Tibet is a traveler’s paradox. Besides the philosophical, ethical and political considerations concerning China’s annexation of this region, there is also the harsh reality of climate and geography.
Lhasa, the former capital, takes all of your senses at least one step beyond comfort. Is it a region you really want to visit? The altitude will choke you if the odors do not. At close to 12,000 feet, oxygen or Chinese herbs are helpful, should you hope to sleep, eat, visit the incredible Potola Palace and various temples. After a day or two, the odors will have permeated your clothes and lungs, making you immune to your smell.
The abundance of barren mountains surrounding the valley are home to both the kaleidoscope of fluttering prayer flags and old plastic bags tossed out with other refuse. The white faced monasteries present themselves majestically with their red and gold accessories, as they protrude from the side of the sunburned hills. Their semi-hidden sky burial sites rest above the valleys below, offering a beauty that contrasts with the seemingly brutal tools used to “break up” the deceased before submitting the body parts to the birds.
Numerous monks, dressed in auburn robes and yellow scarves add even more color to this simple portrait of a land that is literally translated as “the place of the gods". Catching the monks on cell phones certainly complicates this vision of innocence. The village adobe homes that hug the countryside are rudely interrupted by looming government edifices that speak loudly without any words.
Workers, both male and female, exhibit a happy attitude while performing their manual labor, sometimes singing and dancing. Westerners are usually greeted by them with a big “hello” followed by giggles and delight with their multilingualism. The traders bring their wares to markets near and far, eager to barter or bargain. The phrase “just lookee” is politely hurled at passerbys.
As I was in need of a new watch featuring an alarm, I struggled with my communication. Settling on a “ding, ding, ding” and pointing to my wrist, I both amused and confused the salesman. Frustrated by my inability to convey my needs, I smiled and walked away. Within a minute, I felt a tug at my sleeve, had a plastic wrapped watch thrust at me and we agreed upon a price. I was most enchanted with my purchase, not only did it cock-a-doodle-doo on command, but when pressed, it would say the time in Chinese.
In Lhasa, the Barkhor market surrounds the Jokhang Temple creating another conflicting cultural experience. Many of the locals spend their time walking clockwise around the temple, meditating and praying, while others utilize the same space to sell their products. On one side of the temple, people are prostrating themselves causing the shoppers to step over or around them. Everything is on sale from prayer wheels to jewelry, from cheap tennis shoes to real leopard skinned coats.
Years ago this country was peopled with fierce warriors and they were a dominant force in Asia. As early as the eighth century, however, Buddhism was introduced. In spite of opposition to this practice, it still defines Tibet today. Three of the most spectacular monasteries of the predominant Gelugpa lineage are in the Lhasa area. Sera is the site of the monks debating each afternoon in the courtyard. Gandan was completely destroyed during the Chinese invasion, but has been rebuilt on a smaller scale. Drepung was known as the largest monestary of any religion in the world, housed the Dalai Lama. It was the foremost educational center with probably more than 15,000 monks before 1959.
Tourism is progressing from the usual backpackers to sightseeing groups arriving by plane from Chengdu, or by the new train that now crosses China. More hotels are opening and upgrading. There are restaurants that cater to the Western palate, even though the burgers and steaks are Yak meat. (Would not advise visiting the Hard Yak Café, however.) Pizza is on the menu and wine (listed as red or white).
If you plan on visiting Tibet, you’ll need a special Tibet Travel Permit that can only be issued once you have your Chinese Visa. Presently, you can only get these from travel agencies, the price depends on how much you are spending with them; anywhere from $6.00 to $50.00.