pinterest verify Globerovers Travel Photography: Tibet, Land of the Bhikkhu

Tibet, Land of the Bhikkhu

Tibet is home to numerous ancient Buddhist monasteries with a substantial number of resident monks.  The so-called "Tibet Autonomous Region" (which is the area now referred to as "Tibet"), was created by China in 1950 when they invaded and annexed Tibet. The original borders of Tibet goes well beyond these Chinese created borders and includes large parts of adjacent Chinese provinces such as Sichuan and Yunnan. Many Tibetans (and Tibetan monasteries) are therefore located outside of the current borders of Tibet.

The list of monasteries inside and outside Tibet is long, and they are ranked in terms of their importance to the Tibetan Buddhist people. The Jokhang temple and monastery located on Barkhor Square in Lhasa is the most scared temple to most Tibetan people. The temple was founded in the 7th century and was first constructed by King Songtsän Gampo around the year 642. However, it was closed and boarded up during the reign of King Bönpo who reigned during the years of 838–841 and sacked several times by the Mongols. In more recent history, the Red Guards of Mao Zedong (who ruled China from 1949 until his death in 1976), sacked and desecrated the monastery in July 1966 and thousands of Buddhist scriptures were looted and burned.

Jokhang remained one of the most important pilgrim temples throughout history. Even today a constant stream of pilgrams walk (or some crawl as they are procrastinating) clockwise around the temple throughout the day and night.  The temple is a four-story building with roofs covered with gilded bronze tiles. You can walk up with stairs to the rooftop from where you will have a great view over Barkhor Square with hundreds of pilgrims procrastinating in front of the main entrance. Feel free to bypass the long line of pilgrims into the temple as tourists are allowed to fast-track. It is a surreal experience to see the pilgrims concentrate on their prayers inside one of the oldest active religious buildings in the world.

On a hill in Lhasa is the Potala Palace which was the main residence of the Dalai Lama until the current (14th) Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala in India during the 1959 Tibetan Rebellion against the control of the Communist Party of China.

Other highly sacred monasteries in Tibet include the Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery in Lhasa, and in the town of Shigatse are the Sakya Monastery, Tashilhunpo Monastery, and the Rongbuk Monastery. All of these monasteries welcome foreign tourists, as long as they pay the entrance and camera fees, which at some monasteries are quite steep.

Planning your trip to Tibet can be a daunting task. In fact, I kept postponing this trip for many years in the hope that the occupying forces of China will scrap all the red tape in getting visitor permits. Eventually I gave up and decided I go now, or never.

There are many travel agencies to choose from and unfortunately, China forces foreign visitors to be chaperoned 100% of your time by a local tour guide. This means you need to pay for a tour guide every single day you spend in Tibet. Fortunately, at the time I visited (Feb 2012), you don't need to be accompanied by your tour guide every minute (as long as you have one on standby - and paying for their services).

Should anything go wrong (i.e. police harassment), your tour guide will be informed and he/she needs to sort out your problems. Foreigners are also not allowed to rent or drive a vehicle. This means you need to rent a driver and his vehicle through a travel agency, who will also organise the necessary travel permits for you. With all this hassle and inflated costs (read - tourist rip-offs by agents), my advice is: If you haven't been to Nepal, opt for that south side of the Himalayas rather than Tibet. Nepal is a free country with none of the rules that govern travels in Tibet. Hence, Nepal is also considerably cheaper, and a truly fascinating country. In Nepal you walk for days to eventually arrive at Everest Base Camp, whereas in Tibet you can drive up all the way to Base Camp (a 3-day one-way trip at a minimum).

However, if you have done Nepal, and Tibet is your next destination, then go right ahead. Except for the pain of getting permits, the high costs, and the ever present China military forces in Tibet, you will have an unforgettable experience.

The route I customized for my Feb 2012 visit was as follows:
1.  Stay the first three nights in Lhasa to get used to the high altitude (you must spend at least two nights, but the more the better). While you are getting accustomed to the high altitude, visit the Lhasa attractions such as  Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Barkhor Street, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery (watch the monks during their afternoon debates).

2. On day four, get into your prearranged Landrover and drive to Gyantse and sleep in the town of Shigatse. En route, visit the Karola Glacier, Yamtso Tso Lake, Gyatse Kumbum Stupa, and the Pelkor Chode monastery. Also check out the Gyatse Dzong on the hill. When you arrive in Shigatse, visit the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, which is home to the biggest copper Buddha in the world.

3. On day five, drive to Lhatse before crossing over the very high passes (5,200 m) to Tingri and then to Tashizong to sleep. Catch a glimpse of Mount Everest before sunset.

4. Day six, get up early to see sunrise over Mount Everest. Spend a few hours at Everest Base Camp and then take the long road back to Shigatse.

5. Day seven: Head back to Lhasa. 

If you go around winter time, be warned that some of the passes towards Everest may be closed for days. While winter is a great time to travel through much of Tibet, the high elevations may have received tons of snow and the road will then be closed for days. I didn't get past the high passes (after Lhatse) due to a snow storm and had to return to Lhasa. This apparently is not too common even in the middle of winter, even though it could happen - which it did!

In conclusion, the trip was a disappointment because due to the snow storm I didn't get into the high mountains and didn't get to see the north side of Mount Everest. However, the villages, mountains and lakes on the Tibetan Plateau, as well as the town of Lhasa were all incredible sites. In Tibet many people still wear their traditional clothing. Visiting monasteries and temples were all incredible experiences! Thank you Tibet. Now China, get your claws off Tibet and give them back their freedom and their culture!