Tibet | What a World

Tibet is one place I never imagined I would see. It’s cold, high, and mostly inpenetrable – not to mention occupied by heavy military forces and difficult to travel to.

And yet, here we are, surrounded by Mars-like vistas and snowy peaks. It’s truly another world here, more isolated than most of the planet, and bizarre in landscape. Few colors contribute to the scenery, but they are bright and come in many variations; browns, whites, and blues cover the land. It’s utterly mesmerizing, indescribable. The plateau can reach over 5,000 meters in parts, making it a quiet, barren place of sorts. (It is a frightening feeling for the body, being up so high!) A few days back, we even got to see Mount Everest in all of her grandeur. One minute we were driving along in the endless browns, and in another there she was before us, resting calmly among her equals. A great site, and one that we have looked forward to immensely. During lunch that day, we got enough time to wander the Tibetan plateau on our own near her skirts. Millions of prayer flags later, we were in Shigatse, then Gyantse, both of which we loved and got to spend plenty of time seeing. Among the many monasteries (and castles!) in Tibet, the Baiju Temple was of particular note, boasting the most unique stupa around.

Overall, our tour has been surprisingly fun, and we have met many fantastic friends, including Nikki, Patric, Anthony, and Luke, who is planning to join us into Xi’an later on. Most everyone is kind and entertaining, so the week has flown by. Temple after temple and village after village, however, we still find ourselves perplexed at our surroundings. Tibet has: a friendly and gentle people, a strong military presence, a sense of underlying fear, religious persecution, sadness, hope. These images have in some untrackable way altered my view of the world, whether for better or for worse, and have certainly changed my attitude as a traveler.

Lhasa was, of course, our grande finale, but it is a sad and forlorn kind of place, where Chinese outnumber Tibetans and the Potala stands across from a People’s monument and square, covered in red flags marking territory unapologetically. This is where real Lhasa used to stand: a flattened piece of rock. In new Lhasa, you are afraid to take photos, for images of the military are strictly forbidden, and the military is indeed everywhere, both via bases and outside crews, often undercover. (Random folk came to stare at our view finders over our shoulders as we snapped sadly at the Potala – almost surely plainclothesmen making sure our pictures did not involve soldiers.) On the whole, it seems a pretty modern place, which is not the image of Lhasa that most are used to seeing. If ever the romance of faraway lands died, it was in Lhasa.

The Potala, however, remains one of our most magical experiences, despite surrounding distress. Though the inside is staffed heavily by Chinese guards and sports more tourists than worshippers, its colors and size have not faded with the passing of generations. Other temples in Lhasa have a little more life inside, and we have several times gotten to watch locals make a special kind of hand-laid cement, which usually involves quite a lot of singing and dancing. A particularly entertaining site is when the monks host their debates, which seems customary in Tibet. Hundreds pile into little courtyards to argue loudly and clap emphatically when a point is made. One could watch this fiasco for hours…

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