We were to arrive by train. Two days of a
grueling bump and grind. With chips and fruits in the bag
and pajamas on the bunk bed, we played cards by day and
slept (well, sort of) by night.
As we got closer and closer to the final
destination, as the scattered Eastern Chinese cities turned
into Western desert and mountains, a curious phenomenon
Something exploded in our luggage bag.
Frightened, we quickly opened it up to
find the mysterious source and finally realized what
Some of the chip bags have popped by
Welcome to my last travel adventure of
the summer. The last and the most anticipated: mysterious
and culture-rich Tibet.
Besides being the highest plateau on
Earth, which by the way, caused the pressurized explosion of
my Lays due to change in elevation, Tibet has its own unique
culture of Buddhism, nomadic roots, and highland yaks.
Yes yaks. These darlings are like a
furrier version of the cow. Through the train window, you
can see herds of them, black and white, grazing lazily on
plateau shrubs or just aimlessly chewing on their cud.
We were on the Qinghai-Tibet railway,
which traveled directly from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibetís
capital. Due to the change in elevation, oxygen levels
dropped gradually as we climb higher on the plateau. We were
warned upon arriving, to walk slowly and talk less, because
a depletion in oxygen may mean a trip to the emergency room.
So I stepped out carefully, taking full
deep breathes. But immediately, my mind was off the oxygen
dilemma as my eyes slammed shut to the light.
Iíve never been in a brighter place in my
life! The sun was not just shining, it was millions of
yellow-white laser points pieced together. I quickly put on
my sunglasses, only then, could I carefully open my eyes to
observe the surroundings.
Tibetís average altitude of about 4000
meters means itís the closest plateau to the sun and sky.
The next higher place would be the tip of Mt. Everest.
Literally, you want to reach out your hands just to see if
you can touch the clouds, even though you know thatís
We arrived at our hotel room only to
realize the roomís on the 4th floor and thereís no elevator.
I, being stupid and a little cocky, thought climbing the
stairs would be a cinch carrying a luggage in each hand. But
by the end of the first flight, I was huffing and puffing
like a fish out of water. You could just feel, in your
lungs, the lack of oxygen in the place. And itís not a
The first site we visited was of course
Potala Palace, the hallmark symbol of Lhasa. Considered as
one of the ďnew seven wonders of the world,Ē Potala was
first built for King Songtsen Gampo and later completed and
renovated for the Dalai Lama. It served as a religious
living quarter for highly respected monks and now is a
UNESCO world heritage site.
The palace sits on top of a hill. The
architecture is unlike anything Iíve seen before. It
somewhat resembles one of those ancient Mesopotamian
ziggurats, you know, step pyramid-like, but it is white in
color and decoratively red and black around the windows and
Needless to say, climbing it was a feat,
but seeing traditional monks and worshippers along the way
made me forget the intense need to hyperventilate.
The place even felt sacred. Above, the
sky so intensely blue and clouds so purely white that it
looked like something from a kidís coloring book. You felt
this silent connection with Nature, Creation, or whoever
made this beautiful Earth. The windows of the palace were
lined with these white cloths that moved in waves as the
breeze hit, adding fluidity to the palace, making it come
alive. It didnít feel like a man-made structure; with the
moving cloths and sturdy walls, Potala seemed like part of
There was a contrast in music. Outside
the palace doors, a group of workers sung out in vibrant
voices to a traditional Tibetan song, while inside, the
dim-lit candled rooms offered the drift of heady incense and
monotonous Buddhist chants.
As we stepped in, immediately everything
was quiet and solemn. There were many glittering Buddhist
statues, dimly lighted by the candles. They were golden,
bejeweled, and varied in form and size. Some of the rooms
were the living quarters of the lamas. Others held walls
stacked with Buddhist scripture. It was like walking through
a maze. Climbing stairs to reach a room, so many sharp
turns, everywhere lighted only by the flicker of candles,
some corridors no light at all. If I was by myself, for sure
I would get lost. And a little scared.
Outside Potala, directly under the hill
of the palace is the grand courtyard. This was the best
place to take pictures, and many Tibetans carried
traditional costumes for you to try on. Little decorated
carriage cycles creaked around the square, and several monks
can be spotted resting on the ground, fingers silently
moving over strings of Buddha beads.
The strangest thing I saw had to be the
men who bowed and kowtowed flat on the ground with each step
they took leading to the palace. Their faces were dirty,
glistening with sweat, their cloths ragged, their shoes
torn. But in their hands were two spongy grips so that when
they kneeled and positioned themselves flat on the ground,
their hands would be protected from the hard concrete.
Each step, they repeated this act of
worship, oblivious to the surroundings, eyes on the Potala.
It was an extreme form of religious devotion; the palace and
Lhasa to Tibetans is like what Mecca is to Muslims. Itís the
most sacred destination, and many journey from far away to
make the pilgrimage. Some, who are extremely poor, even sell
all their belongings to reach the place by foot. They bow
with each step to show their devotion, bow with each step
all the way from their hometown! Some take several years
reach the destination; indeed, their hard journey and
dedication to faith is admirable.
However, some may never get the chance to
make the pilgrimage. Whoever has is considered lucky. And
then I realized how lucky I was to even be in Tibet, let
alone visit the sacred palace. It was something
unforgettable, the palace, the surroundings, and most of
all, the devoted people of the highland plateau.