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>>A short stay in Tibet

>by Lucy Fairbrother

Back to Travel section
We came back from Tibet a couple of days ago - was absolutely incredible. We had a 5 day drive from Kathmandu to Lhasa, the ancient holy city of Tibet, with the highest point being about 5000m. It was through a pass in the Himalaya, so although we didn’t actually drive through any mountains, we had a brilliant, close up view of them, including Everest. The plateau itself is more like desert than mountain, with a few hills, but mainly miles and miles of desert-like terrain. There are a few trees in the places where civilisation has sprung up, but it is mostly scrubby bushes that appear, and areas with nothing but rock are common. The sun is scorching, and I have burnt slightly, even with cream, having been outside for less than half and hour - however it is pretty damn chilly, especially on exposed land, where the wind blows for miles uninhibited, and whips round you, bitterly cold. We stopped the Landcruiser to take some photos of the mountains, and I was wearing my trusty flip-flops, so within about 30 seconds I could feel frostbite taking hold of my toes. Wildlife has been pretty limited, although the few animals we catch sight of are wonderfully unusual. Highlights include the yak (an animal that is so depended on in Tibet that the word for it "gyag" is synonymous in some areas with "wealth")...in fact I am sitting in the YAK café (Thamel, Kathmandu) now, so there is a little one staring down at me from the wall.

We stopped on the way at various little towns to rest, and see a few sights. Along the way were small Tibetan villages, more or less untouched by Chinese business, except maybe a police outpost, or some Chinese graffiti. Shigatse and Lhasa on the other hand ARE China. It's heartbreaking. I admit that I have been under much influence of militant Free Tibet organisations back home. What China is doing now, and what China HAS done, are so different, and I am angry with myself for not realising the distinction before now. In the 1st few decades after what China calls the "peaceful liberation" (basically a bloody invasion that forced the government of Tibet to sign a crippling treaty submitting to them), under Chairman Mao, the Chinese army, people, and even Chinese-educated young Tibetans, went around destroying as much Tibetan culture as they could, reducing the number of Buddhist monasteries from 6000 to 600 (according to a monk I talked to in Lhasa). Scriptures were burnt, and monks were beaten and arrested. But, Chairman Mao died, and the purely destructive revolution came and went. In Tibet now, you can see what irreparable damage Mao did, but these days the Tibetan culture is more preserved, and I believe China is now proud of it, whatever happened in the past. We could feel the atmosphere of oppression just walking through the streets and monasteries - our guide was hushed by a monk when he uttered "14th Dalai Lama", and guiltily giggled as he mentioned the official 11th Panchen Lama (the 2nd most important leader in Tibet before china) who is a Chinese replacement for the "real" Panchen lama, who has been in prison since his recognition at the age of 6. Even so, monks are not being tortured on the streets, as the impression is given, and in fact just seem to get on with their business within their monasteries, or walk around the streets, seemingly unbothered. The Chinese maintains an impressive presence, and there is still a large amount of Han immigration, which is sad, but nothing to the extent that is advertised at home.

My favourite day was spent in Drepung Monastery, just outside Lhasa. Very few people here speak English, and I speak far less Tibetan than Nepali, but they're all very friendly, especially the monks (at least they are after you Tashi Dele! them and smile, so they know you're nice) and willing to open a locked chapel, or show you their quarters (a bed on the floor and a desk). I was walking up the side of Drepung, and saw a nun outside the walls, setting up a little shelter, so her cat could sleep under shade. I, being how I am with cats, had to go stroke it, and the nun seemed ok with my presence (then again she spoke no English, so the smile could have been more vicious than I interpreted it as). She was living outside the monastery, in what looked like a very small hermits cave turned into a little house. You could see the hole carved into the rock, then there was a shelter built outside, with a kettle, some firewood, a little fence, and some other bits, including a rabbit in a rickety cage, plus this cat. Past her house was a large hill with some big rocks and huge paintings of founders of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. I went and sat on a rock up on the hill, with a panoramic view of the Himalayas to my right, a monastery to my left, OM MANI PADME HUM in the rock above me, and a pair of hoopoes dancing around the rock below, with Lhasa in the distance....which was nice. The first time I saw the Potala palace (old home of the Dalai Lama, which now just sits there almost entirely empty, a hollow but spectacular reminder of former Tibetan independence) was the most memorable moment, as we drove into Lhasa, and there it was, atop this rather large hill. Inside it was rather sad, as all the inhabitants moved out long ago, and there's not a lot left, except a few rooms with some interesting Buddha statues, and the thrones of previous dalai lamas (I sneakily snapped an illegal photo of the old living quarters of the present 14th Dalai Lama... you understand that I HAD to). The worst I saw was how an offering room had been turned into a place for overpriced refreshments and tourist shite. The tiny number of monks left there were the best thing about it all....I sat down with them and communicated through smiles and through another nearby cat that must be looked after by one of them, which was passed to me, and then lay down to sleep on my lap.

I’m now back in Kathmandu. It's ridiculously hot here (maybe 33C), and its hard not to want to just lie in the guesthouse under the fan and sleep. Nepal seems luxurious now. In Tibet, the toilets are even worse than here, generally a raised room, with a rectangular hole in the floor...no tap. The food is worse than Nepal. About twice the price, and not as tasty. I have survived 2 weeks almost entirely on unleavened Tibetan bread. Chinese supermarkets were fun though! We chuckled at the dried meat section (treats include donkey and dog) with smiling cartoons of the relevant animal on the front. We squelched the squishy intestine-like packed meat. We tried Chinese sweets - DON'T. We bought 650ml beer bottles for the equivalent of 28p. We were surrounded by Chinese supermarket attendants, desperate to be helpful, so chatter away in Chinese and point to things we REALLY don’t want, and hold your bags, or smile amiably when we look puzzled at a Chinese label. We still found no cheese.

Lucy is a member of the Bristol University Coalition For Tibet

Lucy at Drepung The cat in it's tent

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