I peered over the three seats across the aisle from me to catch a glimpse of the snow-capped Himalayan Mountains as we flew from Chengdu to Lhasa, Tibet (or Xizang). I couldn’t believe that I would soon spend three days in the “City of the Sun” at 12,000 feet.
“Welcome to the Roof of the World,” Nima, our local guide greeted us as we boarded the bus.
As we made the drive into the main part of Lhasa, Nima provided an orientation.
“In Tibetan culture, we don’t have surnames. I am named for the day of the week when I was born – Sunday,” he disclosed.
He explained that Tibetan people are Buddhist and that the Chinese government allows them to practice their religion.
“We are about to approach a security checkpoint,” Nima stated. “Please don’t take pictures. I will show them your documents and then we will be on our way.”
When we drove on, Nima continued his orientation, explaining that while Tibet is an ‘autonomous region,’ it is under Chinese governance and most of the government jobs are held by Han Chinese who have moved to Tibet to take these jobs.
While Mandarin is the official language, the local people speak Tibetan at home and with friends. The written language resembles Sanskrit. I noticed that store signs were bilingual.
“I would love to visit your country someday,” Nima lamented. “However, it is very difficult for Tibetan people to get a visa to travel outside of China.”
He gave each of us a long, white prayer shawl. “If you wear it to the monastery tomorrow, it will be blessed as you walk through the door.”
At lunch, that was a mix of Chinese and Indian food, we had our first taste of yak, which was delicious and reminded me of elk.
“I hope you all consulted your doctors about medication to prevent altitude sickness,” Evan stated as we headed to our hotel after lunch. “You may start to experience a headache this afternoon – even if you are taking medication. If it gets too bad, let me know. And, be sure and drink plenty of fluids – and you might want to pass on the beer tonight at dinner.”
I had gotten a special Chinese herbal combination from my accupuncturist and had started taking it the prior day.
Even though I regularly visit 10,000 feet in the Sandia Mountains a half-hour away from my home at almost 6,000 feet in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the additional 2,000 feet in elevation made it difficult to take a deep breath. The air felt thin. Jan and I both rested and read that afternoon as recommended.
My mild headache was gone by the end of the afternoon.
In the late afternoon, we gathered in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms to listen to a professor from Tibet University who had the opportunity to spend a year studying in the United States. Her name also was Nima!
An excellent teacher, she showed us that Tibet is about the same size as Alaska using a map overlay. She explained that the area in the east is the highest and is primarily inhabited by nomadic people. The area in the west is lower and forested. Lhasa is the highest capital in the world.
She shared her perspective about the take-over of the previously independent country by the Chinese government in 1951. “The standard of living of most of the people has greatly improved,” she explained. “However, we are concerned about the Tibetan culture being diluted with the infusion of the Han Chinese – it is a real dilemma.”
After the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, Tibet established diplomatic relations with other countries and was largely separated from the turmoil within China until the Communists arrived in 1951.
When asked about the Free Tibet movement, she replied that when the Dalai Lama fled after the failed uprising in 1959, many of his followers, mostly those who were wealthy, went with him and have been the voice behind this movement.
There seemed to be parallels with what happened in Cuba when the business and government people who were followers of Batista fled to the United States, settled in Florida and attempted to re-take Cuba through the failed Bay of Pigs.
That evening when I went to bed, my CPAP machine had a hard time ‘breathing’ and shut down after a couple of hours. I didn’t sleep much the rest of the night. I sent a WhatsApp message to my sister who contacted the medical equipment company. By time I got up in the morning, I had the technician’s response – ‘you might try taking the filter out.’
Since I had not slept, I stayed back at the hotel during the morning to rest. By the afternoon, I was feeling refreshed and Jan and I walked over to the nearby park that lies at the base of the Portola Palace.
As we strolled along the busy street, we noticed that the older women were dressed in traditional Tibetan garb, with long skirts, aprons, and often holding small prayer wheels on a short stick.
The sprawling grounds with walking paths, several small lakes, and lush deciduous trees seemed to be a favorite spot for older women to gather after visiting the temple
and for families.
I also appreciated the opportunity to walk slowly and enjoy the birds, including this Bar-headed Goose. (More on the birds in separate blog story).
That night my filter-free CPAP worked for four hours before it had to ‘catch its breath’ for an hour, when I could turn it on again. The technology of the new machine I got when I returned home now accommodates differences in altitude.
The next morning we had the opportunity to visit in the home of a local family. On our way, Nima told us that the Chinese government does not like foreigners to visit in Tibetan family homes. Our hostess, Dolma, lived on a narrow lane – only wide enough for pedestrians – that was off an alleyway.
Despite the humble surroundings, the home had an impressive front door
that opened into a small courtyard and then the main living area where we sat on couches along one side of the room. In the middle was a large table laden with special snacks she had made.
Through Nima’s interpretation, she explained that Tibetan families like bright colors, which was evident as I looked around. We learned that her family, originally from the west part of Tibet, came to Lhasa about 20 years ago.
Her daughter, who also owns a small restaurant, does the housework. The mother concentrates on Buddhist religious practice. Each morning she makes yak butter tea, pours it into shallow glass cups and places them on the family altar. The child in the picture is of the controversial Penchen Lama.
Her son has a government job, which pays well in Tibet where the government pays according to the physical elevation where the job is located. Traditionally, the family trade is tailoring.
While she poured us each a cup of yak butter tea, that had an interesting oily and musky flavor, she invited us to look at the adjacent room which is set aside for religious practice. Directly opposite the door was a richly pattered and colorful cabinet. In an ornamental cabinet along one wall were a series Buddhas. Each cabinet had a row of cups with yak butter tea.
As we drank our tea and sampled the snacks, Dolma showed us how she prepares tsamba (pronounced zamba), the traditional Tibetan breakfast food made from dried barley mixed with yak butter tea and kneaded together like bread dough in a sheepskin bag.
Before long, she showed us the ‘log’ she had made,
before passing it around so we could break off a piece to sample. It tasted like raw cookie dough, but not sweet.
“If you like it,” Nima told us, “you can say yapa do, which means delicious. You can remember it by thinking of the English phrase yaba daba do,” which made us all laugh.
Before we left, Dolma gave each of us a red heart-shaped amulet that was filled with what smelled like musk. “It will keep the bugs away,” she told us.
It had been a fascinating look into the home life of a very unique culture. We bid our farewells so we could eat lunch before the scheduled start of our tour of the Portola Palace.
On our drive, Nima explained the difference in the robes we might see on the monks at the Palace. New monks have red robes, while older monks where yellow. While there are also nuns, we didn’t see any during our visit.
“There are 400 steps leading up to the Red Palace at the top (where the Dalai Lama once lived),” Evan explained. “I will wait at the bottom and if you get to a point where you can’t go on, let Nima know. He will call me and let me know that you are on your way down. After touring the Red Palace, you will exit at a different location on the other side.”
As we walked toward the main entrance of the Palace, we passed a wall of prayer wheels. A couple were spinning them as they walked past as a symbol of spreading blessings and good will.
Closer to the main entrance was a small building where visitors had tucked their prayer shawls to receive blessings.
It had clouded over and there was a stiff breeze. As we were assembling in the Palace Square, it began to spit snow. It had been such a delightfully sunny morning, that I had not brought my rain jacket with me.
“Go at your own pace,” Nima encouraged us. We will wait at the last main landing for everyone to catch up.”
While the steps were steep, I could use the edge of the railing for support. In a couple of places when I was looking around for something to hold onto, a nearby Tibetan offered me a hand.
“Is this the halfway point?” I inquired as we assembled on the last main landing. The clouds had dissipated, and with the exertion to climb at that altitude, I was glad I did not have the extra layer.
“Actually, we are at least 75% up,” Nima answered. I knew I would make it.
Finally we were on the patio outside of the White Palace. There would only be about 20 more steps to enter this palace and then about 20 more to be inside the Red Palace. Jan and I stopped to document our success while Nima logged us in. We would have one hour to complete our exploration of the Red and White Palaces.
From this point on, we would have to remove our hats and sunglasses out of respect, and would not be able to take photos.
Inside the palaces were wonderful religious treasures, including stupas of past Dalai Lamas, the living quarters of the current, exiled Dalai Lama, as well as statues and murals. Stationed along the way were young red-robed monks responsible for keeping the lighted yak butter oil burning. As we walked past one, I chuckled as I saw him tuck in ear buds connected to a device inside his robe.
Finally we emerged on the other side to make our descent to the park below.
I stopped on one of the landings to gaze at the view.
The bus stopped to pick up Nima who accompanied us to the airport the next morning. As we made the forty-minute drive, Nima shared his life story. He grew up in a small village where there was no money, just the exchange of goods. When he was 7, he started herding sheep. His parents asked him to move to Lhasa when he was 15 to earn money for the family. Since he had no education, the only job he could get was as a gatekeeper for a construction company. In 1990, his grandfather asked him to become a monk and he went to study at the Dalai Lama Summer Palace and began to learn English. His stint as a monk was short-lived. He spent three years in jail due to political problems, but used the time to study English seriously. Since he could not return to be a monk, he was able to secure a job as an English tour guide upon his release. He was a guide for five years, continually learning from the visitors he was guiding. This experience enabled him to get hired on an international health project where he was able to learn to use a computer. He has been a guide with OAT since 2009.
As we approached the airport, his parting gift was to sing us a song in Tibetan.
I felt so lucky to have been able to learn about Tibetan culture on the ‘Roof of the World.’