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First Impressions in Tibet

Labrang Monastery

An old saying holds true: A first impression is a lasting impression. Our first venture into the Tibetan Plateau was profound, yet so simple, and a starting point for wanting to venture into far lands.

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By Kevin McFarland

Visited June 2016

Tibet, that vast, distinctive and mysterious land, has been on my heart to visit from a young age. Scrolling through books detailing its natural wonders, pouring over traveler’s tales, imagining trekking across landscapes and sharing tea with nomads, the roof of the world captivated and intrigued me. Several years ago, when I first set my foot on the high-altitude soil of Tibet, those years of fascinations and imaginations became a reality. Currently, even though I’ve journeyed through the plateau several times now, even moving to Sichuan to be within driving shot of the Tibetan region, my mind constantly wanders back to that first touchdown to Tibet. An old saying holds true: A first impression is a lasting impression.

We, myself and my wife, began our Tibetan odyssey in a region known as Amdo Tibet. Amdo Tibet, situated in Qinghai, Northwestern Sichuan and Southern Gansu, is one of three ancient cultural regions of the Tibetan plateau. Nomads wander here for thousands of miles with their yaks grazing on the endless grasslands. In their horizons, snow-capped mountains and their craggy peaks reach to the heavens. Within these vast lands are deep cultural traditions and ancient treasures that await to be discovered. On the outer edge of the plateau lies one such cultural treasure - the Labrang Monastery, Amdo’s largest. It was to this ancient yet living monastery that our bus chugged towards several years ago, our first journey into the land of snows.

The conclusion of this five-hour bus ride transported us to a landscape so far removed from the desert lands of Islamic Lanzhou – Capitol of Gansu Province. The tan of the desert was replaced with red, green, orange, yellow and blue prayer flags draped across the road, flapping in the wind to greet us to the world’s highest and largest plateau. When we set foot off the crumbling bus, we immediately noticed we were in a different part of China. The typical red color of Tibet permeated the atmosphere, whether from the framework of the buildings to the crimson robes of the monks. Nomads, monks and locals all shared the streets, each dressed in their unique identity. The monks were draped in robes, the nomads wore cowboy hats and leather boots, and the locals attire ranged from intricate jewelry and patterns to modern clothes.

But what struck out most vividly was the audience of their faith. The town itself is situated around the imposing and ancient Labrang Monastery. Here, the Tibetans walked ceaselessly around the walls and within the corridors spinning prayer wheels, counting beads and chanting prayers. Young and old, nomad and lama, intermingled to form a living and breathing symphony of sights, sounds and smells. Chants and murmurings mixed with the sound of fluttering prayer flags, creaking hinges and eagles whistling above. Stray dogs were lazed under the wheels, monks prostrated up and down and children ran to and fro. Smells of burning incense, steamed momo and painted woodwork lingered in the air. All my imaginations of the Tibetan plateau were realized in a single moment of standing still and taking it all in.

Even the simple restaurants are full of charm. When we entered one such eatery and made our way up the creaky, wooden stairs, we sat underneath a yak skull with a yellow ribbon hanging across its horns. The ceiling was decorated with Thangka paintings depicting mythological scenes and prayer flags lining the perimeters. As we were curiously gazing around, three nomads came through the door and sat across from us. Adorned with cowboy hats, leather garments and well-worn boots, these rough-and-tumble Himalayan cowboys seemingly came from the wild west. We were enthralled to be in the middle of this epic western, expecting a duel to commence at any moment. When our yak milk butter tea came to our table, along with hand-rolled barley-wheat tsampa, the setting escalated. Our world as we were accustomed to seemed so far away. However, we were not on a movie set; we were just experiencing a slice of daily life on the Tibetan plateau.

The enchanting thing about traveling, where one often forgoes the comfort of home and routine, is the chance to experience and stand alongside something different, something special, something human – like that simple recollection at the eatery. Tibet, in all its colorful character and intricate culture, is normal and routine to the people who call it home. The chance and opportunity to stand alongside them, even for the faintest snapshot of time, remains unforgettable. Perhaps when you chart your introductory journey to the plateau, as I did several years ago, or if you are returning for a more complete understanding and immersion in their land, fresh insights and touching moments may turn up in the most unexpected, yet simplest of ways. Our first impression of Tibet, and everyone thereafter, quite possibly last a lifetime to ponder and cherish.

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