ALL PICTURES AND WRITTEN CONTENT PROVIDED BY FOOTSIDE AND LISA ZIEBART

Tibet is a politically charged and spiritually important country. One of the only places in the world that has generated worldwide protests, by people who have never set foot in this high mountain land, just to support its independence. The following content was provided by Footside and Lisa Ziebart. Footside travelled to Tibet in the late summer of 2006, he did not experience check points nor a military presence and had the freedom to hitch hike around the country. Fast forward to 2010 and Lisa Ziebart travelled to Tibet in March the only way you can now, with a group tour. Permits were required for the individual and the group. Military checkpoints were frequent. Documents were checked multiple times daily and as she attests Tibet seems to be almost under curfew. The Chinese cracked down viciously on Tibet in 2008 when the once proud citizens had decided their voices needed to be heard. Many monks and Tibetans were arrested and taken to re education camps or simply disappeared.

Although Lisa and Footside experienced vastly different political situations in Tibet they both came away from their trips with nothing but positive things to say about the land and its people. This area is known as the roof of the world and it should be visited by anyone with the means to get there.

Written by Footside

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Taking the northwestern overland arc from China to the steps of the Tibetan Plateau I had the luxury of steady elevation and a comfortable acclimation to the formidable altitudes ahead. The final transit point in the Chinese mainland was the Tolkien-named town of Golmud. Resting 3000 metres above sea level, this otherwise featureless transport hub catered towards travellers who due to lack of either finance or appropriate paperwork could not enter Tibet via official means. 22 hours later and having crested the 5000m divide between China and Tibet the bus began a surprisingly speedy descent to Lhasa. With endless blue skies, and untouched earthen mountains this was certainly an environment foreign to anything previously seen in China.

Rolling into the central bus station there was an expectation of inquisitive soldiers or opportunistic policemen so without hesitation I joined the melee of Tibetans flooding from the station into waiting taxis. I had received advice that once inside Lhasa, relevant permits would not be checked and I was understandably relieved to find a real absence of any administrative scrutiny. There were no police, soldiers, checkpoints or any other indicators that Lhasa was a volatile or sensitive area (this would change drastically only 2 years later during the riots of 2008).

This was certainly not what I had expected, but absolutely what I had hoped for. A few hours to the west of Lhasa along the Friendship Highway, lays the religious town of Shigatse. Famed as the seat of the Panchan Lama, this settlement features a number of monasteries all of which are open to the public. These monasteries are usually backed onto hillsides affording great views for those with the energy to hike the surrounding crests. Shigatse however is the final point at which travellers can explore without a permit. Being nothing more than an administrative cash-grab the permit was issued within a few hours and did not impose any onerous requirements. Travellers were still free to move unaccompanied and to any area they wish. As if to highlight the meaningless nature of the permit, the following day I hitch-hiked 5 hours further west to the backwater settlement of New Tingri.

New Tingri is the staging ground for expeditions into the Everest National Park and is the favoured supply point for land rover convoys. As with anywhere in Asia, if you have time and money you can get anything you want, and it only took the sight of an unaccompanied foreigner to attract the interest of locals. To put it simply, no one travels all the way to New Tingri unless they want to make that final step to Everest Base Camp. They knew that, and I knew they knew that. So with stick in hand both parties drew their intentions in the dirt. Before long a price was agreed and the contract was done. They would drive me via motorcycle the 100 odd kilometres to Everest Base Camp. Without doubt this 4 hour journey to the highest place on earth was the highlight of the Tibetan trip. One moment you are peaking over a barren ridge with colourful prayer flags blowing in the wind and the next you sink into a valley of pastoral green crops and smoking cottages. All the while on this journey you are completely encased by the most immense system of mountains imaginable.

At 5400 metres, things get noticeably difficult at Everest Base Camp. Whilst walking isn't exhausting, it took me at least an hour to walk the 2 kilometres from the monastery where I was staying to the closest allowed point on Everest. With the mighty snow capped peak exposed, Everest dwarfs all around it, even at 5400 metres the mountain continues skyward for a further 3500 metres.  Having stayed overnight, I returned to New Tingri then east along the Friendship Highway to Lhasa. Ironically due to time constraints I was forced to catch the new Lhasa - Beijing super train. An amazing achievement considering the terrain, it remains an unavoidable fact that it cost the lives of hundreds of Tibetan forced-labourers and will no doubt be the precursor to the Chinese pillage of Tibetan culture and natural resources.

Written by Lisa Ziebart

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Flying into Lhasa was absolutely incredible. The plane ride provided a spectacular view of the mountains, part of the Tibetan plateau. This experience was the first of many over the one week holiday spent in Tibet. We flew from Shenzhen, China to Chengdu, China and then finally to Tibet. We spent the night in Chengdu, as the acclimatization process is said to take some time. Once off the plane in Lhasa, it was clear that we were in a completely different, special place. The air was thin, but very fresh. It was difficult to know how eight people were going to respond to the altitude, but overall I think we did pretty well. Only one person on our trip was physically nauseous.

The altitude of Lhasa is approximately 12,000 feet, which definitely has an effect on how quickly one can move. Our hotel room was on the third floor (no elevator!) which seemed like it took forever to get to as we had to move so slowly. I cannot emphasize how slow we had to move; it was perfectly normal to have to stop and take a rest at the landing of each floor. The symptoms mainly consisted of headaches and fatigue, which were both manageable with sleep and some form of ibuprofen/acetaminophen (Tylenol, Advil, Aleve, choose your poison). The key to enjoying this trip really came down to taking time in the itinerary to acclimatize. One factor which I think helped my acclimatization process go smoothly was ginkgo biloba, which I took for my Mt. Kinabalu hike as well. I took 120mg twice/day and I only suffered from mild headaches twice.

As you may know, it has become more difficult to travel throughout Tibet unaccompanied. As it stands right now, travellers must be with a tour company in order to even enter the region. The days of rolling free as a backpacker are over. Special permits are required and a group permit is also required. These documents, along with your passport, are very important as they will be checked around 2-3 times per day. That said, if you just roll with it and try to not let the bureaucracy bother you it is not that big of a deal. Just be prepared to jump through all the hoops.

Cultural Tibet
From what I have come to understand, Tibet has changed greatly over the last ten years. There is even a section of Lhasa called 'Little Chengdu' to signify the overwhelming presence of people from mainland China who have come to live in Tibet. If anyone wants to visit Tibet to have a true, authentic cultural experience, I will tell them to go now, or a few years ago. I have spoken with people who have been to Tibet 5-10 years ago and what was described in a cultural sense was definitely different than what I experienced. I felt that the Tibetan culture was covered up and really restricted to foreigners. It was nearly impossible to really interact with true Tibetan people. One reason was because they did not speak English, and the other reason was because it felt like we were always being watched. Even when we asked our tour guide questions about Tibetan culture he was very hush-hush. In fact, at the very beginning of our trip he clearly said that he would not discuss the political issues of Tibet with us. As he got to know us throughout the week he opened up slightly and gave us some insight into the Tibetan culture, but it was minimal and always at a whisper.

On the other hand, we did get the opportunity to see some Tibetan culture, as we attended a Tibetan cultural show one evening and also spent about 30 minutes at the home of a Tibetan family. At the cultural show we were fed everything from sheep lung to yak dumplings, yak-butter tea, and barley beer. There were three performers in total and they were so wonderful! The show ended with a cultural dance with a yak- of course. I don't think we could have asked for anything more from an area with such a questionable cultural future. By the way, the Tibetan people love yak everything as it has served as their livelihood for so long (and still does I'm sure for at least the nomadic people living in the countryside). At the home of the Tibetan family we were given yak-butter tea, barley beer, dried yak yogurt and some other very interesting delicacies which I was unable to identify, but tried anyway. So, bottom line is that if you go to Tibet, go with an open mind and acknowledge the fact that it might not be the same Tibet that is imagined.  What I can say though is that the people we did encounter and were able to speak with were truly lovely.

Lhasa
Lhasa is definitely the urban hub for Tibet. Most people choose to stay in and around Lhasa because there are many attractions to see and experience in a short time frame. The Barkhour Street market is hands down the best place to get any Tibetan souvenir and to experience and observe Tibetan religious practice in true form. There are many different stalls full of items for purchase including t-shirts and hats to more traditional goods such as prayer wheels, Tibetan prayer flags, and art. There are some more organized shops that have a larger selection of goods, but for a much higher price, as these shops are typically owned by people from China. One thing that I found very interesting was that at many of these stalls in Barkhour Street market, the shop keepers would say, "Buy from me. I'm Tibetan, not Chinese." There is a clear undercurrent of awareness by the Tibetan people that their culture is in danger of assimilation. There is also a clear presence of Chinese army personnel as they marched through the streets in large numbers quite frequently.

The Barkhour Street market itself winds through narrow streets full of people walking in one direction: clockwise. Many people walk clockwise around the area, chanting, spinning their prayer wheels, and prostrating.  When prostrating and walking, people wear durable aprons because they are essentially sliding on the floor. Their hands are placed in wooden sandals so their hands can slide along with the prayer movement while on the ground; this opportunity to people-watch was fascinating.  There is also a Buddhist temple where people prostrate for hours, but while staying in the same position. These people bring mats to use and literally do not take breaks for very long periods of time. If there is one thing that I learned on this trip it is that Tibetan people are extremely devoted to their faith. Interestingly enough, I did not see one picture of the current Dalai Lama anywhere in the entire country. Not a huge surprise but disappointing.

Tibet: Monastery Central
I have to admit that by the end of the week I was not to most stoked to go to yet another monastery. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed walking through the monasteries and taking in all of the rooms and displays, but I really wanted to be able to capture these moments and could not. Every room either has a 'no photo' rule, or charges exorbitant amounts, up to around $150 CAN for photos or video! Alas, I had to suck it up and just enjoy the scenery of the monasteries and pay attention to all of the stories that accompanied the rooms. The Potala Palace was hands down the most intricate monastery of them all, and I wish that I was able to have taken some shots. Unfortunately, Chinese guards are on watch at all times so a sneak shot was out of the question.  The chapel rooms and tombs were elaborately decorated with gold and turquoise everywhere. Though the bodies are cremated, the tombs were absolutely huge! Interestingly enough, I still did not find a picture of the current Dalai Lama at the Potala Palace, but found many pictures of the current Panchen Lama who was chosen by China officials 12 years ago. The Potala palace takes around 3-4 hours to walk through, or even more if you are really into the history of each room. It is definitely worth it to take a full clockwise circumnavigation around the Potala Palace and join in the throngs of people on their pilgrimage. The path is adorned with large gold prayer wheels, which I absolutely loved. These, of course, had to be spun clockwise as walking by.

Rural Tibet
The roads outside of Lhasa are apparently being developed by China (as an attempt to win over the Tibetan people), but are still quite rough. We spent a lot of time in the bus, up to 7 hours in one day, which definitely took its toll. I thought I would get in some good reading time, but the bumping around was just too much to handle. Thank goodness for good music and good company. Some sights to take in on the rural path include Namtso Lake (the highest lake in the world), Yamdrok Lake (more beautiful scenery that Namtso in my opinion) and Tsedang (known as the cradle of Tibetan civilization and the official home of Panchen Lama). One thing to pay attention to is the persistence of the nomadic people of Tibet who travel to these tourist destinations and tout everything from jewelry, statues, and pictures with animals (I caved and got a picture holding a sweet little goat). From here many people would rather choose the Mt. Everest route, but we just simply have the time to do it all.

Future of Tibet and the Dalai Lama
I think it is important to point out the plight of the Tibetan people and the uncertainty of their future. With the aging of the current Dalai Lama, it is inevitable that one day soon a new Dalai Lama will need to be chosen. While the Chinese government is willing to respect and continue the process of choosing a new spiritual leader for the Tibetan people, they are insisting that the person will be chosen by China, not Tibet. While this could prove to be harmless, it could also prove to be detrimental to the Tibetan culture, as this new leader would definitely be pro-China and could be more of a figure-head than spiritual leader. Of course China would never allow this to be the public stance, but rather an underlying intention and power play to further enforce their presence and ownership of Tibet. I can honestly say that Tibetan people are some of the most peaceful that I have met along my travels and I just think it is such a shame that China feels the need to show such a physical and forceful presence. Above all of this political turmoil, however, lies an amazing country that is not to be missed. If you want to see Tibet in its near-true form, then I would suggest going sooner than later.