At te heart of Asia lies the starkly beautiful high altitude plateau of Tibet, the ‘Roof of the World’, with its unique culture and ancient history that are a traveller’s delight. Though the political status of the so called ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’ remains a matter of some debate between China and the rest of the free world, history does record that Tibet was a largely independent region with political ties to China going back to Mongol times. The Tibetan rulers paid an annual tribute to the court of the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan perhaps from as early as the year 1215 AD.
I started my journey in Kathmandu in Nepal with a two hour long flight to Gonggar, Tibet’s only international airport, located 60 kms southwest of Lhasa. The advice to ensure a seat on the left side of the aircraft is a valuable one as the flight path takes you right past Mt Everest and the highest Himalayan peaks of Makalu and Lhotse. Given clear weather, the views change quickly from the fertile patchwork of cultivated fields of the Kathmandu Valley to the forested slopes of the Middle Himalaya and then to the icy, white and grey landscape of the highest summits. Soon the peaks are left behind and we were over the brown landscape of the vast Tibetan plateau with a scattering of deep blue lakes.
Any visit to Tibet has to be arranged through a locally registered tour operator whose representatives meet you as one clears Customs and Immigration. On the new road that has replaced an older route, it takes less than hour to drive to Lhasa going through the tunnel under the Yarlung River. The Yarlung further along its journey enters India as the Brahmaputra River in Assam.
A visit to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet since 1642, cannot be appreciated without putting its iconic buildings like the Potala Palace, the Jokhang and the Norbulingka in some historic context.
Tibet’s early history is long, convoluted and reflects centuries of power struggles between the governors of its various regions and groups of monks belonging to the different sects of Tibetan Buddhism. During the opening years of the 9th century, Tibet’s influence extended as far south as Bengal and as far north as Mongolia. It is a matter of some curiosity that although the Tibetan language belongs to a completely different family of languages, the Tibeto-Burman group, very dissimilar to the Indo-European group to which many north Indian languages belong, yet the Tibetan script has an uncanny resemblance to the ancient script of Bengal in eastern India.
Attempts by Jesuit missionaries from Europe to establish Christianity in the 17th and 18th centuries were viewed in great alarm by the monks in Lhasa who were part of the ruling establishment and by the 1850s Tibet had banned all foreigners from Tibet and sealed its borders to outsiders. Even during the first half of the 20th century, Tibet had very limited contacts with the rest of the world and Lhasa was a city completely forbidden to all foreigners.
The Chinese invasion of Tibet following unrest in Lhasa led to the present Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet in 1959 with India accepting thousands of Tibetan refugees and settling them in McLeodganj near Dharamsala where His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile are now based.
During the height of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the mid 1960’s most of Tibet’s more than 6000 monasteries, palaces and historic buildings were either completely destroyed or severely damaged. The Red Guards at the time were on a campaign of organized vandalism against all cultural sites and only a handful of the historic sites remained undamaged while thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns were killed or imprisoned. From the 1980’s onwards, the Chinese have started a programme of restoration and rebuilding. Modern day Lhasa is made up of the historic old town dominated by the Potala Palace with the Jokhang Temple and the surrounding medieval marketplace of the Barkhor. On the outskirts of what was once the town limit, is the Norbulingka (the Jewelled Park) once the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas and now a World Heritage Site. The newer parts of Lhasa look like any other large Chinese city with rather featureless low rise grey commercial buildings, wide streets and an increasing number of poorly built homes spreading outwards from the centre.
The Potala or the Winter Palace of the Dalai Lamas, perched atop the Marpori hill dominates the Lhasa Valley. The Potala, also a World Heritage Site, was the centre of both political and religious power in Tibet. The Palace is thirteen stories high and contains over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and about 200,000 religious statues. . The White Palace of the Potala was completed in 1648 and the place was used as a winter residence by the Dalai Lama from that time onwards. The Red Palace was added later between 1690 and 1694. It takes about two to three hours to do a quick walk through the sprawling structure and see the more important sections that are open to the public.
Not far from the Potala is Barkhor Square encircling the Jokhang Temple. Walking along the one kilometre long route is almost mandatory for pilgrims visiting Lhasa from the remote parts of Tibet as part of their devotional routine. Once there were four large stone incense burners in the four cardinal directions to burn aromatic juniper twigs constantly to please the gods protecting the Jokhang; nowadays, only one exists immediately outside the main entrance to the Jokhang. The busy Tromzikhang market with small shops selling fabrics and religious souvenirs line the Barkhor and the entire area is a tourist attraction.
For Tibetans, the Jokhang is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet. Built in a mix of Indian vihara, Chinese Tang Dynasty and Nepalese temple styles from 642 AD onwrds, the temple was built for the two brides of the king Songsten Gampo, one who from China and the other from Nepal. Both wives are said to have brought important Buddhist statues and images from China and Nepal to Tibet as part of their dowries which were housed here. Along with the Potala Palace, the Jokhang is probably the most visited tourist site in Lhasa and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Outside of this inner core are located the Norbulingka and also the Ganden, Sera and Drepung monasteries. The Norbulingka or the Dalai Lama’s Summer Palace spread over 89 acres served both as administrative and religious centre and has a large collection of Italian chandeliers, Ajanta frescoes, Tibetan carpets and many other artefacts. Murals of Buddha and the 5th Dalai Lama are seen in some rooms. The present Dalai Lama’s meditation room, bedroom, conference room and bathroom are part of the display explained to the tourists. It was from the Norbulingka palace that His Holiness, the Dalai Lama escaped to India one dark night in March 1959 dressed like an ordinary Tibetan.
In close proximity of Lhasa are located the Drepung, Sera and Ganden monasteries. Drepung is the largest of all Tibetan monasteries and was reported to have housed 7700 monks in the 1930’s. Sera monastery founded in 1419, located about 5 kilometres north of the Jokhang, is a large complex of buildings making up the Great Assembly Hall, monk residences, temples and three colleges. During the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, Sera suffered severe damage with its colleges destroyed and hundreds of monks killed. After the Dalai Lama fled to India, many of the monks of Sera Monastery who survived the Red Guards, moved to Bylakuppe in southern India. There they established a parallel Sera Monastery built on similar lines to the original monastery with help from the Indian Government. 3000 or more monks live in the new Sera near Mysore and this community has spread its activities to several countries by establishing Dharma centres propagating the philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism. Sera’s debating courtyard is one of the best places to see the practice of monk’s debate where questioner and defender monks’ debate issues of Buddhist philosophy to attain higher levels of understanding. Ganden Monastery, located 36 kms east of Lhasa once contained more than 25 major temples with large Buddha statues with the largest temple capable of seating 3500 monks. Ganden Monastery was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution days and like Sera, the Ganden Monastery has been re-established in southern India by the Tibetan population in exile.
Later during my week long stay in Lhasa, the Tibetan guide drove me to south to the busy city of Tsetang, one of the largest in Tibet and gateway to the scenic Yarlung Valley. The valley, often referred to as the ‘cradle of Tibetan civilisation’ contains a number of important monasteries, stupas and meditation caves. The small Yambu Lakhang monastery perched high on a hilltop with sweeping views is reputed to be oldest Buddhist monastery in Tibet established at the time when the religion was first introduced in the country. My overnight stay was in a comfortable Tsetang hotel followed by an early morning drive to Gonggar airport for the return flight.
WHY GO THERE: An ancient and unique culture that evolved over centuries is now fast disappearing under a combination of economic, cultural and political pressures with China rapid growth and globalization.
GETTING THERE: The shortest route is to fly to Lhasa via Kathmandu. One can also fly to Beijing or Shanghai and then connect to Lhasa via Chengdu, a large central Chinese city.
VISAS: A Chinese visa and a separate Tibet permit are required. Both can be processed by reliable Nepalese tour operators based in Kathmandu with experience in operating Tibet tours. Large Shanghai and Beijing based Chinese tour operators can also provide the supporting documents necessary for processing visas and permits at Chinese embassies around the world.
WHERE TO STAY: Hotel accommodation and local travel arrangements are best arranged by the Nepalese or Chinese tour operator who is organising complete the tour. A choice of 3 and 4 star centrally located hotels are available in Lhasa.