There are strong feelings about the morality of visiting Tibet. When I published a seemingly innocuous photo of Tibet’s Potala Palace—the former residence of the Dalai Lama—on Twitter, I received some backlash over promoting tourism to the troubled region. These concerns are not unfounded. Tibet has had a long, tumultuous relationship with its northern neighbor, China, and while I cannot claim to understand the intricacies of their political history, I do know that Tibet was effectively an independent nation until China (re)asserted its right to rule in 1950. The Dalai Lama’s government was exiled and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans were imprisoned, forcibly removed, or killed.
I’m ignorant of this when my friends and I visit Tibet in 2010. What I am aware of is that Tibet is a heavily contested region currently under Chinese rule, and I have heard vague tales of self-immolation by Buddhist monks, though I don’t understand why. My bigger concern is the possible effects of altitude sickness—at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, Lhasa is by far the highest I’ve been when not cruising through the air at 600-miles-an-hour.
We arrive at Lhasa Gonggar Airport, and altitude sickness almost immediately kicks in. I tell myself the dizziness and loss of breath are psychosomatic and try not to give my symptoms much mind. A new problem offers a distraction: our bags were booted off the plane back in Xi’an and now sit on a tarmac 1700 miles away. Why? No good reason, except that someone has apparently paid off the airline to carry their goods instead of passengers’ bags. Ah, bribery. I’ve heard of it in China, but this is the first (and only) time I experience it firsthand.
The small airport is about an hour away from Lhasa, Tibet’s capital city. I’m still struggling to breathe as we load up into our tour van and take to the road. The first thing I do notice, though, is how bright everything is. The sky is brilliant blue, the trees vibrant green. After days and days of muted gray skies and pollution-tempered paint jobs, the vivid colors make my eyes hurt and blink in disbelief.
Colorful Tibetan prayer flags along the road to Lhasa
Our hotel is around the corner from historic Barkhor Street–a popular shopping district–and the 1400-year-old Jokhang Temple. It is about this time that I begin to notice something different about Tibet. Packs of Chinese soldiers roam the streets while others sit hunched over, binoculars and guns in hand, on rooftops around the square. Perhaps I experienced a similar show of force elsewhere in China without noticing it. Our tour guide, though, warns us not to photograph the soldiers, lest they confiscate our cameras. (I snuck a few pics anyway, but I’ve decided not to include them here.)
Vendor on Barkhor Street
Vendor on Barkhor Street
Along Barkhor Street
The Jokhang Temple grounds are awash with praying worshippers, raising their hands to the heavens and sliding along thin mats. A giant incense burner fills the air with scented smoke, and I have to hold my breath as I walk by it.
The soldiers are particularly noticeable around the Buddhists. It is here where, two years later in 2012, two monks will light themselves on fire in front of hundreds of horrified onlookers.
Worshippers douse themselves with water in the inner courtyard. We are instructed not to take pictures inside the temple itself, but some tourists are disrespectfully snapping away despite the plea. I restrain myself as we walk in single file through the shrines populated with huge carvings of Buddha. Some statues date back to the 7th century, while some murals are from the 1980s. It’s a strange collection of pieces, and even stranger to shuffle around people who have made pilgrimage to this holy spot while I, a tourist, can only appreciate the site for its aesthetics.
We are allowed to resume photography on the temple roof. It provides a panoramic view of Lhasa, with the imposing Potala Palace looming in the distance. I watch a group of workers repair a roof across the way, chanting in unison as they pound the roofing into place.
Rooftop view with Potala Palace in the distance
The night is a painful one as altitude sickness tightens its grip on me. It feels miserably hot, and every few minutes I wake up gasping for air. My friend crawls out of her bed to sleep on the cold, tile floor of the bathroom.
Two of us feel better in the morning and two of us do not. I am one of the unlucky ones. Our tour guide is a bit insistent that altitude sickness is a Western lie, but as I struggle up the steps of the magnificent Potala Palace I am inclined to disagree.
Founded in the 7th century, Potala Palace was the original residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama and his government were exiled in 1959. Today it is mostly a tourist attraction. Like Jokhang Temple, there is an entrance fee, and I wonder to whom the revenue goes—the Chinese government or the Tibetan Buddhists?
There is a modicum of respect demanded within the palace. As at Jokhang, we are not permitted to take pictures inside. We are asked not to step on doorsills or wear sunglasses inside. All visitors enter from the same entrance and follow a predetermined route that snakes throughout the palace. Once you enter, you cannot get out again until you’ve completed the course.
It is naturally about this time, sweating and wheezing as I struggle through the gilded chambers, that a new symptom of altitude sickness kicks in: intestinal distress. The only toilets are at the end of the route. And so I rush, unceremoniously elbowing through tour groups who are blocking the only path out.
Although I wind through the entire palace, my eyes don’t register any of it. I thankfully make it to the (squat) toilets in time, but now I’m stuck: reentry is not permitted. I hang out in the courtyard for about thirty minutes while I wait for the rest of my group to emerge.
Potala Palace courtyard
Potala Palace courtyard
Our bags have finally arrived from the airport, and I gratefully take some of the anti-altitude-sickness pills my doctor had warily prescribed before I left the States. I quickly discover the cause of my doctor’s concern, as the pills have dramatic side-effects. I am torn between having my extremities go completely numb (pills) or constantly feeling like I have the flu (altitude sickness).
I’m unable to eat dinner. I initially braved the gamey-tasting yak cheese (this was before I became vegan) when we arrived in Lhasa, but for the rest of the trip I am relegated to toast. We wind up in a small restaurant close to the hotel that is serving traditional Tibetan food. I just stare at the unfamiliar barley soup my friends have ordered and listen to the piped in music—naturally, it’s a best-of Dolly Parton CD. I tap my foot to “9 to 5” while fighting down waves of nausea.
A natural spot for Dolly Parton fans
The next day I’m not feeling much better, but at least my weirdly tingling arms are a distraction. We head to Norbulingka, the 18th-century summer home of the Dalai Lama. There are few tourists on the grounds, and unlike at Potala we’re free to wander at will. The area is mostly a giant garden these days, and I slowly move through the flowers while trying to keep myself upright.
The grounds at Norbulingka
I am reminded again that Tibet is an occupied land when we drive through Lhasa to Sera Monastery. There are roadblocks into the more-traditional part of Lhasa, where we’re staying, and once through those we encounter the more modern, richer Chinese part of town. I don’t spend any time in the Chinese section so I cannot say for sure, but it looks from the road that a signficiant chunk of money goes into revitalizing this area while the Tibetan regions languish. I again wonder where the entrance fees go.
Sera Monastery is built up into the mountains surrounding Lhasa. It was built in 1419 and continues to adhere to more-traditional Buddhist ways. Many monks have gathered in a courtyard to debate philosophy. Insistently leaning forward, they slap their hands together whenever they make a particularly ingenious point. This daily debate is Sera’s big draw, and the courtyard is brimming with both lamas and curious tourists. I try to get a picture, but there are too many people. Instead I take refuge in the shade with a handful of Tibetan women.
That evening, we settle into a coffee/internet café next to the hotel. Again, the angry red flag of occupation rears its head: Facebook, Google, and just about every site I think to look up have been blocked. I am finally able to load my email, but I later learn from intended recipients that my messages were never received. I’ve heard of internet censorship in China, but Lhasa is the only place where I experience it.
I suffer through another food-less meal the next morning. We make the long drive through mountain roads to Lhasa’s small airport, and I am soon queuing up for the plane to bid Tibet goodbye. Like I said, I understand the concerns about promoting tourism to a disputed region, but I can honestly say I would not have called Tibet an “occupied” country until seeing it firsthand. From the countless soldiers hoisting giant guns to the road blocks and Tibetan near-slums abutting Chinese wealth to internet censorship, I am much more aware now of the issues–at least, those from a Tibetan perspective–than I was prior.
The plane pressurizes, and my altitude sickness is miraculously cured. When we land a few hours later in Chengdu, I am ravenous. Soon I will encounter the most delicious, exciting dish of my life, a dish that will become a minor obsession for the rest of my time on this earth. I will hunt it down across the globe and have artwork commissioned in its memory. But that’s a story for another day.