We’ve both been long fascinated by Tibet and its history, and so the idea of coming here had been one of the parts of our trip we were most looking forward to. Because of the political situation, foreigners need multiple permits just to enter the region, have to be accompanied by a guide to visit any site of interest and at all times outside Lhasa, and are banned from most areas. Yet these restrictions didn’t lessen our enjoyment of Tibet, and our time there proved to be everything we’d hoped it would be and a real highlight of our trip so far.
We’d originally hoped to be able to travel directly to Lhasa from northern Yunnan, where we’d been to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge and which is on the border of Tibet, but instead – with eastern Tibet closed to foreigners – we embarked on a 4 day, 5000km journey involving 3 trains and a stop-over in Chengdu just long enough to visit the Giant Pandas and the tiny panda cubs at the breeding research centre. Reluctantly, when returning to Yunnan we chose to fly rather than repeat the overland journey and so took our first flight since we arrived in Bergen, 15,000 miles ago. Amazingly, a journey that had taken over 60 hours by train took less than 6 hours in the air.
We spent four days in and around the capital Lhasa, exploring the old part of town and visiting several monasteries and temples, as well as the fabulous maroon and white Potala Palace. The Potala was the traditional seat of political and religious authority in Tibet, which stands on a hill in the centre of the city and is its focal point. After the hustle and bustle of most Chinese cities, Lhasa felt delightfully small and quiet (there are just 800,000 inhabitants) and was a fabulous city to wander on foot. And while visiting in winter meant enduing cold weather (typically between -10 and 8 degrees in Lhasa and a lot colder outside the city), it also meant we enjoyed clear blue skies everyday and got to see the region at a time when there are almost no foreign or Chinese tourists around and instead Lhasa is filled with pilgrims from across the country, and we spent hours just people watching.
Although a part of the People’s Republic of China since 1950, Tibet feels like a separate country. Tibetans tend to be taller and look very different from the Han Chinese, with wide, high cheekbones, and darker skin; they dress differently too, the men in thick fleece lined cloaks worn off one shoulder and with knee length sleeves, their hair often long and sometimes plaited or topped with cowboy style hats; the women in dark skirts and striped aprons, with coloured thread or coral and turquoise beads woven into their hair, often – incongruously – with a North Face jacket over the top; and they speak an entirely different language. They were also some of the smiliest people either of us had ever seen and everywhere we went we were greeted with a grin or tashi delek (hello).
The signs of Chinese control however are obvious: Chinese riot police patrol the streets and sit up on the tops of the buildings pointing video cameras and guns down at the people below; a Chinese flag flies the Potala Palace and from every public building; and the Tibetan flag and images of the Dalai Lama are banned while the majority of Tibetans are forbidden from travelling (even to the rest of China). In addition, most of the monasteries in the country were damaged or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and its only in the last twenty years that Tibetans have been able to openly worship again. Even so, the blurb on our various monastery entrance tickets heralded the decline in the number of monks since “the Liberation.”
The Tibetan monasteries we saw were sprawling walled complexes, often built into the valley walls and resembling fortresses as much as religious buildings. While the outside of the temples were relatively plain, with whitewashed or maroon walls and red drapes above the windows, the interiors were decorated with enormous and brightly coloured murals of various deities. The temples were also dark – lit mainly by yak butter lamps, topped up by pilgrims carrying a tub of butter and a spoon or a flask of oil – and crowded with models of deities and past lamas, photographs of abbots, scarves, incense, pilgrims and their offerings all competing for space.
Visiting the monasteries also gave us an insight into Tibetan Buddhism, which proved very different from what we’d expected. The Tibetan form of Buddhism incorporated pre-Buddhist religious practices (some of which, like offering alcohol to the sky before drinking, we recognised from Siberia and Mongolia) and figures, creating a religion with hundreds of deities very different from that practiced in southern India and South East Asia.
Rather than spending time in quiet contemplation or meditation as we’d anticipated, prayer seems to be done through motion: people complete kora (circuits of religious buildings), the most devout doing so by prostrating themselves all the way round while others prostrate themselves repeatedly in front of the temples; inside pilgrims push their way into chapels to make a quick offering of yak butter, barley or money and then move immediately on to the next chapel; people walking down the street click rosary beads or spin handheld prayer wheels inscribed with mantras that are carried to heaven by the motion, while at monasteries larger prayer wheels are set into walls or mounted in lines on posts to be turned by passers-by.
At one of the monasteries we visited, we watched monks “debating” in a walled garden. To our surprise, rather than a theological discussion however, the debate involved teenage monks testing each other on their knowledge of scripture, with correct answers rewarded by a clap and much jubilation, while incorrect answers were chided and ridiculed.
Architecturally, the highlight of our time in Lhasa was visiting the Potala Palace, Tibet’s most iconic building which dominates the city from its hilltop position. It was fascinating to see the personal quarters of the current Dalai Lama, where he lived and studied until going into exile in 1959, as well as the enormous gold and jewel encrusted funeral stupa (tombs) of the previous 13 Dalai Lamas. It’s continued symbolic importance was evident from the number of pilgrims completing kora of the Palace, yet it was sad that this amazing building is no longer used as intended, with just a handful of rooms open to the public and the others empty and closed.
We left Lhasa for a 4 day road trip to Mount Everest Base Camp along the Friendship Highway, the 1000km long road which links Lhasa and Kathmandu at an altitude of over 4000m for most of the way. The drive was exhilarating as we meandered through wide open valleys and deep narrow gorges, over six mountain passes ranging up to 5200m, and past spectacular scenery including the holy and bright blue Yamdrok-Tso lake and the immense glacier on Mount Nojin Kangstang (7191m). Each of the passes and holy places was covered in a mass of cotton prayer flags, each the colour of one of the five traditional elements (red; fire, white: air, green: water, blue: sky and yellow: earth) and covered in mantras and prayers to be carried to the heavens by the wind.
The landscape of the plateau was incredibly beautiful if harsh and forbidding, a crumpled and mountainous mixture of bare pastel coloured sandstone slopes and rocky scree, with the highest peaks capped by snow and ice. Throughout the drive we saw almost no vegetation and the several rivers and smaller lakes we passed were all frozen. On the third day of the drive, the wind rose and whipped up a number of huge dust storms, at times blocking out the view entirely and limiting visibility to a few feet.
Despite the harshness of such a cold and dry environment, and the tough life that the rural Tibetans must lead, the valleys we passed through were well populated, with most of the valley bottoms were divided into small fields (all bare earth in December). As well as growing barley, most farmers keep goats, sheep and yaks. Amazingly, yaks have adapted to the high altitude by developing such a high red blood cell count that they can die if they go below 3000m.
Every few miles we passed a small hamlet of squat, rectangular, single-storey buildings built of stone or mud brick. Most of the houses were crudely whitewashed and so stood out against the sandy coloured landscape, with their windows picked out in black paint and thick blue and white blankets embroidered with Buddhist designs hanging in front of the doors. Stopping at one of these houses for a cup of cha ngama (sweet yak milk tea) became one of the highlights of the trip. And whilst signs of modernity were clear in the countryside and on the Friendship Highway –Toyota Land Cruisers, electricity pylons and satellite dishes all abound – pony and traps and tractors pulling wagons full of people still dominate the roads.
We broke the journey by visiting Shigatse and the Tashilhupno Monastery, the traditional seat to the Panchen Lama, the most important Lama in Tibet after the Dalai Lama and traditionally the scholarly leader of Tibetan Buddhism. With images of the Dalai Lama banned photos of the 10th Panchen Lama (now deceased) are everywhere in Tibet: in religious buildings, hotels, cafes and people’s homes. At the monastery we spent a very pleasant afternoon completing a kora. We also visited Gayntse and the Palcho Monastery, which was built in 1418, contains a seven floor stupa with 108 chapels (the largest in Tibet) and was one of the only monasteries in Tibet to survive the Cultural Revolution.
By the middle of our second day we had our first glimpse of Everest (8844m). Its snowy pyramid shaped peak soared above the other mountains in the same range, even though four of them also topped 8000m. As we neared the mountain, the number of military check points increased. Apparently Everest is a target for protests so the Chinese have a strong military presence in the area but the stopping and starting gave plenty of opportunities to get out the car and stare in wonder in at the Himalayas as they basked in bright blue cloudless skies. As we got closer we gradually narrowed in on Everest and when we finally arrived at Rongphu Monastery (the highest Monastery in the world at 5150m and where we were to spend the night), the deep valley cut the other peaks from sight leaving uninterrupted vistas along the valley to Everest’s dramatic North Peak. We walked the final two hours to the Base Camp and amazingly had the Base Camp to ourselves and could only stand in awe, and slightly out of breath, looking at the summit as the snow and cloud blew off it in the afternoon heat.
As soon as we returned to the Monastery and the sun went down we could see why it was low tourist season: no heating, no electricity, no running water and a night time temperature of minus 25 degrees centigrade. But our room had magnificent views of the peak, which we never tired of looking at. We made it through the night relatively comfortably thanks to our trusty down sleeping bags and returned to the Base Camp the next morning in time to see the sun rise, a fitting end to our time in Tibet.