Among almost 100 countries I’ve visited, Tibet remains my favourite destination, despite the frustrations stemming from not speaking the Tibetan language and relying on rudimentary Mandarin.
My first visit (in November 2000) took me on a circular clockwise loop from the Dalai Lama’s home in exile Dharamsala, by way of Pakistan, Xinjiang (East Turkestan), Tibet, Nepal and back again.
Not wishing to pay the Chinese for a permit, let alone agree an itinerary before I’d even arrived, I took a local pilgrim bus from Golmud (Kermo), dodging police checkpoints along the way. After exploring Lhasa for a month, I spent a week squeezed with five other tourists on the Friendship Highway to Nepal, the highlights of which included visiting Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse, the Kumbum in Gyantse, Sakya monastery, and a solo hike from Rongbuk to Everest base camp, after my companions had all come down with altitude sickness. (I had just recovered from food poisoning!)
For my next visit (August 2002) I took a US$200 - those were the days! - three day bus “tour” from Nepal to Lhasa, did my own thing there for a month and caught a jeep ride back again.
There I saw occasional photographs of the Dalai Lama, which hadn’t been the case in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), where ownership of them is a crime.
My third trip (June to September 2003) took in much of Kham and Amdo (the far north-west of Yunnan, western Sichuan, south-east Gansu and all of Qinghai) for three months, when, thanks to the SARS health epidemic, I was practically the only tourist in the country. There I saw occasional photographs of the Dalai Lama, which hadn’t been the case in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), where ownership of them is a crime. I had a T-shirt with the Tibetan flag on it with me, which is also illegal, so was very careful who I showed it to!
The fourth (August 2007) took me back, through a combination of old and new places, from the border with Laos as far as Xining (Qinghai), from where I again entered the TAR illegally, this time taking the train to Lhasa, where I stayed a month before travelling once again to Nepal. It was impossible to buy a train ticket myself without a permit, so I found a local willing to do it for me. Since the protests in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 this has not been possible. I missed the chance of taking the 60 hour bus ride from Lhasa to Ali, near Mount Kailash, thinking I could do it another time, but that hasn’t been possible since 2008 either.
The TAR had been closed to foreigners for the 60th anniversary of the “peaceful liberation of Tibet”.
My last visit (July to August 2011) started in Xinjiang, from where I had hoped to travel through western Tibet, only to discover that the TAR had been closed to foreigners for the 60th anniversary of the “peaceful liberation of Tibet”. So I continued to Gansu, where I was turned away from Labrang because the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama was visiting, and got stuck for a week in Xining, coming close to visiting Lhasa when it re-opened – I got as far as booking a train ticket and a one night stay, even though I planned to stay for longer and continue to Nepal, which probably wouldn’t have been possible given the number of checkpoints on the way - before my preferred route through Sichuan finally re-opened, having been closed after Tibetan self-immolation protests. I got there by a back route through Yushu, which had yet to be rebuilt after being destroyed in the 2010 earthquake.
The best things about Tibet for me are the atmosphere and the people.
The best things about Tibet for me are the atmosphere and the people. On my first visit I’d been asked to track down the family of a refugee in Dharamsala, which I did by catching a local bus to Chusul, the site of an infamous prison on the road to the airport. It turned out they had another home in the Barkhor surrounding the Jokhang temple in the heart of Lhasa, and we became firm friends. On other occasions in Lhasa I bumped into old Tibetan friends from Dharamsala, and even from England, including the then director of the Free Tibet Campaign!
I would visit the Jokhang every day before the Chinese made it compulsory to buy tickets each time. Of course I visited the Potala Palace and the Norbulingka as well. By another stroke of luck I was asked to photograph all the monasteries and other old buildings for a Tibetan architecture exhibition being put on at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Gangchen Kyishong (the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile near Dharamsala), so had great fun exploring the back streets of Lhasa.
Tibet is without doubt the most magical country I’ve ever visited.
I recall joining pilgrims on the early morning bus to Ganden monastery, and the wide smile on the face of the monk selling tickets when I gave him a small Thai Buddha statue. And the trip to Samye, the oldest monastery in Tibet, which I hadn’t bothered to acquire the required permit for. And the excitement at the arrival of pilgrims who had walked and prostrated themselves for hundreds of miles to reach Lhasa. Tibet is without doubt the most magical country I’ve ever visited.
Occasionally I’ve come across English-speaking Tibetans – usually those who had been educated in India before choosing to return for family reasons – resulting in some interesting conversations.
The Tibetan quarter of Lhasa has become much more touristy over the years.
But there have been frustrations too. Domestic tourism has taken off in China, so it can be difficult finding a hostel bed, or booking a train ticket, in the busy summer months. The Tibetan quarter of Lhasa has become much more touristy over the years. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that China (as opposed to Tibet) is my least favourite country to travel in, although I’ll probably be there again next year! Whether I’ll make it back to Kham or Amdo, let alone U-Tsang (the TAR), is another matter, but I’d like to see Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar before I die, so we shall see. Then again, there’s always next lifetime…
About the author: Christian is a Free Tibet volunteer who first worked with the then Free Tibet Campaign in 1999-2000, has spent a decade in Asia, and returned there earlier this month to recommence his travels.