel permits and passports. At other times, they assign a time span to cover a certain distance (40 km in 55 mins) and you have to make sure you don't get to the next checkpoint earlier than that or risk a fine. This meant stopping at various pop-up rest areas and waiting for time to pass before heading out again.

Our last morning in Lhasa was spent at Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama. Right before the current Dalai Lama left Tibet, he had just moved into new living quarters here. We saw where he slept, where he meditated, the old-fashioned radio in his sitting room, the room where his mother stayed when she visited (remember, he left home really young to be reared in the monastery), his bathroom, his throne and assembly hall. There is even a painting of him on a wall - the only picture of him anywhere.

Then it was time to fly home.

It is a holy month in Tibet as the Buddha's birth and enlightenment anniversaries occur during this month. The name of the festival is Saka dawa and as a result, there were many people at the monasteries and temples. Tibetans are very devout - offering money and butter (for lamps) as well as prostrating themselves and walking clockwise circuits around the holy places (kora). Some of them even prostate themselves around the circuit. They have a prayer wheel in one hand and a string of beads in the other - chanting and praying as they walk or sit. Because of the festival, many of them were wearing traditional dress, so it wasn't unusual to see a young woman in traditional dress, high heels and a purse.

I was afraid we wouldn't get vegetarian food but it seems many Tibetans are vegetarians these days. Also, due to the festival, many of them are vegetarian this month. So food was not a problem at all. I didn't have much appetite but our regular Lhasa restaurant had a good selection of vegetarian Tibetan, Nepali and Indian dishes, which meant I could get exactly what I felt like. Lunch on vegetable momos, dine on dal makhani, breakfast on fresh yogurt and unfiltered honey. They even eat yogurt and rice, like us South Indians! It wasn't the greatest food but it was tasty and readily available close by and you can't beat that combination.

It is good to be back at sea level again.  I am glad I had the opportunity to visit

Photos will come with time as will photos and write-ups on the other trips that I am still working on. I know I left you in the middle of Australia and part-way through Tokyo but I need to do something better with the photos before I continue. There are just too many of them and I have to find a good organization system so I can find them when I want them. Thank you for staying with me!

There hasn't been a lot of fiber work either. I have been slowly trying to finish up last year's TdF project before this year's starts. I also knitted part of a shawl and ripped it out today because I am not enjoying the lace. I will start another one today or tomorrow with the yarn.