Mr. Chen stares fixedly at the bulbous computer monitor through thick horn-rimmed glasses. The overflowing ashtray and a few files crowd his small desk to capacity. A blanket covers the worn chesterfield.

Anyone visiting TAR – Tibet Autonomous Region, (which is anything but Autonomous), must deal with the ever-changing Chinese bureaucratic hurdles of the moment. Worse still, individual permits are only available in China.

Mr. Chen is a fixer. I find him up a dank corridor in building #3 at the run-down, state-owned, Camilla Hotel in charming Kunming. A hand written cardboard sign taped to the door reads simply, “MR CHENS OFFICE.”

Within minutes I have thrown caution to the wind (must be jet-lag!) and exchanged $900 in US dollar bills for an illegible receipt. “Your permit and return airline tickets will be ready in the morning,” he assures me in clipped English, straight from a James Bond movie!

“The price includes 7 nights accommodation, breakfast and a guide in Lhasa for 3 days. I will personally take you to the airport.”

I admit to being a whimsical traveller who spins the globe then buys the ticket. Planning usually takes place at 35000 feet. Tibet sounds dodgy. Recent riots marked the 50th anniversary of The Dalai Lama’s flight to India resulting in a 30-day closure to foreigners. The new public holiday,” Serfs Emancipation Day,” was not a big hit in the PR department!

Mr. Chen brushes my fears aside. “Tibet is open and safe to visit.” Case closed.

A man carries a sign with my name in bold capitals! Gongkar Airport is 100 kms outside Lhasa and at over 3500 metres, (around 11,500 feet), I’m already gasping for air.

The road snakes through a valley between high treeless mountains before reaching the outskirts of town.

I experience a moment of horror. Four storey apartment buildings line wide boulevards. Perfectly tended roadside flowerboxes brim with yellow mums. Freshly painted fencing separates pedestrians and vehicles. Clusters of twitchy, machine gun toting soldiers stand guard at street corners. Has the government of The Peoples Republic of China turned this fabled city, of maybe 200,000, into just another provincial capital?

The Potala comes as a shock, then a feeling of relief. Perched on a hilltop this gleaming 13-storey castle, with over 1000 rooms, is breathtaking in size, splendour, and historical significance. A sentinel that refuses to be smothered by new rulers. To the Chinese government it represents both an irritant and a cash cow from tourism.

Construction began in the 7th century and continued into the 1600’s. Using only manpower and donkeys, walls were built of rammed earth, wood and stone. Molten copper strengthened the structure against earthquakes. Dalai Lamas were carried home on palanquins. Visiting High Lamas were “piggy-backed” to the entrance.

Muttering pilgrims, with crinkled brown faces and twinkling eyes, fill the sidewalk whirling prayer wheels and fumbling beads. A man leads his three favourite sheep around the sacred circuit. Prostrators propel themselves along, one body length at a time. Some have spent months – even years, getting here.

I am staying at The Lhasa International Hostel, a couple of blocks from the action. “Rest up” says my pretty guide. “Get acclimatized.” It never happens. I awake every 1/2 hour gasping for breath. Some hotels have oxygen piped into the rooms. Others provide “oxygen pillows” with a protruding tube to suckle.

I love Chinese food but for breakfast I’m a bacon and egg kind of guy. Watery rice soup accompanied by steamed bread and a dry pork dumpling doesn’t help my exhaustion – or my mood. Thankfully there’s coffee – for an extra 10 Yuan!

“What? Climb to the roof of the Potala on my first day in Lhasa. Not a chance,” I wheeze pathetically. Too late! “The reservation has been made. We will take it slowly,” my guide responds firmly.

The Potala is now a magnificent state run museum with two palaces in one building. The White Palace, (white exterior paint), is the business end once housing the nation’s bureaucracy. The Red Palace contains tombs of Dalai Lamas, chapels, sacred scrolls – The religious part.

I give up an unopened bottle of water at the entrance, (no liquids, more fallout from 9/11?), produce my passport four times at various stages of ascent, and shell out some US$35 in dribs and drabs for entry fees along the way.

Strangely there are no monks around. All signs of the present (the 14th) Dalai Lama have been studiously removed. The few people muttering mantras appear to be cleaning staff or caretakers dressed in navy blue overalls. It is still worth every penny as I teeter breathlessly from one extraordinary piece of history to another, vowing to return once I become acclimatized. (Right about now, I’d sure kill for a piggyback!).

The old Tibetan part of town is spread around Barkor Square. Hawkers here sell prayer flags, strings of beads, prayer wheels, sacred white and yellow scarves. Incense burners fill the air with the sweet smoke of Juniper sold from overflowing sacks by rows of vendors.

Three exhausted pilgrims with a pushcart proudly receive yellow scarves, signifying mother earth, from a well-wisher impressed by their journey.

A monk raises the bar by prostrating sideways!

At the head of the square, The Jokhang is Tibet’s most sacred temple. Prostrating pilgrims pack the entrance which has been a flashpoint for riots and demonstrations. Military patrols move nervously among the crowds. Despite a thorny past as an army barracks during the Cultural Revolution then a hotel for Chinese officials, it has survived since the 7th century. Hopefully a UNESCO designation will slow the homogenisation of the area.

Side streets are jammed with vendors selling yak butter; Yak skulls; Butter churns; Traditional clothing; Furniture; Bread. Even red riding boots with fancy gold trim and turned-up “Pinocchio” toes.

I hand my Rockports to the shoe repairer. A sole is coming unglued. Do I want it sewn on? No!! Glued? Yes. She mixes glue and rubber particles scraped from an old tire. After filling in a few weak spots, she hands them back with a satisfied expression. They are still perfect today.

I am limited to the Lhasa Prefecture by my travel permit. Beyond just getting lost in the winding alleys of The Tibetan Quarter, there is much to see. The Norbulinka, the Summer Palace of Dalai Lamas, is set in park like grounds just minutes from The Potala, the Winter Palace.

There are several monasteries on the edge of town. I visit Sera and Deprung. Many activist monks from these two were dispersed across the country or jailed after the recent riots. However, it is fascinating to watch teachers and their novitiates hotly “debate” religious points every afternoon in leafy squares within these walls.

I rent a land-cruiser with driver for the iniquitous sum of US$180 and spend a day in the vast grasslands. An unseasonable snowstorm has sugarcoated the mountaintops. A magnificent backdrop for herds of yaks and streamers of prayer flags which hang from every bridge and outcropping.

Full marks to Mr Chen for smoothing the way. Without his assurances I may well have skipped this fascinating and thought provoking destination. An extraordinary introduction to an exotic but troubled country on the roof of the world.

Author’s note: Tibetans represent 1/3 (and quickly diminishing) of the population in their own capital. Han Chinese are flooding in, attracted by government incentives. Rapid redevelopment, best viewed from the roof of The Potala, is limiting Tibetan culture to an ever-shrinking corner of the city. THE TIME TO VISIT IS NOW!



All visitors to China must first obtain a visa. Download an application form. It is self-explanatory. You will note that Permits to visit Tibet cannot be obtained this way. Permits to visit Lhasa MUST include a quasi 3 day tour – ie. A hotel and mandatory guide.

GUIDE BOOK: Far and away the best in depth guidebook is “Tibet – The Bradt Travel Guide” written by Vancouver’s Michael Buckley. This book explains how and where to obtain permits – Including Mr. Chen!! Michael’s knowledge of The Potala, The Jokhang and the country generally shows a real passion for detail.

FOOD: Definitely not a highlight. Yak butter tea? Yak steaks broiled to a crisp? Yak soup? Stay with banana pancakes and Chinese food!

HEALTH: The altitude in Lhasa was a problem for me and if you plan to visit popular Everest Base Camp the altitude is a stunning 17000 feet (6240 metres). Diamox is a suggested medication. Ask your doctor before you go. Take lots of sunscreen, a hat and a variety of clothing to combat exhausting dry heat and freezing cold. The weather can turn on a dime.

WHEN TO GO: There are no weather guarantees but mid March - mid September is your best bet. Avoid the freezing winter months.

GETTING THERE: I flew to Hong Kong then on to Kunming – A good base for visiting Yunnan Province but there are several options outlined in the above guidebook.

GETTING AROUND: Local taxis, rickshaws and buses are plentlful and cheap. Landcruises for longer journeys are expensive.



Copyright © 2010 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.