Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

I’d given up on ever traveling overland from Nepal to Tibet. Three times I had tried and failed. The first tour I booked in Kathmandu, a number of years ago, was cancelled when the Chinese government suddenly closed the border. My second try a couple of years later was much the same. When monks began setting themselves on fire to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet during the anniversary of the 1959 Chinese invasion, the government again closed the border. I eventually learned that China closes Tibet to all foreign travelers from mid-February through early April every year. Unfortunately, the Kathmandu tour companies with which I had booked were clueless (read more about those closures here).

Lesson number one was to never work with an “aggregator.” All foreign travelers going to Tibet must be on an organized tour that includes a private vehicle, a driver, and a tour guide that are approved and licensed by the Chinese government. Additionally, travelers need a Tibet Travel Permit and a set travel itinerary, both of which can only be arranged by a tour operator. There are NO exceptions. NONE of the Nepali-owned travel and tour companies in Kathmandu can provide these services. They will take your money, but then turn you over to one of a handful of Tibetan-operated tour companies in the city. Of course, their fee is tacked on, so you end up paying more.

Barbara Weibel at Geu La Pass in Tibet with Mount Everest and the Himalayan Range in the background

Spoiler alert: I did finally make it to Tibet. Here I am at Geu La Pass, with Mount Everest and the Himalayan Range in the background

Armed with the correct information about annual border closures, I scheduled my next trip to Nepal for the fall of 2016. I was determined to find a Tibetan-owned firm in Kathmandu that specialized in Tibet tours. But it was not to be. On April 25, 2015, Nepal suffered a horrific earthquake that killed more than 22,000 people and destroyed the bridge connecting Nepal’s Friendship Highway with Tibet. Overland journeys between Kathmandu and Tibet ceased while a new land crossing was constructed. The land border between Nepal and Tibet would not be reopened to foreign travelers until August 28, 2017. Read More

Everything you need to know about traveling overland from Nepal to Tibet, and my recommendation for the fabulous tour operator, Himalaya Journey.

Auspicious Buddhist Symbols on the Roof of Phuntsoling Monastery in Tibet

On day seven of my overland journey through Tibet, we turned off the main highway and followed a narrow lane to the remote Phuntsoling Monastery. This little-known monastery was built in 1615 by great master Jonang Taranatha. He espoused the concept of Shentong, a hard-to-grasp ideology based on the idea that the Buddha-mind is ultimately empty, even though all forms are empty illusions. The Jonang teachings were not looked upon favorably by the four main Buddhist traditions. As a result, in the 17th century the 5th Dalai Lama forced the monastery to convert to the Gelugpa tradition.

One of the senior monks took us on a tour of the facilities while our guide translated. Phuntsoling Monastery was used as a grain storage facility during the Cultural Revolution, thus it escaped the destruction suffered by thousands of other religious centers. Scores of 15th century murals and paintings survived and are still clearly visible on the walls of the main Assembly Hall. They depict the four universes of Buddhism as well as scenes from the life of Buddha. Read More

Gyantse Dzong (Gyantse Fortress) perches atop a stony outcropping just outside the town of Gyantse in southern Tibet

For nearly 800 years, the walls of Gyantse Dzong (Gyantse Fortress) have scrabbled down a barren outcropping of stone just outside the town of Gyantse. Built as the seat of government for this county in southern Tibet, it originally held the office of the county magistrate, a scripture hall, Buddhist worship hall, and sundry storehouses. Over the ensuing centuries the complex was expanded, taking on the role of fortress to protect the important trading center of Gyantse against invaders. Indeed, Gyantse Dzong withstood all attacks until 1904, when the British invaded Tibet.

In Gyantse, the British Army encountered unimaginable resistance. Armed with only miniature cannon balls, for nearly three months fierce Tibetan fighters held off forces equipped with far superior machine guns and ten-pound cannons. Gyantse Dzong finally fell after heavy artillery hit a gunpowder magazine. The resultant explosion blew a large hole Read More

Sunset at Mount Everest Base Camp in Tibet

From the moment I booked my Overland Tibet Tour, I worried how I would handle the high altitude of the Tibetan Plateau. I begin to suffer from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) the moment I reach an altitude of 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). I become nauseous, my stomach feels like it is flipping upside down, my head starts throbbing incessantly, and I gasp for breath. Not usually willing to take prescription drugs unless absolutely necessary, I decided to take the advice of my tour operator and get a prescription for Diamox, a drug used to treat AMS. Unfortunately, I had an adverse reaction to the drug. It made me so dizzy I was bouncing off walls and every inch of my skin felt like it was vibrating. Rather than try to tolerate the side effects, I decided to see if I could tough it out without Diamox.

Fortunately, I had done extensive research prior to choosing a tour company. Many firms that offer this overland journey are Nepali-owned resellers located in Kathmandu. Since the Chinese government only allows Chinese companies to conduct these tours, Nepal-based companies must Read More

Women in traditional Tibetan clothing at Sakya Monastery in Tibet

The women pictured above are arriving at Sakya Monastery in the small village of Sakya, Tibet. As is customary, they wear their hair in long braids, which are sometimes coiled around the head like a crown. All of the women are wearing traditional Tibetan clothing, which consists of a long, loose-fitting woolen robe called a chuba, layered over a wool or raw silk blouse. The traditional striped aprons, cinched at the waist, indicate that they are married. Each woman then personalizes her outfit with an ornate belt and jewelry.

It is no surprise that Tibetan women regularly visit their local monasteries. Tibetan Buddhism is intricately interwoven into everyday life in Tibet. Prayer flags flap in the breezes above every Tibetan home. No Tibetan dwelling would be complete without an altar, where Read More

They lunged, red robes flying and prayer beads swinging. They clapped hands loudly in the faces of their partners. Forefingers shook in front of noses and voices were raised. This sea of red-robed monks were gathered in a courtyard of Sera Monastery for a daily ritual known as the Tibetan monastic debate.

They worked in pairs, one standing and the other seated on the ground. The standing monk hurled a question at his seated partner, challenging him to dig deep into Buddhist philosophy for an answer. At times the seated monks, unable to produce satisfactory answers, seemed frustrated or even angry. Certainly, they were arguing, and some looked more than a little unhappy. I was flabbergasted! This was very un-monk-like behavior.

Buddhist monks debating the philosophy of Buddhism at Sera Monastery in Lhasa,Tibet

Tibetan monastic debate at Sera Monastery in Lhasa, Tibet

The tradition of the Tibetan monastic debate can be traced back to the Historical Buddha, whom we know as Shakyamuni. In the beginning, the Buddha taught only those who were interested in his doctrine of non-attachment. He shied away from criticism of other belief systems. In latter years, however, Read More

They lunge, swing their prayer beads, and clap their hands loudly, all startling techniques used by Buddhist monks during a Tibetan monastic debate. #Tibet #Himalaya #BuddhistMonks #Buddhism