The reality, of course, is both the same and different. When I decided to come to China as an English teacher, I chose to live in Chengdu, Sichuan. My reasons were practical: I loved the region's spicy food, and Chengdu was the gateway to Tibet. In addition, a huge chunk of Sichuan province was formerly the Tibetan region of Kham. The region still retains its ethnic and cultural distinction, and unlike the neighboring Tibet Autonomous Region, is easily accessible to solo travelers without the hassle of special permits.I made two forays into Kham, the ethnic Tibetan area of western Sichuan, in 2006 and 2007. The region, roughly aligned along three great north-south valleys between high mountain ranges, is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but access is still not terribly comfortable or convenient. For example, in 2007 I traveled from Chengdu to Kangding, and from there onward to Tagong, Ganzi, and Dege, which lie close to the border with the Tibet Autonomous Region. It involved three days of butt-busting travel on aged buses, along roads that were narrow, bumpy, and full of holes. The rewards, however, were worth it: jaw-dropping scenery, beautiful Buddhist monasteries, a 16,000-foot pass over the Tro La Range to Dege, and the historic Dege Printing Press, a 400-year-old repository of Buddhist scriptures and Tibetan history. I found the Tibetans to be friendly, curious, and full of good-natured humor. Still, I ached for a journey to the "real" Tibet, fueled by reading travel accounts by authors such as Alexandra David-Neel (the first Western woman to enter the holy city of Lhasa), Andrew Harvey, Michel Peissel, and Peter Matthiessen. Since the Tibetan unrest during the Olympic year of 2008, however, travel to the Autonomous Region has been severely restricted, and prohibitively expensive. The minimum amount I could spend, for a basic eight-day tour from Lhasa to the Nepal border, was about $1,000 US. After a year of saving money, I bit the bullet and obtained a Tibet Travel Permit for foreigners. Although confined to a package tour with a small group, in a Land Rover with guide and driver, I still saw most of the sights of which I had dreamed for half a lifetime. In July 2010, armed with all the required visas, permits, and cash, I boarded a plane in Chengdu for the two-hour flight to Lhasa. I don't think I realized that I was in Tibet until I stood in front of the Jokhang Temple inhaling the fragrant smoke from the huge incense burners. For me, the Tibetan areas of China will always mean smells: burning juniper branches, incense, the buttery aroma of Tibetan tea. I knew that I was in another world, of course, the minute the rocky, lunar landscape began to peek through the clouds as the plane descended toward Lhasa airport Saturday morning. The airport is about 65 km from Lhasa--bout an hour by bus--through a valley at once rocky and watery. The spell cast by my disbelief at being on the roof of the world was briefly broken as we passed new hotels, Ford and VW dealerships, and shopping malls. Lhasa today is a modern Chinese city, with about 400,000 people in its environs. In Lhasa, we saw the predictable sights: the Potala, the Jokhang Temple, the Barkhor street market, Norbulingka park, summer home of the Dalai Lamas, and Sera Monastery. When not enjoying the crystal-clear air and deep, deep blue skies, however, I spent my time adjusting to the 12,000-foot altitude. My hotel accommodation was a cheap RMB 40 single room (about $5). During the brief Lhasa stay, I got reacqainted with such things as yak meat and Tibetan butter tea, both acquired tastes. In my journal on the first day of my Tibet sojourn, I wrote: "Tibet seems to be the land of sky and rock. Even a cloudy sky here is dazzlingly different from the monotone smoggy gray that hovers over Chengdu. The clouds here have texture, shape, and color, and between them peeks a sky of unimaginably deep blue." Our itinerary would take us to Yamdrok Lake, Gyantse, Shigatse, Everest Base Camp, Tingri, and finally to Zhangmu, on the Chinese border with Tibet. The Tibetan part of my journey was only the beginning: my summer travel would eventually last six weeks, taking me through Nepal, India, and eventually back to China. The Tibetan landscape has been described as "lunar," "a land of rock, sky, and water," and "a desert at the top of the world." To me it was a landscape of continual amazement, with constantly-changing colors, direct, blinding sunlight, and vast stretches of rock, brown-green grass, and undulating hills all the way to the horizon. It was a fast tour. In better circumstances (less expense, fewer Chinese government restrictions), this itinerary could be stretched into two weeks or more. However, that's what it is: an itinerary. That means being shepherded from sight to sight, ticket booth to ticket booth, paying special "tourist" prices to see monuments, and traveling a well-worn path during which we saw the same people over and over again. Call it the Tibetan conveyor belt. Not to say it detracted from the magnificence of what we were seeing, but I couldn't help feeling that Tibet is being commodified, prettied up, and selected portions Disneyfied, with the same manufactured trinkets for sale wherever we went. The highlights of the trip, for me, were the Gyantse Kumbum (Kumbum means "Ten thousand Buddhas"), a huge and multi-layered building, and the sight of Mount Everest in its mantle of clouds, a rare opportunity in the cloudy summer weather. My first sight of the snow-capped Himalaya range, from a high Tibetan mountain pass, with an icy wind whipping the lines of prayer flags into a frenzy, was an event that I was unable to put into words. Like one's first view of an ocean, it was an experience so big and overwhelming that the mind has trouble coping with it all at once. Heinrich Harrer, author of Seven Years in Tibet, in his sequel Return to Tibet, describes the Tibetan landscape perfectly:
We were driving to Shigatse via Gyangtse. Under a blinding sun, in a brilliant pure light, the full glory of the Tibetan plateau was spread out before us. This landscape seems to be tailor-made for the Tibetan religion. Or is it that the Tibetan form of Buddhism could only have arisen in this landscape? It is amazing how peaceful this scenery seems to the viewer, even though it contains all the elements of wildness…Tibet will always remain the country of my dreams. My future trips there will include excursions to Mount Kailash and to the ancient Guge kingdom in the far west of the country. For now, I'm content that my home in Chengdu, under gray and smog-laden skies, is close in both distance and spirit to the land in the clouds, Tibet. All photos by Roger Jones. Read more from Roger at his blog Running into Myself and also check out his Flickr photostream for more superb photos.
-- Henrich Harrer, Return to Tibet, Great Britain, Phoenix, 2000, p.134