A couple of years before my trip to Tibet, a friend proposed that we spend Chinese national holidays in Lhasa, joining a four-day tour. We were both working in China and very busy, and we didn’t have much time to travel.
I dismissed her idea, thinking that such a short-tour wouldn’t be enough to get a sense of Tibetan culture, and, therefore, was not worth the hassle. I was hesitant for two main reasons.
- I was already bothered by the thought of being escorted through the city and of being compelled to join a group of people I didn’t know.
- I had a feeling that a trip to Lhasa’s highlights would imply spending most of the time with other foreign travelers.
I didn’t realize that Lhasa, first of all, is the top destination for the majority of Tibetan pilgrims, and therefore the city, and its monasteries and temples, are the ideal spots in which to observe Tibetan people performing their devotional practices.
I arrived at Lhasa airport on a bright day in June. The arrival hall was small. However, I couldn’t see the guide who was supposed to pick me up at the airport. Now what?
As soon as I came out of the airport, I found the Tibetan guide and driver waiting for me in the car park right in front of the exit gate. Tashi was very friendly, and as we were driving through the plateau directed to Lhasa, he conversed with me in fluent English and made me feel completely at ease. They left me at Yak Hotel, three stars Tibetan-style accommodation in the city center and suggested to spend the afternoon resting and getting used to the altitude of 3656 m.
Even if I had just flown to Lhasa from Xiamen, a subtropical town in the South East of China, I was feeling well.
I went out to get water and dinner, and after that, I fell asleep quickly. I was at peace with myself: I had finally realized my old dream of visiting Tibet!
The morning after, I went downstairs for breakfast, and the concierge informed me that breakfast was served on the rooftop terrace of the hotel.
I sat at a long wooden table and had an abundant buffet breakfast contemplating the city roofs and the mountains stretching in front of me.
Later that morning, I and a small group European and Canadian were waiting for the guide appointed by the agency in the hall of the hotel. The guide was cheerful and couldn’ t wait to show us the city jewels: the Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace.
The morning offered a clear blue sky, the meeting with the colors and shapes of Lhasa architecture, and the pure air of a town built almost by the clouds.
The most touching experience of the few days spent in Lhasa was getting to see Tibetan people: relentlessly and rhythmically turning their beads and prayer sticks, most of the Tibetan come to the holy city from remote places to climb the palaces and pay homage to sacred altars.
Walking through the Barkhor circuit as in other streets of Lhasa I could sense that permeates the city spirituality expressed in prayer, chants, and prostrations of thousands of devotees.
Lhasa is also in the thoughts of the exiled Tibetan monks and family and of His Holiness the XVIth Dalai Lama who resides in Dharamsala, India.
The Tibetan guide escorting us asked us to avoid talking about Chinese government or politics or the Dalai Lama inside the buildings, because of the constant presence of Chinese inspectors in civilian clothes which monitor whether incite hard feelings about political issues regarding the “Tibetan province.” For a similar reason, I’ve heard from Tibetans that it is quite difficult to obtain a passport and leave the country.
Unlike foreign visitors, Chinese visitors in Tibet do not need special permits to travel and to be escorted by guides. Chinese are allowed to rent rooms and cars independently. In the commercial streets of Lhasa, Chinese owns shops and other businesses.
Young Tibetans in Lhasa are receptive to trends and habits coming from mainstream Chinese culture through media.
Here are some photos from the days spent in Lhasa.