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Writer Darren Skelton takes us on a tour of the mysterious, disputed region between India and China.
Text and photos by:Darren Skelton

y wife and I live up in the city of Harbin, way up in HeiLongJiang province in northeastern China. My wife is Manchurian Chinese, and I am Yorkshire English. Despite our different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, we both dreamed of visiting the region known to all as Tibet.

The train is the way to travel, alternating between reading a book and gazing out the window. We passed through a Mongolian desert, flatlands and more flatlands and the QingHai-Tibet Plateau, a stunning geographical region. The train journey is a 43 hour marathon. The Mongolian desert was a glance at the endless sand dunes opening out in to the far distance as far as the eye could see interspersed with occasional bushes but nothing much else. The QingHai-Tibet Plateau itself is a high altitude arid steppe bracketed by mountain ranges and lakes. Nomads are still seen up here with the herds of yak, wild horses, wild donkeys and other hardy animal species. There were parts as the train reached the highest elevation that were just completely caped in snow and ice and it reminded me of what I imagine the harshest places of Antarctica to look like. Other sections slightly lower in elevation were lush green and a little less intimidating, but nonetheless a barren landscape.

I required a travel permit to enter Tibet as I am considered ‘an alien’, but my wife did not because she is not ‘an alien’ in political terms. To get an entry permit, you have to sign up with a tour group through a certain certified tour agency, because only they can obtain the required and certified permits. Tibet is not for the solo, independent traveler — legally, anyway.

We had a choice of our own private, two-person tour or a tour of up to 12 other folks. The cost difference was substantial, so we opted to join the 12-person tour.

But, as luck would have it, the group turned out to be five people. Upon arrival in Lhasa, the other three mysteriously opted out of the tour at the very last minute. In the end, our group was me, my wife, the local Tibetan tour guide and the driver, who was Han Chinese.

Along the way, our guide and driver informed us that “interestingly”, only a matter of days after our entry, no more ‘alien’ entry permits were being issued to foreigners because Tibet was shutting up shop again for a few months for reasons we did not yet know. We noticed that we had accidentally gone on tour in Tibet at the holiest and most religious of times, you see, so the authorities want things nice and quiet.

Speaking of nice and quiet – our tour guide and driver informed us that nice and quiet is just how the local authorities like it, want it and demand it – and they make it so. The local citizens are well-housed (newly married local couples, for example, are given a brand-spanking new apartment to live in for free!), well-educated (schooling is free up to university age, which is most definitely not the case in the mainland), and basic food and amenities costs are kept low, among other benefits. Visitors to the region are carefully monitored, regulated and looked after; there are numerous, highly visible police and military almost everywhere, though they are discreet and non-threatening.

Our tour guide’s father actually witnessed the Dalai Lama fleeing from the Summer Palace in a cloak-and-dagger operation. His father’s brother fought in many a bloody battle with the soldiers of the PLA (the People’s Liberation Army) back when Tibet was once again being taken over by a hostile force. That very same uncle fought so well and gained such a reputation that after defeat, he was offered a good job high up the ladder in the then-ruling Chinese political party where he has remained until today. The whole family is doing well for it.

The tour guide was one of the many Tibetan youths who flee every year over the mountain ranges into India to study with so many others in the ‘Tibetan-community’ in Northern India before eventually illegally re-entering Tibet over secret mountain passes. Now he can never obtain a passport because he has gone to the other side of the mountains, where he once met the Dalai Lama. When his opportunity to speak to the Dalai Lama came, he was at a lost for words and just stood sheepishly.

The vast majority of the population in Tibet is not massively concerned with being ‘administered’ or governed by the People’s Republic of China. They are so absorbed in their religious ways of life and beliefs that everything else is literally and metaphorically immaterial to them. In addition, other countries and people have “ruled” here before, so Tibetans see the current Chinese rule as only another non-permanent period in history.

The Potala Palace really is as awesome as it seems from images on TV travelogues and travel books. Construction began in 1645 by the 5th Dalai Lama, Lozang Gyatso who believed it to be an ideal location for the seat of government. It was used for the purpose of ruling government and as the chief residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala, India, during the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Nowadays, the Potala Palace is a museum with thirteen stories of buildings containing over 1000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and approximately 200,000 statues. The Potala Palace was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994 and visiting numbers have had to be restricted to avoid overcrowding and damage. We went there a few times at various times of day. In particular, sunset was a real eye-opener, with the hues of colour changing with the sun going down, a musical fountain show, kids running around everywhere with their kites and spinning tops, and line dancing of all sorts in the forecourt area.

Visiting time inside the Potala Palace is limited — you are allowed a two-hour window that you must book in advanced – all in the very sensible strategy of keeping visitor numbers down. Sustainable tourism is to be commended.

The temple in Lhasa, Jokhang temple by name, located in the center of the city really is the religious and real focal point of the city and the region. It has an aura and a presence in human terms that is lacking in the Potala Palace. The sights and the sounds, the textures, the art, the smells and the comings and goings are a world away from what we as Westerners see every day. Jokhang temple is indeed the focal point for pilgrims from the entire Tibetan world, with endless pilgrims prostrating around the temple in and around people going about their daily businesses, plus a multitude of little souvenir and little knick-knack stalls all along Barkhor Street that runs around the temple.

We visited the Sera monastery north of Lhasa one hot and sunny late afternoon. It is one of the Gelugpa (yellow hat) sect monastic colleges. We learned that the colleges had survived certain purges by the local authorities in the past. The monastery is famous for its Buddhism philosophical debate practice with monks in a tree-covered, walled courtyard, seated on gravel and stones. The debating monks were truly a pleasure to observe and were a highlight of the trip.

We drove through Kambala Pass, which has some breathtaking views and murderously steep roads and passes. One heavily overloaded truck had come very much unstuck, and had lost control and crashed off the road owing to break failure and was now a heap of twisted metal – not a pleasant site or thought for the driver). We also saw Yamdrok Lake (which apparently is one of the three holy lakes in Tibet) and Naiqinkangsang Snow Mountain. Through this particular drive we were able to witness a crystal blue lake surrounded by large, dominating, white mountains. The valleys we drove through allowed us to catch a glimpse of a few nomadic farmers herding their yaks down the valley, with the yaks colourfully adorned with scarves, bells and other trinkets.

All in all it was a journey of a lifetime that my wife and I shall never forget.




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Taking Time to Travel Tibet .

Although my wife and I come from very different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, she is Chinese and I am English, we both dreamed of visiting Tibet.

I needed a travel permit to enter Tibet since I am considered ‘an alien’, so I had to sign up with a tour group through a certified tour agency. This is the only way to get an entry permit. Travelling on your own is not legally permitted when you are a foreigner. We were offered a two-person tour or a 12-person tour. Considering the costs, we opted to join the 12-person tour. Luckily, the group turned out to be five people and when we arrived to Lhasa, the other three decided not to go at the very last minute. In the end our group was my wife, the local Tibetan tour guide, the driver and I.

We heard stories about how the guide’s father actually saw the Dalai Lama running away from the Summer Palace and how his uncle fought in many battles with the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army and that after defeat he was offered a job in the ruling Chinese political party of the time.

We were entertained by the stories, but we could also see great buildings such as the Potala Palace. The Palace was used for the purpose of ruling government and as the residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama escaped during the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Nowadays it is a museum. It was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994 and since then the visitor numbers have been kept down to avoid overcrowding and damage.

The landscapes were breathtaking. We saw Yamdrok Lake and Naiqinkangsang Snow Mountain. The picture was a crystal blue lake surrounded by large, white mountains. It was definitely a journey of a lifetime that my wife and I will never forget.


 

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