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Few countries in the world evoke the mystique of Tibet. Many people know the name but few know much about this country. Nicknamed the "Roof of the World" (it shares Mount Everest -- the world's tallest mountain -- with Nepal), most people simply know it as the former home of the Dalai Lama. For centuries, Tibet heavily restricted outsiders and it wasn’t until 1924 that the first European woman, Belgian–French explorer Alexandra David-Néel, visited Lhasa, the capital.
Let’s start with the basics:
The Size of TibetMany believe that Tibet is a small country like neighboring Nepal or Bhutan. Actually, Tibet is huge. The Traditional Tibet (U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo provinces) is 965,000 square miles. This is over four times larger than France and a whopping 25% of the land mass of China, which is a good reason why the Communist Chinese invaded Tibet on October 6, 1950 only 10 months after winning the Chinese Civil War and declaring the People’s Republic of China. Since 1965, China recognizes only the much smaller Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) which comprises U-Tsang and the western area of Kham (474,300 sq. mi).
This Tibet is autonomous in name only because it is strictly governed by the Chinese Communist Party. Furthermore, China has steadily relocated Chinese into Tibet and there are now more Chinese (7.5 million) in Tibet than Tibetans (6 million). This does not bode well for Tibetans. The Tibetan flag and national anthem are banned and they can be imprisoned simply for possessing an image of the Dalai Lama. Over a million Tibetans have been killed and 6,000 monasteries destroyed since the Chinese invaded their country.
Tibet is the highest country on Earth with an average elevation of 13,000 feet. Altitude sickness is more prevalent here than anywhere else on the planet. If you visit Tibet, it’s recommended you give yourself at least 3-5 days of complete rest for your body to complete acute acclimatization or you can pay a heavy price.
The most common type of altitude sickness, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) occurs at elevations above 7,500 feet. The two fatal varieties, High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), can occur at 12,500 feet. The elevation in Lhasa is 12,000 feet and 16,732 feet at Rongbuk Monastery. (On a personal note, I grew up surfing in South Florida and thought skiing in Mammoth, California (base elevation 8,000 feet) would be a cinch. I jumped right in and was having a blast until I suddenly became dizzy and couldn’t get my bearings. Ten minutes later, I was gasping for breath as attendants sledded me down the mountain like a deer carcass strapped to the hood of an F-150.)
The Dalai Lama
The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the fourteenth Dalai Lama and the spiritual leader of the Yellow Hat Tibetan Buddhists. The first Dalai Lama was born in 1391 and each succeeding Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of his predecessor. Tenzin Gyatso was chosen when, at the age of two in 1937, he correctly selected all items presented to him that had belonged to the recently deceased 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso.
However, the Dalai Lama today believes his lineage is much older and that he is the seventy-fourth reincarnation that can be traced back to a Brahman boy who was given a crystal rosary by Buddha himself (567 BC - 484 BC). Many Tibetans remain steadfastly loyal to the Dalai Lama and hold him in extremely high reverence which is a good reason why the Chinese won’t be stamping his passport anytime soon.
Longevity and The Quest for Immortality
Life extension has never been as popular as it is today. In 2015, Google’s Sergey Brin announced that he was investing billions of dollars into his Project Calico, Google’s attempt to “cure death.” In 1696, a monastic medical school was built upon the summit of Chakpori Hill in Lhasa. In 1959, the Chinese destroyed it with artillery during the Tibetan Uprising claiming the Tibetans had posted a couple of cannons outside the school.
Some of the substances taught at Chakpori Hill reportedly had the ability to extend mortality far beyond that of the average human life span and at least two of them are in popular usage today. Himalayan dried goji berries are readily available in health food stores and shopping chains such as Trader Joes and Whole Foods. Li Qing Yuen subsisted mostly upon them (he also consumed ginseng, licorice root and gotu kola) and claimed that he was 267 years old when he died in 1930. Shilajit is an ancient tar-like substance of vegetable origin that oozes from the rocks in the mountains of Tibet. It has been reported to contain at least 85 minerals in ionic form, as well as triterpenes, humic acid and fulvic acid. The ancient Vedic Hindu text, the Charaka Samhita (200 BC), claims there is no disease that cannot be cured by Shilajit.
The Sky Burial
On the flip side of immortality is death and the Tibetans have a unique method for dealing with the deceased. The Sky Burial or Jhator was first mentioned in the 12th century Tibetan Book of the Dead. The ground in Tibet is too hard for traditional burial (solid rock or permafrost is only inches below the surface) and most of the country lies about the tree-line making traditional burial expensive and impractical.
Beginning at dawn, rogyapas (body-breakers) hack the deceased to pieces and then use rocks to pound the flesh and bones into a paste with tsampa (barley flour mixed with tea and yak butter) before lighting incense to summon hordes of giant Griffin vultures who swoop in to feast. The immediate family may be present, but usually during a nighttime ceremony that does not include a view of watching their beloved reduced to mush. Tibetan Buddhists believe the corpse is nothing but an empty vessel devoid of spirit and giving sustenance back to nature in this manner is an act of generosity that is essential to their beliefs. The practice is in decline due to restrictions in urban areas and the diminishing number of Griffin vultures in Tibet.
[David J. Castello is the author of The Diary of an Immortal (1945-1959)]
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