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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Travel: Whirling prayers for a vanishing culture

March 7, 2010

Seven days in Tibet more memorable than the Brad Pitt movie
By Andrew Renton,
The Edmonton Journal (Canada)
March 6, 2010

Mr. Chen stares fixedly at the bulbous computer
monitor through thick, horn-rimmed glasses. The
overflowing ashtray and a few files crowd his
small desk to capacity. A blanket covers the worn chesterfield.

Anyone visiting TAR -- Tibet Autonomous Region
(which is anything but autonomous) -- must deal
with the ever-changing Chinese bureaucratic
hurdles of the moment. Worse still, individual
permits are only available in China.

Mr. Chen is a fixer. I find him up a dank
corridor in building No. 3 at the rundown,
state-owned Camilla Hotel in charming Kunming. A
handwritten cardboard sign taped to the door reads simply, MR. CHENS OFFICE.

Within minutes I have thrown caution to the wind
(must be jet lag!) and exchanged $900 in U.S.
bills for an illegible receipt. "Your permit and
return airline tickets will be ready in the
morning," he assures me in clipped English, straight from a James Bond movie.

"The price includes seven nights accommodation,
breakfast and a guide in Lhasa for three days. I
will personally take you to the airport."

I admit to being a whimsical traveller who spins
the globe, then buys the ticket. Planning usually takes place at 35,000 feet.

But Tibet sounds dodgy. Riots marked the 50th
anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight to India
in 2009, resulting in a 30-day closure to
foreigners. The new public holiday, "Serfs
Emancipation Day," was not a big hit in the PR department.

Mr. Chen brushes my fears aside. "Tibet is open
and safe to visit." Case closed.


A man carries a sign with my name in bold
capitals. Gongkar Airport is 100 kilometres
outside Lhasa, and at over 3,500 metres (around
11,500 feet), I'm already gasping for air.

The road snakes through a valley between high,
treeless mountains before reaching the outskirts of town.

I experience a moment of horror. Four-storey
apartment buildings line wide boulevards.
Perfectly tended roadside flowerboxes brim with
yellow mums. Freshly painted fencing separates
pedestrians and vehicles. Clusters of twitchy,
machine-gun toting soldiers stand guard at street corners.

Has the government of the People's Republic of
China turned this fabled city, of maybe 200,000,
into just another provincial capital?

The Potala comes as a shock, then a feeling of
relief. Perched on a hilltop, this gleaming
13-storey castle with over 1,000 rooms is
breathtaking in size, splendour and historical
significance. A sentinel that refuses to be
smothered by new rulers. To the Chinese
government it represents both an irritant and a cash cow from tourism.

Construction began in the seventh century and
continued into the 1600s. Using only manpower and
donkeys, walls were built of rammed earth, wood
and stone. Molten copper strengthened the
structure against earthquakes. Dalai Lamas were
carried home on palanquins. Visiting High Lamas
were piggybacked to the entrance.

Muttering pilgrims, with crinkled brown faces and
twinkling eyes, fill the sidewalk with whirling
prayer wheels and fumbling beads. A man leads his
three favourite sheep around the sacred circuit.
Prostrators propel themselves along, one body
length at a time. Some have spent months -- even years, getting here.


I am staying at The Lhasa International Hostel, a
couple of blocks from the action.

"Rest up" says my pretty guide. "Get acclimatized."

It never happens. I awake every half-hour gasping
for breath. Some hotels have oxygen piped into
the rooms. Others provide "oxygen pillows" with a protruding tube to suckle.

I love Chinese food, but for breakfast I'm a
bacon-and-eggs kind of guy. Watery rice soup
accompanied by steamed bread and a dry pork
dumpling doesn't help my exhaustion -- or my
mood. Thankfully there's coffee -- for an extra 10 yuan.

"What? Climb to the roof of the Potala on my
first day in Lhasa? Not a chance," I wheeze pathetically. Too late!

"The reservation has been made. We will take it
slowly," my guide responds firmly.

The Potala is now a magnificent state-run museum
with two palaces in one building. The White
Palace, (white exterior paint), is the business
end, which once housed the nation's bureaucracy.
The Red Palace contains tombs of Dalai Lamas,
chapels, sacred scrolls -- the religious part.

I give up an unopened bottle of water at the
entrance (no liquids, more fallout from 9/11?),
produce my passport four times at various stages
of ascent, and shell out some $35 US in dribs and
drabs for entry fees along the way.

Strangely, there are no monks around. All signs
of the present (the 14th) Dalai Lama have been
studiously removed. The few people muttering
mantras appear to be cleaning staff or caretakers
dressed in navy blue overalls.

It is still worth every penny as I teeter
breathlessly from one extraordinary piece of
history to another, vowing to return once I
become acclimatized. (Right about now, I'd sure kill for a piggyback!).

The old Tibetan part of town is spread around
Barkor Square. Hawkers here sell prayer flags,
strings of beads, prayer wheels, sacred white and
yellow scarves. Incense burners fill the air with
the sweet smoke of juniper sold from overflowing sacks by rows of vendors.

Three exhausted pilgrims with a pushcart proudly
receive yellow scarves, signifying mother earth,
from a well-wisher impressed by their journey.

A monk raises the bar by prostrating sideways.

At the head of the square, the Jokhang is Tibet's
most sacred temple. Prostrating pilgrims pack the
entrance, which has been a flashpoint for riots
and demonstrations. Military patrols move nervously among the crowds.

Despite a thorny past as an army barracks during
the Cultural Revolution, then a hotel for Chinese
officials, the temple has survived since the
seventh century. Hopefully, a UNESCO designation
will slow the homogenization of the area.

Side streets are jammed with vendors selling yak
butter, yak skulls, butter churns, traditional
clothing, furniture, bread -- even red riding
boots with fancy gold trim and turned-up "Pinocchio" toes.

I hand my Rockports to the shoe repairer. A sole
is coming unglued. Do I want it sewn on? No.
Glued? Yes. She mixes glue and rubber particles scraped from an old tire.

After filling in a few weak spots, she hands the
shoes back with a satisfied expression. They are still perfect today.

I am limited to the Lhasa Prefecture by my travel
permit. Beyond just getting lost in the winding
alleys of the Tibetan Quarter, there is much to
see. The Norbulinka, the summer palace of Dalai
Lamas, is set in park-like grounds just minutes
from the Potala, the Winter Palace.

There are several monasteries on the edge of
town. I visit Sera and Deprung, from which
activist monks were dispersed across the country
or jailed after the recent riots. However, it is
fascinating to watch teachers and their
novitiates hotly debate religious points every
afternoon in the leafy squares within these walls.

I rent a Land Cruiser with driver for the
iniquitous sum of $180 US and spend a day in the
vast grasslands. An unseasonable snowstorm has
sugar-coated the mountaintops -- a magnificent
backdrop for herds of yaks and streamers of
prayer flags, which hang from every bridge and outcropping.

Full marks to Mr. Chen for smoothing the way.
Without his assurances, I may well have skipped
this fascinating and thought-provoking destination.

An extraordinary introduction to an exotic but
troubled country on the roof of the world.

Author's note: Tibetans represent a third of the
population in their own capital. And that
proportion is quickly diminishing, with Han

Chinese flooding in, attracted by government
incentives. Rapid redevelopment, best viewed from
the roof of the Potala, is limiting Tibetan
culture to an ever-shrinking corner of the city.

The time to visit is most definitely now.


If You Go

-Visas and permits: All visitors to China must
first obtain a visa. Download an application
form. You will note that permits to visit Tibet
cannot be obtained this way. Permits to visit
Lhasa MUST include a quasi three-day tour, i.e. a hotel and mandatory guide.

-Guide book: Far and away the best in-depth
guidebook is Tibet -The Bradt Travel Guide,
written by Vancouver's Michael Buckley. This book
explains how and where to obtain permits--
including using Mr. Chen. Buckley's knowledge of
the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple and the
country generally shows a real passion for detail.

-- Food: Definitely not a highlight. Yak butter
tea? Yak steaks broiled to a crisp? Yak soup?
Stay with banana pancakes and Chinese food.

-- Health: The altitude in Lhasa was a problem
for me and if you plan to visit popular Everest
Base Camp, the altitude is a stunning 17,000 feet
(6,240 metres). Diamox is a suggested medication.
Ask your doctor before you go. Take lots of
sunscreen, a hat and a variety of clothing to
combat exhausting dry heat and freezing cold. The weather can turn on a dime.

-- When to go: There are no weather guarantees,
but the period from mid-March to mid-September is
your best bet. And avoid the freezing winter months.
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