Locked away in its Himalayan fortress, Tibet has long exercised a unique hold on the imagination of the West: ‘Shangri-La’, ‘the Land of Snows’, ‘the Rooftop of the World’, Tibet is mysterious in a way that few other places are. Most of Tibet is an immense plateau which lies at altitudes from 4000 to 5000m, but inhabitants tend to cluster in the valleys in the country’s east.
Tibet’s strategic importance, straddling the Himalaya between China and the Indian subcontinent, made it irresistible to China who invaded in 1950. But Tibetans have never had it easy. Theirs is a harsh environment and human habitation has always been a precarious proposition. Even so, the deliberate cultural strangling inflicted by the Chinese occupiers since 1950 rates as the worst misfortune the inhabitants of the ‘Land of Snows’ have been forced to endure.
Tibetan Buddhism, which developed out of Indian Tantric Buddhism and the indigenous animistic Bon religion, spread through Tibet by the 7th century. Political differences led to the formation of the Yellow and Red Hat sects, with the Yellow Hats prevailing under the leadership of a succession of Dalai Lama god-kings. Each Dalai Lama is considered the reincarnation of the last, upon whose death the monks search for a newborn child who shows some sign of embodying his predecessor’s spirit.
With the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Tibet entered a period of independence which lasted until the People’s Liberation Army entered the region. Tibet was no liberal democracy (it was a highly repressive theocracy based on serfdom) and the Chinese truly believed their occupation was a mission of mercy. Indeed, until a massive rebellion in 1959, Tibet’s political, social and religious organisations were left intact.
Post-1959 Communist Tibet, however, was subjected to the disaster that was the Cultural Revolution. About 1.2 million deaths were attributable to the ‘liberation’, 100,000 people (including the Dalai Lama) fled their homeland, the number of monasteries was reduced from about 1600 to a lonely 10 (monks were executed or sent to work in fields and labour camps), and land reforms made a mess of the economy. The Dalai Lama continues to be worshipped by his people, and his acceptance in 1989 of the Nobel Peace Prize marked a greater sympathy on the part of the Western world for the plight of the Tibetan people. Unfortunately, China’s market potential makes most world leaders wary of pressing the issue of Tibetan independence.
Following virtual closure after the Chinese annexation of the Buddhist kingdom, Tibet was opened to foreign tourism in 1984. Closed to all but tour groups in 1987 after an uprising by Tibetans in Lhasa, and reopened in 1992, travel in Tibet comes with some ludicrous permit requirements. The present Chinese policy on individual tourism in Tibet basically seems to be one of extorting as much cash as possible from foreigners, but not so much as to scare them off completely.
Lhasa, the heart and soul of Tibet and an object of devout pilgrimage, is still a city of wonders. The Potala, a vast white and ochre fortress, dominates the Lhasa skyline. Once the seat of Tibetan government and the location of the tombs of previous Dalai Lamas, the Potala serves as a symbolic focus for Tibetan aspirations. Today though, it is the Jokhang temple, 2km to the east, which is the spiritual heart of the city. The medieval push and shove of crowds, the street performers, the stalls hawking everything from prayer flags to jewel-encrusted yak skulls, and the devout tapping their foreheads to the ground at every step is an exotic brew that few newcomers can resist. Among Tibet’s other attractions are Shigatse, around 250km south-west of Lhasa and the seat of the Panchen Lama (the reincarnation of whom the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government are currently disputing), and Mt Kailash, a beautiful range of peaks.
Away From the Crowds
The Everest Region
The Tibetan approach to Mt Everest or Qoomolangma (8848m) provides far better vistas of the world’s highest peak than those on the Nepal side. Some 27,000 sq km around Everest’s Tibetan face have been designated as the Qoomolangma Nature Preserve, aiming to protect the environment and the cultural traditions of the local people. For foreign travellers, the Everest Base Camp has become the most popular trekking destination in Tibet, but this does not mean that the region is exactly swarming with hikers. The two access points are Shegar and Tingri, along the Friendship Highway to Nepal, but be warned that neither trek is an easy three or four-day stroll. Take your time getting acclimatised and be prepared for a strenuous climb. If it all sounds too much, 4WD vehicles can lurch all the way to base camp along the Shegar track.
Gyantse, some 200km south-west of Lhasa, is one of the least Chinese-influenced towns in Tibet and is worth a visit for this reason alone. The Palkhor Monastery here was built in 1427 and is notable for its superb Kumbum (10,000 images) stupa. The Dzong(old fort) which towers above the village offers a fine view over the valley. Gyantse is a four hour bus ride from Shigatse.
Sakya is 152km west of Shigatse and about 25km south of the main road. The huge brooding monastery here was Tibet’s most powerful 700 years ago. The monastery probably contains the finest collection of Tibetan religious relics remaining in Tibet, although the monks may restrict you to viewing only a couple of halls. There’s an unreliable bus from Shigatse, but most people arrange to see Sakya on their way to the Nepali border or the Everest Base Camp.
Getting In & Moving Around
Flights to Gonggar airport, 90km from Lhasa, depart Beijing via Chengdu (Sichuan); Chongqing (Sichuan); and Kathmandu. There are five major road routes to Lhasa but foreigners are only supposed to use the Nepal (Friendship Highway) and Qinghai (via Golmud) routes. Most travellers band together to rent a 4WD for the spectacular journey to Nepal. Getting around Tibet can be difficult: the buses are often at their last gasp and travelling by 4WD can be expensive. Trucks tend to charge the same inflated prices as buses, but the Chinese government discourages foreigners from hitching rides. ‘Road safety’ is little more than a slogan. Tibetans tend to rely on prayer to facilitate a safe arrival – you might consider doing the same once you see the conditions. Bicycling is possible, but is not without its hazards: cyclists in Tibet have died from road accidents, hypothermia and pulmonary oedema. You can fly to Xining from Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou (Guangdong) and ?r?mqi (Xinjiang). There are frequent rail connections to Lanzhou (Gansu) and more erratic services to Beijing, Shanghai and other regional centres