Tibet, a backward, rural country spanning the world's largest and highest plateau (4,000 metres) will likely produce no Olympic athletes in Beijing, but the "Roof of the World" has already shaped a dramatic showdown between China and the so-called "free world."
When visitors walk on Lhasa's ("Land of the Gods") main street, invariably they employ two senses - the immense Potala palace dominates the sense of sight and the sense of smell, "roasted and smoky," pervades the air as washing is not a major preoccupation nor is there water readily available. Over 1,300 years old, Lhasa sits in a valley beside the Lhasa River.
High in the Himalayas, Tibet maintained insular independence from the outside world until 1950. In the north, nomads tend sheep and yaks which provide butter, milk, fur and meat. Tibetans grow barley, tomatoes, radishes and apricots in the central and eastern valley regions. Their way of life, food and culture has always been distinct from that of the Chinese who "liberated" Tibet, forcing their leader, the Dalai Lama (a reincarnation of the Buddha of Mercy) into exile. About 20 per cent of Tibet's males are monks with a hierarchy of monks (lamas) and aristocrats. Most land was owned by monasteries and the aristocracy.
The Chinese strategy was to absorb Tibetan culture into their own by osmosis through large scale immigration much like the Israelis have been doing in Palestine through their settlements. Tibetans hung tough until a major clash occurred in the capital, Lhasa, in 1959 forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India.
In 1966 with the Cultural Revolution, young Chinese Red Guards systematically destroyed Tibet's rich traditions with most of the 3,000 temples reduced to rubble. Positions of responsibility were taken by the Chinese.
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and sometimes, temporal leader of Tibetan Buddhists worldwide. He is the current incarnation of a long line of Buddhist Masters, so enlightened as to be exempt from the wheel of death and rebirth. A Lama or teacher is a title awarded to many different ranks of Tibetan Buddhist clergy. "Dalai" means "Ocean" in Mongolian. Therefore, Dali Lama refers to a teacher who is spiritually as deep as the ocean.
China views Tibet as a key intermediate area for its dealings with India. The Dali Lama asks only that Tibet remain autonomous within China, not independent. Does this remind you of Lucien Bouchard and his friends in Quebec?
With the Olympics awarded to China thanks primarily to U.S. commercial interests and with China preparing to assert itself on the world stage via the Olympics (remember Hitler with the Nazis) the small, unsophisticated country of Tibet has strangely become a major embarrassment, polarizing people across the globe, with protestors snuffing the Olympic flame, creating a glaring focus on human rights issues that have long been ignored and provoking animated discussions on the merits of yet another ugly Olympic boycott.
Uncharacteristically, Belgian president of the IOC, Jaques Rogge, calls it a crisis: "For us, freedom of expression is something that is absolute. It's a human right... we are a movement of 205 nationalities, and many of these nationalities are in conflict with each other." Meanwhile, actor, Richard Gere, and his many friends openly campaign against the Chinese. Of course, we see little of the beatings, torture and murder in Tibet, because the media has no access there.
If you want to travel to Tibet, I suggest a time warp machine that will transport you back to the 1950's whereupon, once you land, you will think that you are in some medieval yet peaceful country. Award time to adjust to the dramatic altitude change which may produce altitude sickness, and if you do manage to visit, despite the political upheaval, tourists should exercise outmost respect at the cultural and religious stops. For example, no hat inside the Jokhang, Potala or other sacred sites and avoid short pants or tank tops. It's expected to leave a small cash offering. Stupas and other sacred objects should be navigated in a clock-wise direction. Photography is forbidden inside the Potala Palace. You may shoot photos in the Jokhang temple and some monasteries allow photography with a small donation. Best to ask before you snap.
Prime places to visit and things to do are the following:
Jokhang Temple - constructed in the 7th century to house statues of Buddha that princesses Bhrikuti from Nepal and Wen Cheng from Tang Dynasty China brought as gifts for their future husband, King Songtsan Gampo.
Potala Palace - Containing over 1 000 rooms, the palace was the living quarters of the Dalai Lamas and their golden tombs when they died. The Potala was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List (1994), the Jokhang Temple Monastery (2000) and the Norbulingka Summer Palace in 2001.
Norbulingka Summer Palace - 1 km south of the Potala Palace - contains a small zoo, botanical gardens, and a mansion.
Barkhor Street Market - forms a circular street around the Jokhang Temple.
Drepung Monastery - founded in 1416 and once boasted over 10,000 monks, governing 700 monasteries.
Sera Monastery - founded in 1419, famous for tantric teachings.
Tibet Museum - artifacts reflect the Tibet history.
Don't forget to Perform koras with other pilgrims; drink tea in the many teahouses near the Jokhang; shop Barkhor square; browse the stalls around the Barkhor. Tibet is the home of traditional carpet making, but take care as many carpets are actually produced in Nepal.
Adam Southwood writes for Canadian, U.S. and European magazines and newspapers. He is a graduate of both McMaster University in Hamilton and UWO in London with an interest in culture and history. He has produced several educational programs for TV.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/