Don’t blink. What you’re about to see is Tibet, in full-fat Pummelvision*. Surprisingly, Tibet was one of the most calming regions I visited along The Trail, and memories of my time there are proving some of the most indelible of my life.
I concede this is a big claim; and you should know, I am not one to carelessly misuse words.
I travelled into the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, by train from Chengdu, a city in China’s Sichuan province. It’s the highest railway in the world and despite rumours of pressurised cabins and oxygen on tap, it was remarkably standard.
Plus the toilet window was open, which I presume — without any qualification to do so — undoes any viable attempt at pressurising the carriage.
The Best Thing About Tibet?
In the weeks before the journey, I’d been reading Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster, and I remember the author insinuating that “the best thing about Tibet, was that the railway will never reach it.”
Of course, Theroux travelled through China in the 1980s, and I travelled it in 2007, one year after it opened (to the chagrin of those who said it couldn’t be done, due to the massive engineering obstacles; such as permafrost and earthquakes).
There’s also an ethical argument. Although I found Tibet to be unmistakably Tibetan; there is an air of Chinese authority. Not least the red Chinese flag flapping in the bright blue skies above the Potala Palace (the traditional residence of the Dalai Lama).
Inspiring Contrasts in Tibet
As a photographer — or simply a quiet observer — those vibrant blue skies contrasting with the brilliant white walls of the city’s monasteries, made for some beautiful scenes.
As a writer, the sight of prostrating pilgrims sifting between gangs of young monks and mobs of tourists, made for some inspiring contrasts.
There was a keen sense of remoteness, anchored to a strong feeling of community. Whether it was a united community or a fractious one, wasn’t immediately obvious. The famed unrest that shook Lhasa to its knees followed through six months later.
Tibet in 39 Seconds
As a destination, Tibet is a place with a powerful sense of story. It grabs you immediately; and like a child, you begin to crave the next chapter. Aside from the global headlines, towns in Tibetan are some of the world’s best places to people-watch.
There is always something happening.
Tales from Tibet
One of my favourite stories involves my astonishment at watching an elderly man skulk around the market in Barkhor Square, firing stones at tourists from his catapult.
He clocked me eventually, and shyly moved on.
A few days later in Lhasa, karma rapped me on the knuckles, when I was shot with a BB gun from a mystery sniper.
In contrast to the mischief; I enjoyed conversations with curious monks and discovered the region’s children were some of the most responsive and enjoyable to be around (although I did hear some worrying stories from cycle tourists, who had rocks hurled at them, and sticks rammed through their spokes).
(In retrospect, I don’t know where I gathered this notion of calm!)
I’ll share some more stories about my time in Tibet over the course of the year. If you’ve visited the region; I’d love to hear some short tales about your time there, and I know my readers always appreciate a variety of points of view.
Lay it all down in the comment thread, or catch up with me on Twitter.
*My final nod goes to Pummelvision, who made the groovy little video possible. I love the concept, plus it’s FREE and really easy to do. Give it a whirl yourself, over at Pummelvision.