Study Tour Blogs

Norbulingka Palace - Summer Sanctuary

Just on the other side of Lhasa past the Potola Palace is the summer residence of the Dalai Lama, Norbulingka. Imagine being a young boy, forced to move away from home and live in an old, run down palace surrounded by older men whose only form of entertainment seemed to be lecturing you on history and religion. For months at a time, this was the reality for the 14th Dalai Lama. He spent much of his days at Potola palace looking forward to the warmer weather, when he would be moving to his summer residence: Norbulingka. This word literally means “jewel park” in Tibetan – you can imagine how it earned such a nickname. Leaving behind the Potola Palace, the Dalai Lama would relocate to this beautiful park on the western edge of Lhasa. As a young Dalai Lama in training, the summer palace offered welcome distractions to the course of study he was used to pursuing at Potola. Norbulingka offered gardens of roses, petunias, marigolds, herbs, and bamboo, along with wildlife like peacocks and ducks. The procession of the Dalai Lama from his time in the Potola to his summer months in Norbulingka became a grand procession attended by Tibetans as a highlight of the year until the 14th Dalai Lama was forced into exile. It is sometimes referred to as the world’s most well-preserved ancient garden, or the world’s highest oxygen bar.
It was from Norbulingka that the 14th Dalai Lama escaped into exile in 1959, dressed as a Tibetan soldier. Once the Chinese military descended upon the palace grounds, they took care to destroy many of the relics that had existed within the buildings and grounds since the 7th Dalai Lama began spending summers there and initiated its construction in 1755. Many Tibetans protested at the palace in 1959 in outrage, but little was prevented until 2003, when much of the grounds and buildings were rebuilt and restored by the Chinese government and opened to the public for tours. You can tour the remains of the palace built between 1954 and 1956 by the current Dalai Lama and view his former residence. This consists of a mediation chamber, bedroom, and bathroom. Most of this reflects traditional Buddhist images, but there are some surprises: western style indoor plumbing, a Soviet radio, and the former location of a movie theater built by the Dalai Lama with help from the German climber, Henreich Herrer. The palace also contains an assembly hall and audience chamber where the Dalai Lama would address heads of state. The audience chamber features the history of Tibet in mural form – notice the imagery of bodhisattvas and a monkey in a cave – this symbolizes the beginnings of the Tibetan people – along with the depiction of the first field in Tibet, a representation of agriculture. At the back of the assembly hall, tours take you into the Dalai Lama’s mother’s suites – you might even see her bathroom sink overflowing with one-mao note offerings. Outside, you can tour the artificial lake commissioned by the 8th Dalai Lama. This was most often used as a retreat by the 13th Dalai Lama who built a library in the pavilion to enjoy a calm reading nook near the duck pond. Next to the new summer palace, the Kelsang Palace still stands. This was the summer palace built by the 13th Dalai Lama. It is smaller, and is no longer open to the public. In many ways, the grounds and palace at Norbulingka are intended to bring your attention to nature and the beauty of the earth, whereas Potola palace brings to mind the achievements of manmade architecture. This dichotomy reflects the dual role of the Dalai Lama as a spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people.
Also on the grounds of the summer palace is a zoo. In nearly every book, website, and trip review I read, this was referred to as the “awful zoo.” Avoid at all costs - unless you’re in the mood to view depressed animals in littered, small cages. While this palace has been known for its gardens – sometimes being called the world’s highest preserved ancient garden, or the world’s highest oxygen bar – many of the recent reviews indicate the gardens have not been well maintained over the years.
Though this was not taking place while we are in Tibet, the summer months also bring the Sho Dun festival to the grounds of Norbulingka. This festival marks the end of Tibetan monks’ traditional 100 day summer retreat. Norbulingka hosts a traditional Tibetan opera – considered a UNESCO symbol of intangible heritage - and surrounding grounds are also host to horsemanship demonstrations and yak racing. In 2001, the entire grounds and palace at Norbulingka was added to the UNESCO world heritage site list as an extension of the site at Potola Palace.
Visiting the actual Norbulingka was truly indescribable. The grounds were beautiful, and it happened to be the 14th Dalai Lama's 83rd birthday. While no one could express this out loud, we noticed a considerable amount of Tibetans enjoying a picnic on the grounds - something our Tibetan tour guide, MingMa, pointed out might be due to the 'special day' no one could mention. Inside the 14th Dalai Lama's personal palace, we witnessed a land lose in time. With artifacts from various western countries such as an Indian and Soviet radio, a European painting, a British clock along with 1950s-era western furniture, it seemed like just yesterday the Dalai Lama had gotten up and walked away from this place without a trace of packing or intention. Our Nepalese tour guide, BK, pointed out that he had an audience with the Dalai Lama once (color me jealous!!!) and the Dalai Lama asked about the condition of his beloved summer palace. When BK described what is on display, the Dalai Lama chuckled, sighed, and told him that wasn't how he had left it. I suppose our experience has been drastically changed from the original conditions in 1959.
I plan to use our photos and experience at Norbulingka in conjunction with our visit to the Potola to illustrate to my students the dichotomy of the political and spiritual responsibilities and powers of the Dalai Lamas that was reinstated with the 7th Dalai Lama. This unification of church and state in Tibet could be compared to other leaders with similar autonomy, such as Henry VIII, Byzantine emporers, or Mansa Musa and contrasted with Enlightenment ideals of the separation of church and state in the 18th century.

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  • Monk on Norbulingka grounds (Photo credit: Amy Liberatore)
  • Park at Norbulingka (Photo credit: Niklas Berry)
  • Tibetans on a picnic (Photo credit: Stephanie Rizas)
  • Tibetans on a picnic (Photo credit: Stephanie Rizas)
  • Front of 14th Dalai Lama's residence at Norbulingka (Photo credit: Stephanie Rizas)
  • (Photo credit: Niklas Berry)
  • Steph in Norbulingka park (Photo credit: Stephanie Rizas)
  • One cool monk (Photo credit: Stephanie Rizas)

Potala Palace-- Nepal and Tibet 2018

Rising majestically and imposingly over the Lhasa Valley, the architecture of the Potala Palace communicates strength, power, and importance. It is a spectacular and awe-inspiring building. However, the Chinese flag flying high on top of the palace and the monument constructed across the road remind the viewer of the contested meaning of this Tibetan seat of power.

The Potala Palace, originally built in the 7th century by the famed Tibetan King Songsten Gampo, and expanded by the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century, has long been the centerpiece of political power in the Tibetan state. The palace contains over 1000 rooms and was used as the Winter Palace of the Dalai Lamas until the Chinese takeover in 1959. On the tour, one walks past giant mandalas, gilded Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, ornate and impressive tombs, watchful monks, and other symbols of religious and political power.

When one begins the 400+ step journey to the top, one cannot help but notice (between labored breaths) the plaza directly opposite the palace. An imposing monument, emblazoned with a message commemorating the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet,” faces directly towards the palace. Statues of smiling Tibetans, playing instruments and holding katas, welcome their Chinese saviors. At night, the mainly Chinese visitors to this plaza take selfies in front of the illuminated palace, frolic in the fountains, and walk around the newly constructed ponds and pagodas. Propaganda music plays from the speakers, and large posters of Xi Jinping and other Communist Party leaders smile down upon the visitors. In this setting, Potala Palace becomes a pleasant backdrop, no longer a symbol of Tibetan political power and autonomy, but instead another Chinese cultural wonder and tourism destination.

I plan to use the Potala Palace with Mount Rushmore and the Hagia Sophia as examples of architectural sites that have had their meanings written and rewritten by competing and conquering groups.

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  • Potala Palace during the day
  • Steps to Potala
  • Plaza across from Potala
  • Peaceful Liberation Monument
  • Potala at Night

Everest North Base Camp - Tibet

Located at 16,404 feet above sea level, the Everest North Base Camp is in the Qomolangma National Nature Reserve in Tibet. This "tourist base camp" is the last point which visitors may travel without a hiking permit obtained by the government. Past this point is the campsite used by expeditions climbing the north (China-side) of Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world 29,035 feet above sea level. Unlike the South Base Camp in Nepal it can be reached by road.

The road to the base camp, the Zhufeng is mostly paved up to the tourist camp and offers a winding mountain drive with sharp and blind curves and hairpin switchbacks. This road, paved and including guardrails, used to take hours and hours to climb when it was a gravel lane less than a year and a half ago. Visitors can stay at the Rongbuk Monastery and we enjoyed the simple restaurant, heated by yak dung and equipped with wi-fi. The sleeping accommodations were simple but the heated blankets were a treat. There was also a tent camp option for very rustic accommodations about a half mile before the tourist base camp, these tents are set up by local Tibetans and provide shelter for travelers and some local crafts to purchase.

From the Rongbuk Monastery the hike to the tourist base camp is about 3 miles. The hike, although at high altitude, is relatively easy and mostly on a paved road. This base camp is simple, basically a gravel pull-off with no bathroom facilities. Facing the mountain it offers on a clear day an amazing view of Mt. Everest while to the right is a glacier river, created as the water runs off the mountain. The base camp is a magical rock field with many cairns "simple pyramid like rock piles" created by visitors to record their time at the foot of the mountain. The camp is clean and without liter with the exception of some prayer flags that have broken free from a line on the surrounding mountains. While our group was at the camp the mountain was hidden completely in thick clouds. However, to our delight, on the walk back to the Monastery, the summit began to break through the clouds and we watched for hours from the road at first, than from the Rongbuk Restaurant and finally the Monastery hill as the top of the mountain came into view as the clouds continued to move. This was a magical time for me and it brought me to tears as I have always wanted to view this mountain that I have admired and obsessed over through literature and tales of those who have climbed it for years. This experience was a highlight of our trip and fulfilled my expectations.

In closing, I feel fortunate to have traveled to the camp now as there may be changes in the future as access to the view becomes more accessible because of the road improvements and the new and seemingly luxurious hotel that the Chinese government is building a few miles from the site. Mt. Evereste is known as "Qomolangma" meaning mother goddess of the universe, by the Tibetan people and it certainly lives up to that name.

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  • Everest North Base Camp - Tibet
  • Our crew - with the clouds covering Mount Everest at the tourist base camp
  • Everest North Base Camp - Tibet
  • Cairns
  • Mt. Everest peak in the distance - view from the Rongbuk Monastery
  • View of Mt. Everest from the hill above the Rongbuk Monastery
  • Everest North Base Camp - Tibet
  • Everest North Base Camp - Tibet
  • Rongbuk Monastery

Tibet/Nepal 2018- The Barkhor and the Jokhang Temple

The scent of burning juniper fills the air, and the soft swirling of prayer wheels meshes with shuffling of feet and the quiet hum of pilgrims uttering their mantras, as devoted Tibetans make their clockwise kora through the streets of the Barkhor, encircling the Jokhang Temple. Joining in stream of pilgrims, one witnesses the fascinating practices of devout Tibetan Buddhists.

The Barkhor Square is the name given to the narrow alleys around the Jokhang Temple, the most revered religious site in Tibet, which is utilized for spiritual and secular purposes. The street was built over 1300 years in conjunction with the temple and has been at the center of life in Lhasa. The Barkhor is comprised of 35 major and smaller streets. Within the Old Town of Lhasa (aka Barkhor Historic Area) is the Barkhor’s kora, the one kilometer route used by pilgrims for clockwise circumambulation and prostration. The kora route is marked with four large incense burners. The Barkhor has been the main shopping district of the city from its earliest times.

Having the privilege to visit the Barkhor early in the morning, midday, and in the evening, allowed for me to experience the diverse activities surrounding the area. Upon entrance to the Barkhor Square, we had to pass through a screening area manned by Chinese officials, regardless of time of day. There was a larger security presence in place during the midday and evening hours. Not surprising, the early morning before sunrise, was quiet and meditative. Many carried prayer wheels and everyone had prayer beads at hand. Most shops along the route were not yet open for business. Pilgrims were more introspective and less engaged with those around them as they participated in the kora. Some did prostrations for the entire route, most walked. A few stopped to add juniper to one of the four large incense burners or to take their turn in spinning the larger prayer wheels along the route. There were students dressed in school uniforms, monks and nuns in their crimson robes, people walking their pet dogs, and those in professional attire, likely on the way to work. During my midday and evening visits, the area was busier and we saw more tourists like ourselves. The shops were open for business, and owners actively tried to entice potential consumers to purchase their Tibetan prayer beads, colorful prayer flags, amulets, singing bowls, and thangka paintings. The front of the Jokhang Temple was full of prostrating pilgrims. Upon entering the inner sanctum of the Jokhang Temple you can not miss the strong smell of incense and the heavy odor of melting yak butter, which the devoted continuously add to large urns from their personal thermoses. Offerings of fruit, money, katas, and prayer flags were heaped at many alters. The temple was extremely busy, full of Tibetan pilgrims wanting to see the Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha.

For more details on the history, significance, and images of the Barkhor and Jokhang Temple, please visit:

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  • The Jokhang Temple
  • Prostrating pilgrims in front of the Jokhang Temple
  • Prayer wheels along the Barkhor kora route
  • Tibetans participating in the the kora around the Barkhor

Nepal/Tibet Trip 2018 Yamdrok Tso

Nature is considered sacred to Tibetans. Yamdrok Tso is considered one of the four most sacred lakes and is thought to encompass the spirit of Tibet. Tibetan belief is that if the lake dries up, Tibetan culture will die. In addition, circumambulating the lake in seven days is believed to wash away one’s sins. Further, Yamdrok Tso is where senior monks go to meditate, chant mantras, and pray after important living Buddhas (like the Dalai Lama) die. It is here at the lake that they wait for a vision or some sign as to where the reincarnation has been reborn.

Once I finally saw the lake I couldn’t wait to actually get to it so I could put my feet in it! Alas, the locals did not appreciate my running to the waters edge to immerse my feet in its crystal-clear depths. Apparently, one could put their hands in it but not one's feet. (Though a yak was taking a bath in it two hundred feet away. Yaks are cleaner than human feet?). The water did indeed change colors from shades of blue to turquois to green depending on the suns reflection. We were actually able to see Yamdrok Tso twice – once on the way to Gyantse as scheduled and then again the long way back to Lhasa since landslides prevented us from taking the most direct route. This was a treat for me as both days were sunny and views of the lake and surrounding mountains were beautiful. A negative aspect of seeing the lake, however, was that you could actually see that the lake was shrinking as reported on various websites. Environmental damage is no doubt occurring due to interference with its fragile ecosystem.

I will be including aspects of my original prepared PowerPoint into my World Geography class. Now that I’ve been there I will update the PowerPoint to incorporate some actual photos of time spent at and around the lake.

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  • Lisa and Yamdrok Tso
  • Yamdrok Tso
  • Yak at Yamdrok Tso
  • Getting Blessed at Yamdrok Tso

Nepal/Tibet Trip 2018 Gyantse Monastery

While the Monastery is beautiful and the nearby fort is lit up at night, the relevance of this site is mainly historical, and definitely, political as well as religious. Touring the Monastery gave us all a chance to observe, once again, a variant iteration of Tibetan Buddhism. There are many buildings and chapels which affirmed the nature of this as an amalgam of temples. There were beautiful statues and paintings and it was actually fun/challenging to circle to the top on our own personal journey to enlightenment (even if it really only meant that we were still in shape, physically). This Monastery, in its design, represents the "universe" in Buddhist terms-a circle inside of a square.
Yet, the relevance to me was more political and historic. Gyantse was built by a Prince who was obviously (given the fort) attempting to show spirituality as well as power. IN 1427 when it was built, the Tibetans considered themselves to be at least on an equal footing politically to China, especially after the 200+ years of Mongol rule. The Tibetan version of this varies from current Chinese accounts of the history, but the fact that the Kundum was built at all attests to the probability that the Tibetans did wield some power or at least brokered power against the Mongols giving them leverage with the Ming Dynasty.

The Monastery also has relevance in that it represents the cross-regional aspects of Buddhism. Patrick Hughes shared a lecture with us on the variations of the practice of Buddhism. Historically, Gyantse also represents an intersection of Tibetan and Nepalese forms of Buddhism. The Prince who built the Kundum may have been of the belief that he could reach the highest level of enlightenment in one lifetime. The Monastery, in its way, illustrates this concept as well.
Finally, the Monastery illustrates the power of pilgrimage in the Buddhist faith. Many people shared this experience with us. And although the Chinese government has attempted to wrestle the history away from the Tibetans, claiming to have simultaneously saved Kundum from "western imperialism" and Tibetan underdevelopment, the Monastery appeared to be very popular with practicing Buddhists.

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Gyantse Kundum