I don’t know the name of this mountain peak (I forgot to ask and take notes. My brain lacked oxygen so it was slow), but it has such a Paramount Pictures Mountain Logo feeling (that opening mountain rising above the clouds opening credit), right? Except this one is much more magnificent than the one in North America that inspired Paramount, as it’s over 26,000ft/ 8,000m and so in the top 2 or 3 highest in the world. The Himalayan range is the ultimate showstopper!
I feel absolutely awful about disappearing for almost three months. I want to post regularly, but I have severe issues with self-discipline. I’m sick of acknowledging that I can’t overcome my laziness, so I’ll just get right down to telling you about my trip to Tibet.
I had long wanted to visit this secluded region but couldn’t go for all those years because unlike the vast majority of places in the world where if you want to go you book tickets, get visa, and go, Tibet has quite a few travel restrictions in place (imposed by China), the most annoying of which is you have to travel in a group led by a Chinese government-approved travel agency. I always travel independently, but I don’t mind going with a tour group if that’s what I have to do, so two years ago I contacted several tour companies in Tibet and was extremely discouraged by their exorbitant quotes. The best way to cut down the costs, they all advised, would be to gather a group of 5-7 people. Finding that number of people to travel with would be time-consuming and put me in a passive position, so I decided to temporarily give up on Tibet and visit other countries on my list. Tibet, however, remained at the back of my mind.
Near the end of August this year, while attending a painting workshop, I heard a group was about to visit Tibet in October. I jumped at the chance and asked for the contact, though I didn’t expect much out of it. We had back-and-forth discussion, and our plan almost fell through when two of my travel companions still hadn’t got their Chinese visas two days before the departure date. But things sometimes work out in the most last-minute fashion; my friends received their visas at the eleventh hour- one day before our scheduled flight. When the plane was cruising at 30,000ft above the snow-cloaked Himalayan range, I marveled at both the beauty of nature and serendipity. I was about to spend 17 days in a place that I had long wanted to but not expected in 2016 with four lovely people I’d just met online.
The Himalayan range in photo.
…and in iPhone video.
It was 17 days of awe-inspiring sights, hearty laughters, long and bumpy and dusty bus rides, debilitating headaches and nosebleed, a near death experience, spiritual enrichment, religious skepticism, consistently awful food and toilets, and many memorable moments. I was lucky to be with an eclectic group of people whose professions run the gamut from accountant, economist, business manager to yoga teacher and whose knowledge of religion and politics is much greater than mine so they all filled me in. To me, Tibet seems like it’s in a time warp; it’s compelling to see locals so devout to their religion and lead a lifestyle that seems to defy the modern world. Yet at the same time, it was saddening to realize that what I saw is only a remnant of a culture that is unique, fascinating, but on the brink of disappearing completely as a result of political and religious oppressions. My time there ended up raising more questions than answers, as it got me thinking about the interwoven nature of politics and religion (which I detest), how necessary religion is to our existence, and human greediness and self-righteousness.
As always, I’ll share my experience in multiple posts. Let begin with the essential information about traveling to the Roof of the World.
TIBET’S GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY
I have a lot of negative feelings about what China has done to Tibet, but I’m not mad at how much it has improved the road infrastructure in Tibet. An interesting aspect of traveling around Tibet is buses can only drive at a certain safe speed set by the authority. For instance, if the authority decides that it takes 2 hours from A to B, tourist buses cannot arrive before 2 hours, or there will be fines. There were quite a few occasions when we had to stop and rest in the middle of nowhere so that we wouldn’t arrive before the predetermined time. It was reassuring to know that our driver was driving slowly, as very often one side of the road is a deep abyss.
I had no idea how vast the Tibet Plateau is until I visited. Its size is 2.5 million square kilometers (965,000 square miles), which is larger than Alaska and California combined or more than 6 times the size of Germany.
The Tibet Plateau is geographically situated in the middle of Asia with a mountainous landscape. It’s nestled in the Himalayas and so home to most of the highest mountain peaks in the world, including the mighty Mount Everest. What surprised me the most about the geography of Tibet, however, is its lake and river system. It’s the largest water tank in the world; all the 10 major river systems of Asia including the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, Irrawady, Salween and Mekong originate in the Tibetan plateau. (Mekong River is indispensable to Vietnam, so it’s near and dear to my heart.) However, this blessing from Mother Nature is actually a curse in disguise; it’s made people greedy and do all sorts of reprehensible things. I was seething with rage when I learned that “since 1959, the Chinese government estimates that they have removed over $54 billion worth of timber. Over 80% of forests have been destroyed, and large amounts nuclear and toxic waste have been disposed of in Tibet.”
The region’s history may date back to as many as 2,000 years ago and has been full of tumult, the most impactful and heart-wrenching of which has to be China’s invasion in March 1959 that stripped Tibet of its status as an independent country and eventually led His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Tibet’s spiritual and political leader at that time) and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans to flee their own country. Now Tibet is recognized as part of China. Tourism has been prospering, but I’m pretty sure Tibetans themselves benefit very little from it. Mr Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington DC, confirmed it this past September.
I also read In the Shadow of the Budda: One Man’s Journey of Discovery in Tibet by Matteo Pistono, another eminent advocate of liberating Tibet (seems like if your name is Matteo, you will likely care about Tibet and stand up for Tibetans on their behalf). It provides in-depth historical context and rare insights into the many instances of injustice that have been committed in Tibet. An excellent preparatory read before you go!
I met these Tibetans when my entire body felt as if it was disintegrating after I trekked 22 kilometers for the whole day at an altitude of 17,093ft/5,210m to Mount Kailash, the most sacred place in Tibet and one of the holiest in the world. These Tibetans, though small in stature and living with the most spartan of conditions, put the rest of us to shame when it comes to endurance. I posted this photo on Instagram, and right after a Tibetan photographer sent me a message complimenting it and explaining that one scientific research concluded that the reason Tibetans have little to no trouble living at such high altitudes is they inherited a beneficial high-altitude gene from archaic Denisovan people. Mind blown! [Read more…]