Lhasa to Beijing by Train

The last part of our tour was to get a train from Lhasa to Beijing. It takes 3 days to get to Beijing which means spending 2 nights on a train.

Day One: Leaving Lhasa

After buying some last minute presents we met up with our tour back at the hotel. In preparation for the long journey ahead of us we bought as much ramen, bread and beer as we could find. I wasn’t too worried as there would be food available on the train.

We were split up onto two different trains: Yi, myself and one other were on one train, and the rest of the tour shared a room on the next train along. It wasn’t until the train started moving that we were allowed to move between carriages. As soon as this happened we moved to the next train to join the others and crack open the beers.

When we got there we found that one of our tour were actually in the cabin next door, and an old Chinese lady was sharing the cabin with the rest of them. They were attempting to get her to swap, but she didn’t seem to understand. They asked Yi to talk to her about swapping beds so that we could all be together. She adamantly refused and wanted to stay in her bed. We were a little stunned by this – she clearly wanted to sleep for most of the journey, yet also wanted to stay in a cabin full of Westerners slowly getting drunk.

The view from the train was astounding. This is the most beautiful place I’ve seen in China, perhaps even in the entire world. I felt a little sad that I would probably never see it again.

After a couple of hours of talking and taking in the view we decided to get some lunch. There’s a thing I’ve found about Chinese food: when it’s good, it’s really good, but when it’s bad, it’s awful. The food we had on this train was bad even for bad Chinese food. I ate as much as I could because we didn’t have enough food to last us three days, but I started to think I may end up going hungry for the last day.

When we got back to the cabin we found someone sleeping in one of our beds. We woke him up and after the initial confusion where we tried to explain that he was in our bed, he showed us his ticket. Sure enough it was the correct ticket. We found the ticket that had been left behind, and it had a different bed number on it. We decided to ask him if he would swap beds and he kind of sat there, not seeming to understand. Eventually he just got up and ran, taking nothing with him.

Later I asked one of the train crew where the bed was that was on the other ticket. He said that there is no bed with that number. We figured the guy we found in the bed must have gotten on board with a fake ticket, and had taken the opportunity to switch tickets with one of us.

There were several stops along the way on this train, and at each station people had set up stalls to sell food and beer. We would ask for cold beer, but they would always want to charge us more.

Eventually we just settled down in the canteen and drank until it closed. Afterwards we all sat around the beds in our cabin together and finished most of the beers we had. Unconsciousness followed shortly and we spent our first night on the train.

Day Two: Hoarding Food and Beer

The next day I woke early, so I took in the view and read a little more of my book. After everyone was awake we got together and started drinking again. Someone (there’s always one) had bought Baijiu – a Chinese alcohol that you don’t like and cannot handle. That got passed around and we downed some and retched afterwards.

Back in Lhasa, one of our tour had bought some small singing bowls. They work by running a stick around the edge of the bowl and creating a resonance that makes the bowl ring. We spent a lot of today playing with these, and when people got curious with what we were doing, ended up teaching several other passengers how to play them.

Food had started running out so the train stops became a method of survival. We would rush out, grab what food and beer we could and rush back on. In the end we would give each other a task – food, beer, cigarettes – and each rush out to grab the assigned necessity. It was meticulous. I was surviving on crisps and ramen for the morning, but I found heaven when I noticed that our tour leader had manage to find a roast duck. And I mean a WHOLE roast duck. I rushed out and grabbed one for myself, and devoured it as soon as I got back on the train.

We were no longer in Tibet so were now seeing the Chinese countryside. One part that really stood out for me were the caves. it turns out that there are millions of people in China that live in caves. I was fascinated and made a note that I would have to come back and see how these caves looked up close.

Eventually the sun set and we drifted off to sleep. I was almost getting used to living on a train. I wondered if there’s a way I could spend a month doing nothing but living on a train.

Day Three: Arriving at Beijing

It was our last day on the train. We were now extremely close to Beijing. This morning was the first time I ever saw the Great Wall – a place I still haven’t gotten around to visiting despite having been to both Beijing and Dandong.

We arrived in Beijing a bit later than we were supposed to. We had to rush to a taxi to make sure we got our connecting flight to Shanghai. Other than that the final day was pretty uneventful. It was time to go home and go back to the day job.

Misadventures in Tibet

There were a few other misadventures in Lhasa that probably don’t deserve an entire blog post dedicated to them. So here are three mildly amusing stories of things that happened to us during the last couple of days in Tibet.

Free Tibet!?

Before we went out in Old Town we went to have dinner with one of Yi’s friends. The place he took us to was serving very Chinese-style food (as in not Tibetan-style) along with some Westernish-style food.

He turned out to be an interesting character. He was Han Chinese and zealously pro-Dalai Lama. He would often interject “Free Tibet!” into conversations. He told me interesting “facts” about Tibet, such as Tibetans don’t kill yaks – they only eat them if they die naturally. This I know not to be true, firstly because animals that die of old age don’t have meat that is good for eating, and secondly because animals that die of natural causes or accidents are too dangerous to eat (you don’t know if it had a disease that could be passed on, for example).

He kept on telling me interesting factoids like this and it was only my politeness that stopped me from questioning where he got his bullshit ideas from. He also showed me the pictures of Dalai Lama 14, pictures which are illegal to carry here. He told me that he hands them out to locals as gifts. This actually bothered me. It’s one thing being an idiot activist, but this sort of thing would only get the locals into trouble if they got caught.

It was around this point that our tour guide rang us asking us where we were. The group had decided they would join us at the same place, which worked out quite nicely. They got a table, but it was on a different floor, so I spent my time running between the two floors.

When it came time to leave we settled the bill and I watched as our friend not-so-discreetly handed a picture of the Dalai Lama to the waitress. We went our separate ways – Yi and myself joining the rest of the tour group for drinks at the rooftop bar overlooking Jokhang Temple.

An Old Lady and a Passport

And after a short while three of us went to a Tibetan night club. Me and Yi left our other friend alone as the rest of the tour group was following us there.

The next day we found out that he had been sat there all alone for the entire night. It turns out one of our tour group had managed to leave their passport in the restaurant we had been to earlier. They went back to see if they could find it, but no luck.

This was a tricky situation. Even getting on the train to leave Tibet would be difficult without a passport. They were now looking at emergency phone calls to the embassy in Beijing to sort out temporary travel documents. Even worse was that they were planning to go to the DPRK after this, and that would now have to be cancelled without having a real passport.

The first thing they had to do was go to the police in the middle of the night. They spent a couple of hours explaining the situation and filling out forms. They were all set to leave when an old lady walks in and hands over what looks like a bag belonging to the person who lost his passport. A bag containing the guy’s wallet and passport.

The old lady had found it and decided to come to the police station to hand it over when she realised how important the contents were. In the middle of the night as well. They were so happy to have it back that they offered her some money for her trouble, but she wouldn’t take any of it.

After all this excitement they all went back to hotel and fell unconscious.

The next day at breakfast we found out what had happened, and why one of our tour had ended up spending the night alone in a Tibetan night club.

Tibetan Red Wine

One of our tour group loved wine. One of the first drinks he had in Tibet was a Tibetan Red, and he loved it. He spent the rest of the trip trying to find this Tibetan Red wine again, but nowhere seemed to have it.

On our last day we had a little bit of time spare, so we went to the local supermarket to buy a few last minute presents. Some spirits for Yi’s dad, some Tibetan sweets for work, that kind of thing. While we were there I thought of our friend’s struggle in finding Tibetan Red and asked Yi to find out if they had any in this supermarket. When we asked her she just laughed and told us that grapes can’t grow in Tibet.

It turns out it was just Chinese wine all along…

Old Town Clubbing

After getting back from Lake Namtso we had one last night to spend in Lhasa. We went to the same rooftop bar overlooking the Jokhang Temple when we first arrived in Lhasa.

When Yi went to the Potala Palace she ended up on a different tour. It was here she met a local who had recommended a club in Old Town for us to visit. Another person in our tour group was interested so the three of us headed out while the rest of the tour stayed at the rooftop bar for more drinks.

The club was difficult to find, even with the address. We worked it out after seeing some people leaving a taxi and walking into it. At first it seemed a little seedy, having to climb several stairs through a small opening between two buildings. Once inside we had the familiar having to find us a table.

But this club was very different to New Town. There was a reasonably sized stage with several small tables in front of it. This club wasn’t about trying to force you to buy overpriced champagne sparkling white wine, or requiring spending limits to sit at special tables. The club was well-lit and every table was the same. Some tables had already been filled with several empty bottles of cheap lager.

The music was mostly traditional Tibetan music with a modern twist (at least that’s what it seemed like – I’m not an expert in traditional Chinese music). People would get on the stage and dance – sometimes professional dancers, sometimes just the younger Tibetans in the club. There were definitely similarities with the way Chinese clubs, but without all the pretentiousness and showing off. In other words this club was fun.

We were the only foreigners in the bar – two white guys and a Han girl surrounded by Tibetans. I have to admit I was a little nervous – did we really belong here? This was quickly relieved when people started getting our attention and raising their glasses to us. One man even said “Thanks for coming!”.

We had a few bottles of cheap beer and eventually got the courage to jump on stage and dance. About five seconds later everyone else decided to run away from the stage. A little embarrassed we returned to our seats and the dance floor filled up again.

Eventually Yi got tired and we decided to head back. Our friend decided to stay after we got a phone call from our tour guide saying the rest of them were coming. We left him on his own waiting for them to arrive.

Unfortunately he spent the night alone because they never made it to the club…

Namtso

Bus Ride

Next on our tour of Tibet we were to take a bus to Lake Namtso – one of the most beautiful lakes in Tibet. On our way we got to take a few stops in the Tibetan countryside. For most of the journey we could see a railway under construction. This is one thing that China is bringing to Tibet – modernisation. China is slowly building infrastructure here but the hills are still mostly populated by nomads.

On a few of the stops I was astounded at the beauty of the place. It reminded me of Cumbria where I grew up, only the air tasted fresher and the atmosphere was calmer. Of course at every stop there were people waiting to sell us useless overpriced trinkets. At one stop there was a merchant selling a geode. It was split into two halves so that you could see the inside. Lucky for her one member of our tour collected things like this.

After bargaining the price down as much as he could, he tried to explain how he only wanted half of the rock. The merchant insisted that he buy the full rock, but he only wanted half. There was a lot of back and forth until eventually he was able to get her to sell him half the geode. As she wandered back with the other half she looked down at it as if to say “what the hell am I going to do with half a rock?”.

After spending most of the day driving through countryside we eventually came to some checkpoints close to the lake. After stopping and showing our ID several time we eventually came to Namtso.

Namtso

When we got to Namtso we were first shown to our rooms. Cold rooms with small metal beds – what more could you ask for from the middle of nowhere in Tibet?

We went for a short walk down the lake before sunset. I have never seen any lake so calm and so quiet before. There were some tourists making noise of course, but the lake itself was still and clear. Apart from the part we were staying (which was clearly the tourist part), the rest of the lake was surrounded by mountains and plains beneath a clear blue sky.

After our walk we headed back to the tourist area to find some food. Then we started dropping like flies.

Down with the Sickness

It turns out Namtso is even higher than Tibet, and that meant that we had to go through altitude sickness again. My first day in Tibet I didn’t really feel anything. Rushing up and down stairs made me a little dizzy and light-headed, but after that I was fine. Here in Namtso people started to feel really sick.

We got oxygen and started to pass it around. As people started feeling better they went off to watch the sunset.

Yi, however, was feeling so ill that she wanted to go back. Unfortunately that wasn’t really an option – she would be able to go herself as she’s a Chinese citizen, but the rest of us were tourists and wouldn’t be able to leave until the next day. She decided not to go alone and we found her some altitude sickness tablets. After taking them she started feeling better.

Myself, I felt nothing. Once everyone started to recover I remarked on how strange it was that I was the only one unaffected. That was when it started to hit me. It felt like the worst hangover I had ever had times 1000. Even after taking some tablets I still found it near impossible to move. I ended up missing the sunset because I didn’t have the strength to move.

After dark I followed the others to the only place we could find that was still serving food and tried to eat something. I then dragged myself to my bed and collapsed.

Morning

The next day we got up early for some breakfast. Unfortunately due to me suffering from altitude sickness I wasn’t up early enough for the sunrise. We went for another walk along the lake. This time people were out with yaks. Some of our tour paid for a ride on the yak. Unfortunately it was only after they got on the yak that they tried to charge more for them to make the yak move.

I needed to use the toilet so I went off alone to find one. Anyone who’s been to an Asian country knows about squat toilets – the kind with no seats that you have to squat down in order to use them. This is what I was expecting to see here in Namtso. But then I saw that they had “Western Toilets” as well as “Chinese Toilets”. I was slightly disappointed when I found that the “Western Toilets” were still squat toilets. Curious I went over to the the “Chinese Toilets” to see what the difference was.

It was plumbing. You could flush the western toilets, as you would normally expect. The Chinese toilets had a brush and a bucket next to a hole in the floor so you could clean them after you were done. They were as pleasant as you would expect.

I rejoined the others for one last cup of tea before we hopped back on the bus for the journey home. I had missed both the sunset and the sunrise due to the altitude sickness, which I was a little gutted by. If anyone else was to do this I would recommend spending a couple of days here, if only to spend one day in bed getting used to the lack of oxygen.

New Town Clubbing

It was our English tour guide’s birthday and he decided he wanted to go out in Lhasa’s New Town to celebrate. Our tour group gathered together in our hotel’s lobby and we laid out a rough plan for the night: we would have a few drinks in Old Town then head to a club in New Town.

We found a small bar across the road from our hotel and sat down in the hopes of a nice cold beer. We were still learning that cold beer was basically impossible to get in Tibet. They offered us an alternative – warm beer and a glass with ice.

Drinks in Old Town
Drinks in Old Town

We had a couple of rounds of drinks then went out to get a taxi to New Town. Our tour guide knew a club, but he couldn’t quite remember the address so he gave us a street nearby to meet at. As we drove out of Old Town and into New Town I noticed that the city seemed to morph into a generic Chinese city – lit up skyscrapers and dark streets. They had preserved Old Lhasa and just built a city around it.

When we all finally arrived at the meeting place, we walked over to the club. If you’ve never been to a Chinese night club before, it is a very strange experience. When you go in you are given a table, but you are expected to spend a certain amount of money to sit at that table. When we walked in to the club they instantly gave us one of the best tables in the club.

Then we had to order drinks. Obviously we all wanted to order individually, most of us wanting a beer. They only wanted to sell us overpriced champagne or a crate of dozens of beers, however. This led into the most complicated attempt to order alcohol ever – they didn’t seem to understand why we didn’t want to buy overpriced alcohol we weren’t going to finish. Eventually they realised we weren’t going to spend stupid amounts of money and moved us to sit at the bar.

The club was typically chinese. Everyone was seated at a table where table service was provided. There was a dance floor that was full of clubber dancing to cheesy pop-dance tunes like “The Happy Birthday Song” and “Merry Christmas”. Behind the dance floor was a stage where professional dancers would come on and perform.

New Town Club
Professional dancers at a New Town Club

We were at the bar struggling to get the attention of the bartenders. We had no trouble getting the attention of people in the club however – foreigners aren’t very common in Tibetan clubs. We had now been in the club for over an hour and still hadn’t managed to get a drink.

We eventually did get their attention and the drinks started to flow. We got drunk, danced with the locals and finally stumbled into taxis and handed them our hotel’s business cards. There’s a reason I generally don’t like Chinese night clubs.

Tea Shop in Lhasa

We still had some free time before meeting back with the tour group for our night out in Lhasa New Town, so we decided to wander Old Town for a while. Yi wanted to drink tea so we went into one of the small tea shops that are almost invisible in the streets of Old Town.

The shop was small with several tables and benches were people were pouring tea out of thermos flasks into various styles of small cups. There was no room here so we made our way up to the first floor and found an empty table. Yi went downstairs to get some tea while I saved the table. While I was waiting a Tibetan family came up the stairs and sat at my table. I felt a little uncomfortable, but I just tried to ignore the stares I was getting.

In some parts of China white people aren’t common, so people get excited when they see a white person. They often respond by staring, saying “Hello!” and waving, asking for a photo, and sometimes by simply sneaking a photograph. Yi came back up with a Thermos and two cups and poured tea for us both. I was a little more relaxed having someone to talk to. It was then I noticed that the younger man sat opposite me was sneaking a photo of me and the older man who sat next to me.

Local Tibetan Friend
Local Tibetan Friend

Of course I responded by posing for the camera. After that we tried to talk, but it turned out that these guys couldn’t even speak Mandarin. So we just enjoyed tea together while the older man showed me all the pictures he had managed to gather of white people in Lhasa. It seemed that collecting pictures of white folk was a hobby of his.

After an hour or so of hand talking, nodding and pouring each other tea we finally had to leave. We waved goodbye and headed out to experience the wonders of a night out in a Chinese night club.

Jokhang Temple

Regrouping

After my girlfriend and I rejoined the tour group we went to visit the Jokhang Temple. This is one of the most important temples in Tibet, which is evidenced by the many people constantly praying outside the temple. They had prayer mats with them, which seems to indicate that they do this for a long time.

Inside the temple is a small courtyard where a few monks were sitting and praying. We had to follow a specific path around the courtyard, until we got to the back where we could visit the interior of the temple. The interior has two large Buddha statues in the center, with several long mats in a row in front of it. Around the outer wall were several statues and paintings of pretty much every Bhuddist incarnation, Bodhisattva, god and story that you could think of.

One thing about Jokhang Temple is that it is the first time I haven’t felt the Tardis-effect. This temple seemed just as small on the inside as it looked from the outside. This is probably down to the fact that the style of the building is more similar to Indian or Nepalese architecture than Chinese architecture.

Our Tibetan tour guide took us through the highlights. Tibetans have different names for the Buddhist gods, so he would compare them to the Chinese versions so my girlfriend could relate. There were a few things that we missed, but we needed to be on with our tour.

To the Rooftop

Next we started our ascent to the roof of the temple. This is when it started raining. We ended up taking shelter on the first floor, where several gift shops had been set up. We noticed that there were several cats wandering around and that food had been placed out for them. The cats weren’t too friendly with us, but they seemed to like the monks.

When the rain cleared we finally climbed on to the roof. The main draw here is the gilt roof on top of the Jokhang Temple, but for me being able to see Old Town from above was the best thing about this. Lhasa Old Town is probably the only place in China that doesn’t have sky scrapers, so it’s almost like looking out over an ancient town. I couldn’t help but think that this place would be great for parkour, or make an awesome Assassin’s Creed level.

It was time to leave, but Yi wanted to go back and look at the exhibits we had missed the first time we went around the interior of the temple. I asked our tour guide what was next and he said that we were going to have free time until we met to go out drinking later, so we opted to stay in the temple and meet up with them later on.

Ritual

When we went back inside the monks were coming out into the temple to meditate. They sat down along the long prayer mats forming several rows facing the middle. One monk who was older and wearing slightly different robes sat down on a slightly elevated pray mat. They each started praying with their prayer beads, swaying as they did so. They seemed to use their prayer beads similar to how they are used in Catholicism – saying a different prayer with each bead. Their prayers were loud chants which was lou enough to fill the whole room.

While this was going on a few people had been let into a small side section by a monk not taking part in the prayers. They would go up to the monk and hand him a 100 RMB note and get several 1 RMB notes in return. They were then allowed to go into the chanting area one by one. When each of them went in they would place 1 note in front of each monk as a donation. When they had finished doing this they would hand the remaining notes to the monk that had allowed them in. Some would ask for the change, whereas others seemed to donate the rest to the temple. This seems a common theme here in Tibet – donate within your means with no fear of judgement.

The monks continued chanting as more people were let in and out to donate to the monks and the temple. After a while we left the temple to wander the streets of Lhasa until our big night out in New Town.

Potala Palace

Getting the Lost Ticket

The day after the trouble we had getting a ticket to the Potala Palace, was the day we were set to visit. We had received a message from the guy who screwed up that he had a solution for Yi. When we got there, it turned out he didn’t have a solution.

To cut a long story short, there was a lot of shouting and phone calls while my girlfriend was left outside on her own. Our tour guide sacrificed his visit to the Potala Palace to go out and see what was happening. Eventually we got a ticket, but she wouldn’t be able to come on the same tour as us – she would have to go on the next one. It wasn’t the best, but this turned out to be a good thing in the end.

Inside Potala Palace

Potala Palace was the residency of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled in 1959. It now acts as a temple and storage for possessions once owned by previous Dalai Lamas.

Initially we have to ascend the steps to the palace itself. The Potala Palace is actually made up of two parts – the Red Palace and the White Palace. The White Palace is the former living quarters of the Dalai Lamas, and the Red Palace is devoted to worship (a.k.a. the upkeep and maintenance of several large Buddha statues, thangka paintings, scrolls and other religious artefacts).

Once we reached the top we first explored the White Palace. As I went in I started to take photos but was quickly rushed by a guard and told not to take any. Of course – this is a religious place.

The White Palace contained mostly displays of how the various rooms may have looked when the Dalai Lamas actually lived there. People were praying and donating money even in these rooms, leaving them in donation boxes and stuffed in various places around the rooms.

One thing I noticed was that people would often leave small 1 jiao or 5 jiao notes on top of the donation boxes (10 jiao is equal to 1 yuan) instead of dropping them in the box. I didn’t understand until later, when I saw someone place a 1 yuan note on the box and take a few of the smaller notes as “change”. It was a way of allowing poorer people to donate within their means.

After the White Palace we delved into the depths of the Red Palace. And this was where it got really impressive. I was a Dungeons and Dragons player when I was younger and this was the closest thing to playing that game for real. We were now wandering large underground rooms carved into the mountain, filled with treasures. There were several ancient Chinese scrolls containing Tibetan scripture and teachings; and huge statues of various Buddhas each carved out of exotic materials and adorned with various jewels.

The Tardis effect was more subtle this time. It wasn’t until we were deep within the Potala Palace, walking into a huge chamber with some of the largest Buddha statues I’d ever seen that I realised the place was even larger on the inside than it appeared from the outside.

Finally we ended up outside again. Various market stalls had been set up with souvenirs. We made our way back down and headed back into Lhasa. The group went to wander around Lhasa again, but I opted to wait for my girlfriend. After she got back we would meet up again and visit the Jokhang Temple.

Thangka Lessons from an Artist

I wanted to write about my visit to the Norbulingka Palace, but it wasn’t very memorable. It was a nice place to visit, with well maintained and beautiful gardens. However, I don’t have any pictures left of the place, and without that there isn’t much to write about.

So instead I’ll write about what happened after we visited the palace. In Shanghai, we have a Buddhist friend who holds exhibitions of Thangka – pictures of various histories and buddhist figures painted on cloth and silk. She knows some artists in Tibet, so we decided to spend our free time getting in touch with them.

We found the place hidden away in a market street – a small art exhibition with a small tea drinking area above it. We introduced ourselves as knowing a mutual friend and they invited us to join them. Only one of them could speak decent English so I spent most of my time talking to him. He told me he was an artist and that he had an exhibition in London coming up which, sadly, he couldn’t attend himself.

After a short while most of the artists had left, except for one that Yi was talking to. He was a Thangka artist and he explained what Thangka was and why he painted them. Thangka are holy paintings that are meant to be prayed to in similar ways to Buddha statues. He explained that he would never take a commission unless he knew the painting was going to be used.

I asked him about the Swastika and its meaning in Buddhism – I wanted to know what one of the most demonised symbols in the West meant to him. He confirmed something that I had always thought to be a myth – that the direction of the swastika did make a difference, and that the reverse swastika was the one used by the Nazis.

We also asked about several symbols we had seen around Tibet, and he told us that these were the Eight Auspicious Symbols: the Sea Shell, the Infinite Knot, the Twin Fish, the Lotus Flower, the Umbrella, the Vase, the Wheel and the Banner. As he talked about each, he sketched them out with great accuracy.

Eventually he had to leave as well, and we had to get back to our tour group. We finished our tea and left.

Sera Monastery

After a stressful morning we returned to our hotel and waited for the rest of the tour group to wake up. Next on our tour we were to visit the Sera Monastery and see the monks perform their daily debates. Once everyone had risen, we all piled into the tour bus and were on our way.

After a short while we reached the base of Tatipu Hill. After taking a short stop to eat at a local noodle shop, we climbed the hill to the Sera Monastery.

Food at Tatipu Hill
Food at Tatipu Hill

Sera Monastery Village

The Sera Monastery almost seemed like a small village, with small pathways winding between stone buildings painted white with a dark red trim. Several banners hung from the buildings, each decorated with one or more of the Eight Auspicious Symbols. It seemed that monks and people to support the monks all lived here communally.

The Sera Monastery was built into the hill, and the paths were on an incline. At the top of the monastery we found the main event. The debates were about to start, so several tourists were making there way into a walled off part of the monastery. This area was circular, and the circle was covered with white pebbles, and a few trees were dotted around the area.

Guests were directed to remain on the path around the outer edge of the circle. After a short while the students came out into the circle, all wearing the red robes of a Tibetan monk. Most of them were young and split off into pairs – one would sit on ground, while the other stood up. A few of the monks who were older would wander around keeping an eye on things. These were the teachers supervising the debates.

The Debates

After everyone was paired off, the debates started. The students who were standing would raise their right hand. As soon as they were about to say something they would bring their right hand down and clap their left hand. Some were fairly relaxed in doing this, while others would strike as close to the face of those sitting down, seemingly trying to distract them. Since there were several dozen students it would be impossible to tell what they were debating about from where we stood, even if you could speak the same language.

The students seemed fairly jovial. They were taking the debate seriously, but that didn’t seem to stop them having a little fun. They smiled and laughed, and occasionally it seemed someone had said something foolish so their opponent would take relish in mocking them for it. They also struck me as being quite humble – those that were mocked seemed to take it in their stride.

The monks would debate for two hours, but we didn’t stay for the whole thing. We left the Sera Monastery and returned to our bus. Next on our agenda was the Norbulingka Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama.