28 June – 7 July 2010, Tibet
Tibet has been on my list of must see places for about as long as I can remember having a list. Like many other places on this extensive list, I knew very little about Tibet before we began researching the trip. Once we looked into visiting, we quickly realized that access to the Tibetan Autonomous Region is tightly controlled by the Chinese government. Visitors are not only required to obtain a Chinese visa but also a Tibetan Travel Permit. Complicating things more is that you must go through a travel agency in order to obtain the permit and agencies will only sell the permit as part of a package tour. Obtaining these official documents is just the first of many hurdles; foreigners in Tibet are prohibited from taking public transportation or visiting tourist sites without an authorized tour guide. Even with a guide, only sites specifically listed on the permit may be visited.
After realizing how difficult it is to get into Tibet, we considered removing it from our itinerary. After all, we typically prefer independent travel and visiting Tibet as part of a tour would make it the most expensive destination on our itinerary thus far. In the end, we figured this might be our only chance to gain a glimpse into Tibetan life and culture so we moved forward with planning our trip. In order to decrease the cost of the tour, we hooked up with Andri and Corina, a Swisss couple also traveling for a year. Over the course of numerous emails we arranged our tour and made plans to fly together from Chengdu in China to Lhasa in Tibet.
Despite the government’s stringent requirements for visiting Tibet we had no trouble checking in for our flight to Lhasa. Our Tibetan Travel Permit was the key to getting on the plane. Driving from Lhasa’s airport to our hotel in the old town, there was very little indication that we were in Tibet. Chinese characters dominated everything from the street signs to the storefronts. Even more alarming was the abundance of Chinese military, something we hadn’t seen in other parts of China. The number of soldiers increased once we entered the old town. Perched on rooftops with guns and marching around the square in groups of six, there was no way to escape. It was tempting to snap photos but we had already been warned that photography was prohibited and spending time in a Chinese prison didn’t seem like the best way to make use of our limited time in Tibet.
Although more Chinese than Tibetans currently live in Lhasa, Tibetan culture still lives on and there is no place where this is more evident than Jokhang Temple. Located just a short walk from our hotel, we witnessed countless Tibetan pilgrims completing a kora or circuit of the Temple each morning and in the late afternoon. Getting anywhere during these times was an exercise in patience as it is impossible to avoid getting sucked into the mass of people. Situated next to the Temple, Barkhor Square is a prime location for people watching. We watched as pilgrims dressed in brightly colored traditional clothing fingered prayer beads or carried prayer wheels which they continuously spun as they circumnavigated the Temple in a clockwise direction. Pilgirms not completing the circuit were prostrating and we could often hear the distant sound of wooden blocks hitting the stone pavement as they bowed and then stood, sometimes repeating this movement for hours.
People watching inside Jokhang Temple was just as fascinating. The human traffic jam that started outside the Temple only seemed to increase as we entered the front gates. As our guide led us through the Temple’s interior explaning the meaning behind the intricately carved figures, we were surrounded on all sides by pilgrims waiting to pay their respects. Hands gripping 1 yuan bills and thermoses filled with liquid yak butter, they stood in a long line waiting to make offerings at the many altars. Judging from the number of people in line we predicted an entire visit may last a couple of hours and some pilgrims visit the temple every day.
Any trip to Tibet would not be complete without a visit to Potala Palace, the former winter residence of the Dalai Lamas. This massive buildling is situated on top of a rocky hill and rises a further 13 stories against a mountain backdrop. The Palace dominates Lhasa’s skyline and is an impressive sight, even with the busy street and modern buildings in front. Potala Palace was the second official stop on our travel permit and we spent about an hour visiting just a small fraction of the one thousand plus rooms. Walking a predefined route, we saw jeweled tombs of previous Dalai Lamas and countless statues of golden Buddhas and other deities. Many of the altars were covered in offerings of money and scarves provided by the seemingly endless stream of pilgrims that pass through the Palace’s rooms each day.
After spending four days in Lhasa, we were fully acclimated to the high altitude and anxious for a break from temple and monastery visits. Eager to see some of Tibet’s natural beauty we set off on the Friendship Highway which connects Lhasa with Kathmandu in Nepal. We spent our first night at Namtso Lake, Tibet’s largest lake and one of the world’s highest salt lakes at 5000 meters above sea level. Although the altitude hadn’t affected us in Lhasa we felt out of breath while hiking around Namtso and also had difficulty sleeping at night. The lake is certainly beautiful with bright torqouise water surrounded by snow capped mountains, but there are many equally impressive lakes in the United States. We spent one night at Namtso before returning to the Friendship Highway. Over the course of the next three days we visited Yamdrok Lake and monasteries in Shigatse and Gyantse. As with Jokhang and Potala we were impressed by the elaborately decorated interiors but we were particularly struck by the endless streams of devoted Tibeten pilgrims at each monastery.
One of our most enjoyable mornings was when we decided to forego yet another monastery visit in Gyantse. Rather than give more money to the Chinese government by paying the monastery’s steep entrance fees we spent time wandering the city’s back streets and local market in search of a clearer picture of Tibetan life. It was refreshing to see so many Tibetans dressed in traditional clothing and going about their daily business. However, we quickly realized that although the shops were filled with Tibetans, the vast majority of businesses were Chinese owned. Tibet’s economy has done very well in recent years but clearly the majority of people benefitting from this are Chinese immigrants.
Our last stop before crossing the border into Nepal was Everest Base Camp. The morning of our departure for Base Camp, we woke early with high hopes of seeing the sun rise over the Himalayas. Unfortunately, clouds obscured most of the mountain range and continued to persist as we neared our destination. Hopeful the sky would clear, we ate lunch and familiarized ourselves with our home for the next 18 hours, a nomad tent a few kilometers from Base Camp. Reminiscent of some of the gers we stayed at in Mongolia, it was heated with yak dung stoves and was wam and inviting. After lunch, we chose to forego the overpriced bus that carries tourists to Base Camp and instead traversed the rocky terrain on foot. Other than a small group of soldiers, Everest Base Camp was completely deserted. During the May and June climbing season, the area would be abuzz with climbers but we visited in July and it lacked any of that energy. We spent nearly two hours at Base Camp, allowing the clouds enough time to part and reveal partial views of the mountain. Despite the uncooperative weather, the peak was certainly impressive.
We enjoyed our time in Tibet and feel fortunate that we were able to visit a place where relatively few foreigners have been. Being exposed to Tibetan culture was interesting but even more fascinating was the tight control the Chinese government seems to impose on both foreigners and Tibetans. The military presence was especially alarming. Soldiers patrolled the streets of Lhasa, we crossed a ridiculous number of military checkpoints on the Friendship Highway and also passed several large military convoys. Our Tibetan journey ended with difficultly crossing into Nepal because the border town was not listed on our Tibetan Travel Permit. We spent four hours waiting outside immigration while the Defense Department filled out the necessary paperwork for us to leave the country! We’re glad we visited Tibet but considering the hassles and the overwhelming Chinese presence we’re unlikely to return and might not even recommend Tibet to other travelers.
Thank you to Andri and Corina for putting so much time and effort into planning our Tibetan adventure!