December 2010: On a 8-day trip, my friends Tim, Eric and I traveled to Tibet-roof the world-a high mountain plateau that historically has been one of the most isolated and unknown places to the outside world. We traveled to Tibet to learn about its endangered culture, and to reign in the 2011 New Year on the Tibetan side of Mount Everest Base Camp.  This is the story of our adventure and our incredible encounters with the amazing Tibetan people.

About Tibet

Tibet is known as the rooftop of the word because it sits on a vast high desolate and stark mountain plateau that is on average 12,000′ in elevation located to the north of the great Himalayan Mountain range and Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain which straddles Nepal and Tibet. Tibet has historically been a Buddhist Kingdom and one of the most secluded places on Earth-foreigners were not allowed to visit until the 1980’s.

Prior to the 1950’s, Tibet was a sovereign kingdom ruled by a Buddhist theocracy under the Dalai Lama. In 1959 communist China invaded Tibet and annexed it, ruling it ever since and sending the Dalai Lama into exile in India. The invasion left hundreds of thousands of Tibetans dead, and China has imposed its communist will on the Tibetan people, their culture and religion ever since. China has done so by appointing key communist officials over the region, maintaining a strong military presence that incites terror through surveillance and random detention. China is also attempting to eradicate Tibetan culture through propaganda, indoctrination and a massive effort to relocate Han Chinese into Tibet from other parts of China to dilute the Tibetan population. Construction of a high-speed railway from mainland China was nearly finished during the time of my visit and will make it easier for even more migrants to move to Tibet.

China exerts control over the Tibetan religion and its monks by requiring all religious figures to attend communist indoctrination training and Buddhist teachings are regulated by the State. All photos and references to the Dalai lama including the movie the Seven years in Tibet are banned and anyone in possession is subject to arrest and China has even kidnapped Tibetan children believed to be reincarnated high ranking Lamas.

The Chinese will counter any argument that they are oppressing the Tibetan people by saying they have liberated the Tibetan people from serfdom and have brought modernization to improve living standards.  While it is true modernization efforts have benefitted Tibetans, the Tibetans want self-rule or at the least more autonomy. This frustration has led to occasional riots, the most recent one being in 2008 when Tibetan monks committed suicide in public by lighting themselves on fire in protest.  In response Chinese authorities clamped down the region even more than normal and closed off Tibet to foreigners. I was able to enter Tibet during a short window of time when it was open to foreigners before another revolt occurred resulting in China closing Tibet again to the outside world for years to come. The issue of Chinese occupation of Tibet has received a lot of international backlashes but with China having more economic influence over the world, the cries for help from the Tibetan people have become just a faint whisper to the world and have become increasingly forgotten just like that of the Islamic, Uighur people in Xinjiang, China.

 

Location of Tibet and my travel route

Getting to Tibet

To reach Tibet, I had to organize the trip via a Chinese travel fixer and obtain Tibet travel permits. To obtain a Tibet permit, we would have to travel in Tibet with a guide on an approved itinerary. Then to get a Chinese tourist visa, I couldn’t mention in the visa application that Tibet was the destination. Instead, I selected Shanghai. Any mention of Tibet would guarantee my visa being declined. Then to get to Lhasa, Tibet I had to fly into Shanghai from the USA and from Shanghai fly via the very long domestic flight to Lhasa. We spent one night in Shanghai-New Pudong, District.

China has a lot of meaning to me because it was my 1st trip abroad when I was 18 years old in 1995. I was apprehensive about returning to Shanghai because I knew it had changed drastically over the years and I was afraid the changes would tarnish some of my happy memories.  We stayed in New Pudong because Tim had enough Marriot points for free accommodation at a Marriot Hotel and the airport was relatively close by for an early morning departure. New Pudong was not the Shanghai I remembered. In 1995 most of it was still a swamp, and with its western restaurants, and stores lining the streets, it appeared to be a mirror image of some of the sterile shopping mall districts back in California. On the bright side we found a restaurant with Xiaolongbao, a type of steamed bun with pork or beef from Shanghai traditionally steamed in small bamboo baskets. I remembered this food fondly.

 

Impressions of Lhasa 

The domestic flight into Lhasa was long and tiring and the mountain descent severely turbulent. Once in Lhasa, the altitude of 12,000′ was immediately felt and it didn’t take long before I developed a headache. When driving into the city one of our first observations was of the heavy police and military presence. Since the 2008 Lhasa riots, Chinese soldiers have become a common sight in the Lhasa streets. Like an occupational force, their presence seems to serve the purpose of stability through intimidation. Platoons of them march through the streets in the Tibetan quarter, soldiers stand guard in intersections behind fortified posts with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. I tried to greet some of the soldiers but received cold glances in return. Once when walking through the narrow corridors of the Tibetan quarter, we came across a thuggish group of soldiers blocking an alley holding huge sound capturing devices to help them ease drop behind residential walls. They stood watching us intently letting no one pass them. I was told that there was likely an operation to arrest a Tibetan for political reasons. These were not the friendly soldiers I recalled from 1995 when I was in Tiananmen Square, Beijing posing for photos with young soldiers wearing oversized uniforms smiling from ear to ear.

Chinese soldiers patrolling Lhasa Streets

Lhasa consists of a budding Chinese District and also a Tibetan Quarter. The Tibetan Quarter consists of small meandering alleys through buildings with Tibetan architecture, the fragrance of incense burning, and pilgrims walking prayer circuits. I loved walking the streets of the Tibetan quarter and ever where we went, we were the only foreigners, a common theme throughout the trip.  At night, since I was jet legged and couldn’t sleep, I would wake up i the middle of the night and wander the dark empty stone streets in awe of the magic of its old quarters. 

Tibetan Quarter, Lhasa

Walking through the streets of Lhasa, I came across this meat market where every morning maybe a few tons of Yak meat is loaded onto the sidewalk next to this local butcher shop. It is then cut into smaller pieces and sold. Although Tibetans are Buddhist, most of them eat meat. Pig meat is not a traditional food for Tibetans but is for the Chinese. I was told that many young Tibetans are starting to eat pig meat.

Yak Meat, Lhasa

Pork Meat, Lhasa

A small population of Muslims live in Lhasa. This man and his wife, from probably the Uighur regions of northwestern China, are selling this cake in the Lhasa Streets. Every day they stood in the street selling their cake maybe selling a piece or two every hour. I greeted this man with the traditional Muslim greeting of- Asaalama A Leikum-forgive the spelling. He lit up with a big smile, shaking my hand and offered me a piece of cake which he refused to accept any payment for. It tasted a lot like a granola bar.

 

Uighur Man at His Bakery/Lhasa

In the winter Tibetan pilgrims come from all over the plateau, to the cities and villages to sell their goods at the market and to worship at the Buddhist temples. Many of these pilgrims have never seen a foreigner and when walking the streets of cities in Tibet it was common for pilgrims to approach us and shake our hands or just stand and stare at us with a giant smile on their face. Tibetans that come from all parts adorn different styles of clothes, beads and jewelry representative of their villages. I found it interesting that any of the Tibetan people have similar facial features native North Americans.

At the Potala Palace I saw many pilgrims; all were very kind and anxious to pose for my camera. But of the pilgrims these two really stand out in my mind. I don’t know who they are or what their names were but from the few moments I shared with them I can see that the old man, who looks like a monk, is likely a loving grandfather of the girl and the girl, who was very shy and would try to hide her shyness behind her big smile, seemed very respectful and devoted to her grandfather. I really like the look on the grandfather’s face. He has this look of wisdom and contentment that can only come with a full life.

Tibetan Pilgrims Traditional Dress

Tibetan Pilgrims 

 This Tibetan woman was chanting prayer mantras while spinning her prayer wheel as she circled the sacred Buddhist temples of Lhasa.

Pilgrim Grandfather and Granddaughter

Granddaughter with Grandfather proudly displaying his prayer beads  

Pilgrims

Tibetan worshippers by the thousands prostrate themselves before the Buddhist temples and in many places considered sacred all through Lhasa and other villages. Everywhere we went in Lhasa, pilgrims on the side of the street were following the motion of taking a few steps, then prostrating themselves on the ground, only to stand up and repeat the process again one step at a time. This scene played itself out by some pilgrims for hundreds of miles. The ritual of physical suffering is believed to bring purification of the soul and one closer to attaining enlightenment.

 

Worshippers at a Monastery

Pilgrim at a Monastery

Buddhist Pilgrims Prostrating Themselves in Worsjip at Monastery

Buddhist Pilgrims Prostrating Themselves in Worsjip at Monastery

Chief among all sites in Lhasa is the old winter palace of the Dalai Lama, who last lived in it as a child in the 1950’s. The Dalai lama is still alive and in exile in India. Given that the palace is one of the main worshipping places for Tibetans, the palace is tightly regulated by police, but pilgrims are allowed to enter and foreigners however no photos are allowed inside.

Then across from the Dalai Lama’s palace is the Martyrs Square, dedicated to the communist forces that invaded Tibet to, “Liberate the oppressed masses.

 

Potala Palace/Once the Winter Home of Dalai Lama

Monk in Front of Potala Palace

Eric, Tim and I at the Potala Palace

We visited quite a few monasteries in and around Lhasa such as the holiest one Jokhang with hundreds of pilgrims falling to the ground in worship. The most interesting was Sera monastery, where monks debate one another’s knowledge of ancient Buddhist scripts in Sanskrit and yell and pretend to slap each other in visible disagreement.

 

 

Tibetan Buddha Statue in Monastery

Worshippers Entering Monastery

Sera Monastery/Monks Debating 

Shigatse 

To reach Everest base Camp from Lhasa, we had to drive approx. 400 miles though the Tibetan plateau staying in a few different cities and villages along the way such as Gyangtse and Shigatse. We stayed one the night each way in Shigatse, the second-largest city in Tibet and home of the Panchen Lama, 2nd highest authority in Tibetan Buddhism to the Dalai Lama. Before his death, the Panchen Lama, had been held for 15 years as a political prisoner of China. Following the death of the Panchen Lama, the Dalai Lama recognized a 4-year-old Tibetan boy as the reincarnate of the Panchen Lama.  Three days later, China abducted the Panchen Lama and his family, whom have not been heard from since and subsequently chose another young boy as a proxy Panchen Lama. One that can be indoctrinated and controlled by them.

As we drove closer to Mount Everest we climbed in elevation and nights became cooler and the elevation harder to handle. The heating in our hotels was poor and we would spend most of the night shivering in the cold under our blankets while coping with an altitude headache.

 

 

Castle of the Panchen Lama

Sounds of the Market

friendly Local

Typical Street Scene

We visited the 500-year-old Tashilumpu Monastery with its many pilgrims visiting from outer regions of Tibet. Like in Lhasa many had never seen a foreigner and were either curious and friendly towards us or borderline hostile and would turn around and frantically flee from us.

 

 

Tashilumpu Monastery

Tim meeting a friendly monk who refused to let go of his hand

Photo of the true Panchen Lama, which I am surpirsed is allowed to remain in the monastery or it just hasn’t been doscivered yet by the Chinese

Tibetan pilgrim who had an amazing traditonal appearance who fled upon his first glance of me. It alost seemed as if there was someiing of superstitious aversion of foreigners for him. 

Friendly Pilgrim

Village Life

The main highway was well paved. As we drover closer to Mount Everest, we drove over 16,000; mountain passes, visited high alpine lakes, and stopped in some small Tibetan villages to have lunch. Our guide was always careful about which village we visited and would keep an eye out for any Chinese military that night hassle us for detouring from our pre-approved itinerary that involved minimal local interaction.

The villages were all the same. Friendly people, giant multi-generational houses, with yaks grazing outside the homes and yak dung fireplaces burning to keep the homes warm. Some homes began to take advantage of the abundant sun energy by having small solar panels stoves for cooking food. Every village had a small monastery and like everywhere in the world, children played games outside of their homes. In the strong sun of the high mountain elevations, the faces of young children already started to show signs of sun damage.

 

 

Tibetan village home

Children with sun damaged skin

Village Monastery

A sheperd we met on the road and visited for a few minutes.

Me trying on the fox fur hat of the sheperd that was very warm and pungent smelling

The Tibetan plateau is a desolate wind swept plain with few people living on it. It is arid and there are few trees. Most of the drive to Mount Everest looked like the photo below. it seemed hard to believe but there is wildlife, wolves, wild sheep and goats as well as snow leopards living in the mountains and plains and on the side of the road, we were fortunate to come across a few blue sheep mating.

 

 

Tibetan scenery

Mating Blue Sheep

Mount Everest Base Camp on New Years Eve

At 16,500 feet, we spent New Years Eve at Rongbuk Monastery in, the highest monastery in the world, in the shadow of MT. Everest, while 80 mile per hour freezing cold winds howled throughout the night. My friends and I had pancakes and tea in the monastery with a few other Taiwanese tourists. Together we lit yak butter candles and since we figured there were few people on higher ground than us in the world for New Years and we were near the highest mountain in the world, we should do something significant and so we decided to pray for world peace.

The wind rattled our window, we had no heat, and we bundled up in as many layers as we had with us and wrapped ourselves in as many blankets as we could find to stay warm but one of the widows was cracked a cold draft sent the temperature in our room plunging at night.  I suffered through the night with a splitting headache brought on by altitude sickness. This photo, although nothing special will always remind me of that grueling night at the rim of the world.

When I woke up in the morning it was still dark and freezing and I was feeling noxious. I tried to stay in bed but my head was spinning and so I decided to walk over to the monastery where I could sit upright in a larger room without a draft. On my way to the monastery, I vomited, and it froze on the ground. At some point my guide heard me vomiting and came to my aid along with one of the monks that managed the monastery, and the monk brought me into the monastery to sit down next to a warm stove. My guide brought an oxygen tank for me to breathe from to help me with my headache, which he had in the event someone like I did became altitude sick. We simply went from sea level to Everest Base Camp too fast and didn’t allow enough acclimatization time and now I was feeling the consequences that could potentially be deadly. After a few minutes of sucking down oxygen and then drinking warm tea, I felt better and then the sun rose and I felt much better. There was no way I was going to miss a trip to Everest Base Camp.

 

 

View of Everest from Rongbuk Monastery

Our Freezing Room in in Rongbuk Monastery

New Years Eve Candle Vigile at Rongbuk Monastery

The morning after my night of hell and waking up to vomit, we ascended 1000′ feet to approx. 18,000′ to Everest Base Camp. We went via a really rough and icy 4WD road, and the going was slow and tough. Once we reached the placard indicating we arrived, we took a few photos, but it was hard to stand outside for long because the freezing 80 mile per hour winds blasting down from Everest were unbearable and any exposed skin would immediately turn into frost bite. It was definitely not climbing season on Everest, and we were the only ones at base camp. Clouds hovered over Everest and capturing a clear photo of the mountain was difficult.

 

Everest Base Camp

Mount Everest

Freezing ice blowing across base camp

Me at base camp 

From Everest base Camp, we drove slowly back to Lhasa stopping and staying a few nights along the way in villages and towns before flying back to California via Shanghai. My week in Tibet left me thirsting for more and I wanted to venture into the outer regions and see more.

 

11 + 3 =

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