Preface – Traveling in Tibet in 1988

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Introduction

From September 1987 to August 1988 I spent a year in China as a foreign student. I was 21 at that time and was studying Chinese at Shanghai’s Fudan University. During that year I had the opportunity to travel all around the country, from Shanghai to Kashgar, from Xiamen to Dali, from Hongkong to Beijing, and to many more destinations as well.

In May 1988, I was traveling to Xinjiang in the far West, on the border to Pakistan and Afghanistan, together with another German student from Fudan. Due to recent popular unrest in Tibet, Tibet was officially closed for foreigners. However in Turfan and Kashgar we met backpackers who had just been in Tibet, and who told us that there was one legal way to get to Lhasa, and once there, travelling was quite unrestricted.

The only legal and official way to get into Tibet, they told us, was renting a minibus from Golmud to Lhasa from the official Chinese tourism agency. Why not give it a try? On our way back from Xinjiang we stopped over in Dunhuang, and then took the public bus to Golmud.

It was in fact possible to take a minibus to Lhasa, and so I had the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in Tibet. From Lhasa I traveled to Xigaze and Gyangze, and back to Lhasa before returning to Shanghai via Xining. (Link: Route on Google Maps)

The slides I took during the time in Tibet may have almost „historic“ value today, more than 20 years later. I am quite sure that some of landscapes and buildings I was able to see then have now given way to a more „modern“ and supposedly better way of life. This is why I decided to have them digitized and to post some of them, with the date they were taken and the little background information I can still find in my diary from that time. I decided to post in English to reach a larger audience.

Before you expect too much: you will not find any really spectacular photographs – I never was a skilled photographer, and I was taking the pictures with a simple 35 mm rangefinder camera. Also, do not expect too much background information. I am not an expert on Tibet and Tibetan culture. Also, the diary entries have been translated without a lot of editing. They are the sometimes rather naive notes of an uncritical 21-year-old. I hope you will enjoy the pictures anyway, and I am looking forward to comments.

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A Page from my 1987/88 Diary


Many thanks to Barry for copy-editing the English text.

May 28, 1988 – Golmud

After arriving from Dunhuang by bus, we have difficult negotiations with CITS (China International Travel Service) staff in Golmud. The only legal way to get into Tibet is to pay 346 Yuan per person for a minibus.

The minibus leaves at 3 in the afternoon. Fantastic landscapes! Late at night we stop at an hotel run by the Chinese army. As we have been traveling at about 4,700 meters above sea level for most of the day, many of us suffer from altitude sickness: dizziness, weak stomach, headaches.

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„Grazing“ Yaks

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More Yaks

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Snowy Peaks in the Distance

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May 29, 1988 – On the Road to Lhasa

The trip continues at 9 in the morning. We cross two 5,000 meter mountain passes. One of them is the Tangula pass at the border between Qinghai and Tibet, at 5,231 meters above sea level.

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The Tangula Moutain Pass

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A Heap of Stones with Sacred Texts

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Stupas on the Road to Lhasa

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An Incense Burner

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Same Row of Stupas from Afar

At about 6 p.m. we arrive at Nagqu, where we will stay over night. There’s a marketplace in Nagqu where all sorts of things are on sale. Later that night I try to eat some soup with Mantou at a small restaurant.

May 30, 1988 – Lhasa

At half past three in the afternoon we arrive at Lhasa. We are dropped off at the „Yak Hotel“ where we will probably be staying, as all hotels for backpackers in Lhasa supposedly cost the same – 20 Yuan per night.

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Street View of Lhasa with the Potala Palace in the Background

Coming down from an average height of above 4,700 meters to Lhasa at 3,600 meters is an immense relief – the altitude sickness is gone immediately. We pamper ourselves with „Yak Steak with Chips“ and pancake with chocolate at a small restaurant catering for backpackers. As we arrive late at the hotel we have to take a cold shower.

May 31, 1988 – Lhasa

The travel guide who was supposed to show us Lhasa (31 Yuan mandatory fee, part of the deal with CITS in Golmud) did not show up. Is it worth registering a complaint with CITS? Probably not … So we took breakfast, first, and then walked to the Jokhang Temple. (Link: Google Maps)

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Entrance to the Old City of Lhasa with View of the Jokhang Temple

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The Front of Jokhang Temple

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Pole with Prayer Flags in Front of Jokhang Temple

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One of the Countless Stray Dogs in Front of Jokhang Temple

It was incredible, fantastic – words failed me. We queued with the pilgrims who proceeded from room to room, reciting prayers, donating money and yak butter for the yak butter candles.

Afterwards, we climbed the roof of the Jokhang, from where you can see the Potala palace.

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View from the Roof

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Another View From the Roof

After lunch, I took a walk down to the Lhasa river, together with some other German backpackers, from where we had a wonderful view of the Potala. Some of us took a bath in the ice-cold river, unaware of the dead dogs lying in the river just a few meters upstream. Then we took a sunbath before walking back to town, passing more dead dogs, the slaughtering place for sheep and a rusty, dilapidated Mao Zedong sheet metal sign with Tibetan characters.

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View of the Potala Palace from the Banks of Lhasa River

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Mao Zedong

Compared to the places I have been to before, Lhasa is very expensive. But well worth the money!

June 1, 1988 – Lhasa – Potala Palace

We had breakfast at a restaurant called „Top of the World“. Then we went to the Potala palace. After the usual discussions I managed to get a Chinese price ticket (1 Yuan) instead of Foreigners tickets (5 Yuan) with my valid and legitimate student ID card. Once again, it was incredible to see the treasures concealed in this palace! However tensions (between the Tibetans and the Chinese) are tangible, and there are wild rumors going around.

Impressions of the Potala Palace (Link: Google Maps)
Note: Taking pictures inside the palace buildings was strictly forbidden.

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On the lighter side, in the evening, an American geologist with whom we shared a dorm room at the Yak Hotel spread the rumor that Reinhold Messner was in town.

Later that night I took another walk through the Old City with my fellow traveler Matthias. Lhasa is a beautiful city! During dinner at „Best Place“ I was more or less forced into buying a wooden prayer wheel for 14 Yuan …

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June 2, 1988 – Lhasa – Drepung Monastery

Succumbing to the celebrity rumors, we had breakfast at the Lhasa Hotel. It was him at the next table, or wasn’t it? (I didn’t really care, in the first place, but some of my fellow travelers did.)

After breakfast we rode our rented bicycles to Drepung Monastery. Apart from fantastic picture-taking opportunities, there was a bunch of very cheerful and curious monks.

Impressions from Drepung Monastery (Link: Google Maps)

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Later that night, the Swiss-Israeli couple we had been traveling with for a while, but who stayed in Dunhuang for the weekend, finally arrived in Lhasa. The told us that they had been having trouble with CITS, too.

June 5, 1988 – From Lhasa to Xigaze

We had to get up at 6:30, for a long, exhausting, but very worthwhile bus trip. I was traveling with Matthias, a fellow student from Fudan, and Ran and Suzanne*. During a lunch stop at somewhere in the middle of nowhere I bought a pair of hand-knitted Tibetan mittens.

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Old Tibetan Buildings

The Tenzin Hotel where we stayed in Xigaze was a beautiful, Tibetan-run hotel with a lot of atmosphere. The inner city of Xigaze, on the other hand was an abomination of typical Chinese buildings made with pre-cast concrete slabs.

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Old Tibetan Buildings in the Foreground, New Buildings in the Background


* Personal note: Ran and Suzanne are the Israeli-Swiss couple mentioned before, with whom I stayed in contact for many years after traveling together in China. Then we lost contact completely, but later re-established contact again, thanks to the internet. We have met several times since then – both in Germany and in Israel.