Deciding to fly in from Chengdu to Lhasa, allowed me to acclimatize to the high altitudes of Tibet. Getting all the paperwork done through the Chinese travel agency also saved me the hassle if I had entered Tibet without the proper papers and documents necessary for my journey.
When I finally arrived at Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, I was transported to a place so far removed from the concrete jungles of any city in the world. On the plane ride there, I read up on its history.
Back in the mid 7th century, Songtsan Gampo unified the Tibetan Empire. He is still revered by Tibetans as a devout Buddhist who built temples and brought the Buddhist scriptures to Tibet. After his death, in-fighting and border disputes with China did not bring peace to Tibet. It was until the 13th century with the arrival of Genghis Khan that changed Tibet’s political climate. The Mongol Empire aligned with various Buddhist sects and gave them power in Tibet. In the mid-1600s, the Dalai Lamas gained prominence. Lobsang Gyatso, the fifth Dalai Lama, with the support of the Mongol Empire, became the first political and spiritual leader of Tibet. Dalai is actually a Mongolian word and it means ocean. In the 19th century, Tibet closed its doors to the outside world. The British managed to invade in 1904 and the Manchus followed in 1910. Under the 13th Dalai Lama, Tibet drove the Chinese out and declared its independence in 1911.
After the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the last Manchus were escorted out of Tibet. Communist China dealt a strong hand against Tibet. Monasteries were closed and monks executed. To escape from the clutches of the communists, the current Dalai Lams fled to India in 1959 and has been living in exile there since then. This reminds me of Richard Gere who is a follower of Tibetan Buddhism.
Foreigners are not allowed to use the bus networks in Tibet even though they are very reliable. So, I had to settle on a jeep tour. I managed to join a group of three travelers whose friend had to drop out of the trip last minute. Our native Tibetan tour guide was also a godsend as he is well versed in local culture.
A good friend of mine who had visited Tibet shared a travel tip with me. I too passed it along to my three other companions and it really came in handy. The tip was to pay the driver that exact fare for each of our stops instead of paying the entire journey fare in advance. I was warned that a scam was going on and some drivers will come up with some story and make away with the money if given in full at the beginning of the journey.
I was tempted to go to the Mount Everest and its adjoining National Park. However, traveling there is expensive and I found it quite a bother so the idea was dropped. It seemed that to make it for that journey, it would be best to make travel arrangements from Nepal rather than China. I will probably save that journey for another time. Plus, I need to quit smoking and do regular workouts in order to train for that arduous trip up as well as to survive coming down from Everest!
In this trip, I visited Potala Palace, the home of Dalai Lamas. It is 384 feet (117 m) and 1,181 feet (360 m) wide. It contains 1,000 rooms and has 13 levels. I saw portraits of past Dalai Lamas and statues of the Buddha also filled its interior. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site but too bad the current Dalai Lama cannot enjoy it. Maybe, his new home in India is more lavish than this.
I also went to the Jokhang Temple that was built in 647 AD by Songtsen Gampo and is considered holiest in Tibet.
In addition, I particularly liked Barkhor Street just at the doorstep and in the vicinity of the Jokhang Temple where there were numerous traditional Tibetan buildings.
In Tibet, where Buddhism is revered and is the main religion, you will also find many monasteries. I managed to visit the Samye Monastery, which is the first Buddhist Monastery established in Tibet. I did not have the time for the other monasteries, thus Tashilunpo Monastery and Rongbuk Monastery were dropped from my itinerary.
As the journey can be long and tiring, I found that food is also not readily available. I recommend the Tsampa as an ideal travel food. This roasted barley flour is already cooked and when mixed with tea and spread with some butter or salt is a high-energy snack.
Tibetan butter tea, which looks like a cheesy broth, its strong cheesy taste and smell really overwhelmed me. Even the current Dalai Lama has said he is not a big fan of this drink. I too give it a pass.
A Tibetan beer made from barley called Chang is much lighter than normal beer. My companions who are from Germany liked it but they insisted that they still prefer their German beers. I cannot really tell from the large amount of Chang they consumed.
My next trip to Tibet will definitely have Mount Everest as part of the itinerary, but I need to hit the gym first.