We wound up taking a six-day tour of Tibet.  The price was about $1000 per person, which was more than we had expected.  That included airfare ChengduLhasa – Xian, hotels, admissions, guide, and local transportation.  The cost of the “bus” was one of the most expensive items, about $600 for the two of us.  We didn’t realize until we arrived that we got a private Toyota Land Cruiser with driver and guide for the whole tour.  We had been unable to figure out the whole itinerary in advance, since the Chinese names did not match the Tibetan names in our guidebook.

On August 1, we left the Chengdu hotel before sunrise for the ride to the airport and flight to Lhasa.  On arrival we were met by our guide Michael who bestowed white silk prayer scarves on us.  He and the driver are Tibetan, though they speak to each other in Chinese, which is the dominant language in Lhasa.  We had an hour and a half drive into town on a paved two-lane road (the best in Tibet).  Michael recommended that we rest in the afternoon while getting used to the thin air at 12,000 feet.  We took a nap in our hotel room, and then went to an Internet café to check e-mail.  For dinner, we went to Dunya, a hygienic restaurant run by American, Dutch and Tibetan owners.  We enjoyed our first western dinner since arrival in China including Italian pasta, salad, chicken sizzler and whole grained bread.

The second day had three attractions in town: visit to a Tibetan medicine clinic, the Jokhang temple and the Potala palace.  We had to pace ourselves and take a nap after lunch.  The clinic was very interesting.  We got a private crash course on Tibetan medicine from the director of the clinic.  We started with a shrine with statues of the monk who wrote the first Tibetan medical book about 600 AD.  The oral medical tradition goes back 2,800 years making it older than Hippocrates.  He explained a series of drawings, such as a tree showing the causes of normal body function and pathology.

The Jokhang temple was overwhelming.  It is the holiesy temple for Tibetian Buddhists.  The most striking difference between Chinese Buddhist temples is that in China most of the visitors are tourists, though a few will bow before the statues and say prayers or light incense.  In Tibet, most visitors are pilgrims who spin the prayer wheels, bow before the statues, make contributions and keep the yak butter candles burning.  All the Tibetan holy places that we visited have many chapels, each with statues of Buddha in various forms, flanked by other Buddhas (compassion, power, wisdom, or past, present and future) or bodhisattvas or guardian demons.  The walls are covered with similar representations.  They are dimly lit and the combination of prolific statues in gold and jewels, richly painted decoration, smell of yak butter candles and incense and the press of the faithful is overpowering.

Michael had stood in line for hours yesterday to get us tickets for the Potala Palace, so we were careful to arrive at our 3:20 time slot; the number of daily visitors is limited.  The fifth Dalai Lama had taken political control of Tibet and built this palace as the seat of government.  It has both a red palace, which is for pilgrims, and a white palace, which is the seat of government and the Dalai Lama’s private quarters.  The red palace has the burial stupas for the Dalai lamas with amazing quantities of gold (3700 kg on one tomb) and jewels.

On the third day we left at 7:00 AM, before sunrise.  All of China is on one time zone, so in Tibet the sun comes up late and sets late.  We have found out that one reason the trip costs more than expected is that today’s itinerary had to be altered since the main road south from Lhasa has been cut by a landslide.  Instead of a fairly short drive to Gyantse, we have a nine-hour journey of 400 km, with the 170 unpaved km taking the longest time.  The unpaved part includes passes of 5400 m / 18,000 ft and 4700 m / 16,000 ft.  The journey took us past some remote villages and herds of yaks, sheep and cattle.  We had thought that yaks were big, but they are smaller than cows and bigger than goats.  Making a living in this harsh environment is difficult and Tibet looks poor.  We made a brief stop where people had gathered in tents for a festival.

Summer is the rainy season.  All the rivers are high, lapping at bridges and embankments.  Seasonal watercourses are torrents.  At one of them we ran into a traffic jam.  Trucks, busses and jeeps were backed up trying to ford a raging stream.  Two pieces of heavy equipment were moving rocks and earth to try to improve the crossing, while workers were welding steel rods for a cage to hold rocks in place.  Several vehicles tried to make the crossing.  Some got stuck and had to be towed to dry land by one of the front-loaders.  All traffic making the crossing was going the other direction, until a second ford was constructed.  That traffic was rerouted and we got a chance to go through the first ford, which our driver did skillfully.

We reached Shigatse at about 3:00 and had time to tour the monastery there.  This is headquarters for the Panchen Lama, who is equal in religious stature to the Dalai Lama but was not a political ruler.  Unlike the Potala place (spared on order of Chou Enlai), most of this monastery was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the Dalai Lama went into exile in India, but the tenth Panchen Lama cooperated with the Chinese and went to Beijing.  The Chinese gave him $8,000,000 to rebuild the monastery. In 1989 he returned to the monastery in Shigatse but overexerted himself and died a week later.  That led to a conflict over his successor.  The Dalai Lama select a boy as the new incarnation of the Panchen lama, but this candidate was seized by the Chinese and has not been heard of since.  The Chinese selected their own candidate and cracked down on monks loyal to the Dalai Lama.

We continued on to Gyantse, but on arrival found that all the streets have been torn up for some kind of underground work, maybe a drainage or sewer system.  There was only a single lane detour route into town, with traffic alternating directions.  That would have been OK, but there was a broken-down truck on the path and we had to wait until the truck was repaired.  Gyantse is a town of 20,000.  The streets may normally be paved, but now they are all torn up and there are quite a few horses and cows in town.  The people here (and in rural places) more often speak Tibetan than Chinese.

The next morning we toured the Kumbrun, which means 100,000 images.  It is an 8-story building with about 70 chapels.  We spent two hours, still needing to pace ourselves with the thin air.  We had an early lunch, then had a drive back to Shigatse, stopping at the Zhalu monastery on the way.  We spent the night in Shigatse.

On day five, we had an early start to repeat the dirt road with the fords and high passes.  We arrived back in Lhasa a bit after 3:00.  After a brief rest, we went out to the Barkhor for some shopping.  In the evening we went to a dinner theater that featured Tibetan music and dance.  The buffet was some of the worst food we have had in China.  All the music was recorded and all the announcements were in Chinese.  Most of the performers were Chinese.  There were several singers doing Chinese Karaoke and dancers doing a Chinese interpretation of Tibetan culture.  We left early.

On day six we had to leave the hotel at 6:00 for the 100 km drive to the airport.  The drive is long because the road goes along the river for a long distance before reaching the bridge, then doubles back the other direction.  From the air we saw a new bridge under construction that should shorten the journey.

The Chinese are constructing a railroad to Lhasa that is scheduled to open in 2006.  They are spending about $800,000,000 per year in aid to Tibet.  That includes programs to try to get children to attend school.  Unlike the mainland, there is no cost to attend school in Tibet, but most families need child labor and keep their children out of school.  Growing season is short and it gets very cold in the winter; yak dung is the main source of rural fuel.  The cities look much less prosperous than the rest of China and remind us of conditions 20 years ago.


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