Yaks dressed in neon decorations drag ploughs through cracked clay. Shaggy sheep fleck the mountains with white. Candles float in bowls of butter bouncing light onto ancient monastery walls. Villages of identical plaster rectangle homes become more dilapidated as we near Everest Base Camp. Colours of the rainbow bleed from fur blanketed mountains and silhouette Tibetans working the land.
We flew from Kathmandu to Lhasa but were rerouted to Chengdu in mainland China due to bad weather in the capital city. Lhasa is a high altitude plateau surrounded by snow dusted mountains. On our second attempt to reach the mythical city, I began to understand why Tibet has remained so mysterious throughout its long history. A blanket of snowy mountain spikes - incomprehensible to a frail human body trying to navigate or survive - dominates the landscape. These snow covered peaks have acted as an ice fortress of protection, traditionally keeping the Tibetans and their associated values and beliefs in, and the rest of the world out.
We met our beaming guide Namgyal at the airport and he welcomed us to Tibet with white silk kata around our necks. I didn't know then, but this progressive man would fill my mind with possibilities in the nine days we spent with him. As we drove the hour from the airport to the city, numerous Chinese flags flapped as a reminder of control, yet I couldn't help but notice the Buddhist prayer flag mounds flapping humbly in the background.
I spotted the mighty Potala Palace immediately and thought of the lineage of the Dalai Lama and their current exiled religious leader. The city seems to be made of crumbling red and white plaster, yet it stands up through snow and monsoon seasons. Identical, soft curtains flap in the wind like a Mexican wave from flat topped apartment buildings. There are five hundred thousand inhabitants in Lhasa with a ratio of seven Han Chinese to every one Tibetan. I have only spotted a handful of western foreigners and the rest are Chinese.
Through the haze of pungent incense and the sound of creaking prayer wheels, rickshaws glide through the wide streets with bells jingling and riders darting with precision through pedestrians. Expensive cars fly by beggars with elephantitus or missing limbs (but most locals stop and give them a few Chinese yuan). When motorbikes almost collide, both drivers chuckle and continue on their smiling way.
The first thing I noticed about the people was the tanned, stretched skin of the Tibetans, wearing traditional robes of wool or silk lined gowns bound at the waist. To cool down in the burning sun they simply sling one arm free of the coat. Legs are covered in decorated leather boots. Women's hair has coloured cotton weaved into the plaits, which are wrapped around the forehead and fixed with silver jewellery and gemstones. Women's robes are swathed in colourful aprons. Men normally wear a cowboy style hat, reminiscent of native Americans. The appearance of the traditionally dressed people is enough to make me stop in my tracks, admiring our differences and questioning whether time travel is at play. We have not all succumbed to globalisation. It truly serves as a reminder that there are so many different humans on this earth with hugely varied ancestral experiences and lifestyle priorities.
Every Tibetan holds a string of prayer beads, rolling through the beads with nimble fingers as religious mantras are chanted. Also hugely popular is a handheld prayer wheel. These wheels holds 10,000 blessings and the holder spins the decorative copper ornament in a clockwise direction no matter what they are doing. I've never visited such a religiously devout country. High level spiritual practitioners can multi task and repeat mantras in their mind whilst having conversations.
Namgyal took us to the 1300 year old Johkang temple and the Potala Palace- during our few days of sensory delight in Lhasa. The Winter Palace (Potala) is a volunteer-made work of art housing 1013 rooms filled with ornaments and Buddhas and even the tombs of Dalai Lamas. Under the glow of the butter lamps, the people in the room with you seem to melt away and you are transported to the time of 5th Dalai Lama as he smiles serenely in a room of foreign dignitaries; or the time of the 9th Dalai Lama meditating amongst a roomful of red robed masters.
The centrepiece of the city is the Johkang temple. Locals head there daily to walk clockwise around the significant religious monument in what is known as kora. Walking in the wrong direction feels incredibly sacrilegious, no matter who you are. Chaos ensues, with dogs, armed police and high heel clicking tourists joining the whirlpool of movement. Poverty stricken children are tied to their mother and prostrate (taking three stops before laying down outstretched and repeating) with leather bound knees and dirty, calloused foreheads. Sometimes pilgrims arrive into the city after a two year journey prostrating all the way from their village to this place of worship. Whenever Tibetans have time, they practise this method of devotion to Buddhism. We waited in line to go inside the temple, people watching with our jaws dropping to the ground at some of the worlds most wondrous looking humans plodding past.
In contrast to this, I can't help but notice the flashing lights and fast pace of capitalist modernity. There are five story malls named after Times Square, sports label rip offs, jewellery and makeup stores, huge outlets and even a few well known fast food chain restaurants. People push by one another in a rush of self importance. China imported bubble tea, dumplings, humans and an overwhelming surveillance presence. Japan sent cheap technology and tight clothes; The Wests greasy hands are evident through King Burger, monks wearing Nikes and an emphasis on having anything and everything available at your fingertips. Modernity has been mashed in with the traditional. On the main roads you could mistake being in a Chinese city, but stray into the alleyways dotted with tea houses, fluffy Tibetan apsos bickering, lanky prayer flags jammed into rooftops, blocks of yellow yak cheese, traditional headdress filled with gemstones on women that must have thousands of years of wisdom knotted into their gray braids, combined with the hum of religious chanting reverberating through the streets, and you will remember you are still in the traditional land of Tibet.
We've been eating in Tibetan tea houses, facing each other on wooden benches and offered rice or noodle options with yak meat, morning glory and ladlefuls of steaming soup. We savour the available oxygen and sip sweet milk tea while we listen to our passionate guide educate us on the roots of the land.
My knowledge of Tibet started with the odd high school lesson when I was writing notes to my friends and paying no attention to the story of hardy people living in a peaceful world which was disrupted beyond belief. Powerful media images of monks burning themselves have been etched into my mind along with stories of self-inflicted starvation in the name of political reform. I associate the land of Shangri La with a rugged Brad Pitt in Seven Years In Tibet. Beyond that I heard bits and pieces about Free Tibet and felt I was expected to converse liberally on this topic at university. I bunched this region in with other countries that have experienced genocide or have been forced to conform with an external political agenda. It came together more when I visited the far northern reaches of India and met Tibetan exiles who shared their stories and pain through art. However, when you visit the land and have the luxury of a local Tibetan guide, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Our guide Namgyal draws from his own upbringing of hardship and his ancestral experience to help us empathise with the experience of the Tibetans. The life expectancy here is 60, and ironically that is also the age residents can apply for a passport. Namgyal feels like a tiger in a cage. His adventurous soul is desperate to see more of the world and to experience cultural acceptance. We've had simple dinner conversations turn unforgettable talks on frustration at the current situation, yet also inspiration for the blank palate of the future for Tibetans.
At Sera and Tashilhunpo monasteries we walked amongst courtyards of novice monks laughing and clapping in a commotion; they debate with one another on the philosophies of Buddhism. One afternoon at a house outside of Lhasa we made yak dumplings and screen printed prayer flags, we ended up dancing in the yard with the yaks in traditional dress. The next day we jumped on a bus and made our way across the high altitude plateau on a five day journey to Everest Base Camp. We have witnessed the spiritual Yamdrok Lake, craned our necks in awe at the glacier above Karo La Pass, strolled the old town of Gyantse, marked our territory on yak dung covered fields, in bathrooms with a trough and a serious lack of doors and even at bus stops amongst hoards of other busting Chinese tourists. We've sipped on Tibetan tea in a grey washed nunnery in the old capital of Sakya. We've visited many significant temples and slept in fancy hotels and huddled together in a tent. We have been put to bed with a bowl of burning herbs streaming smoke, blessing our bodies and minds.
The scenery on the 1000 mile return journey to Everest Basecamp in our cosy, petrol- fuelled bubble has been awe-inspiring. Snow was replaced by piercing sunshine, revealing a painted desert of layered mountains. Patterns dominate the landscape; stripes of maroon, ochre and cowlicks in slate create optical illusions; patches of brown grass cover mountains the way fur on a three week old leather carcass might. Even podcasts were too much of a distraction, I needed to have a clear mind to absorb the spectacular beauty before me. The sky feels so close you could reach out and swipe a puffy little cumulus right out of the crisp blue. We floated between 12,000 - 17,000ft on crawling plateaus and hairpin turned our way over prayer flag shrouded passes. The biggest mountain in the world came into view like a tall black poppy in a field of snowy peaks. It revealed itself to us, one face at a time. By early afternoon it had created a billowing white cloud of mystery from the east face. A square of numbered permanent tents littered on the outskirts with toilet paper and plastic dubbed Everest Base Camp was our home for the night. Despite the tough security and human influence, the place holds a certain magic. We climbed the red speckled quartz boulders and found a basic village tucked away with the ideal view of the mighty Himalayas. With a dizzy head I found myself all alone amongst ferociously flapping prayer flags and a steaming pot of incense while the clouds parted, showing the glowing amber peak of Mount Everest.
You can dedicate a fortnight in time and a lifetime in memories to Tibet. It has captured my heart in a few short days. With a development studies history it feels like the kind of place you could help to make some positive ripples. Change here is rapid, and the trajectory of that social and environmental change is anyone's guess. I feel sad we didn't see it minus plastic and external influence thirty years ago, yet it will have changed monumentally in another thirty years.
The rooftop of the world keeps your nostrils dry, your camera memory full, your eyes bulging, your brain spinning from inequalities, and your heart bursting with love and compassion.