Traveling in Tibet
many of the minds of the Chinese, Tibet is just another part of their
massive Motherland why wouldnt Tibetans be happy to be part
had only been in Lhasa a couple hours when I realized I couldnt
really breathe. One set of stairs left me wanting to rest for 20
minutes and my head was pounding. While I dont claim to be
a marathon runner, a flight of stairs at sea level is something
I can usually handle. But the capital of Tibet sits at an elevation
of 3700 meters, or just under 12,000 feet. I had finally reached
the rooftop of the world and all I really felt like doing was lying
in my hotel room and resting.
My reaction was
a typical one for visitors to Tibet. The threat of Acute Mountain Sickness
is real and visitors who dont take it easy the first couple days
can face illness and even hospitalization. I was visiting Tibet last
August with three friends I had grown up with. Two of them had flown
from the U.S. to China with me a couple weeks earlier and we had met
our third traveling companion in Chengdu, China. She had just completed
two years of teaching English with the Peace Corps in China.
We were all pretty wiped out the first couple days. The shortness of
breath seemed worse at night when I couldnt sleep through the
entire night. Our guidebook had a fairly hefty warning about the dangers
of altitude sickness and reading all the warnings could drive some people
to paranoia. Travelers have been known to die from altitude sickness
and if a case is severe enough the only way to get better is to get
to lower elevation quickly and the quickest descent option was
a helicopter. On the third day, when I still had trouble with those
stairs, I wondered at what point we should call the chopper in.
I discussed this topic with my friends and after reviewing a small section
of our guidebook, we decided we probably wouldnt need a chopper
unless one of us started coughing up blood. Since all of us were simply
tired and short of breath the symptoms seemed standard. And by the end
of our week in Lhasa a lot of the initial symptoms had subsided.
Getting to Tibet was no easy task. Since its status as a part of China
is still hotly debated the Chinese government doesnt go out of
its way to welcome visitors. I purposely avoided mentioning that I planned
to visit Tibet on my Chinese Visa application thinking it would only
cause problems. One British traveler we met said she had made the mistake
of putting down Tibet on her first Visa application and when she was
hassled at the Chinese consulate she applied a second time without mentioning
Tibet and got approved easily.
We got into Tibet as part of a package tour we booked in Chengdu. At
the time of our visit the only way into Tibet was with a tour
the Chinese government restricted traveling in the area independently.
We had to buy a roundtrip ticket in and out of Tibet to prove we would
actually be leaving the country before they would let us enter. This
created a problem as we intended to travel through Tibet into Nepal,
but the travel agent in Chengdu told us to buy a bus ticket back into
China and once we arrived in Lhasa we could change the ticket in for
an tour to the border of Nepal. The price of the tour was also set by
the Chinese government so there was no sense in shopping around for
a bargain price. In the end we paid over $400 for a 3-day tour in Tibet
that included lodging, airfare, and the permit. In a country where its
easy to get by on $10 a day this was a pretty steep price. I figured
most of our fee went to the Chinese government.
I had my own preconceived notions about the political situation in Tibet
before visiting the area. Generally, I sided with the Free Tibet
campaign. China had occupied Tibet for the past 50 years and didnt
seem to have any logical claim to the area. Tibetans spoke another language,
practiced another religion, and physically looked very different from
the Han (or ethnic) Chinese. But when I arrived in Lhasa I began to
realize that the situation was much more complicated than simply giving
Tibet back. Fifty years of Chinese occupation in Tibet has meant a great
deal of change. There is a clearly marked Chinese part of town that
is distinct from the Tibetan area. The Chinese area has the stark, white
tiled buildings typical of a lot of modern Chinese architecture while
the Tibetan area retains a more colorful charm. But the Chinese living
in Tibet dont consider themselves visitors they consider
themselves at home. Theyve built schools and bridges and in their
view have helped Tibet progress.
When we were in Lhasa flags all over town advertised the recent celebration
of 50 Years Since Chinese Liberation. This party line was
almost comical to us as outsiders since we had heard the exact opposite
for so long Tibet lost its liberation 50 years ago and is still
struggling for freedom. We went to dinner with a group of my friends
former students from the Sichuan province of China. They had all recently
taken teaching positions in Tibet and were committed to teaching English
for seven years in middle schools. They were far from home but optimistic
about their time ahead. In many of the minds of the Chinese, Tibet is
just another part of their massive Motherland why wouldnt
Tibetans be happy to be part of it? But the students ate at restaurants
specializing in Chinese cuisine and hadnt made much of an effort
to learn any Tibetan words, in many ways they are living in a segregated
city the cultures arent easily blending.
For all the difficulties the Chinese government gave us in getting into
Tibet, the city is actually quite welcoming to tourists. The people
are friendly toward foreigners although they speak little English. Lhasas
streets are lined with cafes specializing in western food as well as
local and Indian cuisine. There are Internet cafes and stores selling
camping supplies and souvenirs.
Lhasa is also home to many important Buddhist sites. The Dalai Lama,
the spiritual leader of Tibet, lived in Lhasa until his exile when the
Chinese invaded Tibet in 1949. Fearing for his safety, the Dalai Lama
fled to India and has been living there ever since hoping to be able
to return to Tibet one day. His main residence the Potala Palace
sits on a hill above Lhasa. Its a large, brilliantly white
building that is open to tourists for a fairly hefty fee. This was the
first stop on our tour.
We were a grouchy group to begin with because most of us werent
really interested in being on a tour. The group of about 15 people consisted
mostly of Europeans and was made up of the type of people who didnt
normally book organized tours. We liked doing things on our own but
were forced into a tour because there was no other way to get to Tibet.
Most people were going on their obligatory 3-day tour and then venturing
off on their own. It was also frustrating because it wasnt a very
good tour. It was expensive and our provided guide could barely speak
English. When we tried to ask him questions he usually didnt understand
so we often wandered off on our own or eavesdropped on other tour guides
at the sites we visited.
The sign in front of the Potala Palace promised a discount for tour
groups. When we pointed this out to our guide he said we couldnt
get the discount because he didnt have the proper paperwork to
prove we were with a tour. This seemed like even more red tape to an
already frustrating experience. Arguing with our guide was pointless
because his English was minimal and there was really nothing more we
could do. We swore off the tour company we had come with F.I.T.
travel but felt fairly helpless in doing anything to complain.
The Chinese government didnt really care and telling everyone
I knew that if they were ever in Tibet they really should book with
a different tour group seemed a bit futile, how many people did I know
who would possibly even go to Tibet let alone remember to avoid F.I.T.
travel? And who was to say any of the other groups were any better?
There didnt seem to be any incentive to beat out the competition.
Although the process for entrance was frustrating, I enjoyed the visit
to the Potala. We toured the dimly lit interior, which has no electricity
but plenty of yak butter candles to keep the faces of the Buddhist statues
and stupas visible. Tourists wandered the halls alongside monks and
other faithful Tibetans paying homage to their religious figures. It
seemed strange to be touring a site where people were praying and I
doubted that churchgoers in America would be as patient if foreigners
were filing through their church gawking at the interior as they were
praying. We made our way out of the building and the climb down the
hill of the Potala offered an excellent view of the city set against
We also visited the summer residence of the Dalai Lama, which was surprisingly
small and a little run down. With no support from the government and
no one to reside in it, there wasnt much to keep the place in
good condition. I tried to imagine it in its glory days when the Dalai
Lama still spent the warm summer months there, but it was hard to look
past the peeling paint and empty halls. In some ways it seems amazing
that anything survived the Cultural Revolution in China, a time when
religion and art suffered severely and many important buildings and
relics were destroyed.
Although the religious leader is absent from the city there is still
evidence of the devout everywhere. There is a pilgrim circuit around
the Jokhang Temple in the center of Lhasa that the faithful travel to
and circle around daily. Monks in maroon robes are a frequent site and
there are several monasteries near Lhasa. We even spotted one monk in
an Internet café looking up books on Buddhism at Amazon.com.
Even with the hassles of altitude problems and permits, I still came
away from Tibet impressed with the sights and with a new appreciation
for the complexity of the place and its history. After all, if it were
too easy to get to it would probably lose a lot of its allure.
Vick April 2002
Brroklyn, New York
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