Tibet Travel Diary and Photos

December 14, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Eyewitness Account to Tibet

By Cindy A. Stephens


The first thing that struck me after landing in Tibet was the sky - how sunny and blue it was!  Having spent the prior week in Beijing, Xian and Chengdu where the sun was barely visible through a thick haze (a.k.a. smog), Tibetan blue skies were a welcome change.  The second thing that I noticed was the amazing scenery.  The third thing, was nausea.


I had been at high altitude without incident while travelling in the Andes so I was unprepared for what hit me in Tibet, which was really unpleasant.  Enough said.  Despite the altitude sickness that I experienced I would happily return to Tibet!  The three nights I spent in Llasa, Tibet were the highlight of my two week journey.


Potala Palace, Llasa

Copyright 2017, Cindy A Stephens


Tibetan Growth

If you’ve read my other travel photography posts, or follow me on Instagram, you know that I love to experience places where the cultures are different from New England culture.  As a traveler I try to keep an open mind and immerse myself in unfamiliar cultures and experience them from multiple vantage points.  It isn’t always easy.  In Tibet, I couldn’t help feel that I had come too late to experience traditional Tibetan culture and was left asking myself: is Tibetan growth creating a better quality of life for the Tibetan people or erasing centuries of tradition?  Is it possible to do both at the same time?


(You might also be interested in this travel blog: Zambia, Botswana and South Africa: Photos from Africa)


Copyright 2017, Cindy A Stephens


Tibet’s growth and modernization were visible in bold and subtle ways.  It was evident in the construction cranes building modern apartment buildings that juxtaposed with snow-covered Himalayas.  Also too in the paved airport expressway that wound through tunnels blasted into the Tibetan plateau.  It was clearly visible in billboard advertisements that dotted the expressway beside lakes and golden-leafed Apsens.  In a more subtle way, it was present with the tree plantings designed to oxygenate the atmosphere.


I didn’t have to look beyond my hotel, though, to see signs of development.  The luxury Shangri-La hotel in Llasa is a scant few years old.  The number of tourists visiting the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is difficult to pin down but it seems clear that tourism is on the rise. (Read this Washington Post article for more on calculating visitors.)  A stroll through the narrow streets surrounding the historic Jokhang Temple in downtown Llasa now feature a myriad of wares and trinkets for sale to passersby.  This commerce center has sprouted within the past couple of years.


Copyright 2017, Cindy A Stephens


Much of the influx into Tibet is from the Chinese people who see opportunities for personal growth in Llasa.  Our local guide told us she visited Tibet on vacation and “it was like a dream”.  Many are attracted to clean air, blue skies, modern housing and job prospects.


Non-Chinese tourism is on the rise too, though, and I can’t help wonder what its impact is having on traditional Tibetan ways.  In quantum mechanics our very act of observation can influence what is taking place. Is that happening in Tibet?  What am I influencing with my presence?  Money from tourists provides jobs and a higher standard of living while at the same time bringing visible changes to the landscape and culture.


Tibetan Traditions

Tibet is full of history and tradition.  I struggled out of bed to see for myself a few of the spiritual and historic sites. 


I feel very privileged to have visited the Dalai Lama’s summer palace.  Norbulingka has been lovingly preserved as it was when the 14th Dalai Lama fled in exile to India in 1959.  The expansive gardens and palace are stunning. Rooms are a rich tapestry (literally and figuratively) that depict the history of the world and also highlight the smallest of details. For instance, a clock is stopped at the precise time the 14th Dalai Lama fled in exile.


Copyright 2017, Cindy A Stephens


I am also thankful I visited the Johkang Temple in the center of old Llasa city.  After passing through metal detectors at the perimeter of Barkhor square I was greeted by a feast for the senses that included colorful prayer flags, the distant Himalayas and pilgrims prostrating themselves outside the Temple.


Copyright 2017, Cindy A Stephens

Johkang Temple is the holiest destination for Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims.  Inside the temple there are two informal paths, one for pilgrims and the other for tourists.  Pilgrims, often wearing or holding white prayer scarfs, bring yak butter from home to pour and leave behind as an offering and in respect.  Among the many statues that are inside the temple is one (Jowe Rinpoche) that is purported to have been created during the lifetime of Buddha Shakyamuni during the 6th to 5th century BCE. It is believed to have been blessed by Buddha himself.


Lotus flowers in a cauldron at the Jokhang Temple during my visit to Llasa, Tibet.

Copyright 2017, Cindy A Stephens


It’s hard to describe what it felt like to be inside this Temple and to be standing in Barkhor Square.  The best way I know how to describe it is to say that I was completely at peace and for those moments didn’t have another care in the world.  I was at once overcome with the smells (e.g., lots of yak butter) and sights (e.g., Buddhist statues) and sounds (e.g., soft Buddhist prayers). It’s a humbling experience to be allowed into the holiest of Buddhist temples.   


Mingling of Old and New in Tibetan Culture

In my view Tibet is at a crossroads.  Traditional Tibetan culture continues to co-mingle with Chinese ways and also other Western cultures.  I was told by one guide during my visit that of the three million people in the Tibet Autonomous Region one million are Chinese.  Whether these numbers are precise is not really the point.  More to the point is that Tibetan culture is changing, and changing fast.  China is driving its growth.  But so too, are the Western tourists that come in increasing numbers to experience for themselves what life is like at the roof of the world.  Tibet is not alone in this situation.  Case in point: during my visit to Antarctica I was acutely aware of the potential influence of humans in this fragile ecosystem.


Copyright 2017, Cindy A Stephens


Change is inevitable.  It will bring with it better standards of living as well as a melding of culture, values and ideals.  As a traveler my aim is to explore with my eyes wide open and question – exploring the good and the bad along with the ugly.  I’ve often said that I wish it were mandatory for every American to visit at least one place that is culturally different from our own so we can each broaden our perspective.  Maybe though, that’s unnecessary.  After all, America is already a melting pot of dozens of cultures from across the globe.  And in the end, isn’t that part of what makes America great?


You might also be interested in reading The Pink Monks of Myanmar: Eyewitness to Life as a Buddhist Nun or Pictures from Kathmahdu, Nepal


Stay tuned for another post soon on my travels to mainland China!


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I am a marketing professional and a fine art photographer.  With more than 20 years of experience as a marketer and image maker during the digital technology revolution, I now educate creative professionals how to create their artistic presence in the changing art world.  


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