Tibetan Journeys: A Dutch Travel Junkie Addicted to Tibet
We are pleased to share with you a guest post by Ellen Ebens, a Dutch world traveler with a unique perspective on Tibet, having made six Tibetan journeys between 1997 and 2013. Ellen generously walks us through the years, with a story that she brings vividly to life with her wonderful photos from high passes at Mount Kailash to monasteries and stunning Autumnal river valleys. Thank you, Ellen!
Tashi Delek. My name is Ellen and I’m from Holland. At the end of the 1980’s I started traveling, at first to European destinations. In 1990 I made my first trip outside Europe, to India and Nepal. For the first time I saw the Himalayas and made a short trek there. I became very much addicted to traveling. Since then each year I have made one or two far away journeys. I travel with group tours organized by Dutch travel agents, which is an easy way to travel. You can see a lot of things in a short period of about three to four weeks. Sometimes I book the tour together with a friend and sometimes I go alone. In 1997 I traveled for the first time to Tibet. Since then I have been back five times. I can truly say I’m addicted. Addicted to Tibet, the Tibetans, the Tibetan Buddhist culture and the Tibetan landscape.
First Trip to Tibet: 1997
So in 1997 I travelled for the first time to China and Tibet. Starting from Beijing we went to Xiahe, where I had my first encounter with Tibetan culture and the big and very beautiful Labrang Monastery. We went over the vast grasslands to the city of Chengdu. I saw nomads traveling with their yaks. From Chengdu we went on to Lhasa by plane since there was no railway to Lhasa at that time. In 1997 you could visit the Potala Palace and the big monasteries of Drepung and Sera by yourselves. All my travel friend and I had to do was take a bus to the monasteries, just outside Lhasa.
We also saw other important monasteries outside Lhasa: Samye and Tsurpu. At that time the 17th Karmapa still resided in Tsurpu monastery. The Karmapa was then a young boy of 12 years old. Every day at 13.00 hours he would have an audience. We went to the audience with our tourist group of about 14 people, together with many, many Tibetan pilgrims. Inside the assembly hall and in front of the throne of the Karmapa the Tibetan pilgrims threw themselves on the ground. They showed so much respect for him. I was the first of our little tourist group to show my respect for him. A bit awkwardly, I walked forward, unsure how I should behave. I bowed to him and offered him a katagh (white scarf). And then I got a red cord from a monk as a blessing. I still keep that cord at my home.
After leaving Lhasa we drove over what is now the Friendship Highway to the border with Nepal. On the way we visited the towns of Gyantse and Shigatse. We were lucky in Shigatse because there was a huge festival going on and we saw the monks performing ritual dances at Tashilhumpho Monastery. We crossed high mountain passes, and saw the beautiful blue Yamdrok Tso Lake. When we were in Lao Tingri we had a good look at Mount Everest in the distance.
I fully enjoyed Tibet at that time. The impressions that stayed with me from that trip the most were the beautiful and colourful Tibetan people with their unique culture and the magnificent landscapes. This tour made a deep impression on me.
Click on any image below to get a larger view, and to see a slideshow.
Return to Tibet in 2010
It was many years before I returned to Tibet. In the meantime I visited many countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Arabic world. Also great travels. But in the year 2010 I saw in a travel brochure a wonderful trip to Tibet, which looked quite different from my trip in 1997. This trip went from Lhasa to the desolate landscapes of Western Tibet using the so-called northern route to Ngari and from there along the southern route back to the border of Nepal. Included on the itinerary was also walking the kora around holy Mount Kailash.
The journey immediately had a great appeal to me. But I had serious doubts about walking the kora. Could I do it? Did I want to do it? I’m not sportive at all. And as we in Holland say: I’m no mountain goat. But I thought, I’ll see when I get there, if I do the kora around Kailash. So I booked this group tour of 23 days in Tibet. And that was really the start of my great love for and addiction to Tibet and the Tibetans.
Tibet had changed since 1997. In March 2008 there had been protests in Lhasa. These protests had been suppressed, but that unrest had big consequences for Tibet travel. In 2010 it wasn’t allowed any more to go by yourself to the big monasteries or to the Potala Palace. We had to go with the whole group and with a local, Tibetan guide. By 2010, there were a lot more tourists in Lhasa and they all wanted to visit the Potala. So you could only visit the Potala with your group, at a pre-arranged time. And your visit inside the Potala was limited to only one hour. But my heart opened again when I saw the Potala and toured inside this splendid building. It’s really one of the most impressive buildings in the world!
I found the desolate landscapes in the west of Tibet magnificent. So I enjoyed Western Tibet very, very much. At some point you come to such an altitude that no trees or shrubs grow. But what wide landscapes! Awesome! And what incredible colours because of all the minerals that are in the mountains. In 1997 I had traveled by bus. But this time we drove with land-cruisers, which was great. You could ask the driver to stop anywhere you wanted to take pictures. It gave an enormous feeling of freedom. Still, everywhere there where checkpoints, where the police checked everyone’s permits. What kind of freedom is that?
We also got a touch of ancient culture in Tsada, where the remains of the old Guge kingdom are located. And the landscape around Tsada is barren and eroded, a sort of badlands. You ask yourself, is this also Tibet? The answer is yes. And ít’s very beautiful there!
After that we went on to holy Mount Kailash. A very special mountain and a very special place to be. And I did walk the kora. To my surprise I did it pretty well. I felt so humble and privileged to be there, walking the kora with many Tibetan pilgrims.
The last part of the trip went to Mount Everest Base Camp. There were no clouds and we saw Everest in its full glory. After that we went down to the Nepali border and ended our trip in Kathmandu.
Other Journeys: 2011 – 2013
I enjoyed my Tibet trip in 2010 immensely. I enjoyed this trip so much that in 2011 I made exactly the same group tour again. And I again enjoyed the trip so very, very much. I walked the kora round Mount Kailash for the second time. I truly got addicted to Tibet and the Tibetan people. Because after that trip I have returned to Tibet three times. At that point I stopped booking group tours. I discovered I could arrange my Tibet trips very well with my local Tibetan contacts just by e-mail. One advantage of this method is that I can make my own itinerary. Although you are obliged to have a pre-arranged tour and have a guide every day of your trip and outside Lhasa your own transport and driver, it is possible to make your own itinerary. It’s easy!
I visited Tibet in September 2012 with my own little travel group, which consisted of me, a very good friend and my brother. We were very lucky to be able to go to Tibet because of the restrictions put on the issuing of the Tibet permit. In the period from May 2012 till January 2013 permits were only issued to groups of five persons of the same nationality. And even than the travel agencies in Lhasa could get only a permit for a limited amount of their groups. We were only a group of three, but we got the permit and traveled for three weeks in Tibet. We had a great trip!
Because of the permit situation we met only very few foreign travel groups. Of course this was not good for the Tibetans, who work in tourism and have to make a living of it. They didn’t have much work that year. My heart went out to them. But as tourists we loved not seeing many other foreign tourists during our trip. The three of us did the kora around Mount Kailash. For my travel companions it was the first and for me the third time. My companions thought it was very hard. My brother said that last time he had such a hard time was during his military service. But they also said it was an amazing experience.
I have been two times to Tibet as solo traveler, in January 2012 and again in January 2013. Now more than ever I feel the need to pre-arrange my travel locally, because I have already seen a lot of Tibet, and during my trips I like to discover new places.
What has Changed?
Has Tibet changed and how did it change?
There is a time gap of 15 years between my first visit in 1997 and my last visit in 2013.
What in any case didn’t change are the Tibetans themselves. Okay, the Tibetans especially in the bigger cities are wearing more and more western style clothes. But in essence, they are the same people. I have a great admiration for the Tibetan people. Despite of their hard and difficult life they stay friendly and cheerful. They smile and laugh a lot and greet foreign tourist often with “Tashi Delek” and “Welcome to Tibet.” They make you feel really welcome in their country.
Tourism has increased enormously since 1997. A lot more foreign tourist groups visit Tibet every year. They travel mainly by the Friendship highway from Lhasa, Gyantse, Shigatse and Mount Everest to Kathmandu in Nepal. Still relatively few tourist are visiting Western Tibet and Mount Kailash. But nowadays especially large numbers of Chinese tourists come to visit Tibet. The increased prosperity in China and the building of the railway to Lhasa, ready in 2006, have greatly contributed to this. For the Chinese it’s a domestic visit and they don’t need a permit or have to book a pre-arranged trip. They just can go there. It’s easy for them.
Lhasa has become a much bigger city, and more and more Chinese. But the heart of Lhasa is still the old Tibetan centre. What also changed are the roads. The roads in Tibet are now so much better. In 1997 the friendship highway was a dirt road. Now the entire southern route to the western part of Tibet – all the way to Tsada and Ngari – is paved. Traveling in Tibet has become quite comfortable.
Since 1997 many monasteries are restored or rebuilt. Especially the big monastery of Ganden – about 50 km outside Lhasa – is a good example of this. In 1997 Ganden was still largely in ruins because of the cultural revolution and so on. In 1997 there were only just a few large assembly halls rebuilt. Nowadays this monastery shows itself again in full glory. What needs to be said though, is that the number of monks in the monasteries has decreased enormously.
The hotel accommodation has much improved, especially in the larger cities. In the west of Tibet the guest houses are still very basic. You get a bedroom with 5 or 6 beds without water and sanitation. But these guest houses have their charm. They often have a kind of living room – in the Tibetan style – with pot belly stove, where it is warm and cozy. And you can eat your dinner there.
With the Chinese who came to Tibet, also the food became more varied. In the valleys in the central part of Tibet, greenhouses have become a normal phenomenon. Although I find Tibetan food tasty and after several visits, now I even like sweet tea and butter tea, its nice to have now and then a Chinese meal, like for instance hot pot.
Many tourists want Tibet to remain “original,” but the modern age is not lost on Tibet and the Tibetans. When I walked the kora round Mount Kailash for the third time in 2012, a beautifully dressed nomad walked beside me. Suddenly I heard a music tune. The nomad reached into his robe and pulled out his cell phone. I’ve noticed that Tibetans love smart phones, which are sold everywhere, in shops, on the markets. The Tibetans make calls with their phones, take pictures, use the internet, chat and play games with it. I have also seen older ladies explore the possibilities of their smartphones. And my prepaid cell phone had range everywhere in Tibet. Nowadays many hotels in the bigger cities offer wifi. So sending an e-mail home is easily done.
Differences in Traveling in September or January
I have traveled in September/October and in January to Tibet. Both of these periods have their own advantages.
Around the end of August / beginning of September the rainy season comes to an end. This means that in the first half of September, you still have beautiful cloudy skies. And that’s wonderful for photography. Later in September the skies get blue and clear. You have a much better chance to see the high peaks of the Himalayas. If you want to see Mount Everest, this is a good time. It’s also a good time to do the kora around Kailash. It’s not too cold yet. But the blue skies make photography a lot more difficult. Because the light is terribly hard during the day. In September it’s still high season for tourism. And at the end of September, beginning of October a lot of Chinese tourist visit Tibet because they have a national holiday.
When I visited Tibet in January the weather was also very sunny and I had clear skies. The nights were cold. But during daytime it can be quite pleasant in the sun. Many hotels don’t have heating in their rooms so it can even freeze in your hotel room. Not many tourists visit Tibet in January. This especially applied to January in 2013 because of the permit restrictions. I was very fortunate (again) to be able to visit Tibet at that time as a solo traveler.
In Lhasa I saw only a few small groups of foreign tourists, but once outside Lhasa, there were no foreign tourists at all. Only Tibetan people and me. And there were lots of pilgrims who went to the monasteries. In January nomads and farmers can’t work on the land and so have time to go on a pilgrimage. It was a very special experience for me to be the only foreign tourist in monasteries between all those beautifully dressed and colourful pilgrims. I felt very privileged. Outside Lhasa I had my three daily meals together with my guide and driver in little Tibetan restaurants. Only Tibetan food. It was a truly Tibetan experience.
There is still a lot more to tell about Tibet. But I conclude my story now. What strikes me most about Tibet are the Tibetan people. The Tibetans – both the elderly and the younger generations – remain loyal to their culture and their religion. And that’s so good, because the Tibetan culture is beautiful and unique. The spot on earth where they live is unique.
I hope to visit Tibet again in the near future. And I hope the Tibetans will benefit from foreign tourist visiting their country. A lot of Tibetans depend for their daily income on foreign tourism. So when you visit Tibet, make sure you hire a local Tibetan guide and driver. And use Tibetan enterprises. This way you support the Tibetans. And who can explain Tibetan culture better to you than a Tibetan?
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