Tibet: Autonomous Region of China

Exploring some of the most spiritual places and people on Earth
Thursday, August 31, 2017 to Sunday, September 3, 2017

China, Tibet, where exactly am I going?

Since over 50 years, Tibet is part of China. Yet, there is still a group of exiled Tibetans who are disputing this incorporation. China is trying to deal with the situation by giving the territory a higher independence. Thus, Tibet is today known as an autonomous region of China. All access to Tibet is highly controlled by China, and in addition to the Chinese visa, a special permission for Tibet is required to visit this area, also differentiating between Lhasa and the countryside. Booking a guided tour is one of the easiest ways to get in. Of course, this is extra costly, and you are also restricted to the pre-defined itinerary. With many access points, moving around freely is not easily possible. Together with a friend, we opted for a short trip to Lhasa and the Yamdrok Lake with Tibet Vista. From Kathmandu, Nepal, we got all paper sorted out within a week. With our Swiss passports, it was no problem at all.

Tibet is not quite what I have expected

I have a vivid association with the book and movie “Seven years in Tibet”. About 15 years ago, I studied this book for my high school graduation. Based on this literature, I depicted Tibet and Lhasa as a laid-back rural area. Of course, this view is outdated, but it stuck in my mind. Arriving in Tibet and entering Lhasa was everything but that! I was forced to enter by air because the road from Kathmandu to Lhasa was still closed due to the recent earthquake.

So, I landed at Gonggar, the international airport of Lhasa, one of the most modern and secure airports I have ever seen. The security checkpoint was highly automated, and modern machines checked people, passports, and luggage. All foreigners I have seen were picked up and accompanied by a guide; nobody left the airport by itself. A comfortable minibus brought ten fellow travelers and me on a brand-new and smooth highway into the city. Lhasa was transformed into a faceless, grey Chinese metropolis.

Discovering Lhasa and the Potala Palace

The city of Lhasa is nothing I could ever imagine. Everything was neat and clean, the roads in an excellent condition with many traffic lights. Coming from Nepal, where everything is broken and dirty, I was truly astonished. Historic Tibetan and religious Buddhist sites are carefully preserved and accessible for locals as well as tourists. Even the old city center is, very much like in Europe, beautifully restored and conserved. Most restaurants and shops are quite modern. There are new malls with international brands and even one Burger King.

In this scenario, the Potala Palace, where the Dalai Lama resided and governed until 50 years ago, felt oddly out of place. Today, the former spiritual and political headquarter of Tibet is protected by UNESCO and maintained as an ordinary museum. Thousands of visitors stumble through the former residential and highest religious chambers of the palace. Visiting those private rooms felt a bit weird to me, even though we are doing the same everywhere in the world. What is even more heartbreaking, is the view from the Potala Palace’s rooftop. Overlooking the massively urbanized Lhasa valley is a very sad view. All my romanticized expectations were crushed.

Buddhist Monasteries, temples, and history

The tour was well organized, and knowledgeable guides accompanied us all the time. In a very short time, I could learn much about the Tibetan religion an history. Since the 8th century, Tibet is mostly Buddhist, and only a small fraction remained with the indigenous Bon traditions. Religious villagers from all over Tibet pilgrim to the Jokhang temple in the heart of Lhasa. This is the most sacred Buddhist temple in the country and the pilgrims, as well as the people of Lhasa, are circumambulating; they are walking around the temple on the circular Barkhor road.

Despite the past clashes with the Chinese, Tibetan monasteries are restored, and people follow their religion. Since one millennium, Tibetan Buddhism is divided into five sects, and they still coexist. In the Sera Monastery and the Deprung Monastery, I met many monks of the Yellow Hat or “Gelung” school. I learned that Tibet used to be a Kingdom of warriors and only during the past 500 years ruled by a spiritual leader. Tibet’s history and politics are equally complex as many other countries, filled with war and intrigues.

Over the Gamba La Pass to the Yamdrok Lake

Finally, we left the city and explored the countryside. This day-trip was my absolute highlight in Tibet. We passed by a mighty river and small villages. With a lot of begging, we could persuade our guide to stop at a random peasant’s village. There, where we met and interacted with real local farmers. The language barrier hindered us from a deep conversation, but we still got a good impression into their lives. Most of the residents were harvesting crops and processing their harvest. All Tibetan’s I have met were genuinely friendly and were laughing a lot.

On the curvy path up the Gamba La Pass, we encountered peaceful Yak’s grazing along the road. Those majestic animals are huge and spread a stoic calmness. When we finally reached the peak on 5,000 kilometers, we were all mesmerized by the beauty and a bit light headed by the height. Never before have I set a foot at such a height. Overlooking the bright turquoise Yamdrok Lake was incredible! In the distance, sacred Mount Kailash decorated the skyline. Now, I can understand why Tibetans consider lakes and mountains sacred and embark on long pilgrimages to walk around them. The Tibetan part of the Himalaya mountain range is incredibly scenic.

Tibet is a land full of magic and mysteries

Tibet is without a doubt an exceptional place. No matter whether it is Chinese or independent, the Tibetan people are conveying a stoic peacefulness. Nobody can take their happiness away. With its high mountains and turquoise lakes, the land bears its own magic. The Tibet I have experienced is full of contradictions and multitudes. There is not one Tibet as there is not one China. It was an exciting trip that crushed my romantic ideas about this region. Moreover, there was some tension in the air, something about the land didn’t feel right. I truly hope, the people don’t lose their positive spirit because of politics. As a visitor, I was glad to leave this place again. I wish to come back another time.

Big thanks to all the guides who educated my fellow travelers and me about Tibet.