Lying alone in an unheated hut on the shores of Namtso Lake in central Tibet, I spent a sleepless night contemplating death. Maybe it was the altitude or the exhaustion, but mortality suddenly didn’t seem so bad. My personal and karmic accounts felt settled. I had made countless offerings to the Buddha in the prior days and sent postcards off to most everyone I loved. I had left letters for my family back home. I recalled a particularly touching birthday celebration the month before my departure, and thought it might be fitting if it were my last.
In late spring, even at 16,000 feet, Tibet’s days were sunny and pleasant, but the world turned painfully cold at dusk. I had followed the kora [circumambulation] trail around Tashi Dor, the tiny monastery set into the towering rocks along the lake’s stony shore. My reward was a spectacular sunset over the calm, sacred waters, but I returned to my room shivering uncontrollably, having been thoroughly unprepared for the evening’s precipitous chill. A single outlet hung above the frigid bed, and I made the foolish choice to charge my phone rather than plug in the electric blanket my guide had offered. I tried to write one last postcard to a friend, but couldn’t hold the pen still enough to complete even her name.
Travel to Tibet had been both easier and harder than I expected. A visa for China took just three days and two quick trips to the consulate. The essential travel permit for the Tibetan Autonomous Region required hiring a local tour company, but that could be done with a brief exchange of emails and, eventually, a modest wire transfer. Booking a flight to the Roof of the World was considerably easier than buying tickets to a Taylor Swift concert.
Arriving in Lhasa that week felt oddly familiar, its urban sprawl reminiscent of Bangkok, Jakarta, and other bustling Asian capitals. Traffic snarls and designer shops brushed up against ancient temples and prostrating pilgrims. My quirky little hotel, once famous as a cheap backpacker hostel, now had occasionally reliable Wi-Fi. I could eat excellent curries prepared by local Nepali immigrants and enjoy top-notch espresso from a Tibetan who had spent 15 years in Europe and spoke fluent German. There was even passable pizza. Driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles a few weeks later, I lost cell phone reception more often than I had along the Friendship Highway between Lhasa and Shigatse.
Yet outside the major cities, my Tibetan journey changed entirely. Electricity remained nearly ubiquitous, but plumbing became a rarity. The cook at a roadside teahouse chatted on her smart-phone while laboring over a yak-dung stove. Food in the villages was often simple and plain, the vegetable offerings reduced to onions, potatoes, and perhaps a few lonely leaves of cabbage. The dirt roads snaking through the mountains seemed better suited to yaks than cars, and saw little traffic of either. Local children would sometimes follow me through the streets of smaller towns and dare each other to touch my foreign skin.
We had to drive so slowly on the long and difficult route to Reting Monastery that my phone mistook it for walking and congratulated me on the daylong workout. The arduous journey was worth it, though: there was an eerie beauty to Reting’s tranquil ruins, evidence of both its destruction and rebirth. Tibet’s great monasteries have all been badly damaged in the decades since the Chinese invasion, but most are now being restored. Buddhism is practiced openly again. That afternoon I watched the myriad of faithful circling Reting’s main stupa, just as I had at Lhasa’s Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, and innumerable other shrines dotting the country.
But soldiers still seemed more plentiful than monks. Monasteries that once housed thousands of monks are down to a few hundred at most; the Tibetan Government-in-Exile estimates that the total monastic population has been reduced by at least 70 percent. Chinese military bases surround every city, and the most political monasteries now have their own permanent contingent camped just outside their gates. X-ray machines and metal detectors adorn the entrances to famous sites, where stern guards collect all lighters and matches. Uniformed fire marshals patrol the grounds, providing protection less against arson than against self-immolations, of which there have been 142 since 2009.
Is it wrong to travel to Tibet? Visiting undoubtedly involves financial support to the Chinese administration. You pay for visas and permits. You will inevitably find yourself patronizing businesses owned by Chinese immigrants and perhaps the Chinese state. Chinese officials decide where you can and can’t go, and you may at times have your actions dictated by local military or police officers. At one checkpoint along a rutted rural road, I was told we couldn’t pass unless we gave a ride to a local family who needed to get to the next town—which we did, without ever knowing why the police were so concerned with them.
On the other hand, you can also organize your trip to support Tibetans as much as possible. You can use a Tibetan-run tour company and hire a native Tibetan guide. (Fully independent travel is not allowed.) You can sleep at a Tibetan-owned guesthouse or hotel. You can eat at local teahouses and authentic Tibetan restaurants. You can make donations at any of the many monasteries. Even the Dalai Lama has encouraged foreigners to travel there and see the situation for themselves. I came away from my own brief trip in full agreement. Tibetans deserve our witness to their stunning accomplishments—and their recent suffering.
Tibet is a place of opposites, and of contradictions: the ancient and the modern, the beautiful and the brutal, the ephemeral and the everlasting. Even destruction, after all, is impermanent. Just as death follows birth, so does birth follow death. Yet what survives when a temple is destroyed? Or an entire country? Or a single human life? Nothing. And everything.
I survived my long night beside Namtso Lake, contemplating my own fleeting existence, to emerge at dawn to a fresh sheet of white blanketing our grubby tourist encampment. I donned nearly all my clothes—two shirts, two sweatshirts, a down vest, and a wool hat—and hiked alone up to the shrine atop a nearby hill. The weak rays of the rising sun slowly warmed my bristly face. Although I had found peace in my nighttime meditations, I was glad to see another day in the Land of Snows.
A text arrived from my teenage daughter back home, and I realized as I held my phone that I had stopped shivering at last. I hurried back to my hut to finish that postcard, mailing it from the first village we passed when we left the lake. I don’t remember what I wrote. Two months later, it had still not arrived.
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