0700: I woke up with a really bad hangover – then remembered that I was actually in Tibet, suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). It was Day 6 of our Southern China and Tibet tour (Read about days 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) and I was suffering from the telltale signs of AMS – constant headache, dizziness and aches and pains. On top of this, Tibet is very dry (only 7% humidity in late April) so all my sinuses had dried out and my skin felt like tissue paper. Another side effect of AMS is that is disturbs your sleep, so you can add sleep deprivation to the list of ailments as well.
0800: Breakfast. A selection of American, English and Chinese food options and a large pot of ginger lemon honey tea helped with the AMS symptoms enormously.
0900: Today, we are heading to the Drepung monastery few miles outside of Lhasa, followed by the Sera monastery.
1000: At the Drepung monastery. This is the largest monastery in Tibet, located on the Gambo Utse mountain.
The visit starts with a gentle climb, past the prayer wheels and flags. Although the climb is gentle, it is still difficult for us due to AMS. Our guide, well experienced with visitors like us, managed the pace really well, giving us a break every dozen meters or so, to explain about the monastery.
Founded in 1416, this was the principal seat of learning for the Gelugpa school. The monastery covers an area of nearly 50 acres. At its height, the Drepung monastery was thought to contain up to 10,000 monks (now there are 300).
Inside the temple, you are allowed to visit the main hall, kitchen and a number of shrine rooms, but no photos are allowed.
1300: About 10 minutes walk from Drepung is Nechung Chok which was the residence of the State Oracle of Tibet. This small monastery was also known as the ”Demon Fortress of the Oracle King.” Again, no photos allowed inside.
1400: After a short break for lunch, we visited the Sera Monastery, a few miles away. This is the second largest temple in Tibet. It is spread over 28 acres at the base of Pubuchok mountain and built in 1419.
Here we saw several “Sand Mandalas”, for which Tibetan Buddhism is famous. The mandalas are an intricate and colourful pattern created entirely with grains of sand.
Before laying down the sand, the monks draw the geometric measurements associated with the mandala. The sand granules are then applied using small tubes, funnels, and scrapers. Sand mandalas traditionally take several weeks to build. Usually it is built by a team of monks, creating one section of the diagram at a time, working from the centre outwards.
Once completed, the Mandalas are ritually dismantled. This is aimed at symbolising the Buddhist belief in the transitory nature of life. The Mandalas we saw at Sera Monastery are enclosed in protective glass cases. These were easily one of the most impressive things I saw during the trip. The detail is so fine, and the colours so vibrant, you would think they were needlework rather than sand work.
The Sera Monastery is famous in Tibet for its afternoon debates held in the debating courtyard. Debates among monks are a key part of the learning process at the Sera Monastery complex. The debates facilitate better comprehension of the Buddhist philosophy.
The monks debate in pairs: a questioner, who is standing up, and the defender, who is sitting down. The questioner poses the question (which can be about almost anything) with an elaborate hand gesture. The defender will then provide an answer, and so the debate begins.
The monks take turns being the questioner and the defender. Anyone can come to watch the debates, and you are asked to adhere to a few common sense rules, like keeping quiet. No professional cameras are allowed (but mobile phones are ok).
Visiting the Sera Monastery also solved a puzzle for me. I had noticed all the local pilgrims were carrying thermos flasks at all the temples, which we thought were for a well deserved cup of tea after the hard climbing. It turns out that these are for carrying Yak butter oil. The pilgrims use the oil to top up the hundreds of lamps in the shrine rooms, and given the ambient temperature, the oil solidifies, unless of course, you carry it in a thermos.
1630: After the Sera Monastery we headed back to the hotel. Although it was not yet late, AMS tends to tire you out quickly. So we decided to call it a day, and reserve our strength for tomorrow, when we would be climbing the 13 storey Potala Palace.