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.

Up Early to Queue in Lhasa

On our first day in Lhasa we found out that because Yi was Chinese she would need to get up early in the morning to queue for the tickets to Potala Palace. They also needed one other person to go as well, so obviously I volunteered. So at 5 in the morning we dragged ourselves out of bed to go down and meet our tour guides.

The Queue

We were driven to the foot of the Potala Palace where a huge queue had already formed. There were probably in excess of 1000 people waiting to get a ticket to see the palace. It turns out that our tour guides had paid someone to queue up for us and my girlfriend and I were to take their place. I was given everyone’s passports and we went to meet our stand-in.

When we tried to swap places the guard tried to stop us. An argument ensued – it seemed they didn’t want to let my girlfriend in to the queue. We managed to convince them by telling them that she was my translator. After taking our place, Yi was handed a group of Chinese IDs to hand over alongside her own. Our stand-in provided us with a light cake for breakfast and some water. One man remained to guide us through the process of getting tickets.

While waiting in line we got talking to some of the other people around us. People had been waiting in this queue since 4 o’clock. In the afternoon. The day before. I felt a tinge of guilt having managed to jump a queue that people had been camping out all night in, and a little nervous that all those around us would resent what we had done.

The ticket booths opened at some point – I can’t remember what time exactly and the queue started to slowly move. After what seemed like another hour we finally reached the front of the queue. I went up first and handed over the passports and the money. In less than a minute I had the tickets.


Yi went up with her ID and the other IDs that she had been handed. They printed out her ticket, then noticed the other IDs. Suddenly a huge argument broke out. Apparently Yi wasn’t supposed to be getting tickets for other people. They were demanding to see the other people who were on the IDs. I heard Yi constantly saying “I didn’t know” over and over in Chinese as her ticket was kept from her. The argument didn’t end well, and Yi didn’t get her ticket.

It turned out that what they had tried to get Yi to do wasn’t allowed, and because they hadn’t explained what they were doing, she wasn’t able to defend or explain herself at the ticket booth. They had basically tried to use her to get tickets they weren’t supposed to be able to get, and now she didn’t even have her own ticket.

Our tour guide was furious. “She’s not part of my staff, she’s my customer!” He demanded to know what had happened, and what they were going to do for her. They explained that there had been a language misunderstanding. “Language misunderstanding?” he retorted, “she’s fucking Chinese! She speaks fluent Mandarin!”

They went off and argued for a while. Eventually he came back and told us that they had agreed to fix it. It wasn’t the best start to our holiday in Tibet, but we decided to put it behind us and carry on with the rest of the tour. The visit to the Potala Palace wasn’t until the next day, so they had a day to find her a ticket.

Looking back I’m surprised how different they treat foreigners and Chinese here. I handed them a bunch of passports – English, Canadian, American and Australian and had no problem getting tickets with no questions asked. They had no problem with me jumping the queue. But when Yi tried to do the same we had to lie and say she was my translator, and when she handed multiple Chinese IDs over they wouldn’t give her tickets because they were from a different province. It really made me wonder what they were trying to protect with this crazy security setup, and whether or not they were actually successful in doing so.