Two Weeks of Time Warps and Tough Terrains in Terrific Tibet
I had always dreamed of going to Tibet. I wasn’t sure what would be waiting for me when I stepped off the plane, but I knew I had to go. I already want to go back there, just to check that it really does exist.
Entering the Tibetan capital
There was something mysterious and enchanting about Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. It felt as though there was something different in the air, although that could have had something to do with being 3,500m above sea level, the striking scenery literally taking my breath away. Glorious mountains, colourfully-decorated streets, and Tibetans dressed in what looked like very elaborate theatrical costumes, never seemed to be too far away.
Walking through the small Lhasa villages I couldn’t help but feel as though I had stepped back in time. Round-faced, dark-skinned and rosy-cheeked, the women’s long, black hair was braided with turquoise and amber beads. Instead of money, the most valued necessity are the timid, long-haired yaks, used for clothing, food, fuel and travel, joined on the road by horses pulling carts.
Situated so high up, Tibet isn’t the warmest place in the world, so it’s important to wrap up warm. For my Tibetan adventure I had packed thick socks, a coat, hat and gloves, but most things were available in the local shops, including bottles of oxygen.
Exploring the Tibetan temples
All around Lhasa you see monks in their robes, some saffron and some burgundy. At first it seems strange to see so many of them walking around. To catch them texting on the latest mobile phone or sporting Nike trainers is even more bizarre.
In Lhasa’s central square stands the famous Jokhang Temple. Outside, Buddhists pray with their mats laid out before them, bowing respectfully and then standing again, for hours on end. A flow of pilgrims walk clockwise around the outside of the temple in what’s known as the Barkhor Circuit, often having travelled from remote parts of Tibet with all their family and sheep.
The pilgrims were easy to spot as they looked rugged and wore clothes made from animal skins: they could almost have come from another age. The joy of being at one of the holiest places in Tibet is written across their faces. On the Barkhor Circuit we passed through the Muslim quarter which is fascinating to see. As you wind through the alleys, I could hear the call to prayer coming from the nearby mosque, and the spiritual importance is even available to buy from the stalls lining the streets, offering everything from prayer wheels to precious stones.
Once the circuit is complete, you come to the entrance of the Jokhang Temple. The pilgrims rush past you trying to gain a place in the queue which navigates around the different rooms inside the temple. Each room contains holy shrines and figures of gods, an overwhelming sight for long-distance travellers.
The pilgrims chanted and offered money or yak butter to each god. At one point we came across a wall of prayer wheels which the pilgrims spun as they passed. It was the roof where I found my spiritual moment though. Here I could see the wonderful view of the square, the town and the surrounding mountains. On the right-hand side was the famous Potala Palace in the background, the home of the Dalai Lama before he fled into exile. It was just one of those moments that I will be able to remember perfectly, no matter where I go or what I do.
Wandering the landscapes
After I had adjusted to the thinning air and Tibetan way of life, I decided to explore more of this fascinating country. Joining up with four other travellers, we hired a jeep with a driver to tour around the countryside.
My first impressions of Lhasa had fuelled my curiosity to see what else this fascinating country had to offer, and I was not disappointed. Our seven-day road trip took us past the mighty snow capped mountains of Nargaste, the intriguing temples in Gyantse and Shigatse, both technically a region of China, known as the Tibet Autonomous Region, and of course the unmissable Everest Base Camp, as well as the pointed mountain region of Lhatse.
Tibet it is so unique and so raw; it is a country stuck in a time-warp and long may it last. If the Western world had never reached their land, I am sure the Tibetans wouldn’t have minded. They appear to be content with their yaks, pilgrimages and untouched landscapes and I hope it stays this way for a very long time, despite the odd pair of Nikes here and there.