Introduction: Ten Days in Tibet

May 24 – June 2, 2014
Photo set on Flickr

“Is Tibet worth visiting?”

Family and friends have been asking me this question ever since I come home. This is not your run-of-the-mill conversation starter; their curiosity is genuine. Despite being more accessible than ever, with daily flights to Beijing, Chengdu and Xi’an, and a direct railway to the capital, Tibet will always be one of the most geographically hostile places on Earth. No amount of technological advancement can ever change this fundamental fact.

Averaging more than four thousand meters above sea level, high altitude sickness is something all travelers to the Tibetan Plateau will experience. Some might only have a mild headache but severe cases of edema (fluid accumulation in the tissues of the body) are not unheard of. My wife and I were of the former, but our two travel mates became so weak (in Lhasa and at Everest Base Camp respectively) they could hardly get out of bed. Fortunately they both recovered after taking the high altitude medicine Diamox.

Also not changing any time soon is Tibet’s political situation. Since being “liberated” by China in 1951, Tibet has been one of the most politically sensitive areas in the world. Having a tireless and charismatic ambassador in the 14th Dalai Lama, in exile in India since a failed uprising in 1959, certainly helps project an international spotlight on the continual plight of the Tibetans. But Dalai Lama is closing on his 80th birthday and has already retired from his post as the head of the exile government in 2011, and even the Noble Prize winner himself admits his “middle way” approach of non-violence and dialogue has failed to bring change to the situation. Beijing is hoping the eventual death of the Tibetan spiritual leader, along with continued economic development and a steady stream of Han Chinese migrants will ultimately bring Tibet indisputably under Chinese rule. Or, without the Dalai Lama’s preaching of non-violence, some Tibetans could take up arms like their neighbors in Xinjiang and go the terrorism route. Not matter where you stand on this extremely complicated issue – support Chinese rule, true autonomy or full-blown independence – it is clear the status quo won’t last for much longer.

For most Chinese visitors, the Tibet political conundrum is a nonissue entirely manufactured by the Dalai Lama camp and the West. They are in Tibet to indulge themselves in what is popularly known in China as the “last pristine joy land on earth”. To each his own, but the reality is Tibet is firmly established on the tourist trail and this all-too-important tourism industry is completely environmentally unsustainable. Rubbish is everywhere, from grassland to river to mountains. It is impossible to not find a construction of roads and buildings somewhere, resulting in erosion and mudslide. At Mt Everest Base Camp the preferred source of heating is coal and garbage disposal by incineration. Standing at the foot of the world’s highest peak, my mind was not filled with an inflated sense of accomplishment or an appreciation of mother nature but how I was damaging my lung with every breathe I took.

I have never had such mixed feelings after coming home from a trip. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend visiting Tibet, but if this place intrigues you, temper your expectation and come with an open heart. It is most likely unlike anywhere else you have seen before.

Itinerary:

May 24 – Fly Air China from Shenzhen via Chengdu to Lhasa
May 25 – Barkhor, Jokhang and Ramoche Temple
May 26 – Drepung Monastery and Potala Palace
May 27 – Sera Monastery and Drak Yerpa
May 28 – Began 5 day road trip; Yamdrok Tso, Gyantse and Shigatse
May 29 – Mt Everest Base Camp
May 30 – Shishapangma Protected Area; Back to Shigatse
May 31 – Namtso
Jun 1 – Back to Lhasa
Jun 2 – Fly Air China via Chongqing to Shenzhen

 

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