Tibet – 6 Days in this Confusing Conundrum of a Country

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Potala Palace in Lhasa Tibet

Tibet seems like a faraway, exotic destination for many. Maybe just a dream to some. But the reality is that it is easier than ever to get there and tourism is well-organized. At the time I went, and I believe this is true now, foreigners (non-Chinese) had to have permits and a guide in order to visit, even if you lived in China, which I did. China Highlights has excellent information on planning your trip. This East Asia country may be occupied, but it is obvious that it is not mainland China when you visit.

Many websites state that “No individual travelers are allowed to travel to Tibet” but I want to clarify what that means. This simply means you can go alone, but must have a guide. I went to Tibet as a solo traveler, and my tour agency acquired all necessary permits. My plan was to join a small tour group. In Tibet, you must have permits for each place you visit and dates that you will be visiting.

Tibet is, more or less, an occupied territory. It is occupied by the Chinese and the military has control. They are everywhere, including checkpoints and on top of buildings watching what is going on down below. Don’t be put off by this. I didn’t find it intimidating even though they are armed. Most people seem oblivious to their presence, but the Tibetans are not.

Recycling the Chinese way doesn’t look that effective, but it actually is

When I moved to Shanghai in 2008, I knew I would visit Tibet while I lived in China. In June 2010, I decided to leave China, so I began planning a visit to Tibet in the spring of that year, and I went in June. I had one week to discover Tibet, but trekking there was/is expensive and I was going to be unemployed soon, so I didn’t indulge in a trek. I regret that now.

Here’s what I saw and did during my week in Tibet and some reflections on what I learned. I had an entertaining guide who was quite surprised by me at times, and quite happy about the easy week he had ahead of him.

Lhasa’s shining star is Potala Palace

Day #1 – Lhasa arrival

I had spent the previous week in Yunnan Province, so I flew from Shangri-La, China (yes, it’s a real place) to Lhasa. I had no desire to spend hours on a train, although that seems to be the 1st choice of many travelers to Tibet from other parts of China. I’ve been on many Chinese trains and seen the bathroom situation. I didn’t need to take a train to say I’d been to Tibet. I had nothing to prove.

When I arrived in Lhasa I was met by my guide, Pussang, and my driver whose name I didn’t catch. The drive to the hotel was over an hour. I was relieved that Pussang didn’t talk the enter time.

When we arrived at the Lotus Flower Hotel, I asked how many people were on my tour. ‘Just you,’ he said. This was the same experience I had when I visited Egypt! Private tour by default! It was only about 1:00 and I had the afternoon free. I walked the 1km to Potala Palace and discovered an excellent café along the way. This was a great opportunity to take some photos of the outside.

Prayer wheels, just a few of hundreds, that circle Potala Palace

I walked over to the Barkhor area, which is Tibetan and walked the pilgrim circuit around the Jokhang Temple. I was disappointed to see that the entire pilgrim circuit was covered by hawkers selling jewelry, statues, and trinkets, all made in China or Nepal! The pilgrims could hardly get by. They walk with the temple to their right and carry prayer wheels and chant prayers while circling the temple for hours. Some also prostrate for hours, wearing homemade kneepads.

I found Tibet Summit Cafe on Danjielin. Internet wasn’t free, but it is cheap and the coffee and desserts were delish. This became my hangout each morning. I was so excited to be here after waiting so long to see Tibet and especially, Potala Palace.

Courtyard outside Jokang Temple

Day #2 – Potala Palace

I met Pussang at 9:00 in my hotel lobby and we were driven to Jokhang Temple first. It was about 1km from my hotel, but I was surprised to see the driver. I thought we would just walk. When I said so, Pussang seemed surprised. He said most Americans didn’t like to walk anywhere and always wanted the driver at their disposal. I told him I like to walk and that if he wanted, he could tell the driver to go home for the day as long as he would still be paid. I suddenly became a favorite client. There is no better way to see a city and learn your way around than to walk it.

At Jokhang Temple (85RMB in 2010 unless you’re a legitimate pilgrim, please cover your knees and shoulders in all temples) I saw a huge crowd of pilgrims entering one way, and tourists who enter another. The pilgrims were leather-faced, most were dirty, and most were Tibetan, and all were waiting patiently. Some were chanting. The tourist groups, however, were not so well behaved. No further comment on that.

Pussang, having only a lone western gal following him, knew what to say to the guard, and he gently pushed in ahead of the tour groups. Once inside, we had only 20 minutes. They limit the time, for obvious reasons. So Pussang told me about the Lamas and icons and this and that, and because of all the people, the information mostly didn’t even go in one ear, and what did pretty much came out the other ear pretty quickly. I find Buddhism overwhelming and complicated, and there were so many distractions inside the temple.

The most interesting thing about this temple was watching the pilgrims. Most of these people have nothing in the way of material possessions and all were giving money, scarves, yak butter, fruit, or some other offering to Buddha. I was amazed at their dedication and faith.

View of Jokang Temple from the rooftop of the Indian restaurant where we had lunch

These people looked like they were singing and dancing on the roof of Jokhang Temple, but they were actually stamping down the concrete to make it smooth. Pussang said it was because rough concrete was hard on the knees when prostrating, but nobody prostrates on the roof…

I would become more amazed the longer I stayed in Tibet. 

When we left the temple, I told Pussang I liked his style. I made it very clear he did not have to explain everything and I didn’t have to see and do everything. I suggested we go for a coffee since we had time before our 1:00 appointment at Potala Palace. So we went to Summit Cafe where the coffee is too expensive and he wasn’t comfortable. I realized my mistake too late. Anyway, I bought him a coffee and we had a great chat for about an hour.

We revised the itinerary which was jam packed from 8:00 to 5:00 every day. That didn’t seem relaxing so I went to work choosing the things I really wanted to see and experience, and deleted the rest. Ahh, the advantages of traveling alone. Pussang was surprised and told me I had paid to see all of these things, and I responded that temples were free admission and that I had seen a lot of them. I suggested a much more reasonable start time of 10:00AM on days when that was possible and he was very agreeable to that! I suggested we meet at the café each morning. Pussang was surprised that was willing to walk there each morning, it being a whole kilometer and all.

Potala Palace is a bucket list destination

We were early for our Potala Palace visit, so the guards made us wait even though I was alone. We had one hour inside the palace, but it was enough. I paid more attention this time. The palace was much smaller when it was built initially, but I believe Dalai Lama #8 expanded it to what it is today. It is huge, but only a small portion is open to tourists.

We saw the Dalai Lama’s chair where he sat to meet the masses and the monks. I couldn’t stop staring. I also couldn’t believe the dust inside. When we were on our way back down the hill, I asked how the poor Tibetan people felt when DL#8 put so much money into the expansion of what was his home. I don’t know if he didn’t understand what I was asking, but he didn’t even pretend to make up an answer. He was moving on to the next subject.

It was time for lunch and we had Indian food on a rooftop restaurant looking over the Jokhang Palace. Guides eat free there. Afterwards he was free and I went to Summit Cafe to use the Internet and ended up meeting Kate from ‘Britain’ and Kelly from the US. They had just finished a 4 day trek with their guide, their Yak Man, and three yaks. After they told me about their experience, I regretted not spending the money on a trek.

Kelly was leaving the next day, so Kate joined me on my overland trip to Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet. She didn’t have the proper paperwork, though, but Pussang thought we could pull it off. There are checkpoints all over Tibet.

View of Lhasa as we left town to go to Shigatse

Day #3 – Shigatse and lots of driving

I came downstairs at 8:15 for my 8:30 meeting with Pussang, only to find he and Kate were already there and the driver was waiting! I was starting to realize that Pussang is often early. So we started off on what I thought was a five hour trip to Shigatse with a stop at the Yamdrok Tso Lake on the way. Turns out, we didn’t arrive until after 3:00 in Shigatse.

The drive displayed some of the most beautiful scenery and stark landscapes I have ever seen. We stopped for a few photos along the way, and the lake was an amazing shade of blue on one end and green on the other. I had high hopes for Shigatse after seeing this. We stopped at a village that pretty much existed to feed tour groups, and we had a good lunch of traditional Tibetan food.

We saw lots of herds of sheep, a few goats, and a few yaks on our drive. I got one good picture of a yak. I had never seen a yak and was really excited. Pussang found this very amusing. These are really interesting animals, I must say. Long hair and horns, short, sturdy legs, and very docile. They are perfectly suited to the climate of Tibet. What we didn’t encounter was a checkpoint, thankfully.

Yaks on the way to Shigatse

When we finally arrived in Shigatse, I was disappointed to see so much Chinese influence and row after row of shops on dirty streets. I noticed pretty quickly that the sewer system had not kept up with the city’s growth.

We checked into the Yak hotel then left to see Tashi Lhun Po Monastery (55RMB in 2010). It was interesting, but not so different from Jokhang, but each monastery seems to have some reason why it is important to the Buddhists. We started to enter one room of the temple and Kate said she was going to wait outside.

On the way in, there was a Chinese tour group blocking the door. We pushed past, and then Pussang stopped suddenly to listen to the Chinese guide. He made a face and I asked him what she was saying. He said she was telling all those tourists that the 9th Panchen Lama had traveled to Beijing and told the government how happy all the Tibetans were to be Chinese now and how happy they were the Chinese government had taken over. I was in awe. Such blatant lies! He also said the Chinese guides tell everyone they came to Tibet to ‘help’ because there were so many tourists and not enough Tibetan guides. They acted like they were doing the Tibetan guides a favor.

Monks at one of the monasteries we visited

We went to dinner at another place serving good Indian food where the guides eat for free, and then we walked back to the hotel through filthy streets, much to our disappointment. This city felt less Tibetan than Lhasa and supposedly it has a smaller Chinese population. The cities I had visited in China were not dirty, so I wasn’t sure why Shigatse had such dirty streets.

Day #4 – Back to Lhasa and a little less driving

We began our drive back to Lhasa at 8:30, a half hour earlier than planned. I knew Pussang would be in the lobby early. The route back didn’t detour around the lake and did take about 5 hours, but the scenery was no less stunning than yesterday. We stopped a couple of times to take photos, but skipped lunch. At one point we got out of the van and were greeted in perfect English by a Tibetan boy about 4 years old. ‘Hello, welcome to Tibet! You are very nice. Please join us for something to eat!’ Wow! Where did he learn that?

When we got out of the van, his eyes went right to my white legs and he wrapped his arms around them and wouldn’t stop touching me until his mom yelled at him! Hilarious! It was hot, and I was wearing shorts. The Tibetans, especially the ones who still live in small villages, are very dark skinned and I imagine he had never touched legs like mine.

The stark beauty of Tibet

When we got back to Lhasa, Kate and I got lunch at the same place I went with Pussang and then I walked around to do a bit of shopping. Two Tibetan girls, 21 years old, asked me if they could walk with me and practice their English. I said yes so they walked the pilgrim circuit with me for about half an hour. Only one of them spoke, but her English was very good. The other was too shy. Both were beautiful and they told me they work in a Tibetan night club and go to English class during the day. Now, I don’t know what a Tibetan night club is like, but I know it does not involve prostitution. They were really lovely and eventually said goodbye. They didn’t want anything from me except conversation.

I wandered over to the Muslim neighborhood. There is a small mosque there and people were mostly selling everyday things. I also found the street where they make all the offerings to the icons and traditional Tibetan tailor shops. I enjoy walking around this part of Lhasa with no hawkers.

So, at the end of the day, I went back to my hotel and asked myself if I would recommend the trip to Shigatse to anyone. In the end, I decided no, although the drive was a highlight. I think people who visit Tibet would be much better off to do what Kate did and trek through the wilderness of Tibet suffering altitude sickness (5300meters) and all.

Pussang at Sera monastery we visited in Lhasa

Day #5 – More temples and lots of milk tea

I wasn’t meeting Pussang until 10:00 at Summit Cafe. Of course, he was early and I wasn’t finished with my cinnamon roll and coffee. We chatted for a while, then went to visit two monasteries here in Lhasa. They were small, but busy, both with resident monks. They were both free to enter. Pussang explained what the icons stood for and patiently answered my questions. I looked around at all of the money stuffed into every nook and cranny and watched people pour copious amounts of yak butter into the urns. I had tried yak butter in Shigatse. It didn’t taste any better than it smelled when it burns.

Afterwards, we had about 3 hours to kill before visiting Sera Monastery which is 5km north of downtown. I’m not sure why we had such an early start if we weren’t going to Sera until 3:00. Pussang asked me if I wanted to go to a local Tibetan tea house. Yes, please!

This teahouse is where Pussang meets up with his guide buddies to smoke and drink sweet mild tea and taxi drivers who finished their night shifts come to play cards. We stayed over an hour and I drank milk tea (which I like) and talked to the guides a bit. They all speak English. One of them was a Tibetan woman, tall and big with bright red fingernails and makeup. I hadn’t seen any other Tibetan women like her. I’d also never seen a dog pee on the wall in a café, or a duck wander through, but I saw both here…

These women were having a picnic in the shade of this , well, whatever it is, in Shigatse

Sera monastery is famous for its afternoon debates among the monks. The debates start at 3:00, but we were there too early. Pussang said he asked a monk if they were debating today and the monk said no. I think he might have been lying just so I wouldn’t be disappointed that we were there too early. I was happy that there were few tourists and few pilgrims. It was interesting to see, and on the way back down the hill I spotted something I hadn’t seen in all of the made-in-China souvenirs in Lhasa. I spotted Tibetan incense burners. Beautiful. I needed one like I need a third eye, but I bought one anyway. They are not small, but it still makes me happy to look at it in my home now.

Monastery in Lhasa

Day # 6 – Reflections

Time to return to Shanghai today. I slept in a bit, then went to Summit Cafe for my usual coffee and cinnamon roll. I met a girl from Kentucky, my home state, in the cafe! What a small world! She and her husband were teachers in China.

I won’t get too political here. I only experienced a small part of Tibet, so I am certainly no expert. But, that said, much of what I saw left me sad and confused. I wish I could have come here 15 years ago, or even 20, when it was still Tibet. There is a definite Chinese influence here and there are definitely more Chinese people in Lhasa and Shigatse than there are Tibetans. The typical rows of Chinese shops are everywhere, as are the umbrella-toting Chinese.

I saw Tibetan people everywhere, don’t get me wrong. They were either old people circling the Jokhang and Potala with their prayer wheels, or they were sitting at their souvenir stands trying to sell jewelry and junk made in China to the Chinese. When they saw a Western person, they definitely wanted us to look at what they had, but they weren’t pushy. Some were desperate though, and I heard it in their voice. It was heartbreaking. I bought some of that jewelry made in China simply because the Tibetan woman selling it was not only lovely, but so genuine. I think she truly believed that what she was selling was unique. It wasn’t, but she was. I told her that her skin was beautiful, and it was. She said no, no, that my white skin was much better. The grass is always greener…

Prayer flags on the way to Shigatse

The people selling the souvenirs are actually so plentiful they block the route the pilgrims must take to circle Jokhang Temple. There is a patience and a calmness about the Tibetian people that the Chinese simply don’t have. I went in their shops where there had truly unique things made in Tibet. They let me look to my heart’s content, and if I left empty handed, they thanked me and smiled.

On route to Shigatse, we stopped at some viewpoints and there were always Tibetan people there selling cheap jewelry. It was the same jewelry I saw when I walked down Hong Mei Lu next to my apartment in Shanghai. Some of it was beautiful, made with glass or stones. But it is Chinese. And these people were poor villagers who were desperate to sell. I can’t help but wonder what they did before the Chinese came, or would be doing, if the Chinese had never come to Tibet some 50 years ago. I saw plenty of people working in the fields – tea, vegetables, they can even grow small watermelons in greenhouses now. Would everyone be doing this just to survive if the Chinese had never come?

On the drive to Shigatse, I also saw fields and fields of yellow flowers. I asked Pussang what these were. “They are to give to Buddha,” he said. The ones that wilt or die are fed to the cattle.

Yellow flowers that are grown specifically to give as offerings to Buddha

Buddha. I saw a lot of temples and monasteries here in Tibet, some totally rebuilt after the Cultural Revolution, some hundreds of years old. They all had one thing in common. Opulence. Buddhism is not a modest religion and I believe it asks a lot of its believers.

In each temple there were thousands of RMB just laying around as offerings. There was yak butter burning, liters and liters of it. This is a staple food for the Tibetans. There was dried fruit, candy, liters of milk, fresh fruit, and all manner of things presented to Buddha on the alters. I saw hundreds of people – dirty and thin and gaunt and poor – waiting in line to give Buddha food, yak butter, scarves, and money. Money. Sometimes 5 or 10 yuan. A Tibetan can eat for two days on less than 10 yuan. I was amazed. From what I can see in Tibet, Buddha takes a lot from his believers and seems to give very little in return. Perhaps eating a meal is not as important as inner peace.

I am not a believer in Buddhism, so perhaps my observations are unfair and unjustified. But I saw a lot of people donating their lives to Buddhism even though they are not monks. Monks are provided for. They have a place to sleep, food to eat, books to study. But those who are not chosen (the Chinese government limits the number of monks that can live at each monastery) to be monks, but still choose to donate their lives to Buddha, are destined for a life of poverty as far as I can see. But again, perhaps that inner peace is enough for them.

Prayer wheels are a common sight in Lhasa. There are hundreds surrounding Potala Palace

The little bit of Tibet that I saw has convinced me they will never be free from China. They don’t have the power, education, or desire to even fight back because they believe so strongly in peace.

Tibet is part of China now, but the Tibetans are not. They can travel freely to China with no visa, but they cannot travel freely within their own country. We stopped at multiple checkpoints where my guide and driver had to check in, not me, the foreigner. Of course, I had a permit to travel to certain areas and that permit had to be signed at each place I visited. My guide took care of that. I am also not free to go where I want in Tibet. No foreigner is. But no Tibetan is either.

I didn’t discuss the Chinese occupation with the Tibetan people. There are Chinese soldiers marching in groups of 6 or 8 through the streets of Lhasa and every town in Tibet. Chinese soldiers keep watch on the tops of buildings, holding big guns and watching the people down below. There are frequent checkpoints along the roads fully stocked with Chinese soldiers and policemen, but they cannot read or speak English. This is where the Tibetans have an advantage. They learn Chinese, Tibetan, and English in the schools. The Chinese government has not yet put a stop to this, and I don’t think they will because English is taught in so many of the local schools in China. Perhaps the current government is open-minded enough to allow them to continue to study the Tibetan language as well. It is nothing like Chinese.

Tibet is one of the most beautiful and harsh environments I’ve ever seen

I feel pity and sadness for the Tibetan people, yet I do not know how they would survive and prosper without the Chinese. What would they do? How would they earn a living? Tibet is a conundrum, definitely. The situation here is much like the situation between Israel and Palestine, only it gets a lot less media coverage and there is no fighting. The Tibetans have no military and no weapons. How can they fight back? With arguments for peace and basic human rights? Seems they’ve already tried that.

Mary Lyons
I have had incredible travel opportunities since moving overseas eleven years ago. I created this blog to share my experiences, what I've learned, and my mistakes and frustrations, in hopes of entertaining readers and helping people to create and plan their own travel opportunities.

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