We humans are fascinated by disasters. We find it impossible to look away from a car wreck. When a disaster of enormous consequence occurs, our first impulse is to tell someone. Cable news stations are acutely aware of this tendency; they capitalize upon it with round-the-clock coverage of hurricanes, mass shootings, and terrorist attacks. For the most part, I believe it would be healthier not to be quite so fascinated with such events. However, I also believe that some disasters must never be forgotten. Thus, just as I had toured Auschwitz Concentration Camp near Krakow, Poland, and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I made it a point to visit Dachau Concentration Camp during a recent trip to Munich, Germany. Read More
There is no mistaking the resemblance between Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany, and Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland in California. Built in 1886 by King Ludwig II, the fairy tale castle was for years rumored to have been the inspiration for Walt Disney. That rumor was finally confirmed in 2012. A Disneyland representative admitted to an Orange County Register reporter that Walt Disney and his wife had visited Neuschwanstein Castle prior to the construction of Disneyland. It was indeed the template that Disney had in mind when he was designing his Magic Kingdom. Read More
The city of Berlin is a dichotomy. It’s not particularly pretty, but I venture to say there are few cities more interesting than Berlin. It is filled with art galleries, museums, and is a magnet for creative types. Unlike Germans in the rest of the country, who tend to be more reserved, Berliners are famous for their ribald sense of humor. Of course, during the years when the Berlin Wall divided the city, East and West Berlin were a study in contrasts. The wall may be gone, but with each visit the dichotomy of Berlin reveals itself to me in myriad ways. Read More
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my Tibet travel experiences as much as I have enjoyed writing about them. After my last story about how to travel overland in Tibet was published, I realized that I still had a slew of great photos that I hadn’t used. I decided to do something a little unorthodox (for me) and create a photo travelogue of my journey through Tibet, from Lhasa to the Nepal border. So, here goes. Hope you enjoy.
Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, former home to the current Dalai Lama, framed by soaring mountains
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.
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
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