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Seven days in Tibet

There's little of the 'real' Tibet in Lhasa today. Except during the Shoton Festival, writes Zara Murao

travel Updated: Sep 24, 2009 15:54 IST

Lhasa is nothing like you'd imagine. No rickety wooden shops or quaint winding lines. Everywhere you look in the capital of Tibet are bright red stores, malls and shopping centres. The roads are ruler-straight and in mint condition, as if they mean business. Young Chinese men and women -- the latter very fashionably turned out in impeccable boots and stylish stilettos -- strut to work. If the language is Mandarin, the food is largely Cantonese. Local delicacies like tsampa -- flour made from roasted barley mixed with buttery tea -- or yak milk butter and cheese are not on the menus of most hotels and restaurants. 

There's pork instead. Lots of it. And each meal can easily take an hour and a half as course after delicious course, often a total of 14 dishes, is brought steaming to the table.

Ancient rites
As you nibble on curried yak stomach, you might wonder where the real Tibet is. Which is why you should time your visit to coincide with the Shoton (Yogurt) Festival, usually in the latter half of August. The biggest festival after the Tibetan New Year, Shoton dates back about 1,000 years and is celebrated to mark the end of the monks' annual summer meditation retreat.

To get into the real spirit of things, leave your hotel at about 4.30 a.m., so that you can trek up the foot of the Gebeiwoze Mountain in the dark, along with hordes of Tibetan peasants. You'll have no trouble finding your way --everyone will be headed to the mountain for a first glimpse of the scarlet-robed monks as they file out of Tibet's largest monastery.

Climbing the rocky slope is arduous, but the breaks along the way give you a chance to glimpse the lights of Lhasa glittering way down in the distance.

As dawn breaks, you'll see creased, leathery faces around you. Soon they will all be looking east, tired eyes gleaming as they wait for the monks to appear. You don't see too many of these faces on the streets of Lhasa. But for Shoton, they travel miles, usually on foot, carrying babies, wheeling around the aged; some even bringing a beloved cat or puppy to be blessed. On the adjoining hill is the 590-year-old Drepung (Rice Heap) Monastery, home of the Dalai Lamas in the 16th and 17th centuries, before the more stately Potala Palace was built nearby. Traditionally, as the monks made their way from the monastery to the top of the Gebeiwoze foothills, the peasants would offer them yogurt and seek their blessings (hence the name of the festival).

Now, the crowds just wait, a great gasp going up as a snaking queue of monks with yellow headdresses emerges from the monastery and wends its way through the crowds to the top of the hill.

Here, amid the blare of bugles, curling mulberry smoke and the odd cloud settled atop the hill, the monks unfurl a giant (35 metre by 30 metre) tapestry or thangka of the Buddha.

As the thangka unfurls on the hillside, the crowds press forward for a closer look. Around you, the smell of buttery yak milk tea gets stronger as everyone seem to say a collective prayer. Moments later, they begin to drift away, beginning the long trek back to ground level, and then home.

At the Lovely Garden

The official celebration begins a few hours later in Potala Square, opposite the sprawling, 13-storey palace that housed the Dalai Lamas from the 17th century (when it was built) till 1959 -- when the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India after a failed uprising against the Chinese.

The palace has 999 rooms built around a sacred cave. Renovated by the Chinese government, it has since been turned into a museum. Outside the majestic brick-red-and-white palace, giant red balloons and arches of red roses adorn the square. Loud, marching-band music invites people to the state celebration.

As officials make speeches about prosperity, co-existence and GDP, a tight circle forms around the little arena in the centre as wrinkled faces from the hilltop listen avidly to the annual recital of ancient folklore, Buddhist teachings and Tibetan history. Traditionally, there would also be yak racing and horsemanship displays.

But there is no place for dancing yaks and horsemen in the new Lhasa. In a few hours, the thangka on the hill will be rolled up and stowed away. It won't be needed again for at least a year.