The lure of Tibet
Editor's Note: Once again Kat Nickola takes us on a trip, this time to Tibet. Sounds like she and her family had an experience of a lifetime, so give this a read. And if you had an adventure of your own, tell us about it. You can submit a story on this very website.
Tibet is one of those places that inspires all kinds of emotions for those not living there. And regardless of your preconceived notions, a visit to there will be an exciting adventure.
My family and I traveled to Tibet for eight days in the month of May during a month-long whirlwind China tour. Our first adventure was getting in! We flew from Chengdu to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, on an early morning flight.
It is recommended that you arrive a day prior to touring to acclimate to the altitude, but we were unlucky in that there was a simple misspelling on my husband's Tibetan Permit, forcing us to delay our flight and stay an extra day in Chengdu. Needless to say, we were a bit tired as our guide TseTan greeted us at the airport with traditional Tibetan welcome scarves and whisked us away to our first site.
Potala Palace is the famous former home to the Dalai Lama, the former spiritual and political leader of Tibet. In 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet as the Chinese invaded and has not been welcome to return.
Fortunately, Potala Palace escaped major damage during the turbulent history of Tibet and we were able to experience it firsthand. Potala Palace is composed of two parts, the Red Palace and the White Palace.
We marveled at the Dalai Lama's living quarters within the White Palace - the modesty of decor and small size took us by surprise. Then, as we crossed a huge courtyard into the Red Palace, the ornate decor took our breath away. This part of the palace is much larger with numerous halls and chapels. It is was the place for study, worship, and ritual.
Every wall has a mural, every room has amazing colorful tapestry, and the smell of burning incense and yak butter is permeating. It was sensory overload for a family just off the jet!
Before leaving, we needed to visit the toilet. I must share that a highlight of my day was squatting over a hole and looking through it down a 30-foot cliff; I never thought a bathroom experience could be so exhilarating!
For the afternoon we had some welcome free time exploring (in a clockwise direction) the huge outdoor vendor market along Barkhor street - a cobblestone road that encircles the Jokhang Temple. The many side alleys were fascinating, and we quite enjoyed bartering for souvenirs among the unique stalls selling everything from yak-fur clothing and Tibetan Buddhist amulets to shirts and DVDs. Our guide, TseTan, also took us inside Jokhang Temple to see all the happenings within this very active and very spiritual place.
There were huge colorful fierce-looking protector-god statues, a central Buddha statue, and an altar overflowing with incense, yak candles, and fragrance. It is here that we saw the first of many Tibetan pilgrims slowly making their way around the temple by standing in prayer and then prostrating down to lie belly-down on the ground only to rise again and repeat one body-length further. Throughout our entire trip we were humbled by the pilgrims we saw in towns, on roads and in the middle of nowhere slowly progressing in this manner.
On our second day in Lhasa we visited two outlying and active monasteries: Drepung and Sera. Again, we were overwhelmed by the sights and smells within the numerous halls and chapels. Both places also reflected the unique Dzong architectural style we saw everywhere from Potala to the smallest of temples.
The buildings are made of stone or clay bricks and are set up much like a fortress; the exterior walls are thick and slope inward as they rise up, the massive windows are numerous but always quite high, and the roof is a flattened Chinese-style. Red ochre color is used to highlight the white-washed facade that seems to hide the lovely courtyards, temples and living quarters within.
As we visited these places, we found friendly monks dressed in their dark red and yellow robes. And, as always, having children along helped ease the steps into conversation. Few spoke English, but many times monks wanted to come over and hold our daughter, see her blond hair and get a picture.
As we walked through the Sera monastery, our daughter was given a special blessing with ash placed on her nose from the altar burning beneath the horse-head protector of children. Everywhere we went, Tibetans seemed eager to have their children play with ours.
Another outing found us being serenaded by the children at Dickey orphanage. We spent a warm afternoon playing with the children, letting them show off their rooms and art, and truly appreciating the joy that can only come from helping those less fortunate.
After feeling like Lhasa was getting a bit to touristy (which it isn't), it was time to hit the open road and see what the 'real' Tibet was like. We boarded a minivan with our small tour group - about 5 other single folks on adventures of their own. Then we drove for hours into the Tibetan countryside. It is incredible and immense.
In May the summer rains have not yet started, so the mountainsides are still quite brown with the only greenery appearing along rivers in the valleys. If you have ever been to Nevada, you have a glimpse of Tibet, except that Tibet is HUGE. The mountains are huge, the rivers are huge, the distances are huge. We ogled the scenery, stopped at sacred lakes, visited another monastery in Gyantse. We even took pictures next to an active glacier. We ended up driving along dirt roads for six hours up over 5,000-meter passes into the Tibetan Himalaya and the town of Shigatse.
Along the way we were truly able to learn about Tibet and it's people through conversation with our guides. Both TseTan and Tsering (who joined us for this portion) were very open about their lives and love of their culture. We found a new sense of 'the middle way', as the Dalai Lama would have it, when it comes to opinions about Chinese rule in Tibet.
The sizeable town of Shigatse has another famous monastery, the Tashilhunpo, where the Panchen Lama traditionally resides. The role of Panchen Lama in declaring the next Dalai Lama has created a tense situation between the Chinese government and Tibetans. The controversy lies in who and where the Panchen Lama is - with Beijing claiming one person and the Dalai Lama declaring it another who disappeared at age 6.
The Panchen Lama alive at the time of the Chinese invasion of Tibet supported the progress brought into the country by the Chinese, which meant the monastery was spared complete annihilation. He has since died, leaving the controversy in his wake and Tashilhunpo without its traditional leader. The place is huge and sits up on a foothill above the city - visible for miles while approaching. Inside is a vast network of temple buildings, monk residences, courtyards, and libraries.
The monastery is still very active with numerous monks and lay people busy everywhere; sometimes it was as if we had stepped back in time. It was here that we saw a room filled with ancient texts, a hawk circling a sky-burial stupa high above, and old women carrying mud bricks on their backs up to men rebuilding walls. The Tibetan people are still very involved in the happenings at their religious sites - it is their volunteer hard work and pilgrim's devotion that keep these places so amazing.
We spent the evening in Shigatse and took another full day along the dusty roads to reach the hamlet of Shegar. Watching the remote barren landscape was fascinating as we tried to spy signs of life. Our daughter especially enjoyed spotting yaks grazing on meager grasses along the steep hillsides.
Through the occasional village - maybe 10 houses - we were able to glimpse daily life for the Tibetan people as they washed in the cold river, plowed fields with yak-drawn equipment, or sat grinding grain. We stopped often for breaks; the roads have strict speed limits monitored by periodic checkpoints, so our tour guide's technique was to drive fast and then take breaks to absorb the additional time. It worked out great to meet locals and have a chance to play.
Traveling with children is such a joy as it really breaks the ice with local people. I will never forget the vision of my daughter playing with 5 Tibetan kids out front of their house; their toy of choice was a broken machinery belt and the dust. I will also never forget the views as we traveled over 17,000 foot mountain passes. Not sure what to expect, I was always shocked to see such a giant expanse of more glorious 'nothing' as far as the eye could see, plus nearby prayer flags at the highest point and the occasional farmer peddling yak pictures. Who can resist a picture of your kid on a yak in Tibet?
Our fifth day in Tibet we woke before dawn to get on the road. We were racing the sun to our last high pass and views of dawn over the highest mountain in the world. But it was overcast. The sun did make a dramatic glowing appearance through a hole in the clouds, but, alas the big mountain was shrouded. Bummed, my daughter and I went back to sleep as our minivan bumped and jostled the rough dirt road back down the other side.
I awoke to the shock of my life. The clouds had parted and glorious Mount Qomolongma (Everest) stood in all her glory showing off to the world. The van stopped at Rongbuk monastery - the highest in the world, and as we drooled over the view, our guides took care of the paperwork necessary to make it through our final checkpoint and on to base camp. There was a village feel to the area with 10 semi-permanent tents acting as restaurants, bunks, and the highest post office in the world.
I have no way to verify this, but I believe my daughter is the youngest non-Tibetan to visit Mount Everest; she was a month shy of two at the time. Of course, one of the few local families that live at the tiny seasonal tent village had a newborn baby. Base camp is really a small collection of tents for tourists to bunk overnight or for trekking groups preparing their ascent.
The first climber's base camp is visible beyond here below the Rongbuk glacier at the base of the mountain. There are also about 30 yaks mulling about, a huge pole with thousands of prayer flag streamers hanging from it, and a small stone-walled ranger station. My daughter was fully obsessed with playing in the rocks, dirt and yaks. The view, however, was the highlight: Mount Everest shining white under a crystal blue sky.
The mountains surrounding us were simply made of rock and scrabble, while a snow-covered Everest lay between them, just beyond the valley. We took a bazillion pictures! We wandered. We got lunch at a restaurant tent. Then, before we left, we watched a quick-moving cloud form around Everest's mid section like a skirt. By the end of the afternoon the enigmatic mountain would be hidden from view again. May is the best time to see Everest because there is a better chance to get the experience we had, but it is still a long shot.
Returning to Lhasa was another two-day event across the barren landscape of Tibet. We enjoyed a new route following the Yarlung river through a slightly agricultural area. Returning to Lhasa after so many days on the road felt like returning from another planet. Back in town with a renewed appreciation for the Tibetan people, we decided to join them for a day's walk around the pilgrimage route known as the Kora.
Starting at Jokhang Temple, the route circumnavigates all the highlights of the city - going past statues, prayer wheels, carved scriptures, and the park at Potala palace where we enjoyed the cool shade and a trip around the lake in a duck boat. Some shopping in the market rounded out our Tibetan experience and made for a relaxing final day before boarding the Lhasa Express for a two-day train ride bound for Beijing.
Typically I plan all the details for our trips, but visiting Tibet it slightly more complex. In order to gain entry into Tibet, you must already be in possession of a Chinese visa; for this I drove to the Chinese consul in Seoul where I filled out the paperwork and left my passports and a hefty fee.
One week later I returned and picked them up! Next, you must have a hand-written Tibetan Travel Permit signed within the week you travel, and you may not obtain one for yourself. It is compulsory to enter Tibet and be on a tour with a tour guide or group that is approved by the Tibetan Tourism Bureau. As long as you find a good tour guide, they will handle the Tibetan Permit details for you and ensure that you have the permit in hand before boarding a flight or train into Lhasa. There are also additional travel permits required for certain regions (like Mount Everest) within Tibet, whose complexities should be handled by your guide.
We found the people at TibetTravel.com to be super helpful and knowledgeable. They are also a fully-local run guide group with very reasonably priced small group tours. I highly recommend them.