Throughout history, Tibet has enjoyed an exotic mystique among westerners. An ancient Buddhist kingdom and home, perhaps, of the mythical Shangri-La, Tibet's isolation on the "Roof of the World" reinforced its reputation as a land shrouded in mystery.
Today, however, much of the mystery is gone. Tibet – now known officially as the "Tibetan Autonomous Region" – has been under Chinese domination since 1951. The Dalai Lama, the traditional political and spiritual leader of Tibet, has been in exile since 1959. The capital of Lhasa, although still a sacred pilgrimage site for Tibet's devout Buddhists, teems with Chinese soldiers and ethnic Chinese people relocated to the city as part of China's efforts to assimilate the region. Modern office buildings, apartments and stores with Chinese signs abound throughout the city.
The ancient religion of Tibet was known as Bon (which still survives in some areas). To many people, however, Tibet is most associated with Buddhism. Although there were Buddhist influences in earlier years, the religion took precedence under King Songtsen Gampo (617-650), who unified all of Tibet for the first time in recorded history and set about building a series of geomantic temples at important power places radiating out from the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, many Buddhist temples and monasteries in Tibet were attacked. Religious icons, paintings and other symbols were destroyed and many monks were killed or imprisoned. In more recent years, the worst of the excesses have subsided, but the temples and monasteries are mere shadows of their former selves. Drepung Monastery, for example, once housed 10,000 monks. Today, it is only a few hundred. In many cases, temples and monasteries have been restored and the buildings returned for Buddhist worship. The Potala Palace, however, once the seat of government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lama, is operated as a tourist attraction by the Chinese, who demand high fees from visitors who want to take photographs inside.
Despite Chinese domination, however, Tibet remains an exotic destination. The art and iconography of Tibetan Buddhism is perhaps the most elaborate of all Buddhist sects. The interiors of the temples and monasteries come alive with golden statues, adorned with white scarves by respectful worshipers, and colorful paintings that depict the vast pantheon of Tibetan Buddhist deities. The architecture is also colorful and distinctly Tibetan. Devout worshipers still come and place spoonfuls of "ghee" – a type of vegetable fat that now substitutes for traditional yak butter – in lamps to keep the sacred flames burning. Worshipers still make the traditional, clockwise "kora" around the temples, spinning their handheld prayer wheels with each step. And even in the center of busy Lhasa, one will find pilgrims circling the Potala Palace by taking two or three steps, then fully prostrating themselves on the sidewalk as they recite sacred mantras.
Visible Chinese influence begins to wane as visitors move into the countryside. Here, one can still see traditional farms, with patties of yak dung stuck to the walls as they dry in the sun and become fuel for cooking and heating. Shepherds still tend their flocks as the sheep scour the desolate hills in search of small morsels of vegetation. And one still sees Tibetans in their traditional style of dress on their way to open air markets or riding in horse-drawn wagons.
Tibet sits on the highest plateau in the world, averaging some 16,000 feet above sea level. Hemmed in by the mighty Himalayas on the south, the Karakoram Range on the west, and the Kunlun Mountains on the north, it is no surprise that Tibet remained isolated until well into the 20th century. Tibet is also the source of many of Asia's greatest rivers, including the Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Ganges, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the Huang He (Yellow River). Although the present Tibetan Autonomous Region is much smaller than Tibet's historic boundaries, the region still covers an area of more than 470,000 square miles (larger than Texas and California combined). I was only able to see a small part of this vast region, concentrating mostly on Lhasa, Gyantse and Zhiagtse (about 150 miles from Lhasa) to the west and Samye, 50 miles or so to the south.
The photos above offer a quick overview of the highlights of Tibet. For more detail about particular areas or religious sites, see the various slide shows below that will run in a separate pop-up window.
People of Tibet: Despite the growing control by China since at least 1951, many people in Tibet have retained their traditional ways. Even in Lhasa, one still sees many Tibetans in traditional dress. Buddhism also still plays a central role in the lives of many. Prayer wheels abound and worshipers are found at all the main religious sites making offerings or showing their devotion by prostrating themselves as they circumambulate sacred locations. The Chinese influence, however, is undeniable. Uniformed troops (not photographed) are seen throughout Lhasa and many ethnic Chinese have moved to Tibet in response to government relocation incentives. (22 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]