Returning after 16 days on the move, seeing much of Tibet, unpacking was a sad experience. It meant that my travels in Tibet were over. Before I departed, I knew next to nothing about Tibet, its people, its language or its culture. It was a mythical place, which only seemed to exist in movies and on TV, but not a place where I would go. Now having finally visited the roof of the world (one of Tibet’s many nicknames), I can say it is no longer a complete mystery to me, yet many of its mythical qualities remain.
The first mythical quality that really struck me was that monastic life is omnipresent in Tibetan society. It seemed like not a single Tibetan person was not at least a ‘lay Buddhist’ – meaning they are not monks, yet abide by monastic law and follow monastic traditions. This feature of society as most strikingly represented by the older people spinning large prayer wheels and muttering Buddhist mantras under their breath as they circumambulated the many temples in downtown Lhasa. Similarly, both old and young would walk around fingering a chain of mala beads of exactly 108 beads, because the original Buddha had 108 disciples to start off with. This practice is followed by virtually everyone I met, and if their mala beads weren’t in their hand, it was wrapped around their wrists, or hung around their necks. I saw the most beautiful and interesting rosaries in Lhasa. They would range from the most basic brown, black or dark red beads, to bright colors, and even some made of yak bone. Many also had tassels and small charms hanging from them. The most interesting thing about religious life however was that praying is not done for the individual, but for the collective. One will go to a monastery and pray that everyone will have a good harvest, or that everyone will be healthy. This complete selflessness was amazing and whilst Tibet might be said to live a few decades behind the rest of China, this set of morals and values is something in which they appear to me to be far more advanced than even the West.
What was further really interesting was the distinctly unique identity of the Tibetan people. Despite reading about the massive influx of Han Chinese into Tibet, the city of Lhasa and especially other, more remote regions are still distinctly Tibetan. And there does not seem to be a large Han population at all. The unique identity is shown mainly through the way people dress, for example many men wear a combination of western style clothing, covered by a robe often made out of yak and a hat very similar to cowboy hats. My favorite part of the Tibetan identity was the dietary customs as well as daily habits. Nomadic farmers would for instance herd their Yaks and sheep, make Yak butter, drinking Yak butter tea, eat Yak meat, and the hallmark of the Tibetan diet tsampa. Mixing roasted barley flower with yak butter tea, which is milk tea, with yak butter, makes tsampa. This mixture is mixed and later kneaded into dough. I like to add some sugar to make it sweet instead of salty. The dough tastes almost like cookie dough. Its really filling, and the local people swear by it. They say it is great for your heart, lungs, and overall health in general.
Lastly, what was perhaps the most impressive was the extremely beautiful scenery. Tibet itself is massive, and it has mountains everywhere. Even when in Lhasa, mountains surround one, and it is hard to take a picture of some of the many beautiful temples without having the amazing backdrop of mountains. Besides just mountains, Tibet has crystal blue lakes, and many wild herds of Yak roaming the wild. We went camping for 6 days as well, and visited many remote regions that most tourists never get to go to. What was sad however is that most tourists seem so hell-bent on destroying the natural beauty of Tibet. Yet despite rude and often downright destructive tourists, the locals seem to appreciate other tourists very much. The locals are benefitting directly from the Qinghai-Tibetan railway, which allows for much more easy access to Tibet. Locals want people to come to Tibet, and to learn about Tibetan culture and life in Tibet. They appreciate foreigners visiting monasteries and asking questions about their daily lives since it indicates that there is something unique and distinct about Tibet, and that people are interested in this, and that it is something worth saving and protecting.
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<p><span style="color: rgb(29, 29, 29); font-family: Arial, Verdana, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: normal; background-color: rgb(237, 237, 237);">Jason Klanderman, originally from Chicago, grew up in Amsterdam. He has travelled extensively through Europe and Asia. He is an International Politics, History and Global and International Studies triple major, with a minor in Chinese at Penn State University. When not in State College, where he is currently living, you can find him traveling between Amsterdam, Singapore, and various other places, visiting family and friends. His hobbies include reading, writing, cooking and going to the gym. Read about his experiences as he tackles the middle kingdom, China, during his spring semester 2013.</span></p>