Upon arriving in Tibet, the first thing travelersare forced to appreciate is the altitude.Almost everyone is initially affectedsince the average elevation in the countryis 14,000 feet. Lhasa is the capital and resides at12,000 feet, and the top of Aspen Mountain is11,212 feet. Although I am a full-time resident of theColorado mountains, even I did not escape mountainillness. An hour after landing, I experienced shortnessof breath, tiredness, and a headache. Withinabout a day, the altitude sickness symptoms startedto abate. This is fortunate since the temples andpalaces we visited are chock-full of steep steps andclimbs. Anybody with a heart or lung conditionshould not travel to Tibet.
If the diminished oxygen content in the air doesn'tmake you dizzy, the breathtaking natural landscapemight. With mountains and valleys in every direction,the scenery is unsurpassed. While many travelto Tibet for trekking and mountaineering, the manmadestructures are no less stunning. The templesand monasteries are literal treasures. Thousands oftemples were destroyed during the Mao-led CulturalRevolution. Those that remain contain centuries ofartistic sophistication. The priceless statues, thangkas(embroidered and painted cloths), and murals areunlike anything found in North America.
The Potala Palace in downtown Lhasa is thelargest and arguably the most magnificent temple inTibet. It rises from the city toward the heavens. Afterbeing destroyed, it was rebuilt by the fifth DalaiLama and subsequently became the residence of allDalai Lamas since the late 1600s. The Chinese communistsconquered Tibet, and the current 14th DalaiLama went into exile in 1959. The Chinese currentlyrun Potala Palace operations. As one Tibetanexplained to me, "They turned one of our holiestplaces into a museum."
Despite its massive size, the Chinese governmentwill only allow about 15 monks to reside at PotalaPalace these days. Although it historically is the winterhome of the Dalai Lama, the current Dalai Lamaremains in exile and has never been allowed to visit.This causes intense heartbreak among the Tibetanpeople. To put it in perspective, imagine if the Popewere banned from the Vatican, or if non-Muslimscontrolled access to Mecca.
Spiritual Roots of Lhasa
Any traveler to Lhasa must understand the basicsof the political climate they are entering. The Tibetanpeople are nonviolent, devout Buddhists who wereeasily overtaken by the invading communists. Sincethen, life has become very difficult for Tibetans.Their vibrant colored dress and soft-spoken mannermask a difficult modern history. They have sufferedphysically, economically, and most of all spiritually.Tibet's peaceful resistance has not met with the samesuccess of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. MostTibetans I spoke with have given up hope that theChinese will show compassion. And most express adesire to go to India to reunite with their belovedDalai Lama. Almost none will be granted passportsto travel, but thousands have risked their lives ontreacherous mountain journeys into India. Currently,having a photograph of the Dalai Lama is punishableby jail (although almost every Tibetan family keeps apicture of him well hidden in their house).
It's very important when visiting Lhasa to arrangefor a Tibetan guide. Most guides are Chinese and willnot stray from the government line. Tibetan guides,out of fear of prosecution, may not speak against thecurrent government, but they will refrain from fillingyou with false propaganda and history.
The holiest place in Lhasa is not the Potala Palace.That honor goes to the Jokhang Monastery. The 7thcenturytemple is a pilgrimage destination forBuddhists throughout the country. Barkoor Street,adjacent to Jokhang, contains some of the best streetshopping in Lhasa.
The Drepong Monastery built in 1410 is also amust-see destination. The fifth Dalai Lama residedthere prior to moving into the Potala Palace. Thereused to be more than 10,000 monks learning atDrepong. China currently allows only about 500monks to study and reside at the monastery.Imagine if our government limited the number ofUS citizens that could become priests, ministers,imams, or rabbis.
If you still are in the mood for more Buddhistwonders, the Ganden monastery, which is only 30miles from Lhasa, is definitely worth the day trip.In a sense it's one of the newest monasteries inTibet since reconstruction began in 1982.Originally founded in 1409, it was reduced to rubbleby the Maoists. The reconstruction is veryimpressive. At a whooping 14,500 feet in altitude,I suggest getting acclimated to Lhasa for a few daysbefore traveling to Ganden.
The Beauty of Simplicity
The majestic beauty of Tibet makes up for what itlacks in luxury. Don't expect to find plentifulWestern amenities. Even at the nicer hotels in Lhasa,just be happy if they provide you with a bar of soap.Bring toilet paper with you everywhere. Bathroomsat monasteries, restaurants, and even the airport consist of a basin in the ground that youcrouch over.
The Lhasa Hotel is currently thebest bet for accommodations. It'sequivalent to an American 3-starhotel. About half of the staff knowssome English. All the food in Tibet ischeap, and much of it tasty. Local delicaciesworth tasting include yakmeat. Those with adventurous stomachscan delve into the plentiful streetstands throughout Lhasa. The preparationis a far cry from FDA standards,but many swear the stuff is flavorful.Fine dining doesn't exist inLhasa. Those desiring a luxurious getawaywill fare better in other Asiancities like Shanghai and Beijing. TheTibet Lhasa Kitchen and the NewMandala Restaurant are both locatedoff the Jokhang Temple Square andhad the best food I experienced in thecity. Reservations are never needed.Lhasa beer is also worth a try. It issimilar to most mass-produced beersfrom Milwaukee.
Part of Lhasa's charm is that it hasnot yet been overly westernized. Sofar, fast food chains haven't invadedthe city. Although that will likelychange within the next decade.Therefore, if you want to see a trulyunique place, the time is now. Chinajust built a train to Lhasa. As a result,thousands of Chinese are moving inevery year as the Tibetans continue toflee for India. The changes in the cityare palpable. New construction isoccurring everywhere you go. If youplan to make the trip, prioritize it.
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