Our little band of twelve was warned more than once by our Mountain Travel guide, Sanjay, that before departing for Tibet, we had to give up any guidebooks we might have on Tibet as well as any books or images of the Dalai Lama we might be carrying. We were warned not to try to sneak anything of that sort into Tibet because if discovered in our luggage–and we were assured it would be–our whole tour group would be in jeopardy. We were told stories about a group that had been turned away and sent back because one tourist tried sneaking in a photo of the Dalai Lama. We were cautioned that if anyone approached us anywhere in Tibet asking for an image of the Dalai Lama, to be suspicious of it being a trap and that the person was likely a spy. What a nice bit of paranoia to start our trip, but we soon understood that traveling in Tibet is in reality, traveling in China. More on that later.
Bidding farewell to Kathmandu, Nepal, we flew 1.5 hours to Gongkar Airport, about 75 miles outside of Lhasa, Tibet. Looking out the airplane window, we watched the green valleys of Nepal dissolve into the high, dry mountain plateau of Tibet.
Emerging from the airport at 11,150 feet, we literally caught our collective breath and found we’d arrived into cool Fall weather. Trees with crumpled leaves of gold and red entranced us as we floated along surprisingly smooth roads in our large, spiffy Chinese manufactured bus. Fifty miles later, we arrived at Tsedang (10,170 ft), the cradle of Tibetan civilization and large modern capital of the state in which it is situated. Here are a couple of scenes along the way: a pit stop in a carpet of gold,
and prayer flags fluttering in the setting sun at a road stop.
The next morning we drove an hour and a half, escorted by our Tibetan driver, our local Chinese escort who would stay with us anytime we moved, and our Nepalese Mountain Travel guide, Sanjay. We were going to Samye Monastery, constructed in 775 AD, and of great import because it was the first monastery built in Tibet. It is completely enclosed by an enormous circular wall and the interior layout forms a giant mandala, or representation of the Buddhist universe. Halls, a residence for monks, stupas and colleges are organized around this vast interior space. It is also a popular pilgrimage destination for Tibetan Buddhists, many of whom travel on foot for weeks to reach it.
As we entered the complex, the first thing we saw across the courtyard was the main temple, Uze Hall,
and were met by a smiling woman selling sage to burn as an offering.
Inside, frescoes and paintings adorn the inner walls and hallways.
After an initial tour around, we had a simple lunch with the monks in their dining room and then were given time to wander on our own. The following photos are some I took as I explored on my own.
As we were driving back to Tsedang, we stopped at a Tibetan farmer’s home so we could see how they live. No one was there but one man who seemed genuinely surprised to see us but immediately broke out in a welcoming smile.
In spite of his simple work clothes, the interior of the family home was highly decorated and beautiful.
We kept bugging Sanjay about seeing yaks and he kept saying we’d get a chance, and sure enough, as we crossed another newly built Chinese bridge, we passed a herd. “Stop!” we yelled out in unison and once the driver found a safe place to pull over, we all filed out to take our yak photo. It was corny but fun to see these mythical animals followed by their nonchalant herder who was on his cell phone, ignoring us the whole time.
The next day began with a four hour drive to Lhasa where we would spend three full days exploring major sites. Along our drive, we passed by bridges being constructed across raging rivers, tunnels being burrowed into rocky hillsides, more roads being built and the railroad being extended that links Beijing to Lhasa. As we hit the outskirts of Lhasa, I was struck with was how very large a city it is. There are conflicting population statistics but we were told that between 4 to 500,000 people inhabit the city.
I had imagined from photos that Lhasa consisted of a Tibetan village surrounding the Potala Palace, a naive and outdated conception. That Tibetan village used to be there, but was torn down and the people relocated to celebrate the 50th year of the “Liberation of Tibet From Oppression.” What we were met with was a sprawling, modern city stretching out as far as we could see in every direction with industrial and business zones laid out. Everywhere were towering apartment blocks, schools, newly laid streets with streetlights and shops. Some zones looked occupied, but many were empty, waiting for the Han Chinese to come and fill them up. These settlers receive subsidies and incentives to move to Tibet. The Chinese authorities plan an ambitious growth of tourism in the region aiming at 10 million visitors by 2020 and these visitors will be overwhelmingly domestic Chinese. We were told by our guides that the Chinese really don’t care if foreigners, especially Americans, visit since they are seen as sympathetic to the Dalai Lama.
Fortunately our Tibetan run hotel in Lhasa was small, charming and centrally located. We could walk out the front door and explore most of the historic sights on our own and did. My first introduction to Lhasa was wandering the ancient streets of the Barkhor bazaar, mingling with pilgrims, monks, traders and nomads.
The Jokhang, first constructed in the 7th century, is the holiest Buddhist temple in Lhasa, as well as in all of Tibet. It is the focus of devotion of hundreds of Tibetans who come from near and far to wind clockwise around the periphery on their stomachs, knees, walking or even riding an electric wheel chair in order to gain spiritual merit. It’s also an amazing tide of humanity and I was immediately swept up and joined in.
After dinner we walked through the neon lit streets to get our first glimpse of the Potala Palace, seen in the photo at the top of this posting. There’s an enormous square in front of it where the Tibetan village used to be. Now grand fountains dance to a light show as a woman singing a Chinese patriotic song filters through the speakers. It is all a bit surreal, but nothing could diminish my first sight of Potala Palace.
For me, the highlight of my trip to Tibet was to see this majestic and famous structure. I’ve seen so many spectacular photos and movies (“Seven Years in Tibet” is one) over time that have captured my imagination. It is one of the holiest buildings in Tibetan Buddhism and was the winter residence of all Dalai Lamas until the 14th fled to Dharamsala, India after the Chinese invasion in 1959. It is thirteen stories high and completely covers the mountain it stands upon, has over a thousand rooms, and is as well a treasure house filled with innumerable religious paintings, frescoes and splendid artwork. Tombs of previous Dalai Lamas are there. Even the best photograph will fail to convey the magnitude of this imposing building. It is now a stunning museum, but unfortunately no photos are allowed inside.
After three serious security checkpoints, we entered where the Kora, or circumambulation around the Potala Palace, was taking place. We joined in the throng of happy people and walked in the glinting sunshine along rows of shops and prayer wheels, under avenues of leafy plane trees, through parks and around lakes with spurting fountains before reaching the main entrance.
But visiting the Potala Palace is not for the faint of heart, literally. There are 1,000 steps to climb to get to the top which is at 12,100 feet. Once we entered, we closed our cameras and had one hour to see the highlights of the Palace, too short a time. There is just too much to grasp, to digest, to inhale and let sink in during that brief visit. It is overwhelming to say the least.
With a free afternoon, I went back to Jokhang to walk the side streets and drink in the atmosphere. But each small street ended in a checkpoint with Chinese guards blocking the way and doing security checks. So I turned around and went down another street and another all around the area until I finally had my fill and was ready to return to our hotel.
The last day in Tibet was a big travel day. We visited Ganden Monastery, Dadung Minjur Palace, the Summer Palace and the Sera Monastery to see the monks debating. After some thought, I’ve decided not to include that last day. Don’t’ get me wrong. It was fascinating and worthwhile but I think my dear readers might be getting monastery fatigue so I’m going skip on to the last day of our Mountain Travel/Sobek trip and go to Chengdu, China and the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center.
The Giant Panda center is in a bamboo forest outside of the enormous city of Chengdu and a fun way to end our trip. It is a large, modern, beautifully landscaped reserve with pandas spread out in different enclosures and lots of room between them. It’s even just a nice place to take a meandering walk in a green envelope of tall shafts of shooting bamboo. The place was packed with adoring Chinese tourists who are just as gaga for the pandas as the rest of the world. We were fortunate enough to see some babies and to watch them sleeping. But when one of them turned over and rolled off the deck, only to turn over again on the grass and fall immediately back to sleep, is to be enveloped in cuteness. What a great way to end our Himalayan Adventure Tour!
For more of my photos, click on the photo below.