Tibet - Kindness, oppression and natural splendour

Trip Start Oct 09, 2008
Trip End Jan 16, 2009

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Flag of China  , Tibet,
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tibet: Land of kindness, hardship, sadness, beauty and spirituality

And that's just a few adjectives applying to this country, forever submitted to a harsh and dry climate, but for the last 60 yrs also in the vice of Chinese influence. Of course China has always been getting bad press and deservedly so for the cruelty with which its representatives have stamped out Tibetan individualism, culture, worldly and religious powers, summing up pretty much all basic human rights.Plenty has been published about this and the mistrust and surveillance of the Chinese is evident at most public places in the capital.Walking around the main pilgrimmage circuit, the Barkhor around Jorkhang monastery, the most active Buddhist monastery in the Tibetan quarter of the capital, armed guards are perched on the roofs, CCTV cameras are abound and regular heavily armed patrols walk counter-clockwise against the stream of pilgrims (thus treading on religious sensitivities as all Buddhist perambulations are always in a clockwise manner). At most central street corners there are guards in riot gear. Cencorship within China is generally strict as we could find out searching the internet from China ourselves last year (ironically the state owned television channels are called CCTV...). Especially Tibetan national spirit, the Tibetan flag and pictures or even mention of the Dalai Lama are censored, with the latter 2 outlawed. The same applies to music or prose dealing with either of the above.

Despite this omnipresent reminder of government control the pilgrims on the circuits of the capital and elsewhere in Tibet are generally a jolly lot, chatting away or mumbling the Buddhist mantras (classically "Om Mani Padme Hum" (Praise be to the glory within the lotus flower). Or they'll be loudly greeting strangers with a hearty "Tashi Dele" ("good luck" or simply "Hello") whilst swinging their prayer wheels. These generally contain the above mantra written 108 times (an auspicious number), so that one turn of the wheel equals 108 prayers. The same applies to the stationary prayer wheels around Buddhist temples, circuits or village squares.

Most ways of life in Tibet are deeply interwoven with Buddhism, daily prayers integrated into the working day, and a spiritual undertone can be felt in most daily activities in Tibet. There are regular holy days (at least every 5th day is holy) when monasteries will be packed with pilgrims. Pilgrimmage forms part of Tibetan life. Every Tibetan will have undertaken several pilgrimmages, be it to a nearby monastery or to a far away holy site, e.g. one of the 4 Tibetan holy lakes or one of the 4 holy mountains. They will then swarm through the temples or walk around the site on a so-called "kora". The holiest mountain in Tibet is Mt Kailash in the west. This can be rounded in 3 days by foot, but most pilgrims take considerably longer as they will be prostrating themselves on the way there and around, thus lengthening a pilgrimmage by weeks and maybe even months. This type of pilgrimmage or kora involves the Pilgrim dropping to the ground in prayer, advancing one body length at a time. Hardcore pilgrims will do such a cora sideways, advancing one side-step at a time.

On a long pilgrimmage pilgrim groups will have a little cart that they pull with them containing some belongings and a huge bag of Tsampa or malted barley, the staple diet that is added to the Tibetan staple drink, yak butter tea, to make a kind of porridge. Having tried Tsampa I found it quite tasty and certainly filling. Yak butter tea on the other hand is an aquired taste that I failed to aquire. It is a salty creamy broth that to the uninitiated leeds to facial contortions and abdominal convulsions (much to the amusement of observing locals) and is best viewed from a distance rather than imbibed. Another typical Tibetan meal is Thugpa, a pasta soup, and of course Yak meat. All in all Tibetan food has little variation and one of the positive aspects of massive Chinese influx into Tibet are Chinese restaurants (the other is decent roads).

Our trip:

We were very lucky to meet Beat and Esther from Lucerne in Switzerland at the Treckers' Holiday Inn in Kathmandu when we were planning our trip to Tibet and we could watch as they got bigger and bigger ears listening to our plans and finally decided that they would like to join us. Not only was our troupe of 4 people a good way to reduce the cost of our endeavour. We also gelled well and were excellent company.

It is a bit of an adventure to organise any trip into Tibet nowadays, especially since the borders were closed until late summer after the March uprisings in Tibet. You can only enter Tibet in a group (which is at least 2 people) and on an organised tour including a jeep with driver and guide. We found a patient tour organiser in Kathmandu (Green Hill Tours) who heeded our request that we wanted to organise all hotels and food on the way ourselves. This ended up saving us heaps of money as we were able to negotiate our way on a much lower budget than we would have had to cough up if we'd have accepted a full package. The travel agent then took our passports and took a week to organise visas, Tibet entry permits and plane tickets into Lhasa. We would then meet our driver and guide and embark on a pre-planned 10 day overland tour back into Nepal.


We arrived by plane in the spic and span and completely empty airport 1 hrs drive from Lhasa after we had had the most amazing mountain flight along the southern spine of the Nepali Himalayas, then circling around Everest to cross the great barrier into Tibet. Here we crossed over what appeared to be huge khaki sanddunes occasionally dusted with snowcaps like rolling waves and interspersed with turquoise lakes glistening like jewels: the undulating hills of the Tibetan plateau which until then I had mistakenly thought to be rather flat. The land was barren with hardly any trees other than along some ot the Chinese built roads. And this was to remain so until we hit the Nepali border again.

At the airport we were picked up by our Tibetan guide Lobsang and our driver Jampa (which is also the name of the future Buddha). Lobsang had studied in Dharamsala (seat of the Tibetan exile government) and Bangalore in India and spoke good English. We learnt our first few words of Tibetan on the way, stopping to admire a 1000 yr old Buddha cut and painted into a hillside on the way to the Tibetan capital.   

We found a nice hotel smack bang in the middle of the small Tibetan quarter of Lhasa (a town that only 50 yrs ago had about 50.000 inhabitants and now has half a million, now largely Chinese). The rooftop views onto the awe-inspiring giant Potalla palace and the surrounding hills was splendid. Our most prized possession in the cold Tibetan nights, Lhasa lies at about 3500m, was Regine's hot water bottle, aquired in China last yr. This was soon to get a little brother which found its way into my sleeping bag. Ahh, bliss for cold feet.

The next day we experienced the strangeness of the reality of China's single time zone over 4000km west of Beijing. The sun rose after 9 am when Tibet would slowly awaken.

Our Lhasa sightseeing tour consisted mainly of visits to various monasteries. Tibetan monasteries are all fairly similar, of sturdy fortress-like build. The living quarters whitewashed on the exterior and the temples painted red with gilded ornaments on the roofs. Inside they're a dark and gloomy affair, illuminated by butterlamps and filled with statues of deities, holy men and demon-like protectors. The walls are decorated with strictly reglemented paintings of holy scenes called Mandalas or Thankas (They're often blackened by the smoke and you often need a flashlight to see them). 

Tibetan Buddhism appears to the layman to be a much more complicated affair than the Hinayana Buddhism of Southeast Asia. There is not just one Buddha, but a Buddha of the past, the present and the future. Also Buddha is split into several sub-deities, such as compassion, longlevity, etc. Also, there are so-called Bhoddisatvas, beings who have attained enlightenment but have not gone to nirvana to help others reach enlightenment. Then there's a bunch of other Gods, such as the female God Tara (there's a white and a green Tara) and various protector deities that look very much like the evil manifestations of Hindu Gods. Then there's the holy men, either enlightened hermits (Milarepa), magicians (Guru Rinpoche) or founders of orders (Tsongkapa). Way too complicated for me, but apparently this so-called tantric Buddhism has a strong appeal on westerners and on our travels we met many westerners who had converted to Buddhism and came across quite a few kaukasian nuns.  

We started by visiting Drepung monastery, a large complex, once thriving with several thousand monks, now only harbouring a few hundred after it, like pretty much all Tibetan Monasteries, was largely destroyed during the cultural revolution of the 1950s with the monks left either slaughtered or escaped to India.
The heart of this monastery is the beatifully gloomy assembly hall. The smoky air is cut by rays of lights from the small rooftop windows which illuminate the red robes on the monks' benches and their yellow hats (hence the name "Yellow Hats", or Gelugpa for the prevailing of the 4 Tibetan Buddhist Sects, of which the Dalai Lama is the head). There's a beautiful statue of a 1000 eyed and 1000 armed Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion.

We then headed for Sera Monastery, also a mere shadow of its former greatness. It is renowned for the philosophical debates between the monks. These are open to the public and involve certain dynamic stances and handclapping to emphasize strong points in the debate. Sadly this practice stopped after the March uprisings and without this debating the Monastery has lost a lot of its appeal. It was interesting though to sneak past the queue of patiently and happily waiting pilgrims to view the main statue of a powerful horse-headed protector deity. After hours of waiting in line the pilgrims were allowed to stick their head under the statue of a frowning demon with the donkey from the "Shrek" movies sticking out of it's head to receive a blessing. They would then be yanked back by a "bouncer" monk and sent blissfully along their way. Kids would get a dot of soot dabbed on their noses as a bonus. Thankfully we were spared this treatment but still granted a peek. 

The next morning we visited the magnificent Potalla Palace, now a mere museaum and nothing near the bustling hub of political and ecclesiastical power it represented during the reign of the Dalai Lamas. It is situated on a hill overlooking the city, on a sight were the fabled King Songtsen Gampo built a simple fort around a meditational cave in the 7th century. The great fifth Dalai Lama then built the Potalla Palace more or less as a mausoleum in the 15th century. Since then all Dalai Llamas ruled from here. The majority of the Palace (the white bits) were secular governmental offices and are closed to the public. The tour of the religious parts starts on the roof with a tour of the 14th (present) Dalai Lama's living quarters and then works it's way into the bowels of the palace. We followed the streams of pilgrims past 1000s of statues, huge funeral stupas for the 5th to 12th Dalai Lamas (that for the 13th DL is sadly closed to the public, apparently it's mind-bogglingly huge, spanning several stories of the palace) and interesting 3D Mandalas.

So who's the Dalai Lama anyway. I'm not entirely sure how it was postulated, but the Dalai Lama is generally recognised as a reincarnation of Avalokiteshwara, the Buddha of compassion. After one dies, there's a complicated search by high Lamas to find the next reincarnation and it may take many years until he's localised. similar procedures take place in the search for reincarnations of other important Lamas as well. The present Dalai Lama has apparently stated that he will not be reborn in an occupied Tibet where he is not welcome and may in fact never be reincarnated. He's also so disappointed by the stalemate in the negotiations with the Chinese that he's considering semi-retirement, whatever that means... 

In the afternoon we visited the most active monastery in Lhasa, the Jorkhang temple, central to Tibetan religious identity. It was a very athmospheric place to visit with many chapels around the dusky assembly hall closed of by a kind of chain mail through which you could peer at the statues, the most extraordinary of which is the Sakyamuni (present) Buddha. This was part of  Dowry of 7th century King Songtsen Gampo's Chinese wife who, together with his Nepali wife, introduced Buddhism to the rulers of Tibet. Songtsen Gampo first unified Tibets many fifedoms. In fact Tibet remained feudal even under the Dalai Lamas until the Chinese invasion and the cultural revolution when the aristocracy was dissolved. Songtsen Gampo crowned this Sakyamuni and the heavily bejeweled statue is truly an awesome sight to behold. After visiting the Innards of the temple we enjoyed the views and the sun from the rooftops. We also exchanged cookies with some frindly monks for a few scoops of yak curd, a deliciously thick and creamy yoghurt.

Lhasa to Gyantse

The next day we drove along the Friendship Highway between Lhasa and the Nepali border through absolutely stunning scenery. We started out along the mighty Brahmaputra Valley, here we could watch a gang of youths pulling a motorbike out of the river after a buddy in an alcoholised state had jumped off the road into the cool waters and broken his arm the night before. Most of East Asia's mighty rivers have their source in Tibet: the Brahmaputra, the Yang Tse, the Yellow River, the Mekong to name but a few.

We crossed several passes up to 5100m high, each with sweeping views of the surroundings. We drove past the holy scorpion-shaped Yamdrok Tso lake, reflecting in its waters the surrounding snow-covered mountains, we marvelled at the deep turquoise of a dammed lake at Simi La and drove right past the Karo La glacier.

The small town of Gyantse exudes little charm but contains two marvels, a now deserted hill fort (Dzong) and the Palkor Monastery with it's greatest treasure being the 9 level Kumbum Stupa (Stupa of 100.000 images). With the help of our flashlight we were able to walk around all levels of the stupa, marvelling at the reconstructions of statues largely destroyed during the cultural revolution and mostly intact 15th century wall murals. A clear favourite was a statue of a God that held out a grinning mouth at arm's length. Maybe a deity of tooth problems...At the end of our artistic sejourn we came out at the top level, just under the watchful eyes adorning the top. Thankfully we were able to smuggle in a few cameras to capture some of the gems on the way up and the far-ranging views over the surrounding valley.

Gyantse also hosted the first international sugarcane Pfriem-spitting competition which Germany won with Switzerland a close second.

Gyantse - Xigatse

Next stop was the Shalu monastery on the way to Xigatse. This was a bit different from the other Monasteries we had visited as it was built during a period when the Mongol rulers of China (Qing dynasty) were protectors of the Tibetan Sakya order which in the 15th and 16th century was the predominant and most powerful Buddhist order. The Mongol court sent many Chinese workers who left their mark on the architecture with typical Chinese wood-ornamentation and green glazed roof tiles. The Buddhism practiced here also incorporated a strong element of the animistic pre-Buddhist B'on religion so it was interesting to observe a mix of styles in both architecture and religious practice.

Xigatse with it's mere 20.000 inhabitants is Tibet's second biggest city. It is dominated by a fort that looks like a smaller version of the Potalla Palace as well as the sweeping complex of the Tashilumpu monastery.This is traditionally fronted by the second-most important Lama in Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama. The 10th Panchen Lama was already appointed by the Chinese rather than selected through the traditional methods, but rehabilitated himself in the eyes of the Tibetans by writing a 70.000 character manifesto to Mao Tse Dong  outlining the atrocities of the Chinese against Tibetans. Mao then countered that he was welcome to be the head of all Buddhists if he denounced the Dalai Lama which he didn't and in turn was improsoned and forced to marry and father a child. He died age 51 in 1989 after ongoing resistance following his release after 16 yrs in prison. The Dalai Lama then sanctioned  the 11th Pamchen Lama, a Tibetan boy who was imprisoned the next day at age 6 and remains hidden away by the Chinese (if he's still alive), thus making him the youngest Chinese political prisoner. Instead the Chinese appointed a Panchen Lama of their own, a son of Tibetan communist party members. He is largely detested by the Tibetans and many bold monasteries refuse to display his portrait. He does not presently reside in Tashilumpo but (aged 20 now) is studying in China.

Tashilumpo still has 800 active monks. It houses the world's largest gilded Buddha, a Maitreya (or Jampa = future Buddha) standing a proud 26m high. It also houses the funeral stupas of the 4th-10th Panchen Lamas.
Most intersting for us, though, was the chance to not only witness a buddhist prayer ceremony in the athmospheric main assembly hall. Today was a special day and the monks would be holding ceremony more or less all day, interspersed by tea breaks and lunch to commemorate the anniversary of the Buddha's descent to earth the following day. We were especially fortunate to be the only western observers of an outdoor ceremony of well over a hundred festively robed yellow hat monks in the courtyard in expectance of this anniversary. What a captivating spectacle!

Afterwards we popped into the carpet factory next door to our hotel and watched the merrily singing weavers at work. Quite interesting and certainly very cheerful. Afterwards Beat taught us the simple and fun Swiss game of "Arschloch" which we were to play most evenings around the fire as nighttime temperatures sank lower and lower.

Xigatse - Old Tingri

Our next stop was to be the last monastery on our trip, Sakya monastery, seat of one of the oldest orders of Tibetan Budhism and built like a fortress. Here the monks held an all day service to commemorate above event and here we could witness the auditory onslaught of tantric buddhistic ritual instruments. There were horns (some of them like long straight Alphorns), cymbals and drums, beat to the rhythm of recitation from the old sanskrit texts (the music comes out when Sanskrit is read, whereas most lithurgy comprises Tibetan translations of the old texts with Sanskrit only being used for the most holy, untranslateable, bits). It was also mesmerising to observe some of the monks ritually contorting their hands into shapes and figures as they sang and mumbled the words of the scriptures.

After a brief lunch stop in the farming town of Lhatse we entered the Everest region. Our aim was to visit the world's largest mountain from the Tibetan side where the base camp is accessible by dirt road rather than the 2-week overpopulated "trecker's highway" on the Nepali side. We first made stop in a cozy guest house in Old Tingri from where we had splendid sunset views over the Everest Range and a large rising winter moon. Only interrupted in our marvel by a Chinese soldier wielding a stick who came bounding up the hill we were on to check our cameras to make sure we hadn't snapped the local military base and then, satisfied, spurted back to his base.  

2 hours before sunrise the next day we departed on a dirt road jaunt to Rombuck, some dwellings grouped around a monastery which is unusual in that it houses nuns and monks under the same roof. Allegedly it's also the highest monastery in the world (at 4900m). We stayed in the monastery guest house, run by 3 wyrd sisters and home of the most annoying toilets I've ever frequented, and I've had the dubious pleasure of a few awful ones in my days! Here the toilets were basically a hole in the floor over an open space down below with faeces piling up out of the hole. This served as a great shute for the wind to blow dust and who-knows-what-else into your sensitive regions while you were a-squat. If you then tried to throw your used toilet paper into the hole it would zoom straight up past your nose! I partook in this procedure twice before turning to aternative routes of alleviation. I'm sure you wanted to know...

We then took the jeep for another 15 minute drive up to Everest Base Camp (5200m). Here the icy cold strong wind threatened to blow us off the morane from which we had some beautiful views of the sheer glacier-clad north face of Mt Everest (8850m) which the Tibetans call Chomolongma ("Mother Goddess of the Universe" - or "Princess Cow" -  dependig on the translation). It's sheer size has a magnetic appeal and it certainly dominated the entire valley as it poked far into the clear blue sky.

We returned to Rombuck by foot, stopping frequently for one perfect photogenic spot after the other. We also explored a Hermitage covered with prayer flags on the way back, The area was beset with many funeral stupas and was a bit eery in a sense that we felt we should not be here. Smoke from a small house on site and a glowing butter lamp behind a large prayer wheel were the only signs of use and intensified the "The Hills Have Eyes" or "Blair Witch" feeling. We mused that this place was probably one of the remote sky burial sites, the prefered way for Tibetans to leave the Earth. In my understandig the way sky burials work is that the body of the deceased is kept at home for 3 days during which it is attended by a specialist monk who ensures the soul has fully departed from the body. Then family friends organise transport to a remote mountain spot where vultures breed. The body is then chopped to small bits and mixed with Tsampa (remember? - the roasted barley flour most tibetans have for breakfast) and left for the vultures to eat, thus carrying the body in parts back to the sky. I believe the remaisns are then burnt as we encountered heaps of ash rather than bones on this site.

Next day we enjoyed the dirt road ride back to Old Tingri. We had a bit of convincing to do for Lobsang and Jampa to drive us to the Tsamda Hot Springs Hotel. This is a fairly basic affair with a rather grotty outside hot bathing pool frequented by happy Tibetans. We negotiated 2 double rooms and the use of the indoor private bath which just had room for the four of us, and had a very enjoyable "liquid sauna" at just the right temperature. Afterwards we strolled through the hills and caught the sunset over a wide range of the Himalayas covering five 8000m peaks (Makalu, Lhotse, Everest, Cho Oyu and Shisha Pagma).

Back at the Hotel there was high life in the common room. Most of the Tibetan guests (we were the only westerners) had been there for a week already and had established a regular routine of eating, drinking, bathing and gambling. When we arrived at the packed warm and smoky dining room, groups of jovial ladies were singing, others playing Mah Jong (a game I desperately tried to comprehend the complicated rules of with Lobsang's explanations, but bitterly failed). The happy spirit fizzled a bit as a bunch of officials arrived (for which our most cheerful ladies were shooed out of the room) who started playing Mah Jong for serious money. The happy Tibetans stayed in the pool all night and broke out in chants frequently, sometimes waking us from our sleep. It's amazing how a people under such constant oppression still manage to remain content and cheerful.
After a further ice-cold morning walk we departed the next day with a hearty good-bye from our hosts.

The gravel road took us along the open plateau with sweeping views over the Himalayas with the last pass we crossed offering the most jaw-dropping scenery: a set of wind-powerd prayer wheels in the foreground and the mountains so close we felt that Shisha Pagma was only an arm's length away!

We then began to drop in altitude towards the Nepali border, encountering green trees for the first time in 10 days before we hit Nyalam, an ugly town where we had to wait a few hours until the road ahead was opened to traffic.  This last stretch of the Friendship Highway is under major reconstruction. We drove past groups of workers putting the finishing touches to their day's work while others waited for transport back to their tentcamps hovering above the abyss on the valley side of the road.

The border town of Zhangmu was a crazy affair and a stark contrast to the sterile arrival at Lhasa's empty airport a few days back. Here a single track road was besieged by heavy traffic from both sides: the colourful trucks from Nepal vs. the heavy duty lorries from China head to head accompanied by a cacophony of tooting horns. We managed to secure a nice 4-bed dorm for our final game of cards and a prize bottle of wine organised by Beat. Turns out this brew (allegedly made in England) had no similarity with what we would commonly perceive as red wine. It was red, yes, but tasted like cool-aid enriched with ethylene glycol. We fairly quickly abandoned any serious attempt at guzzling the concoction for fear of the integrity of our vital organs. The next morning we managed to buy a few records to recreate the soundtrack from our Tibetan trip, courtesy of Jampa's CD collection. Some of the music we then had to get in Kathmandu due to censorship issues...We then bade Lobsang and Jampa farewell. The team of them were a great support and put up astonishingly well with some of our rather unorthodox decisions.

Sadly there were problems with Esther and Beat's visas so they had to buy new ones at the Nepali border. On the way back with our pre-arranged pick-up we had a rather annoying guide and an "Inshallah" speeder behind the wheel. But they were kind enough to stop at a few picture spots including at the Last Resort, a mountain adventure place where we could watch bungy jumping. We later encountered groups of whitewater rafters on our way along the Bhote Kosi River back to the smog and dust of the Kathmandu Valley.

What a great trip we had! And we were very lucky to have suchgreat friends and companions in Beat and Esther.

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