News and Views on Tibet

Ancient Tibet’s spirit at work, at play, at prayer

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A guide’s traditional gift of a long white scarf, symbolic of hope for good relations, welcomes in the land isolated from the rest of the planet by the Himalayan mountains

By Eleanor Herer

Dazed by the thin air atop the mountain pass, I felt transported to the mythical kingdom of Shangri-La. Snow-capped peaks seemed to produce a world in perfect harmony. Sacred lakes wound like ribbons of turquoise through valleys a thousand feet below. In this tranquil paradise, called the Roof of the World because it is 5,182 metres above sea level, I imagined I had discovered the magical realm described by James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon.

For centuries, Tibet evoked images of this mysterious, exotic land isolated from the rest of the world by the Himalayan mountains. When the doors opened to foreigners in the mid-1980s, the Chinese occupation of Tibet was in its fourth decade. Reports of events and changes had marred the idyllic image. But the mystery remained.

Despite modernization and exposure to the outside world, the mysticism and spiritualism of ancient Tibet endure, both in the friendly people and the very land itself.

I arrived at Gonkhar airport, 90 kilometres from the capital, Lhasa, for an organized tour titled “Ancient Tibet.” We were five tourists travelling by minibus across high rugged mountains from Lhasa to the historic cities of Gyantse and Shigatse. As a group we visited the main monasteries, deplored what had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and admired the restorations, although second-rate.

I saw Tibetans at work, at play and at prayer, always with a ready smile.

Our guide, one of the few Tibetans conducting foreign tourists, welcomed us with long white silk scarves, the traditional gift which carries hope for good relations.

“Walk slowly, take it easy and drink gallons of water,” he advised.

It didn’t take long to realize the importance of this advice. Within a couple of hours of landing near Lhasa, I began to feel the effects of the 3,962-metre altitude: shortness of breath, headache and general fatigue.

Later, insomnia and lack of appetite set in, but it could have been much worse. Having taken altitude-sickness medication, my symptoms remained mild. Some others relied heavily on inhalations from the oxygen-filled pillow on our bus or the canisters of oxygen they carried at all times.

Lhasa, the most remote and exotic capital city in the world, has been the centre of Tibet’s political and religious power since the 7th century. The Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple and the Barkhor Market have roots that can be traced back to that era.

The home of successive Dalai Lamas, the Potala Palace looms 13 storeys high, an architectural wonder dominating the city from atop Red Hill. The interior reminds one of a museum, chambers adorned with statues of Buddha, gilded stupas and priceless treasures. Tourists gawk as they walk through it. But it’s a “live” museum, for the Tibetans regard it as a holy place. Close to a thousand worshippers visit each day.

We toured the living quarters of the present Dalai Lama, viewing his personal effects laid at the bedside, as if at any minute he might return from his exile in India that began in 1959.

Our guide avoided discussion of the Dalai Lama and answered questions with clipped sentences. Tibetans are forbidden to display the Dalai Lama’s image. Yet, throughout our seven days in the country, I couldn’t help feeling the Dalai’s spiritual presence.

Tibetans are friendly, willing to have their picture taken, even at prayer. As we joined the crowds at the bustling Barkhor Market, people uttered greetings whenever eye contact was made.

We passed tanned nomads wearing bright colours adorned with turquoise jewelry, villagers in clothes dusty from the long voyage, farmers’ wives attired in the traditional long striped aprons, monks in saffron robes, and businessmen with bulging briefcases. Many came for the shops and stalls that sell everything from chimes and barley flour to prayer wheels and swords. But many others were there to perform religious rituals.

Devoted pilgrims circled the market clockwise, right shoulder toward the Jokhang Temple, the holiest structure in Tibet. Most come a long way to perform a Kora, circumambulating 13 or 108 times while twirling small prayer wheels and murmuring the mantra: “Om mani padme hum” – Hail to the jewel in the lotus.

Other pilgrims repetitively stretched themselves out on the ground in front of the Jokhang. In this powerful ritual, Chatsal, which is believed to accumulate points toward the next life, hands touch forehead, mouth and heart. They extended themselves from toe to nose, keeping count of up to 108 prostrations on a rosary set on the ground.

A long row of small lamps flickered just inside the courtyard as we made our way into the Jokhang. In chapels dedicated to images and statues of the important Buddhas, the air filled with the aromatic smoke of juniper incense. Yak-butter candles flickered in great brass and copper tubs as the devoted paid homage, adding to the candles from small butter lamps. That unique smell remained in my nostrils and clothes for hours.

We met a 16-year-old Tibetan who was stationed in a chapel of the Deprung Monastery to guard against photos being taken without a fee being paid. With translation provided by our guide, I learned that his brother, a monk in the monastery, had sent for him from their village a hundred kilometres away. The youth hoped to be accepted as a novice, but first had to abide by examinations and quotas set by the government. In the interim, he shared his brother’s accommodations. Today, only a few hundred lamas reside in what was once the world’s largest monastery of 10,000 monks.

From Lhasa we travelled west to Gyantse and Shigatse over three mountain passes that rose to the altitude of about 5,180 metres. Once again we were breathless, but this time we gasped in fear as the minibus edged its way up the narrow road on precipices of the mountain pass.

We stopped for a picnic lunch at the top of Kamba La pass, a setting of such beauty that Tibetans compare it with heaven. A thousand feet below lay Yamdrok-tso, a sacred lake in the shape of a scorpion, turquoise waters framed by massifs. One of the many Yamdrok-tso legends says that if the lake ever disappears it will mean the end of Tibet.

Glacial ice hung off the mountain almost to the edge of the road as we continued across the Karo La pass. Every so often we would see strings of colourful flags on a hilltop, or the side of the road. Tibetans believe each time a flag flutters, the prayer written on it is sent to heaven. The flags fly atop rooftops like pennants on a sailing ship.

Throughout the seven-hour drive, I drank bottle after bottle of water to stave off altitude headaches. This meant frequent stops for relief in desert-like surroundings with no trees behind which to hide. We may not have seen a soul for hours, yet amazingly, wherever we stopped, people suddenly appeared; nomads living nearby or shepherds tending herds of sheep or yak. They approached to welcome us, some to have their picture taken, others hoping for a gift. But what timing!

Nobody seemed to be in a hurry in Gyantse. The main street reminded me of an old frontier town with horse-drawn carriages meandering down the road and people strolling the dusty sidewalks. Gyantse, the most traditional city, nestles between monastery temples that date back seven centuries and a ruined fort built into the summit of a hill.

In 1904 it was the site of a bitter battle as British troops, under Colonel Younghusband, advanced on Lhasa hoping to make inroads before the Russians. The town is famed for the Kumbum, a multi-tiered wedding-cake-like pagoda set within the ancient Palkor-Chode monastery.

When we checked in at the Shigatse hotel, I was the only one of our group to choose a traditional Tibetan room over the Western style. Bright paintings of religious symbols were painted on the yellow walls, floral designs covered the red furniture, thick embossed carpets covered the beds, and images of Buddha looked out from the altar atop a chest. The bed was hard, the portable heater provided minimal heat and the hot water was non-existent. But the atmosphere was worth it.

In the morning, we wound our way through cobbled streets of the Tashilhunpo Monastery, residence of the Panchen Lamas. Second only to the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama is the most important religious figure in Tibet. The Tashilhunpo, one of the few monasteries that escaped major damage during the Cultural Revolution, holds the mortal remains of the 10 previous Panchens in large mausoleums with golden roofs.

Throughout my seven days on the Roof of the World, I saw a country that is no longer isolated but still mystical. It’s a nation upon which changes have been imposed, some good and some bad; a nation that will continue changing under the banner of “modernization.”

I left Tibet entranced with the beauty of its mountains, warmed by the friendly nature of the people and amazed at the depth of spirituality. Tibet remains that mystic land where one clear day I found Shangri-La.

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Getting There

History: Tibet emerged as a powerful nation in the 7th century. From the 13th to the 18th centuries, it was under Mongol influence. Then in 1950, China occupied the country. During the 1959 people’s rebellion, the Dalai Lama and many priests fled to India. The Chinese created the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region). More than 6,000 monasteries were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Major restorations began in the 1980s. It is estimated 130,000 Tibetans live in exile today; the population of Tibet is about 2.7 million (exact figures not available). Renewed attempts at reconciliation and the return of the Dalai Lama began in 2002.

Tibetan Buddhism: Called Lamaism, Tibetan Buddhism is a variation of the Indian and Chinese Succession of both the Dalai Lama (spiritual and political leader) and the Panchen Lama (second-highest spiritual leader), which depends on direct reincarnation. Tibetan rituals include: circumambulating holy sites; prostrations spinning prayer wheels (metal cylinders containing repetitions of the mantra); offerings of white ceremonial scarves; and the flying of prayer flags.

Climate: The air is thin, dry and clear, resulting in a big disparity between day and night temperatures. July and August have the most rainfall. From May to November, temperatures are mild.

Language: Tibetan and Chinese (Mandarin). Very few Tibetans speak English.

Currency: The Chinese yuan or renmibi. Credit cards and traveller’s cheques can be used in larger centres.

Documents: Visa required; specify each city to be visited. Passports must be valid for at least six months beyond return date. Call Zierer Visa Service at (866) 788-1100 or contact the Chinese embassy in Canada, 515 St. Patrick St., Ottawa Ont. K1N 5H3.

Altitude illness: Tibet is the highest plateau on Earth, with an average altitude of 4,000 to 4,500 metres above sea level, so it provides less oxygen than we are accustomed to. Headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, insomnia and shortness of breath are common side effects. However, more serious conditions can arise. Precautions can be taken: Diamox by prescription, unless you are allergic to sulfa. With the advice of the McGill Tropical Disease Clinic, I took gingko biloba extract for four days prior to departure and during my stay.

Flights: There is only one airport, Gonkhar, about 90 kilometres from Lhasa.

I flew Air Canada to Hong Kong ($3,811), then Dragonair ($529) to Chengdu (about 2 1/2 hours); then from Chengdu to Gonkhar airport via China Southwest Air (about 2 hours). Flights to Gonkhar are also available from Kathmandu, Nepal.

Tours: Several travel companies offer organized tours and treks, including Abercrombie and Kent and Travcoa (luxury class), Globus (first class) and GAP Adventures (trekking).

Tibetan food: Basic food includes tsampas, a mixture of barley flour, tea and butter; yak-butter tea; momos, a type of dumpling; yogurt; chicken stir-fry with thin crêpes; and yak meat.

What to read:

My People and My Land, Dalai Lama’s autobiography (1985).

In Exile From the Land of Snows, John Avedon (1994).

Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer (1953); also a movie.

Movies to see:

Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt.

Kundun, directed by Martin Scorsese with Chinese/Tibetan cast.

Himalaya or Caaravan, with Tibetan cast.

The Cup, about monks obsessed with soccer.

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