Brief Notes from Tibet

As I assemble my travel diary for Tibet and let some thematic fermentations mature, here are some notes on the trip based on conversations with people after. The photos and notes are arranged loosely. I have not gone out of my way to describe sites or customs because I remain ambivalent about any authority to speak on the subjects. Also, I’m saving better photos to go with more reflective posts, some of which will be published behind a paywall on my Substack newsletter, The 404, as they are sensitive.

For people who want to go to Tibet, please skip to the last section that discusses the Tibet Travel Permit, or please search for more detailed posts.  The summary is that foreign nationals cannot go to Tibet alone; they must go on a tour, with a travel itinerary prepared to get a travel permit, which then allows them to go. The items of the tour route you can negotiate with your agency, and the agency should help you handle the permit.

Altitude

View of Mount Qomulangma from a viewing platform
View of the Himalayasa and Mount Qomulangma (Everest) from a viewing platform © Athena Lam

The first thing most people asked about Tibet was whether you got altitude sickness. If you take pills for high altitude, are below 50, and generally in good health, you will probably be fine. The pills I took gave a light numbness in one or two toes (or fingers) that nagged me awake when all I wanted to do was sleep.

Windy in the Himalayan foothills
Bundled against constant winds that were quite warm (to me).

The more common experience, pill-assisted travel or otherwise, is being easily short of breath with exhertions. That can range from running to heaving yourself (and maybe your luggage) up a flight of stairs. Showers also get the blood pumping, so our guide recommended that we not take a shower on our first night in Lhasa for fear that people would faint (increased heart rate, and even further reduced oxygen with the steam). I ignored that and took a warm shower combined with a hot wash basin of water. No steam, no fainting. I also jogged while in Lhasa. I started at 5.5km/hr at a 3.0 tredmill incline and my peak was at 9km/hr, where I was winded after a minute or two. I figured I’d take advantage of the elevation to get more out of my short work outs. One feels efficiently worked out when winded after jogging 30 seconds and 50 metres at 5000 metres (approx. 16,000 feet) above sea level.

I get the impression that it is over confidence that gets people into trouble. Most of the nicer hotels in Tibet came equipped with “Panic” buttons throughout the rooms. My Lhasa guide told me about two fit visitors who wandered around all afternoon the day they arrived and, confident in their physique, decided to drink and ended up bedridden the next day. So perhaps the best type of caution is just trying one new thing after every day of feeling decent.
<h3Toilets

Squat latrine at Drepung Monastery
All the toilets were better than this squat latrine at the Drepung Monastery © Athena Lam

I was part of a small 14-person Chinese Canadian middle-aged group that was well accustomed to squat toilets, but had also grown quite accustomed to Vancouver comforts. They were constantly astonished by the state of the toilets. I was astonished such modern ones existed.
Each toilet break on the road earned a steady stream of breathless grievances. As they piled back onto the bus after our one of our usual breaks, my sister said, “They seem like they’ve run a marathon.” They may as well have in exercise of wills. In reality, the toilets actually smelled worse than they were. For one thing, most of them flushed, which is to say it runs the same way as any toilet in Hong Kong or Canada.

By development standards, Tibet is incredible compared to parts of Northern India and Cambodia — at least it has infrastructure (the most reliable being 4G signals) . Toilets were top of mind for most of my travel companions, so I imagine they would be with other female travellers.

Amenities

Dining hall of the Gyantze Hotel
The Gyantse Hotel 江孜飯店 was quite decent, but seems “basic” to some. © Athena Lam

One friend decided that his conception of Tibet was no longer accurate by the time we spoke in 2019. I’m sure the accuracy of his worries was higher twenty years ago because he mentioned worrying about the place being dirty, few roads, and no facilities. The Tibet I was impressively fitted with paved roads (finished in the last year or two), which nonetheless remain as bumpy as the shale and rubble that we saw offroad. Outside of Lhasa and Xigatze, all the best hotels we stayed at gave surprises in one room or another — whether slightly leaky pipes, old sheets, or creepy crawlies. I was impressed that there was hot water and even more impressed there was heat and AC.

Food politics

Table full of tour food
A typical meal during the tour © Athena Lam

My equivalent horror to their toilets was the food — the availability of Chinese food, and our wastage of it. This says much less Tibetans than it does of us Han Chinese.

I was so horrified by the number of dishes, the amount of meat, and the fish which is certainly flown in, that I didn’t have much an appetite during meals. I don’t eat meat often, and I could not stomach the implications of the amount of resources used to transport such alien ingredients into this area, the blatant inequality between the people eating and the people serving.

What I noted about Lhasa was that many of the restaurants, especially the new and large ones, were Chinese. The first restaurant we went to was Sichuan hot pot. The rationale provided by our Chinese guide was that Tibetans don’t know how to do business and it is the Sichuanese who come up to open new businesses.

After seeing over 10 dishes per meal for two weeks, I lost over five pounds from the trip.

As for Tibetan food…

Streetside noodles in Lhasa
A tea house table setup in Lhasa serving Tibetan noodles © Athena Lam

As for Tibetan food, it came in samples. We had one Tibetan-style dinner (藏式風味餐) had a few dishes out of twenty that were were not explicitly Han Chinese, which must have included some yak meat. We also had a Tibetan-style lunch with curry.

After a week, I asked our native Lhasa guide what he usually ate for breakfast and he described the first breakfast of yak butter tea and tsampa (a barley flour paste) at home and the second breakfast of noodles at a tea house. The morning before flying out, I finally got to wander a block in Lhasa and passed by the tea houses he spoke of, with the left over bowls of noodles set on a random assembly of furniture.

Lunch at Mount Qomulangma basecamp
Lunch at Mount Qomulangma’s basecamp © Athena Lam

Our hotel in Lhasa had served a watered down version of yak butter tea that I suspect added the key incredient in drops, not ladles. Someone else tried again after we went further out, and she was very satisfied with the flavour. The same hotel had steamed buns (perhaps a simpler version of tingmo) with a local flavour that came through after the first bite: yak butter.

The nose is all one needs to verify the authenticity of yak ingredients. You will smell the yak butter burning in temple halls before turning the corner to see them. Or, if you don’t see lamps, look for the yellow cakes and bricks. Yak butter is an iconic local ingredient essential for long summer herding hours and frigid winters. Yet, in increasingly modernised sedentary lives, the balance between nourishment and need has tipped.

Buddhist temples in Tibet

Golden rooftop of the Jokhang Temple
Golden rooftop of the Jokhang Temple © Athena Lam

Temples were the main feature of our tour. We covered most of the famous ones — in Lhasa the imposingly-sized Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery with its monks’ debate, and the Jokhang Monastery that is generally thought to be the holiest of sites. Other monasteries include Xigatze’s Tashilhunpo Monastery (the Panchen Lhama’s main headquarters), the Pelkor Chode Monastery in Gyantze, the Rongbuk Monastery, and a small monastery (the Chinese plaque says 强公寺) at a pit stop in Lhaze.

A huge buddha statue at the Kumbum Stupa
A huge buddha statue at the Kumbum Stupa © Athena Lam

In the monasteries, one will always find the various incarnations of the Buddhas — past, present, future. There will also be statues of celebrated rulers, various saints, founders of each of the Tibetan schools, the reincarnations of the Dalai and Panchen Lhamas, and other deities. For example, the 33rd King of Tibet Songtsen Gampo, is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet and adapting the Sanskrit alphabet into the Tibetan alphabet in the 7th Century. Statues also include celebrated Buddhist teachers, such as the Bengali Atisa (980-1054) who crossed the Himalayas into Tibet or the Gelugpa Sect’s retroactively recognised founder, Tsongkhapa, who taught the first Dalai and Panchen Lhamas.

Panchen Lhama's photo and painting
Panchen Lhama’s photo and painting © Athena Lam

The Tibetan script was adapted from ancient India’s Sanskrit, while surviving paintings and murals seem to share similarities with Chinese styles. Fierce gods and tantric statues extend from ancient theology from the Gangetic plain (Hinduism is a consolidation of many schools of thought). Architecture with wooden pillars and beams seem similar to Chinese lock systems. When one traces the historical routes of ideas, the iconography of Tibet is a recogniseable links India and China. In addition to all this, there is Tibet’s native Bonn religion, which still survives in remote Himalayan villages between Nepal and Tibet.

Mountain lion mural at Wooden Buddha statue in Pelkor Chode Monastery
Mountain lion mural in Pelkor Chode Monastery © Athena Lam

The type of Buddhism that was passed into Tibet is known as Vajrayana Buddhism, which differs from the major Mahayana schools of East Asia and the Theravada schools of Southeast Asia. This strain of Buddhism adopted elements from other schools of thought in India, such as the deity Bhairava, known as Yamantaka in Tibetan Buddhism or the concept of a mandala, which is shared by the Vedic (oldest scriptures for Hinduism) and Jain traditions.

Monk giving blessings to visitors
Monk giving blessings to visitors © Athena Lam

On an entirely different note, most temples do not allow for photography inside. One or two temples, such as the Pelkor Chode Monastery, allow photography for a token fee.

Sand mandala that is made temporarily
Sand mandala that is made temporarily © Athena Lam

What there is to see in Tibet

View of Mount Qomulangma from China's basecamp
Having a good hour or two to stare at Mount Qomulangma was a highlight © Athena Lam

As I didn’t plan the trip and have not gone out of my way to look for “must see” places, I cannot say that our itinerary is the best, but an enjoyable one for me. The bus rides are long, but I thoroughly enjoyed the scenery throughouts. My second most enjoyable aspect was how few visitors there were. The Potala Palace had daily controlled traffic and even the view to Yamdrok Lake was managable, women throwing the ends of their crimson dresses for Instagram and all.

The overnight train from Xining to Lhasa

View of a lake from the train to Lhasa
View from the train to Lhasa © Athena Lam
The overnight train ride to Lhasa from Xining in Qinghai is worth it in and of itself. The route is often called the 100-Year Qinghai-Tibet Rail 百年青藏铁路 because construction began during the Republic Era for military purposes. To see the major sights, take an evening train out of Xining and wake up after dawn to see the sights on the Tibetan Plateau. The train we took was the Z264/Z265 departing from Xining at 19:11, but you can look for alternatives. The sights outside include:
  • Qinghai Lake (in the evening, shortly after departure from Xining)
  • Keluke Lake
  • Golmud
  • The Kunlun Mountains
  • Hoh Xil, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Tanggula Pass, which is over 5000 metres (Crossing into Tibet)
  • Entering the Tibetan plateau
  • Nagqu
This Chinese blog on the travel platform Mafengwo sums up the route quite well.

Landscapes

View of Yamdrok Lake
View of Yamdrok Lake © Athena Lam
In the end, I think the landscape spoke loudest to me. At first glance, much of it is similar, so I will save the landscape photos for a series.
The land has withstood modernisation and the influx of Han better than the Tibetans. Looking out the window, one one sees long tracts of nothingness — piles of ashen shale and golden rubble that form low mountains with tracts carved by annual spring melts. At first, the place does not seem dramatic so much as barren. But then you will notice the patches of sage brush, the changing colour of rock from valley to valley, and the patches of green that follow meandering rivers. And everyone notices the sky, which sits there, everywhere, a shifting monolith. Its blue shrinks the mountains.
Crowds on the viewing platform at Yamdrok Lake
Crowds on the viewing platform at Yamdrok Lake © Athena Lam
The thinness of air has been as effective as the mountains in keeping people out.
The Himalayas are still around and from the Chinese side, you can drive into clear view of Mount Qomulangma (Mount Everest), mostly to yourself! Other natural places include the sacred Yamdrok Lake, known as Yamzho Yumco ཡར་འབྲོག་གཡུ་མཚོ་,羊卓雍錯 and Namtso Lake.

Human presence

Propaganda over the Tibetan hills
Propaganda over the Tibetan hills © Athena Lam
Tibet is expansive, but where the roads are, people are. There are many opportunities for photos with only yaks and sheep, and no people. At the same time, there seems to be a constant reminder of human presence. Propaganda slogans are sprayed onto the retaining walls of recently finished switchback roads. The face of mountains now have white Chinese characters tattooed onto them.
A new town close to Yamdrok Lake
Modern buildings in a town close to Yamdrok Lake © Athena Lam
Along the many roads, newly built by the Chinese, are settlements and human presence. The new ones, planned in grid-like fashion, lined with bricks, to build block buildings, are modern eyesores.

Square brick Tibetan house
Square brick Tibetan house © Athena Lam
Some hamlets are built of stone, lined neatly with bricks of yak dung used for fuel, especially in winter. Many more are somewhere in between the two, brick buildings covered in dust, half-finished.

What has disappeared

sera monastery monks debate
Watching the Monks Debate at the Sera Monastery © Athena Lam
The Tibet that visitors see has changed dramatically in the past thirty years, which perhaps makes it more similar to the rest of the world than it is made out to be. Friends who went fifteen years ago recount how many monks they saw, going about their daily business of maintaining the temples. Most of the dorms of the ones we visited sat in disuse. One cannot help thinking that given another ten or so years the best kept monks robes and ceremonial items will be in the cultural museums like the one we went to in Xining.
People chilling on the Drepung Monastary grounds
People chilling on the Drepung Monastary grounds © Athena Lam
This loss is, in part, due to limitations set on the number of monks in temples (official or unofficially exercised). But even without that, modernisation has made an escape to monastic life unnecessary. People who “appreciate” Tibetan monastic life seem to conveniently forget that it was a feudal system that made monasteries appealing — it guaranteed food and shelter for people who did not always have it.
monks in Wooden Buddha statue in Pelkor Chode Monastery in preparation for a festival
Monks in Pelkor Chode Monastery in preparation for a festival © Athena Lam
Modern amenities have come to Tibet; monks have cell phones. Lhasa has lights. This generation is literate. In the grand scheme of things, Lhasa is not overcrowded in the same way Paris is.

The Potala Palace

Night view of the Potala Palace
Night view of the Potala Palace © Athena Lam
Crowds watching sunset over Potala Palace
Security camera above the crowds watching the sun set on the Potala Palace © Athena Lam
Much of the Tibet that has been established in our minds has been in relation to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, and Tibet’s place in that new national order. Much of what I knew about Tibet was probably about the same as everyone else’s, that by 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama had fled to Dharamsala in India. His home, the Potala Palace, has since been converted into a museum for visitors like me.
Potala Palace garden
One must climb the outer stairs to enter the Potala Palace (1 hour limit inside) © Athena Lam
The Potala Palace lives up to its reputation as a place to go, but for me the highlight was less the palace and more the museum. To limit crowding, the Palace only admits 2300 visitors per day. Visitors must pre-book tickets and show up at the exact appointed time. There is a ticket to the palace grounds, and then a ticket to go through the palace. The ticket to go through the palace is exactly 1 hour, which is a whirlwind walk through that isn’t quite enough time, but a trade off I am personally fine with as a compromise. But before ascending the stairs to the palace itself, I highly recommend going hours earlier (if your entrance ticket allows) to look at the items in the museum where the garden is. The items inside the museum were the best I had seen in the whole trip. The workmanship for the items inside are not comparable to anything in the temples (the stupas and statues are more imposing for their size, and if you like seeing excessive gold and jewels). When going through the palace, personally, I was more interested in the architecture and layout of the room. No photography is allowed in the palace grounds or in the museum, so best bring a sketchbook.

I plan to elaborate on the topics of Han privilege, the Chinese state in Tibet, the pecularity of Chinese Canadians, and also a particular incident that happened in parallel while I was travelling in the region. Most of the details will not be published on this blog, which will remain mostly informational.
If you have an interest in more reflective and controversial topics, please sign up to my newsletter The 404, on Substack. Thanks!

Tibet Travel Requirements

Decorated wooden door to monks' dorms
Beautiful doors to unused monks’ dorms © Athena Lam

In order to go to Tibet as a foreign national you will need to book a tour. All foreign nationals must book a tour with a registered Tibet travel agency and be accommpanied by a guide for the full duration of their time in Tibet. Generally, foreign nationals will book a tour of Tibet with travel agencies in their own country, which will make arrangements with the local Tibet travel agency to help you get the Tibet Travel Permit mentioned below. People with diplomatic passports, journalists, and ethnic Tibetans who are foreign nationals cannot enter Tibet. To enter Tibet, you will need:

  1. A valid China Visa (People with a 回鄉證/通行證 are exempt) (cost varies according to your passport country)
  2. A Tibet Travel Permit (free)

A China Visa: Cost Varies

In case you are wondering what a 回鄉證/通行證 is, it is the Mainland Travel Permit given only to Hong Kong and Macau residents who have passports from those regions. This probably means you do not qualify.

The China Travel Service (CTS) 中国旅行社 that issues your travel visa to China. You can search up this agency in your country and there is likely one if you live in a major city. Tour and travel agencies can do this on your behalf and it is usually faster if they do it.

For Canadians, China now has a 10-year visa that is a flat fee that is valid for as long as your passport is (expiring 6 months before your passport expires). I believe there are also single entry visas that are lower cost. Please Google for details.

Tibet Travel Permit: Free

A few skimming notes about this permit:

  • Issued by the Tibet Tourism Bureau, and no Chinese consulates have authority over the matter
  • Issued within China and can only be mailed within China
  • This is not a visa, and not a stamp on your passport
  • The original permit must be shown before boarding your train / flight to Tibet

The Tibet Travel Permit is a document that all foreign nationals, with the exception of Hong Kong and Macau travellers using their 回鄉證, must have before entering Tibet. It will be checked frequently, such as during ports of entry, all hostels and hotels you stay at, restricted areas (such as the Mount Everest National Park), and major attractions (such as the Potala Palace in Lhasa).

The agency is responsible for you, including if you get into trouble. They will also lose their license if they try to mail your permit overseas.

In order to apply for this permit, you will need:

  • a registered travel agency in Tibet to apply on your behalf (straightforward if you are booking a tour from your own country that has a partner local agency)
  • organized tour, including dates, planned itinerary (straightforward if you’re doing a tour)
  • Provide the travel agency with 1) a scanned copy of your passport and 2) a scanned copy of your Chinese visa

You do not need to have this permit yourself. Your agency will apply on your behalf and make the necessary arrangements once you arrive in China.

If you are curious about how it works for Chinese nationals, they also need an entry permit, which they obtain usually on the same day after handing in a form. The Tibet Travel Permit is usually referred to as the 入藏紙.

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