Tibet ain’t your daddy’s China. Classified by the Chinese government as an autonomous region and chocked to the gills with security checkpoints and feisty locals, it’s about as off the beaten path as it’s possible to get in China. Home to possibly the most religious minority in the country and more debating monks than you can shake a stick at, YPT recently took a tour of this unique, lofty province.
The Roof of the World
Lhasa is the starting point of any trek into Tibet, and it’s here where you’ll run into difficulties off the bat. Visitors will encounter breathing difficulties pretty damn fast due to the high altitude, and it’s well recommended that you spend your first 24 hours acclimatising to the thin air.
Lhasa is, as provincial capitals go, a strange one: sprawling and underdeveloped on the outskirts, the bulk of the city is made up of the Old Town, where you can spend hours wandering through the labyrinthine alleys and soaking up the Tibetan atmosphere. The shops of the Old Town sell any Tibetan tat you might be into, from Yak-fur caps to traditional Tibetan boots and costumes.
The Old Town is also riddled with security checkpoints, ostensibly a holdover from the bloody 2008 uprisings. You can expect to present your passport every 200 metres or so, though this is quite often waived for foreigners.
The most important temple to be found in Lhasa, Jokhang Temple was founded in 652 by King Songsten Gampo. Gampo built the temple for his two brides; Princess Wencheng of China and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. The influence of the two princesses can be felt throughout the temple, which was designed along Nepalese and Buddhist China lines. The site became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the late 90s, along with its sister site of Potala Palace.
The former home of the Dalai Lama before his exile, Potala Palace is a sprawling site that takes up a decent amount of space in downtown Lhasa. The palace is notable for sitting atop three of Lhasa’s most important hills, called the ‘three protectors of Tibet’. The Dalai Lama lived in the compound until his forced flight in 1959; fortunately, the Red Guard left the palace untouched during the Cultural Revolution, and it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you thought you had trouble breathing in Lhasa, you’re gonna love Lake Namtso. Clocking in at an eye-watering 4718m above sea level (just slightly below Everest Base Camp), oxygen canisters are well recommended on your trek to this lofty lake. Tourists are forbidden from swimming in the saltwater lake due to the fact that it’s a holy site; this will not prevent the multitudes of Han Chinese from trying their luck, however. Explore the shore on, uh, yak-back or climb the area’s highest peak to tie your personalised prayer flag up, but don’t over-exert yourself.
Serat Monastery, Lhasa
For aficionados of Buddhism, Serat Monastery is a must-see. Come and watch fledgling Buddhist monks outfox each other on important philosophical points, such as the greater importance of wisdom or compassion. The monks go at each other with surprising aggressiveness; the standing monk poses his brother a philosophical conundrum, which is then countered with gusto by his rival. The monks argue for hours, with the standing monk accentuating his point by way of a stinging salvo of claps.
No trip to Tibet is complete without seeing what life is really like for the Tibetan people, and it’s here that a journey to an outlying village will give you a glimpse into true Tibetan life. The primary Tibetan industry is subsistence agriculture, and in the villages outside Lhasa you’ll get a glimpse into the hard graft that goes into the cultivation of barley, potatoes and yak milk. Watch locals churn yak milk into the hearty butter used in so many Tibetan dishes, or simply sample local milk tea if you don’t quite have the stomach for butter-and-salt beverages. Avoid the packs of stray dogs that prowl the streets, however; locals forswear responsibility for any maulings you might undergo.
And there you have it; Tibet, a province like no other you might visit in China, and one well worth the trip to see. Sign up for next year’s ‘Roof the World’ tour for your own chance to journey to this fascinating province!