Tibet #1

As a Westerner, it is hard to go to China without thinking about Tibet.   On our September visit we were able to visit some of the eastern regions of this very large province but not the interior parts and not Lhasa.  As you probably know by now Fay and I got a last minute opportunity to do some teaching at the Tibetan Mountaineering Guide School.  Even though I have another blog about our classes in Founglou, I want to write something now so that it is still fresh in my mind.  Fresh, is of course a relative term especially when you go from about sea level to 3650 meters/almost 12000 feet in about 2 hours.

For most westerners Lhasa IS Tibet.  It is all mixed up with the Dali Lama, Chinese development, freedom of religion and personal destiny.  It is not simple and hardly unemotional for many people.  Don’t worry, this will not be a political or religious tract.  I will try to describe what I did, saw and experienced while there.  After all of this I am not sure that I am much better informed.

China and the US have comparable land masses.  Given relative sizes, Tibet and AK make up similarly large portions (12% vs 15% respectively) of the countries that they are part of.  Like AK, Tibet has considerable potential for natural resources, not least of which is hydroelectric power.  It also has important strategic importance with India.  Imagine the US government allowing AK to secede. 

It is known as an Autonomous Zone of China by virtue of the fact that the Han (Chinese ethnicity) are a minority.  But make no mistake, it is China and is not likely to be an independent state without some unforeseen cataclysm.  The history is confusing so I will leave you to your favorite resource for politics to decide for yourself (see below).

The permitting process (not a visa because Tibet is part of China) seemed like smoke and mirrors.  We sent our passports and China visas to the School and they worked their magic.  Before boarding our final flight to Lhasa we had to show the permit to a variety of people.  It was a good thing that Kang (a well-respected Chinese guide and student in our other courses) was with us because the process was not straight forward.

The flight from Chongqing to Lhasa takes you over a vast mountainous region, bereft of the usual signs of civilization.  On the ground the landscape was brown and drab contrasting with the towering mountains, blue skies and colorfully painted homes.  Lhasa is not one of the Special Economic Zones that I referenced in a prior post, I suspect because attracting foreign capital is not a mission.  Nonetheless, a lot of money is in flowing here.  There are modern high-rises, new stores, and car dealerships.  Even after you cross the Lhasa River into the older part of the city, development abounds.

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We arrived Friday, late in the afternoon.  We met some people from the school, had supper, and then went to our rooms.  The next day we headed to the school and began the first of our classes.  Sat AM was focused on an introduction about wilderness medicine to 100 + students.  Then on Sat PM, Sunday PM and Monday AM we taught classes with 25 experienced guides.  One has summited Everest 6 times and all had been to at least 8000 meters (26000+ feet).  Our presentations were a mix of talks, Q and A and practical skills.    We used our Chinese slides because that is the official language of the school.  Kang translated everything for us except for the practical skills.  For those, we used hand signals and succeeded admirably.  Our students were enthusiastic and very appreciative.

On Sunday we visited two important sites in Lhasa.  Both have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.  The Potala Palace, once the major home of the Dali Lama until he fled to India in 1959, is now a museum containing important religious icons. It is located on the top of a prominent hill rising 300 meters (1000 feet) above the valley floor.  There was hardly time to see more than a fraction of its contents.  The Jokhang Temple is perhaps the most sacred of all Buddhist sites in Lhasa.  It is located in Barkor Square  and surrounded by many shops selling Tibetan wares to locals.  We were not able to go inside to see some of the really famous and unique icons because it was closed to non-Tibetans when we arrived.   This time of year, both of these important sites are visited predominately by Tibetans.  In fact, except for one person in the airport and Fay, I did not see another westerner anywhere else in Lhasa.

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