I’d seen it in pictures, of course. The magnificent Potala Palace, rising vertically from its perch atop Red Mountain in the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa. This number one destination on my travel wish list had long eluded me. Until now. After years of waiting, I had finally made it to the exotic kingdom that some believe to by the mythical Shangri-La. I stood on a viewing platform across the street from the iconic edifice and drank in its 13 stories, the inward-sloping walls that measure up to 16 feet thick, and its more than 1,000 rooms. As a devoted Buddhist, I knew the palace was home to the Dalai Lama until 1959, when he fled in the face of the invading Chinese army. I knew that it contains more than 200,000 statues and nearly 700 invaluable murals that depict some of the most important historic events in Buddhist history. I even knew that the Red Palace in the center of the immense structure was used for religious purposes, while the white portion was used mostly for administration and government purposes. But what I hadn’t contemplated was actually climbing to the top of the Potala Palace.
With my aching right hip in mind, I turned to my guide. “How many steps are there to the top?” I asked. “About 2,000 in all, up and down,” he answered. Gulp. Sensing panic, he added, “We go slowly. There is no time limit and we rest often.” It was meant to be reassuring, but I was already feeling the effects of the 3,650-meter (11,975 foot) altitude at the base of the palace. At the top, the altitude would be 3,700 meters (12,139 feet), inching ever closer to the 4,000-meter cutoff where I would begin to feel the effects of altitude sickness. But I wasn’t about to pass up this once in a lifetime opportunity, so with more than a little trepidation, I followed our group across the street and began the long journey up.
I’m a counter by nature. One, two, three…by the time I got to 25 steps I was gasping for breath. Tibetan ladies loaded down with thermoses of butter tea and giant picnic baskets breezed by me. Some grinned and nodded encouragingly at me. “You can make it,” they seemed to be saying. True to our guide’s word, we stopped regularly to catch our breath, and it wasn’t long before we were standing at the top. I breathed (gasped) a sigh of relief, until I pulled aside the heavy Yak-fur embroideries hanging over the main entrance, only to find…more steps.
For the next hour we negotiated twisting stairways and rickety wooden ladders throughout an endless labyrinth. Construction of the Potala Palace was started in the 7th century, but most of what we see today was completed in the 17th century, under the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama, who was severely ill. He made his Regent swear that, should he die, his death would be kept secret until construction was completed. Indeed, he died soon after eliciting that promise, and his death was not announced until construction was finished 13 years later.
How I wish I could have stayed more than my allotted time! I would have stood before each holy mandala for an hour, drinking in its significance and marveling at the artistic discipline required to create such beautiful pieces out of colored sand. The ancient statues of former Buddhas and their protectors were worth at least 20 minutes each. I was barely able to grasp the fact that I was standing inches away from the thrones used by the 5th and 13th Dalai Lamas before it was time to move on to the next artifact. But with the number of daily tourists limited to 2,300, such reflection is not possible. I dutifully followed my guide to the end and stepped out the rear entrance, where I contemplated the next stage in my journey – the 1,000 steps down. I grinned and started down, knowing that climbing to the top of the Potala Palace had been worth every single step. After all, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
Author’s note: After many years of trying to visit Tibet, I was finally successful with the assistance of Himalaya Journey, an absolutely fantastic company that specializes in small group tours of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and India.