Audio Slide Show http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/10/travel/10Tibet.html?ref=travel
IN front of one of the holiest sites in Tibetan Buddhism, the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, hundreds of pilgrims fall on the ground spread-eagled, prostrating themselves so forcefully their hands bleed from being smacked on the earth. Some have traveled on foot for months from hundreds of miles away, bowing toward Lhasa after every few steps. Several seem so overcome to have arrived at the Jokhang that they sob uncontrollably or stare into the temple as if entranced.Then the trance snaps. Behind one of the pilgrims, a tourist climbs onto one of the Jokhang’s massive golden prayer wheels, pulls out a cellphone camera, and starts snapping.
One pilgrim, a young Tibetan man, jumps to his feet and begins gesturing inside his long cloak, where some Tibetans traditionally carry a long, sharp knife. The tourist holsters his phone and walks backward, putting his hands up in universal signal of “I surrender.” But when the pilgrim leaves, the tourist starts snapping away again.
Once almost a synonym for remote, Tibet has in recent years experienced a surge of development and tourism, bringing cellphone cameras and tour leaders wielding megaphones to sites like the Jokhang. Tourism to Tibet is skyrocketing, a result of rising Chinese incomes, growing Chinese fascination with Tibetan Buddhism and easier access to the Roof of the World. This summer, Beijing unveiled an engineering marvel of a train line to Tibet. The train climbs to 16,000 feet, the highest of any railroad in the world, and workers had to build special features into the cars, like oxygen tanks for passengers gasping at such high altitudes.
“I had to come here,” one Chinese tour guide tells me during my visit to Tibet this summer. “This is where I can make money.”
This tourism boom is only the beginning. Though in 2004 Tibet received some 1.2 million tourists, by 2020 Chinese officials estimate that 10 million visitors may come, potentially threatening conservation efforts. Unesco has warned that China is allowing the destruction of Lhasa’s traditional buildings.
For many Western travelers, the tourism bonanza has added to the urgency of getting to Tibet while they can still recognize its unique culture and fragile environment. Yet even as more foreigners consider visiting, Tibet is becoming more comfortable, with easier access for independent travelers and higher-end accommodations like Lhasa’s first boutique hotel, which opened this summer.
Lhasa, the historic capital of Tibet, has become the center of the development and tourism drive. In the sprawling newer section of Lhasa, cranes loom and hammers clatter, erecting boxy glass-and-steel shopping centers and fast food outlets so popular they employ bouncers, like elite nightclubs. In central Lhasa, Chinese tour groups pose with red-robed Tibetan monks, who look distinctly uneasy appearing in the photographs. Young Chinese hippies with wispy goatees gravitate to smoky Tibetan bars — for young Chinese traveling on a shoestring, remote Tibet has become their Goa.
Despite the development, once I walk into the Barkhor, the older Tibetan section of town, Lhasa still resembles a medieval city, suffused with the smell of yak butter, juniper and incense. In the Barkhor’s narrow, winding alleyways, flanked by mud-brick homes topped with prayer flags and churning with crowds, monks bless Tibetan children by blowing on their heads and crowds of pilgrims walk in circles around holy sites, murmuring to themselves as their eyes roll back into their heads. Porters hoist slabs of yak cheese on their backs or hack apart bloody sides of yak right on the sidewalk, leaving bones strewn in the gutters.
In the center of the Barkhor, I wander into the Jokhang Temple. Avoiding tour groups in the main sanctuary, I head into the back rooms, past warrior deities painted on the walls. In the back, I am alone with one Tibetan devotee, who spins a line of golden prayer wheels. Though murals on the Jokhang’s front walls have faded — during the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards attacked the Jokhang — in the back the mural details become clearer, and I can even make out goddesses’ long eyelashes.
Above the Barkhor stands the Potala Palace, traditional residence of the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet. The 13-story-high Potala’s size and detail remain impressive. The exterior walls, constructed from mud and wood, are painted such a deep, rich crimson that from a distance they appear covered with plush carpet. A walking tour climbs through endless, labyrinthine throne rooms, side chapels and catacombs, emerging onto roofs topped with golden pagodas. In one chapel alone, cabinets hold more than 1,000 images of the Buddhist god of longevity; in the room housing the tomb of the eighth Dalai Lama, who died in 1804, his coffin glimmers with what is said to be 5,574 ounces of gold leaf, inlaid diamonds and pearls.
But the Potala feels empty, ghostly, a museum of a dead culture. In a room where Tibetan leaders once received religious teachings, a kettle still sits on a mantel, as if the current 14th Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese invasion, would be coming right back for tea. Few monks pray in the Potala, and most rooms lack residential furniture, giving visitors little idea of life before the Chinese takeover. Only near the end of the tour does one faded mural provide a glimpse of the past — of Lhasa crowded with monastic orders living in the hills surrounding the Potala, of a Potala swarming with monks.
The Potala exit sends me into a sea of vendors selling prayer beads. Though they are selling Tibetan objects of worship, most vendors seem to be Chinese migrants. “The Chinese tourism just allows migrants to take tourism jobs — Chinese businesspeople mass-produce Tibetan jewelry and they run the jewelry shops in the Barkhor,” says one Tibetan guide.
Still, some tourism specialists believe high-end travel to Tibet could empower Tibetans. This summer, Laurence Brahm, an American entrepreneur, opened House of Shambhala in Lhasa. The city’s first high-end boutique hotel, with elegant suites, a yoga center and a Tibetan crafts shop, it seeks to revive Tibetan arts and train Tibetans in tourism management.
After choosing to build in a traditional courtyard home that once housed a calligraphy school, Mr. Brahm employed a team of Tibetan restorers. They filled the rooms with antique hand-painted furniture and natural stone and wood floors, and outfitted the interior courtyard with prayer wheels and a small shrine. The design proved so authentic that, one morning, I wake to a fashion crew using House of Shambhala for an advertisement featuring an actor dressed as a Tibetan warrior in chain mail.
Other high-end operators have followed suit. One foreign nongovernmental organization helped found Dropenling Handicraft Development Center, a Lhasa initiative producing Tibetan crafts, like handbags, geared toward Western design sensibilities. Luxury travel agencies now run plush Tibet trips, like Imperial Tours’ high-end jaunt, or Power Places Tours’ trip, led by a guide, Gary Wintz, who was one of the first Westerners to live in Tibet in the 1950s.
The new train itself exudes luxury: In the plush four-bed sleeper berths, each bunk includes a personal television. When I board the train, I see many local travelers dressed up for the ride — Tibetan men wearing tattered pinstriped suits along with traditional high boots — though as we approach 16,000 feet, some Chinese train riders ruin their clothing by lying on the floor, moaning as their heads ache from the thin air. Like a cruel joke, a scrolling board constantly displays the current (towering) altitude, and a placid electronic commentator explains all the ways high altitude can damage your body if you are not in shape. “Dear guests, you better have done some sports before you came to Tibet,” the voice tells us.
The train soon will become even more luxurious. Next year, a company called RailPartners plans to introduce $1,000-per-night cars that will include private suites, butler service and haute cuisine.
It already ranks as one of the most impressive rail rides in the world. Snow-capped peaks shrouded in clouds loom over a plain studded with small stupas; the scope of the Tibetan vista makes America’s Big Sky country look small. Out the window, I watch nomads with long, flowing black hair herd flocks of woolly yaks across the rolling Tibetan grasslands. Seemingly amazed by the train, some nomads tether their horses next to tents and watch the cars roll by.
TRAIN travel also can help get travelers away from the Lhasa region. After several days outside the city, I decide Tibet still retains its majesty. But while in the past travelers could just stumble upon that allure, today you have to work to find it.
Disembarking from the train, I drive to Namtso Lake, at 14,000 feet one of the highest lakes in the world. The fierce, high-altitude sun turns the Namtso water a glimmering bright turquoise, and I watch one crane soar over the lake. From its shores I can see the serrated Tangula range, which Heinrich Harrer crossed during the epic trek to Lhasa immortalized in his book “Seven Years in Tibet,” and where mountains top 21,000 feet. When I walk toward the lake, I understand Tibet’s environmental fragility — crunching under my feet, the ground is little more than a thin veneer of grass over cold hard tundra.
Returning from Namtso to central Tibet, I stop at Ganden Monastery, traditionally one of the most important in Tibetan Buddhism. Unlike the empty Potala, Ganden feels like a living, working house of worship. Monks are everywhere — unloading trucks of food, debating Buddhist scripture by slapping their palms to emphasize points, joking with pilgrims camped nearby.
Sucking wind, I climb to the top of the monastery, nestled atop a mountain with panoramic views over the nearby Kyichu Valley. From the ridge, I can watch handicapped pilgrims crawling to touch Ganden’s sacred rocks. Near the apex of the mountain, a family performs a Tibetan sky burial, an ancient tradition that sometimes horrifies Westerners: Tibetans take the bodies of the deceased to a holy high point and leave them to be consumed by animals.
The majesty is even easier to find in culturally Tibetan areas outside Tibet province itself, officially known as the Tibet Autonomous Region. The Chinese government generally exerts less political pressure on monasteries outside the region, so they can practice traditional elements of Tibetan Buddhism with less interference.
On another trip, when I visit Labrang Monastery, a major site located in Gansu, a province near the autonomous region, I arrive in time for the annual harvest festival. Tibetan nomads in long black coats and gauchoesque wide-brimmed hats have ridden here from hundreds of miles away and now wait at the monastery gates. Within minutes, a senior abbot in a huge banana-shaped yellow hat appears at the gates, and the crowd of nomads surges forward, grabbing my arms and legs and pushing everyone inside the monastery. From the roof of the monastery, topped with paintings of grinning demons, young monks blow trumpets so big three men have to carry them, the rumble echoing back from the valley below. Other monks walk swiftly out of the monastery, beating drums and hand cymbals into a deafening racket. With no warning, they then unveil a series of enormous paper sculptures, light them on fire, and furiously stamp them to pieces, destroying evil spirits.
It’s a memory that comes back to me my last evening at House of Shambhala, as I climb a rickety ladder to the rooftop restaurant, which boasts views over the Barkhor, and watch the sun set over the Potala. Because of the sightlines from the Shambhala roof, I can stare directly at the Potala without seeing any of the sprawling, ugly newer part of Lhasa. For a moment, I can imagine the Lhasa from that Potala mural — a city teeming with spiritual passions, truly cut off from the rest of the world.
The best route is through Chengdu, a city in Sichuan Province in southwestern China. You can book flights to Chengdu from the United States (fares from New York begin at about $1,500), but you need an agent in Chengdu to arrange flights from Chengdu to Lhasa (about $425), and to get you the Tibet travel permit that is required for foreign visitors. Most agents can obtain a permit for you before you arrive if you e-mail them scanned copies of your passport and Chinese visa. Sim’s Cozy Guesthouse in Chengdu (86-28-8691-4900; www.gogosc.com) has years of experience arranging Tibet permits and air tickets to Tibet.
You can also get to Chengdu by flying to Hong Kong or Bangkok and then getting connecting flights to Chengdu with carriers like Dragonair (www.dragonair.com) or Thai Airways International (www.thaiairways.com). In August, I paid roughly $540 for the round-trip Thai flight from Bangkok to Chengdu.
If you want to see Tibet on a group tour, try Tenzin Bhagen, a Tibetan-American guide who customizes trips (www.inspiredyoga.com/retreats/tibet.htm)
The best time to visit Tibet is between June to September. Some hotels and restaurants close in the winter, commonly reopening in April.
WHERE TO STAY
Many hotels set their rates in dollars as well as yuan, the Chinese currency. Most hotels do not accept credit cards, but ATMs at the Bank of China in Lhasa accept most American bank cards.
In Lhasa, I stayed at House of Shambhala (7 Jiri Erxiang; 86-10-6402-7151; www.houseofshambhala.com). In addition to the stunning décor, rooms offer free high-speed Internet access. I paid $75 per night for a large suite, breakfast included. I also stayed several nights at the Mandala Hotel (31 South Barkhor Street; 86-891-633-8940), a spartan place offering rooms with a bed, a TV and few other amenities; it has views of the Jokhang Temple. I paid 188 yuan (about $24 at 8 yuan to the U.S. dollar) for a single, without breakfast. Like many inexpensive hotels, the Mandala will not take phone reservations.
Near Labrang Monastery, I stayed in the Labrang Hotel (eastern end of Renmin Xi Jie; 86-941-712-1849, though the phone frequently goes unanswered), a modern Chinese structure in the middle of the nearby town of Xiahe. I paid 150 yuan for a single, without breakfast.
For trips to Namtso Lake, many travelers stock up on camping equipment in Lhasa, and then camp near Tashi Dor monastery.
Popular treks include the routes around Mount Kailash, a sacred peak in western Tibet, and between Ganden Monastery and Samye Monastery in central Tibet. A travel agency can arrange Tibet treks and obtain the necessary permits for trekking. Many travelers recommend Lhasa-based Tibet Wind Horse Adventure (86-891-683-3009; www.windhorsetibet.com).
WHERE TO EAT
Tibetan cuisine, born in the harsh climate and limited resources, will never rank among the world’s finest; travelers visiting Tibetans’ homes will wind up choking down hunks of yak meat and tea full of salty yak butter. But Lhasa offers upscale interpretations of traditional food at places like Mayke Ame (southeast corner of the Barkhor; 86-891-632-4455), a cafe where you can have a meal of yak yogurt and local mushrooms with spicy sauce for about 40 yuan. Lhasa also has numerous Nepali and Chinese restaurants. Dunya Restaurant (86-891-633-3374), next to the Yak Hotel, ranks as the finest of the Western places, crowded with local expats eating towering yak burgers and specials like chicken satay. Dinner cost me 85 yuan. For a more unusual option, A Li Lang Barbecue City (next to the Dungcuo International Youth Hostel on Beijing Road; 86-891-691-0148) features fiery Korean-Chinese cooking like kimchi-infused soups, and has an English menu. Dinner cost me 40 yuan.
Outside Lhasa, choices will be slimmer. If you are camping or trekking, buy canned goods in Lhasa’s well-stocked supermarkets. Most smaller Tibetan towns now have Sichuan restaurants catering to Chinese migrants — look for Sichuan hotpot places where customers are dipping meats and vegetables into steaming pots.
Try to spend an evening at a nangma, a dance hall where singers belt out traditional Tibetan tunes set to thundering modern drum tracks, and patrons toss back bottle after bottle of local beer.
Tibet’s unique brand of Buddhism and breathtaking scenery have inspired many films that include Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” and “Seven Years in Tibet,” starring Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer, whose book was the basis of the movie. Important recent books include “Tibet, Tibet” by Patrick French, which compares modern-day Tibet with the myths surrounding the country. The Web site www.phayul.com, based outside Tibet, keeps an extensive daily chronicle of Tibet-related news.
JOSHUA KURLANTZICK is special correspondent for The New Republic.