It has been 2 weeks since we left China and arrived in Nepal, but a special publication about Tibet is overdue. We were not sure how to summarize 17 days in one unique post, and believe us, it is hard. Nonetheless, Tibet is such a unique place and it deserves special attention so we hope we’ll be able to transmit it to you and share this part of our trip—one that left its exceptional footprint on us.
Tibet and China
A paragraph of history.
A unified Tibet did not arise until the 7th century with the King Songtsän Gampo, who was also an important figure in giving birth to the Tibetan Buddhism we know nowadays. Subsequently, different Chinese and Mongolian invasions changed the ruling of administrative, political and religious affairs between Mongols, Sakya Lamas, Chinese and Dalai Lamas. It was in 1913 when the 13th Dalai Lama returned to Tibet from his exile in India and declared Tibet as independent, refusing the titles the Chinese government was bestowing. That declaration of independence was never recognized by China and in 1951 the People’s Republic of China affirmed Chinese sovereignty over Tibet with the “Seventeen Point Agreement”—several times repudiated by the 14th Dalai Lama, who fled to and has been in exile in Dharamsala, India since 1959. During the posterior events of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, thousands of monasteries were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans died. It was not until 1980 when China started a period of liberalization—including the reconstruction of the monasteries that we see nowadays—that transformed into a more anti-separatist movement after various Tibetan protests for independence.
Travelling to Tibet today
Today as travelers we recognize Tibet as one of the most expensive and restrictive places to visit in Asia. Different regions require different permits, not all places can be visited and all Tibet is completely closed to tourism during sensitive months each year. But what makes this area so expensive is not the permit requirements; nor the tourist entrances to every monastery, lake, mountain or even glacier—with a high percentage going to the government—but the fact that as foreigners we are required to pay every single day for a tour that includes a guide, a car with a driver and a fixed itinerary.
We cannot visit Tibet on our own and there is no room for improvisation. The itinerary cannot be changed once it is written down in our issued permits. Numerous police and military controls in roads, monasteries and villages will ensure we are in the permitted places every day and the regulations and checks do not apply only to us: Guides have a special license that have to buy per day basis every year, with a minimum of days to pay if they want to maintain it, being also required to attend to classes and pass exams to be able to work. Then our car wears a special “tourist” plate and is only allowed to transport tourists, requiring also a special license for the driver/car combination that is still issued this year due to some protests, but that might be removed soon with a new regulation in favor of Chinese brand cars—which last less time than the current Japanese brands. Regulation here, regulation there, nomads nowadays do not use many tents but prefer more modern pre-made houses. Nonetheless, they are required to put the traditional tents on top of the houses to not remove the characteristic look of the nomadic Tibet from the tourism business. There are speed control checks everywhere due to some Chinese tourist bus accidents occurring some time ago. One police checkpoint gives the drivers a paper with a timestamp and then the drivers have to show that paper to the next checkpoint to ensure they drove sections of perfectly paved roads at the required stupid speed of 30 Km/h. Of course since driving at such ridiculous speed is not efficient and even difficult, all tourist cars and bus drivers drive normally all the sections and stop a few kilometers before the controls to wait until the required time to show the paper. These stops are so common that the places to stop are even making restaurant businesses! Contradictorily, non-paved and less safe roads—like the one to Everest Base Camp—have no speed regulations at all…
Tibet in construction
This region is changing at light speed and its enchantment is slowly disappearing by energy industry demands, the concrete building fever and the non-responsible tourism business. From Reting Monastery to Drikun Til Monastery, an lake popped up recently due to the construction of a dam. What before required just crossing a river bridge needs now a 3-hour detour that has separated entire villages and has reduced the visitors to the area from thousands to hundreds a year. Apparently the dam was made to supply electricity to Lhasa—as many other dams in the area filling amazing landscapes with electric posts everywhere—but some locals also say that the dam was an excuse to mine gold from a nearby mountain declared by Tibetans as sacred.
In Lhasa, we are surprised with entire neighborhoods being constructed. This construction business also created entire worker villages close to cement and other housing material industries that can be seen while going out of the city. There are also new highways not yet finished here and there, new bridges being built to cross rivers and new paved roads recently made to cross mountain passes. Our guide will constantly say sentences like “This was not here 5 years ago” or “This was finished last year”. The speed at things spawn here is really noticeable and it doesn’t seem like it is going to stop any time soon. Despite all restrictions and regulations we talked about at the beginning of the post, we believe that the sooner you visit Tibet, the better.
Last historical events are palpable
The end of Tibet last independence has left visible reminiscence. It is shocking to us as visitors. “This was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution” is probably the sentence we will hear the most while visiting Tibetan monasteries. It feels like not a single one was left, even far outcast monasteries in the way to the Everest Base Camp remain now as ruins. Vestiges of a Chinese graffiti can be seen in Tashilumpo Monastery at Shigatse, stating “Religion is poison” according to the locals. We will also notice the red Chinese flag over every single house out there. It turns out the Chinese flag is mandatory and the former Tibetan flag is forbidden.
Police and military are everywhere in monasteries and in the streets, especially after the riots against Han and Hui civilians in 2008. At the kora of Barkor Square in Lhasa we can see police on the roofs. Talking about politics in a public place can convey strong consequences. We will hear stories from locals, like the story of a Tibetan guide that spoke too freely with his/her visitors who later told the government. The guide was fined and lost his/her guide license for life; or the story of a European visitor who placed a picture of the current Dalai Lama in a shrine and a few hours later his bus was stopped and he was expelled from the country.