The Jokhang Temple

It isn’t the oldest or largest temple in Tibet but it is a vital part of the history of Buddhism in Tibet.  During the seventh century, a king called Songtsan Gampo married a princess of the Tang Dynasty in China.  The princess brought a statue of the 12-year-old Buddha with her when she got married and now the statue is housed in the temple.  Buddhism became more popular in Tibet and the temple grew more and more famous.  Buddhist pilgrims come to the temple to get a glimpse of the statue.

The temple is also in the middle of old Lhasa, a perfect area for walking around and finding restaurants and souvenir shops.

the temple

outside the temple

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inside the temple yard

inside the temple yard

this is not the famous Buddha statue, this was just a statue we were actually allowed to take pictures of

this is not the famous Buddha statue, this was just a statue we were actually allowed to take pictures of

Many pilgrims were prostrating at the entrance of the temple, but most of the people there were tourists in hiking gear with fancy cameras.  We got to see the enormous Buddha statue but couldn’t take pictures of it.

Once the sun came out, we got to walk around on the top level and it was gorgeous!

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you can see the Potala Palace in the distance

you can see the Potala Palace in the distance

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The Potala Palace

If you lived next to the Taj Mahal, would it lose its grandeur after a while? What if you lived next to the Great Wall of China or the Eiffel Tower?  When our bus drove into Lhasa on the way to our respective hotels, the tour guide casually pointed out the window and said “the Potala Palace is at the start of this street here”.

We all whipped our heads around to get a better look.  I couldn’t believe I would be staying at a hotel just a few blocks away from the ultimate symbol of Lhasa.

The palace dates back to the 7th century.  It had been destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout history.  During the 17th century, one of the Dalai Lamas decided to rebuild it and make it the center of the Tibetan government and of Tibetan Buddhism.  The current Dalai Lama lived here until he fled to India in 1959 to live in exile.

The Potala Palace is one of the few famous sites in Tibet that wasn’t destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.  According to our guide, Zhou Enlai (Premier of the People’s Republic of China) decided to leave the palace untouched. Maybe he was a fan of the architecture?

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Look there's me in my dorky outfit XD

Look there’s me in my dorky outfit XD

Our guide told us we went on a pretty normal day when it came to crowds.  It was already packed, so I can’t imagine what it would be like on a crowded day.  Every person that had a ticket only had a limited amount of time on the grounds to accommodate all the visitors.  Like all the other places we visited, we had to go through security and Chinese soldiers were always close by.

We climbed up the countless stairs with other foreign tourists, nomads from various Tibetan regions, pilgrims, and locals who have probably walked past the palace a hundred times.

stores lined the perimeter around the palace

stores lined the perimeter around the palace

prayer wheels

prayer wheels

that smoke in the distance is incense

that smoke in the distance is incense

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trekking up the stairs

trekking up the stairs

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can you see the long line of people going up the stairs?

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I could see the palace from my hotel roof every morning where they served breakfast, but of course, exploring it myself was even better.

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“I love you, here’s some spam”

Chuseok is considered to be the Korean Thanksgiving.  It happens on a different date each year but is during the fall time and celebrates the fall harvest.  People get time off work and spend time with their extended families and often visit their ancestral graves.

It is also a time to give gifts to your family members, your bosses, and friends.  One of the most popular gifts to give is a case of high-end spam.

the gift of spam

the gift of spam

Spam was brought to Korea by American soldiers during the Korean War.  The country was impoverished and war-torn and food was hard to find.  Finding a source of protein like meat was even harder.

Now it is used frequently in stews, fried rice dishes, and comes in a variety of flavors.  The picture above is the “premium gift set” and costs about $45.  That must be some good spam.

There are plenty of other gift sets with items like shampoo, lotion, dried fruit, and dried whole fish.

dried persimmons

dried persimmons from $100 to $200

dried fish used for cooking

dried fish used for cooking

packages of whole fish

packages of whole fish, the one in the middle is a whopping $350

So the next time you are thinking about buying a gift and you find yourself stumped, just go for some spam.

Posted in Korean holidays, Slice of Life | 1 Comment

I moved!

I’ve been away from the blog because I got a new job at two schools in Cheonan!  While moving to Seoul from Cheonan only takes an hour on the bus, I’ve been busy cleaning, unpacking, cleaning, setting up lesson plans, cleaning, meeting all the students and teachers, and cleaning.  Did I mention I never seem to get clean apartments in Korea?

new job...

new job…

...and an awesome view!

…and an awesome view!

temple right outside the city

temple right outside the city

this is right by one of my schools

this is right by one of my schools

I’m not done posting about Tibet just yet, so stay tuned for more Tibet trip pictures and stories!

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The Drepung and Sera Monasteries

Buddhism is an integral part of Tibetan culture.  At one point, it was custom for every family to send at least one son to study at a monastery.  The tour I went on took us to two monasteries out in the outskirts of Lhasa.

Some tours have the guides practically sprinting through the sights to pack in as many places as possible.  Luckily as soon as we arrived to the Drepung Monastery, our guide told us we would take our time.

We had to put our bags through an x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector at both monasteries.  It was also hard to miss the Chinese soldiers hanging around.  They didn’t bother us or follow us anywhere, but it wasn’t the most comfortable feeling.

The Drepung Monastery was historically one of the most important monasteries in all of Tibet.  The guide actually said it was the most important but I don’t feel qualified to state that myself.  Before the Chinese government put caps on how many monks could join a monastery, the Drepung Monastery had thousands of monks.  Now, it has a few hundred.

We were able to see volumes and volumes of Buddhist texts, statues, and other sacred relics, but we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the buildings.  Although that never seems to stop people from sneaking out their phones when the guide isn’t looking.

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Many stray dogs find their way to a monastery where they enjoy naps under the sun while annoying tourists such as myself take pictures of them.

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We then went to the Sera Monastery, which took less time to explore because it was physically much smaller.  The same rules applied to picture taking.

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What makes visiting the Sera Monastery unique is the fact you can watch monks debate.  In order to become a fully fledged monk you need to pass exams, and one of those exams involves debating your fellow monks.  I had no idea what topics they were debating but the guide explained there are so many texts, philosophies, and aspects of Buddhism that they will probably always have some reason to argue.

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I found it odd that we were allowed to photograph the monks debating when we weren’t allowed to take pictures of anything inside the monastery.  There were a few Chinese soldiers posted around the courtyard making sure you didn’t get too close to the monks.

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For me, being able to see the beautiful mountains and look at all the architecture made the day.  Normally I don’t mind going to places without guides because I just enjoy the scenery.  However, I learned infinitely more about how Buddhism plays a part in every day Tibetan life by actually having a Tibetan guide there teaching us.

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Lhasa: Visiting the Roof of the World

Traveling to Tibet has been a dream of mine since I first read a travel book about it in my elementary school library.  However, you can’t just stroll out of the Lhasa airport and start exploring Tibet.  The Tibetan Autonomous Region is controlled by China and you need a permit from the Chinese government to visit the area and for many people, that means signing up with a tour company that can arrange getting the permit for you.

I went on a four day tour of Lhasa with Tibet Vista.  Two couples were in the same group as me, one from the United States and one from Austria.  Our guide was a mischievous and kind man who was born and raised in Lhasa.

I flew to Lhasa from Chengdu.  Taking the train from Chengdu to Lhasa is a popular option, but it also takes 42 hours.  I didn’t have the extra hours to take the the train this time, I’ll have to save it for a future trip.

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Once you drive through the mountains from the airport, it takes about an hour to get to the actual city.  The newer developments surround the old city.  The first things you see are the apartment blocks, shopping malls, and manicured parks.  I stayed at a hotel in the old part of the city where most of the buildings didn’t go higher than four stories.

the view from my hotel roof

the view from my hotel roof, you can see the Potala Palace in the right corner

my hotel room

my hotel room

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the balcony of a cafe

the balcony of a cafe

some "altitude relaxation" tea

some “altitude relaxation” tea

Lhasa is also about 3,600 meters above sea level (11,800 feet).  I was very fortunate to not feel any kind of altitude sickness.  I don’t know if it was luck or just all the water I was drinking but I did see people holding their heads in pain and wheezing when going up stairs.  I also had a cup of “altitude relaxation” tea on my first day there.  I don’t know what properties made it good for the altitude, it could have just been a ploy for a clueless tourist like me to buy a drink.

The sky was blue and the air was clean and the mountains stopped me in my tracks and made my jaw drop constantly.  I will have several posts soon of all the monasteries, temples, and neighborhoods I explored.

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Gapyeong County: Picture Perfect

If you take the subway in Seoul, you will without a doubt end up seeing advertisements for different areas in Korea made by the Korean tourism board.  All the pictures for Gapyeong County looked beautiful and that was inspiration enough to go.

After hanging around Nami Island, I walked around Gapyeong station and Cheongpyeong station.  I wish I could have had a week here instead of two days.

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I stayed at a hostel next to Cheongpyeong station.  The station is right next to a river with great views of the mountains.

this was right next to my hostel

this was right next to my hostel

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Instead of hearing car horns and people yelling on the streets of Seoul, I heard nothing but birds and cicadas.  It was a much need relaxing weekend.

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