Everest to Shenzhen
An overland journey from one side of China to the other
Part I: Welcome to Lhasa
A Mountain Sea
From the window of the plane I saw deep, dark-green valleys. Cloud-rivers spilled across the mountain valleys, moving ever downwards in a cascade of fog and mist. Tall, snow-capped peaks rose above the deep green valleys below far below.
I felt a sudden thrill: Tibet. For Chinese citizens, a visit to Tibet is a matter of booking tickets and making a plan. Foreigners, however, must get a permit – official permission from the Chinese government. While this is usually a simple process that any travel agent will supply, the government can change its mind and close the region to all foreign travelers at any time. We’d already experienced one such setback. After more than a month of planning, our tour-operator emailed us with some bad news: All foreigners must leave Tibet no later than June 18th. We scrambled to change train plans to flight plans so that our trip could still go, and here we are flying high over the Himalaya Mountains.
Far beneath us, ridges and valleys formed waves that rose and ebbed at the slow speed the earth’ crust. The colors of this mountain-sea changed from the dark greens of forested valleys to the lighter greens of alpine meadows to browns and greys of mountains – too high and too dry for any vegetation at all. It is in this rough and barren landscape that we began the descent into Lhasa.
Walking on Air
The captain’s voice crackled over the speakers: “the elevation in Lhasa is 3,656 meters above sea level so take care of your steps to walk slow.”
Nearly everyone feels the effects of the altitude in Tibet. In Lhasa this is usually little more than a general feeling of breathlessness and sleeplessness. While most people don’t feel the effects right away, I was almost immediately aware of a weightless feeling. It felt as if my feet weren’t quite making contact with the ground. I took the captain’s advice and made an effort to walk slowly and more deliberately. We practically sauntered down the corridor to baggage claim and then past one final document check before passing into the bright high-altitude sunshine of Tibet.
Welcome to Lhasa
“We say that Tibet is like a demon, and at the hands and feet of the demon we built monasteries to hold it.” Our guide stood behind a large picture in lobby of the Yak Hotel where we were staying. The work of art covered most of one wall and showed a woman lying on her back, covered in mountains and monasteries. “Here we see the Demon’s heart,” The guide pointed to a place on the woman’s ribcage. “This place is the Jokhang Temple here in Lhasa. We will go to see this temple now.”
Walking down the cobbled streets of old Lhasa was taking a bath in color. There was color everywhere. Women in brightly colored aprons spun silver and copper prayer wheels as they walked between rows of shops packed with colorful souvenirs that lined the gray streets. Above the souvenir shops, low, white buildings formed a bright contrast with the deep blue sky. Even the sounds of the streets were colorful as the bells of Cyclo taxis jingled amidst the growls and roars of car engines.
The street widened into a square and the golden roofs of the Jokhang Temple came into view.
“Photographs are allowed but you must be careful – do NOT take photographs of military or police,” our guide told us. I looked around for the military and the police but saw only a couple of armored police cars parked in the corner of the square.
A Lucky Soup Pot
We dropped our bags onto the X-ray scanner and passed through a lightly supervised metal detector and into the main square of the Barkhor area. Our guide led us past the prostrating worshipers and into the outer courtyard of Jokhang Temple.
“See this large pot?” our guide asked as we paused by a large metal cauldron. Plastic water lillies bobbed and drifted on the water-filled pot. From time to time, visitors stopped to drop money into the water.
“More than twenty years ago, when this temple had a festival, this pot was for making the soup for the people to eat. Now we don’t do this so they made it like a decoration, but people think is lucky so they put in money. They put the money in a pot for soup!”
The Heart of Tibet
As we wound through the blackened passageways of the temple, our guide spun a history that stretched back 1,400 years. He told of lakes filled in by gods – still faintly audible far beneath the foundations of the building through a hole in a rock. He told of treasure won, treasure protected and of treasure damaged. We paused at an ancient painting preserved from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution by a well-placed layer of plaster. Just a few decades later, the painting was blackened – almost to destruction – by the soot from ghee candles.
We wound through the temple as the arc of the stories wound through history. Our guide explained the rise of Buddhism in Tibet. We learned of a 7th century Buddhist king and his two wives from China and Nepal. We heard of the courage of the Chinese queen who hid and switched the Buddha statues in time of threat. Our guide guided us into the narrow passageway along with dozens of Chinese tourists for the chance to see that statue.
We passed in and out of chapels where brightly painted statues stood guard over butter-lamp candles until – as our guide’s stories ebbed – we climbed the steps to the roof of the temple. There we looked out at the majestic mountains guarding the white city – painted in color and in stories: Lhasa.
Some Other Useful Links
Read more about traditional Tibetan dress on the Cargo Collective