The Time I Was in Tibet…

by Ant Stone on January 31, 2011

in Features,Tibet

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.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Tijmen January 31, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I heard lots of good things about Tibet, can’t wait to get over there myself. Weird that they would shoot you with a BB gun, or use a catapult to shoot rocks at tourists. I guess not everyone is happy to see tourists :)

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Ant Stone January 31, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Hi Tijmen. It is slightly weird, and somewhat aggressive. It’s the same in many places around the world; the majority are welcoming, while there’s a very small minority who would prefer you give them and their home a wide berth.

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Michael Hodson February 1, 2011 at 7:14 am

must, must, must get to Tibet. Or stop reading about it. Arrrggggg.

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Ant Stone February 1, 2011 at 11:37 am

You will never regret it. And don’t be put off by rumours of red tape. It’s really easy to get legit papers and tickets, especially from Sim’s Cozy Guesthouse in Chengdu. I’d also recommend an onward journey overland to Kathmandu.

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Zablon February 2, 2011 at 8:05 am

Tibet seems to be a fun place. there is so much to see and to do great video

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Ant Stone February 2, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Thanks Zablon. It’s definitely an interesting place; even if you never visit, it’s a place with a lot of history, which you might enjoy reading about.

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Jason February 4, 2011 at 7:28 am

Ant I can’t wait till I get to Tibet. I tried many years ago whilst in Nepal to go overland but could not get the necessary paperwork sorted out. The train line has been quite controversial in the media, but I’m a train buff at heart and would take the journey if I get the chance. I like the Pummelvision video as well. A bit trippy I must say.

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Ant Stone February 4, 2011 at 4:37 pm

I hope you make it there soon, Jason. I can understand your problems with paperwork etc. They do “shut” Tibet quite regularly (as soon as someone even thinks about waving a flag on Everest, the hinges start to creak at the border!)

Glad you enjoyed the Pummelvision — trippy is a perfect description!

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Matt February 5, 2011 at 3:15 am

Love the photo feature Ant – great to see you back at it.

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Ant Stone February 5, 2011 at 9:50 am

Cheers Matt. I’ll keep ticking the engine over, I promise! Hope you’re well mate.

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Mina | Westwood Postcard Printing February 10, 2011 at 7:22 am

Tibet is such a sacred place. Sacred because they preserve this certain sense of culture that the moment you land your feet on the place you know that it’s existing. The place is full of stories and the sceneries will tell you the details. I’m glad you enjoyed your trip.

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Ant Stone February 11, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Thanks Mina. You capture my sentiments towards Tibet beautifully. It’s truly a special place.

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Christine February 11, 2011 at 11:13 am

You are always so creative and I always enjoy coming to your site. The 30 seconds of Tibet video? Awesome idea.

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Ant Stone February 11, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Thanks Christine. Feel free to give Pummelvision a go with your own images too. It’s free, and really easy too.

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Angela February 16, 2011 at 6:58 am

I haven’t been to Tibet yet, but since I’m currently living in Shanghai, it’s definitely on top of my travel list. I’ll be in touch then ;)

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Ant Stone February 19, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Please do. It’s a wonderful place — you could do a long weekend from Shanghai (almost!)

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Waist Hips and Thighs March 2, 2011 at 10:18 pm

Never been to Tibet but I’m sure i don’t want to get shot with BB guns because I am a traveler. Man that had to be a little rough for you. I have so many places i want to visit thats what prompted me to buy a time share through bluegreen.

Nice post Ant!

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John March 5, 2011 at 2:02 am

I like the one with that guy. You know, with the blus sky & prayer flags in the background :)

…great site. John

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Bob | Online Travel Guide March 8, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Have you guys ever been to Himalaya,India ? Its much more better than Tibet.

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Sofia - As We Travel March 11, 2011 at 2:06 am

Tibet seems like an amazing place, we actually planned to go there in just a few months but I think we will have to postpone it – but I’ll definitely make sure I go there some time!

Funny about what Paul Theroux said…

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Bluegreen Kirk March 11, 2011 at 2:19 pm

great post unfortunately I was unable to view the video. I would really like to visit Tibet! Thanks for the post Ant!

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Tom @ ActiveBackpacker September 17, 2012 at 9:06 am

Ahhh Tibet looks so good. It’s on my must-visit list and good to hear the red tape is not as bad as I hear.

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