My semester at sea: Tibet

Martha Bawn/Courtesy

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One of my fellow travelers was talking to a Tibetan acquaintance, and he told her, “You will see the beautiful parts of Tibet but no more.” When traveling to a place like this, what you don’t see is just as important as what you do see. There is so much that is unsaid but becomes clear if you are able to read between the lines and pick up on a few clues. Many of these are merely symbolic, but can reveal so much about the reality of the situation. For example, I saw probably hundreds of Chinese flags on nearly every building, but not a single Tibetan flag, as they are banned in all of mainland China. Another much more subtle thing that I picked up on was that every business, even the local ones, had huge Chinese letters on all of their signs, with very small Tibetan writing underneath or above it. Being on the lookout for details like this made my experience in Tibet much more intense than in any other place I have been. It’s much harder to simply say “I had a wonderful time,” even though the places I saw and the people I met were so beautiful.

The Yamdrok Yutso sacred lake

The Yamdrok Yumtso sacred lake

As far as sightseeing goes, I was able to pack a lot into very little time, despite my arrival being delayed almost 24 hours due to various flight delays and cancellations. The only thing we missed was the Buddhist monks’ debate that takes place daily at the Sera Monastery, but unfortunately, it was canceled due to an “unexpected agreement.” Otherwise, I saw three of the Dalai Lama’s former residences, including the stunning Potala Palace, as well as two prominent monasteries, a typical Lhasa family home, the market around the ancient part of the city and one of the three great sacred lakes of Tibet: Yamdrok Yumtso. Every one of these locations in and around the city of Lhasa was absolutely stunning and unlike anything I had ever seen before. The temples and monasteries are packed full of statues and paintings interspersed with thrones for the Dalai Lama, meditation spaces, meeting areas with pillows all over the floor, instead of chairs, and a lot of burning incense. There is a huge amount to look at in every single room, yet it doesn’t feel cluttered or claustrophobic, as I might have expected. There was something very calming about walking through those rooms.

The Potala Palace

The Potala Palace

The rest of my wonderful experiences in Tibet were with the Tibetan people. At this time of year, there are very few tourists in Lhasa. In the three days I was there, I saw only two other Westerners. There were some Chinese tourists, but most of the people we saw were rural Tibetans who had come to make a pilgrimage to Lhasa and pay their respects to the Holy City. I found the Tibetan people extremely beautiful in their colorful traditional clothes. They were always smiling and had a quiet dignity about them that was impossible to miss. We were equally interesting to them, as most of them had never seen anyone who wasn’t Tibetan or Chinese. They certainly were not subtle about staring and pointing at us, and frequently, a child would shout “Hello!” or some other word of English they had picked up. We were asked to take pictures with random people many times, and we actually had a crowd following us as we wandered through the Barkhor market. But there was never a time when I did not feel completely welcomed by the Tibetans in their city.

Tibetan women and children

Tibetan women and children

I didn’t have much interaction with the Chinese presence in Tibet. They are more involved in the parts of Tibet that my friend was told she would not see. The tourist’s experience in Lhasa is completely monitored and censored by the Chinese authorities, to make it seem like nothing is wrong, as much as possible. Although the Chinese flags and huge posters of Chairman Mao are difficult to miss, the real situation in Tibet is not clear to a casual visitor. The only moment that seemed very far out of the ordinary was outside the Jokhang Temple, in a large square in the center of town. A few us were waiting for the rest of our group to catch up, and a Tibetan family came up to us and asked to take photos. We tried to interact across our language barrier, and within a few moments a small crowd had gathered around us. Within minutes, several policemen ran up and shouted “GO GO GO GO” to us and spoke Mandarin to the Tibetans. It was later explained to us that this particular spot had been the site of many protests and self-immolations by monks throughout the past several decades, so gathering in a group there is not allowed. Of course, this was only a small taste of the oppression that happens every day throughout the country.


A Tibetan woman

My overall feelings about Tibet are significantly more complicated than they were for Japan and other countries I have visited. On the one hand, I loved the places and people I saw. There was something very pure about the kind of beauty there. It’s unlike any place I’ve seen before, and I don’t think I’ll see another place that feels like that. On the other hand, being there is very sad and disturbing as well. With everything you see, there’s always the knowledge that you’re only seeing it because the Chinese government is allowing you to see it. The Chinese flags plastered on nearly every building and the way the monasteries feel like museums when their purposes are still very much present are just some of the constant reminders that this is very far from a free country. There were even times when I was sure my guide wanted to tell us what was really going on, but he had to very carefully choose his words for fear of being “punished” (that was the word he always used) by the people on the other end of the camera at the front of our bus. The worst part was seeing the Tibetan people trying to appreciate their culture and history with the knowledge that so much of it is now destroyed. What I saw was only a fraction of what should have been there in Lhasa. Although I was mostly happy when I was there, looking back on my experiences really makes me sad. That said, I had a wonderful time, and I would love to go back sometime, hopefully after some progress toward freedom has been made.