Reading about the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal and Mount Everest on April 25 reminded me that I had not written an article about our experiences a decade ago in the Himalayas and Tibet. While they are no doubt much different experiences than those of the Hoosiers who were on the mountain at the time of the quake, they remain among my most memorable. Of course, they are now shadowed by the tragic loss of so many lives.
As we flew from Katmandu, Nepal, to Lhasa, the ancient holy city that serves as Tibet’s capital, we could see Mount Everest in the distance. It is as spectacular as you can imagine. But it was only a hint of what was to follow on this trip.
Tibet turned out to be one of the most unique places my wife, Katrina, and I have ever visited. At 16,000 feet, the Tibetan plateau is certainly the highest. The largest and least populated province of China is north of the Himalayan Mountains. Both beautiful and rugged, it’s characterized by a highly developed religious-based culture.
Nothing about this trip was easy, beginning with having to secure a permit, in addition to the usual passport and visa, from the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu and only on the basis that we were on a pre-paid tour through an authorized (by China) travel agency.
Only a small number of tour companies are allowed to obtain visas to visit Tibet, and they must maintain close control of their tour members. They follow strict itineraries, stay in prescribed hotels, and use only tour guides licensed by the government. This, of course, has the effect of limiting not only the number of tourists allowed to visit, but also what they can see and do while in Tibet. While little interaction with the locals was allowed, we found the Tibetans to be friendly and helpful.
Lhasa, at 12,000 feet, is the only place in the world we have visited where the altitude slowed us down and forced us to rest during the day. We learned why each room in the designated tourist hotel has an oxygen supply, which we did not need but were tempted to try. Staying in a converted Holiday Inn, called the Lhasa Hotel, we ate food that, on its best day, was mediocre. In fact, the combination of not eating much and the altitude caused us to feel a little sick the entire time we were there. The only positive, according to Katrina, was that she lost weight on her “Himalayan diet.”
You definitely do not go to Tibet for the very basic hotels and monotonous food. You also do not go to Lhasa for the night life. Most of the city is early to rise, early to bed. Instead, you go to step into another time and place.
Potala Palace, which dominates the Lhasa skyline, is truly one of the wonders of the world. It’s where the living Buddha, Dalai Lama, Tibet’s religious leader, lived and handled government affairs. Norbulingka was his summer palace, where we saw his bedroom exactly as he left it in 1959 when he was 14 years old and had to leave his country. The Potala and Norbulingka are symbols of hope for the Tibetan people.
Religion is extremely important to the Tibetans and has a strong influence over all aspects of their lives. The most sacred religious structure is the Jokhang, House of the Lord. Buzzing inside with the mystical and religious activities of the pilgrims, it offered a breathtaking rooftop view of the Potala. The people were wearing an array of traditional Tibetan dress, hair arrangements and adornments from different regions of the country. Upon seeing the pilgrims circumambulating clockwise and some prostrating themselves around the temple, one could feel what it must have been like in ancient Tibet.
Lhasa is the main market for the Tibetans. In the stalls lining the streets, we found an amazing variety of just about everything, from huge mounds of yak butter to beautiful thangkas (painted or embroidered religious pictures) to sidewalk dentists plying their trade.
During a visit to the main square of Lhasa, a city with a history of more than 13 centuries, one of the tour group members asked about the sculpture in the center. The guide responded, tongue in cheek, that it is called the Freedom Monument and represents the “freeing” of Tibet by the Chinese.
Our observation, subsequently confirmed by others, was that the Chinese Cultural Revolution has been able to change Tibet only superficially. The faith of the Tibetan people remains intact and is both awesome and inspiring.
Despite the bureaucratic paperwork, hassles and restrictions, the trip was worth every bump and pothole, every grain and cloud of dust, every terrifying curve, and every landslide, rock slide and washed-out piece of road.•
Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of the Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears occasionally. He can be reached at [email protected]