TRAVELSCRIBBLES is a blog featuring travel reports, advice, and idea sharing for those interested in both domestic and international exploration.

Roger Sauer and his wife Donna have spent years traveling the world but have many places yet to see. You can follow their past and current travels here as well as post comments and questions about places they have visited.

Roger and Donna travelled to New Zealand and Australia in September, 2013. They will be in Paris in September 2015 with a train trip to Nice and Barcelona. They will then be aboard the Disney Magic (again) for a transatlantic cruise to Miami. Follow their travels on Twitter @rsauer3473.

Donna and Roger own Disney Vacation Club memberships at Old Key West and Beach Cub resorts in Walt Disney World. They also have other timeshare interests in Maui, Cancun, Orlando, and Palm Springs.
Feel free to contact them at 503-585-3473 if you would like rent one of these properties.

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Friday, April 30, 2010

Legendary Tibet: See It If and When You Can

If you have plans for a trip to China with a few days in Lhasa, Tibet, you might want to contact your travel agent. Despite efforts to reopen the country to tourism after nationwide protests, the Chinese government has put a hold on allowing tourists into the country. This ban, the presence of the more Chinese military, and the newly built train line from more urban China cities are likely to change this country in future years as Tibet undergoes a cultural homogenization that may make this special region of China indistinguishable from others to the east.
In the fall of 2005 my wife Donna and I were part of a touring group that visited China for three weeks. Five days were spent in Lhasa. Prior to landing in Tibet we had been in Hong Kong (where we spent a couple of days at the newly opened Hong Kong Disneyland Resort before meeting out touring partners), Guilin, Yangshuo, Kunming, and Chengdu. All the tour books we’d read could not adequately prepare us for country we were ready to enter. Flying into the main airport near Lhasa we were met with high mountain ranges of the eastern Himalayas (the altitude of the airport is 12,000 feet above sea level) and a dry, rocky, moonscape of a country. No snow anywhere, but, then, it was October.
The road our bus took into Lhasa is shorter now due to a very long tunnel drilled over the past few years through one mountain range. We dodged a few tuk-tuks (the universal rural two-stroke engine utility vehicle) on the way through the tunnel. A shallow, boulder-strewn river bed followed parallel next to the road and the occasional concrete block homes on our right featured the wind-torn yellow, blue, white, red, and green flags featuring Tibetan Buddhist prayers on clotheslines. In the distance we saw pillars for a bridge that would soon carry the first trains into Tibet from China.
The most modern buildings appeared to be devoted to civic affairs with official seals on gates. But then we noticed the soldiers, lots of them. “Police,” our guide reassured us, “not military.” A little later before entering Lhasa he gave a few details of the city. “No speeches, please,” he said. We knew what he meant. He’d been born in Lhasa but left when he was a child to attend school with the Dalai Llama in India. He had crossed the Himalayas into Kathmandu with some other children and some Buddhist monks. In the winter.
Our hotel was in the western part of the city of Lhasa. Though we’d been ready for cold weather and packed sweaters all the way from Hong Kong in suitcases limited to 44 pounds, we’d never need them. It was shirtsleeve weather; we even slept with our window open in the hotel, a nice place that catered to the western tourist crowd. Our room was large and comfortable by American standards. There was the ubiquitous hot water pot for boiling water for drinking or brushing teeth. Our room did not feature piped in oxygen like some others. We did not appear to be affected by the altitude, even when we climbed the hill to the Potala Palace the next day. Occasionally, we’d see people lying down clutching oxygen masks. One day we went even higher near a large lake at about 16,000 feet. That trip was highlighted by having our pictures taken near or by some yaks.
The restaurants where we ate were large and featured family style dining, very appropriate for tour groups. Typical Chinese dishes were accompanied by Tibetal yak, boiled yak tendon (an acquired taste) and steamed vegetables. Beer and tea were served at lunches and dinners. Yak butter tea is a national drink that we found very salty and best left politely on the table. The hotel where we stayed has western style breakfasts which, after a couple of weeks in country we appreciated more and more.
While it is hard to generalize about an entire country based on a few days, Lhasa represents a good cross section. The appearance of the indigenous Tibetan people is almost indistinguishable from that of other people from high altitude counties like Peru or Ecuador. Less Asian, less Chinese, a different, minority culture. Homespun fabrics of striking colors over black predominated. Women with long black hair straight or in elaborate braids led or carried their children down the street or through markets. In contrast to these native Tibetans were the “police” who became more apparent near the heart of the city. They were not Tibetan, but Chinese from eastern provinces. This was the Tibetan Special Administrative Region similar to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Both regions have been brought into the fold of the Chinese government, Tibet through invasion, Hong Kong through a treaty.
The two major tourist “sites” in Lhasa are the Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Llama and the Jokhang Temple, the holiest of Tibetan temples. Tibetan Buddhism reveres the Buddha Shaknamuni, the “merciful Buddha.” His figure is evident among the hundreds of statues and carvings in the temples. The Potala Palace rises on a hill in the center of the city, a massive white and red structure made largely of very old mud and straw bricks. Walking up the long pathway on the Palace’s west side, we met many pilgrims hiking up the hill. Once at the entrance, we followed our guide (who reiterated, “No speeches, please.”) through the myriad rooms and hallways. The Dalai Llama’s throne and study, his bedroom and formal greeting areas were featured. Throughout the Palace Tibetan monks were seen working, studying or meditating. And, there were the “police.” A mile or so from the base of the Palace is the Summer Palace, the place from which the Dalai Llama went into exile after the Communist invasion over fifty years ago.
Large golden statues were at the top of the temple and the grey and brown hills surrounding the Lhasa plain met the clear blue sky in every direction. Near many of the doorways were “prayer wheels” that pilgrims or curious tourists would spin sending prayers to heaven. Always spin them counterclockwise.
The Potala Palace faces south overlooking a newer “park” with official Chinese statuary and iconography, like a small Tiananmen Square. Nearer to the town’s business district and public market is the Jokhang Temple, the original of which predates the Potala Palace. Here pilgrims to Lhasa from other countries, eastern China, or rural Tibet come to pray. Many prostrate themselves over and over in front of the temple; others repeat this form of prayer and in doing so actually move around the perimeter of the structure. The smell inside is rich with the burning of yak butter candles continually replenished by the faithful who bring the rich liquid in any container they can get- cans or old 7-Up bottles.

Outside in the shopping alleys we picked up our prayer wheels and a “singing” bowl. I was told that much of the Tibetan tourist souvenirs are actually “outsourced” to labor in Kathmandu. Merchants can be aggressive and haggling is expected. Item quality is always a guessing game. I tried to take a picture of two “policemen.” It was made clear to me this was not a good idea. I did not argue.
These faithful who come to worship firmly believe that the Dalai Llama will return to Tibet. This is a fervent religious faith that now has political repercussions. When we visited, we were unsure how this was going to work out in the end. We may see it being resolved now on the nightly news. The Dalai Llama indicates he will not return unless Tibet is free.
Needless to say, by the time more westerners come to Tibet, things may be different and, regrettably, less Tibetan.

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