The country at the roof of the world, was very different from what I expected. Tibet, often considered the spiritual center of the world has more Buddhist monks, stupas and gods than any other place, yet it was anything but the peaceful and calm realm I had envisioned. Not that the available online resources lie about it, but more that there is a general lack of information beyond the Dalai Lama and the Chinese-Tibetan political situation, so my mind veered towards red-robed monks and the magical image of the Potala Palace. The list of things that surprised me about Tibet is quite long, but I will attempt to highlight the most relevant, the top 17 things that most people don’t know about Tibet or that will surprise any traveler to the oft-called Shangri-la.
- 1. Tibet is developed and it has incredible infrastructure
- 2. The issue of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama
- 3. The highest country on the planet
- 4. 40% less oxygen
- 5. Permits, permits, permits
- 6. Big Brother is watching
- 7. Cold and high, but without snow
- 8. Tibet was not always a peaceful nation
- 9. Yak meat, yak butter, yak hair
- 10. Photos of the Dalai Lama are illegal
- 11. Shangri-la is the result of a misspelling
- 12. The prostrations
- 13. The toilets
- 14. Kora
- 15. Temple smell
- 16. Paying for photographs
- 17. Commercialised Everest Base Camp
- 18. Speed limits
1. Tibet is developed and it has incredible infrastructure
I visited with the utopian idea in my head that Tibet was going to be a peaceful and isolated place resembling Bhutan. But Tibet, or the Tibetan Autonomous Region, is a Chinese occupied territory that became part of China in 1950 and, as a result, for good or for bad, infrastructure has developed dramatically. Even the road that leads to the world’s highest mountain, Everest, is paved almost all the way, a far cry from the 9-14 day trek from Lukla Airport (the world’s most dangerous airport) to reach the Nepalese equivalent. In fact, we drove all the way to 5,200m to the tourist Everest Base Camp. Roads throughout the country are smooth and paved, including the Friendship Highway that links Shanghai with Kathmandu and runs for 5,900km, practically crossing Tibet.
Countless electricity lines crisscross the arid landscapes, at times, several electricity posts slashed my photographs. Even the most remote of villages have electricity and solar panels. Why? Tibet is China’s richest province, with deep reserves of gold, copper and other precious and valuable resources and infrastructure is essential to mine and exploit this natural wealth. As our train to Lhasa glided through the middle of nowhere, high up in the Tibetan Plateau, the lights of trucks carrying minerals to processing factories provided a continuous source of light in the darkest of nights. Those factories lit the horizon in sudden outbursts. Next to them, nomad villages built to accommodate the workers supporting the factories sprung as if mushrooming from the rocks and sand. There were many, and we were to see even more across Tibet.
2. The issue of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama
The 14th Dalai Lama left Tibet after disagreement with the Chinese government about his successor, which made it too dangerous for him to stay and has lived in exile in Dharamsala, India, ever since. This shows his opposition to the occupation and his demands for true autonomy (not independence) for Tibet. The Chinese government recognises Buddhism, a religion that is widely spread in the country despite communism, but nominated their own Panchen Lama, the successor to the Dalai Lama, in 1995, six years after the death of the previous Panchen Lama, following a traditional process using a golden urn that was used for the 10th, 11th and 12th Dalai Lamas. Their choice did not match that of the current Dalai Lama, whose successor has been kept in an unknown location in China ever since.
The Panchen Lama nominated by the Chinese Government has been receiving education in Buddhism and Tibetan culture since his enthronement at the Panchen Lama’s seat in Xigatse. His photograph can be seen across Tibet whereas having a photo of the 14th Dalai Lama is illegal and can carry fines or imprisonment. Tibetans often claim this misalignment about who the next Dalai Lama will be as the main attempt by the Chinese to eradicate Tibetan culture and identity.
3. The highest country on the planet
When I visited Bhutan I thought I was high. High on life, high on spirituality and high up in the mountains! One of the country’s nickname, “The Kingdom in the clouds”, clearly reflects its high altitude, with the capital at 2,300m and several peaks above 7,000m. Bhutan ranks as the highest country in the world when average altitudes are taken, despite some of the lowest parts are almost at sea level.
But that is just because Tibet is not officially recognised as a country by the UN because of Chinese veto, so it is just a region of China. Before Chinese occupation, Lhasa was the highest capital in the world as per the Guinness World Book of Records, but La Paz in Bolivia has taken that prize since Tibet became a part of China.
What makes Tibet’s altitude extra special is that, not only does it have the highest mountain in the world (Mount Everest), but also the highest average altitudes at 4,575m above sea level, the highest road, the highest toilet, the highest town (Whenzuan), the highest monastery and the highest train. Everything in Tibet is made of superlatives. We drove up mountain passes that are at 5,200m, we used the highest toilet in the world, located on the same mountain pass top, we took the train to Lhasa, which climbs to 4,500m and visited the world’s highest monastery, Rongbuk, at the foot of Everest Base Camp. Altitude is an undetachable synonym with Tibet.
4. 40% less oxygen
Tibet’s high altitude is the cause for the traveler’s worst nightmare: Altitude sickness. Because it is so high, the pressure is lower giving the sensation that there is less oxygen. I have extensively covered the topic of altitude sickness, because we felt it and felt it badly, but what I found most interesting is that it is not possible to descend in Tibet, the lowest altitude is already a whooping 3,500m above sea level.
5. Permits, permits, permits
Getting to Tibet is not particularly difficult. Travel restrictions have been lifted and you can go on a small private tour like I did with WildChina, without issues. It was a similar process to that for North Korea. You cannot travel independently, but you can pretty much visit anything as long as you are entering with a tour company. And, unlike North Korea, you can freely wander the streets or explore anything without a chaperon.
However, visiting Tibet does require a lot of planning ahead. You will need a Chinese visa first, which is required by almost all citizens and can take up to two weeks to process depending on your country of residence and which can be very costly (USD100 in Singapore). With a photocopy of that in hand, the travel agent will apply for a Tibetan permit which will be linked to your detailed itinerary. The permit can take anything from a week to 3 weeks so you should start the entire process about two months ahead to ensure everything is done on time as the processing timelines vary vastly from country to country (e.g. one of my friends took 2 weeks for the Chinese visa and 3 days for the Permit whereas I took 3 days for the visa and 3 weeks for the permit).
The permit is your passport into the Tibetan Autonomous Region and will be checked and rechecked a million times throughout the trip. Your guide will keep the permit with him or her throughout your stay. Every time you reach a new village the guide will be registering you, even for just one night, with the local Police, so your whereabouts are being monitored at all times. There were also 20 road checks through our 9 day journey and we were thoroughly scrutinised at the train station and airport before boarding. If you plan to visit Everest Base Camp, then you will need an additional permit and to go through a Military check-point at the park’s entry.
6. Big Brother is watching
The controls of visitors extend to the cars as well. All cars that take tourists around the country are owned by the government and kitted with two cameras and a radio system that communicates a central office to all the drivers. The cameras are constantly monitoring the driver and making sure that he is not doing anything against the Chinese rules. Every time the speed went above the marked limit, a message came through on the radio speakers to slow down. The speakers also shared a regular amount of updates and reminders about safety on the road. It was a constant reminder that our every move was being watched.
7. Cold and high, but without snow
I was expecting the landscapes to be rocky, mountainous and majestic and for the snow to cap all mountain tops but Tibetan landscapes are rather brown and grey with very little snow. In fact, although we saw some snow flakes as we traversed the highest pass, at 5,200m, the majority of the mountains were devoid of that delicate white veil that tops other mountain ranges. Our guide confirmed that it does snow very little in Tibet and that pretty much all the snow we were seeing was permanent. The glaciers, receding as a result of global warming, were also perennial. The lack of snow is caused by the high Himalayan mountains that stop the clouds from emptying their bowels and providing rain or snow.
8. Tibet was not always a peaceful nation
I associated Tibet with peace, not least because the Dalai Lama has been an example of opposition to the Chinese occupation, something which got him the Nobel Peace Prize. But Tibet’s past wasn’t always as spiritual and peaceful as Buddhism advocates. Tibetan Kings fought and defended Tibet from assailants for centuries. Remnants of Medieval fortresses, city walls and castles can be seen across the country. Unlike Bhutan, who was never occupied by an international power, the English had several incursions in Tibet, as did the Mongols, Indians, Afghans, Nepali and various Chinese dynasties. So monks, and the Tibetan Kings, were a fearless army defending their territory since the 17th century until the Chinese occupation in the 1950s.
9. Yak meat, yak butter, yak hair
Tibet’s high altitudes and harsh conditions make life extremely hard and yaks are the lifeline for most Tibetans. Yak meat, leaner and lighter than beef, is ever present. Yaks are also used for milk and butter and their hair is used to make rugs and clothes, even to weave the cover ups that protect the Potala Palace – delicate paintings and carvings from the sun. Even yak dung is collected and dried to be used as fuel in the winter months. However, yaks are an endangered species and most of the animals seen roaming the fields are actually a blend between yak and cow.
10. Photos of the Dalai Lama are illegal
Almost everyone has a clear image in their heads of the current Dalai Lama. However, carrying or having his photo in Tibet could lead to imprisonment and punishment. None of the houses or temples we visited had any. Instead, the Panchen Lama, nominated by the Chinese Government, is to be displayed in homes and businesses. The prohibition extends to the Tibetan Flag, which does not fly anywhere in the country. Bright Chinese flags are hung on rooftop of houses, next to the colourful prayer flags.
11. Shangri-la is the result of a misspelling
Tibet is often referred to as the Shangri-la. The word has no meaning in Tibetan, although La does mean mountain pass and is attached to the end of all passes in Tibet. The word was first coined by the writer of the most famous novel about Tibet, Lost Horizon, in 1933. James Hilton probably misunderstood the word Shambhala, which has a similar meaning in Tibetan Buddhism, and wrote Shangri-la instead. Since then, the word has been assimilated to a mythical place somewhere high in the mountains, a Heaven of sorts, a paradise on Earth, and is even the brand name of a luxury hotel chain whose eponymous Lhasa hotel I stayed at during my visit.
12. The prostrations
I had seen some images of devout Buddhists prostrating in key Buddhist temples and landmarks but nothing could prepare me for the absolute devotion and extreme prostrations that some engage in. Some people would spend their entire day prostrating and praying, continuously kneeling down and laying flat on the floor then standing up again. Most will be dressed appropriately, with hand and knee protection to allow them to glide. At some particularly holy places, like in front of the Jokhang Monastery or the Potala Palace, some extreme devouts would prostrate in the middle of the pavement and receive donations from passers-by.
13. The toilets
Click to enlarge if you really want to see how the toilets look
I cannot talk about things which surprised me about Tibet and not mention the toilets. Although there are public toilets across the cities and main road stops, they smelled so bad and were so dirty at times that we opted for the nature toilet: behind a rock (because there are no trees in the mountains). Bringing wet wipes and tissue is not enough, one needs to bring a sort of perfume to put a couple of drops under the nose to enter some of the public toilets. All of Tibet’s toilets, barring the hotels, are squat toilets consisting of a hole on the floor with a drop which may sometimes not be very long. There are no doors to the public toilets which often times will have more than one hole next to each other. You may do your thing next to someone who is doing her thing, in the open. And if that was not enough, many people miss and the toilets are never cleaned. You get the picture. This remained the main topic of discussion among my group, a source of constant jokes and laughter, as we hunted for the cleanest, least smelling holes. I will leave it there.
Tibetans go on walking and praying pilgrimages around main landmarks and monasteries. Much like the Camino de Santiago or the trip to Mecca, only shorter and more frequent. These walks are called Kora and can be taken around any monastery. The most common one is the one in Lhasa, around the Potala Palace or the Sera Monastery. Locals pray as they walk around, many of them will spin prayer wheels like in Bhutan. Some of the Kora can take up to a full day and the elderly may repeat them every day.
15. Temple smell
All temples and monasteries in Tibet have the same common smell of yak butter used in the butter lamps and fresh incense also burned across the country in houses and burners that can be found in public places.
16. Paying for photographs
In Bhutan taking photos of temples and monasteries is simply not allowed. The interiors of the Buddhist buildings are usually covered from floor to ceiling with paintings and offerings in bright colours and gold and they are incredible to see and experience and provide a deep sense of spirituality. In Tibet you can photograph almost every landmark and interior as long as you pay a donation. At first we were surprised but relaxed as the money seemed more like a voluntary donation which we diligently dropped in bowls. But in some monasteries the monks would chase us for the donation, making us drop cameras for those who did not pay to avoid any photos being taken, and the initially innocuous amount started to amount to a small fortune as some temples started to ask for up to USD350 per hall for video, like in Shigatse. At USD2-4 per hall and an average of 3-5 halls worthwhile per monasteries I probably spent upwards of USD100 in photo donations, on top of the entry tickets. Considering these were religious places that were already filled with pilgrim donations (and stacks of money were stuffed inside God’s enclosures), the additional donation started to feel a bit much.
17. Commercialised Everest Base Camp
I can speak for myself, who paid a handsome amount to take a helicopter to the Nepali Base Camp well before this was a commercial venture offered to tourists. But on the Tibetan side, thanks to very good infrastructure, the Base Camp has been commercialised extensively. We slept 8km from the climber’s Base Camp in a tourist tented camp which advertised free WiFi and was filled with souvenir stalls albeit it offered very basic accommodation at sub-zero temperatures without heating. The Chinese government has announced plans to build a resort, museum and helipad a few kilometers from Base Camp, in Gangkar, to offer greater comfort and drive more tourism dollars into the country, although most visitors to Tibet are still local Chinese from other provinces. Serious trekkers no longer consider Everest a hard climb since so many people are attempting and reaching the summit every year. I can tell you the acclimatisation to 5,200m was very tough.
18. Speed limits
We regularly saw cars stopped in the middle of the road. The Chinese authorities control speed limits in a very comical and questionable way: By putting road controls and checking how long it took you to get from one to the next. The speed limits on the road are low, about 35km/h for many roads, making the trips longer than they should take given the great infrastructure. I already discussed before that the tourism vehicles cannot surpass the speed limit and if you do, the driver gets an announcement through the radio system. But, in addition, most roads have controls. You will get a stamp on a paper with the time you crossed the previous one and the policeman will check that it took you the stipulated amount of time to cover the distance. This was not an issue for us because we were not in a rush and were making plenty of photo stops. But the locals had to stop by the side of the road to waste some time before going through controls or speed cameras.