Experiencing Tibet

Potala Palace in Tibet
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One of our industry colleagues, Rebecca Slater, who represents our preferred supplier in India, recently returned from Tibet and posted this story... It's not often we can share a story about such a special destination, and we thank her for allowing to share it and a few of her photos:
 
"I’ve recently returned from a wonderful trip to Tibet, organized by Ventours. What a privilege to be able to travel to this off-the-beaten-path destination, a place that is changing by the day, and to spend time in my beloved Nepal, next door. There was magic in the air and the opportunity to completely disengage oneself from the outside world.
 
Tibet is a dream-like experience, almost otherworldly, and a reminder of what’s truly important in life. I returned home with a new outlook on the adversities we face in our daily lives and an appreciation for the hardships others endure.
 
Removed from our bubble of comfort, we can start to truly see and understand that, though the miles between us might be vast, the importance of age-old traditions and culture remains. When we share these with each other, before they’re lost to the sands of time, our world becomes ever brighter. 
 
This being said, one must be honest with oneself before a Tibet visit. What are your driving inspirations to go? How prepared will you be for unpredictability–unannounced road closures, long, possibly uncomfortable bus journeys, visa complications and waiting periods, as well as hotel and cleaning standards that don’t jibe with our five-star, western expectations?
 
If these possible hitches cast a significant pall on your excitement over visiting Tibet, it may not be for you. Perhaps a visit to Nepal and Mustang would be sufficient – and these can be just as magical and enlightening. 
 
If, however, you are intrigued by a very real adventure, a thorough and immersive visit, and are aware of, and understanding of, the complications that may come up during your travels, then my advice is: Go now. Based on my recent trip, I feel that the Chinese influence is diluting the true Tibetan experience, a realization that stirred up an array of emotions during our travels in the region. In the end, I felt incredibly fortunate to have been there to experience a place that is changing so rapidly … changing, yes, but also changing the way we see the world. 
 
So, yes, if you are culturally curious and sympathetic, well-traveled, active, open to unpredictability and don’t need the bells and whistles of luxury travel to call it a successful trip, then this is the right time and the right trip. In particular, if you have perhaps already been to Nepal, India and parts of China, and realize just how special a Tibetan adventure is at this moment, then yes, do it now before change makes it unrecognizable.  I would suggest a week, with some well-earned creature comforts built in at beginning and end, to take full advantage of the countryside.
 
Here are some of the highlights from our trip which began in Lhasa– it really was such a dreamy, inspiring and humbling journey. You’ll forgive me for being unable to sufficiently impart just how incredible Lhasa’s Potala Palace is – a “wow” moment, to be sure. One can’t escape the views of this renowned and towering structure, easily glimpsed from practically anywhere in the city. To think, it was built in the 17th century … so high, so ornate, so vast, the Potala Palace was once home to the Dalai Lama,and is a truly unforgettable experience.
 
Our first day in Tibet was spent touring the 13-story palace (now a World Heritage Site), set on 12,140 foot-high Red Mountain (Marpo Ri), and comprised of the White and Red Palaces. The White Palace served as the Dalai Lama’s living quarters, while the Red Palace is reserved for religious functions. Unbeknownst to me, the palace also houses the tombs of past Dalai Lamas.
 
Throughout the day, and also during a very special evening visit, we were able to visit 20 of the 1,000 rooms, as well as dozens of chapels, golden stupas and prayer halls. For many visiting Tibet, the experience of seeing the iconic palace may be enough – it was certainly a stirring experience for all of us on the trip and spurred our enthusiasm for what was to come. 
 
Moving on after lunch, we proceeded to the Sera Monastary, one of Lhasa’s two Gelugpa monasteries and once home to approximately 5,000 monks – one could gaze out at the landscape and imagine thousands of peaceful monks going about their daily lives and prayer. Today, only about 500 monks remain within the 28-acre grounds, where one can see scriptures written in gold powder and striking murals. Guests can witness colorful debates on Buddhist doctrines taking place most afternoons.  
 
Then we were on to Norbulingka for an emotional visit to the New Summer Palace, built by the present (14th) Dalai Lama between 1954 and 1956. Among the highlights: the Dalai Lama’s audience chamber and its mythical murals depicting the history of Tibet, including the birth of its people and construction of its greatest monasteries. We were able to tour the Dalai Lama’s private quarters and meditation chamber, as well as the assembly hall and its gold throne. 
 
A comprehensive Lhasa visit must include both the Drepung Monastery and Johkang Temple – and another full day took us to both, plus included time for strolling through Barkhor. Drepung, at the foot of Mount Gephel, is recognized as one of the three great Gelug university gompas, or monasteries, of Tibet. Early in the 20th century, there could be as many as 10,000 monks practicing here, yet since the 1950s, Drepung, as well as Ganden and Sera, watched their independence and spiritual credibility slide as Chinese security increased. These three monasteries were reestablished in south India, in exile, in the 1950s. 
 
For me, the most memorable part of visiting Johkang Temple was experiencing the old Tibetan quarter that surrounds it. In a city that is more and more influenced by the Chinese, this slice of traditional Tibetan life, with its whitewashed architecture and pilgrims on the Barkhor circuit, is the “real” Tibet. This is where local Tibetans can live with like-minded souls and attempt to retain some of their culture and history – sadly, this section of town is only about 2 percent of the city. This was the place to be among those residents, shopping where they shop, eating where they eat – the Tromzikhang market was lovely to walk through, a popular spot for purchasing yak butter, cheese, tea, noodles, vegetables and local candy.
 
From Lhasa we began a journey to Shigatse that took us through Gyantse, known as the Hero City, since the Tibetans resisted Francis Younghusband’s British Expedition to Tibet in 1904.  It’s no secret that mountains, lakes and land as far as one can see feed my soul and so, you can imagine my delight at our first view of the striking, jewel-colored Yamdrok Lake, one of the Gyanste region’s three sacred lakes. 
 
The clouds parted for a seemingly celestial-inspired vista of the turquoise lake … it was like a dream. We must have experienced four seasons that day, the weather always changing, and yet, when the mists parted, the dramatic views were almost more inspiring than if we had had constant bluebird skies.  
 
This long day’s journey, over the very high-altitude Gampal and Karola passes, 16,075 and 16,732 feet, respectively, took patience, to be sure, but it gave us the opportunity to enjoy some peaceful moments, listening to music and taking in the remote countryside through which we were passing, yaks wandering nearby, and mountains surrounding us that most only dream of seeing.
 
In this setting, with nothing but time, one can’t help but pause and reflect. We stopped for a photo opportunity at the Karola Glacier, just about 1,000 feet from the highway – being so close, one could really see the various layers and colors that make up this enormous ice stack.
 
In Shigatse, we had the opportunity to visit the Tashillunpo Monastery, the beautifully preserved seat of the Panchan Lama and Tibet’s largest functioning religious institution. The monastery’s Future Buddha golden statue is the world’s largest gilded statue.
 
The next day brought more hours of high-altitude driving through Gyatso La at 17,060 feet, the highest point of the Friendship Highway between China and Nepal. While I was getting acclimatized slowly, but surely, there were moments of dizziness at this height! Then, across Tsola Pass and into Xegar, where we overnighted before our drive to Everest Base Camp in the early morning.
 
There I was, tears welling, yet a mile-wide smile on my face, as we watched the sun rise slowly over Mount Everest. The light on the mountain changed and morphed through what seemed like a hundred pastel hues … pinks, purples, oranges, cornflower blues. This was a mountain I had so far only glimpsed from the Nepal side, when it was a peek-a-boo triangle jutting out of the Himalayan range. Here, it was so close it seemed we could reach out and touch it. “This,” I thought, “this is why I am here. We are so fortunate.”
 
Our fortune ran deep, as less than two hours later, we found ourselves under sunny skies at Everest Base Camp. Since one can’t drive to EBC from within Nepal, it was quite special to have it so accessible to us.  Again, the brilliantly sunny skies we experienced is not always the weather one can expect -- one could drive all that way and find Everest completely socked in by clouds and fog, but we were fortunate. 
 
There was a special carpeted tent set up just for our group, where we were served yak butter tea and cookies – very atmospheric and magical. After a tour and lunch at a local lodge, we drove back down to Shigatse for the more comfortable sleeping conditions that the lower altitude would afford. Now, keep in mind, we had arisen before dawn, traversed high mountain passes, visited Everest Base Camp, driven more long hours and so, yes, it was an exhausting day … and yet one of the most rewarding I’ve ever had. 
 
From Shigatse, we opted for the two-hour train ride back to Lhasa – much quicker and more comfortable than the road journey. My suggestion would be to drive one way, so as to see the countryside and experience the monasteries, and treat yourself to the train in the other direction. 
 
If one has the time and the wherewithal to allow Tibet to slowly reveal itself, with all its splendor and surprises, then this can be a life-changing experience."
 
Rebecca Slater