“What the Dalai Lama had to resolve was whether to stay in Tibet or leave. He wanted to stay, but staying would have meant the total destruction of Tibet, because he would have died and that would have ripped the heart out of his people.”
Fondly known as the Land of the Snows, this high altitude land was spiritual, friendly, and much to the disappointment of my alveoli, completely devoid of oxygen.
China has claimed sovereignty over Tibet since 1950 and it has been under full Chinese administration since 1959, after the Tibetan uprising was quelled. While the 14th Dalai Lama has been in exile in India, the Chinese have done all they can to put their mark on their “Tibet Administrative Region”. China Mobile signs, Chinese flags, and armed Chinese military adorn every street corner, and Chinese characters take pride of place on all signage. China also maintains strict controls over visitors, and permits and guides must be organised for every step of the way. Hats-off to the Mix Hostel in Chengdu, for sorting this all out at the lowest possible price. I can highly recommend them!
In spite of this heavy influence, Tibet is a world away from the China I left behind in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. I hadn’t expected such a vibrant spiritual and cultural life to still be in existence. When I looked past the smooth tarmac roads and power stations installed by China, I saw a life that has been unchanged for centuries.
The Quinhai-Lhasa railway, apparently an engineering marvel due to its tracks being laid on permafrost, was our first introduction to what life is like at the roof of the world. The Tanggula Pass section of the railway is the highest railtrack in the world at a lung destroying 5072m (16640ft). For this very reason, the train pumps oxygen into the carriages, and the attendants hand out oxygen tubes that slot up your nostrils, to keep you alive. Well thank Buddha for that, because without that little stream of cool fresh oxygen, I might have just launched myself out the train. The following is an extract from my journal, written with the help of my iPhone’s dictionary app, on October 28th and describes the conditions I was dealing with…
“I might just be feeling that way out, but our cabin mates are:
- Rude “Lacking civility”
- Smelly “Offensively malodorous”
- Filthy “disgustingly dirty”
- Vile “causing nausea”
- Indecent “disgusting, especially to the senses”
- Repulsive “so extremely ugly as to be terrifying”
- Loathsome “highly offensive”
- Repugnant “offensive to the mind”
- Abominable “unequivocally detestable”
- Atrocious “provoking horror””
The cozy, secure and quiet soft sleeper cabins we were used to, were replaced by a carriage that afforded such amenities as: 7am breakfast of stinking roast goose for the entire Chinese population of the train, followed by chomping, sneezing, spitting and coughing galore. This of course was conducted in the comfort of the assigned social area of the train. I was delighted to learn that this area was MY CABIN.
The capital of Tibet was truly captivating, especially the Barkhor circuit around the Jokhang temple where thousands of devotees circumambulated. Some of them prostrated their bodies every few feet around the kora, and many aimed to complete the circuit 30 or 40 times. The devotion showed by these people in their quest for a blessing from the Buddha was awe-insipring.
The Potala Palace, the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama, and his summer residence at Norbulinka, were equally impressive. It was between visits to these two places that I sampled my first real Tibetan food. Yak noodle soup, yak dumplings, and sweet tea were the order of the day in a dark atmospheric restaurant, filled with only Tibetans. The food was absolutely delicious, and it cost a whopping £3 to feed SIX very hungry out-of-towners!
One the most interesting things we saw in Lhasa was the Monks debating at the Sera Monastery. They congregate each afternoon in a courtyard and question each other on all aspects of Buddhism and life. Each question asked, or point made, is combined with an elaborate gesticulation and huge slap of the hands.
It’s a great shame that the Monks of Tibet are dwindling in numbers. With the offer of a quality Chinese education for kids, parents are now less willing to allow their children to enter Tibet’s once enormous monasteries.
THE FRIENDSHIP HIGHWAY
Surely the most overwhelming road in the world; the Friendship Highway leaves Lhasa and weaves its way over the Himalayas, right by Mount Everest, and onto the Nepalese frontier. We took in endlessly turquoise lakes, drove through passes that exceeded altitudes of 5000m, stopped in towns that felt like being in the Wild West, and towns like Gyantse that is one of Tibet’s least Chinese influenced towns. Its backstreets gave a glimpse into the real Tibetan rural life.
After a freezing cold overnight stay in Shigatse (since when was blowing hot air out your mouth and wafting your hands not the international sign for heating?), we visited the Tashilhunpo Monastery. Thousands of pilgrims had flocked to pray at the largest gilded Buddha statue in the world, standing tall at 27m. Being amongst the pilgrims, and soaking up their spiritual fervour, was a great experience.
With a height of 8848m, Mount Everest, or Qomolangma, is the earth’s tallest mountain. We were greeted at the Rongphu monastery by warm smiles, but a frosty bed. At 15 degrees Celsius below freezing, and with oxygen in limited supply in the air, it was a tough night’s sleep. We were wearing every item of clothing we had, and tucked under huge blankets, but it was still not enough to keep out the biting cold.
Sunrise over Everest was incredible, but the enjoyment was somewhat limited by the loss of feeling in all my limbs, and the thought that I might not make it home with all my 10 toes.
A gruelling day’s driving was required to make it to the Nepalese border, but after clearing the last pass at 5200m, it was all downhill. I couldn’t bear the squish anymore so I threw myself in the boot and sprawled myself out on the bags for 7 hours, much to the detriment of my spine. Nevertheless, the air got thicker, and the hills got greener, and by the time we reached the border town of Zhangmu, I felt like a human again.
The evening’s entertainment was provided by the Sherpa Nightclub. A particular highlight for me was watching all the patrons performing a synchronised, Macarena style dance to the Vengaboys’ mega-hit “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom”.
We were up early the next morning to clear Chinese customs. After perfunctory checks by the officials to relieve backpackers of their Chinese Lonely Planets, we crossed the Friendship Bridge. This 50m meter bridge transported us into a whole different universe of new-found smells, sounds, warmth and sunshine…we entered the beautiful country of Nepal…