Kia Ora Tibet

I'm a Kiwi who's currently living on the roof of the world in Lhasa.
These are the stories and photos of my adventures in Tibet: learning the language, exploring the country, discovering the culture, and meeting so many wonderful people.
All content is original, and questions are welcome.
copyright kiaoratibet2014.

The First Day of Shoton Festival:

Shoton festival is one of the biggest religious celebrations in Lhasa, beginning on the first day with a mass pilgrimage to Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery to see their giant thangka. The festivities then continue throughout the week at the Norbulinka (Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama) with picnicking and traditional Tibetan opera performances. 

My friends and I started our day at around 5:30am, leaving from Tibet University to catch a bus to Drepung Monastery. All of the roads near to the monastery were closed off for the day so we had to walk for a while in the dark to get to the base of Drepung Mountain, where everyone was funnelled into queues by soldiers and metal barriers. 

I thought there would be more tourists there because of how widely the festival had been advertised around the city and on tourist websites, but actually the majority of people in the queue with us were local Tibetans. Maybe the tourists come later when the sun is up and when there aren’t so many people. 

The queue slowed considerably as we began around the kora route, and this is where we spent probably close to two hours standing and shuffling, slowly inching closer to the thangka display site. From here we couldn’t see a thing, but we knew by the time that the ceremony had already begun. The ceremony typically begins at around 8am, and the thangka will only be displayed for a few hours, so even though we missed the unveiling at least we would get to see it before it was taken down. 

As we rounded a corner in the queue we were treated with the sight of just how far we still had to go - suddenly the whole route was revealed to us, and it was long and packed with people. Our group of friends was separated, and we just had to hope that we would find each other again at the top. I saw paramedics carrying out one old woman on a stretcher from further up in the queue, I don’t know what happened to her but I hope she was ok. 

After what felt like forever (thankfully I made some muffins the night before so we had snacks to eat as we waited) we reached the top and could actually see the thangka for the first time. It was stunning. I took dozens of photos on my camera, which were unfortunately lost, but I’m glad that I also thought to take photos on my phone so I have some record of the day still. 

We followed the crowds up along the side of the thangka and under it, where everyone was reaching up to touch the metal underside of the wall. Somewhere above us trumpets were played, but these were almost drowned out by the mix of prayers from the pilgrims and commands from the soldiers to move along. 

On the other side the crowds began to disperse, taking several different routes either into the monastery, around the kora, up the mountain, or into the ruins nearby. It was raining lightly, but people set up picnics nonetheless. We headed down to join some other friends at the monastery tea house for some refreshingly hot sweet tea and dumplings and to recount our experiences of the morning before carrying on to Sera Monastery for the afternoon. 

Next year I would love to get to the monastery even earlier to see the whole unveiling ceremony. Our visas will expire just a week before Shoton festival next year, so we’ll have to try our best to convince the powers above that we should get extensions for the festival. Here’s to hope! 

Summer snow in Lhasa, Tibet

Summer snow in Lhasa, Tibet

A family works together to string their prayer flags across a narrow valley near Pabongkha Monastery, north of Lhasa

A ridge line covered in prayer flags north of Lhasa city, Tibet

A ridge line covered in prayer flags north of Lhasa city, Tibet

Tibetans dressed in their finest clothing and jewellery enjoy the carnival atmosphere at the Nagchu Horse Racing festival, August 2014

Bye Bye Camera

Monday here was the first day of one of Lhasa’s biggest festivals: Shoton Festival ཞོ་སྟོན་དུས་ཆེན་, the “Yoghurt Feast Festival”. 

The day was wonderful - we left Tibet University at 5:30am to head to Drepung Monastery to see their giant thangka along with thousands of other pilgrims and tourists. After a hectic morning at Drepung and lunch at the teahouse there we caught local buses to Sera Monastery to see their giant thangka too. The weather surprisingly held up for most of the day, only becoming really stormy in the early evening as we were leaving Sera Monastery at last to head home. 

There was however one thing that really upset my day: during the bus ride from Drepung Monastery to Sera Monastery my camera was stolen from my bag. 

Catching the buses that day was crazy, there were sooooo many people all trying desperately to get on each one (we were lucky just to get into the bus and have something to hold onto) and once inside the bus there were so many people crushing me from each side that I couldn’t protect my bag, which was hanging at my hip as usual. It was zipped up closed, and I never would have suspected that someone would steal from me on a holy day such as this among pilgrims, but I guess I was wrong. 

(Photo: People struggling to get onto the bus outside Drepung Monastery.)

Without me noticing them, the person (I have no idea who it might have been) managed to open my bag, take out my lovely big DSLR camera with it’s nice big zoom lens attached, and hide it elsewhere. I never even knew a thing until we were off the bus and walking towards the main gate of Sera Monastery. 

My local friends were shocked and quite upset that someone would do such a thing on a holy day, and especially a local Tibetan person (there were only Tibetans standing around me in the bus), but they also comforted me by explaining that according to Tibetan belief to have something stolen from you really means that there are obstacles being cleared from your path, and it is positive in the long run. 

I hold no grudge against the person who did it: I have insurance so I can get another one, but they must have been so desperate to do something like stealing on a holy day and the action will have generated some pretty bad karma for them. When I made a police report later in the afternoon it was pretty clear that I would never see my camera again or find out who took it - there were just too many people there that day and apparently a lot of belongings went missing. I was sad about losing my photos I’d taken that day, but a friend kindly gave me his to remember the day by. 

At the end of the day it’s more of a feeling of shock than anything else, and now I guess it’s time to get my insurance sorted and get onto finding a new camera! My old precious Canon DSLR had served me well, it had travelled with me to many countries and been by my side for several years, and although it was slowly breaking down it was dear to me nonetheless. 

Earlier in the day my friend took this photo of me taking a photo - a last shot of me with my trusty camera before it was taken away. Farewell camera! 

People at the Nagchu Horse Racing Festival, August 2014

Makeshift teahouses in the tent city at the Nagchu Horse Racing Festival

Amongst the city of tents that popped up in Nagchu for the Horse Racing Festival, the traditionally decorated ones were by far the most beautiful. 

A Day Out in Nagchu

As summer approached there was one particular festival that I was getting more and more excited about: the Nagchu Horse Racing Festival, a week long summer event several hours north of Lhasa. I had been building it up in my head as being a beautiful day out in the sun, surrounded by wonderfully dressed nomads, watching some awesome stunts being done on horseback. The reality was quite different. 

The train from Lhasa took us a little over four hours, along the line towards the mainland. It’d been pouring with rain all morning in Lhasa, but we were hopeful that Nagchu was far enough away that the weather might be different. And it was, for a while. 

By the time we arrived in Nagchu the horse events had finished for the morning session, and there was a three hour break for lunch. This made us a little annoyed, since we had to be returning to Lhasa in just five hours. Thanks to strict rules regarding foreigners in Tibet we were lucky to even just be able to come to Nagchu for the day, but there was definitely no way we could get permits to stay overnight. But we figured that something is better than nothing, and in cases like this there’s nothing at all we can do about it. 

So with three hours to kill before the next horse events began we set off to explore the city of tents that had sprung up around the stadium. Nagchu “city” itself only has about six streets, a train station, and the newly built stadium for horse racing, but now it’s population had exploded and a tent city had been built for the festival. Some were simple little plastic things around a metal frame, but others (some of which took days to put together) were stunningly beautiful traditional style summer tents. These traditional ones were decorated with auspicious Tibetan symbols and stood out for their bright colours against the dull plastic ones nearby. Some traditional tents also stood out for towering over the other tents from a height of five or more metres alongside the more common 2-3 metre height. 

In this tent city was everything a visitor might need - teahouses, restaurants, bars, convenience stores, clothing and household goods for sale, plus loads of entertainment. One whole section was set up like a state fair with ring-toss, darts, and other fun games to try to win soft toys. Next to this children leaped around on a giant inflatable obstacle course - this was quite a surreal sight to see here! 

Inevitably though it began to rain. We sought shelter in a small teahouse and when we thought it had stopped we ventured out once more to admire the tents and the people around them. Everyone here had come dressed in their finest clothing and jewellery, and they truly looked amazing. We saw so many interesting looks that are rare in the city, but out here in the grasslands the people are able to hold on to their traditions much more firmly. 

But once again it began to rain. We sat inside a small dark tent, already full from the tea we had earlier, waiting again for the sky to clear. This time though it didn’t, and at the time when the horse events were due to start again we decided just to go out anyway and get wet because we didn’t want to miss the action. 

Unfortunately for us, there was to be no more horse action happening that day. Because of the constant rain it was decided that it would be unsafe for the afternoon events to take place, so instead there would be a dance show. No horse events?! But we’d struggled to get permits to be here and come all this way!! It was upsetting, but as usual there was nothing we could do, so we tried to just make the most of having a day out in Nagchu. 

We decided to enter the stadium to see the dance show - the tickets were cheap and we didn’t have much else to do - and this is where the true drama of the day began.

As we were sitting in the rain with a large group of Tibetans a policeman approached us and asked where our tour guide was. As far as we could tell we were the only tourists in Nagchu today. We explained that we were students of Tibet University and didn’t need a tour guide for Nagchu: according to the PSB (Public Security Bureau, who deal with our permits each time we want to go somewhere) in Lhasa we were allowed in Nagchu for a day trip with only a letter from our university dean. The policeman didn’t believe us. He was actually shocked that we’d made it all this way (and had been here for several hours) without a single person stopping us, and it was true, he was the first person all day who had asked to see any kind of permit or student ID. 

"How did you get here?" … "On the train"
"How did you get on the train?" … "With tickets that we bought last week"
"How did you get out of the train station at Nagchu?" … "We walked out the door that said ‘Exit’ and no one stopped us"
"How did you get into the stadium?" … "We bought a ticket"

The conversation was going nowhere. He was astounded at how easily we had travelled here and around the festival (I’m guessing some frustrated calls to his boss about the other policemen in town not doing their job properly were probably made later in the day) but still insisted that we weren’t supposed to be here. Finally two things were established:  According to this policeman we weren’t supposed to travel to/in Nagchu without a registered guide, but the fact was that we actually were in Nagchu now already and no one had stopped us. 

Thanks to our forward planning we already had train tickets home to Lhasa for later in the day, so at least this seemed to satisfy the policeman that we weren’t going to be staying here. Finally he made some calls, registered our passport and student ID details, and let us be. 

By this time it wasn’t long until we were due back at the train station, so we went into one more teahouse for some freshly made dumplings to warm up before finding a ride back to the station. It’d been an interesting day of new sights and a festive atmosphere, and despite not seeing any horses we were feeling pretty happy with ourselves for coming somewhere new and different. 

Next summer I’ll have to make another attempt at seeing some horse races, hopefully back here at Nagchu if the PSB allows it, or by then I might have found somewhere else interesting and new to go.

Ritual trumpets of different sizes waiting to be used on a rooftop at Ganden Monastery, near Lhasa, during a festival in August 2014. 

Ritual trumpets of different sizes waiting to be used on a rooftop at Ganden Monastery, near Lhasa, during a festival in August 2014. 

Meeting the Buddha at Ganden Monastery: 
In Tibetan language, when a person speaks of “Going to see” a statue or painting of the Buddha - particularly when it is a very special one - the word they use is “མཇལ་པ་”, which actually means “To meet”. So when translated into English, they actually are saying they are “Going to meet the Buddha”. 

Meeting the Buddha at Ganden Monastery:

In Tibetan language, when a person speaks of “Going to see” a statue or painting of the Buddha - particularly when it is a very special one - the word they use is “མཇལ་པ་”, which actually means “To meet”. So when translated into English, they actually are saying they are “Going to meet the Buddha”. 

Sunning the Buddha at Ganden Monastery:
Another term for displaying of the giant thangka at monasteries throughout Tibet is “Sunning the Buddha”, which seemed especially fitting on this rainy day as the sun came out just as the Buddha did too. 

Sunning the Buddha at Ganden Monastery:

Another term for displaying of the giant thangka at monasteries throughout Tibet is “Sunning the Buddha”, which seemed especially fitting on this rainy day as the sun came out just as the Buddha did too. 

The giant thangka of Ganden Monastery, near Lhasa, being displayed during a festival in August 2014 as crowds of pilgrims watch on. 

The Buddha peeks out of his protective cloth as the giant thangka is raised in Ganden Monastery, near Lhasa, August 2014.

The Buddha peeks out of his protective cloth as the giant thangka is raised in Ganden Monastery, near Lhasa, August 2014.