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Travel: Seven days in Tibet

August 8, 2008

China's giant footprint looms large on Tibet, Canadians discover
Cheryl Mahaffy, Freelance
The Edmonton Journal
June 5, 2008

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."

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.


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.
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