It doesn’t matter how much you hear about China, nothing can prepare you for the adventure that lay ahead. Or so it was the case with me.
I was just 30 days into my globetrotting adventure and my first stop in China was Tibet.
Tibet has a troubled history that began in the late 1950s after the euphemistically named ‘cultural revolution’ was kickstarted by China. During that time hundreds of thousands of Tibetans were killed and many more were imprisoned.
Following the takeover, Tibetans were persecuted and the Dalai Lama fled in the 1950s to India.
Signs of the ‘cultural revolution’ are present all over Tibet. When I arrived in the capital of Lhasa, I was greeted with a gallery of Chinese superstores, malls, public buildings and upmarket restaurants. It was a far cry from what I had expected.
While there were still remnants of the former Tibet, complete with traditional red and white buildings, along with men and women in traditional dress, it was hard not to notice the major sweeping changes that had taken place.
Sure, the Chinese have built it up with schools, modern roads and commerce, but at what price?
Just three weeks earlier when I had been in the Nepalese city of Pokhara, I got speaking to a Tibetan shopkeeper who told me what little rights he had under Chinese governance. Another Tibetan lady told me that as a refugee now living in Nepal, she was denied a passport, as were many Tibetans. While Tibetans are supposedly free to apply for a passport, the process can take many years and the cost of doing so is prohibitive for those who are living on a meagre wage.
So it was with mixed feelings that I arrived in Tibet.
This is the land that I had dreamed of visiting since I was a child and being here felt slightly surreal. I was lucky in many ways.
Tibet is almost impossible to visit without going via a travel agency and even then, there are no guarantees because the Chinese government has been known to suddenly deny entry into the country without warning or compensation. In fact, just one week after I left Tibet on June 9th 2016, I heard from other travellers that the government had kicked all the foreigners out of the country without notice.
The white scarf
The white scarf was the first thing that greeted me when I stumbled into Tibet. This silky garment is known as a Khata and is a symbol of peace and goodwill. It is often presented to visitors when they visit Tibet and used as a ceremonial offering in many temples.
After being greeted by my tour guide at Lhasa airport, I was given a Khata and welcomed into the province.
Under the spotlight
I feel very privileged to have been able to visit Tibet when I did. It is a place where many people would love to go but are simply unable to afford it. As a result, there aren’t great swathes of Western foreigners, and very few that have a darker hue.
As one of the few black foreigners that set foot in Tibet in any one year, I certainly got more than my fair share of attention.
I could not go to the shops for example without attracting a crowd of curious onlookers, the majority of whom have never left the country and most certainly would never have seen a black person in the flesh.
Walking the streets would more often than not turn heads and attract about a dozen photo requests from both Chinese immigrants and locals.
One thing that I have quickly discovered while travelling is that even in remote and impoverished villages, most people have mobile phones and the same was true across Tibet. The end result was a photo of me ending up on half of them!
But Tibet as the land of smiles never felt hostile, merely curious. The stares would often turn into smiles and sometimes compliments such as ‘beautiful’ or ‘very nice’ from people along the way.
Others would simply say ‘tashi delek’ (hello) as I passed them by.
Tibet is jam-packed with majestic temples, palaces, gardens and traditional shops selling everything from miniature Buddhas and carpets to wooden necklaces.
It also has some of the most unspoilt, sprawling countryside I have ever seen, set among the backdrop of the Himalayan mountains.
And yet as I travelled the province on an organised tour, I was both the tourist and the tourist attraction for the locals.
Travelling with altitude
Tibet is approximately 3,400 feet in the air and so most of the tour companies will insist that you spend 3 days acclimatising in Lhasa – the lowest point of Tibet – before moving onto other cities at higher altitudes.
I had never heard of altitude sickness before embarking upon my adventure but as a normally fit person, I suddenly found myself wheezing for air and unable to stand without experiencing vertigo.
However, many shops in Tibet sell oxygen canisters and I was gradually able to acclimatise to the high elevation within a few days.
The climb to Everest
After Lhasa came Everest base camp, which for many others in the tour group was the jewel in the crown for the whole journey.
But for me, driving through Everest National Park was like driving straight into a postcard. Of all the places I had been to up until that point, I had never seen scenery so dramatic.
Rows and rows of snowcapped Himalayan mountains stood regally behind dusty, beige peaks that sat like giant rocks against the sunset.
And there in the midst of it all was Everest, jutting head and shoulders above all of the others like a king peering over his kingdom.
That night, we slept huddled in tents under several thick blankets. The wind roared vivaciously from outside as I sunk under six layers of clothing and duvets, frozen from the chilly weather outside.
But the frost did little to deter me from waking up four hours later to trek to the base of the mountain with the others in the group, under millions of stars, planets and the Milky Way that was clearly visible across the navy sky.
Where is Mount Qomolangma?
Everest base camp is over 5,200 feet in the air and located a few miles away from the mountain itself, much to my disappointment.
From the Tibetan side, Everest is known as Mount Qomolangma.
I was later informed that it costs more than £70,000 to hike beyond base camp. The money includes fees for the Sherpas (guides), safety equipment, insurance and entry.
During the daytime, we were lucky enough to get a clear view of Everest, as it was a sunny morning and the gargantuan mountain stood three thousand feet above where we were.
Seeing Everest up close and personal was humbling as I got a birds eye view of this powerful and majestic mountain.
And yet that was not the highlight of my journey. The highlight of my journey was the feeling I got when sitting in a tiny cave meditating in the Rongbuk monastery near Everest base camp, surrounded by monks.
I’m told that the exact spot I was sitting in was one of the first places Guru Rinpoche came to meditate when he brought Buddhism to Tibet.
Of all the things I planned for when putting together my itinerary in Tibet, it is invariably the things I didn’t plan that turned out to be the most memorable.
I mean, whoever thought that riding on a sleeper train past rice fields and rugged mountain villages would mean more to me than a trip to Everest base camp, the Potala Palace and all of the Tibetan temples combined?
And of course, the people I met along the way helped to make my journey worthwhile.
The warmth and friendliness of the Tibetan people to the friendship and camaraderie between those of us on the tour group, made Tibet feel like a strange and mysterious dream home.
And actually, I realised something. Although it was amazing to be there in the flesh, the experiences I really came for were the different faces along the way, the accents and the simple feeling of travelling across a foreign country hanging out with people that I would never have met usually.
Searching for the Buddha
It was also interesting to observe the level of religious devotion in Tibet. The main religion is Buddhism, although you also have a significant Muslim population and a (much smaller number of) Christian devotees.
In temples everywhere, people are praying, resting their heads on the Buddha statues, and paying respects to the various deities by sacrificing a scarf or some money. The donations are then collected later and used towards the upkeep of the monasteries.
There were also people doing the quota around temples, which could sometimes span several kilometres. The quota is a type of religious ritual where people prostrate in front of temples and use rosaries or other implements while walking around it.
The evidence of religious devotion was also seen in the sheer number of monks in red robes that you see going about their daily business in Lhasa.
Coming from a country where religion is hidden behind church walls or in gated mosques, it was humbling even as a non-religious person to visit a country where faith weaves its way through the very fabric of society.
Yak butter blues
Yak butter tea. This strange tasting concoction is derived from the milk of a native Tibetan bull known as a Yak.
The tea itself is like marmite – you either love it or hate it. It is something of an acquired taste for most Westerners, and if you treat it as a kind of soup instead of tea, you’re likely to get along a lot better with it.
It is also reputed to be very good for altitude sickness due to the fact that it helps to accelerate the heart rate, thus getting more oxygen into the blood. This is badly needed when you are at heights where oxygen is in short supply.
And no part of the Yak bull goes to waste. Tents, blankets and even buildings are coated with yak fur.
Restaurants all over the country sell yak meat, and the bull is also used in farming.
The animal itself is present all over the mountainous region and many restaurants and hotels have Yak as part of their name.
Another famous attraction I saw in Tibet was the Sera Monk’s debate.
The debating monks at the Sera Monastery are famous all over the world. The monastery itself is one of the three most important monasteries in Lhasa, the Holy City of Tibetan Buddhism.
On the day of the debate, we were given some free time to look around before being invited to gather in the place where the monks were debating.
Although we could not understand what the monks were saying, the debate looked very animated nonetheless.
As part of the their training, monks participate in a series of debates. These debates are held in a courtyard of crushed stone. Senior monks grill junior monks on various aspects of their doctrine. The younger monks are seated, while the elders fire questions at them to test their knowledge of Buddhist scripture.
The debate is accentuated by vigorous hand slapping, which is a signal for the other monk to respond.
While all that was going on in the background, I noticed people taking pictures of me and filming some of the interesting conversations I was having with people there.
It was all very intriguing and certainly worth seeing if you ever do get a chance to visit Tibet.
I also saw similar debates happen on a smaller scale in other Tibetan temples.
Final days in Tibet
Namtso lake is easily one of the most spectacular in Tibet. It’s pristine blue-green waters surrounded by mountainous rocks was certainly another highlight of my adventure. All I could do was stand there and try to absorb the beauty of what I was witnessing. The pictures don’t quite do it justice.
Indeed there were many places like that in Tibet. Beige mountains and rocks as far as the eye can see, intermingled with strange green trees and wildlife that decorated the landscape.
This is the magic I came to see. Forget the Chinese propaganda, forget the tourist hotspots and the magnificent temples that pepper the country for just one second.
No, it is the peaceful whisper of contentment, that unidentifiable emotion you feel when you stand before a mountain, the dignity of a long forgotten holy site and the helpless realisation of your eyes falling in love with the landscape, that really stays with you. Or at least it did with me anyway.
Yes, I shall remember my final days in Tibet. But it’s not the overcrowded temples, the crude and cramped itineraries of the tourist agencies or even His Majesty, Mount Everest, that I shall remember the most.
Rather, it is the unapologetic and abject beauty of one of the most precious and troubled jewels of this planet and the big hearted people who occupy it that will keep me falling in love with Tibet over and over again.