The Current State of Tibet
It was right around this time two years ago that my husband and I were visiting Tibet. In fact, our Tibet travel plans had to be changed at the last minute because Xi Jinping, leader of China, issued a statement to the all agencies handling tours and travel in Tibet. All foreigners must be OUT of Tibet by August 31 (2015). The Chinese were celebrating the “50 year anniversary” of China creating the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” (TAR). For their celebrations, they were apparently uncomfortable having any foreigners there. Likely it was because they were expecting there to be protests from the Tibetan people, which the government had no intention of allowing on the news. This might sully the image that they work hard to create: that Tibet and her people love being a part of China, and that after all, that is where they “rightfully belong.”
I’ve been reminiscing about our trip a lot lately and it is not because FB is putting up memories of pics I posted. We actually were blocked from FB the entire time we were in Tibet and China. My Tibet travel memories are vivid nevertheless. I do feel mixed about wanting to go back though. On one hand the Tibetan Buddhist culture is amazing to experience – and you cannot be there without feeling a part of it in your heart. That is in spite of the huge numbers of Chinese who have been given incentives to move in to Lhasa and who are drowning out, bit by bit, the Tibetan culture there. This is by design. Yet there is a lot to experience beyond Lhasa, and within Lhasa, in spite of the government’s intentions.
Tibet Travel: Can You Get In?
You do need to get a visa to get in to Tibet. This is something that you or your tour group applies for separately from your China visa. You cannot get into Tibet without it. According to the Tibet Travel Regulation, professional photographers, foreign officials, journalists, monks, Bhutanese, Norwegians, and Taiwanese are not allowed to enter Tibet. So if you fit under any of those categories, a trip to Tibet seems to be impossible.
On one hand, the Chinese military aside, Lhasa has a pretty laid back vibe. Tibetans are centered, sweet and mostly soft spoken people with a bright light in their eyes (if I dare to over-generalize). The Barkhor and Potala Palace give you a sense of what this historical capital of Tibet might have been like. Now Lhasa also has a lot of busy streets, businesses and a small city-like feel. There are a lot of Chinese-owned stores and the feeling of commercialism and pop culture was more present than I expected, but spending a few days in Lhasa is still a pretty special experience. Although there still may be a military presence and Chinese flags on every house, once you get outside of Llasa you begin to feel the freedom, vastness and peace of the Tibetan plateau. Top 10 Reasons you Should Experience Tibet
On the other hand, here are a few things you should know about the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) that create a stark contrast to the sweet, spiritual Tibetan Buddhist culture. There are metal detectors, checkpoints and Chinese security everywhere. In particular, the Chinese military has a presence in the Barkhor in Lhasa, and as well along the roads on the drive to Namtso Lake, for example, where there are multiple checkpoints. Before entering the Barkhor (center of town in Lhasa), you have to walk through metal detectors. The Chinese want their presence to be known and felt, and they want to be there to put down any kind of protests, should they arise. In fact, there is a military presence at each one of the monasteries I visited as well. Chinese military police actually have living quarters in the monasteries, sometimes outnumbering the monks.
It is sad. This is one of several reasons I have second thoughts about going back or suggesting anyone else to go there. Ultimately, though, you are supporting the Chinese economy by spending your tourist dollars. There is a very clear bullying that proves that the TAR is not at all autonomous. Tibetans’ freedom to practice their religion comes and goes at the will of the Chinese government, and will always be within strict limits and guidelines. Economically, the Chinese reign throughout the region and it is very hard to find many true Tibetan-owned businesses. Tibetans that have not learned to speak Chinese are hard-pressed to even find a job.
Back on the other hand, Tibetan Buddhists weave their worship and devotion into their every day activities. You will have many opportunities to walk a kora whlle exploring Lhasa and Tibet. (A kora is a circumambulation around a sacred site or object, a pilgrimmage.) When you are walking a kora around a temple, a mountain, a lake, etc., you always walk clock wise. Never walk counter clockwise. Also during your kora when you spin a prayer wheel, spin it clockwise. You will see nearly everyone with their string of prayer beads (mala). As you spin each small bead or seed between your fingers, you a mantra to yourself. You can do this as a walking meditation during your kora.
There is quite a selection of these prayer beads (malas) to buy; if you are looking for a special one, you will be in heaven. They range from very simple to pretty ornate.
Best Ways to Get in to Tibet
Currently, the ways to get into Tibet are through China overland or by air, or through Nepal by air. There may be other possibilities, but the only overland option is through China, and I believe all other options are by air, into Lhasa, from wherever your origination point is. I bring this up because morally it would feel better to me to NOT go through mainland China to get to Tibet. I’d prefer not to directly give them my tourist dollars again, having experienced the situation first hand. I know ultimately some of those dollars from Tibet go there anyway, but to have seen Tibet, at least a small part of the vast area, is worth that. Especially if it fills your heart and opens your eyes to the plight of current day Tibetans.
When we were visiting Namtso Lake, we discussed the possibility with our guide of coming back to do a 3 day kora around Mt. Kailash. Previously it was possible to get to that region of Tibet by a border crossing from Nepal. However, since the terrible earthquake in Nepal in 2015, that border still remains closed. Combining a trip back to Tibet with a trip to Nepal would be spectacular, in my book. If this border does re-open, then that trip will be high on my list of priorities.
To experience Tibetan Buddhist culture and history in Tibet is something special. For that reason, I think for at least one trip to Tibet, exceptions could be made. Perhaps then it becomes more about spreading consciousness and awareness that the “Free Tibet” issue is not a thing of the past.
Sandy Kingsley is the founder/owner of Inspired Exploration Travel – Travel to Delight the Heart and the Senses – designing individual travel and custom retreats for yoga studios and adventure travelers. In addition to loving experiential travel, she is a yoga instructor and grant writer, with an obsession for India and the Indian subcontinent. www.inspiredexplorationtravel.com