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Envoy Travelogue: Mystical Tibet

We learned a great lesson immediately upon landing in Tibet: Always carry a sweater or jacket with you, not in your luggage, when traveling to this mystical land high up in the world's highest mountains.

When we took off from Chengdu in western China that morning, the temperature had been almost 100 degrees with humidity to match. When we landed on a concrete slab on the side of a barren mountain high above the tree line, it was raining and in the chilly mid 60s.

We also learned quickly to take it slow and easy. We had come from sea level. Now we were at 12,000 feet and going higher. It will take several days to adjust to the altitude of Tibet.

A temple doorway
Photo: C.A. Marquard
A Spiritual Home

Tibet is a nation consumed by religion. Despite decades of Chinese Communist rule, a deeply rooted Buddhist faith persists in Tibet's people. On the streets, men and women spin their prayer wheels, little bronze cylinders at the end of a stick, and chant. On buildings, poles, and trees everywhere, colorful prayer flags carry pleas heavenward. On roadside boulders, religious paintings mark the passage of pilgrims coming to visit the holy shrines.

Monks chanting in a temple courtyard
Photo: C.A. Marquard
The holiest place is the Jokhang Temple in Tibet's capital city, Lhasa. In the plaza before it, we saw monks in maroon robes gather to chant and burn juniper leaves in a huge kiln. At the entrance to the temple, chanting Tibetans repeatedly prostrate themselves on prayer mats, falling face down, then getting up and falling again.

Inside the temple, hundreds of lamps, kept burning with yak butter, give off such a powerful glow that the very air appears to be gilded. The heavy scent of incense and yak butter hangs everywhere. In a dusky room lined with large painted Buddhas, a pilgrim with black braided hair and coarse robes passes us. Like all Tibetans, he bears a striking resemblance to native Americans. The pilgrim walks reverently clockwise around the room, sets a large prayer wheel spinning, and pours some hot yak butter from a thermos bottle into several lamps, saying a prayer at each one. (The shaggy buffalo-like yak is Tibet's all-purpose animal, providing transport, fur, milk, meat, and the all-important yak butter.)

The Potala

Another great landmark of Tibet is the 13-story Potala Palace. Since the 1600s, it has been the traditional home of Tibet's spiritual and--until 1959--secular ruler, the Dalai Lama. It also was the seat of power exercised by the ruling monks. The imposing red and white building sits on a hill 1,000 feet above Lhasa. Its 1,000 rooms hold many secrets, some of them quite dark. Reportedly prisoners held here throughout the ages were horribly tortured and left alone to die of injuries and starvation.

Tibet's mysterious potala Photo: C.A. Marquard
Along with the Potala, Tibet's great monasteries were seats of power. Among the greatest of these are two near Lhasa called Sera and Drepung. After the Chinese Red Army occupied Tibet in 1959 and the Dalai Lama fled to India, the Chinese killed or imprisoned thousands of monks and destroyed most of the monasteries. Sera, Drepung, and a few others escaped total destruction. We bounced over tracks that could barely be called roads as we headed off to visit these monestaries with their great columns, colorful carvings, and chanting monks.

Reverence for the Dalai Lama
Perhaps no other human alive inspires more love among his people than does Tibet's Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts to free Tibet from Chinese rule, (although that rule is by an old, and internationally recognized, treaty).

According to the Yellow Hat Sect of Tantric Buddhism, the spirit of the Dalai Lama is eternally reincarnated. He is a living god, and the modern technology of photography has made the belief in reincarnation even stronger. Pictures of the Dalai Lama are treasured and ought after above all else. This has led to Chinese attempts to ban pictures of the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama's Summer Palace
Photo: C.A. Marquard
Reincarnation Interferes With Sleep
The belief in reincarnation is a central theme in Tibetan life and can express itself in unexpected ways. On our first night at the Lhasa Hotel, we were awakened around 4:00 a.m. by the sounds of distant moaning; an eerie howling that seemed to come from everywhere.
It was the sound of a million stray dogs howling and yelping. These dogs are sacred in Tibet. They wander freely everywhere, and people feed them with whatever scraps are around. Dogs are believed to be reincarnations of wayward monks, who find their way back to the monasteries and live on the fringes of monastic life.

Seeking the Nuns
After several days of viewing monasteries, chanting monks, and scores of different kinds of Buddhas, we asked to see a Buddhist nunnery. One is located in Lhasa not far from the Jokhang Temple. Our driver was shocked. "There is nothing to see there," he explained using our guide as interpreter. We insisted, and he condescended to drive the crazy Americans down a rubbled-choked alley until the jeep could go no further.

When we entered the little courtyard of the nunnery, a nun, dressed just like a monk with shaved head and maroon robe, was pulling a bucket of water from a simple well in the ground. Three women were standing in the doorway of what turned out to be the kitchen. They all immediately disappeared.

Then along came the old and toothless mother superior, dressed in a brownish robe with brown high top basketball shoes to match. She greeted us warmly using our guide as interpreter, escorted us around the nunnery, and showed us the chief occupation--using inked wooden blocks to print prayer scrolls.

Soon the shy nuns reappeared. The longer we stayed the bolder they grew. One tried to speak English to us. Several reached out to touch us, as though to see if we were real, then drew back giggling. Finally, they paid us the greatest compliment: They invited us into the kitchen to share some yak butter tea. This is a highly unpalatable brew of water and salty yak butter. We smiled and said it was good. They laughed because they knew we were lying.

In the Market Place

Beside the religious sites, the other important area of Lhasa is the Barkhor Market, a warren of streets surrounding the temple. There are sections for various kinds of things: a produce section; a section for yak cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products; a section for yak dung, which is burned as fuel; a meat section, where men with machete-like knives carve up yak roasts and chops while the black hairy severed head of the yak hangs on the edge of the table. There are areas to buy bicycle parts, trinkets, prayer

Photo: C.A. Marquard
The Barkhor Market in Lhasa
wheels, and other religious items, and the ornately embroidered Tibetan Hats with fur-lined flaps that cover the ears. There are areas to buy bicycle parts, trinkets, prayer wheels and other religious items, and the ornately embroidered Tibetan Hats with fur-lined flaps that cover the ears.

The Barkhor Market is definitely not your Western tourist trap. It is the central market for people all over Tibet, and they come dressed in their finest native costume. Women in brilliant red wraps. Fierce-looking men from warrior tribes who nonetheless were proudly vain enough to pose--with their elaborately braided hair--for the American's camera. We have never seen anything like it on earth.

Practical Travel Advice
Tibet's very remoteness has always been mysteriously attractive to Westerners. But we do not think that anyone, no matter how sophisticated a traveler, should ever attempt to go in on their own, unless they have no concern about when, or if, they can get out.

Trips with private car, guide, and driver can be arranged for individuals or small groups. There are also group tours by such major operators as American Express.

No matter how one gets there, a trip to Tibet is a journey out of the ordinary. It gives fresh meaning to the old label: the trip of a lifetime (or perhaps several of them, if reincarnation proves to be true).

To speak with one of Envoy Travel's Tibet experts,

E-mail us or call:

1-800-44-ENVOY