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Tibet: A Wonder In The Mountains

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/12/25; December 25, 2002.]

By Harry Marks
Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Set among the Himalayan Mountains, Tibet is home to cherished traditions, mystifying wonders and ancient landmarks of mythic proportions. With a challenging landscape and tumultuous political situation, the culture and sights it has to offer are often overlooked, despite being of great interest to inquisitive travelers. Legends of Shangri-La (a mythical country that is said to be paradise on Earth) point to a region in the mountains of Tibet as its alleged location, and thanks to omnipresent mountains like Mt. Everest, there is no shortage of excitement in this occupied Chinese territory.

Unfortunately, Tibet is in the news for its political position vis--vis China's occupation more than anything else. As its leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is exiled in Dharamsala, India, there is continued support for a free Tibet among influential people around the globe.

Awareness is raised thanks to Free Tibet concerts (with performaces by the Beastie Boys), World Tibet Day, and the public support of prominent figures such as Richard Gere and Brad Pitt. If your adventurous side emerges and you decide to travel to Tibet, it is imperative that you keep abreast of the changing political climate and hospitality toward tourists.

Plan Adequately

Preparation for a trip in this unique locale understandably takes more effort than a trip to Mexico would. Serious in-depth research is required to know what you can bring in order to make your stay as comfortable as possible. For instance, the weather in the cities of Lhasa and Shigatse are less stormy than many think, but can still be subject to dust storms and strong winds, so a proper battle-tested jacket is a must if visiting during late Tibetan summer (between May and early November); also keep in mind that temperatures drop drastically at night so pack accordingly.

As a sacred Buddhist area, Tibet must be treated with much respect, so even on a good day weather-wise, modest clothing that covers most of the body (i.e. no shorts or tank tops, and no skirts for your female travel companion) is expected. It's all about being culturally sensitive here, where you can appreciate the serenity of your surroundings without disrupting the holiness.

One question you must ask yourself early on is whether you want to experience some camping while in Tibet. Most travelers find this to be the only proper way to see the Himalayas. Outside of Lhasa and Shigatse, setting up camp with your tour group may be the only choice you have.

Depending on which tour package you choose, you can avoid the "roughing it" part altogether. However, you might regret this decision once you see the beautiful mountains in the distance. Based on your physical capabilities, decide whether you want to observe from afar, or literally stand at the feet of the world's highest peak.

Get Your Papers Together

Compared with the other things you must keep in mind, shopping for clothes and tents seems like a trivial matter. Getting to Tibet requires some crafty roundabout flight booking, the easiest of which is to fly to Beijing, China, and then do a little hop, skip and jump to Lhasa, Tibet, through Chengdu.

Officially, only tour groups are allowed in Tibet, and most travelers must first organize an actual itinerary with a Chinese travel agent, which groups anywhere from two to ten people together, depending on the situation. The whole visa process is also a bit tricky (foreigners must apply in advance for approval from the Tourist Administration of the Tibetan Autonomous Region), with Chinese or group visas needed if you're coming from the mainland or via Nepal, which is another popular route. It becomes easier to analyze all the details once you settle on exactly where you're staying and how you're getting there.

This Once in a Lifetime Experience is Very Near

As you plan this voyage, you'll realize that the organization needed is an experience in and of itself; it's not the best destination for a more spontaneous trip. From beginning to end, you must ensure that every aspect is addressed, from clothes and accommodation to health concerns, as staying in the high elevation of the land might be hard to handle at first.

As long as you keep your eye on the prize, the pre-trip preparation should not prove to be too much of a hindrance. And now, on to the experience of a lifetime!

A Buddhist Bash

With changing road conditions and large distances between sights, you'll need more than the 4-5 days offered by many tour packages to see all that Tibet has to offer. Ideally, over two weeks would allow you to have your fill of Buddhist culture. In reality, though, one week may be all the time you have, as many make Tibet simply one part of a greater traveling adventure, encompassing places like Kathmandu and northern India.

Your primary stop will no doubt be Lhasa, a city that represents the political, religious and spiritual center of Tibet. In a country of wonders, it represents the high point, with every corner emanating a sense of magic and mystery. You will most likely be set up at one of the three-star hotels (the highest standard there), which provides you with the essentials.

Adapt and Enjoy

Although you'll want to sprint out of your room and check out ancient temples and ruins, it's highly possible that you'll feel incapacitated for a solid day or two following arrival. It takes a while to get used to the high altitude, and you might experience some nausea and shortness of breath (among other symptoms), but with a strong will and proper care from the in-house doctor, you should be on your feet in no time.

The dominating feature in Lhasa is the Potala, an impressive fortress and former place of government that is significant in symbolism and physical stature. The White and Red Palaces together boast more than 1,000 rooms representing unique Tibetan and Manchurian architecture. A world heritage monument, Potala Palace contains priceless religious artifacts and is the site of many Buddhist pilgrimages. Serving as the seat of Tibetan government before His Holiness went into exile, it is truly a giant of a landmark. Amazingly, no nails were used to help build it during construction in the seventh century.

Almost trumping Potala Palace in beauty is the Jokhang Temple, another world-renowned monument that is a site of pilgrimage, where incense-filled ceremonies still take place. If touring its ornate halls is not enough, scores of street performers and outdoor stalls where bejeweled yak skulls and beautiful religious crafts wait to be sold, can be found along the streets that lead up to the temple. It is here that you will get the greatest culture shock, as locals crowd here above all other places to shop, socialize and most importantly, circle the Jokhang Temple in an important religious ceremony -- it is, after all, the spiritual center of Tibet.

There's Much More to See...

The sights in the capital of Lhasa do not end with Potala and Jokhang Temple. The Sera and Drepung monasteries offer rare glimpses into Tibetan monk culture, and the knowledge and art they offer to the world. Each complex is full of huge murals, statues and ancient scriptures that can be seen by the public.

On Your Way to a Giant

A perfect stopover before introducing yourself to Mt. Everest is Shigatse, Tibet's second largest city. The monasteries there are comparable to Lhasa's and are certainly worth a visit. The highlights lie mostly around the city and the Himalayan mountains, which can give you a neck ache thanks to their immensity.

A four-hour bus ride away stands Gyangste, the town least touched by Chinese influences. For those wanting to see true rustic Tibetan culture, it is here, specifically at the Dzong fortress. The sight of a battle against the British, it serves as a reminder of the strong will of the Tibetan people.

As you continue to make your way toward Everest, you'll visit Sakya, a town whose monastery houses Tibet's largest collection of ancient relics. Many mountaineers pause here before attacking the peaks, so some amenities await you in Sakya as you mentally and physically prepare for your own wonderful experience at Everest Base Camp.

Everest, Simply the Ultimate

Words cannot describe the feeling one gets when first seeing Mt. Everest live, or Mt. Qomolangma, as it is known to the natives. The crazy bus that has taken you from town to town shifts to the back of your mind as you approach Everest Base Camp, the closest "average" tourists get to actually setting foot on Everest. Be prepared that it is no simple walk to camp -- the trek to your destination can be quite challenging and is by no means for everybody. Just because it's called Base Camp, doesn't mean it's at the bottom of anything. You will, in fact, be trekking through mountain paths to reach the camp.

If you balked when you heard "trek" and "Everest" in the same sentence, you have the option of taking a four-wheel drive vehicle all the way, but the ride is bumpy and could be somewhat risky. If the trip to Mt. Everest is within your means, do not pass it up. Of course, if so much as a sliver of doubt enters your mind, you can turn down the offer of seeing it first-hand and gladly appreciate the mountains from afar.

Staying at Base Camp will become a story that you will someday tell your grandchildren. You'll describe the amazing secluded atmosphere and tight bond you created with other travelers, either from a 100-room hostel or, if you were a real tough guy, from the comfort of your own tent.

You'll Never Forget Tibet

After these numerous sights across Tibet, your outlook on life will surely change. You can proudly claim to have traveled to the Roof of the World and back, with pictures as proof. Everyone back home will surely be amazed when you describe native food such as tsampa; a type of dough made with roasted barley flour and yak butter, served with fermented barley beer. Your friends will be equally impressed with the sheer beauty of the monuments and stoic character the Tibetans display in the face of difficult times.

The close-minded will dismiss a trip to Tibet because of what seems to be a lack of common comforts and hospitality. The Himalayan Mountains, palaces, culture, and warm people will override any missing amenity that you are used to. One cannot use the fact that there is no cable TV in the hotel room as an excuse not to visit. In places like Tibet, the truly important things in life rise to the top, leaving all who visit with a renewed outlook on the lives awaiting them back home.

Tips for the Trip

You're not alone: Just in case you had any illusions of going solo, the only way to see Tibet is with an organized tour group, which provides a safe way of getting around and hitting all the sites.

Know your limits: Tibet will be tough on your health if you overextend yourself, so don't be afraid to call off any extreme adventures you had planned.

Prepare meticulously: Cover all the bases, from clothing and money to important documents, so that you'll be ready for anything. The cost of getting around: Keep in mind that it will cost about $30 US a day just to hire transportation to take you from point A to point B.

Remember where you are: Anytime you feel down about an inadequate meal or a missed bus, maintain a sense of perspective and an open-mind, and revel in the fact you are actually in Tibet -- one of the most beautiful places the world has to offer.

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