Breathing Tibet

Ben Lee

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Ben Lee

Ben Lee

Waking up at base camp on the Chinese side of Everest is like waking up after a big night out. Climbing out of bed and wrapping myself in a jacket and poncho were strenuous chores. Pushing open my tent’s metal door to amble out into the Tibetan wind and rain was enough to make me sit down on the nearest rock. What seemed like a hangover was, in fact, the effect of the altitude sickness I had suffered since landing in Lhasa, five days previously.

Partial view of Barkhor Square in central Lhasa. In the right foreground is a branch of the Chinese equivalent of KFC, “Dico’s”. The golden roof in the background belongs to the Jokhang Temple, generally considered the most sacred in Tibet.

Lhasa is a deceptively large city. If you limit yourself to the central Barkhor area, you could believe that there’s little more to the city than restaurants, souvenir stores, and incense. The whitewashed, red-shuttered buildings lining the streets are romantically rustic, their ornate balustrades and blue lintels luring you to inspect the exotic wares within. But anyone visiting Lhasa must notice the urban sprawl, comprising not only cultural sites but residential estates, shopping centres, hospitals, and schools. It has all the trappings of a modern capital, which in Lhasa’s case, also include military bases, armoured vehicles, police stations on every corner, and Chinese flags atop every building.

A pedestrian street in Barkhor.

On that first day in Lhasa, however, my scope quickly became far more limited than even Barkhor. Upon landing, the air was noticeably thinner, forcing me to breathe more deeply and move more slowly. Though I had taken altitude sickness pills before my flight from Chengdu, I ended up spending much of the day in bed, weak and in pain. For several hours, all I knew of Tibet was the graffiti-ridden walls of my hostel dorm.


Alcohol should have been out of the question. But on the second night, I allowed my travelling companions to peer pressure me into sampling the Lhasa nightlife. We were, after all, a bunch of foreign students in China taking advantage of our summer break. The best entertainment we could find was a cabaret theatre, where patrons could sit at one of many small tables in front of a large stage, and enjoy dinner and a show. In front of a screen showing projected images of Tibetan landscapes, topped with a grand diorama of the Potala Palace, we were treated to Tibetan and Chinese love ballads, traditional dancing, and even some slapstick comedy by performers in drag. At one point, an electronic remix of traditional Tibetan music started playing, and one man started shuffling about on stage. I wondered whether someone had pulled out of the show at the last minute, and this was the depressing substitute act, but it turned out that at regular intervals the stage became an impromptu dancefloor. Gradually, more people joined the lone dancer until two concentric rings of people were dancing on stage. One of them was a lady wearing a psychedelic T-shirt. The slogan on the front said, “Your life is a fucking illusion.”

Eastern view of Lhasa from the rear of the Potala Palace.

I’m unsure if the woman realized the gravity of her T-shirt’s pronouncement, but Tibet could have convinced me of its truth. Tibet’s natural and cultural heritage deserve to be experienced, and we are fortunate that much of it has survived the upheaval of the 20th century, especially the Cultural Revolution. You can make your way through labyrinthine temples packed with artifacts, and emerge under the bluest skies, breathing the freshest air in China. But those who live and breathe this heritage remain under the thumb of a communist regime thousands of miles away, which projects power through military might and Han Chinese colonists. If the fighter jets on the airport tarmac don’t convince you, the policemen slapping around local beggars in the main square will. Tibet’s cultural symbols are everywhere to be seen, but if those to whom they have meaning are restricted in their control and access, then those temple murals and carvings would be so much decoration, and Tibetan culture may one day fall as silent as the gilded tombs of Dalai Lamas past. Perhaps that T-shirt was a warning: your life is but mist, easily blown away by a strong wind.

The Yarlung Zangbo River, longest river in Tibet and upper stream of the Brahmaputra River. The Friendship Highway is visible here on the left bank.

On the fourth day, my friends and I began our road trip to Everest base camp. We took the Friendship Highway, so called because it links Lhasa and Kathmandu, thus symbolizing the friendship between Nepal and Tibet (and therefore China). Beside the highway runs the Yarlung Zangbo River, eventually to become the Brahmaputra River, on its way to meet the Ganges just before it runs into the Bay of Bengal. It is the lifeblood of this region, and we often observed herds of yak and mountain goats crouching at the riverbank to drink.


Unlike the freely flowing river, our journey was interrupted many times. The police impose a strict speed limit of 40km/h along the Friendship Highway, and enforce it through a series of checkpoints. This is ostensibly to prevent accidents, a genuine risk due to some sharp turns, the high elevation of the road, and lack of safety barriers. But it also guarantees that the police have a record of everyone who travels along that road. As tourists, we would have been known to the authorities anyway, but we only had to get out of the vehicle a couple of times. Our driver and tour guide, both locals, had to get out and show their papers every single time.

Our tour guide would tell us later, generously and frankly, that one of the freedoms he hoped would come to Tibet would be freedom of movement. It was inconvenient for us foreigners to be stopped every few hours simply getting from A to B. But imagine being born in a country where you are forced daily to justify your presence. Perhaps this is survivable if it’s all you’ve ever known. After all, tourists get to leave Tibet. Locals are never given passports.

At many checkpoints, there is a fibre-glass statue of a traffic policeman. His paintwork is often scratched and pitted, but he smiles and salutes all the same, welcoming travelers to the desolate stretch of bitumen beyond. At one checkpoint, our driver was instead greeted with a ¥2000 speeding fine. He had to pay on the spot and could not afford it. After several hours of negotiation, he was happy to pay only ¥800.

Rocky plain in front of Everest base camp. This area is restricted and the tourists seen here were soon chased away by local police. Everest itself would have been visible behind the perfectly mountain-shaped cloud at centre-left.

My friends and I chipped in so he wouldn’t be out of pocket on our account. Time was of the essence, not only because of the limited duration of our travel permit, but because favourable conditions at Everest base camp rarely last. If you have seen HD pictures of Everest in a nature documentary, prepare for another illusion to be shattered. For the entire time we were within sight of the mountain, it was shrouded in mist. “Base camp” consists of a hut on a hill with a plaque in front of it, and a shrine on an opposite hill covered in prayer flags, both overlooking a flat valley of stones, butting up against a wall of clouds. It’s not romantic and it’s very cold.

It was there that my altitude sickness, which I had thought under control, returned with a vengeance. I crouched among the prayer flags, hiding from the wind until it was time to go back to the tent city where we were staying the night. I slept fitfully, until unwanted light and noise forced me from the tent in the morning. I speculated later that it was only out here, away from the urban centres swarming with police and soldiers, that the Tibetan existence was not illusory. Here, if you were lucky, the mist would be blown away to reveal something permanent: Everest itself, the Holy Mother, Qomolangma. With only the environment to oppress you, everything else would fall away, and life would be what you made of it. But my revelation was different. The price you pay to sit at the foot of a goddess is to breathe the thinnest air. Right then, I wanted nothing more than to be back in the city, to feel the full weight of my footsteps on the pavement. I wouldn’t have minded being swept up in the sea of humanity as long as I felt like I belonged. Yet there I sat, alone on a rock beside a tent pitched on the roof of the world, head in my hands, struggling to breathe.

Ben Lee studies Chinese language and culture at the Australian National University, Canberra. He is currently translating classical Chinese anecdotal texts into English, and wishes he had another opportunity to explore the country that produced such tales of wonder.