When we got off the plane in Lhasa, after the most turbulent flight I can remember having, we noticed right away that the air was thin and breathing was more difficult. Since we had an entire week in Tibet, our tour took us in a large loop beginning and ending in Lhasa, but we stayed the first 2 nights in a town called Tsedang, about 2 hours from Lhasa, and the former capital of Tibet. The drive to Tsedang was pretty, but not as magnificent as we expected. Instead of snow-capped mountains, we found that the terrain was more desert and the main vegetation were juniper berry bushes (purple berries with few leaves). By the time we made it to the hotel, the altitude was getting to us and we both had headaches and felt very tired. Luckily, our guide had planned for this and we had nothing planned except resting in the hotel all afternoon and evening, which we promptly did after taking a couple Tylenol.
The next morning we felt much better and were eager to visit our first Tibetan monastery and to get a better feel for how the Tibetan culture differs from the Chinese. Our first monastery was a bit of a disappointment, yet it represented one of the very first in the country. Currently, two hundred monks live at this particular monastery, though we only saw about 10 of them. Surprisingly, what stood out the most was the awful smell from inside the temple! It was mainly from the oil they use for the candles, which is more of a buttery-wax than oil, but there was also a blend of dust, mildew and body odor that permeated the stale air. Not exactly the impression we had in our heads going in! Regardless, we learned about the history of Tibet starting with their story of how the Tibetan people began as monkeys, and continuing through the 42 kings, as well as the what the different buddhas represent. Our guide told us that 100% of the population is Buddhist, and there was a history of Bundism (not sure about spelling) that perished some time around the revolution. We also found some interesting details about the way monks live (for instance, what and how they eat) and their complicated beliefs in reincarnation both for the general population and the Dalai Lamas.
The following days included several long drives and we finally experienced the beautiful scenery we had expected of Tibet. We saw lovely rivers, not so impressive, but very high glaciers, snow-capped mountains. We also visited the world’s highest saltwater lake, which is at 4700 meters. Simply strolling around the lake was all it took to wear us out! I guess that is why they have yaks and horses there to walk you around, but we preferred to suffer through rather than get on a tiny horse or a smelly yak. It was also great to drive through villages and see the way different peoples live, including nomad people that still live on the mountains during the warmer seasons. It was all very picturesque.
As the days carried on, we visited several more monasteries and temples. We found the other monasteries smelled better but not great. One day we were incredibly lucky to be finishing up touring a large monastery of 800 monks when they were gathering for a chanting session. We were allowed watch as all of them gathered first in a courtyard and then in the temple. We were shocked to see boys as young as 9 years old as monks! They acted just like boys would expect to act at that age, except they wore robes and had shaved heads! (Su, can you imagine Corey going off to a monastery???)
We found many differences between Tibet and mainland China. For one, Tibet is much poorer; it is evident in the housing, facilities and general upkeep of the city, The people stand out from the Chinese people – they are incredibly devout, and pray all the time including walking pilgrimages for up to 7 years and they hang prayer flags in many places they consider holy; the flags are a sign of devotion but actually looked trashy. The people are quick to smile with faces that draw you in. Also, Tibetans are much more conservative in the way they dress. We saw many dogs and according to our guide, they do not eat them (nor do they seem to take incredibly good care of them). The menus we saw were still very scary and they eat a lot of yak, which we didn’t particularly like the taste of. Instead of dog and turtle on menus, we saw “sheep’s head” and yak testicle… hungry? We had the opportunity to walk through a part of a city where farmers live with their “farm” animals tied up outside – very sad living conditions. The air is clean and thin which means the sky is the bluest blue we have ever seen!
Our guide and driver were from Tibet, as is usual for foreign tourists, but when Chinese people visit Tibet, they have to have Chinese guides. We had heard from a couple of American travelers that had already visited Tibet that their guide was afraid to talk about the political tensions between China and Tibet so waited for the right opportunity to broach the subject with our own guide. When he pointed out some “relics” of destroyed Tibetan monasteries from the cultural revolution, we delicately brought it up. Our guide was only mildly reluctant to discuss the issue and opened up a bit more when he realized we weren’t interested in starting a protest riot and were genuinely curious as to how the Tibetan people feel about it at this point. According to him, there are mixed feelings; people who have government jobs that pay very well are obviously quite pleased with the arrangement. Additionally, the Chinese government does a great deal to help farmers in various ways, so they seem generally satisfied as well. On the other hand, there are many who continue to resent the situation and we found out that there are still uprisings quite often, usually based in Lhasa. Our guides personal opinion was that he didn’t care who was in control as long as whichever government it was was taking care of the people and most importantly, allowing the Tibetan culture and religion to prosper without interference. However, he did express confusion of Tibet’s history and told us what Tibetans are taught in school, which is quite different from the Westerners understanding of what happened between mainland China and Tibet.