In May, 2004 I visited Tibet in the Himalayas. I had arranged for a guide and driver for seven days through Pacific Delights Tours. On the way to Tibet I stopped in Chengdu in China, to visit the Panda reserve and breeding center. From there I flew directly to Lhasa. Lhasa is at an altitude of 3,600 m (11,810 ft). This makes you run out of breath at even the slightest exertions. I usually walk quite fast, but at this altitude I had to slow down considerably. Other than that I didn't have any problems with the altitude in Lhasa. In Gyantse at 4,000 m (13,100 ft) I did have more of a problem, I had a very bad night's sleep. Altogether I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't have any serious problems. Even at the highest mountain pass at 5,200 m (17,060 ft) I had no problems, other than shortness of breath.
I stayed in Lhasa for two days. The highlights in Lhasa are the palace of the Dalai Lama (the Potala), the Jokhang (the most revered temple in Tibetan Buddhism), and the Summer palace of the Dalai Lama (the Norbulingka). Just outside is the Drepung Monastery, once the worlds largest monastery with some 10,000 monks. The Potala Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From Lhasa we drove to Tsedang. There we visited the Samye Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in Tibet, founded in the late 8th century. It is one of the more beautiful monasteries. It has four stupas arranged around if in four of the holy colors. From Tsedang we visited the Chongye valley. Here are the Tombs of the Tibetan Kings, burial mounds from around 1000. From there we went to the Yumbulagang Monastery. This was the most beautiful and interesting monastery I visited. It has reputedly the oldest building in Tibet from the 7th century. The original building may date back 2000 years. It is situated on a cliff at about 4,500 m (14,760 ft) altitude. It is a bit strenuous to walk up there at the altitude, but well worth it. After that we visited the Tandruk Monastery. It has a fantastic wood carved altar, reputedly the largest in the world (though I doubt that claim). This monastery is also among the oldest in Tibet from the 7th century.
From Tsedang we drove to Gyantse. This trip was over the first of several mountain passes. This one (Kamba-la) was about 4,800 m (15,750 ft) high. It was an interesting drive up to the pass along a steep switchback road. The pass was in the clouds, with snow on the ground. From there the road went along a large mountain lake (Yamdrok-tso), one of the holiest lakes in Tibet. The lake is at an altitude of around 4,500 m (14,760 ft). From there we climbed another pass (Karo-la) up to about 5,000 m (16,400 ft) and then to Gyantse. In Gyantse is the largest chörten (stupa) in Tibet, the Gyantse Kumbum. It is quite impressive, located in the Pelkor Chöde Monastery. It is from the 15th century.
On this road there was extensive road construction. The road had mostly been build, but none of the bridges. It meant that at every little brook coming down the mountain (of which there were many), we had to leave the road, drive through the stream, and back to the road. This was wild driving!
From Gyantse we drove to the Sakya Monastery. This was one of the largest monasteries before the Chinese invasion. It has the tombs of several Dalai Lamas. From there we went back to Shigatse for an overnight stay. In Shigatse is the Tashilhunpo Monastery, a very impressive one with many wall paintings of Buddhas and the tombs of several Panchen Lamas.
From Shigatse we returned to Lhasa. This drive was the most eventful of them all. We drove over the highest mountain pass at about 5,200 m (17,060 ft). The road was in really bad condition. It was a one lane road with traffic in both directions. Passing was only possible in certain places. There were several areas with large holes in the road where traffic was backed up. Combine this with snow on the road, and you have a recipe for a big traffic jam. Trying to move two mile long lines of trucks past each other on a one lane road takes a long time. Everybody tries to move ahead as soon as there is a bit of an opening, which immediately blocks the one lane road again. One truck didn't make it when he tried to pass another one on the one lane road. He fell of the precipice and was lying about 150 m (490 ft) below the road.
From there we drove back to Lhasa. On the way we passed the Yungdrungling Monastery. It is a monastery of the Bön religion, the pre-Buddhism religion in Tibet.
The weather was mixed, sometimes sunny, often rainy. At the higher elevations it was frequently snowing. Temperatures were somewhat chilly.
Tibet has been invaded by China in 1952. It has been occupied by China since then. The few times I talked with Tibetans, it was clear that they resented the Chinese occupation. China is settling millions of Chinese in Tibet in order to get Tibet under closer Chinese control. By now the native Tibetans are already in the minority. In business, Chinese have significant advantage over Tibetans.
Tibetan is a language with their own script, quite different from Chinese. Since the Chinese occupation, Chinese is the official language. Anybody who doesn't speak Chinese is at a severe disadvantage. Recently, the Chinese have made some concession as far as the language is concerned. For instance, direction signs show names in Tibetan as well as Chinese and English scripts.
Traditionally, at least one son of every family would become a monk. This was their version of population control. Because of that, almost every village had a monastery. In the beginning of the Chinese occupation, the Chinese systematically destroyed the Tibetan monasteries. They destroyed over 90% of them. Only recently have they started to support them in order to increase tourism. Even though most of the monasteries are destroyed, the ones that are left are exceptional. I was especially impressed by a small monastery from the 8th century, sitting on a small peak near the Tombs of the Tibetan Kings.
Religion plays a large part in Tibetan life. Especially in Lhasa, but also in other cities and towns you can see monks, and other worshipers with their prayer wheels. Most buildings have some arrangements of sticks with colored prayer flags on their roof. Similar arrangements are seen in many places along the roads, on mountain passes or on hill tops. The flags are printed with Buddhist sutras. They are strung up to purify the air and to pacify the gods. When the flags flutter, prayers are thought to be released to the heavens. The colors of the flags are significant. They are:
red: represents fire
green: represents wood
yellow: represents earth
blue: represents water
white: represents iron.
White scarfs are used for greeting people (I was given one when I arrived. They are also used to drape over statues in temples and monasteries.
Buddhism in Tibet uses considerably more colors in decorating their temples and monasteries than Buddhism in other countries. The most important temple in Tibet is the one in Lhasa. Worshipers are everywhere in Lhasa. Most are older people, but there are younger ones as well. There are also many Buddhist priests in Lhasa, old ones as well as many younger ones. It seems as if there are still plenty of young men who want to become priests. Both pilgrims and monks use prayer wheels during their worship. In the temples you can see the prayer drums. Pilgrims walk by them and set them rotating while praying.
One interesting part of the temples and monasteries is the use of Yak butter. It is used for most everything, from material for candles to intricate decorations to lubricating prayer drums. It never smelled really bad, but sometimes you could smell it somewhat.
Using colors is not only prevalent in temples. Trucks and farm vehicles are also often colorfully decorated. One decoration symbol that is used frequently is the swastika. It is from here that the Nazis imported this symbol. In Tibet it is a sign of good luck.
I didn't get to talk to Tibetans very much. Only in Lhasa did I have the chance to go out and talk with people. During the tour I didn't have the opportunity to talk with anybody. You would have to take more time in order to get more chances to meet local people.
The scenery in Tibet is of course stunning. Unfortunately the weather was not very good while I was there, so I didn't see as much of the mountains as I would have liked. But what I did see was impressive. The highest mountain that I saw was about 7,000 m (23,000 ft).
Local buildings are usually single story buildings. They are build around a courtyard. On the outside they usually don't have many windows, if any at all. The houses in each village are usually of the same design, with different designs in different villages.
The food was quite good. This was somewhat of a surprise, since the guide book that I had warned that Tibetan food is not very good. It looks as if this has recently changed for the better. Two things however were not really to my taste. One of them was dried Yak cheese, the other was tea with Yak butter. The dried Yak cheese was hard as stone. I tried to keep it in my mouth for a while to soften it, without success. I would have broken my teeth if I had tried to chew it. It also was completely tasteless. Tea with Yak butter on the other hand does have taste, but not a taste that I could get used to that quickly. I tried it ones and decided that I definitely don't want to try it again anytime soon.
The local beer is very good and very inexpensive. One big surprise was their selection of imported beers. From the USA they had the ubiquitous Budweiser, but in addition to that they had Pabst Blue Ribbon. This is an old US beer that is slowly making a comeback in the USA. It is my favorite beer here in the US.
It was an interesting trip. Too bad I didn't have more time to see the country and meet the people. It is sad to see how a whole culture being destroyed by an occupying country. I h ope they'll survive, but it doesn't look good.
See the separate page with birds:
Birds in Tibet