Currently we are back at our Alaskan basecamp enjoying the non-stop daylight of summer and spending our time gardening, hiking with the pups, BBQing with friends and hammering metal in the shop. Life is good.
The 7 glorious months we spent last winter wandering the warmer regions of the lower 48 states are now just great memories.
In this post we are going to shift gears and present something a little different.
Recently we dug into a box of our old travel journals and scanned over 1300 color slides and B+W negatives taken as we traveled across the roof of the world… Tibet.
Don’t miss our latest video at the end of this post.
During the last 40 years Denise and I have been very fortunate to have traveled to many exotic and remote locations around our world.
But none of these destinations have matched the adventures we had 31 years ago while wandering across the very remote Tibetan Plateau.
In my formative years my grandfather once said to me “travel while you are young”. I have since strived to follow this advice as my life strategy and in retrospect found it to be very sound counsel.
In those days the world was a friendlier place and along with our youthful vigor and a little good luck we were able to travel “hard class” to places most people would not think of going even today.
The opportunity to step back in time and witness firsthand ancient cultures before they became engulfed with the western style of consumerism and tourism was a once in a lifetime occasion for us.
Tibet has been called by several different names, The Roof of the World, The Land of the Snows and The Forbidden Kingdom all due to its remoteness and the fact its inhabitants live at some of the highest altitudes in the world.
The Himalayas and Tibetan plateau have a direct impact on the climate of the world and are one of the primary influences behind the Asian monsoons.
It has been suggested that the Himalayas may have helped set the stage for the Ice Ages that began about 2.5 million years ago.
The north side of the Himalayas is one of the most remote and isolated places on earth with average elevations at 14,800 ft and many villages located at 16,000 ft and above.
This mammoth mountain chain creates a wall or rain shadow that has blocked moisture into the Gobi and Mongolian deserts for the past 8 million years.
In early 1983 China opened its doors to foreign travelers and we immediately began planning a trip to the “middle kingdom”.
Our first visit to China was later that year when we traveled by train from Hong Kong north to Guangzhou (Canton).
We traveled overland to Guilin spending a few weeks exploring the fantastic limestone spires of the Karst Hills.
Then in the fall of 1986 the Chinese government dropped the last of its restrictions on travel to Lhasa, the capitol of Tibet.
Immediately we changed our travel plans and focused on another trip back to China and ultimately overland into Tibet and Nepal, it was a very exciting time.
This allowed the independent traveler who had enough patience, endurance and time to be able to rub shoulders with ordinary Tibetan citizens.
We hurriedly packed and purchased one way tickets to Hong Kong where we caught a ferry north to Shanghai.
We each traveled with one small backpack enabling us to move quickly and efficiently. Our camera gear and film weighed as much as our clothes. We would buy warmer clothes in China before entering Tibet.
After lengthy rides on trains, buses and ferries floating down the grand canal, we arrived in Peking (now Beijing) where we immediately acquired the “special independent travelers permit” needed to enter Tibet.
Before heading west into Tibet we spent a few weeks traveling north by steam train passing through the Great Wall and into Inner Mongolia.
But that is a separate adventure that we will save for another post. This post will focus on the Tibetan part of our amazing journey.
As we rode along the high desert plateau the winds would blow light snow and small dust storms across the one lane of gravel.
As we slowly traversed this high altitude desert we experienced blue skies and the intense sun that burned into all it struck but there was always a chill in the air.
In 1986 China and especially Tibet remained a very socialist, cold war orientated and secretive place to travel. We were often lost. In those days there were no smart phones, no GPS and no good maps. The Chinese officials at the frequent checkpoints would often confiscate maps.
If one did find a road sign it was in Mandarin making it useless to us. At some of the more remote checkpoints officials had not yet been informed that the country had been opened to foreign travelers.
Rarely encountering the wandering “independent tourist”, officials were in the habit of turning foreigners around and sending them back to where they had come from.
We adopted a method of when asked where we had come from to then tell them where we actually wanted to go.
Usually this worked and they would then send us in the direction we actually wanted to go.
Our arrival in Lhasa was a dream come true, we had finally arrived in the forbidden city, but what we saw immediately saddened us.
The destroyed monasteries, the growing colonial settlements of Han Chinese and the obvious suppression of the Tibetan buddhist culture.
Tibet has been described as “one of the most repressed and closed societies in the world.”
The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 forced their supreme leader the Dalai Lama to flee to India. Almost 30 years later we could have been arrested for just carrying his photograph.
Although we knew of this risk we had brought photos hidden in our packs to give to the local Tibetans. Several of the older monks were brought to tears when we gave them the photos.
During the last fifty years or so, it is estimated that as many as 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a result of the Chinese “liberation”. Many of them (notably monks) were executed or died of hunger in concentration camps.
During the invasion the number of Tibetan monasteries were reduced from over 6,000 to less then 100, many of them looted and destroyed by the Chinese army.
Often foreign reporters were barred from entering Tibet leaving foreign tourists as the only source of information as to what was actually going on inside the region.
By the late 1980’s some visitors had gotten into trouble for their anti-China politics. Because we were openly photographing, we were followed many times while exploring Lhasa.
Seeing the Potala for the first time was an emotional experience. It is such a magnificent and structurally massive building it takes one a while to realize the scale of what your looking at.
It sits on a hill overlooking the Lhasa valley making for a remarkable setting.
We spent days wandering through its hundreds of dark interior rooms and enjoying the mid day sun at the Dalai Lama’s private living quarters on its roof.
The Jokhang Temple near the base of the Potala is a destination for devout pilgrims that travel great distances to prostrate themselves clockwise around the temple.
We rented bicycles to visit some of the out lying monasteries such as Sera, Drepung and Ganden. At over 12.000 ft this was sometimes an arduous endeavor with lots of stopping and heavy breathing.
Typically we were the only foreigners visiting these monasteries. We would quietly wander through these temples never knowing where the passageways or doorways led and what we might find.
These monasteries had no electricity and it felt like stepping back into medieval times. We often would come across monks chanting or reading scripture by a window next to a flickering yak butter candle.
In the inner court yards one might find monks debating scripture which is a very entertaining activity to watch. There were always the aroma of brewing yak butter tea and burning juniper present.
Witnessing this ancient culture first hand with its exotic sights, sounds and smells is not something we will ever forget.
It was now late December and after spending several weeks exploring the Lhasa Valley the threat of winter weather was looming.
We had heard stories of Himalayan caravans getting caught in fierce snow storms on the remote high passes and even though were we from Alaska it was not something that we wanted to experience.
We had met an American and his Nepali friend Tashi who were headed to Katmandu and looking for others to join them. The idea was to travel west along the plateau and eventually cross the Himalayas and drop into Nepal.
Together we rented a vintage Chinese bus and departed Lhasa headed south west.
Tashi was part Tibetan and had relatives living along our route. One evening we stopped at his uncle’s Tibetan home for the night.
The traditional Tibetan home consists of a walled-in two story structure with a central courtyard where the livestock spend the night and the people live upstairs.
The structure is usually made of mud bricks and has very little wood structure. If there is wood it has been hauled from forests on the other side of the Himalayas.
We were invited to join the the family that evening and slept on wooden benches situated along the walls of the main room. In the center of the room was an ancient metal stove which was always kept burning.
At these altitudes the only local fuel available for heating and cooking is yak dung which is collected daily.
It is hand formed into a flat patty and stuck to the exterior walls of the compound to dry. There are no trees on the plateau so all firewood must be hauled by yak from the other side of the Himalayas.
The communal toilet is an open hole adjacent to the living area and is situated directly over the animal enclosure below.
Having to go in the middle of the night made for an unforgettable experience especially under a cold, clear, star filled night sky.
While laying in my sleeping bag in the pre-dawn light, I will never forget the sight and sound of an older Tibetan man chanting and thumbing his prayer beads in the light of the fire. Magical!
After stops in the ancient cities of Shigatse and Gyantse we drove out of our way to visit the monastery of Sakya.
Located on one of the main trading routes across the Himalayas this monastery holds one of the most magnificent collections of artwork, golden buddhas, ancient scrolls and other religious relics.
After days traversing rough roads we finally reach the high point of the trip at just under 17,000 ft, the Tong La pass. It is situated on a broad plain surrounded by the some of the most incredible snow covered peaks imaginable.
Looking south the landscape hurriedly drops off towards Nepal and India and the moisture rich environment of southern Asia.
Denise and I were very fortunate to have been some of the first independent travelers allowed into Tibet.
We will never forget the welcoming and proud Tibetan people, their amazing buddhist culture and the astonishingly harsh landscape in which they live.
Knowing that Buddhism is a tolerant religion that places emphasis on kindness, compassion, equanimity, clarity of mind, and wisdom makes it especially hard for the outsider to see the Tibetan people living under Chinese oppression.
It is our heartfelt hope that the next generation of Chinese will end the oppression and recognize Tibet as an independent nation and return the region back to the indigenous people of the Land Of The Snows.
Inside its borders and around the world, Tibetans have never stopped believing Tibet is a nation.
Allowing the Dalai Lama to return to his homeland is a dream that all Tibetans will forever hold dear in their hearts.
Slip-in the ear pods, crank up the stereo or put on your head phones but don’t miss our latest video “Seven Weeks In Tibet”
Local government reports that more than 95 per cent of the tourists that visit Tibet today are Chinese. More than 15 million visited the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR] in 2014, up more than 20 percent from 2013.
A record 3.15 million people arrived by air. Most of the rest came by train. The Chinese government has realized the financial value of Tibetan culture, marketing a romanticised version of Tibet to the Chinese tourist market.
Under Chinese occupation, Tibetans themselves have little say in how their country is portrayed and gain little of tourism’s financial benefits.
Tourism to Tibet helps to legitimise China’s rule and attempts to cover up the harsh reality of many decades of political and cultural repression.
Chinese tourism has become insensitive voyeurism where local Tibetans are treated as an exotic curiosity and centuries-old customs are reduced to Disneyland-style attractions.
A good link to Tibet’s current political situation
An Interesting End Note:
Increasingly Tibet is attracting Chinese hippies and dropouts and Lhasa has sort of become China’s answer to India’s Goa.
Some Chinese have even adopted Tibetan names. One Chinese hippie told the Washington Post, “In Beijing and Shanghai, it’s all about materialism…But here (Tibet), its different. There’s a different culture and different values and I think we can learn from it.”
Please let us know if you have enjoyed this retrospective post. Denise and I have explored many different exotic locations taking thousands of color photos and would enjoy sharing them.