5th September 2018
Our sojourn began in Xining, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The ancient, thriving city developed through trade between China & Persia and became an important link on the Silk Road. Tibetans Buddhists settled here in the 7th Century and built temples but successive conflicts between Mongols, Central Asian Muslims & Tibetans ensued over the following centuries and as a result the modern city is predominantly inhabited by Chinese Hui Muslims. Their presence is noticeable and strong – the Dongguan mosque on a Friday is a teeming mass of worshippers, spilling onto the surrounding streets where prayer mats line shady avenues and doorways. How long they will maintain their majority is questionable, given the plethora of high-rise apartments in the making, all to be filled with ‘imported’ Chinese Han.
An initial detour east (before heading west to our final destination, Lhasa) took us to Labrang (called Xiahe by the Chinese) where one of the six most important monasteries of the Buddhist Gelukpa School has stood since 1709 – one of the few monasteries to have survived the Cultural Revolution comparatively intact. The atmosphere inside the monastery grounds is calm & peaceful, despite the Chinese tourists who now throng the monastery on a ‘day out’ paying scant regard to the Buddhists or their religion.
It is a theme that recurred frequently during our travels (at times frustrating) but nonetheless, an aspect of the region we are visiting; it is impossible to visit Tibet and the greater region without witnessing and acknowledging the political and social realities. Making sense of it all is another matter.
We circumambulated the monastery while devout Tibetan Buddhists walked the 2.5 k alongside us, spinning each prayer wheel as they went, softly chanting Om Mani Padme Hum. Still more devout were the Tibetans - young and very elderly alike - who covered the whole distance performing protestations. Kneel; slide forward on hands, arms stretched ahead till all the body is flat on the ground; slide back to kneeling; stand; walk three paces; start again. In this manner, the whole body touches every inch of the path. Knee pads and wooden blocks tied to the hands are essential.
In order to cross the Tibetan Plateau and get us to Tibet ‘proper’, we took an overnight train; the Qinghai Tibet Railway. The highest railway in the world, much of the tracks are elevated above a vast expanse of permafrost; in the summer, the tracks are cooled by ammonia to minimise movement of the terrain and the engines are designed to run specifically in an atmosphere of low oxygen levels.
It was a comfortable night, despite rolling along at over 5,000 metres above sea level. The oxygen that was pumped into the carriage throughout the night obviously did the trick.
An extraordinary feat of engineering, costing a staggering $2.4 billion, the line has linked the Tibetan Autonomous Region to the rest of China with great ease. Which has the potential to increase Tibets economy but – more worryingly – also ‘touristify’ the area as has happened in so much of China, and erode the Tibetan culture and way of life
It was the next day, en route to Shigatse, that we really felt we had arrived in Tibet. Stopping in a tiny roadside village, we went into a teahouse. A huge wood-burning (or dried dung-burning) stove with a blackened kettle atop dominated the centre of the room; essential in winter, when the whole family sleep near it. We sat on traditional benches, covered with patterned rugs and drank yak-butter tea (well, the group did; I admit I really don’t like it – a taste I just can’t acquire!) Locals looked at us with benign interest. Men sat sipping tea, their long, plaited hair adorned with ribbons, bone & shell; large chunks of turquoise bedecked their ears.
We followed wide gorges between rugged mountains upon which Tibetan prayer flags fluttered gaily in the wind. Some lay against the rocky outcrops, looking like giant, multi-coloured cobwebs. Prayer flags adorned bridges, spanned rivers, each flag casting the mantras written upon then to the breeze. In complete contrast, the Chinese national flag hung from every house and shop, no matter how large or humble; a law it would appear is strictly adhered to, imposed by the Chinese officials who inhabit a house (government built) in every Tibetan village.
In Shigatse, we visited the Tashi Lunpo Monastery where monks chanted mantras & sutras from age-old, hand written texts. Others constantly refilled pungent-smelling, yak-butter lamps. Home to the Panchen Lama’s – the teachers of the Dalai Lama’s - the monastery is an important Tibetan Buddhist site, as witnessed by the amount of Tibetans who quietly, gently, visited all the temples.
A fabulous morning’s journey took us up and up, to the 5,198m Kywu la from where we gazed at the valley far below and to the far distance where, if the weather had been kind to us, we would have seen the Himalayas. Two hours later, we arrived at Everest Base Camp (well, not quite, the Chinese have moved it four kilometres forward, for fear of ‘foreign’ tourists going there and planting “Free Tibet” flags; it has been known, apparently). The clouds parted, the sun shone and we got a magnificent view of Qomolangma, to use the Tibetan name.
And so to Lhasa, roof of the world, historic capital of Tibet. A city for centuries shrouded in mystery and the goal of many an adventurous traveller. The first sight of the Potala Palace still draws a gasp of breath. Its sheer majestic size, rising above the city and backed by mountains is still an impressive sight, despite the superfluity of modern roads and buildings that surround it.
The modern city now looks like any other in ‘mainland China’, as the Tibetans say. Wide avenues with red coloured Chinese lantern lamp-posts, Chinese national flags, Chinese language sign posts, shop signs. But step aside into the small, bustling alleyways and one is in Tibet; small shops sell huge slabs of yak butter, temple paraphernalia, barley flour, while in dark cafes, Tibetan families meet and drink tea. A city to still be seen, explored & enjoyed.
It has been an informative, eye-opening journey during which we have learned so much, seen so much, good and bad; enough to have given us a feel for Tibet, the landscape, the people, their way of life and their belief system. We are glad to have visited, and will remember our experience for a long, long time.