Visiting Tibet

by Leo Munby, Chinese:-

Tibet is an oft-talked about but seldom-visited place, due in part to China’s controversial occupation of the region, but also its sheer remoteness. Located atop the Tibetan plateau and bordered on three sides by mountain ranges, it is one of the highest and most isolated areas on Earth. The Kunlun Mountains cut it off from the northern steppes, the west is blockaded by the Karakorum Range, the Himalayas rise up in the south to crest at Chomolungma (known in the West as Mt. Everest), and in the east the plateau tumbles into the lushly forested gorges of the upper Yangzi River. Renowned for its branch of Buddhism, stunning scenes of natural beauty, and infamous ‘rancid yak butter tea’, it’s somewhere many travellers aspire to go.

Unfortunately, gaining access to visit Tibet is hardly a straightforward process. Until very recently, access for foreigners was almost impossible, and even now, all visits have to be arranged in accordance with the Chinese government. The easiest way to do this, it seems, is through a Chinese travel agency, and while I was on my year abroad studying in Beijing, I finally had the perfect opportunity to visit. So, when one of my classmates messaged me around Christmas to ask if I wanted to go in Spring, I leapt at the chance and we booked straight away. We found a travel company, who organised tours based in Lhasa, the provincial capital, and arranged a trip in early May 2015.

One week before we were set to depart, however, our itinerary faced a sudden change. Nepal had suffered a devastating earthquake, and areas of south Tibet near the Nepalese border were heavily affected too. Homes were destroyed, roads blocked by landslides, and military checkpoints were put in place to prevent anyone from venturing into the affected region. So, instead of heading southwards from Lhasa via monasteries in Gyatse and Shigatse to make a hike to Chomolungma Base Camp, we were forced to completely change our route: heading north to Tibet’s largest lake, then staying in a monastery and a nunnery in turn, before returning to Lhasa. Throughout the trip, as we travelled around in a bone-rattling minibus, the roads would be crawling with row upon row of bug-like military supply trucks, heading south to aid the rescue effort; hence, despite not travelling to any particularly damaged areas, we remained acutely aware of the disaster.

Our eight-day trip was action packed, with visits and tours to myriad temples and monasteries filling every spare moment. However, the first thing that struck me about Tibet was its amazing landscape. As our 43-hour train from Beijing tracked its way through the frozen tundra of Qinghai and into northern Tibet, with oxygen pumped into the pressurised carriage to allay symptoms of altitude sickness, the view from the windows of the dining cart was unlike anything I’d seen before. The high altitude means very few plants are able to grow, so the vistas were characterised by a treeless expanse of mossy-green grass, stretching past frozen lakes, and merging into snow in the foothills of the mountainous horizon. The plateau is so high that standard weather formations seldom form, so the sky was invariably stained a deep blue, occasionally punctuated with bright white clouds that overlapped with the snowy peaks of the distance to blur the distinction between land and sky. We were able to experience the majesty of the scenery first hand, as well as through the foggy glass of the train carriage window, when on our fourth day we travelled north to Namtso Lake, both Tibet’s largest and highest lake, at an impressive altitude of 4718 metres above sea level. In winter, when the lake is frozen, monks used to travel across to islands in the middle carrying food, and stay there to meditate all year once the ice had melted, only to return the following winter. When we arrived, the lake itself was mostly thawed and serenely clear, its glistening waters reflecting a crystalline image of snow-capped mountains from the opposite shore. The only colours other than blues and whites came from the bright palate of the prayer flags strewn across rocks along the water front, the harnesses and saddles on the yaks that dotted the surroundings, and, in a bizarre and uniquely Chinese tradition symptomatic of the rapidly developing middle class, the western-style dresses and suits of fiancées from other parts of China having pre-emptive wedding photos taken against the awe inspiring natural backdrop.

Lhasa itself, upon our arrival, was a marked change from Beijing. The air was crisp, cold and clear, and despite being much welcomed in comparison to Beijing’s infernal smog-laced atmosphere, we still found ourselves short of breath from the altitude. The gloriously clear weather and fresh, clean air allowed the magnificence of the city to make a profound impact: the whitewashed temples, accented with gold and red eaves, seemed to glow in the bright sunlight; the bright colours of the local people’s clothes, often intricately patterned (and usually complemented with leather cowboy-style wide-brimmed hats), shimmered and danced in the jostle of the busy streets; the air was heavy with the aroma of spices from the street markets, laid out in brightly coloured bags and enthusiastically handled and sniffed by potential patrons. The Potala Palace, the historic centre of Tibetan political and spiritual influence, was a sprawling complex atop a central acropolis that loomed over the rest of the city, its great whitewashed walls making it seem like one of the snowy mountains that dominated the horizon. Nowadays, its use is purely as a museum, though the rooms from which the Dalai Lama once governed Tibet were sealed off and heavily guarded. There was a tangible insecurity, a self-conscious assertion of authority, best characterised by the profusion of Chinese flags, adorning every street corner, lamp post, and rooftop throughout the city, and by the imposing Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, built as close to the Potala Palace as its UNESCO World Heritage status allows.

Though the Dalai Lama is in exile, and his rule, both spiritual and political, refuted by the Chinese government, the pervasion of Tibetan Buddhism was still readily observable. Over the course of our first three days in Lhasa, we visited several operating monasteries and observed not only the lives of the monks, but also the behaviour of the (predominantly Chinese) tourists who flocked to pay their respects. Monks would sit in the courtyards in pairs, garbed in vermillion robes, and debate elements of scripture: one would sit, cross-legged, and answer the questions posed by their standing partner, who would punctuate their speaking with a sharp clap. Be it debating, or marching while playing musical instruments, or singing their deep bass chants around a fire, we were always conscious of a great comradery between the monks – presumably the product of growing up together in such isolated circumstances. [PHOTO 4] The tourists and pilgrims engaged in various activities and they visited and worshipped, turning prayer wheels, burning incense, or prostrating themselves repeatedly, clasping little wooden blocks in their hands to aid the fluid sliding motion and wearing kneepads for protection, as they moved clock-wise around the temples. Prayer wheels were originally a way of democratising prayer for the illiterate (making one full rotation of a wheel, which houses a bundled piece of scripture, is the spiritual equivalent of reading it) but nowadays, seemed almost an empty gesture as tourist after perfectly literate tourist, pressed for time to make their way around the site, absentmindedly turned them as they brushed past. There was a clear distinction between the pilgrim and the tourist: the former, rubbing holy beads or worshipping, occasionally even with a dark circle of matted dirt and dust in the centre of their foreheads from years of repeated prostration; the latter more preoccupied with selfies, designer clothes and other such affirmations of their burgeoning middle class status. There was, nonetheless, a deep-rooted respect for Tibet’s spirituality shared by all of its Chinese visitors. This was the same in Lhasa and in various monasteries and nunneries we visited throughout the province, and heightened our awareness of the area’s unique and individual culture.

The one other unifying factor across all the places we visited were yaks. Yak, in all its forms, was everywhere – the animals on the tundra beside the winding roads or the shore of Namtso Lake; their milk in butter used to sweeten tea or burnt as candles in monasteries; their hide stretched out as tents in the nomadic settlements in the north or as blankets in our accommodation; and in the ubiquitous yak curries we found in every place we stayed. There was a certain pleasing monotony to returning to our lodgings every day, weary from the altitude and scaling steps in monasteries, to recuperate with a hearty yak, potato and radish curry, though the odd variation (a bloody yak steak, or barbequed yak skewers) was obviously welcomed. The cuisine was predominantly Nepalese and Himalayan in style, characterised by spices and herbs from the mountainous region, but the tourist presence in the larger cities was made known by frequent sightings of restaurants serving popular Chinese cuisine styles. After a while, the barrage of the senses by all things yak – the stench of yak butter candles, the taste of yak meat, the sight of yak herds – became a little overpowering, and the relatively humble tsampa (a porridge-like paste made with ground roast barley mixed with water or tea) was a welcome respite; though, of course, the tea it is often mixed with contains yak butter, so the influence of yak wasn’t entirely escapable.

On our penultimate day, we planned to leave Tidrum Nunnery, where we were staying, around midday, and make a leisurely journey back to Lhasa to stay our final night. It was set deep in a gorge between two craggy cliff faces; iconic Tibetan prayer flags wove their way to and fro between the rocky outcrops, a gurgling stream running through the centre of the complex pushed little water wheels to turn various Tibetan prayer wheels, and natural hot springs frequented by nuns and locals alike sat at the very centre of the nunnery. We had parked our van at the top of the gorge, knowing that in the high altitude, it would take us quite a while to lug our suitcases back to it from the nunnery, but thought nothing of it. In a sudden turn of events, our guide woke us in the early hours of our day of departure to warn us that it had started snowing, and that if we did not leave immediately, we would be snowed in and would almost certainly miss our train home the next day. And so, in the dim light of the pre-dawn, heaving in the cascading snow and fighting both cold and lack of oxygen, we dragged our luggage back up the ravine to our mini-bus, and made our unceremonious escape.

Tourism in Tibet is quite a controversial topic. By partaking in the Chinese tourist industry, you are legitimising their control over the region, or at least acknowledging and consenting to it for your own personal pleasure. For me, visiting Tibet was a truly compelling experience, not only for all of the things that we saw and heard, but equally for all of the things locked out of sight or unspoken by left our tour guides. Given its seclusion and lack of substantial representation in the media, the only real way to begin to understand Tibet’s situation is by seeing it first-hand. I hope to return to the region someday, and hope then to better comprehend both its culture and how it fits into China’s modern geo-political landscape (if, indeed, it does). 

All photos taken by Leo Munby, with thanks to Oliver Munby for photo editing.

As well as taking 48 hour train trips across the world, Leo also spent time getting involved in the Beijing musical theatre scene. See some of his reflections on this in his previous article, Happy Ever After

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