Travel in the Land of Snows is a guaranteed adventure, with the wildest routes in High Asia. Its combination of extraordinary landscape, extraordinary people and high adventure makes Tibet special.Michael Buckley author of Tibet: the Bradt Guide
Tibet is a land of superlatives – with the world’s highest peak (Everest), the world’s deepest gorges (Yarlung Tsangpo), the most sacred peak in all of Asia (Mount Kailash), and arguably the most spectacular road route in the world (Lhasa to Kathmandu). Nevertheless, the country has always been a tough place to access.
Tibetans themselves closed their nation off to foreigners for centuries. Then, with their invasion in 1950, the Chinese blocked foreigners from visiting. Being closed to outsiders so long, Tibet harbours many riddles – and it is only in recent decades that some of these riddles have been solved. But all of this just adds to the region’s charm and appeal.
Travel in the Land of Snows is a guaranteed adventure, with the wildest, roughest road routes in High Asia. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries blend into the landscape, becoming navigation landmarks; imposing fortress ruins cling to sheer hilltops; nomads herd yaks in snow-dusted pastures; pilgrims prostrate their way across the land to reach the sacred city of Lhasa. It is this combination of extraordinary landscape, extraordinary people and high adventure that makes Tibet so special.
A visit to Tibet is a strange experience, with intense emotional highs and lows. It’s weird because the real Tibet no longer exists. Since their military occupation in 1950, the Chinese have systematically dismantled the Tibetan social fabric, destroyed its great monasteries, persecuted its monks and nuns, forcibly resettled its nomads in housing ghettos, and wreaked devastating damage on Tibet’s pristine environment. Any description of present-day Tibet and Tibetan culture must be framed in this context of iron-fisted Chinese occupation.
‘Intense’ is a word that applies to many aspects of Tibet. It applies to the amazing resilience of the Tibetan people in the face of extreme adversity. Their battle has been largely a pacifist one, of suffering and enduring – a game of ultimate patience and tolerance. ‘Intense’ captures the feel of the landscape. The intensity of colours at this elevation is extraordinary, with glacial-blue lakes, luminous-yellow fields of mustard, deep reds and browns of barren rock landscapes, and then, up on the horizon, looms an ethereal Himalayan snow cap, backed by piercing blue skies. The colours practically glow: when you show photographs of these landscapes to people who haven’t been there, they question the unreal colours – what kind of filter did you use?
There is only one drawback to visiting Tibet: you can easily become addicted to the place. It makes you reluctant to leave, and as you do, you’re already plotting your return – a return not necessarily to Tibet itself, but to Tibetan culture. Sadly, real Tibetan culture is more likely to be found outside Tibet, in places where refugees continue their Buddhist practices, festivals and way of life in exile – in India, Nepal and Bhutan.
Travel to Tibet raises important ethical questions. One of the biggest is: should you go? Should you put money in Chinese coffers, thus indirectly subsidising Chinese military bills in Tibet? Most of the tourist business is in the hands of the Chinese, and some of the travel agencies are run by the military. This raises the thorny question of lending legitimacy to Chinese government operations by visiting, but more important for the Tibetans is the moral support they get from visitors. Your mere presence in Tibet provides a ‘buffer zone’ in an ugly situation between Chinese and Tibetans.
Tourists love monks. This is one of the great anomalies of tourism in Tibet: the monasteries are kept open and operating because of tourist demand to see them. Apart from Himalayan landscapes, the main tourist ‘attraction’ in Tibet is its monks and monasteries, its Buddhist rituals and sutra-chanting. The Chinese really have no difficulty with this – they simply cash in on it. Apart from making a buck out of Buddhism, the Chinese have absolutely no interest in Tibet’s rich culture, its religion or its language. If you go, you line the pockets of Chinese travel agents, hoteliers and airline agents, but if you stay away, you isolate the Tibetans.
The position of the Tibetan exile leadership is to encourage tourism. Addressing this ethical dilemma – to go or not to go – Nobel Peace Prize laureate the Dalai Lama responded to a question posed in Vancouver, Canada, in September 2006, about repression in Tibet: ‘I think you must go [to Tibet] yourself, and spend some time, not only in towns but in the countryside. Go to the countryside, and with a translator, if possible one who speaks Tibetan, if not, then one who speaks Chinese. Go there. Study on the spot. Then I think you will get a real answer.’ He knows that any Western visitor to Tibet will learn of conditions there and of the aspirations of Tibetans, will not fail to be moved by the experience, and will keep the Tibetan issue alive.
The Western tourist trade in Tibet represents a small fraction of the number of visitors going to China. By far the biggest group visiting Tibet is Chinese tourists, flocking to see this exotic corner of the Motherland. According to Chinese figures, over 20 million tourists visit Tibet annually – most of them domestic tourists from big cities like Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou. That number is highly exaggerated because the same tourists are counted several times in different locations like Lhasa, Shigatse or Everest. By the year 2020, China expects upwards of 35 million tourists a year to visit Tibet. This gives some idea of the invasive scale of Chinese tourism – the idea is to flood the place. Tourism is a mainstay of the economy in Tibet. Basically, whether you go to Tibet or not comes down to a personal choice, to be weighed by each traveller. If you can resolve the question of ‘should you go?’, the next thing to consider is ‘can you go?’ The Chinese are suspicious – with good reason – of the activities of independent travellers in Tibet, and have shepherded visitors into monitored, higher-paying group tours. Since major upheaval and large-scale protest across the entire Tibetan plateau in 2008, foreign visitors have only managed to gain access to Tibet on group tours. There are ways around this –particularly by visiting the eastern regions of Kham and Amdo, where such travel restrictions do not apply.