Lhasa, Tibet is one of those magical destinations trapped in time. Soaring 3.6 KM (2 miles) above sea level, the altitude and isolation have made it difficult to reach and hence resistant to change. Tibetans act as they may have centuries ago. Dressed traditionally in double-layered robes with apron and headdress, they stroke their prayer beads as they chant Buddhist mantras. For respite they walk around the Potala Palace, the former home of the Dali Lama, spinning golden prayer wheels in rhythmic succession. Their devotion and gentility mesmerizes the senses.
This must have been what travel was like 100 years ago, before the world started wearing Western clothes. A plethora of small geometrical stores selling religious relics: platinum prayer wheels with red handles; hand-painted intricately carved cherry-colored wooden bureaus, a kaleidoscope of brightly colored prayer beads. Locals strongly hold onto their Buddhist beliefs, which remains central to their being.
I felt like I was on Mars when walking through the Potala Palace, now a museum and World Heritage Site. It’s like nothing I have even seen before. Built in the 17th century, the red and white building with 3 meter thick stone walls is the premier landmark in Lhasa. Thirteen stories tall with over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and 20,000 statues, it soars 117 meters (384 feet) atop Mount Ri. Large golden buddhas decorated in a rainbow of colors fill up rooms warmly painted in red, yellow, blue and green. The ornate decor rivals that of the Vatican. No photos are allowed inside, so try to capture every detail in your mind. The museum book you can purchase at the end of the tour simply can’t replicate the overwhelming feeling of awe.
There are some signs of it being the 21st century. As you land in Lhasa, Chinese military vehicles are parked at the airport, touching the open wound left when China forbid the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, from returning to Tibet for fear of an uprising. China invaded the passive country of Tibet in the 1950’s, and essentially has occupied it since. Tibetans would like to be free again, and the Dalai Lama is the person to lead them. However, he has been living in India since he fled Tibet for fear of his life back in 1959 after the Tibetan Uprising.
Properly prepare for your trip to Tibet. You need a special Tibetan visa which is only available after obtaining your Chinese one. I recommend www.genvisa.com. Once you have all your paperwork, visit your doctor to get altitude sickness pills. The elevation is nothing to mess with, even for the most seasoned athlete. I spent half a day sick in bed with altitude sickness. It was not a pleasant experience. Don’t be an idiot like me! Altitude sickness is nothing to mess with as it can be fatal if not addressed properly and in a timely fashion.