Saturday, June 23, 2007

Tibet -- A Feast for the Eyes

Oriana and I just returned from an 8-day trip to Tibet. You can see a selection of pictures here, and the story below.

In the days before our departure, all I seemed to hear were stories about people who got very sick in Tibet because of the high altitude. In fact, in all the stories, the person who got really sick and had to be flown out was always described as “young, in his forties, and in otherwise very good shape”. I decided to ignore the stories and think positively.

Getting off the plane in Lhasa airport we felt light-headed, like waking up from with a hangover. Had to walk very slowly to the baggage claim (but still able to see the big sign with my full name held up by our guide to be). We spent the first day in the hotel, trying not to move and let the body adjust. (It’s recommended to come to Tibet clean because they advise you not to take a shower the first night as part of the acclimation program.)

By the second day, we were able to walk and even climb the Potala, and by the third day even the headache went away. It took our tube of toothpaste about the same time to get used to the high altitude.

We spent the second day in Lhasa, going to the Jokhang (the most revered religious structure in Tibet), and the Barkhor, a lively market surrounding it. Already there, we experienced first hand the devout nature of the Tibetan people. While there were some tourists, we were overrun by locals making their way into the temple to make their offerings. In other parts of the world I’ve seen little old ladies pushing their way to a bus; here they were pushing their way to the Buddhas to offer anything from barley flour and yak butter to coca cola.

We then went to the Potala, Lhasa’s best known structure, the seat of the Dalai Lamas. It indeed was as impressive as I imagined it to be (yes, from the movies). The night views of the Potala were especially impressive.

The most striking thing about Tibet (and the reason I’ve been talking about going for the last so many years) is the prevalence of color everywhere. It starts from the prayer flags erected on most houses, on bridges and peaks of mountain passes. The colors of the Tibetan clothing are wonderful. The window and door treatments, even in the poorest places are simply mind boggling. Even after a few days in Tibet I was simply amazed and happily taking it in as we drove throughout Tibet.

And drove we did (in the backseat of a Toyota Land Cruiser). Distances in Tibet are significant, and it’s not unusual to get stuck behind an army convoy or have to wait on the roadside for a high ranking official convoy to pass by. The drivers were actually reasonably careful (apparently, traffic fines are high enough). There are mileposts everywhere, so even though you’re often in the middle of nowhere, you can be quantitative about it.

The third day we drove to Shigatse, 260km west of Lhasa, home to the Tashilhunpo monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lamas for many years. (Supposedly, the relationship between the Dalai and Panchen lamas is like the sun and the moon, but there is more to the story than that). The Tashilhunpo was the most impressive monastery we saw and was full of (religious) life. On the way to Shigatse we visited Yamdrok Lake at 5000m (just when we thought we adjusted to the altitude…)

After the Tashilhunpo we realized there we cannot possibly be impressed by another monastery. We had also spoken to a few other tourists who were on their way to the Himalayas. However, changing plans in mid-trip was nearly impossible. Nevertheless, Oriana started a long and drawn out negotiation with our guide, driver and tourist agency that seemed about as complicated as a typical M&A deal she negotiates in her day job.

As the negotiations proceeded, we drove to Tsetang (east of Lhasa), the cradle of Tibetan civilization (and home to the nicest hotel & breakfast we had). After a 40km drive on a very bumpy and windy road we arrived at Tibet’s first monastery, the Samye monastery. We were proven wrong; were blown away by Samye as well.

The next morning, with the help of a promise of a tip, the negotiations came to a close and we started driving westward towards the Himalayas. We started at 7am, and drove for 12 hours through multiple mountain passes, very rural areas of Tibet and a couple of other hurdles that I was advised not to blog about. At 7pm, we were standing at 5000m elevation, looking at Mount Everest and its sibling peaks (Makalu, Lohtse, and Cho Oyu). The scene was definitely worth the drive, though perhaps one can argue that the sight of Rainier from Seattle is about as impressive. Naturally, the only other tourists with us at that vista point were a bunch of young Israelis. (Except for multiple groups of Israelis, we saw some French, some Americans and at some points, what seemed like the entire nation of Japan). At 7pm we started a 300km drive back to Shigatse, the closest place with a reasonable hotel.

Driving through Tibet we noticed that it probably has the highest per-capita number of pool tables. Pool tables were adorning the sides of the roads in the most rural villages. In some cases, they were actually used for playing pool, and in others, as stands for decorative items. Our guide didn’t offer a convincing explanation of the phenomenon. Cell phone reception, even in remote parts of Tibet, was typically better than in my home or office. That enabled me to read (and mostly ignore!) my email.

From the culinary perspective, once you get over your craving for yak meet, yak milk, yak butter, your main choices are Nepalese, Indian and Chinese food. I did manage to find a descent cappuccino in Lhasa!

I will not make any political comments on Tibet here, but will mention one anecdote. Apparently, in the past few months, two groups of American students went to Everest base camp and staged pro Tibetan independence demonstrations. As a consequence, except for making it harder for others to reach there, their innocent Tibetan guides and drivers were put into prison for 5 years. So if you’re going to make political statements, make sure you understand the local dynamics before you put your friends at risk.

In summary, Tibet is a wonderful place to visit. Although it is modernizing very rapidly, you can still see the old, especially if you head out of Lhasa. Be prepared for long drives a few dirty toilets here and there. But make sure you bring a good camera (thanks Pandu for the great recommendation!) and take it all in! I’m sure that of all people, my mother-in-law Helen is the happiest we made the trip because now she doesn’t have to hear me talking about going there anymore.


thesidewaystraveler said...

It is so nice Oriana has pass your blog to me. Because I am leaving to Tibet next month too. I'm using the same tour agent. I am glad your trip has completed safely. Seeing your colorful pictures from Tibet. I am hard to wait to see with my own eyes. Great Job.

thesidewaystraveler said...

Can I ask you have do you make your pictures link with simple click at your article "Here"? Thanks. Can you open your blog in China?

Anonymous said...

tibet isnt tibet anymore. not after 5 years of the chinese occupations there. it just kills me to think about my people living under such a horrible government. there are now soo many han chinese in lhasa, that the potala has lost its essence. even this guy reviewing world hertage sites for the UN, said that potala palace wasn't the same anymore, almost all places of buisness there are chinese there nd it doesn't feel tibetan.

even though the guides & drivers of the people who staged the banner thing were sent to prison for five years, i'm sure those activists must've done their best to save them; but sometimes you've got to do wut you've got to do.

the thing i don't like is that you visiting tibet and enjoying tibet doesn't help anybody in any terms other than the chinese.

Quinta said...

Good post.

Tenzin said...

Thank you so much for writing your experience in Tibet. It was wonderful reading your blog and going through your photos. I wish i can go to Tibet and live there, in my own country. But unfortunate might be my karma, as i cannot cool my eyes looking at snowcapped mountains, instead i have to live in the hot and humid India. This might be my karma - to live in exile.
Thank you though, for taking me to my country, to himalyas, to potala and to our holy monastery, even though it was just a feeling of being there myself for a moment or two but it was worthwhile being there, in my motherland. Tibet will be free!!!

IanH said...

We have often thought of going to Tibet but have stopped ourselves because it is basically owned by the Chinese. All I would see of Tibetans is oppressed and sad people. I understand the Chinese position: rape and pillage, distortion of history. China's occupation of Tibet is Humanity's worst tragedy. Worse than the Holocaust because no other country has done anything to stop it. I am glad you enjoyed Tibet but sad that you remained un-political about such a tragedy.