7 Days in Tibet
20 April 2014
Concealed behind the veil of myth and history for thousands of years, Tibet, said to house man’s paradise on earth Shangri-La, was the ultimate destination of my China adventure.
I boarded the transcontinental train from Beijing with much excitement and anticipation. The 47 hour journey was the highest railroad in the world, passing through Tanggula rail station at over 16,000ft above sea level. The train left Beijing at night and passed through Chinese provinces of Taiyuan, Lanzhou before gradually climbing up the Tibetian plateau after Golmud. The scenery outside the window told a story of China post war evolution, from rural villages to industrial parks to modern cities. From bustling cosmopolitans to quiet and laidback towns, this train journey pieced together a part of Chinese history.
On the second day, the train entered the barren land of Tibetian plateau. Modern towns receded behind to be replaced by the vast greenery stretching to the horizon. Travelers noticed the drop in temperature as the background changed from plateau to mountain ranges. The majestic Himalaya mountain with its snowy peaks stood proud against the horizon. The ground is frozen for over 500km, yet herds of Yak bulls, the spiritual symbol of Tibetians, still roamed the rocky slopes, defying the harshest environment to survive and thrive.
The air was thin when we passed through Tanggula Pass, the highest point of our journey where the train supplied oxygen to the cabin from its own oxygen tank. Villages were few and far between yet the track stretched out for what seemed like eternity, a testament to the amazing feat of modern engineering and the unwavering determination of mankind to go and explore further.
On the second night we watched the 2010 World Cup final from the sketchy 3G signal of a Chinese local. Chinese, Caucasian, Tibetan, Vietnamese all flocked together to one cabin and watched the live stream from a tiny laptop screen, cheering for their favorite teams. We banded together on the road and quickly became friends.
We arrived in Lhasa, Tibet in the third morning to find the city basked in morning sun. The air was thin and dreamy. Potala Palace stood out in the background and watched over us from a distance. This legendary palace was built in 1645 yet its walls were pristine white, untainted by the dust of urbanization and modernization. The treasure within was priceless, with golden tombs of previous Dalai Lamas adorned with exotic gems in exquisite craftsmanship. The rooms and libraries in this sacred castle had stood the test of time and preserved the essence of Tibetan Buddhism within its ancient walls. Hundreds of years ago, it was an extraordinary feat building this palace in the most barren land on earth.
My next destination in Lhasa was the 1400 year old Jokhang Temple, regarded as the most sacred destination for Buddhist pilgrims. I saw devout Buddhists embarking on this pilgrimage where they covered hundreds of kilometers on foot to reach this holy ground, kneeling every three steps and bowing every seven steps. Outside Lhasa stood Drepung Monastery, the largest and most important Tibetian Buddhism institution. Monks studied ancient theology and trained in unique meditation techniques. The greatest teachers at Drepung would take on the honor of training the next Dalai Lama. It was said that these Tibetan monks could survive for years without food or even water upon mastering their secret meditation technique.
I was privileged to visit one of the most surreal destinations on earth, where past and present intertwined, fairy tales and modernization met. Every moment on the journey told an ancient tale and acted to remind us of a distant past that still existed in modern society.
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Thanks for your interest in my story.
The most common misconception about Tibet is that it is an ancient city and you are pretty much on your own. It is a developed and functionally convenient town. You can take the same train journey, or fly directly to Lhasa, however because of the political situation, China might issue travel restriction to Tibet from time to time.
The best advice I can give is to read up about Tibetian history and culture as much as possible. Understanding their culture and history let you appreciate the local practices and religious life. Reading up about Tibetian mythology and tales would prepare you for the queerest and strangest things you will hear or see in Tibet. The trip would allow you to experience and verify the Tibetian legends for yourself, to me it was a journey to revelation and I wished I had understood more about Tibet when I were there.
Other than that, do more background study of the place, as some of their practices are very strange such as sky and water burial, which lead to the fact that they do not eat fish in Tibet. All in all, it was such a surreal experience for me.
Tibet is located in Sichuan and it has many more world renowned destination such as Juizhaigou and Leshan Giant Buddha. Tt is the perfect place to explore Chinese culture off the beaten path of Beijing, Shanghai and the Great Wall.