I ventured to Tibet in November of 2015. The timing was all wrong, but when my best friend in Shanghai invited me, I couldn’t refuse. This trip marked Rachel’s fourth time in Tibet, and my first. Everyone warned me about two things: the cold and the difficulty in breathing. Luckily, neither of the two affected me. I’m a strong girl, and I grew up in Chicago. A little freezing wind is not something I can’t handle.
My travelling partner and I flew through Xizang, just west of Beijing… and in first class. We got some kind of promotion, and I felt like the Queen of England. Don’t know how I’ll ever manage coach again. The experience was amazing, mostly because I didn’t join a big group so I could venture where I wanted. We based the trip in Lhasa, and so just travelled to the famous sights and one lake each day. The funny thing was, although I had never been to Tibet before, and despite this being my friend’s fourth time, Rachel got elevation sickness.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me begin with Day 1. The tour guide (Chinese government mandated) named Pema spoke near-perfect English. He once roomed with a French writer for three years. He also accompanies Yale students doing research on Nomadic life to the mountainside to show them the places of interest and explains to them all types of information. For more than just his English, I would rate Pema a great guide. The driver didn’t speak any English, but was still polite, respectful and at times even funny. So our first day we took a rest from travel since we arrived in the evening.
On Day 2 we woke up early and headed to Potala Palace. All around this beautiful building, people walked clockwise while spinning prayer wheels with Tibetan mantras written on them. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the sun kept us warm against the below- freezing temperatures. The Tibetan aesthetic reminded me of colonial Mexican movies. The women wear long colorful skirts and braid colorful ribbons in their long heavy hair. Most of the people are darker-skinned than Han ethnic people. The steep ascension to the top of Potala palace proves more challenging when you consider how thin the air is: 3,700 feet above sea level. Pema explained how Potala palace represents a cornerstone of the administration of Tibetan Buddhism as the winter palace of the Dalai Lama since the 7th century. It sits atop the Red Mountain and divides into a red and white palace complex. The red parts of the wall seem like brick but are actually made up of weather-resistant heavily packed earth and thinly sliced bamboo wood sticks.
The white palace houses the ceremonial hall with the Dalai Lama’s appointed seat, his residential quarters, and audience room at the very top. Inside the palace itself, only some places allowed photography and the walls are covered with Buddhist scripture murals, while housing thousands of hand written scrolls in the Tibetan language. Precious stones, such as jade, porcelain, gold, and silver all decorate the altars and numerous shrines. Tibetan people all around prayed and bowed in a very ceremonial appreciation for the guru and his lineage.
On this day we also visited the Jhokang Monastery, where, as legend has it, a very important Buddhist statue that was taken from China to Tibet, one that gives this place’s foundation a holy status and is also an important stop for Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimages. This accompanies a precious love story about the king of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo, loving his Chinese bride of the Tang Dynasty, Princess Wencheng and his other bride of Nepal, Princess Bhrikuti so much that he made this monastery for their sake, and thus also built Jhokang on the foundations of love. I can never resist a sappy love story.
An act more impressive than the monastery itself takes place just outside its sacred walls. In the middle of Barkhor square, nomadic Tibetans who make a pilgrimage here, engage in prostrate pray, sometimes for hours, or make their way by prostration praying to this destination, which can take weeks or months. Prostration praying begins upright, goes down to the knees and then requires one to drag their whole body extended on the ground sometimes with weights secured on the wrists and ankles to make the journey more arduous. I couldn’t help but cry when I saw this. Pema told us that these Pilgrims don’t just pray for their lives, families or country. They pray for world peace. The day that I first witnessed prostration praying in the flesh, also happened to be the day of the Paris bombing and mass-shootings. Imagine two extremes in this same seemingly small world. One, the extremist politicized so called “Muslims” wreaking havoc with bombs and bloodshed, and the devout self-sacrificing Tibetan Buddhists dragging their very own bodies in the cold dirty ground willing world peace unto this fragmented world of suffering.
After an emotionally charged tour of Johkang palace, both my travel partner and I needed a nap. What I hadn’t noticed until the next morning was that my dear friend was slowly being affected by the thin air. On Day 3 we made the drive to Yamdrok Lake, one of two of the most famous lakes in Tibet. Because this is the off season and no one travels to Tibet in November, we had the whole lake to ourselves. Here, at 15,510 feet above sea level, the air was thinner and bathroom break possibilities scarce. The facilities were terrible so I popped a squat near the outside of an outhouse, but a Tibetan man still ran over to collect his 1 rmb ‘donation’. I grunted and obliged. Lack of amenities aside, the lake offered a magnificent sight, but took about two hours to get there and then two hours to get back. We couldn’t make it to the other big lake because Rachel did have moments of short breath and nausea. I didn’t experience anything like this and I suspect because she’s a vegetarian and at 5’8” weighs only about 80 pounds, her body couldn’t take such a sharp change in environment. I found this strange since when I used to travel more, I’m usually the one getting sick. My body definitely did ok on my trip here.
Day 4 marked an interesting change of pace. We visited the Karmapa temple (another guru lineage, which to be honest I cannot truly explain), because Rachel loves Karmapa, his writings and texts. I also appreciate his intellect. He’s a Karmapa reincarnation, according to Tibetan Buddhism, and what I’ve read makes my heart melt. If nothing else he has a platform and openly champions the status of women in Buddhist religion in particular, and supports the rights of women all over the world in general. He won my vote with that single viewpoint right there. I witnessed a reading and open Socratic discussion with monks, both young and old. They study and debate the scripture in order to better understand Buddhist teachings and strengthen their articulation skills. On the ride to and from the lake and also this temple, some colored patches of cloth with Tibetan mantras and prayers adorned the countryside. It is believed that when the wind blows, the blessings are carried into the world transforming it with good energy and holy intentions. After we had lunch with a monk, Rachel started feeling short of breath again, so we went back to the hotel to rest.
On Day 5 we witnessed an engaging monk debate between monks. Animated and fascinating, the monks asked each other philosophical questions. The senior monk was standing and challenged the sitting junior monk, and would slap down (palm facing down) if the junior monk answered correctly, or up (palm facing up) if he answered incorrectly. The debate also pertained to monks strengthening their articulation and argumentation skills in Tibetan Buddhist scripture. According to Tibetan cultural norms and traditions, we can only ever walk clockwise around any holy place. At the debate, I was reminded never to walk counter-clockwise. At a printing house nearby, I caught a glimpse of a real authentic mandala, colored sand painting that take hours and often weeks to complete, and is typically swept away directly afterward. One may be reminded of an episode of House of Cards in which monks worked for weeks at the White House only to sweep it away immediately following the completion. A mandala is used to remind Buddhists of the impermanence of everything, and to exercise their self-control in attachment. At the end of day 5, after doing some shopping and eating yak meat, suddenly, Rachel went into a full blown panic attack. Apparently, her brain was not receiving enough oxygen and we rushed over to a nearby hospital, luckily with our guide to help us. After she received some fluids and oxygen she felt a lot better and we called it a day.The grand finale happened on Day 6, when Pema, our amazing guide, took us to two typical Tibetan places. One consisted of a local Lhasa shrine (not a tourist spot) and a typical Tibetan night club. What is typical is that Tibet is so far removed from the norm everywhere else. For the nightlife, imagine a singer belting out melodic and eerily peaceful tunes while people drink beer in tiny little glasses (like shots) and eat peanuts and sunflower seeds. I had never felt more at peace. I’m serious! That night I was gleefully buzzed, feeling like I had travelled to a place called “bliss”, sitting on a mountain of marshmallows clouds and lollipop rainbows. These peaceful people have no hang-ups, no stress, and no chaos whatsoever. I’ve clubbed many nights in my day, and never have I experienced such unadulterated peace and wholesome fun with token amounts of beer and some square dancing that proved more difficult than it looked.
The ‘Thousand Buddhas’ shrine just near Potala palace, included a wall with thousands of Buddha illustrations, big and small depicted on a rock wall, and a Big Buddha statue with some side candle houses burning butter candles. The sickening sweet aroma of butter candles can be smelled at most temples and places of worship and prayer all over Tibet. Hundreds of Tibetans travel there a week and offer butter to keep countless candles lit, as dedication to their prayers and blessings to the world at large. The trip ended on a lovely sweet authentic note, thanks to the guide who told us so much about Tibetan culture and religion. I’d be happy to connect any interested travelers to Tibet! Because it was only the two of us, the trip was more expensive, but a larger group can surely negotiate a good price. He speaks fluent English, Tibetan Chinese, and some French.
Go to Tibet if you want to experience a spiritual awakening and aren’t afraid to tap into some other layers of yourself.