By Cheryl Mahaffy,
LHASA, Tibet - Entering Tibet at Gongkhar Airport, we drive around the base of a mountain to reach our hotel in Lhasa.
Returning to the airport one amazing week later, we zip through the mountain instead, via a tunnel so new that the toll booths aren't yet in place.
The new tunnel shaves a half hour from the 95-kilometre trip between Tibet's capital city and its airport -- particularly since our driver slept in. Yet we're all too aware that the shortcut further paves the way for foreign forces to overwhelm the culture of this long-isolated "rooftop of the world."
Chief among those forces, clearly, is China. Having claimed Tibet as its own, the giant is planting oversized footprints all across its neighbour to the west.
Although official Chinese census figures argue otherwise, many watching the influx predict Chinese settlers will soon outnumber the people of Tibet, diluting their culture and dominating their economy. Everywhere, we see the evidence: Chinese flags fly from suburban compounds, cavalcades of Chinese dignitaries blare through traffic, self-congratulatory monuments supplant Buddha atop mountain passes.
Perhaps no project spells "invasion" so clearly as the railroad advancing across the border from China. By summer 2006, this line will carry its first passengers to Lhasa, but on the day we travel north from the city toward fabled Nam-tso Lake it's a 1,142-km worksite. In a curious combination of raw labour and engineering prowess, clumps of men painstakingly set brick and sand into diamond-shaped erosion barriers even as massive cranes erect the many bridges and tunnels that complicate this multi-million project.
Nomad tents and grazing yaks, mere pinpricks on the immense landscape, remind us of the lives already being impacted as the rails split their world in two.
Of course, our presence impacts as well -- although not as much, we like to think. There's also a sense that the people of Tibet welcome our party of six as another opportunity to tell their story. To show what they have built and rebuilt in this land so close to the clouds.
Neema, our guide for this week-long adventure, takes us two hours from Lhasa one day to the stunningly situated Ganden Monastery, a key Buddhist site serving the "yellow hat" order of the exiled, but still revered, Dalai Lama.
We're walking the twisting lanes and rough-hewn steps of the monastery's pilgrim circuit -- clockwise, following the tradition at all such circuits -- when Neema invites us into the sweltering, smoky dimness of the kitchen for a sit and a sip. A huge vat of stew bubbles atop a wood-fired throne in old-world contrast to the familiar pump-action carafes lining a dented table.
Offering us each a cup of tea from the carafes, Neema takes issue with the guidebook term "yak butter tea" for this most characteristic of Tibetan drinks. If anything, the brothy mix of butter and salted black tea should be called dri butter tea, he says; "yak" refers to the male of the species.
We decline the tea at first, forewarned by those same guidebooks that it's an acquired taste at best. But Neema persists. He's right, of course: drinking butter tea is part of experiencing the real Tibet.
Silencing a stomach already queasy from unfamiliar food and high elevation, I take a cup -- but can manage only a sip. Others refuse outright.
This little band of travellers, which has proven unable to recite even the most basic of past, present and future Buddhas under Neema's tutelage, has failed yet another impromptu exam.
Even so, Neema leads as planned to the monastery's central hall for the noontime assembly. As the monks gather, we wander slack-jawed around the hall, awed by the abundant imagery.
Row upon row of gold-plated statues recall religious icons centuries gone. Walls sport intricately painted murals -- thangkas, Neema calls them, proud of their artistry. Bright geometrics turn ceilings and doors into colourful statements of almost defiant cheer.
Wizened pilgrims move between us, handheld prayer wheels turning in one weatherbeaten hand as the other counts prayer beads. Many tuck money into cracks near favoured images and add clumps of dri fat to fuel the candles that flicker in every room.
At one particularly holy station, the faithful line up to be thumped on the back by Dalai Lama's yellow hat. Almost comical to our eyes, this thump is one of their few ties to a leader who has lived longer in India than here at home.
Then the assembly begins. Dozens of close-shaven, red-robed monks sit cross-legged on long benches, chanting in undulating voice. A deep note sounds; the monks respond in chorus while our eyes track the huge hall to locate the source: an elevated teacher.
Later, on some cue, the monks dig bowls from within their robes, accept butter tea from large silver jugs and drink. Thirst quenched, they add roasted barley flour (tsampa) to the remains of the tea, mash the mixture to a paste with one hand, then eat this instant meal while a colleague wearing a yellow stole reads from a scroll.
Still later, the monks break into clumps to debate, a full-body sport punctuated with head thrusts and hand claps. I recall a practice debate we saw the day before in the courtyard of Sera Monastery on Lhasa's outskirts. There, we learned that certain hand positions mean "correct" and others signify "wrong." Is this more practice? Or the real thing?
Ganden's sprawling jumble of buildings feels like the real thing, all slantwise and misshapen. Yet it has all been reconstructed since 1959, when Chinese forces destroyed this 500-year-old monastery and many others in the show of power that prompted the Dalai Lama's flight to India.
Perhaps its authenticity reflects the fact that the technology used to create the red-clad buildings with their golden caps has changed little over the centuries. Now, realizing the value these sites offer for tourism, the Chinese are cost-sharing their reconstruction, aided by donations of labour and materials from devout locals such as Neema's father. Inside one hall, we find two youths painting hundreds of identical, hand-sized statues for one of many still-unfinished shrines.
Leaving the monastery, we're joined by three young herders who demonstrate their slingshot skills while correcting our sorry attempts at conversation. They're not herding yak, we learn, but dzo -- a cross between a yak and a bull.
We exchange vocabulary, acting out body parts: head and shoulders, knees and toes. Our new friends beg for bits from the lunchboxes Neema produces, but our guide urges us not to oblige. Tourist food would upset their stomachs, he says.
Recalling my stomach's response to the butter tea, we try to avoid the mournful eyes following every bite and focus instead on one of Tibet's signature views: high-tucked holy place, dramatic switchbacks, village in the valley, mountains mysterious beyond. A view to treasure all the more because it's soon to be upset.
IF YOU GO:
We flew Vancouver to Beijing, stayed overnight and took a morning plane via Chengdu to Lhasa. It's also possible to enter Tibet via Nepal. Other air and land routes are opening, including rail travel from China.
Lhasa is a fine base for acclimatizing and seeing key sights. Don't miss the city's majestic signature, Potala Palace. Nearby, you'll find Jokhang Temple and Barkhor market. where weather-beaten pilgrims spinning prayer wheels mingle with hawking merchants and gawking tourists. Nearby monasteries worth seeing include Sera, Drepung and Ganden. We thoroughly enjoyed visiting two less ornate but welcoming nunneries: Ani Tsangkung in Lhasa and Tidrum about three hours away. Consider driving up to the picturesque Nam-tso Lake, one of three sacred high elevation salt lakes.
Many areas in Tibet are 5000 metres or more above sea level. Lhasa stands at 3595 m, not far below Mount Robson (3954 m), the Canadian Rockies' highest peak. Coming from Edmonton, elevation 668 m, we had to lie low at first so our bodies could adjust to reduced oxygen. Even so, expect a headache, and perhaps nausea, light-headedness, shortness of breath and dehydration. Drink lots of water and protect your skin and eyes from the intense solar rays. High-altitude medications are available, both in the west and locally. If you have heart disease or blood pressure concerns, consult a doctor before booking.
Officially, you must be part of a tour group and carry both a Chinese Tourist Visa and a Tibet Tourism Bureau permit. The permit will likely be ignored once you cross into Tibet. Be aware that your application for a Chinese visa may be denied if you mention Tibet as a destination. In addition, an Aliens' Travel Permit is needed to enter "closed areas" and a Military Permit to enter "sensitive areas." Regulations are in flux, so check for updates with recent travellers or agents specializing in Tibet.
Tibet is under Chinese control. Although religious and political constraints are less obvious than in past decades, it's wise to remember that Tibetans speaking their mind about sensitive topics may be in danger of persecution.