Tuesday 15 July 2014 | By Jess Keene |
As this was my first time to China, I had nothing but what I had read, and the stories of others, to guide my expectations.
I found Guangzhou to be a vibrant urban jungle, with a mass of huge skyscrapers, towering overpasses and throngs of smart, modern people. But amongst the seeming chaos, there are many, many hidden gems to be found. Wonderful, quaint parks are dotted amongst the high-rises, giving the city a strong sense of pride and community. The sparkling Pearl River meanders quietly through the city, washing the surrounding nightspots with a sense of calm and fun. And the blend of centuries old buildings, mixed with modern architecture, gives the impression that Guangzhou is proud of its past, but certainly is looking towards the future.
The magic of Tibet starts before you have even officially arrived. Flying over the mighty Himalaya ranges is a true treat in itself, and you just can’t help but feel excited for what you hope to find when you arrive.
After about a 45mins drive from the airport, through the Tibetan countryside, you arrive at Lhasa city. I guarantee, this will exceed your expectations. Years of public works have transformed Lhasa into a colourful and thriving city. Beautifully landscaped gardens line the streets, creating boulevards that invite promenading. Simple, but wonderfully decorated, buildings create atmosphere and charm. And of course, you cannot be in Asia without some chaotic driving to get your heart racing just that little bit.
Our first treat of the city was a visit to the Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Circuit. Located in the heart of Lhasa, the UNESCO site is an ultimate destination for Tibetan Pilgrims. Outside the Jokhang Temple, we see rows of people softly offering traditional prayers and prostrations to Buddha. As we shuffled our way inside with hundreds of Tibetans, we were met with the smells of yak butter oil and incense. A sense of anticipation grew, as we slowly moved towards the room that housed a beautiful, and incredibly sacred, golden statue of Buddha. As believed to be one of only three that were constructed in his lifetime, the awe of seeing this relic was incredibly humbling.
Next we slowly made our way around the holiest of Lhasa’s pilgrim circuits, the 1km Barkhor Circuit. Here we were fascinated by the true dedication of some pilgrims, performing a prostration every three steps. Moving together with the crowd, the sense of being part of something much bigger than ourselves was intoxicating.
Our second treat was a visit to the Potala Palace, the official winter residence of the Dalai Lama, and the highest ancient palace in the world. The grandeur of the palace was amplified by the fact that to get to the top, we would have to climb the 300 or so steps, which was not an easy prospect at this altitude. As we puffed our way to the top, we caught glimpses of Lhasa below.
The effort was well worth it, as inside was a true wonder. We toured the ceremonial hall, housing the magnificent throne of the Dalai Lama, and saw his private rooms and audience halls. All were beautifully decorated with murals, painted scrolls, carpets, canopies, and curtains. Inside we saw numerous sculptures of porcelain, jade, and fine objects of gold and silver. The palace was stunning, and would easily rival those of Europe. On our descent, we were treated with spectacular views of Lhasa, showing the bustling city surrounded by the mountains.
A rural town southwest of Lhasa, Gyantse is one of the least Chinese influenced towns in Tibet. The drive here is all about the journey, rather than the destination, as the 260km trip is a 6 hour drive up and over the mountains. You truly are on top of the world here, as the highest ascent reaches over 5000mts above sea level. Up here, we were treated to spectacular views of the world below, and crystal blue glacial lakes. So cold and high that rain turned to sleet, it was truly a memorable drive.
Gyanste is home to the Pelkor Chode Monastery, and ruins of a British built ‘Old Fort’ which overlooks the town and valley.
We visited the Monastery, which was an amazing sensory experience. We entered a dimly lit temple, and were surrounded by the overwhelming smell of incense and yak butter oil. The air was filled with the humming of mantras from the praying monks. Our gaze was drawn from bowls of brightly coloured powder, being carefully blessed (the monks were creating a floor Mandela), to the walls, that were decorated with 1000 individual paintings of Buddha. Wonder turned to great delight, when the monks cheekily carried out their work, laughing at their mishaps and pulling faces for our cameras. Outside the temples, the wonderful and welcoming nature of the monks was also seen, and their friendly smiles were heartfelt.
2 hours northwest of Gyanste, Shigatse is Tibet’s second largest city. Its main attraction is the Tashilhunpo Monastery, the proposed home of the Panchen Lama, or Buddha of Infinite Light.
This was the largest monastery we visited, and had a much different feel to it. Like the others, it was wonderfully decorated and full of magnificent and precious relics. But it was the monks that made this place special. At the time of our visit, almost every monk we saw was a young boy or a teenager. Much to our surprise, they acted far more like boys at a boarding school, than the humble and disciplined monks that we would expect. They laughed, played jokes on each other, play fought and gossiped like young boys would. They even had iphones hidden under their robes, as one nine-year-old monk sneakily pulled out as we were leaving one temple. This was certainly a lovely and memorable place.
We were lucky enough to travel business class. I was pleasantly surprised by my experience. I found the cabin staff to be friendly, helpful and accommodating. The food out of Australia was delicious. The food out of China was good, but perhaps a bit more inclined toward the Chinese palate. The seats were spacious and comfortable, and the entertainment was extensive and easy to use. Considering their fares are VERY competitive, this airline is (in my opinion) great value for money.
Our tour completely met my expectations, as Wendy Wu is often held in high regard. George, our Chinese guide, was friendly, approachable and happy. He organised our every need, be it our transportation, lunch orders or hotel check-ins. His behaviour was exemplary, and he was a true delight to have on the tour. Our Tibetan guide, Tenzhen, is an incredible man. Not only was he professional, knowledgeable and helpful, he was extremely cheeky and funny. He also demonstrated the greatness of his religion, showing deep integrity and kindness. His nature made the trip extremely memorable and special, and it was a pleasure to meet him.