Roof of the World Part 4 – A palace lying empty

The Potala Palace was a building I had wanted to go to. It is an extremely iconic building rising 13 storeys from the 130 metre hill it sits on. It was the residence of the current Dalai Lama before he left for India. The 1000+ room palace is now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site and as a visitor you can visit about 20 of those rooms.

The building is 5 metres at its base sloping upwards to about 3 metres thick with copper poured into its foundations in order to prevent it from succumbing to earthquakes. Infact many of the monastries we saw, slope and we were told that this was an earthquake proofing measure.

Once you enter into the building you can’t take any more photos, so everyone made the most of the outside. The three colours that make up the palace of red symbolising life force and preservation, yellow for the prosperity of the city and white for learning and knowledge as here are the offices to manage political and Buddhist affairs. The black around the windows absorbs more thermal energy.

Having lived in a white house, my parents have always commented on white buildings that it must have an awful lot of white paint, and I made a similar comment to Sonam on the first day. But it isn’t paint, and it was very white as in October they have volunteers who come to “paint” it with donated milk. (and a mixture of other things!) It was a very brilliant white, and against the superb blue sky it was a very photogenic building!!!

The Potala Palace as it is seen now was finished (kind of) by the fifth Dalai Lama, it was started in 1645. The external structure was built in 3 years, while the interior, together with its furnishings, took 45 years to complete. The Dalai Lama and his government moved into the White Palace in 1649. However, it wasn’t completely finished until 1694. Sadly the fifth Dalai Lama didn’t see it completed as he had died twelve years before! But no-one knew of the death as it had been kept quiet by an adviser for fear that the building would never be finished if the workers knew that the Dalai Lama had died!!! It was even protected by Zhou Enlai and his troops during the Cultural Revolution.

The central red part of the Palace was/is used for religious functions. There are still about 20 monks that are there. The tour (one way only!) takes you past chapels that contain jewel laden golden Tibetan stupas (tombs) of several of the previous Dalai Lamas. Only Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama are buried in stupas. Regular Tibetans when they die have a sky burial, it is rare for an earth burial to occur (only if infectious disease/murdered). I was quite taken with the notion of a sky burial, but when talking to Eleanor we reckoned that in the UK it would be difficult to come across the vultures (she reckoned the vultures kept in a large aviary at Longleat just wouldn’t be the same!)

As we went from room to room, some of the areas were very heavy with a smell that made me feel sick. The burning lamps contained clarified yak butter. It is not a pleasant smell.

The palace is a rabbit warren housing approximately 10,000 shrines and 200,000 statues, we only saw 2% of the rooms and we did it in about 3 hours. It wasn’t even busy, though in some rooms we did have to wait for people to move on so we could get a good view of the contents of the room – I can’t imagine what it would have been like at the height of the tourist season. The entrance fee of 100 RMB (rises to 200 RMB in the summer) was certainly the most expensive place I had to pay for, but it was worth the money. Thankfully Sonam took it slowly up the steps to allow for photos over the city and more importantly to catch our breath.

Besides taking photos inside, there are of course other things that are forbidden including no liquid – yes you have to do the steps without refreshment. Though in the last place you can take photos before entering inside you can buy water at a stall. The sign as we entered through security even read “no shampoo”. It made me fearful for the hand santiser in my bag – but that got through undetected! I saw that people’s baijiu (lethal Chinese white wine) had been confiscated!

On the final day that Eleanor and I were in Lhasa we got a taxi to the palace, though he stopped at the back entrance, much to our annoyance. However, we walked around the outside of it and were able to then climb up some stairs on the opposite side of the road and get a photograph taken of the both of us. That viewpoint is supposed to be the best place to view sunset but we never quite made it for that.