Journey of a lifetime

Print edition : September 19, 2014

Through the vast open spaces of the Tibetan countryside.

The monument commemorating the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, in Potala Square, Lhasa.

Monks at Drepung monastery. Built in the 14th century, it was probably the largest monastery in all of Tibet.

A typcial Tibetan kitchen as displayed in the Tibetan Museum.

Artists at work on a temple panel.

A yak skull for sale in the Lhasa market.

The Potala palace.

The Jorkhang temple. One of the holiest shrines in Tibet, it still exudes an aura of religiosity and faith.

Murals on Chakpori Hill, Lhasa.

Monks preparing sweets in the Drepung monastery.

The Nam Tso lake.

The Drepung monastery. The panel on the right is used for displaying giant thangkas during festivals.

Tibetan women in traditional attire on their way to the Jokhang temple.

A celestial spectacle of a rainbow during the train journey to Chengdu.

The train ride from Lhasa to Chengdu passes through some breathtaking scenery.

A Tibetan village. They are often located in the folds of valleys between mountains.

A platform at the Lhasa railway station.

The author's co-travellers on the journey to Chengdu.

THE Tibetan plateau is one of the most isolated places in the world, surrounded as it is by formidable mountain ranges on three sides—the 2,500-kilometre-long wall of the Himalayas to the south, the Karakoram range to the west, and the Kunlun and Altyn Tagh ranges to the north. Four of our planet’s 10 tallest peaks straddle its border with Nepal. The snow-laden peaks and the lakes in Tibet are the sources of almost all the major rivers of Asia, including the Indus, the Ganga, the Brahmaputra, the Sutlej, the Mekong, the Salween, the Yangtze and the Hwang Ho. Tibet is also home to some of the extremely cold wildernesses outside the polar regions. Most of Tibet is above 5,000 metres in altitude and there are teetering mountain passes leading to Lhasa and other valleys. Much of Tibet is a harsh landscape where generations of settlers have learnt to eke out a livelihood from a reluctant land.

The term Tibet is as much about a shared ethnic, cultural and religious identity as it is about geography. According to Tibetan mythology, Tibetans descended from the union of a simian with an ogress. Until the fifth century, the people of this vast land practised the Bon faith, with its origins in shamanism. By the time Buddhism came to Tibet during the reign of Songtsen Gampo, it was a flourishing faith in most neighbouring regions. Tibetans, however, were slow to accept it. Finally, when they did accept it, many practices of the earlier Bon faith, such as sky burial of ancestors, prayer flags and spirit traps, were absorbed into the Tibetan version of Buddhism and are observed even today. Incidentally, the Bon faith also survives in a rudimentary form, and one of the main centres of the vestigial Bon faith is in Solan district in Himachal Pradesh.

Traditional Tibetan society has three distinct segments: the nomads ( drokpa), the farmers ( rongpa) and the monks ( sangha). While leading very different lives, all the three segments are united by their faith and culture as well as by their extraordinary resistance to change. The nomad’s prosperity is equated with the number of yaks he owns. Some parts of the Tibetan countryside, with their gentle meadows, offer hospitable grazing grounds for yaks. Tibetans depend on yaks for everything, from milk to meat to clothing fibre and transport. On my earlier trek to Manasarovar, we had visited some of these tented settlements of yak herders, but on this visit, we could only glimpse them from our train windows as we travelled from Lhasa to Chengdu.

The farmers are settled Tibetans who live in villages tucked away in the folds of mountains so remote that it might take weeks to reach one. They live a largely self-contained existence where salt and a few other basic necessities are the only things that have to come from afar. A cross-breed of yaks called dzo is used for ploughing and for ferrying the harvest to the village. Most villages are protected by a dzong (fortress). The Yarlung Tsangpo (known as the Brahmaputra in India) irrigates the fertile valleys although in recent times Tibet has been witnessing considerable precipitation as well owing to the rapidly changing ecology of the region. Barley, peas and mustard are the main crops, while in summer even vegetables are cultivated. Yet, we find a variety of vegetables and fruits in the Lhasa bazaar carted all the way from other regions of China, including the sweet watermelons of neighbouring Xinjiang.

Every orthodox Tibetan family takes it upon itself to send at least one son to the monastic fold. Ordination could begin at the tender age of seven or eight, and often goes on for life. There are also nunneries for women who elect to be ordained into the monastic order after attaining adulthood. There are three monastic orders: Nyingmapa, Sakhyapa and Gelugpa. The last, also called the “yellow hat” sect from the colour of their headgear, is a prominent order today and its monasteries can be found everywhere in the Tibetan plateau, extending as far as Bhutan, Nepal and Ladakh in India. Within the monastic fold, there are various gradations determining every monk’s place in the religious order. What is common, however, is their responsibility to learn, preserve and practise the doctrines of Buddhism.

The first sight of the Potala Palace from the ground is breathtaking. A UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Site, the palace must rank among the finest structures in the world, alongside the Angkor Wat in Cambodia and St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican. The name Potala derives from the name of one of the deities, Chenserig, which means “pure land” or paradise.

For more than five centuries, Potala remained the supreme seat of power in Tibet, one in which ecclesiastical and temporal authority converged. Now, this impressive nine-storeyed iconic edifice is no longer imbued with the aura of holiness; it is more like a museum, the splendorous temples inside notwithstanding. We spy a couple of monks playing games on their cell phones even as visitors amble through its gorgeous rooms, gaping in awe at the priceless treasures it houses. The structure itself, an awe-inspiring example of the finest in Tibetan architecture, was once a self-contained world which consisted of a palace, residences, religious schools and even a cemetery for deceased senior monks. But now, only a few monks reside on the premises, and a large portion of Potala is walled off to visitors.

We make our way up the steep slopes of Potala in a persistent drizzle. There are many Chinese tourists about. The Lhasa river, a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo, snakes its way around Lhasa. Where there must once have been barley and pea fields, there are now world-class roads and gleaming SUVs. The impressive Liberation Monument, built by the Chinese, sits at the centre of the biggest city square in Lhasa, but one that is much less lively than Barkhor Square.

Potala was built on the site of King Songtsen Gampo’s original palace that existed in the 7th century. The fifth Dalai Lama moved into Potala from the Drepung monastery in 1649, and thereafter it became the locus of ecclesiastical and temporal power in all of Tibet. Interestingly, when the fifth Dalai Lama died, his death was kept secret for 12 years until the Red Palace, being built within the precincts of Potala, was completed. We rush through the priceless Buddhist treasures housed in Potala since, in the interests of crowd management, no visitor is allowed to linger for more than an hour.

Next on our itinerary is the Jokhang temple. Unlike Potala, this shrine, considered the holiest in Tibet, still exudes an aura of religiosity and faith. The entrance to the temple is in Barkhor Square. There are several spots where devout Tibetans have laid out blankets to perform their ritualistic prostrations under a flagpole festooned with prayer flags. In fact, the flagstones in front of the temple wear a polished sheen from the thousands of heads that have touched it in prayer.

Even before you enter Jokhang, you can smell it. The premises is thick with the smell of yak butter lamps and incense. Of course, almost all of what we see today is of recent construction, built within the past 30 years. You enter the temple through a dark corridor watched over by naga goddesses (water spirits) and nojin (benign red-faced subterranean creatures). There is a series of temples with impressive statues. The inner temples house larger-than-life-size images of Guru Rinpoche, Maitreya, Chenserig, Shakyamuni and others of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon.

There is a temple dedicated to Songtsen Gampo as well, a bejewelled king with his two consorts, one Nepali and the other Chinese. We ascend the stairs to visit the temples on the first and second floors. Since photography is prohibited inside all the temples in Lhasa, I have to be content with a view of Barkhor Square from the terrace of Jokhang.

The Jokhang temple, a remarkable example of architectural fusion incorporating the best in Nepali, Indian, Chinese and Tibetan styles, was built by Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century to house the image of Akshobya, brought to Tibet as dowry by the Nepalese princess Bhrikuti. The temple faces west towards Nepal, presumably in deference to the source of the image. Around the same time, the Ramoche temple was built to house another Buddha image, Jowo Shakyamuni, brought as dowry by his Chinese wife, Princess Wencheng. After Songtsen’s death, it is believed that Princess Wencheng moved the image to Jokhang for its safety, where it remains to this day. A well in the precincts of the temple is said to still draw water from an original sacred lake. During our visit, we see a group of Tibetans surrounding the well and throwing currency notes into it and watching intently for some divine omen.

Religion permeates Tibetan life in all its aspects. Accumulating merit through various routes—such as undertaking pilgrimages to sacred places even if it means spending the savings of a lifetime on a single trip or sending sons and daughters into a monastic life—is central to the Tibetan way of life.

No wonder then that we see so many Tibetan men and women thronging the numerous temples and monasteries that dot this landscape. At the Sera monastery, we are just in time to witness the evening debate in the courtyard, where the resident monks congregate to debate some of the finer points of Buddhist theology. There is much stomping of the ground and gesturing although one gets the impression that much of it is staged for the tourists’ benefit. As if on cue, hundreds of visitors land in this courtyard, their cameras poised.

Sera, founded in 1419, was once home to more than 5,000 monks but hosts only a few hundred now. In its heyday, its precincts rang out with Buddhist teachings in the five colleges under its aegis, but now only one survives. We pay our obeisance to the copper Shakyamuni, flanked by Jampa and Jampelyang, and move on to admire the various temples and their presiding deities. Outside the main temple, there are massive copper vats, which are used for ritual cooking during festivals.

Drepung, another monastery, is located on a dramatic outcrop in the western part of Lhasa. Built in the 14th century, this was probably the largest monastery in all of Tibet, where nearly 8,000 monks of the Gelugpa sect resided. Now, only 500 monks live here, but all of them seem to be congregated in the huge pantry, where they are engaged in making a traditional Tibetan cake offering called tsok for the forthcoming Saga Dawa festival. There are mounds of sattu, aromatic, roasted barley flour mixed with yak butter and molasses, which the monks are shaping into cones in ritual offering. Prayer wheels line the steep path to the temples. On an adjacent hill, a huge rock doubles as a frame for giant thangkas which are brought out once a year during the Tsoton festival. They can be seen from miles away. The rest of the year, they are placed in custom-made ornamental frames which extend the entire length of a huge hall. It takes more than a hundred monks to furl or unfurl these thangkas. Drepung was home to the first four Dalai Lamas and is still a revered pilgrim destination.

Our travel permit does not allow us to go beyond Lhasa. So, after five days in this remarkable city, we head towards Chengdu. The train ride out of Lhasa into Chengdu is, in many ways, the highlight of our trip to Tibet. It serves up rectangular frames of the most stunning landscapes on the planet—expansive meadows peppered with grazing yaks, layer upon layer of high-altitude blue-and-green mountain ranges thrown up by tectonic shifts eons ago, and, above all, the celestial drama of fluffy streaks of clouds converging on the peaks against the backdrop of a copper sulphate blue sky. This is central Tibet, comprising the U (capital Lhasa)-Tsang (capital Shigatse) plateau, the political, historical and agricultural heartland of Tibet. It is also known as the Yarlung valley, watered as it is by the mighty Tsangpo.

For the better part of our first day’s journey, we are accompanied by the Tsangpo, which meanders east for about 2,000 kilometres within Tibet in search of a southern outlet to the ocean before it takes a dramatic U-turn near the Arunachal-Myanmar border to descend in cascades down into Arunachal Pradesh. Our evening meal in the dining car is enlivened by a splendid rainbow outside our window, arching across some mighty mountains, caressed by cotton-wool clouds. The Tsangpo coils under the base of the mountains, faithfully reflecting the resplendent colours in its crystal-clear waters. It seems like a celestial spectacle.

The Lhasa-Xining route goes through the Tanggula Pass, which, at 5,072 metres above sea level, is said to be the world’s highest railway pass. Likewise, Tanggula station is the world’s highest railway station, an honour it seems to have usurped from Peru’s Ticlio station, located at a height of 4,829 metres and Bolivia’s Condor station, at 4,786 metres, both in the Andes. This route also goes through numerous tunnels, including the four-kilometre-long New Guangjiao tunnel at 4,905 metres above sea level. But it is remarkable that wherever possible, the line runs between the mountains rather than through them. Much of this route has been laid on permafrost with adequate safeguards to ensure that the rails do not sink into the ground in an unusually warm summer when the frost thaws. The train itself is sleek and modern with a dedicated oxygen vent and a TV screen for every berth in the soft-sleeper class. We have Chi Hong Zhi, a gymnast from Dalian, and her marine engineer husband for company. Since neither of them speak English, a Taiwanese couple in the adjacent bay readily act as interpreters and our journey is made all the more enjoyable by our dialogues of discovery and familiarisation.

From Xining, the train turns south and passes through the impressive Amdo and Kham territories, part of the ancient Silk Route, before it enters the lower altitudes of Sichuan province. Here, for some distance, we are accompanied by Asia’s third longest river, the Hwang Ho, or the Yellow River—so called because it is silt-laden—also known as the “cradle of Chinese civilisation”. It originates in Qinghai province, drops through some dramatic gorges and flows through Lanzhou town and thence eastwards to drain into the Bohai Sea. However, Hwang Ho has a destructive side too: frequent floods have also earned it the epithet “China’s Sorrow”. We pass through Shaanxi province, whose capital, Xian, once eclipsed Beijing as China’s glorious ancient imperial capital. The train hurtles through Sichuan province, serves up vistas of dense vegetation and unique shapes spanned by bridges and speckled with charming villages. This is one of the journeys you do not want to end.