My daughter Christy, who visited me for two weeks, and I rode the 25-hour overnight train from Xining, China, to Lhasa, Tibet. The slow train ride to Lhasa (not a “bullet” speedster) offered a spectacular view of the landscape along the route—snow-tipped mountains, peasants toiling in fields and herds of sheep and yak grazing on the arid land. I didn’t recognize the yaks at first, which look like small buffalo. However, before we returned we had eaten lots of yak meat—and tasted yak butter and yak butter tea—not our favorites.
The train’s slow climb to Lhasa, about 12,000 feet above the sea, helped to acclimate our bodies to Lhasa’s altitude—and its reduced oxygen level. We also began taking Diamox tablets twenty-four hours before our departure. This approach to the altitude problem worked, although we still experienced some minor symptoms the first two mornings in Lhasa.
Our Tibetan guide began our visit by taking us to the Potala Palace, the winter residence of the 14th Dalai Llama until he fled to India in l960. The magnificent palace, the former center of government, dominates a huge hill overlooking downtown Lhasa. It consists of 13 stories and over 1,000 rooms. Visitors view the Dalai Llama’s formal reception room, meditation rooms, Buddhist statuary and temples.
Tired after climbing so many steps in the palace, while gasping for air, we visited the downtown 1,300 year-old Jokhang Temple, described as the spiritual center of Tibet. The temple complex featured a revered golden Buddha and impressive monk assembly prayer rooms with beautiful embroidered decorative hangings to ward off demons.
We learned that Tibetan Buddhism incorporated symbols of the Five Elements on religious tapestries and prayer flags: sky (blue), clouds (white), earth (yellow), fire (red) and water (green). Small prayer flags in these colors have Buddhist scripture teachings written or printed on each flag. You often see long strings of such prayer flags hung on large trees or strung like spider cobwebs on the surrounding mountain slopes, crevices and boulders.
The following day we visited the Dalai Llama’s summer palace, full of beautiful gardens and ponds, stone bridges, meditation retreats and temples. The current 14th Dalai Llama only enjoyed it for two summers before he sought asylum after a failed 1959 uprising.
That afternoon we visited the Sera Monastery of the most influential yellow hat sect of Buddhist monks. Of particular interest were the afternoon theological and philosophical “debates” among monks attending the monastery’s university. They assemble at 3 pm daily in a pebble courtyard in their dark red robes, many wearing sneakers on their feet. The monks pair off and one monk aggressively throws a question at the other monk—emphasized through body motion, finger thrusts and hand claps—demanding an immediate (and correct) answer to a spiritual or philosophical question. The pairs switch inquisitor roles every week, as spectators try to follow the debates from the outer edges of the courtyard “classroom.”
Lhasa is an historic Tibetan city that confronts great physical changes in the near future—much like the rest of China. A new train station and modern bridge will bring more and more tourists to Tibet’s capital city. Around the train station four-lane divided highways branch out into undeveloped areas, as the modernization process hasn’t yet begun building the new businesses and apartments.
At the other end of the city construction cranes create what our guide called the “new city.” Personally, I’ll miss the crowded downtown with its narrow streets and bazaar shops surrounding the main temple. When visiting these vendors you must always walk clock-wise in religious respect. You frequently see older Tibetans spinning their hand-held prayer drums in a clock-wise direction.
If you plan to visit Tibet, start your preparations early. The Chinese government requires a Tibet travel permit (after submitting a copy of your passport and China visa), the use of an approved travel agency and a licensed guide. One cannot take off on side trips. The Beijing authorities carefully review who they allow to visit the province after the 2008 demonstrations prior to the Beijing Olympics. But despite these difficulties, Tibet remains a fascinating and colorful culture to visit.