This year marks the 20th anniversary of Tibet's incorporation into the People's Republic of China, and finally the roof of the world is accessible to individual travel.
Until last fall -- when Tibet was officially opened to individual tourism -- you had to take a rushed and expensive tour to reach this outermost region of China. But today, independent travelers can spend as little as $10 a day and take as much time as they want to explore this land of exotic customs and rugged scenery.
In addition to a new openness to foreigners, recent changes have made Lhasa, the capital city, a more compelling destination. The most important of these changes is the decreased control being exercised by Peking over Tibetan cultural, religious and even agricultural life.
For centuries, China has had sporadic control over Tibet, although for the first half of this century its authority was minimal. Until 1959, the Dalai Lama ("Ocean of Wisdom") was the religious and political leader of Tibet. Now in exile in India, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 on the eve of a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule; 80,000 Tibetans fled at the same time. In 1965 Tibet was formally incorporated as an autonomous region of China.
During China's Cultural Revolution in the late '60s and early '70s, traditional Tibetan ways of life and thought were all but destroyed. (For example, of approximately 1,600 Tibetan monasteries in 1959, only 10 remained in 1979.) But since the Cultural Revolution, Tibetans have made a slight but appreciable return to their traditional life. The Dalai Lama was invited back by the Chinese government. Monks have returned to their temples, and traditional grains, including Tibetan barley, are being planted in this highland region.
In addition to the easing of Chinese control, there also have been important changes in Lhasa's travel and service infrastructure. The road from Lhasa Airport to the city, about 80 miles long, is undergoing major and badly needed repair. New airport and city hotels are being built. (Chinese and Tibetan authorities plan to finish the construction projects for the anniversary this year.) The border region between Nepal and Tibet will shortly open to trekkers, hikers and tourists. In addition, the daily flight from Chengdu (in the Sichuan province) to Lhasa has been increased in size, and two planeloads a day arrive in Lhasa from Chengdu or Xi'an, in the Shaanxi province.. Finally, Royal Air Nepal has obtained permission to fly from Katmandu to Lhasa, and from Lhasa to Peking.
Travel on your own to Lhasa is not easy. It's difficult to adapt to the high altitude. Luxuries are few. Public transportation, clean food and hot water can be hard to come by. There are serious restrictions on travel outside the city. And there are linguistic difficulties. (Even some Tibetan expressions may be incomprehensible. A Tibetan greeting, for instance, can involve waving one's tongue to greet a foreigner.)
But Tibet is home to a host of western fantasies, from "Lost Horizon" to Indiana Jones, and tourism offers a needed boost to the Tibetan economy. As a result, much is being done to make this land of adventure more accessible to the traveler, and here are some ways to ease the journey.
GETTING THERE: A visa for independent travel to China is available from the China International Travel Service on Nathan Road in downtown Hong Kong or through any reputable Hong Kong travel agency. It costs about $6.50. The visa takes two days to process, although for another $6.50 "express" (overnight) service can be obtained. The visa allows unescorted travel for one month to more than 20 Chinese cities and regions and can also be extended easily in China, at a nominal cost, for an additional month or more.
For travel to the more remote tourist destinations such as Tibet, a separate travel permit is necessary. This permit is also readily available, at about 40 cents, from the Chinese public security offices (gonganju), which are located in all Chinese cities and regions. In Chengdu, the principal starting point for Tibetan journeys, there is a public security office in the popular Jin Jiang Hotel that can arrange for overnight processing of your permit.
Flights to Lhasa may also be reserved through many Chengdu hotels, or they may be arranged directly at the CAAC (Chinese Airlines) office in downtown Chengdu. The air fare is about $230 round trip; it is best to book three to four days before departure.
The only legal means of entering Tibet is by air. It is not, however, the only way. Occasionally young Americans or Europeans hitchhike rides on the road that leads from Golmud in Qinghai province over the Himalayas to Lhasa. This trip takes one to two weeks and involves crossing desolate and treacherous mountain passes as high as 19,000 feet. Where there are sides to the road, one traveler reported, it is frequently strewn with broken-down Chinese trucks.
But the plane also offers adventure, if only for an hour or two. From the air, the scenery is often desolate and treeless. The Himalayan plateau stretches endlessly to the north and south. Mountain peaks, capped in ice or snow, loom closely. The descent is brief. The plane passes through a gap in the clouds and follows a narrow valley, tracing the Lhasa River, to an airfield. Because the airstrip lacks radar, sight landings are made in the early morning, when the air is clearest.
After luggage is unloaded onto the airstrip, buses arrive. (The price of the plane ticket includes the arduous four-hour ride into Lhasa.) The windows of the buses are ajar, seat springs collapsed, and the 80-mile-long highway presents a myriad of detours and obstacles stemming from construction projects, potholes, fallen bridges and shallow river beds. There are, however, some sights along the way: scattered villages, inns and Buddhist icons carved in rock. The Drepung Monastery appears on the left as you near Lhasa. This temple complex, once the largest cloister in the world, is surrounded by mountains on three sides. At one time it housed more than 8,000 monks, including the Dalai Lama. (Today, there may be fewer than 8,000 monks in all of Lhasa.)
Finally there is Lhasa, a city of 60,000 people. The bus depot is also the CAAC ticket office and is a good landmark to remember.
WHERE TO STAY: It is a five-minute walk from the bus station to the commodious and popular Municipal Guest House. A few rooms are also available above the public baths across the street from the guest house. A room costs about $4 a night in either place, for two people. Rooms are not heated and lack a private bath.
Inside the Tibetan market in the center of town is a hotel at about half the price that is even more bereft of amenities. It is popular with the very hardy, primarily those who have come overland into Lhasa.
Four miles outside town is the deluxe Lhasa Guest House, with $80 rooms, which is primarily reserved for foreign tour groups and visiting dignitaries. The hotel is very isolated, but it does have a decent cafeteria, affectionately called the "Yak in the Box," in honor of the local source of beef.
WHERE TO EAT: Hot meals can be purchased at the "Yak in the Box" or the Municipal Guest House, which provides fairly clean and varied Chinese-style fare.
There is also a popular Chinese restaurant at the foot of Red Hill, in the center of town, that doubles as one of Lhasa's few social spots. Tibetans, Chinese and foreigners mingle, drinking tea or beer, or ordering one of the popular omelettes or Szechuan-style dishes.
Also consider bringing fresh fruit and snacks. Although some canned goods, particularly canned oranges, are available in Lhasa, you may tire of a cuisine with limited fresh produce and poor quality grain.
HEALTH: At a two-mile altitude, Lhasa strains the body's capacity to acclimate. Chinese authorities advise you not to go to Tibet if you have high blood pressure or a heart condition. During the first few days, even the healthiest should avoid any kind of physical exertion. A foolish enthusiasm can lead to headaches, nausea or even an aborted trip. If the thin air causes a great deal of difficulty it is at least a psychological relief to know that canisters of oxygen are available at most hotel desks. And there is a hospital in downtown Lhasa where the personnel is experienced in treating altitude-related illnesses.
CLIMATE: Lhasa's nickname is the "Sunny City." During the daytime the sun is intense and the air is dry, with temperatures in the 80s. The temperature drops considerably in the evening, and there is a greater likelihood of rain at night. So take sunscreen, warm clothing and an umbrella. Tibetan winters are, of course, harsh, so the best time to visit is late spring to early fall.
SHOPPING: Near the center of town, and an easy walk from the Municipal Guest House, is the Tibetan market, which has a medieval atmosphere. Traders gather here from all parts of China. In addition to an omnipresent variety of yak products -- including yak butter, meat and pelts -- there are Tibetan handicrafts, including woolen boots, hats, turquoise beads and silver prayer wheels. The traders also sell Tibetan antiques, and the prices are reasonable. But they have not been certified for export and so are subject to confiscation by Chinese customs officials at the Lhasa airport, where tourists are frequently searched prior to departing Tibet, or upon your departure from China.
WHAT TO DO: In the center of the market is the Tsulhakhang Temple, also called the Jokhang Temple or "Temple of the Buddha." This 1,300-year-old temple is a Major National Historical Site, designated by the government. It was built during the Tang dynasty to house a Buddha that had been carried by a Chinese princess from the Chinese capital (present-day Xi'an) to Lhasa. The Chinese government considers the temple tangible evidence of the long history of Chinese-Tibetan friendship.
It is best to tackle the Potala Palace, Lhasa's most noteworthy landmark, after your acclimation process is complete. Its long stairway, climbing 350 feet to the top of Red Hill, offers a commanding view but can be physically taxing. The palace is open only from 9 a.m. to noon and 2 to 5 p.m., so it is best to arrive just at opening time in order to have ample time to appreciate the grounds.
Be sure to save some time as well for the Potala's small but comfortable souvenir shop. It is one of the few souvenir shops in Tibet and has a limited supply of post cards and prints. Moreover, as there is an expensive per-picture charge for taking pictures in the palace, the post cards can aid in determining which sights are truly worth being photographed.
The Potala Palace was built in the 17th century on the ruins of a 7th-century temple. As the former house of the Dalai Lama, it is a major destination for pilgrims. Prayer flags line the long stairway. When Tibetans walk on the palace's stairs they always walk to the side out of respect for the palace's spiritual potency. There is a wealth of religious iconography here, including Buddhas and wall paintings. There are also huge stupas of solid gold that house the remains of previous Dalai Lamas, and there is an excellent view of Lhasa from the Potala's "Golden Roof."
One half mile from the Potala is the Norbu Lingka, or "Jewel Park" in Tibetan; the Chinese call it "People's Park." There is a temple in the park that was built in the 18th century for the Dalai Lama to use to escape the summer's heat. At holiday time, in warm weather, Tibetans go there to pitch colored tents, feast and dance. This general area near the Lhasa River is also a favorite of Tibetans for swimming in the spring.
A few kilometers north of Lhasa is the Sera ("Hailstone") Monastery, built in 1419 and used by followers of the Yellow Hat School of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition to its statuary, it is famous for its Thangka scroll paintings. You can rent bicycles in Lhasa for the trip to the monastery; there are also a limited number of rental cars as well as infrequent bus service.
Most mornings, in the general area of the temple, there is a "celestial burial." Pine and cypress are burned to attract vultures, and then the four-day-old corpse is pulverized, mixed with grain and tossed to the waiting birds. The Tibetans believe that through the birds the soul ascends to heaven. Burial in the ground, by contrast, is reserved for the diseased and criminals, who do not merit rebirth. Find a Tibetan to tell you how to go, or to take you there. Picture taking is not welcome at the site.
Although there are many other places of interest in Tibet, travel to sites outside Lhasa is technically forbidden. Indeed, travelers who yearn for the scenery of the high Himalayas are apt to be disappointed in Lhasa. But there are said to be many scenic views along the Qinghai-Tibet or Sichuan-Tibet highways, if you can get a ride with a bus or truck.
If all else fails, the bus ride to the Lhasa airport will leave the day before your flight. Although the present CAAC airport hotel lacks many amenities, it is being replaced by a newer, more modern complex. The hotel is surrounded by a small farming village, and although the farmers may be jaded by the presence of foreigners, most of them are friendly and willing to be photographed driving their donkeys or yaks, or threshing grain on the Lhasa airstrip.
OUTSIDE TIBET: If the inconveniences of travel to and around Tibet outweigh the attractions, there are other regions in China with Tibetan culture or influences. A newly opened tourist region, Jiu Zhai Gou, in the Tibetan Autonomous State of Sichuan, is replete with mountains, waterfalls, Buddhist temples and even wild pandas.
A mountain resort, Cheng de, near Peking, was a summer retreat of the Qing dynasty and offers interesting Lamaist temples. A tour guide can arrange a pleasant two-day trip there from Peking.
There are also centers of Tibetan culture in Katmandu and in Dharmsala, India.
All these worthwhile opportunities cannot, however, compare to being among the first independent travelers to Tibet. Despite the difficulties, Tibet presents a relatively unspoiled but changing people. For someone who enjoys adventure and the unusual, Tibet will, indeed, present a modern Shangri-La.