Tibet. A region of the World that sparks so much passion, support, angst, anger, controversy… I could go on. The history here is so recent, and most people are aware that currently it is not a Country in its own right – rather a region controversially under Chinese rule. Before I start, I should add that this is probably the most difficult of all the blogs we have written. Not because of our experiences (in fact it is one of our favourite regions to date) but more that we didn’t want to say or write the wrong thing as the situation in the whole area is so delicate. We did the ‘paper, rock, scissors’ as to who would write it – and you got me!
There really are two trains of thought about visiting Tibet. Some people firmly think that you shouldn’t go, for fear of supporting the Chinese regime, thus boycotting for Political reasons. Others think you should go to support the local people and learn more about their culture, which is incredibly different to that of the Chinese. We chose the latter – choosing to support the locals and make our own mind up. Even this decision of ours was met with some negative re-tweets of some of our Twitter posts – proving how emotive this region is. There is so much to say about the political situation, but that’s not what this blog is about. Slowly (actually very quickly) Chinese development is encroaching on the traditional Tibetan ways, and for us it was a privilege to visit and see things as they are now. Leaving the politics aside, this is a land of big skies, beautiful landscapes and incredibly incredibly warm hearted people. So this is our account of a beautiful part of the World.
You will already have read Dean’s tales of travelling to Tibet by high altitude train. It had been nail-biting waiting to get our permits. Currently Chines rules state that you must travel through the region ‘in a group’, ‘with a guide’ and ‘with a permit’. We might have been a group of two, but that still counted! So as we got off the train, we were met by our guide Tashi. Tashi was, quite simply, one of the best local guides we have ever had. He greeted us with welcome scarves and pressies and settled us in. We knew instantly it was going to be a good ten days.
We spent the first four days acclimatising in Lhasa. At well over 3000m its high and an assault on all your senses! Whilst the air was thin we were rewarded with amazing BIG blue skies. There was plenty to do in Lhasa so it really was no hardship to be there. On day one we headed out to the Jokhang Temple. This is the key central site in Lhasa, and the site of great pilgrimage for Tibet’s largely Buddhist population. As it was winter time we were assured it was a great time to see the Pilgrims as they had travelled far and wide to be there (something that they don’t do as much in summer as they are busy with their farms). Together, day and night, they walk several ‘Kora’ (circuits) around various sites and religious buildings in the city. The Kora around Jokhang Temple was just over 1km long and fascinating. As soon as you walked up to it you couldn’t help but join in, and before you knew it, you had walked several circumnavigations of the site with the locals!!! Tashi took us into the temple. On the way in he explained what all the people were doing outside. Quite simply it appeared like they were repeatedly throwing themselves on the ground. This practice of ‘prostrating’ is a form of prayer, and is done repeatedly and really showed their dedication to their religion. Later on we would even see pilgrims prostrating alongside the road, all the way from a-b on journeys that would take up to a year. That really is dedication! Most of the people we saw outside would do this all day. Like all the Temples we saw, Jokhang was quite fascinating inside as well as our and was very powerful, with the many images of Buddha. What struck me, and was almost moving, was to see the locals queuing for hours on end to make their offerings of money, barley, and most importantly yak butter milk (poured into big candle like vats that burnt away silently). Although Tashi said in Buddhism you are not supposed to have favorites, mine was clearly the Compassionate Buddha. An image that I started recognising everywhere!
The next day took us out to the World famous Potala Palace, once home to the Dalai Lama. Many hope and pray he will one day return, but for now he lives in India. The Palace visit was the first time we had really exerted ourselves. It involved climbing 13 floors up over uneven steps but we were rewarded with fabulous views. This doesn’t sound much but at over 3000m it makes you feel very unfit!! The many rooms in the Palace were well worth the effort and it was just such a wonderful building. Like with the Jokhang Palace the day before, perhaps the best bit of the experience was getting out and in with the locals and seeming them on their pilgrim trail making their offerings. There were so few tourists there, it felt like a real privilege to be part of their experience.
The third and four days were spent exploring other temples. I won’t go into every one as you will be asleep, but needless to say we had our first experience of crossing a high mountain pass. Here it is traditional to hang prayer flags over the road. As we crossed underneath the red, blue, white, yellow and green flags flapped in the breeze, bringing luck and fortune to all those who had strung them and protecting those who passed beneath. They were to become a familiar site and one we would never tire of. In fact we even have some to bring home!
Soon it was time to leave the city. With Sonamdorje (or Dorje for short) at the wheel, Tashi, Dean and I were in safe hands! We headed out of the city and started our journey along the famous Friendship Highway – last stop the Nepalese border. What a journey it was going to be. We were greeted with one of the highlights of the trip – views over Yamdrok-tso Lake – which translates into ‘Turquoise Lake’. The colour of it was certainly that and it was just stunning. We first saw it as we went over the mountain pass, but we then dropped down and followed it round, even dipping a finger in at one point. Sorry Mum – I didn’t paddle as it was freezing (and it’s sacred so no swimming allowed)!!
The next few days were spent visiting several temples and sites in Shigatse, Gyantse and the surrounding areas. Each and every one was different and we didn’t once tire or get ‘templed out’. Each had their own appeal and style and between us we have some amazing photos. In Gyantse we visited one called the Gyantse Kumbum which is very like some temples that are found in Nepal (with the eyes) so it was a nice introduction. After that we took a wander through the back streets of old town Gyantse, where you find the best examples of traditional Tibetan life. Again the generosity of the people shone through as one man invited us into his home to have a look around. It was fascinating, but we didn’t dare look round the corner where the goat heads were hung! We then carried on walking down the street, dodging the ‘doggy bombs’ on the floor and walking past the cattle ‘parked’ outside each resident’s house. The style of the houses was beautiful, and even though it was dirty in parts, it had such character. On our journey we also went to Samding Monastery – a nunnery on the banks of Yamdrok-tso Lake (the Turquoise Lake). The ladies were busy at work and I would argue it was cleaner J Nuns and Monks are on the same level in Buddhism, they just can’t stay together. If I had to be a Nun then I would pick there!
Now when you travel for any great length of time, there has to be ups and downs. We have loved travelling in winter. It has been cold, but largely we have been rewarded by being one of few tourists in the area. However we were about to stumble across our first big disappointment and downside of travel through the region at this time of year. We had heard that Everest Base Camp (on the Tibetan side) was closed, however the Government had granted us access on our main permit, so we were hopeful we could get there. In Tibet, to travel you don’t just need one permit, you need many! When we were 90km from Everest Tashi and Dorje went off to apply for the necessary main Base Camp permit which had to be done locally. We were all geared up to go when there was a knock on the door. Tashi telling us that sadly it was indeed all closed and there was nothing he or the company could do to get us there. There simply weren’t the Chinese guards on the checkpoints, and as we had learnt checkpoints are everywhere and there is no way through them except with the right paperwork. It was disappointing but we consoled ourselves with the fact that we had at least seen Everest from a distance that day, which was better than nothing. Sometimes you have to accept that things don’t work out as planned but that night it was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. It has made us vow to come back sooner rather than later to trek to Base Camp on the Nepali side (and maybe visit Tibet again!).
We picked ourselves up and enjoyed the rest of the journey. Throughout the trip we had, for a large part of the time, felt like we were driving on top of the World. There were mountain ranges (both snow-capped and incredibly dry) for most of the time, even surrounding the cities. Tashi duly pointed them out and gave us manageable amounts of history and information. Meanwhile Dorje gave us two of his CDs as we loved them. Tibetan generosity at its best. As I’ve said before (but it’s worth mentioning again!) the Tibetan skies were just so huge. You could almost see the curvature of the Earth! We loved watching the view change out of the window and the last day was no exception. We stopped at the top of a pass over 5000m and then slowly descended down a zig zag of switchbacks and passes. Slowly the trees began to appear again. We felt less and less like we were in Tibet, but were excited about our next adventure.
There is a wonderful quote by Mother Theresa, “Peace begins with a smile” and the Tibetan people sure know the meaning of this. We were a fascination everywhere we went. People looked at us inquisitively, and then we simply had to say ‘Tashi Dalek’ (hello) and they would break into this almighty grin. They were so pleased to welcome us and this made the decision to come all the more worthwhile. There is a sadness that extends over the Tibetans, but underneath they are such beautiful people and we fell so lucky to have visited now.
I have never ever had a guide that has made me feel so privileged to be able to travel. Current Chinese Policy states that Tashi, as a Lhasa resident, has to wait until he is 60 before he can even apply for a Chinese passport and even travel within China (without passport) is severely limited with lots of clauses and restrictions. It’s just the way it is, but he was so very well read and versed on other Countries in the World. There we were travelling the World and our wonderful guide isn’t even able to travel freely within China, never mind venture out into the big wide World that he is so desperate to explore. There is nothing more humbling than that. One of those moments that makes you feel very lucky to have been born where we were.
Tibet – you are simply amazing. Thank you.