Sunday, March 7, 2010

Tragic Beauty - Tibet

On the way to the Nepal/Tibet boarder the first thing our guide told us was that any picture of the Dalai Lama, a Tibet guide book or Buddhist icon would be confiscated during either the police or military search. I haven't even stepped foot in Tibet and already the Chinese government is trampling on things I take for granted. At the boarder I decided to rip out the pages out of my Tibet guide book I thought necessary for the trip and hid them in my pants. At the boarder the Nepalese guards smiled and said "Namaste" while on the other side of the bridge we were greeted by Chinese soldiers with stern faces and passport checks. At security I went through two checks where they flipped through my books to ensure Chinese doctrine was not challenged. As I left security I realized I forgot about my Buddha that Gendun gave me which definitely would have been confiscated had they found it. Whew.

On the second day we started our journey through the Himalayas. The scenery is unbelievable. Snow covered mountains dominate your vision and hypnotize you into pure awe. No amount of time gazing at these majestic mammoths can diminish their beauty. The only problem was that on only the second day of traveling we hit the first of three passes that reach 5000 meters. At this height altitude sickness is common and everyone that day came down with some form of it. That night was one of the worst sleeps in my life and I felt terrible the entire following day. It feels like being extremely hungover. Most suffered minor ailments from the altitude and one person suffered a major symptoms which didn't lift for four days.

The first town we visited seemed like a typical Tibetan town with traditional Tibetan homes and restaurants serving momos (dumplings) and thukpa (yak meat noodle soup). As we drew nearer and nearer to Lhasa the effect of Chinese migration was palatable. Beautiful Tibetan homes were replaced by modern buildings, and the number of Chinese was rising dramatically. By the time we reached Lhasa there was barely a trace of the charming Tibetan culture I was becoming so fond of. Big buildings, bright lights, Chinese script shadowing Tibetan and a ratio of two Chinese for every Tibetan constantly made you wonder where you where. It was difficult to wrap my mind around and I struggled to ensure my money went to support Tibetans as most businesses are Chinese owned.

We had two days in Lhasa with our group and another four on our own, which I'm shocked the Chinese government allowed. The Potala is the most dominating structure in Lhasa. Built by the 5th Dalai Lama in the 1600's as the religious and political headquarters of Tibet. It is a engineering marvel and easily one of my favorite sights. I became a little obsessed with it and went there as often as I could. During our time in Tibet we managed to visit five monasteries/temples. It was amazing to see the incense rich, chanting filled, yak butter candle lit, heavily used temples. The murals filled every wall and used every color. Buddhas, Lamas, and deities of every size filled countless chapels and pilgrims prayed and gave alms to each. Sadly, all monasteries are Chinese government controlled. Temples went from housing thousands of monks to mere hundreds and enrollment is strictly governed by the Chinese. 3000 monasteries/temples (90%) were destroyed along with a million plus Tibetans killed during the "Cultural Revolution" of the seventies. The story of "Peaceful Liberation" the Chinese government spews is unbelievable transparent propaganda. One of the biggest lies in history.

We were fortunate to have been there during Losar , the Tibetan New Year. On the last day of celebration fireworks went off for hours as we ate dinner. March is also the month that the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet. Because of these two events Tibet is politically unstable. During our six days in Lhasa the military and police presence seemed to grow exponentially. On the first day there where military guards at every entrance into Old Lhasa and on the last day there where guards on roof tops, posted at every intersection and groups of eight patrolled the city endlessly. I've never seen so many guns and felt to intimidated in my life.

To the Tibetans credit, they always treated us with kindness and a smile. It took but a "Teshidelek" (hello) to coax a smile or conversation from them. During a stop on the way to Lhasa Jen and I went to a local restaurant for some momo soup. After we where finished we went to pay the owner but he refused to take our money and just waied (bowed in respect) to us insisting that our food was on him. Incredible! In Lhasa when trying to order food in a very busy, English void and confusing restaurant a Tibetan helped me navigate the process of ordering food. After, outside the restaurant, while a rickshaw was trying to charge me a ridiculous amount of money to take me to the Potala, the same Tibetan came out and insisted that he drive me. Tibetans are easily some of the most amazing people I've ever met.

It was very hard to witness the enormous military presence making sure that Tibetans fall in line with the Mao doctrine. As our guide told us one day, "Tibetans may look very happy but inside, their hearts are broken." It is amazing after all the Tibetans have been through in the last sixty years that their spirit can still find hope and their Buddhist beliefs unbroken.

On our last day in Lhasa we decided to go for a hike in the mountains behind Sera Monastery. We approached the main entrance and veered to the left to go down the kora (pilgrim circuit usually around a monastery or temple). As we walked a police officer began to yell at us. After some questions in English and Chinese (which we could only shrug at) we finally persuaded the officer to let us continue. Halfway around the kora a random Tibetan questioned us about our guide (which is mandatory but we no longer had) and which travel agency we used. The Chinese have spies everywhere including drivers in tour groups such as the one we took. Sufficiently tripped out now we seriously debated whether we should continue up the mountain. Following a nervous discussion we decided to proceed. After a lung burning multiple rest taking trek to the ridge at 4200m, we relaxed and enjoyed the view of Lhasa below us. On the way down we were attacked by a dog. Fortunately we were able to scare it off before any damage was done. This didn't help our already jittery nerves and we shakily continued to the lora. Once we completed the kora we walked past the front entrance hoping for an easy out. No such luck. The same police officer began questioning us again. Now I was nervous since we took much longer than the normal time to complete the kora. Again, after many questions he decided to let us continue onward.

This was a ridiculous ordeal to hike a mountain. I can only imagine what the Tibetans go through. My heart goes out to them all. If anyone is interested, I encourage them to learn more about the plight in Tibet. These are but a few stories in an endless trail of human rights abuses.

"Free Tibet"


  1. AMAZING!! Can't think of any other words. Good on you for being there! I am envious and thanks to you, I have added a new destination to my "wish list"

  2. WOW!!! I'm speachless, dude I'm so envious !