My wife and I traveled to Tibet via Beijing from April 25th through May 15th. We were in Tibet from April 26th through May 11th. Traveling to Tibet is not easy. Traveling in Tibet often is a backpack holiday at best. One can only get to Tibet if you obtain a Tibet Travel Permit in addition to your tourist visa to China. The latter is easy, the former is not obvious. Timing can be very challenging. First we planned to travel in March. The travel agent who had to organize the permit, said this would not be feasible as the Chinese authorities would not issue permits in the period of the Tibetan New Year. Then we thought about traveling in May. Again we were told this would only be feasible if we were to leave before May 16, as after that no permits would be issued as a result of the 60th celebration of the Chinese liberation of Tibet. In addition you need to work out a detailed travel plan with the travel agency before going there as the Tibet Travel Permit will need to include beforehand all the destinations one wants to go to. Very little room for creativity or last minute changes to your tour once you are there. Key is to find a good tour operator and to spend some quality time preparing the trip. The internet along with some travel guides proved to be key resources. The Agency we worked with was very good, CITS. The travel guide we used extensively, was Lonely Planet’s “Tibet” guide book. We used the previous 7th Edition. Meanwhile thought the entirely reworked and much improved 8th Edition has been issued. We can warmly recommend it. Once in Tibet, the key to your success will be your driver and your guide whether you booked an individualized private tour, as we did, or a group tour. We were incredibly lucky and privileged with our Tibetan guide, Lhadup. He was just one out of a million, or simply so representative of The Tibetan character. Our guide, Lhadup, not only was extremely knowledgeable about Tibetan history, geography, about Buddhist religion, that we could not detect a flaw. He knew more than all guide books combined. But mostly he was an incredible human being. Patient, helpful, creative, resourceful and flexible. Without Lhadup our visit of Tibet would not have been the success it has. Lhasa, Shigatse and Gyantse are comfortable to stay in terms of accommodation and food. Outside these cities though, travel boils down to backpackers’ standards. Once you leave the cities behind you stay in guest houses where the rooms have barely a bulb for lighting, no heating, no water and no toilet facilities. One basically uses “nature-toilet”, sleep with your clothes in in a sleeping bag, and washing oneself is reduced to using wet wipes … Food is good but gets monotonous …
Tibet is all about the Tibetans! They are a great people so preoccupied by their daily life which appears not to have changed a bit over the ages. Tibetans are mostly an agrarian people and out of the total population few live in the cities. Life is determined by the seasons, the chores on the land and with the animals and by living their religion. Buddhism and practicing it permeates the daily lives of all Tibetans, young and old, man or woman. One does never cease to be surprised about how committed all Tibetans are about practicing their religion. This is most obvious when visiting the monasteries and temples. All Tibetans seem preoccupied with praying in the temples, offering money and yak butter to light candles. Many Tibetans are absorbed by their “pilgrimages” which take the form of touring the city, or a monastery with a praying wheel in one hand and praying beads in the other. Many pilgrims travel by prostrating themselves after every three steps they take.
At Jokhang. The Jokhang temple and monastery in Lhasa is one of the most important ones in Tibet. One can see a continuous stream of people, young and old, performing the “kora” or pilgrimage to and around the Jokhang in addition to praying at the temple. The construction dates back to the 7th century and it houses the Jowo Sakyamuni image of Buddha dating back to the 7th century.
Monks. Monks and nuns are an omnipresent sight in Tibet. All families seem to have at least one child who’s a monk or a nun. A lot of the monks travel also to the main cities from rural areas and smaller temples to beg and collect funds to bring back to their own temples and monasteries.
Old woman. Tibetan women seem to grow old, very old – gracefully – thanks to a healthy lifestyle that includes hard work on the land and a surreal devotion to practicing their religion. When on pilgrimage they all carry the prayer wheel.
Road workers. On our long drive across the region we got extensively exposed to the road works that seem to be going on anywhere focused on majorly upgrading access to all corners of Tibet. The tools are basic but the passion and commitment seems strong and the result is very, very smooth roads winding beautifully through the pristine country side.
The kids doing the laundry. On a Saturday driving through a small town we were puzzled to see so many children spread out on the plain and marsh land near the river. Upon getting closer we noticed that it was the weekly laundry cycle. It was the children who were taking the laundry to the river, washing it and then spreading it on the meadow to dry.
I found that there is a strong similarity in wildlife between Tibet and the mountainous South of Kazakhstan. The big difference though is that the wildlife in Tibet is much less shy of humans. Clearly the fact that Tibetans don’t hunt has resulted in the wildlife not developing an instinct of fear for humans.
Yak. The Yak is the most representative animal of Tibet. The Yak is omnipresent and plays an important role in Tibet. It’s a work animal and also provides with hair to make fabric, milk to make butter, meat,
Wild goat are not widely seen. Yet when encountered they do not seem too shy. They are several grazing together in the fields along the road seemingly coming down from higher
elevation mountain sides.
Potala Palace is “the” landmark in Lhasa. It’s what symbolizes Tibet outside of China. It’s a rather imposing sight sitting high up on the ‘Red Hill’ in the center of Lhasa with its reputedly more than 1’000 rooms. It used to be a royal palace for kings, a monastery, the seat of government and the seat of the supreme religious leader, the Dalai Lama. Today its avoid of activity, merely a museum, for too many tourists with too little time granted to take in and absorb the grandeur of it all as you just get one hour only to visit the entire palace if you have not booked your personal time slot at the western office.
Jokhang temple is the most important religious place in Tibet. Built in the 7th century it houses the image of the young 12 year old Buddha, Jowo Sakyamuni, that was brought to Tibet by the Chinese wife of King Songtsen Gampo who built the temple and monastery.
Barkhor Street is lined with thousands of street stalls selling any kind of religious souvenir and other. Most
importantly though it’s the street that circumbalutes the Jokhang and is filled with pilgrims performing their Barkhor kora” clockwise around the Jokhang temple.
Samye is the oldest and first Buddhist temple and monastery in Tibet where Buddhism was first established in the country. We where lucky to visit when a full congregation of Monks where praying and receiving offerings in celebration of Buddha’s birthday. Sadly we did not have enough time to visit the entire site as our permit had not been registered in Tsetang as a plain clothes Chinese police inspector insisted our guide on doing. To avoid our guide getting into trouble we decide to leave early.
Drepung Monastery on the western outskirts of Lhasa was once one of the biggest monasteries in the world with over 7’000 monks pre-Liberation. Now merely 600 remain. It remains a large site housing a number of “colleges” of instruction. It used to house 5’000 monks. It’s best known, to tourists, for the debating by handclapping and gesticulating monks happening every afternoon in the debating courtyard from 3pm-5pm.
Monastery in Shigatse belongs to the Gelugpa order. I was founded in the middle of the 15th century by Genden Drup, the first Dalai Lama, and it is the seat of the Panchen Lama. The current 11th Panchen Lama has been appointed by the Chinese authorities.
Tashi Dor Monastery is a small monastery at the edge of the holy Nam-tso lake. The quietness and solitude of the few small chapels is in stark contrast to the nearby noisy and unaesthetic hub of tourist restaurants housed in cheap prefabricated plastic and metal buildings.
Sakya Monastery south of Shigatse stands out b its ash grey what coloring with its white and red vertical stripes. The town and its monastery produced leaders that became advisers in the 13th century to the Mongol rulers, including one that developed a script for Kublai Khan.
Tsurphu Monastery is the seat of the Karmapa or “Black Hats” order. It’s situated about 60km west of Lhasa. The black hat, symbol of the order, is now held in Sikkim India, where it was taken by 16th Karmapa when he fled Tibet in 1959 following the popular uprising in Lhasa. The monastery is off the beaten track so very few tourists if any. Go to the top level above the assembly hall and the monk on duty will gladly show you the study room of the Karmapa before he fled. Make sure to remove your shoes!
Sera Monastery on the northern part of Lhasa was second only to Drepung as a Gelugpa monastery. The Gelugpa order is known as the Yellow Hats, it’s the youngest of orders yet the biggest and most important one. It attracts droves of tourists who are eager to observe the daily animated discussions among monks about Tibetan Buddhist scripture. It seems though this is mostly for tourist consumption as the real discussions happen in the evenings without tourists present.
The Norbulingka in Lhasa is the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace in the western part of the city. It was built by the 7th Dalai Lama in 1755. It’s from here that the current Dalai Lama made his escape in 1959. It’s rather quiet and does not attract the busloads of tourists like the Potala. Nevertheless it gives a very good insight into the daily life of the young Dalai Lama before he fled Tibet.
Pelkor Chode Monastery in Gyantse houses the very large Gyantse Kumbum a multilevel 35 meter high chorten. It’s remarkable in that the monastery brought together three Tibetan Buddhist orders, Gelugpa, Sakyapa and Buton. The Monastery was founded in the early 15th century and housed upto 15 separate monasteries. There is a large wall surrounding the area of what must haven been an impressive site housing many
monasteries and monks.
The small Zhongba Monastery on the road to Mt Kailash is the last one before reaching the sacred mountain is the last before Kailash. It belongs to the Sakyapa order and sits on a hilltop just outside and overlooking the small settlement of Zhongba.
The Plateau. Going to Tibet means going to very high altitudes. Lhasa, at 3650m seems like the lowest point in Tibet. Still it takes a few days to get used to the altitude. The thin air turns a little bit of movement into a breathtaking exercise. It’s hard to imagine the entire area was covered by the
Tethys Sea 100 million years ago before the Indian continent slammed into the Eurasian one. Now it’s dotted with snowcapped mountain ranges.
The Mountains. Tibet is littered with mountain ranges. The most remarkable one is the Himalayas to the south marking the borders with India, Nepal and Bhutan. Yet everywhere the plateau is dotted with high peaks which are often well above 6’000 meter.
The Passes. To travel in Tibet means to have to cross may of the mountain ranges with many passes at dizzying heights of around 5’000 meter. All these passes are marked with strings of prayer flags left behind by travelers to obtain good karma on the trip. They’re very often windy and much colder than the lower lying areas.
The Dunes. Unbelievable but true, in many places the plateau is dotted with little Sahara like deserts featuring sand dunes with snowcapped peaks in the background. Makes you wonder sometimes “Am I really in Tibet … ?”.
The Lakes. Tibet is dotted with a multitude of lakes. Some of the larger lakes are considered holy and are pilgrim destinations. We managed to visit all three out of our holy lakes in Tibet.
Nam-tso lake is 240km northwest of Lhasa and is the second largest saltwater lake in China. When we visited early May it was still frozen. So we did not get to see its reputedly beautiful turquoise color. The lake is at an altitude of over 4’700m, a full kilometer higher than Lhasa!
Yamdrok-tso is south west of Lhasa and is a beautiful sight when viewed from the 4’700 m high Kamba-la pass. The lake has a hydro-electric power plant built by the Chinese which the previous, tenth Panchen Lama spoke out against.
Manasarovar is a sacred lake to Buddhists and Hindus alike. It attracts large number of Indian visitors in the summer high season who will bathe in it after the circambulation of Mt Kailash. Buddha’s mother, Queen Maya reputedly got washed in the lake before giving birth to her son.
The Sky! There is no sky like the Tibetan sky. A deep blue accentuated by beautiful white cumulus clouds and rimmed with snowcapped mountains. Sometimes you feel one is so high up so close to being able to touch the clouds. The sky, the clouds, the mountains are a photographer’s paradise.
Mt. Kailash is a holy mountain to Hindus and Buddhists alike. It’s 6’714 meter high with a four faced snow covered top with each face matching the cardinal points of the compass. The Hindus associate it with Mt. Meru, the seat of the Gods. A full circambulation of the mountain is over 50km. Most Tibetans do in one 15 hour stage. Tourists will do it in 2 or three days. The most difficult part being the climbing up to the 5’600m high Drolma La pass. Everyone starts their trek at the small town, Darchen, to the south of the mountain. My wife managed to complete the kora around the mountain. I felt more comfortable returning from the halfway point. Being under-exercised and over-weight is not conducive to walking 50km at altitudes around and above 5’000 meter …
Mt. Everest Base Camp. When it was our time to visit Base Camp and have a close-up look at the world’s tallest mountain, access to the road leading to Base Camp in the town of Tingri was denied by the Chinese military. Supposedly an “incident” happened the night before and they decided to close the access. We even got stopped at a military checkpoint when leaving the town of Tingri, asked to take our luggage out and have it searched. So, our only view of the majestic Everest was from a distance when driving to Tingri on the Friendship Highway in the direction from Nepal.
Prostration/pilgrimage. Religion is an integral part of a Tibetan’s life. That includes performing plenty of pilgrimage to holy sites and circambulating these sites (koras). Many man and women will perform these while prostrating themselves or sliding full body face down on the ground, every three steps, even circambulating Mt. Kailash this way which can take many weeks to complete.
Butter lamps. Inside the temples yak butter lamps are the equivalent to candles lit in devotion. Tons of yak butter go up in smoke everyday everywhere across Tibetan monasteries.
Prayer flags are omnipresent in Tibet. No pole, hook or handle is spared. Particularly around temples, on koras. Mountain tops and high passes. They carry in the wind the owners wish for a blessing and karma. They are a colorful sight. They can be bought in many sizes.
Yak dung. At this high altitude where there is no firewood the organic alternative is dried yak dung. The Yak dung gets collected shaped, dried and stored as the combustion source for cooking and heating year round. It is light and doesn’t smell. It almost feels like carton when touching and holding it. It burns easily and gives off strong heat.
The nomad tents made of yak hair are still used extensively in spring and summer in those areas where people bring their animals for herding in the fertile grasslands near lakes. There is still a strong nomadic aspect to the lives of the Tibetans.
Last Updated: 12-06-2011
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