06.08.2013 - 06.08.2013
Lhasa takes your breath away, quite literally as we discovered when we stepped off the plane at 3,700m. Canisters of oxygen were provided in our airport transfer car and next to the minibar in the hotel room, but being experienced in the acclimatization business we refused to succumb to their temptations. After 24 hours of suffering we were ready for Lhasa, and Lhasa was ready for us.
The Potala Palace also takes your breath away: not only for its scale (1,000 rooms, 113m high and 2m thick walls), but also for its dramatic setting and dizzying construction which make it quite unlike any other building in the world. Even seeing it for what felt like the hundredth time, our eyes were still drawn magnetically to it; such is its captivating power. Capturing this emotional response in a photograph is impossible, of course, but that didn’t stop us from trying. And so we embarked on a quest for the perfect Potala picture.
We used an early drive-by as a reconnaissance, checking out the light and shade on the Palace walls, imagining the trajectory of the sun and assessing the promising backdrop of mountain peaks. An elevated viewpoint to the south west of the Potala seemed promising, and a quick non-Google search (this is China, remember) revealed this to be King Medicine Hill. We hatched a plan to return early the following morning armed with bagfuls of camera gear.
The following morning was overcast, but undeterred, we hailed a rickshaw to take us to the viewpoint. We were dropped off some distance short – at first I thought we were about to be victims of a scam, but in fact this was as close as our rickshaw could get. Security around the Potala was tight, for this happened to be the first day of the Shoton Festival and a big show was taking place that evening in the square in front of the Palace, featuring live performances and a fireworks display. We paid 2 yuan each to climb the steps to King Medicine Hill and reeled off a few photos of the Potala under brooding skies. We knew the photos were nothing spectacular, but they were 'bankers' and might look quite effective in black and white.
The same website that had given us the name of the viewpoint also mentioned a small temple nearby which afforded another view of the Potala from a slightly different angle, so we headed there next. Events took a turn for the bizarre at this point. The temple kept two tame blue sheep (a wild species normally found at high altitudes in the Himalayas). Here was an animal I had spent many hours tracking across remote mountain slopes in India and Nepal in a vain attempt to photograph, now practically tame enough to eat out of my hand. I knelt down for an eye-level photo (at this point a pet rabbit had taken shelter under the sheep’s body, adding an even more surreal aspect to the scene). The blue sheep faced down my camera lens and charged – I had to take evasive action to avoid a head butt. Round one to the sheep, but it wasn’t finished there. Clearly thinking I was a rival worth seeing off, the sheep made repeated attacks on both me and Jen, and only by grabbing its horns could I stop it. Salvation came in the form of a friendly local, clearly highly amused by proceedings, who managed to distract the sheep with some food, allowing us to dodge into the temple. The photos of the Potala from here, it has to be said, were not really worth the effort.
Early afternoon saw us back at King Medicine Hill with our fingers on the shutters again, this time with the Potala looking resplendent in the sunshine. We had just finished our guided tour of the Palace: all tourists are allotted a one-hour time slot, such is the popularity of the tour. It’s forbidden to take photos inside the Palace, but there are plenty of interesting angles as you climb the switchback stairs to the main entrance, and we covered them all. Now we had a set of classic Potala images, and we thought that was that.
But the quest was not over. Our Tibetan guide Phurpu mentioned how impressive the Potala looked at night, when the whole building is floodlit. Suddenly our mission seemed unfulfilled without that night-time shot. Musing over this problem at a local café later, it struck me that if I could get on to the roof of the hotel, I would have an unrivaled view of the Palace from another angle. I’m not sure guests are supposed to go on the roof, given that it involved crawling through an access hatch at the top of the stairs, but I was proved right. Now all was set!
Dinner came and went and night began to fall. Over in the Potala Square, the various dignitaries, officials and army officers were assembling for the Shoton Festival show. Just when it seemed our quest would be fulfilled, the weather decided to intervene. Rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning signalled a major storm was about to hit the city. I fired off some shots of the Potala before the rain arrived, beautifully floodlit and looking magnificent. Yes!
But my ultimate Potala Palace photo is none of the above. In fact, it’s an image I hadn’t conceived and didn’t even realise I had taken. As the storm raged outside I caught another sound in between the thunderclaps: the fireworks had begun. Wouldn’t it be cool to capture the Palace and the fireworks in the same photo, I thought. With the rain now pelting down (those poor Chinese dignitaries), I found a window at the end of the corridor outside our hotel room which afforded a good enough view of events, braced myself against the window frame and began to reel off some continuous shots of the fireworks exploding, hoping to capture the perfect moment. Well I got it, and then some: it seems God himself decided to partake in the display. It’s not sharp, but it’s a one-off!