A Pilgrimage in Tibet

Highly Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2024.

The following piece was highly commended in our 2024 New Travel Writer of the Year Competition. You can find the full list of long and short listed entries – including the winner – here.

“He’s a Christian – is he allowed?”

The red cloaked monk shrugged an OK to my guide and beckoned me towards him in his dark alcove. I was pushed past the queue of the faithful waiting in line for their benefaction and received a touch on the head with the golden cloth of the ninth Dalai Lama’s hat, a soft blessing.

“For good luck” The monk said in English as the crowd closed in front of me and I was bundled onwards into the darkness of the temple. Embroidered cloth hung from the ceilings, sandalwood incense and butter candles created a thick, enveloping, intoxicating atmosphere.

Moments later a toothless old man shuffled up to me and parked his creased face an inch from mine to get a closer look. The ears of his sheepskin hat flapped out. I could feel his breath. Out of respect for his age and the unusual physical closeness I stayed perfectly still as he made his assessment.

He clearly couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Maybe he expected this pale ghost to disappear in a puff. Was I an apparition created by the sacred power of the place? He watched me closely for a few seconds until he was satisfied I was real, then he erupted in loud laughter and turned away, demonstratively shaking his head. ‘Ah the things you see in Lhasa!’

It is the dream of the traveler to see unprecedented curiosities. I had the impression that we were both satisfied by our meeting.

Earlier in the day, on the way in from the airport I had checked myself for signs of altitude sickness which I’d heard can be paralysing when arriving unacclimatised at nearly 4,000 meters above sea level. Everything seemed OK; my lips weren’t purple, I had no great headache, a tingling in the arms seemed to be minor. In my hotel room bedroom I ignored the oxygen mask and headed straight out into the city.  

The cab passed military camps and shrines, it stopped for cows crossing the road. The streets were tired and muddy from snow. Small shops everywhere, busy restaurants were harshly lit by one fluorescent lamp. Everything blended together here.

Jokang Temple, the heart of Tibetan mysticism, was to be my first destination. It seemed that most of the people in the city were pilgrims heading the same direction as me. The crowds didn’t look westernised in any way. Women wore long heavy skirts fronted with colourfully striped aprons, most had bucket hats to protect against the sharp sunlight. Men wore long wadded coats, tied with thick belts. Their hats were wide brimmed leather, giving them the look of cowboys, which is what many of them were back home on the plains in the west.

Some had walked here from their home towns, hundreds of miles distant. Others stepped down off battered old buses. They flooded the city reciting mantras as they bunched up at traffic lights, some spinning hand held prayer wheels, waiting to cross wide modern roads.

The most devout of all had taken years to get here, dusty figures prostrating themselves in a journey that was now close to its end. They stood, then crouched onto knee pads, scraped their boarded hands forward until fully prone, face to dirt – a kiss, then standing again, one step forward, kneeling again. Travelling from town to town, one meter at a time. What do you have to put aside in your life to make such a total commitment? Watching them I realised that I could visit the place but never fully feel the significance of it.

Arriving in the square in front of the Temple the human flow spread out into a busy crowd, savoring the moment, stopping to pray, meeting, bustling.

No outsider will ever know the risks that the devoted had taken to get there, or even understand how their travel was still permitted. To ask someone for their story could be dangerous for them. In Tibet there’s a line of human understanding beyond which the visitor will never pass, an enforced cultural divide of the sort that exists in few places anymore.

Emerging out of the darkness onto the flat roof of the temple I looked over the low-rise city, past golden decoration to the Potala Palace. It sits proudly atop its hill, framed by high foothills beyond. It is now merely a museum yet it is a powerful symbol of things nearly but not quite lost. Magic hangs in the cold air up there, this much is clear to any visitor. It keeps the pilgrims flowing; excited, determined, unstoppable.

Down in the square below me uniformed police stood at their stations, closely watching the crowds, ready with fire extinguishers.

More information

For more information about our New Travel Writer of the Year Competition, head to our competitions page.