Only Planet

One Child, One Year, One Planet. A family of three traveling around the world...

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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Lhasa Tibet: At the Top of the World in Shangri-La

We have delayed posting this blog entry until after leaving mainland China. Since the Chinese have censored and essentially blocked anything from Blogspot, we thought it would be best to get out of the country before writing what might be deemed a “highly political” piece. I have read of writers being thrown in jail for writing suspicious buzz words in their e-mails (words like democracy, Tibet, Dalai Lama, military), and so to avoid a Chinese prison, or at least have a smooth exit, we thought we should wait and err on the side of caution. We are counting on the fact that China’s “one country, two systems” policy will allow us the freedom of expression to post this commentary while in Hong Kong.

Getting to Tibet is not as easy as travel to other countries. When we applied for our Chinese visas we were advised that if we wrote Tibet as one of our destinations it may raise some eyebrows, so we wrote the usual safe destinations of Beijing and Shanghai. Upon further research we realized that it is possible to get to Tibet, but you must go with a tour group. The tour group not only is a way to control the tourists entering the region, but it assures that tourists to Tibet have to go either through China or Nepal. We learned a tour can be a legitimate group of people who are going to see Lhasa together, or it can be a list of names of the people whom the local agency, youth hostel, or travel bureau has put together on the same outgoing flight (who never see each other again once they depart the plane). The majority of flights to Tibet leave from Chengdu so that was another good reason to visit the pandas! Tibet is one of the most expensive destinations to reach within China, which limits the number of Chinese tourists, as well as backpackers who can afford to visit, but that might change with the completion of a railroad that is slated to be finished in 2007 (complete with pressurized cars to keep people from passing out as they cross a 5000 meter/17,000 foot pass) and which will further bring the outside world into Tibet.

It takes about an hour to get from the Gongkar airport to Lhasa, and the scenery is quite similar to western Montana, with the addition of yaks and prayer flags dotting the side of the road (not necessarily together)! The most depressing part of Lhasa is driving in on the main strip, and having a hard time seeing the Potala Palace for all of the usual Chinese junk shops that line the road.

Once you get past the fumes, the madly racing taxis and the never-ending road construction and enter the old part of the city, it is easy to imagine being transported back 400 years, seeing the open stalls, the pilgrims and the monks living a religion that has been going on for centuries.

We arrived in Lhasa Tibet at the most auspicious of times. It was the second day of Ramadan as well as the time for the annual (semi-annual?) pilgrimage of Buddhists from the hinterlands to the holy sites, and Tibetans both Muslim and Buddhist were celebrating. We wandered around the tiny alleys watching the Muslims sell their fruits and vegetables, enjoying the bright sun and cries of “hello” from the tiny children. Turning a corner we stumbled upon the Barkhor, the pilgrim’s circuit, as thousands of Tibetans passed us in a single-minded quest to complete their pilgrimage. Some were prostrating themselves, literally dropping to the ground and crawling as a means to get there. Tibetan women in long coats with strings of ribbon in their hair were walking with their children, and men sporting fur-lined satin coats wrapped up with intricate belts and trimmed with daggers (I am not making this up) were joining them. Monks in maroon and orange robes were also completing the circuit, which leads all of them to the Jokhang Temple, the Vatican of Tibetan Buddhism.

There aren’t the pushing and crowding people who we encountered everywhere else in China. It’s easy to get caught up in the throngs of pilgrims, but they go in an orderly way in their clockwise procession around the Barkhor circuit, and so there is an order to the chaos. The air here is cleaner than anywhere else in China, the sky a bright blue with scattered clouds and it’s very dry with cold temperatures in the morning.

There is a huge Chinese presence here, both of the military (ostensibly here to liberate the Tibetans) and the tourists who are engaging in their own form of assimilation of the Tibetan culture. Along the Barkhor, the military has set up tiny tables and chairs and sit around under umbrellas all day, eager to stop any demonstrations against the Chinese occupation. Hundreds of more “plain clothes” men, wearing some of the same outfits as the native Tibetans, also roam around the square. The Chinese also control who gets into Jokhang Temple. Tibetans too poor to pay the 70 RMB (about $9)—which is most of them—have to line up for hours around the courtyard of the temple, but the affluent western and Chinese tourists are pushed by guards through a tiny gate to the front of the line. When we were there, we saw a Chinese solider roughhousing a Tibetan who was trying to crowd into the front of the line.

If you have seen the movies Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun, or the documentary Cry of the Snow Lion, or have even seen Richard Gere with the Dalai Lama speaking about a free Tibet, you have a basic understanding of what happened here. In 1950 China invaded Tibet, claiming a long-held ownership of this strategically high country. From 1950 to 1970 the Chinese “liberated” the Tibetans and drove their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, out of the country as well as sending 100,000 priests into exile. Over a million Tibetans died and centuries of Tibetan cultural artifacts were destroyed. There is no mention of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. In fact when we visited the Tibetan Lama Temple in Beijing, there was of course no mention of the Dalai Lama, only of a Panchen Lama (approved by the Chinese), who was celebrated as the leader of the Tibetans. However in the Jokhang Temple we saw no pictures of the Chinese approved Lama, and had to wonder what it was like for the Tibetans to see their holy leader so completely erased. Before I get too outraged by the Chinese occupation of Tibet and start thinking the Chinese are uniquely barbaric in their behavior, I ought to think of my own country and its similar treatment of the Native Americans.

Our more immediate problem was dealing with the climate. At 3500 meters (12,000 feet) this is the highest place we have ever been for an extended period, and Dylan and I were using oxygen cylinders and pillows to alleviate the lack of oxygen in the air. Climbing 3 flights of stairs made me wheeze and shuffle, needing to rest like an 80-year-old, 4-pack-a-day, obese emphysema patient. We tried to move slowly, going at the pace of the pilgrims, in hopes of conserving energy in this oxygen-deprived paradise. Andy was hardly affected though, causing much resentment among the other members of the family, but at least he could run errands while Dylan and I rested.

While in Lhasa we sampled Tibetan food, including dumplings called momos, and a hearty soup called thukpa. Andy even ate a yak burger with yak cheese, chased with a Lhasa beer. There’s a good mix of restaurants catering to western backpacker types, which gave us a nice break from the greasy Chinese food that we’ve been avoiding for much of the trip. We also had the opportunity to meet fellow travelers Wendy and Andy in a restaurant one evening. They’re also on a year-long trip around the world and were finishing a stint of three months in China before heading off toward Vietnam. They’re both designers, and their talents are on great display in the photos in their blog. We had a great time comparing stories of travel in China, commiserating, and talking about our future destinations.


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