The Road To Tibet: Crossing The Friendship Highway

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tibet’s history is a complicated story of spirituality, invasion, conquest, and persecution. Once a Buddhist nation governed by the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s religious identity was brutally stripped away in 1951 when Chinese troops forcibly occupied the region, destroying monasteries and killing thousands of civilians.

In 1959 the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa and settled under the security of neighboring India where he continues to peacefully protest the Chinese occupation of his beloved homeland. Today, Tibetans are prohibited from practicing Buddhism and forbidden to hold or display any idolatry of the Dalai Lama. Travelers must also follow strict laws that have been put in place by the Chinese government, keeping in mind that pictures of the Lama and maps showing Tibet as an independent nation are prohibited.

Michael J. Ybarra witnessed the consequences of traveling with banned paraphernalia while reporting for The Wall Street Journal during his five-day trip from Kathmandu, Nepal to Lhasa — now regarded as the administrative capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region in the People’s Republic of China. Ybarra’s journey led him across the Friendship Highway, the highest paved road in the world, and the only one with a spectacular view of Mount Everest. His bus trip averaged  above 11,800 feet, with three passes topping 16,000 feet.

“At the border we crossed the Friendship Bridge into Tibet — China’s idea of friendship apparently requiring you to leave one bus, then hike uphill for half an hour to another. Not to mention confiscating your guidebook. China bans Lonely Planet guides because of a map representing Tibet as a separate country,”  recalls Ybarra. He also points out that several people in his group (China only allows individuals to travel to Tibet with tour groups, limiting the amount of time that can be spent in the region) had to rip out or hide any books with photos of the Dalai Lama so that the guides would not be taken away.

Unfortunately, on the day his bus crossed through Lalungla — a pass at 16,400 feet that offers views of five of the world’s tallest mountains including Everest — Ybarra was unable to get a glimpse of the giants due to cloudy weather. The visit to Lhasa was also disheartening as the sprawling city’s turbulent past was apparent in the stringent Chinese troops that surrounded the Jokhang Temple, Tibet’s most revered shrine.

After losing his way on a muddled path to see the Sera monastery, Ybarra felt a glimmer of hope for the fate of Tibet when he was redirected by a woman whom he believed to be his personal “Bodhisattvas,” or Buddhas who have attained enlightenment but opt to stay on earth to help others.

The journey ended on a surprising note when Ybarra finally saw Everest from a first-class seat he snuck into on his flight leaving Lhasa. “And there it was: Just a bump on a ridge—but what a ridge. Everest and its satellite peaks rose above a sea of clouds like an island, into a cobalt blue sky, a plume of snow blowing off its summit like a flag. Its bulk was impressive. I began to look for climbing lines . . . Then I got kicked out of the seat. It seemed a fitting departure from Tibet.”

[Photo by Stevehicks/Flickr]

By Maria Russo


About the Author

Maria Russo is a freelance writer who loves natural wonders, good eats, ethical travel, and boutique hotels. Her work has appeared on the Huffington Post, USA, and A Luxury Travel Blog, among others.


When Maria is not writing for her all-time favorite site (that would be The Expeditioner), she spends her time blogging about foreign jaunts and delectable food experiences for her site: Memoirs of a Travel & Food Addict. She is also up to no good on Twitter (@traveladdictgrl, @expedmaria).

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