We first saw them on the train ride up, when we had climbed over 5,000 meters overnight. They were still like old men, just grazing in the grass, oblivious to the beautiful landscape surrounding them.
The 24-hour train trekked onward. Chinese propaganda blasted through the speakers, stating how the Qinghai-Tibet railway had not done any damage to these creatures or the environment surrounding them. The smell of instant noodles permeated the train. People complained about the lack of electricity to charge their phones or lack of oxygen to breathe. I hid in the nook of my top bunk bed.
Upon arrival, many of my Asian-American classmates were questioned by security. I was whisked through by a friend, to be greeted by mountains, towering over us. A few Chinese flags decorated the area surrounding the train station, even though I felt likeI was somewhere completely different.
Our tour guide shrouded us with long white scarves known as khatas. Usually given to visitors, the khata symbolizes compassion and goodwill. As is custom, she also greeted, “tashi delek,” meaning “good luck” and “blessings.”
At the hotel, we enjoyed some tea and listened to Nyima (which means sun because “I was born on Sunday”), who is a teacher at Tibet University.
- Geography – Tibet’s total area is approximately 1.2 million square kilometers, which is close to the size of Alaska. Average altitude is 4,000 meters. The climate is semi-arid. Within Tibet’s three regions, north/west, east and south (“central”), thousands of tourists visit each year. The central region, home to the capital of Lhasa, has been a cultural hub since the 7th century. The north/west region is home to nomads. The east region is the smallest in area, with much woodlands, tourists and workers.
- People – There are about 3 million Tibetans living in Tibet. Half live in the central region. 2 million more Tibetans live in the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu. Tibetans speak in three different dialects. Official Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese are taught in the schools, beginning at the primary level.
- History – Tibetan history is usually dated at 2,000 years, but it may go back as far as 4,000-5,000 years. The first period, the Kings period, features various kings coming to power. Kingdoms are unified, script is based on Sanskrit and Buddhism becomes politicized. Every family had to send a son to become a monk. During the second period, Decentralization, the Mongols invaded. The last period of the Dalai Lama featured China’s control of the area.
I had come to Tibet on a study trip to learn about Buddhism. Indeed, beyond the thangka paintings adorning the restaurant walls, Buddhist symbols were everywhere: in jewelry being sold, stamped on the back of rickshaws and even as a framed picture in a fast food restaurant.
The sun was already heating the day by the time we started our morning at the Potala Palace. Pilgrims journeyed clockwise, the same direction they spin their prayer wheels. The Palace is a grand piece of architecture, UNESCO stamped with about 1,500 steps leading to the Dalai Lama’s chambers. Inside, the corridors are sardined with people, and there is the thick air of yak butter (which they use in candles and just about everything else). We went in and out of the rooms, losing count, but there are more than 1,000 in total. The view from the top of the palace felt like I really was on the “roof of the world.”
For lunch, we enjoyed the marvelous delicacy of yak in burger and momo (dumpling) form. Then, it was off to Barkhor Street with its colorful trinkets and beckoning vendors. Other than the blue, white, red, green and yellow in Tibetan Buddhist flags, the most common colors on display were red, silver and turquoise. The red symbolized coral, one of the seven treasures in Buddhist scriptures. Some people use it to guard against bleeding, evil spirits and hurricanes. The silver, representing emotions and the moon, symbolized protection, money, hope, love and psychic powers. The turquoise symbolized protection, strength and rebirth.
We ended our busy day at the Famous Yak Restaurant. In addition to the beloved animal, we sampled yak butter tea (which tasted more like butter than tea) and sipped on some barley wine. There was even a performance, showcasing Tibetan song, fashion and dance. Of course, there were humans dressed in a yak suit, by far outshining the typical Chinese performances featuring a dragon or the zodiac sign of the year.
There are about 10 million yaks in Tibet, or 85 percent of the world’s population of yaks. Yaks have three times more red blood cells than normal cattle, so they are able to live at high altitudes and withstand cold temperatures. We left Tibet by plane, rising above the snowcaps and then wide spans of dessert. A friend beside me wore a “Yak Yak Yak” tee-shirt, and I knew we would be taking back some of Tibet with us.
Can’t get enough of Tibet? Have no fear – check out our blogs on Tibetan orphans, cycling through the countryside and Tibetan pictures from the “Adventure Issue.” Angella Zheng provides further commentary in her trip to Tibet with a shifu.