It's called the roof of the word, the highest plateau on earth. I call it stunning. It is Tibet!
Although its history is long, in a nutshell, after the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912, the region of Tibet declared itself independent and maintained its autonomy until 1951. That year, following the battle of Chamdo, also known as the invasion of Tibet, it resulted in the incorporation of Tibet into the People's Republic of China. As expected, Tibetan were not at all too happy about being ruled by the Chinese as they considered themselves independent, in essence, their own country. Several years later in 1959 the Liberation Army invaded Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Tibetan people of all ages took to the streets and rebelled against the Chinese occupation, giving their lives to protect their spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama. Tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed during the Tibetan uprising or Tibetan Rebellion as it is sometimes called. During the revolt, the current 14th Dalai Lama fled to India where he still remains in exile today, unable to return to his homeland. In present day Tibet, Tibetans are still not happy about being ruled by China. Nor are they happy about the mass amount of Han Chinese that are moving into the area. They feel they are diluting their culture although the People's Republic of China rejects these claims. Chinese military in full riot gear and weapons can be found everywhere in the old town of Lhasa. Waiting to take action should another uprising or protest erupt.
My journey to Tibet began with an arrival into Beijing. Having been to Beijing several times before I wasted no time in catching a bus into the city and boarded a train for the 43 hour journey to Lhasa. The train had three classes and I opted for the best one available. Much like the Trans-Siberian train I had taken years ago it was also a small cabin with four berths, two on top and two on the bottom. There was a small table between the lower bunks and bright white clean beading neatly folded on each bed. I took my seat on the bottom and shoved my backpack under the bed. With tight quarters I'm always impressed with the space they have worked out for people to put their baggage so as not to clutter the cabin. Those on the bottom put their bags under the beds and those on the top have a cubbyhole at the foot of their beds which actually is the space over the hallway outside the cabin. Baggage easily fits in the area thereby leaving plenty of room in an otherwise cramped cabin. I prefer a bottom bed even though it is slightly more expensive as you have an excellent view of the world from the large window. As the train chugged out of the station at 9:30pm I relaxed in the cabin. The only other occupants were a young Chinese mother and her small son enthusiastically working on his homework. The shared squat toilets were at the end of each train car with three sinks and mirrors adjacent. There was also a dining car. Having already eaten I went to bed early. I arose in the morning to see the open Chinese countryside flashing by. Out at the dining car I dined on some peculiar breakfast food. I think it was the Chinese attempt at a Western breakfast. China has never been a favorite of mine for food. I never realized until my first trip to China that it is not at all like the Chinese food in America. Although I'm not a picky eater, I find the food in China to be a bit strange, to put it politely. I paid for my overpriced breakfast and returned to the cabin to read, write and watch the world go by. Later, instead of hitting the dining car again, I just bought some dry noodles (kind of like a big cup-o-soup) from one of the many vendors on the train platform on one of the many stops. I filled it with hot water from one of the machines that was available at the end of each train car. This made for a filling lunch. Later in the day the mother and son got off at one of the stops while the rest of us continued towards Tibet. By mid afternoon the scenery was definitely changing for the better and became glorious. With the heavy smog and pollution of Beijing long behind us, the air now was fresh and clean. Although Tibet technically belongs to China I would realize in days to come, just how different it was from the "motherland".
The one aspect of train travel in China I do not like is the persistent chain smoking of its occupants. I was happy as we inched our way closer to Tibet as since the altitude is so high, at one point, they start piping in oxygen to each car. At this time, obviously, smoking is strictly forbidden! I was happy to have a break from the perpetual cloud of smoke that hung in the air like a heavy, dirty blanket. In spite of oxygen being piped in, by the second evening I was not feeling well and immediately recognized the symptoms of my old nemesis, altitude sickness a.k.a. acute mountain sickness! AMS is caused by acute exposure to low partial pressure of oxygen at high altitudes. With an increase in altitude the human body needs time to develop physiological mechanisms to cope with the decreased oxygen. I had felt this way before on Everest and in Bolivia. I understand it affects everyone differently but for me it is a feeling of having a serious case of the flu. The kind where even the thought of having to get up to go to the bathroom is a feat too great. The worst, I think, is the fact that you are incredibly tired but just can't sleep. And so, my night was torturous with tossing and turning and constantly waking up. Luckily, I was the only one in the cabin at this point. When I finally stirred around noon the next day I felt only marginally better. I struggled to change into my clothes. Another effect is a complete and utter lack of hunger. I was, however, incredibly thirsty and went to the dining car for more bottled water. The train pulled into Lhasa in Tibet at 4:00pm. I gathered my belongings and staggered off the train. I was very impressed to be greeted with one of the nicest train stations I have ever seen. This place was huge! It was shiny marble and was perfectly clean and orderly. I walked outside into the glorious sunshine and pristine, clear air and found my guide Pasang. Pasang was a Tibetan about 35 and had beautiful high cheek bones and a soft spoken manner about him. After looking around I realized the Tibetans were much taller than the Chinese with slightly darker skin and higher cheekbones. In order to visit Tibet, not only do you need a Chinese visa but also a special Tibet permit. Once you obtain the Chinese visa you need to contact an agency in Lhasa to organize a guide and tour. All must be paid in advance and everything is included except lunch and dinner daily. Once all is organized, the company in Tibet will apply for and obtain the Tibet permit for you. Without this you are not allowed to board a train or plane to Tibet. You also cannot check into a hotel in Lhasa without it. Although I definitely prefer to wing it on my own when traveling, in certain places, like Tibet, it is simply not possible. And so, I went through an agency, obtained the permit and here was my guide, Pasang. He immediately asked how I was feeling and I told him I was not well. He said this happens often to travelers when they first arrive in Tibet. The country has an average elevation of 16,000 feet. He drove me to my hotel, all the while telling me about the area. After I checked in I was free for the evening although in my sub-par state, I only walked a block, found a little food and went to bed. I awoke the next morning feeling 100% better. I had breakfast, which was included in my stay, in the arctic cold hotel restaurant. It was an odd combination of items thrown together on the plate including broccoli and what appeared to be a piece of spam but oddly tasted just like corn. The coffee was delicious as were the eggs and I consumed it all since I hadn't eaten much the day before. Pasang, ever prompt, was politely waiting for me when I arrived in the hotel lobby. We set off early for our first stop, the Drepung Monastery. All the temples and Monasteries I visited in Tibet were interesting, however, sadly, photography was not allowed inside. Pasang was chuck full of knowledge about everything in his country. When he dropped me off back in the old town near my hotel I wandered around the area looking for somewhere to eat. I was shocked at the mass amount of Chinese armed police posts and riot squad teams that are patrolling every street corner in the old town. I also saw large police buses and a fire engine all situated in the middle of everything just waiting for a protest to erupt.
On another day Pasang was telling me about the Jokhang Temple in the middle of the old town as we stood in front of it watching the many Tibetans praying outside. Apparently we lingered too long in one place and police came and told us to move along. Another time I put my backpack down to take a picture and I was swiftly told to pick it up! I felt like we were being watched constantly. I feel for a people who have constant reminders that they are being monitored.
I frequented the internet cafe next to my hotel on a few occasions to send e-mails. The girls who ran the cafe were always smiling and polite and the concoctions they made were always good. One day as I sipped the best hot chocolate I've ever had I laughed at the resident cat, He, a street cat who happened to like the place, who would often come in, jump up on the counter, sit on the cash register, sit on the computer I was using as well as my lap. All the while acting like he owned the joint, as cats do. In other countries where an animal wouldn't even be allowed to enter an establishment where food is served, in Tibet, they are freely allowed to go wherever they like!
Pasang took me to numerous other temples and monasteries but the highlight of the trip was a venture to the massive Potala Palace. The Potala Palace is a thirteen story, 1000+ room palace and was the chief residence of the successive Dalai Lamas until 1959 when the current 14th Dalai Lama fled into exile to live in Dharamsala, India. Construction began on the structure in 1645 and was finally finished in 1694. This place is ominous and foreboding! It sits high on a hill overlooking Lhasa and can be seen from anywhere in the city. Pasang chose to visit the Potala Palace on the last day as there are many stairs to climb to reach the entrance. My altitude sickness was long gone by then but I still huffed and puffed my way to the top. I looked over at Pasang, who was naturally adjusted to the high altitude and watched him effortlessly skip up the staircase like a mountain goat. We made our way through countless rooms; it was like a maze inside. With lots of Tibetans in the palace praying, we were moved along quickly. Pasang dropped me off at my hotel at the end of the day for my last night in Tibet. I wandered around one last time and after a great Indian meal, I went to sleep. After breakfast Pasang picked me up to take me back to the train station. We said our goodbyes and I boarded a train headed for Xian.
I decided since it wasn't that far away, I should see the famed Terracotta Warriors in Xian. The Terracotta Warriors are the terracotta figures depicting the armies of the first emperor of China. They were buried with the first emperor in 210 BC to protect him in the afterlife. They were discovered in 1974 by local farmers who were digging a well. Each warrior is unique in their facial features, height and build. Only a portion of the site is presently excavated. In Pit one there are over 6,000 warrior and horses of which 1,000 have been unearthed. Upon entering, you are greeted with row after row of warriors and horses in imposing battle-ready formation all facing the same direction. It's a stunning site for sure. After spending the day wandering around all three pits, (numbered in the order in which they were discovered) I headed back to the train to my final destination; Shanghai.
Shanghai, with a heaving population of over 23million, is the largest city in China. Although I do think it has some pretty funky architecture in its skyline, it was otherwise, just a big city. Shanghai has become very modern. I wandered around until I found a hotel and slept as soon as I hit the bed. I awoke to a beautiful morning and got out early for some street food for breakfast; a thin European style pancake with ham and cheese which cost about a dollar. The elderly woman who made the pancake from her cart parked right on the street, did so in such an efficient manner that it made me think she must have been making these for 50 years or more. It was warm and gooey and tasted great. With my belly full I spent the rest of the day wandering around this massive city. The following day I caught the subway to the airport for my flight home.
Although Xian and Shanghai were cool, they simply cannot compete with Tibet. It is a natural beauty. It has gorgeous scenery, clean towns and beautiful, soft-spoken locals. I feel for them and their constant reminder of Chinese rule.