True Tibet

I’ve only been to Tibet once, back in 2009. It’s been six years since my visit, but I have never stopped recommending it to my friends. I think what keeps me feeling so strongly about Tibet is the peace and calm that I felt whilst there.

Tibet is a truly beautiful and magical place. Of course, anyone who goes there would never miss the magnificent Potala Palace, though it could be tricky to get a ticket in because the palace only allows 6,000 visitors per day. This is due to the fragile quality of the palace. Our tour guide told us that the white color of the palace is not paint, but yak milk; it is very fragile and the government spends millions of Yuan on preserving the place each year. However, compared with the treasures inside the palace, the yak milk wall is nothing. It is said that the cheapest thing in the Potala Palace is gold. The most valuable pieces are the diamonds and rubies that are the size of human fists.

The bodies of each Dalai Lama lie in the upper level of the palace, except for the body of the sixth Dalai Lama, named Tsangyang Gyatso. He was a drifter and a poet. He was made the sixth Dalai Lama during a time when there was great tension between Tibet and the Qing Dynasty, though he was never very interested in politics himself. He is best known for his love poems nowadays. I have an old copy of his poems that I have been reading over and over again since I was 14, and I still tear up whenever I come across his poems; they are so sad and beautiful. People say that his poem is ten times more beautiful in its original version written in Tibetan. As a linguist, I fully understand how translation can affect a language, and I always have this small wish that I could one day find time to learn Tibetan for the pure reason of wanting to read Tsangyang Gyatso’s original works. No one knew where he went in the end—that’s why his body is not placed in the Potala Palace.

Tibet gives me the same sad and beautiful feeling that Tsangyang Gyatso’s poems do. Even if you are not religious, you could still feel your soul purified there. Religion is a very big deal in Tibet; there are many Tibetans praying at any time and anywhere. The gesture of praying involves three steps: First, one clears his or her mind, then kneels down, and then flattens oneself on the ground, kissing the earth. The Tibetans have such respect and love for nature that just by being with them you would forget all about skyscrapers and the noises of traffic. In fact, they have a special funeral tradition that just shows how much respect they have for nature. Instead of burying the bodies in the ground or burning them, Tibetans would have a ceremony where they place the dead body at specific spots in open spaces, and feed the body to eagles and hawks. They believe that this is a way of repaying as well as returning to nature. The body is just a shell that nature presented for people; the soul would go on after the body is gone and reincarnate into a new life. It is a harmonious cycle.

Of course, if one ever visits Tibet, cultural sights are definitely a must, but the natural scenery is just as worth seeing. Because Tibet is on the Tibet Plateau, which has a very high height above sea level, there are many plants and natural formations that cannot be seen anywhere else. One of the most famous plants is the Saussurea involucrate, more commonly known as the Snow Lotus. It is a rare plant that only grows in cold weather on top of the highest mountains. It also has very high values in Chinese medicine. If you ever get to see a live one during your trip in Tibet, you should definitely buy yourself a lottery ticket when you get back.

Though before getting all excited about this pure and magical place, there are some technical facts that one should know about Tibet. As mentioned before, it is higher above sea level than any other places on Earth, which means that the air there lacks oxygen. Many people have serious reactions when they go to Tibet, mainly not being able to breathe well or feeling dizzy because of lack of oxygen. I did not have any major reactions when I went there, though I did felt that I was not able to walk too fast because it would become hard to breathe. Also, the wide range in temperature is unbelievable. At noon, it could get so hot that you would feel like you are on a tropical island, but as soon as the sun goes down, the temperature could drop so low that it feels like the North Pole! Rumor has it that you could die of just a cold in Tibet, because the wide range of temperature will make it impossible to get better. Not trying to freak anyone out, but there are accidents every year of tourists going to Tibet without being fully prepared.

One great solution would be to take the train from Beijing to Lhasa rather than fly there. Even though the train ride takes days, you would be able to gradually get used to the air, therefore it won’t feel so bad once you actually step onto the land of Tibet. An extra bonus of taking the train is that you get to see the amazing sceneries of China along the way, and, if you’re lucky enough, you could even see the Tibetan antelopes. They are an endangered species and are really hard to come across in China nowadays, but the train route is near their usual migration route, so there is still a great chance of seeing them. I was lucky enough to see Tibetan antelopes migrate; the train stopped in order not to disturb them, and we watched as antelopes passed by. It was an incredible sight.

To wrap up, here is a poem by Tsangyang Gyatso:


The moment I raised the wind-horse flags

it is not for the blessings

but just for your coming


The day I piled up the mani stones

it is not for accumulating merits

but just for casting into the pool of your heart


The night I listened to a night long sutras chanting

it is not for the understanding of dhyana

but just for a sign of your breathing


The month I spinned all the prayer wheels

it is not for releasing souls

but just for touching the fingerprints you left


The year I prostrated on the mountain roads

it is not for going on a pilgrimage

but just for staying close to your warmth


The lifetime I walked around the mountains

it is not for samsara

but just for meeting you on the way


The lifetime I covered ten thousands mountains

it is not for samsara

but just for blessing you safe, well and delighted