Somehow, some why, I didn’t blog about my experience in Tibet immediately after being there. Between my notebook scribbling and photos I’m going to try to piece together my experience. First I have to say that I love the Tibetan people. They are beautiful, spiritual, friendly and extremely hospitable. The perseverance and commitment to their faith in the face of what amounts to cultural genocide by the Chinese is incredible. This story really begins three months ago when I was traveling through Western Sichuan and was first introduced to Tibetan people and culture. It was then that I decided that I would return to Tibet, despite the difficulties and expenses levied by the Chinese government. As I explored Mongolia by jeep, I managed to put together a tour to Tibet via a sketchy company in Kathmandu, managing this from the one or two Internet cafes in the Gobi desert. The stars aligned, and eventually I found myself on a train to Lhasa with permit in hand.
My first moments in Tibet were heart-breaking and disappointing. My driver met me outside of the station and as we pulled away and drove towards downtown Lhasa my initial thoughts were – “is this really Tibet?” , “Why is everyone Chinese here?” Why does it look like the infrastructure is being built to support many, many more people than already live here?” My heart sunk as I questioned my decision to travel through Tibet, driving through what amounted to a ghost town as my driver explained that everything was being built to support the immigrating Chinese who were arriving by the tens of thousands after receiving lucrative offers from the Chinese government to relocate their families and businesses to Tibet. Fortunately, my driver informed me, I would be staying in Old Lhasa in the Muslim quarter, the only part of the city with any Tibetan character left. I checked into a nice hotel and met my travel partners for the next 10 days, Maaike from Belgium and Matthijs from Denmark. Currently, foreigners are unable to travel in Tibet without a driver and guide. For me to see Tibet, I had to pay the Chinese government more money than I would have preferred to secure my permits, land cruiser, driver and guide. Fortunately I got a decent deal after hearing that my travel partners had paid 50% more than I did for the same trip!
Over the next 3 days I explored the grand historical sites in and around Lhasa, the Potala Palace, The Jokhang, Sera Monastery and the Dalai Lama’s summer palace (former), the Norbulingka. Our guide (who I won’t name because the Chinese secret police are always watching), displayed some interesting behavior the first day – we thought he was being lazy by preferring not to explore the Potala Palace with us, but later learned that it simply broke his heart to visit the place that was once the spiritual Mecca for Tibetan Buddhists, now relegated to more of a historical museum. It was still an incredible place, one of the few historical Tibetan sites not pillaged by the Chinese during the cultural revolution. Thousands of pilgrims were paying homage to the Potala- chanting, lighting butter lamps and making offerings to the various shrines inside. The Potala houses a rich collection of tombs and cultural relics that date back to the 5th Dalai Lama’s reign in the 13th century. We continued to visit other sites, noticing the subtle differences between those still used for religious events and those left stagnant by Chinese intrusion and restrictions. Slowly our guide began to trust us and explained some of the events he has witnessed in recent history including seeing people being shot during uprisings right before his eyes. He was always cautious, understanding that his career and reputation were on the line if the Chinese government overheard some of his words. We respected this, not digging too deeply and generally supporting what appeared to be his desire to let out some frustration to people who would listen.
My favorite part of Lhasa was not the official sites, rather, it was simply wandering around the Jokhang area, observing the pilgrims, eating dinner on the street while wandering the alleyways and exchanging smiles with the ever curious Tibetans, most of them enroot on a kora. A kora is a holy circuit that pilgrims undertake to mount up good karma. There are many koras in Tibet, such as around the Potala, around Mt Kailash near the Nepali border (Tibet’s holiest mountain), and even around Lhasa itself. But arguably the most important and meaningful is Barkor as it surrounds the Jokhang Palace, the holiest temple in all of Tibet. At the Barkor you will stumble upon hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims in their traditional garbs circulating the 1km route around the Jokhang. They come from all regions of Tibet and beyond, walking in a clockwise manner so that the religious monument is always on their right (going anti-clockwise is bad karma!). Many do these koras simply a few times a day, some for hours… some for even DAYS! And all this time you also see these Tibetans constantly waving around hand-held prayer-wheels. A prayer is inscribed on each wheel, and the more times you swing it round the more good karma you accumulate. But as if walking around koras for days was tiring enough, countless Tibetans are seen prostrating around koras like the Jokhang and even just simply in front of it. Prostrations are sort of like a religious squat thrust, and our guide explained that some devout Tibetans will prostrate for hundreds of kilometers all the way to Lhasa, sometimes taking months to accomplish such a journey. Therefore Old Town Lhasa was were I enjoyed myself most – watching and observing, once stumbling upon a small monastery where the monks were hand making paper and Buddhist sutras with small printing tablets – they were surprised to see me but still managed to show me around as we shared smiles and laughs without otherwise being able to communicate. I enjoyed watching daily life first thing in the morning and then again immediately after sunset when the most action is happening.
One thing that I (or anyone) could not avoid seeing was the heavy Chinese military presence. Every entrance to the old town was guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons, the rooftops around the Jokhang were riddled with snipers and regular patrols of fatigued soldiers interrupted the colorful stream of pilgrims on the Barkor circuit, Tibet’s most famous Kora. I made the dreadful mistake of showing my guide a photo of the Dali Lama that I had on my iPod, a serious crime worthy of expulsion, directly under a camera with a microphone in the Norbulingka Palace. (Luckily no one noticed!). I breathed a sigh of relief that my trip to Tibet wasn’t going to be abruptly cut short, but was reminded of the seriousness of the conflict between China and Tibet.
Interestingly, I had a very difficult time sleeping in Lhasa, always feeling like my heart rate was high and simultaneously experiencing a sense of anxiety. At first I thought it may have been the altitude, but immediately upon leaving Lhasa these sensations went away. After careful examination, I think I was channeling the energy of the place. I have an undefined sacral center in my body and I’ve discovered over the years that I am very sensitive to the stress and anxiety of others. If I am not careful, I will often accept this anxiety as my own, when in fact it comes from without. Generally, being aware of this energy has always been a very subtle process for me, but in Lhasa it felt hyper-active. There is a tremendous amount of tension and anxiety amongst the citizens of Lhasa, both Tibetan and Chinese. Just last year, major unrest unfolded in Tibet, centered in Lhasa. Unfortunately, the root issues that caused this unrest have not changed, and I personally believe this will not be the last time we see violence here. As much as enjoyed visiting Lhasa, I doubt I will ever go back. Within the near future there will be very little left of anything Tibetan beyond historical monuments. And as I learned more and more about the plight of the Tibetans during the remainder of my trip through Tibet, Nepal and India, I just don’t feel comfortable supporting the Chinese occupation and "’modernization” of Lhasa.
Enough about Lhasa – on day 4 I struck out on the road with Maaike and Matthijs, heading West towards the Himalaya and Nepal on the Friendship Highway. Incredibly, what used to be a multi-week journey is now a paved highway on which one can drive from the Nepali border to Lhasa in a single day!
For the next 6 days we passed some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. First up was Lake Yandrok, one of the highest lakes in the world, checking in somewhere near 15000 feet. The next several days sort of blurred together as I remember passing through the heart of Tibet – Gyantse, Shigatse and Tingri, headed towards the great Himalaya range and Mount Everest (Qomolangma) herself. We passed glaciers, mountains, small villages, farms and pastures. We saw yak, deer, goat, and sheep wandering the high plains in search of grass. Each city that we slept in was similar to Lhasa in that there were newer Chinese areas and existing Tibetan “old towns”. A highlight for me was walking visiting the beautiful Tashilimpo monastery in Shigatse, walking the Kora high above the city with Maaike and stumbling our way back home through the cobblestone streets. We had some good laughs at a tailor shop where a nice Tibetan guy fixed a hole in my down jacket for only 50 cents.
We quickly discovered that two stars in Tibet does not imply a warm shower or comfortable room, and therefore spent some cold evenings as we were traveling at the tail end of the tourist season, with most places not equipped for heating or electricity. This was fine with me, preparing me for the conditions in the Annapurna range, as well as giving me an idea of exactly how arduous it would be to spend a winter in Tibet. Three weeks later I read 7 Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer and it brought me back to many of the places I had visited. If you have not read it, and you are into adventure-style books, I highly recommend you pick it up. In the 1940’s Heinrich broke out of a POW prison in India and managed to go overland through the Himalaya and Tibet to Lhasa. His travels and cultural experiences of one of the first westerners to know Tibet is incredible. He ultimately became a friend of the young 14th Dalai Lama and has acted as an emissary to Tibet for the West throughout his life.
Eventually we made it to Everest Base Camp, awaking at 4 am and leaving Tingri in order to watch the sunrise. Although it was nice and clear day, the winds were ripping through the valley and one could barely snap a photo before needing to retreat to the car. Everest Base Camp on the Tibet side is 5200 meters (16640 feet), and as you can imagine, especially in early November, quite cold! My travel partners decided to head down hill with another tour group, but as spending time in this magical region was a priority for me, I asked my guide and driver to spend the night up there so I could explore during the day. They begrudgingly agreed and I struck out on foot for the afternoon – feeling slightly dizzy from the altitude, first heading to the small Yamalung hermitage where Guru Rinpoche meditated and received empowerment from the Buddha Amitayus. There are several small temples, a sacred spring and numerous carvings; and a temple enclosing Guru Rinpoche’s meditation cave contains a hand and footprints of the saint. I was alone in the cave and sat zazen for 20 minutes, soaking in the unbelievable energy of the place. I explored the hermitage, ducking between endless prayer flags and offerings that have accumulated over the centuries. The rest of the day I wandered aimlessly in the valley, seeing only one Yak herder and a number of deer. Finally when my fingers couldn’t bare it any longer, I returned to the guesthouse (more like a cement block with a bed in it), to huddle around the stove with the handful of other guests and guides who braved the evening at over 5000 meters in November. Despite the temperature in my room that night dropping to 20, I slept soundly with about 11 blankets wrapped around me.
The rest of the trip consisted of a long drive to the border, with a few stop offs at schools and small villages so we could interact with the locals outside of the big cities. The road down to Zhangmu (border town with Nepal), was the final part of the Friendship Highway being paved, an incredible feat of engineering as the road drops thousands of feet through a perilous canyon. We were delayed several times by rock slides and planned demolitions. We paused briefly at a high pass to get a glimpse of the Annapurna range I would soon be hiking in. After spending the night next over a discotheque in Zhangmu, we woke up early, crossed the border and found a driver for our transfer to Kathmandu. That day I found myself in one of those deeply meditative mindsets, a balance between consciousness and pure awareness. As we drive through amazing scenery and continued to descend all the way to Kathmandu at 800m I was jotting notes down on my iPod as the drab colors of Tibet gave way to tropical forests and beautiful saris. I’m not sure what triggered the flow of awareness for me, but it is one I will not soon forget.
Suddenly we were in the chaos of Kathmandu, the most populated and congested place I had been in over 2 months. I found myself checking into my small guesthouse, transitioning to the next phase of my journey.