The Potala Palace in Lhasa

I spent my first week ever in Lhasa doing what the Tibetans called ‘chojel’ the Tibetan term for pilgrimage. Every day, we visited one or more places, joining the hundreds of pilgrims come from all over Tibet and a lesser flow of tourists, Chinese with a sprinkle of foreigners. It was the beginning of winter, when nomads and farmers have less work and find time to spend time in Lhasa, shopping, visiting and praying. I was told whole areas fill up for the winter months, while Lhasa residents leave for warmer areas, returning for Losar.

Front view of the Potala Palace. The White Palace, is on the left and the Red Palace on the right 
A visit to the Potala entitles climbing a total of 700 steps 
Door curtains made of yak hair, on the White Palace 


Bronze garuda 
This ventilation point gives and idea of the thickness of the walls. 


Ancient, unadorned pillars made from several tree trunks held together 


The Potala in the 40’s with the Great Kyigu hanging on the front. 


In the White Palace, the apartments of government officials in former times 


A pilgrim facing the White Palace 
The Eastern Terrace, point of entry to the White Palace and formerly used for religious ceremonies. 
Behind the Potala is a lake with the Naga House of Lukhang at its center. A favorite spot for ducks and geese on their way to south. 

I was particularly keen to see the 13th’s Mausoleum; many of the officials had donated jewelry to adorn the stupa, and Gyeten Namgyal, who later became a monk, gave his long earring, his most prized possession, and was very proud of having secured a conspicuous spot for it in the center of the South facing side. As Head of the Guild, he was in charge of creating and sewing all the brocade ornaments, appliqued banners and thangkas to hang in the area around the stupa. His design and execution of a large banner of the Three Kings was his first publicly acclaimed feat, and he was particularly delighted with a new technique of his invention that gave relief to the work.

There are over 300 steps to climb to get to the Eastern Terrace, a large platform used for ceremonies and ritual dances, from where one enters the White Palace. One only gets to see a small part, shepherded through the tiny rooms and chapels and up and down stairs as steep as ladders. We have one hour to get through the complex, entering through the White Palace which housed the government offices and into the red Palace of the Dalai Lamas which holds the mausoleums. The place was packed full of pilgrims and tourists and we need to keep a stable pace. The richness was extraordinary; cabinets stuffed with ancient clay and bronze statues, banners and brocades, thangkas of extraordinary quality. The mausoleums were marvels in their own right, but to my disappointment, the only one not to be open to view was that of the 13th. It was accessible only through rickety stairs which were deemed unsafe, and open to the public only during the New Year. Somewhere along the way, our guide pointed to a cabinet that made the whole width of an assembly hall; it housed the Great Kyigu.



Shoot on a Roof

A Day on a Nomad’s Rooftop
Pema Kyap always has a story to tell. A few years ago, Dechen wrote about him in her blog; she met him on and off at a Ritoma’s friend’s house where he often joined in for dinner and entertained with his colorful story. After a stint in prison for stealing televisions (he got caught when the television he was running off with dropped on his foot and has been limping ever since) his life took a better turn with his son being recognized as a lama, which meant status and material comfort all in one package. He renovated his isolated winter house and the local authorities brought electricity there just for his family, a single pole cutting across the landscape for several kilometers. Now, with his son studying in Labrang Monastery, he lives comfortably, dabbling in little schemes here and there and keeping a few animals. He likes hanging out with our team during photo shoots out on the grassland and is always handy lending us animal props; a lamb here, a horse there.





Passing up the props 
We had a major shoot last November and decided to set it up on his rooftop. We came to his little valley in our truck containing all the props, and borrowed more from him, mainly bunches of hay which we laid out as background. He proudly showed Yidam his collection of wild yak, or drong skulls, and during lunch entertained us with more of his stories.
Pema Kyap told us that every year, he drove several days Southwest into the Changthang grasslands where he met up with nomads who grazed their yaks in the most remote areas, in the proximity of drong herds. Drongs are seen as the ultimate, original  yak whose superior size and gait is a subject of great respect and admiration; as tall as 2 meters at the shoulder, they charge with their imposing horns, waving about their long, straggly belly hair and for this reason are better spotted from a distance. In summer, the drong bulls mingle with the herds of their domesticated cousins and breed with the dris. Pema Kyap travels a thousand kilometers to buy the offspring from these summer encounters to resell to Amdo nomads eager to improve their yak breed. Once, he also bought  drong skulls from the carcasses the Changthang nomads occasionally find, especially in the wetlands, and brought them back in his truck, where he hid them carefully, as drong hunting is strictly forbidden.  


He then went on to talk about the other dangerous creatures of the Chang Thang. At first he talked about the megeu, or Yeti, describing it as so mean and scary that the locals are wont to pronounce its name (like Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, I thought). His description of  the creature as extremely tall, standing upright and yellow in color sounded more like a tremo, or Brown Bear, indeed a very large and dangerous animal. According to Pema Kyap, this creature attacked people in their dwellings, scratching their faces with their claws (he claimed to have seen some of their victims) taking their provisions, scattering their possessions and killing their smaller animals for sport. A few weeks later, in Central Tibet, a local told me about the megeu, sighted by people he knew and similarly mean and dangerous. He refused to admit it was a brown bear, describing more what sounded like a giant ape.
Norzin and Baby D collecting hay for the shoot 
We remained on the roof and around the house most of the day. By afternoon, Yidam had struck a deal with Pema Kyap and bought all the drong skulls. He eyed the best pieces, but Pema Kyap threw in the more weathered ones into the bargain. He didn’t buy them as trophies, though as this concept is not present in Tibetan culture. Owning the skull or skin from a mighty animal is not about having killed it, but more about attributing its power to the individual. Killing wild animals is frowned upon and though some Tibetans did engage in it in the recent past, mainly responding to the explosion of the shatoush market and the material gain involved in its participation, protecting wildlife is seen in the same light as conserving one’s heritage for future generations. There is also an innate fear in Tibetans that creatures are driven to become smaller as their natural environment is gradually depleted and project that the drongs, like the yaks in many areas already have, will grow smaller with time. These skulls will be reminder of drong’s might for generations to come. 
Pema Kyap bringing a young gazelle borrowed from a neighbor as an animal prop for a shoot. Nomads often find orphaned gazelles and raise them until they are ready to return to the wild. 
Pema Kyap in his home, telling stories over lunch