As he fell onto the pavement, the clacking sound of wood hitting cement ricocheted up and down the busy alleyway. Aside from myself though, few people took much notice of the elderly, shaven-headed man who was now sprawled across the street with his arms stretched out in front of him. For a moment he lay face-down, unmoving, but then, springing suddenly to his feet again, he took another leap forward before once again dropping to the ground in prostration. His heavy-duty workman apron and thick gloves with wooden panels protecting him from the shock of impact, he continued to advance slowly forward. Again and again he repeated the manoeuvre while behind him others were engaged in similar sliding prostrations of devotion and all around them paced other pilgrims, spinning prayer wheels, thumbing prayer beads and mumbling mantras. The air was rich in the spiritual as pilgrims from across the plateau circled around and around the Jokhang Temple like the passing moments on a clock.
Few places on Earth have a name as laced in exotica as Tibet. This vast, high-altitude desert at the heart of Asia has inspired adventurers, mystics, traders and invaders for centuries and has spawned myths and legends for even longer. Its mountains are said to be the home of the Hindu gods and its glacier-fed rivers water half a continent and are the life blood for billions of people. The Jokhang Temple, around which I now swirled with hundreds of others engaged in the evening kora (pilgrimage circuit), is the most important Buddhist temple in Tibet and the spiritual centre of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
When I say Lhasa is the capital of Tibet what I really mean is that Lhasa was the capital of a once-independent Tibet. Today Lhasa is the capital of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. In 1950 the Chinese invaded (or, in Chinese words, liberated) Tibet and nine years later Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was forced to flee to India where he, and thousands of other Tibetan refugees, have been based ever since, waiting until they can return home. It’s a day that almost certainly will never arrive. Tibet has changed beyond all recognition from the country they left behind. Officially now a part of China, Tibet in 1950 was a chronically underdeveloped place where power rested almost completely in the hands of the clergy. Since their arrival, the Chinese have poured billions of dollars into Tibet, developing its infrastructure and increasing the quality of life. But on the flip side they’ve done much to suppress Tibetan culture, identity and religious freedoms, and opponents of their rule are frequently harassed and jailed.
The Jokhang and surrounding streets of the old town might have been everything Tibet’s exotic image leads you to expect, but as I discover the rest of the city is a different place indeed. One morning I visit the Potala Palace, the seat of the Dalai Lamas for nine generations. This enormous complex of palaces piled upon whitewashed palaces is the iconic architectural site of Lhasa and a place of massive cultural and religious importance for Tibetans. Today though, with the Dalai Lama exiled and his name unmentionable, the great halls have lost much of their religious awe. Instead, they have been transformed into a Chinese Disney version of how the authorities want Tibet to be portrayed.
The city is also home to a number of enormous monastery complexes almost the size of small towns. Not so long ago they had populations of monks thousands strong, but today, in most cases, the monks number only in the hundreds. The Sera Monastery, a short distance outside of Lhasa, is one such place and here I find several dozen red-robed monks gathered under the shade of trees engaging in animated religious debates. The monks clap their hands together to emphasise each and every point they made. Around them though, and vastly outnumbering them, are coachloads of Chinese tourists who snap away on their cameras taking selfies with the monks.
While the clashes of a dominant modern China and a fading Tibetan culture make Lhasa endlessly interesting, it is, I feel, perhaps not the best place to experience something of an older, purer, Tibet. For that, I head out into the countryside on foot, well away from the roads and the good and bad of Chinese influence. The Ganden to Samye trek is a four- or five-day romp over two 5,000-metre-plus passes, past glacial lakes and across open Alpine pastures. Finally, the trail meets a cold, fast-flowing river which it follows as it drops sharply down a narrow gorge and then opens out into pine and rhododendron forests, which in turn slowly give way to a drier, semi-desert countryside where giant sand dunes lean up against the shale cliffs of thunderous mountains. Even now, in late summer, it is bitterly cold at altitude and after one breathless night sleeping at just under 5,000 metres, we wake to a landscape painted white by fresh overnight snow. No matter how unforgiving the landscape becomes though, there always seems to be grazing, shaggy-haired yaks and the black felt tents of nomads visible somewhere in our line of vision. It is here in these tents, while sipping salty Tibetan tea by the warmth of the fire, that the Tibet of yesterday is most visible. Old women with long, plaited hair enlivened with turquoise jewellery and yak-herding men with weathered faces, tell us stories of snow leopards and wolves, of pilgrimages to far-off monasteries and holy mountains, and of lives changing and cultures bending. In one tent, which has fierce Tibetan mastiff guard dogs growling outside, a man with disdain in his eyes opens a drawer on a little hearthside chest and, rummaging around until he finds what he is looking for among the various bits of paper and family trinkets, pulls out a small picture no bigger than a postcard. Turning it over, he lets a small smile crease across his face. “Tibet won’t be Tibet until he returns,” he says waving an illegal picture of the Dalai Lama.
If you go
The flights The only direct international flights to Lhasa are from Nepal; other flights are via major Chinese cities. The most convenient flights from Dubai to Lhasa are with China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com) and China Southern (www.csair.com). Whichever airline you go with you'll have to transit through another Chinese city, such as Chengdu, Kunming or Beijing. Flights cost around US$900 (Dh3,300), including taxes.
The visa For the vast majority of non-Chinese, a visit to Tibet is a complicated and costly affair. Independent travel is banned in Tibet and Norwegian passport holders are not allowed into Tibet. As well as a Chinese visa, everyone needs a Tibet Tourism Bureau permit and to get one of these you must be booked onto a tour (a tour group can consist of as few as one person) run by a Tibetan-based tour company. A guide and hired private transport is compulsory throughout your stay. To travel beyond Lhasa you will also require travel permits. To get these you must supply a written itinerary stating everywhere you would like to visit during your stay. You cannot easily change this itinerary once in Tibet. The permits and tour must be arranged in advance of your visit (allow at least a month to get permit and visas organised).
The tour Two highly regarded and reliable tour companies, which should be able to organise all the required permits, are Himalaya Journey (www.himalayajourney.com) and Tibet Highland Tours (www.tibethighlandtours.com). Recommended hotels in Lhasa include the House of Shambhala (0086 891 632 6533, shambhalaserai.com, double rooms from US$100 [Dh367]), which is a traditional Tibetan-style boutique hotel decorated with Buddha images and prayer flags; and The Kyichu (0086 891 633 1541, lhasakyichuhotel.com, doubles from US$70 [Dh260]), which has large rooms set around a pleasant, grassy courtyard restaurant.
Stuart Butler is a travel writer, photographer and guidebook writer for Rough Guides and Lonely Planet. He is the author of the Tibet chapter of the Rough Guide to China.