The Roof of the World

Tibet 301 If someone were to ask me how I felt about Tibet, I couldn’t give a quick response.  Formerly independent but absorbed into the People’s Republic in the 1950′s, Tibet lies in southwestern China, abutting Nepal.  Its elevation ranges from 3,500 to 5,000 meters (about 11,000 to 16,000 feet) above sea level, earning it the nickname “Roof of the World.”  The countryside consists of rugged mountains, barren land, and occasional spectacular Buddhist temples, monasteries, or shrines.

Tibet 068 I’ll start with the drawbacks of visiting Tibet.  It’s not easy to get there (for us, a two hour flight from Xian, a city in Central China, to Lhasa, the world’s highest airport).  Adjusting to the altitude is no picnic.  We drank water until it came out our ears, the adults took altitude pills, and we moved slowly — very slowly.  Despite that, we slept poorly and suffered from the headaches and sluggishness of altitude sickness.  Also, it’s a very poor region, posing many travel challenges — including primitive bathrooms (see above right for one of the better public bathrooms there, believe it or not,.  And they clean out below once a year — whether it needs it or not — so you can imagine the smell!). 

Tibet 214 We were struck by how incredibly nice and happy Tibetans are.  They live simply, and even the smallest things seem to bring joy to them.  They are a very independent people, and the tension between the region and the rest of China (and its government) is apparent.  And the damage done in the period when China invaded the country and took it over (1950′s) to the Buddhist buildings and the community made me wish I could turn back the clock and visit the region before these changes.

Tibet 051 Despite the damage done in the 1950′s, there remained many beautiful buildings, statues, and tombs.  I’ve included a few pictures of things we saw in Tsedang and Lhasa.  If you find things like this fascinating (it’s not completely my cup of tea), you’ll love Tibet.  In many cases, they have had to do extensive rebuilding, and one can only imagine what it would have been like in its prior glory.  But even today these Buddhist landmarks are impressive.

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The Tibetans take great pride in these buildings, which reflect so much of their interesting history.  But what was far more interesting was observing all that accompanied these buildings — the everyday life of the Buddhist monks, nuns, and the Buddhists who made their pilgrimages (often weeks by bus or even years walking) to such important shrines.

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One of our favorite activities was an afternoon spent observing a group of debating monks.  Obviously, we couldn’t understand a word they were saying.  But they would emphasize their points with a loud clapping of the hands, which we immediately copied and now use daily!

Tibet 242 While in Tibet, we also visited an amazing non-profit called Braille Without Borders.  The is a high incidence of blindness in Tibet due to  little natural filtering of light, exposure to smoke from cooking inside of the huts, lack of vitamin D, and frequent dust storms.  Based in Lhasa, BWB houses and teaches 40 students, preparing them to function when they leave the school.  In Tibetan culture, blindness is seen as a punishment for bad acts in a former life, so these kids are often ignored or even abused by their parents.  For a total annual budget of just $36,000 (U.S.), BWB is changing the lives of 40 young, blind Tibetans.  It was inspiring!

And while it might not qualify for America’s Funniest Home Videos, we had one hilarious moment when I was attempting to video Gibson throwing a long cloth ribbon anchored by a rock up on a Buddhist monument (something done by most visitors).  Gibson’s usual accuracy failed him, and if you watch the video (, you can see who almost got hit by the rock!!

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