About Us

Contact Us


2001 Archives

First Chapters
World Travel
September Issue
October Issue
November Issue
December Issue
February 02 Issue

Traveling in Tibet
Julie Vick

In many of the minds of the Chinese, Tibet is just another part of their massive Motherland – why wouldn’t Tibetans be happy to be part of it?

I had only been in Lhasa a couple hours when I realized I couldn’t really breathe. One set of stairs left me wanting to rest for 20 minutes and my head was pounding. While I don’t claim to be a marathon runner, a flight of stairs at sea level is something I can usually handle. But the capital of Tibet sits at an elevation of 3700 meters, or just under 12,000 feet. I had finally reached the rooftop of the world and all I really felt like doing was lying in my hotel room and resting.

My reaction was a typical one for visitors to Tibet. The threat of Acute Mountain Sickness is real and visitors who don’t take it easy the first couple days can face illness and even hospitalization. I was visiting Tibet last August with three friends I had grown up with. Two of them had flown from the U.S. to China with me a couple weeks earlier and we had met our third traveling companion in Chengdu, China. She had just completed two years of teaching English with the Peace Corps in China.

We were all pretty wiped out the first couple days. The shortness of breath seemed worse at night when I couldn’t sleep through the entire night. Our guidebook had a fairly hefty warning about the dangers of altitude sickness and reading all the warnings could drive some people to paranoia. Travelers have been known to die from altitude sickness and if a case is severe enough the only way to get better is to get to lower elevation quickly – and the quickest descent option was a helicopter. On the third day, when I still had trouble with those stairs, I wondered at what point we should call the chopper in.

I discussed this topic with my friends and after reviewing a small section of our guidebook, we decided we probably wouldn’t need a chopper unless one of us started coughing up blood. Since all of us were simply tired and short of breath the symptoms seemed standard. And by the end of our week in Lhasa a lot of the initial symptoms had subsided.

Getting to Tibet was no easy task. Since its status as a part of China is still hotly debated the Chinese government doesn’t go out of its way to welcome visitors. I purposely avoided mentioning that I planned to visit Tibet on my Chinese Visa application thinking it would only cause problems. One British traveler we met said she had made the mistake of putting down Tibet on her first Visa application and when she was hassled at the Chinese consulate she applied a second time without mentioning Tibet and got approved easily.

We got into Tibet as part of a package tour we booked in Chengdu. At the time of our visit the only way into Tibet was with a tour – the Chinese government restricted traveling in the area independently. We had to buy a roundtrip ticket in and out of Tibet to prove we would actually be leaving the country before they would let us enter. This created a problem as we intended to travel through Tibet into Nepal, but the travel agent in Chengdu told us to buy a bus ticket back into China and once we arrived in Lhasa we could change the ticket in for an tour to the border of Nepal. The price of the tour was also set by the Chinese government so there was no sense in shopping around for a bargain price. In the end we paid over $400 for a 3-day tour in Tibet that included lodging, airfare, and the permit. In a country where it’s easy to get by on $10 a day this was a pretty steep price. I figured most of our fee went to the Chinese government.

I had my own preconceived notions about the political situation in Tibet before visiting the area. Generally, I sided with the ‘Free Tibet’ campaign. China had occupied Tibet for the past 50 years and didn’t seem to have any logical claim to the area. Tibetans spoke another language, practiced another religion, and physically looked very different from the Han (or ethnic) Chinese. But when I arrived in Lhasa I began to realize that the situation was much more complicated than simply giving Tibet back. Fifty years of Chinese occupation in Tibet has meant a great deal of change. There is a clearly marked Chinese part of town that is distinct from the Tibetan area. The Chinese area has the stark, white tiled buildings typical of a lot of modern Chinese architecture while the Tibetan area retains a more colorful charm. But the Chinese living in Tibet don’t consider themselves visitors – they consider themselves at home. They’ve built schools and bridges and in their view have helped Tibet progress.

When we were in Lhasa flags all over town advertised the recent celebration of ’50 Years Since Chinese Liberation.’ This party line was almost comical to us as outsiders since we had heard the exact opposite for so long – Tibet lost its liberation 50 years ago and is still struggling for freedom. We went to dinner with a group of my friend’s former students from the Sichuan province of China. They had all recently taken teaching positions in Tibet and were committed to teaching English for seven years in middle schools. They were far from home but optimistic about their time ahead. In many of the minds of the Chinese, Tibet is just another part of their massive Motherland – why wouldn’t Tibetans be happy to be part of it? But the students ate at restaurants specializing in Chinese cuisine and hadn’t made much of an effort to learn any Tibetan words, in many ways they are living in a segregated city – the cultures aren’t easily blending.

For all the difficulties the Chinese government gave us in getting into Tibet, the city is actually quite welcoming to tourists. The people are friendly toward foreigners although they speak little English. Lhasa’s streets are lined with cafes specializing in western food as well as local and Indian cuisine. There are Internet cafes and stores selling camping supplies and souvenirs.

Lhasa is also home to many important Buddhist sites. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, lived in Lhasa until his exile when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1949. Fearing for his safety, the Dalai Lama fled to India and has been living there ever since hoping to be able to return to Tibet one day. His main residence – the Potala Palace – sits on a hill above Lhasa. It’s a large, brilliantly white building that is open to tourists for a fairly hefty fee. This was the first stop on our tour.

We were a grouchy group to begin with because most of us weren’t really interested in being on a tour. The group of about 15 people consisted mostly of Europeans and was made up of the type of people who didn’t normally book organized tours. We liked doing things on our own but were forced into a tour because there was no other way to get to Tibet. Most people were going on their obligatory 3-day tour and then venturing off on their own. It was also frustrating because it wasn’t a very good tour. It was expensive and our provided guide could barely speak English. When we tried to ask him questions he usually didn’t understand so we often wandered off on our own or eavesdropped on other tour guides at the sites we visited.

The sign in front of the Potala Palace promised a discount for tour groups. When we pointed this out to our guide he said we couldn’t get the discount because he didn’t have the proper paperwork to prove we were with a tour. This seemed like even more red tape to an already frustrating experience. Arguing with our guide was pointless because his English was minimal and there was really nothing more we could do. We swore off the tour company we had come with – F.I.T. travel – but felt fairly helpless in doing anything to complain. The Chinese government didn’t really care and telling everyone I knew that if they were ever in Tibet they really should book with a different tour group seemed a bit futile, how many people did I know who would possibly even go to Tibet let alone remember to avoid F.I.T. travel? And who was to say any of the other groups were any better? There didn’t seem to be any incentive to beat out the competition.

Although the process for entrance was frustrating, I enjoyed the visit to the Potala. We toured the dimly lit interior, which has no electricity but plenty of yak butter candles to keep the faces of the Buddhist statues and stupas visible. Tourists wandered the halls alongside monks and other faithful Tibetans paying homage to their religious figures. It seemed strange to be touring a site where people were praying and I doubted that churchgoers in America would be as patient if foreigners were filing through their church gawking at the interior as they were praying. We made our way out of the building and the climb down the hill of the Potala offered an excellent view of the city set against the mountains.

We also visited the summer residence of the Dalai Lama, which was surprisingly small and a little run down. With no support from the government and no one to reside in it, there wasn’t much to keep the place in good condition. I tried to imagine it in its glory days when the Dalai Lama still spent the warm summer months there, but it was hard to look past the peeling paint and empty halls. In some ways it seems amazing that anything survived the Cultural Revolution in China, a time when religion and art suffered severely and many important buildings and relics were destroyed.

Although the religious leader is absent from the city there is still evidence of the devout everywhere. There is a pilgrim circuit around the Jokhang Temple in the center of Lhasa that the faithful travel to and circle around daily. Monks in maroon robes are a frequent site and there are several monasteries near Lhasa. We even spotted one monk in an Internet café looking up books on Buddhism at

Even with the hassles of altitude problems and permits, I still came away from Tibet impressed with the sights and with a new appreciation for the complexity of the place and its history. After all, if it were too easy to get to it would probably lose a lot of its allure.

© Julie Vick April 2002

Brroklyn, New York

< Back to Index
< Reply to this Article

© Hackwriters 2002