The smell of yak butter and incense combined with juniper sifts through the streets of the old city of Lhasa, with brightly colored prayer flags blowing in the wind. This is how I envisioned Tibet long before I traveled here, and although yak butter, juniper, and prayer flags are an integral part of the sensory experience of visiting the cultural and religous center of the Tibetan Plateau, it is not quite as quaint, not quite as bucolic, and not quite as Tibetan as one might expect it to be. When we first arrived in Lhasa about two weeks ago, I was sad to leave Kathmandu, but equally excited to visit a land often referred to as forbidden and hard to access. Although I had dreamed of visiting Tibet for a long time, I was not quite prepared for the occupation-like ambiance that exists from Lhasa out to the western border of Nepal. I was not quite prepared for the police checkpoints and traffic stops, or the security patrols on every corner of Barkhor square, so as to prevent protests or monk self-emulations like the ones that took place in 2008. Still, during the course of the last two weeks, I fell in love with the harsh and otherwordly landscape of the country and the friendliness and devoutness of the Tibetan people. The following is the first of three posts that compile rather haphazardly the highlights of my Tibetan experience, coupled with some reflections, limited as they may be.
After a short flight over the Himalayas, we arrived in Lhasa late in the afternoon on August 5th. After going through about 4 security checkpoints, with Michelle almost losing her Lonely Planet guidebook because it mentions the sovereignty of Tibet (fortunately, the security officer could not really read English), we were welcomed to the country by a guide from our tour agency (Explore Tibet) who greeted us by placing white kotas over our heads(the traditional way of Tibetan Buddhism greeting with a white scarf). As we drove out of the aiport and towards the city of Lhasa, I was immediately taken back at the level of Chinese expansion that has already taken place throughout the plateau.
Plastic national flags of China that appear to be blowing in the wind, coupled with sky-rise buildings and construction cranes cropping up in every direction that one looked, all contributed to the our initial unease with visiting the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” of China. For those who are not familiar with the recent history of Tibet, here’s a brief synopsis; China invaded the region in the 1950s, they called it a “liberation”, there was resistance among Tibetan freedom fighters who were briefly backed by the United States until the 1970s when economic ties became more important than self-determination. The 14th and current Dalai Lama is seen as a major political threat and desribed as “a wolf in monks clothes” by the Chinese, although for Tibetans he is their spiritual leader. He fled the country in 1959, and currently lives in exile in India. His pictures are banned from the country, and it is dangerous to discuss him or politics in earshot of anyone, as you never truly know who is a government agent; shop owners, drivers, even some monks!
Since then, there have been a series of protests throughout the region with the two major ones erupting in 1989, after the death of the 10th Panchen Lama (more on this later), and in 2008 with the international attention focused on China as a result of the Olympics. In both cases, Tibetans utilized a variety of means to draw attention to the massive human rights violations they have been experiencing for over 50 years, and in both cases, there was serious crackdowns, the effects of which are still seen and felt throughout Tibet, particularly in Lhasa.
After dropping off our bags at the Tashi Takge hotel, located on the cobblestone streets of old Lhasa, we set out to find the Tibetan Family Restuarant, located just behind the road on the 2nd floor of a quart-yard apartment. As we walked through the ancient narrow alleyways of the what is left of old Lhasa, I had that familiar jolt of excitiment at the prospect of exploring these streets in the days to come. That feeling quickly faded however, as we first approached Barkhor Square and were confronted with our first of many Chinese security checkpoints. Just in front of us, there were a handful of Tibetans prostrating themselves on the outside in a form of protest. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. I would add a picture, but we were stictly warned not to take any photos of police or military.
Still feeling adventerous in our eating we ordered Yak momos and Yak noodle soup. Although the food is better than decent, it is really the fact that you are eating in the living room of a family’s home, and simultaneously playing with (babysitting?) their children that makes this place so special.
Because we had arrived a day before our tour officially started (you are not allowed to visit Tibet on your own), the next day was a full free day in Lhasa to explore the old town and acclimate to the altitude. With Lhasa being at 11, 995 feet, it is advised that travelers coming from sea level (i.e. Kathmandu) and take a couple of days to rest and acclimate before doing too much.
The first half of the day started off fine, with us walking around the Barkhor Kora Circuit, experiencing the extreme and admirable devotion and dedication of Tibetan’s faith, particulalry in the face of Chinese oppression. Every time we made eye contact, we greeted them with a “Tashi Dalek”, which was recieved with a giant smile and a returned wish of good fortune. The Barkhor Square serves as the spiritual heart of Lhasa, and perhaps, all of Tibet. Buillt around the Jokang temple, the square is full from morning to night with thousands of pilgrims circuambulating the temple. Due to its significance, the square has also been the sight of previous Tibetan protests, particularly the self-emulations of monks. Due to its importance to Tibetans, there is Chinese police presence everywhere. Yet, even in the face of this oppression, Tibetans and their traditions continue to persevere.
After the circuit, we walked through the old town to find a place for lunch where we came upon a little hole in the wall where there were two groups of Tibetans sitting around old decorative wooden tables that were grounded to the floor. When we walked in, you could feel the gasp in the air, as it is extremely unlikely that they often see westerners. We were greeted with polite and curious smiles and motioned to sit down at the one free table next to them, and then were offerred a bite of the fried dough they were eating from a bag. We, in turn, grateflully accepted, then ordered the only thing available for lunch, Tibetan noodles and Yak meat soup. From across the room, everytime we looked up, two older women were starring and smiling at us. Slirping our noodles, we smiled back and eventually asked if we could take a picture with them. One of them was cameara shy, but the other, as well as the cook and young girl serving food all wanted a picture with us as well, and so a picture party ensued.
After lunch, we headed a few blocks into the Muslim Quarter before the altitude started to wear me down a bit. To ease our adjustment, we ducked our heads into a local Tibetan medical clinic where we were greeted by gawking faces and laughter. After mimicking that I was suffering from a headache, they presented us with a box filled with medicine viles, which after realizing the conversion correctly, we obligingly bought. Slowly making our way back to the hotel and after taking the medicine, I knew I needed a good rest, but when I lied down to take a nap I began to uncontrollably shake and shiver. After surmising I likely had a fever (this often happens when one travels to Tibet or China with a cold), Michelle came up to the room with Penny, our friendly hotel manger (we couldn’t figure out if she was also the owner) who tucked me in with two heating blankets, and gave me some green packaged medicine that resembled aspirin. I spent the rest of the afternoon and night in bed.
The next morning, I had planned to skip the first official day of our tour, but after much prodding from Michelle that it might make me feel better, I decided to drag myself out of bed and down to the lobby to meet the other travelers in our group and head out to the Potala Palace. For the last 2 weeks we have had the wonderful pleasure of traveling with 4 other travelers, and an excellent guide and driver (both of whom will remain nameless for security reasons.) Our first night in Lhasa, we met Galina, a member of our group who also hailed from New York and had actually visited Tibet the year before. While I was recouping in the room the evening before, Michelle had met two other fellow travelers who came from London; Steven and Kailash. Upon hearing we would be traveling with someone who was named after the holy mountain we were attempting to hike around, I thought surely this must be good luck. Plus, everything sounds better in a British accent! 🙂 I met them myself when I stumbled into the courtyard lobby half out of it, and then we all met Oliver, our last traveling companion who came from Oakland, California.
After the morning rains stopped, we set off for the Potala Palace, the iconic symbol of Lhasa and home of every Dalai Lama since the 5th. The irony of this massive structure is that it is technically the home of the current Dalai Lama who is living in exile and not allowed to visit. Like many other sights of religous significance in Tibet, one can find thousands of pilgrims walking a kora clockwise around the giant palace. Unlike the Barkhor circuit around Jokhang temple in the old section of town, the area surrounding the Potala Palace screams Chinese capitalism (oops, I mean “Communism with Chinese characteristics”). On the corner approaching the palace, there is a giant times-square like movie screen that is home to constant adverstisements for everything from Gucci to Budweiser. The street in front of the palace is a giant, multi-laned highway with a “people’s park” that houses the billboard of the Communist leaders of China, starting with Mao. Perhaps the most disheartening though, is the multitude of Chinese tourists who pop their selfie sticks up in the air for pictures with the palace, who seemingly have no clue that this is the rightful home of the 14th Dalai Lama. To add insult to injury, there are little kiosks across the street from the Potala where tourists can dress themselves up in “traditional” Tibetan costumes and take pictures of themselves in front of the palace. Still, even with all these aggravating observations, it was hard not to be impressed with visiting the Potala and walking our way through the different chapels and floors. Careful not to discuss politics with us, our guide began his crash course on Tibetan Buddhism here, which is still making my head spin two weeks later.
In the afternoon, we visited the Sera Monastery, one of two famous religous institutions in Tibet where the monks partake in heated debates over ancient Buddhist scriptures. While the monastatic town was once home to over 5000 monks, that population has decreased by 90%, with some of today’s monks likely working for the Chinese government. Unlike most other Buddhist sights in Tibet, much of the physical structure of the monastery survived the cultural revolution.
With my stomach still not feeling great, I desperately seeked out a western restuarant that evening called DUNYA, happy to scarf down anything that resembled pizza or french fries. We made our way back to the hotel via the old town with the magical sky lighting the way for Tibetans to continue their kora around the Jokhang straight through the night.
Our second day in Lhasa we visited the Drepung monastery in the morning. With the rain pouring on us as we walked through the structure, our guide continued to enlighten us about the black hat and yellow hat sects, and the offerings of yak butter to the Tibetan patron saint Milarepa. More than a single building, the monastery is really a small, self-sustaining monastic town that once held a population of 2000 monks, and as many as 7000 before the Chinese “liberation”. Of course, like most other places in Tibet, that number has dwindled substantially to 450. Similar to its sister monastery, Sera, much of the Drepung physical structure miracuosly survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.
After lunch and after the skies cleared to reveal a bright crisp blue overhead, we headed back towards the old town to visit the most revered sight in all of Tibet, the Jokhang Temple. The center of Barkhor Square, the temple serves as the focal point for the daily koras that Tibetans perform, walking in clockwise circles with prayer beads in hand, and for the seriously devout, prostrating themselves on their hands and knees around the temple. I did not feel comfortable taking an intentional picture of people as they did this, so the one below is from the internet.
Although the sight is the center for Tibetan Buddhism in Lhasa, actual Tibetans are only allowed to visit in the morning, so that the place can be swarmed with tourists (myself included) in the afternoon. On our last morning in Lhasa, we saw hundreds of pilgrims waiting in line just to be able to get inside before the cut off. It’s sad that this temple, that rightfully belongs to the Tibetan people, is prioritized as a tourist attraction for the hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese that are now flooding the plateau in droves.
The temple itself was interesting, and Barkhor Square is beautiful, but it is hard not to notice the blatant occupation that exists side by side with the religious devotion of the Tibetan people.
In the evening, we all headed out to do some last minute shopping for preparations for our upcoming roadtrip across the Tibetan Plateau, stopping at Mt. Everest and culminating with a 3 day kora around Mt. Kailash, the holiest mountain in Asia. We were warned that our accommodations after Shigaste would be very basic, and that our food choices would be limited, so we bombarded the local supermarket, stocking up on snickers bars, instant noodles of questionable flavors, and an array of cookies and crackers to get us through the upcoming days of roughing it in the West. After 3 full days in Lhasa, which is rapidly expanding to resemble all other modern Chinese cities, we were looking forward to exploring the more remote parts of Tibet, with the hopes of seeing the “real Tibet”, perhaps naively thinking that such a thing could still exist.