A BHUTANESE EXPERIENCE TO THE ROOF OF THE WORLD
BY CHHIMI DORJI
My long anticipated dream of visiting the entrancing Tibet finally came true in April this year. I was part of a recent 14-day trip to Tibet organised by Adventure Trekking Club. It was enchanting and gratifying in many ways. Not many Bhutanese get to visit the region of the world which is most culturally similar to Bhutan.
If there is one place outside Bhutan where we can speak Dzongkha and expect to be half understood, and where everyone knows a “Drukpa”, it has to be Tibet. Many a time, it felt as if we found our long-lost cousins sharing similar culture, architecture and music.
We were a group of 22 Bhutanese all ages from all across the country, including the calmest Ap Phub from Chapcha, the oldest 78-year-old Aum Chencho of Paro, the singer duo Nim Budha of Haa and Gyaltshen of Gasa, and the extremely religious Dema of Yangtse.
Our organiser is a tour agent in Bhutan who hosts both tourists coming into Bhutan and Bhutanese travelling aboard to places such as China and Sri Lanka. This is apparently the tour leader Tashi Gyaltshen’s 23rd trip to the Tibetan plateau. We chose Tashi and his team chiefly due to their experience and knowledge of the area and assurance that permits would be obtained on time. I won’t be exaggerating when I say that the permit to visit Tibet does not come easy, and the required package through a government approved agent (like we have in Bhutan) usually comes at a cost of US$ 3,500 which translates to about Nu 200,000 per person.The package is worth the money spent.
We visited the most sacred temple in Tibet, the Jokhang in Barkor, Lhasa, which houses “Lhasa Jowo”, also known as Jowo Sakyamuni (the Wish-fulfilling Gem). It is, by far, the most venerated and beautiful image in all of Tibet. Housed in the Jowo Lhakhang shrine (on the ground floor of the Jokhang), the statue is 1.5 metres tall, cast from precious metals and decorated with glittering jewels.
We offered prayers for our loved ones, both living and the dead. There were scores of people lining up to offer gold paintings, money and food, signifying the spiritual peace and content one accumulates in doing so. Hundreds of people going around Barkor chanting mantras and prostrating only adds another dimension to our culture and beliefs. Our visit to Barkor was followed by a leisurely walk to the Norbulingka Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which used to be the summer residence of the Dalai Lama during the olden days.
One activity one must undertake is a hike up to the grand Potala Palace perched upon Marpo Ri, the palace named after Mount Potala, the abode of Chenregzig. Marpo Ri is about 130m above the Lhasa valley, the Potala Palace rises a further 170m and is the greatest monumental structure in Tibet. It was the residence of the Dalai Lama and centre of Tibet for many years, but it is now converted into a museum, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Potala is an architectural wonder with magnificent views of the Lhasa valley. The sight can melt anyone’s heart and not just of Captain Younghusband from the British Army. The Lama at the main chapel, “Jowo”, was happy to take in the Bhutanese group and our incense offerings. It was such a pleasant moment.
Climbing up the Lhasa valley, we rode the wide mountain roads ascending to 4,770m Gambala/Khambala pass to view the beautiful lake called Yamdrok Yumtsho. The lake covering some 680 square kilometres is not only surreal but also sacred and vital for water resource of Tibet. We also got to pose with the giant Tibetan Mastiffs that are almost a metre tall, and rod fully decorated yaks at 4,400m.
Ralung, the origin of Drukpa Kagyu School, stands at some 4,700m within a cluster of ruins and a temple in the centre, which is being renovated as well. Here too, the lama was delighted to entertain visitors from Bhutan and made it convenient for us to perform moenlam (prayers), and also offer a round of butter tea. It was quite an experience to imagine what Ralung might have been like before 1616, from where Zhandrung Rinpoche came to Bhutan.
The group also visited the towns of Gyantse, Shigatse and Tshethang, and were taken around to places such as Kubum Chorten that has thousands of Buddha paintings, Tashi Lhunpo, the seat of the Panchen Lamas, Yubumlagang, Tra Druk Lhakhang, and finally Samye. Samye is the first Buddhist monastery built in Tibet by Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th Century. The Ging Tsholing Chaam originates in Samye where Guru Rinpoche subjugated the demons on Hepori.
The cultural exposure the group enjoyed cannot be fully put into words. A personal visit is a must to comprehend the feeling. It was not only fascinating but flattering to see Tibetan dance troupes dancing to the tunes of Kheng Sonam’s ‘Bumo Tshering Tshomo’. Apparently, Dzongkha music videos and songs are quite popular in Tibet.
My adivse for anyone wishing for a Tibet trip is to prepare for high altitude as much as you can, and drink as much fluid as possible. Acclimatization to higher altitudes is a good idea, and maybe even starting the trip with Tshethang or Samye is a possible option for slow asscend. If you need a guidebook, make sure to hide it well or take PDFs or printouts, for lonley planet is not appreciated in Tibet. Tourist vans and hotels does provide Oxyen clyinders and first aid at a call. Not everyone speaks English, not even Tibetan in some places.
For offerings to temples, the Bhutanese incense is a great idea. And don’t forget to take note of what denominations you are changing your money to. We mistook the Jiao for Yuan (1 Yuan = 10 Jiao, 1 Jiao = 10 Fen).
In recent times, we have heard of pilgrims to Nepal and India not being satisfied with their programmes. I would say that I and the rest in the group were very content with our pilgirmage to Tibet and the services offered to us by Adventure Trekking Club. I cannot imagine myself trying to teach a 50-something-year-old Bhutanese farmer the concept of time, airport check-in, dining in a three-star hotel, or turning on the hotel shower. But we do enjoy these comforts at the end of the day!
The group travelled to Tibet with www.adventurebhutan.com
CHHIMI DORJI. Based in Thimphu, Bhutan, he is an independent Consultant on energy, environment and water resources. He was educated in the USA, India, Bhutan and Norway. Chhimi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.