We are deep within a sequence of rooms, each of them quietly screaming its antiquity at us through the pitted wooden columns and age-blackened tapestries lining the walls and ceilings. Our eyes are smarting from the soot which impregnates the air and our heads spin from the rich cocktail of incense and butter smells. The only light is provided by burning wicks embedded in huge bowls of yak butter and oil, which are topped up by every other pilgrim from sandwich baggies or vacuum flasks (respectively). We pass through a huge assembly hall, its walls crowded with figures of reverence of every level of holiness; Buddhas, bodhisattvas, abbots, lamas, gods and demons all compete for our attention. Then through a sequence of smaller and smaller chapels, each one thronged with pilgrims passing through, making small donations, praying for benefactions and topping up the butter lamps. Buddha stares down at us with infinite compassion while Yellow Hat abbots see right through us with their inscrutable mysticism. We look at each other, wide-eyed and feeling almost claustrophobic with the intensity of it all.
We are in Tibet.
Many parts of Lhasa that we have walked through today feel like nothing except more of China. But here, deep in the bowels of this monastery, is unmistakably Tibetan, unmistakably different. We are aeons away from the hordes of happy-snapping group tours which infest all of mainland China. We could be 400 years ago for all I can tell. We pass through quickly, swept through by the silent lines of soot-smeared pilgrims, struck dumb, awestruck, humbled. Almost moved to tears.
Tibet is a bit of a trip. It's mystical, isolated and you need to wade through a mountain of paperwork and hassle to get here. But once you arrive it's everything you've dreamed of, and just as amazingly exotic as you could have hoped for. Our days have been split between scenes of staggering natural beauty and astonishing cultural treasures. And the faith of the people! We have seen dozens of pilgrims doing two-year long pilgrimages, where each step of the journey is covered by lying prostrate on the ground. Lie down, prostrate, get up, advance 6ft, lie down, prostrate, get up, etc. For thousands of kilometres, across all manner of terrain and no matter the time of year, these people will put in a hard 10-12 hours a day prostrating, sleeping in wagons along the way. It's gobsmacking.
This is the Tibetan culture, the people and the religion are indivisible. And this is what the Chinese government wants to reduce to nothing more than a prayer wheel for tourists, generating the blessing of hard currency. It's heartbreaking to see. The region is being flooded with investment to try to turn it into a machine for creating more money; all at the cost of suppressing the Tibetan culture and inciting a mass immigration of Han Chinese, drawn by the economic opportunities while not understanding (or not knowing, or just not being told) what this is doing to the country. Most of the tour guides that the Chinese tours have are Chinese, and just spout the party propaganda line about the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet. Lhasa in particular is covered with Chinese monuments which all require 24-hour armed guard to ensure they are not defaced or destroyed. And so many soldiers! It feels like a town under occupation.
Anyway, rant over (for now).
Putting aside the issue of touristing through somewhere that is essentially an occupied state, the week has been magical. We took the highest train in the world to get here, an amazing 40-hour, 3000-km journey up, up, and away onto the high Tibetan plateau. They have to pump oxygen into the rooms as you go through the highest pass (a snip at 5180 metres above sea level!). Once in Lhasa we had a few days seeing the major sites in-town, which were either quite uninteresting (for the more Chinese-controlled sites) or fascinating (for the places which the Tibetans still worship in). All of the temples and stupas (round white Buddhist monuments) are shown respect by the Tibetans by performing one (or three, seven, thirteen, or various other holy numbers up to one hundred and eight) perambulations or koras. The largest temple in Lhasa, the Jokhang, has a permanent swirl of pilgrims, mendicants and tourists surrounding it which was absolutely spellbounding for people-watching. Tibet covers such a huge area that there are so many different types of people kicking around: ruddy-faced, Mongolian looking men from the North with fierce moustaches; women with their hair plaited with electric coloured yakhair rugs and 108 lucky braids; wild-eyed nomads wearing huge quilted lambskin jackets in a fetching off-the-shoulder fashion; burgundy-clad monks and nuns both with shaved heads (kind of difficult to tell apart at first blush!); and the modern youth of Tibet, looking as casually metropolitan as young people from any country on the planet.
We visited the Sera Monastery and saw its famous debating monks: once a day all the monks gather in the courtyard in a blaze of burgundy cloth and ask each other questions on the fine points of Buddhist scripture. Those who don't have the right answers (or are just a little slow off the mark) are quickly ridiculed with loud claps of the aggressors hands - right in the face - and eventually having the head rubbed in humiliation with prayer beads! Surprisingly aggressive for men of God...
And of course, we saw some of the most unbelievable landscapes on the planet. Some of the blue colours of the lakes we saw I still can't quite believe are real; we also waded through high passes swimming in brightly coloured prayer flags, gazed upon the mighty Himalayas (although we didn't get a great view of Everest as it was crowned with cloud and we were riddled with altitude sickness so we couldn't really hang around), and saw people eking a living out of the permafrosted fields. They call it the Roof of the World, and for once, the Chinese hyperbole is warranted.
Looking back parts still seem like a dream. We wish we could have spent more time in this spellbinding border kingdom; especially once we started talking to the locals about the long history and exchange of ideas and people between Manchu, Mongolia, India, Nepal, Kashmir, and Bhutan. We can't wait to come back and see the far eastern parts that abut Sichuan. And do the Annapurna trek. And go to Bhutan, and Sikkim. And, and, and.....