03 Mar, 2009

Tibet, the Roof of the World


Anyone who is regularly updated with world news is probably familiar with Tibet, the Asian country that is sometimes referred to as the “roof of the world,” a metaphor in reference to its altitude. Tibet is infamous thanks to its uncertain relationship with China. Once independent, it is now considered part of the PRC, or the People’s Republic of China—although this is something currently contested, since they are still arguing whether or not the incorporation of this country to China is legal according to the standard set by the international law. This is an issue that has involved a lot of major names in world politics—from then United States President George W. Bush to even U2’s frontman Bono. Of course, with this simple description of the issues surrounding Tibet, it is already easy to say that it probably has one of the richest and the deepest history in all of Asia, and perhaps in the world.

A brief history

Tibet as a unified entity was actualized during the seventh century, under the Songstan Gampo, now the acknowledged founder of the Tibetan Empire. The term “unified entity” is a very revealing adjective, as this means Tibet is by no means different from other countries that started as separate entities and communities, something very common in the origin of most Asian countries. The year when Songstan Gampo became the ruler of the empire is still being contested, although it is a universally acknowledged fact that he became ruler as a minor, presumably when he was 12 or 13, after his father died; and that he united the country to form a unified empire. As a ruler, Songstan Gampo is credited to have brought a number of culture and religious innovation in the country—such as the creation of the first Tibetan pieces of literature and Buddhism. Songstan as a historical figure isn’t very clear; the materials available about him, his life, and his reign are all filled with legends and folklore, yet another common trait of Asian countries (for instance, Japan and the Philippines are filled with myths regarding their history and even the creation of their nation). Songstan influence in religion became evident even after his reign, and Buddhism became a major part of the country’s culture and history.

Tibet has since been in conflict with China even then, a conflict that could be traced to as early as the 700s. In particular, Tibet almost lost its hold on the country by 750, but eventually gained control after Gao Xianzhi lost to the Arabs during the Battle of Talas. Several years later, both countries signed a peace treaty, marking the borders of the two counties to prevent any further problems in terms of territory. Because of this, Tibet persisted as an empire until the middle of the 9th century. Although the country was plagued by external problems until the 13th century, Tibet was plagued with internal turmoil, specifically after the death of Langdarma, who was openly against the Buddhists. All these problems mounted the empire, which led to its decentralization—mainly due to conflicts on who would lead the empire.

In any case, this consequently led the rule of foreign entities, which obviously led to the integration of Tibet to mainland China. This happened when Tibet lost to China in the 1950-1951 Invasion of Tibet. Again, this is still to debate; China claims what transpired wasn’t an invasion, although China says what happened was merely a peaceful liberation. In any case, China considers Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China, something that holds true until today, despite the protest of several sectors.

An idyllic visit

Despite the conflicts, Tibet remains to be a picturesque country, filled with some of the most exciting sites one couldn’t see anywhere else. Planning a trip to Tibet may seem daunting or even terrifying due to the conflicts that persist, but these aren’t good enough reasons to miss out one of Asia’s best treasures.

Obviously, one shouldn’t go to any country without visiting its center or its capital. Tibet’s capital is Lhasa, the seat of power of the country’s ruler, the Dalai Lama. Lhasa was originally the country’s capital; Songstan Gampo founded the Tibetan Empire in the Brahmaputra River Valley. In fact, Lhasa was actually conquered by the Tang Dynasty during 650 AD. However, religion played part in the naming of this city as a capital—Lhasa became an important religious center as the years passed, especially with the formation of Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, and Ganden Monastery, three religious centers that were built to revival puritanical Buddhism in the country. By the time Lobsang Gyatso, the fifth Dalai Lama, came to power, he moved the center of his administration of Lhasa, signifying how it had served as an important religious center in the country. Note that the Dalai Lama is actually more than just a political leader—he is also a Buddhist spiritual leader. Hence, his decision to move the seat of power isn’t surprising at all.

Because of this, a number of Tibet’s main religious sites—and, in turn, its major tourist draws and attractions—are located in Lhasa. This includes the sites listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage listings, such as the Potala Palace.

The Potala Palace was—and is—significant in the country’s history because it served as the Dalai Lama’s residence until the 1950s, after the failed Tibetan resistance movement. The last Dalai Lama to stay in the Potala Palace was the 14th Dalai Lama, Lhamo Dondrub. The palace has thirteen stories, 1,000 rooms, and 10,000 shrines; not to mention the over 200,000 statues that were used to decorate the residence. The fifth Dalai Lama began the palace’s construction by 1645; he moved to the palace in 1649, although the construction was completed several years later (1695, several years after the fifth Dalai Lama’s death). It was composed of two main members—the Potrang Karpo (also known as the White Palace, which is the residence of the Dalai Lama) and the Potrang Marpo (or the red palace, mainly a holy place since it is used as a Buddhist praying area). The Red Palace, the main centerpiece of the Potala Palace, is composed of several halls and buildings, such as the Great West Hall, the Saint’s Chapel, the North and South Chapel, the East and West Chapel, the three galleries, and the tomb of Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama.

The Great West Hall is actually the complex’s main hall, with four chapels; although the Saint’s Chapel is considered to be the holiest shrine in the entire palace. The four chapels center on specific aspects of the Buddhist fate.

Later, UNESCO included two other Tibetan sites to its World Heritage list—Norbulingka and the Jokhang Monastery. The Jokhang is Tibet’s first Buddhist temple, while the Norbulingka is a palace that served as the Dalai Lama’s summer residence (this was from the time of the seventh Dalai Lama to the 14th Dalai Lama). The inclusion of these two as a heritage site is out of their fear that China’s aggressive take on the tourism of Lhasa might affect the culture of the city and these sites. So far, the country attracts a little more than a million visitors a year—not a shabby number, but nowhere near the usual statistics of a number of Asian countries (which manage to attract more than three to five million tourists a year). China aims to raise this number up to 10 million, something that could change the cultural landscape of the country.

Speaking of culture, one place in Tibet that is supposedly untouched by the mainland Chinese government is the Gyantse, the country’s fourth largest town that connects to Nepal’s Kathmandu. Acknowledged for its untouched culture, Gyantse was used by BBC in one of their programs to demonstrate life in Tibet—a proper choice since Gyantse isn’t as modernized as Lhasa, hence one can see what life in Tibet truly is here. The Gyantse has notable attraction—the Palcho Monastery. In turn, the Palcho houses the Kumbum, a nine-level building with over 77 chapels containing images of Buddhist deities.
Pilgrims, on the other hand, visit the holy Mount Kailash, part of the Tibetan Himalayas. This mount is a scared ground for a number religious, namely Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Bon faith. Buddhists consider this mountain as the abode of Buddha Demchok, their representation of supreme bliss. Another holy place in Tibet is Lake Manasarovar, north to Mount Kailish. According to Hindu mythology, touching the earth in the area and the water of the lake would bring anyone to paradise and would help cleanse one’s sins. On the other hand, Buddhists associate the lake to the Anavatapta, where Buddha was conceived. Beyond religious beliefs, Lake Manasarovar is the world’s highest freshwater lake. Strangely enough, Tibet also has the world’s highest river—the Yarlung Tsangpo River.
However, when it comes to mountains, nothing can beat the highest of them all—Mount Everest. Mount Everest, as everyone knows, isn’t just a Tibetan territory; part of the Himalayan mountain range, the Mount Everest is so huge crosses one other border, which is of Nepal. Of course, climbing the tallest peak in the world isn’t for everyone, but despite its rather limited audience this is very the Tibetan government gets most of the revenue from tourism, mainly in part of the expensive taxes to be paid for climbing the mountain. The tax, of course, isn’t just to extort money from tourists; it is one way of filtering out anyone who isn’t serious about mountain climbing. After all, anyone who isn’t a trained climber wouldn’t even spend more than 20,000 dollars just to climb Mount Everest. In turn, only the most serious of climbers would even considering paying and climbing the mountain.
A natural attraction that has nothing to do with the country’s Buddhist background is the Yaluzhangbu Grand Canyon, a 496 kilometer canyon that is 5,000 meters deep in average (deeper than Peru’s Kelka Canyon). The area is mountainous, an attraction that most classify as “difficult” and “challenging” to visit but it is generally worth the trip. On the other hand, the Ranwu Lake is a beautiful branch the river Yalu Tangpo, within the proximity of the Lagu glacier that makes the entire area more picturesque all year around.

Tibet in today’s world

Part of the notoriety Tibet has gained was due to its problematic relationship with the People’s Republic of China. This cause has gained the attention of very popular and influential celebrities, such as U2’s Bono. George W. Bush also invited the present Dalai Lama Washington D.C. during the latter part of 2007, a move criticized by the People’s Republic of China. According to reports, the people of Tibet are not receiving basic human rights, such as the right for freedom of speech and the right to travel freely, although these allegations have been actively dispelled by China. China also received a lot of criticism and was the venue for massive protests during the 2008 Olympics.
Regardless, Tibet attracts several tourists because of its unusual mystique. Today, most of the world’s attractions are easily accessible; and with the help of the Internet, one can easily find as much information about a certain place as one would need. Yet there is something still mysterious about Tibet; although part of China, a very aggressive country when it comes to globalization, Tibet remains to be that one piece of land that still holds on their heritage. This may seem antiqued to others, as keeping up with the times is now part of everyday life. Yet Tibet proves that this isn’t actually the case; the roof of the world still can chase standards completely on its own. That the country and other organizations are fighting hard to sustain this way of living is admirable, and there are very few countries like Tibet—which makes it, now more than ever, one of the more ideal places to visit for anyone who wants to experience the real beauty of Asia, and the world.


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