Tibet proved to be as impressive and confusing as I had thought that it might be. Because of this, I have found it really difficult to express my feelings about the area, other than to say that it is beautiful and the people are lovely. But here goes . . .
Arranging travel to Tibet is difficult. China doesn’t really want foreigners to go, but if we insist on it they are more than willing to allow us to pay loads of money for the opportunity to travel through this isolated region. As of August 2009, there were only two methods of travel into Tibet for foreigners: the train or a plane. Considering Lhasa is at 3600 meters (11,800 feet), which is way above the altitude where most people start to feel altitude sickness, we felt that the safest and more interesting way to travel into Tibet was by train. The train into Tibet is proudly celebrated by the Chinese government as the highest train in the world. On the journey it travels over a pass at 5100 meters. Oxygen is piped into the cars above each sleeping berth. It’s the newest and cleanest train I’d seen in all of China.
We left Chengdu (finally) with our newly formed group of 12 people. Three couples (including Tony and me), and six singles; six males and six females; four Dutch people, two Danish guys, one each from France, Ireland, England, Spain, Japan and the US. A very diverse, but surprisingly compatible group. We’d tried to get a group (divisible by four for the Land Cruisers we had to rent) and it just kept growing.
As we road the train into Tibet, past amazing expanses of untouched high plateaus, grasslands, mountains and lakes, I was reading the book “Riding the Iron Rooster” by Paul Theroux. The book was written in 1988, before Tiananmen Square and before it was truly easy to travel in China. When he went to Lhasa, in the last chapter of the book, the train reached only as far as Golmud, a stop that went unnoticed on our 48 hour train journey. Upon reaching Lhasa, after a train journey and a life-threatening car ride, Theroux finds the city and Tibetans to be an incredibly gracious and welcoming people despite the rapid changes being implemented by the Han Chinese and the government. He also expresses his relief that Lhasa will remain isolated as there’s no way (so he believed) that anyone would ever be able to build a railroad across the mountains all the way to Lhasa. I read this as we were passing over the mountains that he was so convinced would stop any train. I felt a bit bummed.
Lhasa is a strange city. The old Tibetan section of town is lively, with thousands of pilgrims prostrating and walking around the numerous temples and shrines throughout the city. The level of devotion to their religion is something we, westerners, only read about in histories of medieval Europe. The people are friendly. Most of the people in and around the temples of Lhasa are also visitors to the city and they seem genuinely happy that foreigners are there to experience the culture and see the impressive structures that have lasted there. I suppose to some extent they are happy because we are not Han Chinese. The Han Chinese presence in Lhasa is very apparent; particularly obvious is the military presence. Along the main pilgrimage circuits, uniformed and fully armed military personnel sit under umbrellas in the middle of the streets. They also march against the flow of the pilgrim traffic, machine guns at their sides, and sit perched on the tops of buildings watching the vendors, pilgrims and tourists as the move around. It’s an uncomfortably tense place and the fact that these police are most prevalent around the holiest sites in the city makes it all seem very disrespectful.
The Han Chinese residents of Lhasa live in the western section of town. The buildings are the same concrete buildings that exist in every other Chinese city and there are hundreds of them. The stark contrast between the characterless Han Chinese section and the unique architecture of the vibrant (and surprisingly clean) Tibetan section of town is dramatic. Supposedly, the government has given loads of incentives to people to move to Tibet. However, much like other cities, many of the new buildings still appear to be vacant.
We spent two full days in Lhasa, visiting the Potala Palace, Sera Monastery and the Jokhung Temple in the center of the main Tibetan area. After our days in Lhasa, we traveled to Nam-Tso Lake, the world’s highest saltwater lake and then began our 4 day journey to the border of Nepal.
The trip through Tibet caused a bit of a conflict in many of us. Being in Tibet, it is quite difficult to avoid the knowledge that many Tibetans do not want the Chinese there. Some people told us this directly. Our Tibetan guide’s frequent use of the phrase the “liberation of Tibet” whenever he mentioned the time when the Dalai Lama fled seemed somewhat forced and the fact that we had a Han Chinese driver who clearly understood English but never spoke it made it seem all the more apparent that the government still finds the need to control what is said in the area. I loved Tibet, the people were, as I’ve said over and over again, lovely and the scenery both man-made and natural was stunning. But at the same time, I felt a bit conflicted being there. There’s no doubt that the Chinese government has made improvements to the infrastructure of Tibet, but the whole situation seems so colonial. And I know that all the money we spent on permits is going to strengthen the military presence that makes the place so uncomfortable and at times dangerous.