Saturday, October 6, 2007

Tibet and Lhasa. First Views.


Our group arrived by air from Kathmandu yesterday afternoon. It was an uneventful flight except that we got to see Mt. Everest and Yamdrok Tso (Turquoise) Lake as we flew over the Himalayas. We would get to see both up close in the days to come.

Everest, peaking through the clouds.

The turquoise colored waters of Yamdrok Tso which is considered by Tibetan Bhuddists to be a sacred lake.

Surprisingly, it was easy to clear Chinese immigration and customs though we were given strict instructions on exactly what we had to do e.g., our passports were numbered and we had to be processed in chronological order. We were travelling by paper visa which meant we had to enter and exit Tibet as a group - no individual Tibetan visa was issued but there is a China arrival stamp in my passport. As we exited customs, we were greeted by one of our Tibetan guides who draped a thin, white scarf around each of necks. Countless times we would be adorned with these scarves and at every opportunity we had, we would give them up as offerings - they are as ubiquitous as prayer flags in Tibet.

Jo and Claire, draped with white scarves, on the ride to Lhasa.



It was then an hour and half by car from the airport to Lhasa. As we left the airport, we got a glimpse of the high mountain scenery that I hope we get to see more of on our overland journey back to Kathmandu. The first thing that strikes you about Tibet is the expanse of space and sky.

Mile after mile of bright blue skies dotted with fluffy, white clouds and Pristine lakes and rivers that are crystal blue - so blue that you can actually see the reflection of the clouds on the water.



It's autumn now so the leaves of the trees are just beginning to turn yellow and the air has a crispness to it. The weather was simply divine - probably somewhere in the high 60's F with not a drop of humidity in the air.

About an hour into the ride, we stopped to see a carving of the Sakymuni Buddha who is the enlightened being that is generally referred to as Buddha, the founder of Budhhism. The carving was rendered into the side of a small mountain. The white "tissue" paper that's strewn all over the carving are the ubquitous white scarves.



On an opposing mountain face were carved several other lesser deities - can't remember who they represent.
This also turned out to be a pit stop for several of us - our first opportunity at learning to quickly spot trees and rocks to huddle behind to do our business. As we would soon find out, doing it behind a rock was far preferable to the long drop toilets that were common in Tibet.

Back into the van and we soon entered Lhasa proper. I don't know what I was expecting to find but most certainly I didn't expect to see the modern commercial landscape that greeted us.
As you enter Lhasa, the area is predominantly "Chinese" - a very wide, newly developed avenue that is lined on both sides by office buildings, shops and restaurants. Everything has a "sparkling new" feel to it and absolutely no character - just one concrete building after another. Economic progress, I guess. Close your eyes and you could imagine this to be any other big city in China.

There were few people wandering the streets. My heart sank. Where's Tibet.....the one that's pictured in the guidebooks? The one that I had planned for months to visit. Patience I said to myself. It must be here. True Tibet.
Sure enough, miles later (it's a very long avenue), you arrive into the "Tibetan" part of town. On the way, we passed by the Potala Palace which we would tour two days later. And in case you had forgotten where you were, flags dot the street to remind you that you are in the Peoples Republic of China.
Everything in the Tibetan part of town is older and more dilapidated than the newer, shinier, Chinese part. Tibetan style buildings are the rule and not the exception. Streets are crowded with people out and about - there's an intoxicating hustle and bustle to the place.



In contrast to the Chinese part of town, street vendors are a more common sight in the Tibetan side and you see Tibetans dressed in their native costumes going about their daily lives.

As I watched the world go by outside my van window, I was enrapt by everything I saw. This is the Tibet in the pictures and in my imagination.

I couldn't wait to get out and set foot in it all!