Tibet: The Place Closest to Heaven
This post has been published in collaboration with one of my best friends, Fiona Lam.
“I went to Tibet this summer, a place I have always wanted to visit… Tibet is a truly sublime part of the world; I cannot think of a more special place that I have visited in the past! In Chinese we call it “the place closest to heaven”, since Tibet is the highest region on Earth, with an average elevation of 4,900 metres . Lhasa, the capital city of the region, is one of the highest cities in the world, situated at the attitude of 3,490 metres. I was really proud of myself, because everyone gets attitude sickness when they get there, and I somehow didn’t! I suppose, I cheated a little by taking prophylactic medicine…
Tibet is a very “exotic” place for tourists; perhaps not so much for the Chinese, but definitely for Westerners since the Chinese government has tightened the number of visas it issues to foreigners. Additionally, it does not help that the Tibetans, who are of a different ethnicity, want to become independent.
Personally, the most enticing aspect of Tibet is the religious aspect of local culture. Tibetans are deeply religious people: they are very dedicated in their prayers; they incorporate Buddhism to a large extent into their daily lives; they walk around holding either a prayer wheel or prayer beads; they count as they hum their prayers.
Colourful flags that you see strung along mountain peaks and ridges are called prayer flags. They have sacred words of Buddhism written on them and they come in five different colours symbolising different elements. These prayer flags spread the Buddhist teaching on. Tibet is a very spiritual place, and visiting this region is a very enlightening experience in terms of learning about other cultures.
I also loved the fact that the mountains were so stunning and grand. You might think that mountains in Switzerland are beautiful; but when you get to Tibet, you realize that their allure is on a completely different level. The locals believe that every mountain has a god or a goddess; they watch you closely and make sure that you do not disrespect the mountains by either littering or harming the mountains in some other way.
My current dream destination is in fact a small lake high up in the mountains of Tibet called Lhamo Latso. This tiny lake ringed by grey mountains – a mere 2 square km in surface area- is a major pilgrimage place for Buddhists and is considered to be the most sacred lake in Tibet.
Few of the senior, most respected Tibetan monks go to Lhamo Latso for visions to assist them in the discovery of reincarnations of future Dalai Lamas after the current one has passed away. Dalai Lama is seen as the live Buddha who has been reincarnated from the previous Dalai Lama. Dalai Lama is essentially a spiritual leader; for locals, the Dalai Lama is king, and they follow whatever he says.
Before these Tibetan monks are able to have a vision, they have to do a five-hour hike at an altitude of about 5,300 metres in order to reach the edge of the lake. Afterwards, they walk around the lake, sometimes for three days, sometimes for a week, sometimes for ten days. They walk and chant non-stop. Then, they put a sacred object in this lake, such as a prayer wheel or prayer beads, and supposedly the reflection that will appear shows them where the next Dalai Lama will be born. Ordinary pilgrims also come to Lhamo Latso to seek visions. If a normal person does what these monks do, that person would see his past lives, his current life, and his future lives. A major part of Buddhist teaching is about karma, so if you do good, good will come back to you, and if you do bad, it will haunt you.
I went with a tour group for ten days, but it was nowhere long enough. Ten days in Tibet is like one hour in London: how much really can you see?”