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Potala Palace

Tibet

Beyond the Himalayas lies a vast, arid plateau that has for centuries been one of the world’s most mysterious lands - Tibet. The cradle of a unique strand of Mahayana Buddhism, its harsh landscape is the backdrop to a rich history and esoteric spiritual treasures. Now under Chinese rule, Tibet has always been a land of transition between the Chinese empires and the Indian subcontinent.

Buddhism first arrived here when the great king Srongtsen married a Nepalese princess who, with the aid of his other Chinese wife, converted him. These two queens are now revered in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon as the Green and White Taras. As the religion evolved it gave birth to great traditions of monasticism and scholarship as well as a powerful theocracy. Even now, the maroon-robed, shaven-headed monk is the quintessential image of Tibet.

In parallel with the development of intriguing religious practices Tibet produced a wealth of art, from monastery frescoes and thangkas intricately encapsulating theological concepts to illuminated manuscripts encompassing centuries of scholarship. And the wealth generated by trade across the high mountain passes endowed monasteries and fantastic palaces such as Lhasa’s Potala Palace which towers magisterially above the capital city, reached by imposing staircases up the steep ridge astride which it perches. This citadel of thirteen stories and 1,000 rooms is the ancient seat of the Dalai Lamas, spiritual leaders of the country.

For much of its history a land forbidden to outsiders, Tibet retains its aura of legendary mystery and natural grandeur. Lhasa itself means ‘Palace of the Gods’ and all the great buildings are connected to the gods or their earthly interlocutors. The Jokhang Temple in Old Lhasa contains sacred relics and historical artifacts such as the gold Buddha statue brought as a wedding gift by Srongtsen’s Chinese wife, Wen Ching. The Norbu Linkha, or Jewel Park, provided the Dalai Lama and courtiers with a summer retreat amid fabulous parks, while the fifteenth century Drepung Monastery, said to be the largest in the world, houses over 10,000 monks.

Outside of Lhasa the main towns of Gyantse and Shigatse are relatively untouched by modernity and starting points for explorations of the desert-like plains and mountains of Tibet. Gyantse, a trading town on the trans-Himalayan route, was famed for its carpets while the walled city guarded by a hilltop fortress contained no fewer than nineteen monasteries.

Yet many Tibetans still remain nomadic and the cities alone will not give you an insight into their lifestyle. Herding yaks across the barren plains, theirs is a tough life in inhospitable conditions. But if you get the chance to share a cup of salt and yak-butter tea thickened with parched barley tsampa flour you will soon realize that Tibetans are a resilient, cheerful and welcoming people. Most families have at least one member in monastic life and religious rituals are observed by all, be it tuning a prayer wheel while trudging across the windy steppes or making special pilgrimages to important stupas.