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Don’t Forget Tibet
November 13, 2009


So Tibet, or the Tibet Autonomous Region, has been a very controversial place in recent times. Officially it is under Chinese rule, but being there gives a totally different feeling. The area has been resisting Chinese rule since the Cultural Revolution, maybe even longer. With a mix of old Tibetan culture, newly fused Han Chinese influence, Buddhism, picturesque landscape, and lots of yak, the area is strongly rooted in the old while incrementally experiencing transcending changes from the new.
One thing making this happen faster is the Chinese government. A new railway was built specifically from Beijing to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Ever since its completion, more and more Han Chinese have been flooding into Tibet. This makes Tibetan cultural annihilation much faster. But why would someone want to leave glorious Beijing for extremely cold Tibet? It’s because the Chinese government pays people to move to Tibet. The region is becoming more and more Han, and the Dalai (Llama that is) has said this is the single most threatening act to Tibet. Of course, he can’t do anything about it, since he doesn’t rule Tibet anymore. He escaped to India and now does his business from there.
That said, the route from Beijing to Lhasa was awesome. The train has seats (which are like first class seats on an aeroplane), hard sleeper, and the most expensive soft sleeper. Being a posh traveler I decided to splurge and went for the soft sleeper. Taking a soft sleeper in China gave me a taste of VIP life. Soft sleeper ticket holders get to board first and disembark first. The third class waiting room at the train station is usually bananas and should be labelled as a disaster area. The room is filled with people and is tighter than a 10 year old. The soft sleeper waiting area is civilized like Union Station in Chicago or something. Real organized. Civilized. The bathrooms on the train car are also cleaner, because it doesn’t need to be shared with 200 other passengers. A sleeper room holds four people, and usually hosts more affluent Chinese. For longer train rides, soft sleepers are a must. Especially if you rather not share one train car with 60 loud Chinese people spitting their phlegm and seeds and trash on the floor.
I spent the first day on the train looking out the window, seeing off large commercial buildings and bustling harbors. A couple hours later I was in the outskirts of the city, watching huge cranes rape the land for future development. China’s construction game is no joke. My favorite part was after all the construction gave way to natural landscape. As soon as I got bored with that though, I had fun learning mandarin and sharing jokes from my 3 Chinese cabin-mates. It was easily the most fulfilling train ride of my life, both for the view and the company. The coolest part was going to sleep in an urban environment, then being surprised to waking up to this:

At this point I’m 36 hours from Tibet. I don’t know what to expect from Tibet aside from it being really cold and it’s really high and people get altitude sickness. I have to make a conscious effort to drink more water.
In Tibet
After two days of train fun-ness, I wobbled slowly off the train with all my belongings. As soon as I stepped off, I was lei’d Tibetan style. A white scarf was draped over me as a sign of good luck. All of the other passengers were lei’d Tibetan style as well. Pretty neat welcome. Tibet is the most beautiful place in the world. It’s a weird place, because it’s sunny as fuck but there’s snow on the ground. It’s one of the highest places on earth so when you get that high weird things start to happen. The cold will chill your bones but the sun will also give you sunburn. Temperature shifts are also dramatic between day and night. The altitude makes it hard to breath and some people get altitude sickness upon arrival. Altitude sickness is no joke and can be life threatening, so I took some extra precautions like drinking more fluids, not eating too much the first day, and cutting down on smoking.
After a day of general exploring around the city, the next day I found myself on top of a mountain looking down at Namtso lake. The lake is about 4900 meters high and almost encompasses the mountain I foolishly climbed to sit on. It kicks the shit out of any lake I ever seen in my life. It was the complete opposite of urban society. No skyscrapers, billboard ads, gutter trash, sewage, restaurants, cars, buses, lawyers, businessmen. Nothing of the sort. It was pure nature and yourself. The expansiveness of nothingness was moving. Seeing this made me think of how great life would be if I just had to tend my garden for food and spend the rest of the time just sitting on top of the mountain chilling. It’s really that beautiful. I can do it everyday along with a bag of hash and honest say I would not get bored.

I threw up for about an hour that night.
Perhaps it was the altitude of Namsto lake that affected me. I threw up uncontrollably for an hour and felt a wreck. Then I had to put on my jacket to go to the bathroom, which was about a quarter mile away in bone chilling weather. The evening and nights in Tibet are rough. In other parts of Tibet, after dinner I would start going in and out of consciousness for 5 second spans. After my food digested I was fine. I attributed it to nicotine withdrawals, altitude, and fatigue.
Anyway, I crossed another lake to get to Samye monastery hidden in the mountains. A ferry is the only way to get there, since no roads can be adequately built. The seclusion preserves the monastery and its inhabitants. Monks go about their business even as I was walking around playing with the prayer wheels. Meditation is a very personal thing, and being able to witness monks do this was a real treat. Seeing how the monks live day to day with monastery restoration and continuous praying kind of gave me the same feeling I got when I was at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Religion definitely is a part of the human experience because it’s so moving, it doesn’t matter which religion it is.
The monastery is littered with Jiaos. Every nook and cranny is stuffed with them like play money. Especially in the more holy areas, such as a room that the Dalai built but never lived in, paper Jiaos piled on. It’s also forbidden to take pictures inside. Which is unfortunate because there are statues of all the different buddhas. The statues are giant and elaborate. There’s a buddha statue that was coated in real gold paint. A monk was applying a new layer of gold as I was visiting. People come from all over China as well as the world to pray and give tithe to this oldest tibetan buddhist monastery.

The capital city of Lhasa is going through the most rapid changes out of all of Tibet. I’m glad I got to see it before it changes some more. The new train line from Beijing to Lhasa is systematically dismantling the remaining remnants of Tibetan culture. In my opinion, the train allows more Han Chinese people (and influences) to pour into Lhasa. The Tibetans are having a hard time stopping this, because there are soldiers with rifles peppered all over Lhasa. Sort of like in Xinjiang. There are stores that I could tell have opened recently and are owned by Han Chinese. To me, it’s sad but inevitable that more Han Chinese influence will continue to flood in. And that Tibet will never gain independence. I do sincerely hope I’m wrong because in the words of the Dalai, “Tibet will remain always in my heart.”