Several years ago, while traveling in China, I had the opportunity to visit Tibet for a few days. It was not a long enough trip, and I keep hoping I’ll get back, but that hasn’t happened yet. However, I think Tibet is a destination worth sharing, as it is so remarkable. Of course, tourism has increased since I visited, with the Chinese government now encouraging visitors. But the beauty and cultural heritage of Tibet are still worth exploring.
The landscape of Tibet, while harsh, is tremendously beautiful. Mountains are the most obvious feature, forming the backdrop for everything. The primary color of the region is tan-to-gold, from the arid mountains to the sand that runs up walls, fills gaps, forms dunes at the mountains’ bases to the golden grasses and scrub that spread away from the precipitous walls. The off-white houses are sand-blasted to a tan that melts into the background. But there are other colors. The lakes reflect the vividly blue sky, and greenery and even flowers cluster around their shores. And Tibetans have introduced color wherever possible, from brightly painted roadside Buddhas to cascades of prayer flags, which one begins to see well before reaching Lhasa.
We took things slowly at first, as we adjusted to the 12,000-foot altitude. (This was the first time I’d ever seen a hotel room that came equipped with emergency oxygen.) But soon, we were off exploring, filling our days with amazing sights and experiences.
We visited the gorgeous Potala Palace, which was started in the 7th century. Our guide, Rinchin, told us about the various Buddhas and Dalai Lamas, while guiding us among worshipers, incense burners, and vast bowls of burning yak butter. The interior is brilliant, with vividly colored paintings and richly embroidered silk banners and wall hangings covering every surface. The stairs are steep, so there is a small room for resting about half way up through the palace–because one wishes to see it all, which involves a lot of climbing. However, despite the altitude, I made it to the roof, which was wonderful, both for the view and for its own richly-ornamented beauty.
The Summer Palace–Norbulingka–was the last place the Dalai Lama lived before starting his exile. Musicians played in the park, hats out for donations. A little girl studying English asked for help pronouncing some of the words, and then practiced on us. A vendor offered items of Tibetan clothing for sale. Women sat in doorways, spinning their prayer wheels and waving to friends. Crossing the park, we enter the palace, where we wandered through astonishingly ornate rooms, being told stories of Tibetan history and legends. No surface is left undecorated.
We were invited to visit a private home. As with many Asian cultures, homes in Tibet involve outer walls that enclose courtyards. A blank wall stares into the dusty, cobbled street, and all rooms face into the tidy little garden at the center of the enclosure. While there, we were offered tsampa and yak butter tea. Tsampa–roasted, ground barley–was good, but yak butter tea (black tea churned with salt and yak butter), while not hideous, is just a bit too odd to adjust to quickly.
Jokhang Temple and the Barkhor Street Market were real highlights of the visit. It is almost beyond words to describe the experience, walking through the dimly lit temple, surrounded by Tibetans in costumes that identify their families, regions, or ethnic group, breathing the incense, listening to the chanting and the clacking and shuffling of the pilgrims prostrating themselves outside, walking by walls of candles, walls of bronze prayer wheels, walls of elaborate art. Finally making it to the roof, we had an incredible view of the Potala Palace in the near distance, of the pilgrim-filled square below, of the bustling market that runs all the way around the temple.
In the market, as in other Tibetan Buddhist sites, one walks in a clockwise direction–because, though it is an active market, it is also a sacred site for Buddhists, and is the route of pilgrims going around the Jokhang Temple. Wonderful things are to be had in the market, authenticity made obvious by the fact that most of those shopping there are Tibetans. Fabulous jewelry, ornaments, coats, sacred art, prayer wheels, all are to be had, as are T-shirts for the tourists.
Yes, we saw signs of the occupation–ruined temples, military convoys, places where jewels had been pried out of shrines. Chinese money is used, and Tibetan money is sold to collectors. At the school for orphans and homeless children, the pictures on the wall are of Mao, Lenin, Stalin. Yet the script they study is Tibetan, the arts they study are Tibetan, the language they speak is Tibetan. It feels like there is a possibility of Tibet surviving.
Of course, I also ate in Tibet. Food in Tibet is not as elegant or complex as food in China. It is largely the food of survival. However, I had wonderful meals there. Curried potatoes showed up on a lot of menus, as did delicious fried green chilies. Tsampa mixed with a little sugar and water and formed into a loaf was delightfully cake-like. Yak steaks are tough but wonderfully flavorful. Yak cheese is pungent, but works well as a garnish (the dried cheese, however, is pretty awful). And lamb is relatively common.
If you get to Lhasa, I highly recommend the Tibet Lhasa Kitchen and the Lhasa Snowland Restaurant, both of which are Tibetan-owned and offer really good local food and enthusiastic service.
Of course, people don’t go to Tibet for the cuisine. But that’s okay, because there is so much else to experience, to see, to engage with.