Tibet Experience Still Possible Via Innovative Tour Operator

The borders of Tibet are now completely closed to foreign tourists, after being severely limited for much of the summer. With no indication of when they will reopen, plans to visit have been put on hold for many. The good news is that travelers can experience much of what Tibet has to offer without crossing borders.

As a decent substitute, tour operator JOURNEYS International continues to offer travel to areas where cultures deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhism still thrive unrestricted by government oppression or control.

Culturally Tibetan areas of Yunnan province in China; Ladakh, India; and the high Himalayan valleys of Nepal and Bhutan are being visited and offer some distinct advantages, especially over not going at all.

Within Tibet, pictures and literature about the Dalai Lama are strictly forbidden. Outside of China, the Dalai Lama is revered and celebrated as a living God. Monasteries and temples within Chinese Tibet are essentially maintained as museums, not as religious institutions.

In Chinese Tibet it is dangerous for locals to talk openly with tourists. In the Ladakh region of India and in Nepal and Bhutan, Tibetan Buddhism is practiced much the same now as it has been for hundreds of years. Visitors are free to discuss spirituality and religion with local people, and often meet Tibetans in exile who will talk openly.

The season is also much longer, and fewer permits and restrictions apply.

For more details on specific trips incorporating Tibetan culture and themes into travel programs see the JOURNEYS webpages for Nepal, Ladakh, Yunnan and Bhutan.

[Flickr photo by ~FreeBirD®~]

Letter from Kathmandu: Brokedown Palace

Waiting at the ticket booth to Narayanhiti — Nepal’s Royal Palace — I felt like a Chinese commoner entering the Forbidden City for the first time. It’s not too much of a stretch. Nepali Kings, like Chinese Emperors, were touted as divine rulers: avatars of the Hindu god Narayana, the Great Preserver.

Ever since my first visit to Kathmandu in 1979, I had glimpsed Narayanhiti only through its high gates, or past the tall trees that shelter the grounds from view. But in February 2009 — less than a year after the former Kingdom became a Republic — the private residence was converted into a public museum.

Nepal was under royal rule for most of the past 500 years. What we need here, just to get it out of the way, is a brief history of Nepal’s king situation over the past 50-odd years.

In 1955, King Mahendra took the throne. He was an interesting guy who enjoyed black-and-white photography, admired Elvis Presley, and teased his subjects with the notion of democracy. Mahendra and the former kings didn’t live in Narayanhiti; they stayed in the old palace, or durbar, in what’s now Kathmandu’s historic quarter.

Shortly after Mahendra died in 1972, his eldest son — Birendra — was coronated, and moved into the recently completed Narayanhiti. As a leader Birendra was rather like George W. Bush, but without the wit and charm. The intelligentsia got fed up and in 1990, a massive “Peoples’ Movement” wrested power from the throne. But Birendra remained on as king; he was allowed to stay in Narayanhiti with his wife and family, serving as a unifying symbol of ethnically diverse Nepal. When he was killed in 2001 (more on this below), his brother, Gyanendra, took over. Nobody liked this guy — so in 2008 there was another People Power revolution. Gyanendra was shown the door, and the Palace became a museum. Whew.

After checking my daypack and passing through security, I entered the sprawling, grassy grounds. Far behind me, beyond the silver gates, lay Durbar Margh: Kathmandu’s frenetic boutique boulevard, sort of a cut-rate Champs d’Elysees. Its taxi horns and motorcycles faded into the background.

The architecture of Narayanhiti is hard to describe. Completed in 1969, it was designed by an American architect named Benjamin Polk. The building is grand without being impressive, stately without conveying any emotion, and the first reaction most people have when beholding the building is, “Hunh?” Still, it was a thrill to approach the sequestered palace and climb the marble stairway flanked by statues of horses and mythical beasts.

Though the building is grand from the outside, the inside felt cloistered and cold, with small windows, dark paneling and shabby decor that looks as though it hasn’t been changed since Paul McCartney and Wings recorded “Live and Let Die.” With its narrow corridors and stuffed tigers (not to mention crocodiles, deer and rhinoceroses), the place has a strange juju. One cannot use the word “comfy” to describe a single room. This applies especially to the bedroom for the “First Lady of the Visiting Head of State,” which features a macabre poster showing a little girl morphing into a wrinkled crone. Below, in Nepali, is the phrase (roughly translated) “Yikes! This is Our Fate!”

Knowing Birendra’s fate, it’s a poignant experience to stand at the roped-off threshold of the late king’s office — a retreat as modest as the throne room is ostentatious. There’s a large wooden desk, a middle-of-the-line bookshelf stereo, and shelves filled with a strange assortment of books: Freedom in Exile, by the Dalai Lama; 1001 Wonderful Things, by Hutchinson; Hindu Castes and Sects. There is a picture of Mount Kailash on the wall. The image of the holy mountain, long a pilgrimage spot for Tibetan Buddhists, intrigues me. Was Birendra a spiritual man? A king of hidden depths? We’ll never know — but I’m inclined to doubt it.

Perhaps the most surprising room in the palace is the office of former King Mahendra, with its art deco furniture, vintage photographs and large globes of the planet earth and celestial sphere. I’m not saying I could live in it, but it would be a great set for a sitcom about a gay Nepali ad man.

Much of it you’ve seen before, in other former palaces. There are the usual salons lined with glass cases filled with useless gifts from visiting dignitaries: bronze medallions, filigree peacocks, a crystal paperweight from New York City Mayor Edward Koch. The walls are arrayed with photographs of distinguished visitors — even the humblest of them more significant, on an international scale, than their host.

The opulent Gorkha Hall does everything it can to contradict this bit of realpolitik, with its soaring, Gaudi-esque columns and — most important — Ceremonial Throne. Every King needs one of these, and this one is a beauty. More than half a ton of silver and 30 tolas of gold (nearly a pound) were used to build the settee-sized, velvet-cushioned seat of power. Silver elephants support the legs. A canopy of nine gold nagas (snake gods) shaded the King’s head, and thick gold serpents served as his armrests.

But even these nagas, despite their best intentions, could not protect Birendra from his own son. On June 1, 2001, during a social function at the Palace, the drunk and besotted Crown Prince Dipendra allegedly went insane, and gunned down his entire family — the King, Queen Aiswarya, his sister, and several other relatives — with automatic weapons.

The venue for the infamous Royal Massacre, it turns out, was a separate building: an older complex of rooms on the grounds behind the palace. That structure has now been demolished. Only the foundation remains, as if it were an ancient ruin. Cardboard signs indicate, by number, the overgrown sites where the murders occurred – including the little garden bridge, still standing, upon which Dipendra reportedly took his own life. These landmarks are weird abstractions, and a sobering reminder of how the new government immediately destroyed every shred of evidence that might shed light on the real motives for (and perhaps the real perpetrators of) the killings.

It’s often true in Asia that places look better from a distance. I left Narayanhiti feeling underwhelmed and a bit sad. Partly it was for the palace itself: a place that seemed devoid of any warmth or vibrancy. But I was sad for Nepal as well. The one thing the floundering country most desperately needed, and truly deserved, was a great king, a leader who, like Thailand’s King Bhumibol or Bhutan’s Jigme Singye Wangchuck, inspired their subjects by example.

Instead, Nepal got kings like Mahendra — who told one of his engineers during Narayanhiti’s construction, “It is worthless to give grandeur to my palace, because the people will never be ready to admire it even if I make something as grand as the Taj Mahal.”

It’s bad practice, among kings, to blame your subjects for your own lack of imagination. That was Nepal’s story for the past few centuries. Today, the new republic’s commoners stagger out of Narayanhiti in a daze, having spied at last the man behind the curtain. He put on quite a show — but the show is over. I hope they find the heart, brains and courage to take over from here.

Jeff Greenwald is a writer and performance artist. His books include Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal, Shopping for Buddhas, and The Size of the World. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Salon.com, among other publications. For more, visit jeffgreenwald.com.

China closes Tibet once again

China has once again closed off the borders of Tibet to foreign travelers ahead of the October 1st holiday celebrating 60 years of Communist rule. According to this story from the Associated Press, the travel ban went into effect on Tuesday and is expected to last at least until the 8th October and is the result of fears of protests and demonstrations in the Himalayan state. The article says that while no new visitors are being allowed in, travelers already in Tibet have been allowed to stay.

Besides shutting down the borders, security has also been increased across the country, particularly in the larger urban centers such as Lhasa. These measures have become common place in recent months, starting with a crackdown in March of 2008, following a series of riots, that left the country shut off to the rest of the world for months. The Chinese claim that 22 people were killed during that incident, but Tibetan nationals claim that that number is in the hundreds. Beijing made the same move in February of this year out of fears of further protests around the 50th anniversary of the exile of the Dalai Lama.

The economic impact of shutting down the borders is felt directly by the Tibetan people, many of whom make their living in the tourist trade. Autumn is traditionally the second busiest time of the year for tourism in Tibet, with trekkers and mountaineers visiting the country following the departure of the summer monsoon. According to the AP story, the effects are already being felt, with foreign visitors to local hotels already down 20%-30%.

Hopefully the October 1st holiday comes and goes without incident and the borders reopen on schedule on the 8th.

Book give-a-way and travel read: The Open Road, the Global Journey of the 14th Dalai Lama

When Pico Iyer was growing up, his father was a friend of the Dalai Lama. That was the beginning of Iyer’s own relationship with a person that many seek out as a spiritual rock star of sorts. In his book The Open Road, The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Iyer gives insight into what it’s like inside the Dalai Lama’s circle, as well as, what it’s like being inside Iyer’s life.

When the book first came out in hardcover last year, I gave a heads up. This month the Vintage Press paperback version was released.

The publisher has given us two copies to give-a-way. For details, go to the end of the Talking Travel interview with Iyer and post a comment there. You have until tomorrow at 5:00 p.m. to win.

Iyer is a global traveler and a careful observer which makes his books a sensory exploration into the worlds where he ventures. Landscape, people, and the hum of life are woven together into a lush reading experience for anyone who picks up his work. I’ve happily discovered this book does the same.

The backdrop this time is the landscape of the world where the Dalai Lama lives and travels in relation to where Iyer has also ventured. The result of Iyer’s observations is an intriguing examination about the people and places that surround the Dalai Lama’s life and work, as well as the Dalai Lama’s perspective on it all.

Along with certain conversations Iyer has had with the Dalai Lama, including a disinterested version when he was a teenage boy, Iyer weaves throughout the book his observations and musings about Tibetan Buddhism, life in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s speaking engagements where Iyer sometimes sits in the audience and the changes in the scenery and intentions of the Dalai Lama’s work that Iyer has noticed over the years.

I was particularly captivated by the sections where Iyer describes Dharamsala, India a place I have also been, and as luck would have it, one of those people sitting in the courtyard at the monastery where the Dalai Lama lives listening to one of his talks. This book is a welcome companion to that experience because it fills in all the behind the scenes details such as what happens in his life when he is not addressing an audience. Because Iyer’s thoughts were gathered in various personal conversations that range from the Dalai Lama himself to his family members, helpers and random people who Iyer has come across in his travels of meeting up with Dalai Lama in various locations, the result is an unusual, intimate look at places people may have visited themselves, read about or seen pictures of in a lush coffee table book. Iyer brings such scenes to life.

One of Iyer’s purposes for writing The Open Road was to give readers another perspective of a remarkable man about which there has been much written before. I say he has succeeded, as well as, offering the reader another opportunity to see the world through Iyer’s eyes. Every time I spend a few hours enjoying the world the way Iyer sees it, I feel I understand a little bit more the visual cues and subtleties one encounters in a traveling life.

Talking Travel with Pico Iyer and a book give-away

When I first read Pico Iyer’s book Video Night in Kathmandu, I was hooked. Reading Iyer’s words is a trip down streets that you may have traveled before but have not found the words to describe. When you read his prose, the tendency is to say, “Yes, that’s it.” For places one hasn’t been, he draws you into the scenes as if you are there looking at the world through his perceptive eyes.

Seven years ago, I met Iyer, who lives in Japan when he’s not traveling the world, at a writers symposium in New Delhi. As usual, there was a bit of trepidation in saying hello to a person whose work I admire. Like, what if this person I think so highly of turns out to be a jerk? There was no need for such concern. Iyer is as gracious and warm as his writing.

As fate has it, I was able to reconnect with him this past summer via e-mail. In between his recent trips to Sri Lanka and New Delhi to attend literary events earlier this year, Iyer answered my Talking Travel interview questions. In subsequent e-mails, I found out that we have a mutual admiration for Kentucky, Thomas Merton and Johnny Depp. Yes, they are connected. More on that later. That post is percolating.

In the meantime, here’s the interview where Iyer gives his impressions of honing into the essence of place, the Country Bear Jamboree, Atlanta, and more.

Bonus: This Talking Travel interview comes with a bonus for Gadling readers. This month Iyer’s book The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama came out as a Vintage Books paperback. His publisher, Random House, will give away two copies of the book (shipping included). See the end of the interview for contest rules and how to win. Look for the book review on Wednesday.

1. What are your earliest memories of travel as a child that captured that sense of excitement and wonder?

I am walking down the street in Oxford–a grey street of red-brick houses–towards the local sweet-shop, and something in me recognizes that, though this place is the only one I’ve known, and though I feel the same as every one of the five year-old boys around me, it’s not mine, and therein lies a promise, a possibility.

I am being driven by my parents through the Alps, the first massed snow I’ve ever seen. I am stepping into a fancy lobby in a big hotel in Belgium (my father must be at a conference), and realizing the pleasure of rooms not one’s own. I am setting foot in Reykjavik Airport, during a transit stop on the cheapest flight then across the Atlantic, and faces are crowding in against the window to see a woman dressed in a sari, an extraterrestrial, as she might be in Iceland. She is my mother.

[photo taken by Alefiya Akabarally at the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka this past January.]

2. One quality I’ve always admired about your writing is your ability to tap into the personality of a country. What advice do you have about tapping into the essence of a place?

Places are like people, with personalities just as distinct, and a travel writer, of course, is someone who aims to create not just a photograph of a place but a portrait. My advice would be to walk and walk and walk, as soon as you arrive, when the place is still new to you and every perception is fresh–the mind has not yet begun to settle into prejudices or arguments.

Take down everything and remember that anything (an Internet cafe, a Golden Arches, a shop selling TVs) is interesting, and revealing of the society around it. And try, wherever possible, to remember that you’ve come all this way–even if it’s only to another state–to enter a foreign state of mind, a different sensibility. The joy of travel is not being reminded of your assumptions, or being confirmed in your beliefs, but in being led out of them, to something utterly other and, perhaps, unfathomable.

3. As a person who is a master at picking just the right words to evoke images and moods of a place, how have you observed a particular country’s use of language influences the personality it projects? Or, do you notice these differences?

Alas, I travel only with English, broken or occasionally patched together again, and I’m not sure I am sensitive to the words around me at all. As you know, I did write a whole chapter in my book Sun After Dark on how India has remade the English that the British Empire brought to it, so as to create a new language, thoroughly Indian, richly spiced, funny and charming and freighted with innocence, that is the first step towards the remaking of English literature we’re seeing in countries such as India. People worry that the world is growing smaller, but my experience is that, even as two hundred countries speak English, that simply leads to 200 often mutually incomprehensible forms of English.

[photo of Iyer talking with writer William Dalrymple at the Jaipur Literature Festival this past January. ]

4. Although most of the time I read your work, I feel a certain aura of safety. In Sun After Dark you give an account of your trip to a prison that did not go so well. Was your danger radar off that day? What WERE you thinking?

I travel in search of difficulty (or at least of contradiction and unease and challenge)–and apart from that prison trip, that book describes a night-time drive through the mountains of Yemen, from which I thought I’d never emerge, visiting Ethiopia, where I was staying in a hotel next to the most wanted man in the world, bumping through the haunted night in Cambodia and walking into privation and near-revolution in Haiti. I have been lucky enough to live in relative safety–and comfort and peace–all my life, so when I travel, I am trying to go to places as different from my gated privilege as possible. I want to see what the world is like for the 99% of my neighbors in my global village who are not lucky enough to live in a resort town in California or in placid and very protected Japan.

That’s why I’ve spent 26 years now in war-zones and revolutions, as a journalist, and why the places I seek out are generally places of great strife or seeming suffering (I write this in Sri Lanka, where my guide here from my last trip was gunned down on his way to work three weeks ago). Some people work very hard in an office, and when they travel they want nothing but peace and ease. Many refugees, propelled out of their homes by war or threat, long only to get back to the places they’ve been obliged to leave. I am just a regular person who’s never had to fight for my life and who isn’t burdened by the pressures of the office, so when I travel I want to go to South Africa, to Beirut, to Cuba, or to anywhere that will remind me that my cosy life is not the norm.

5. What do you do to hone your senses so that you avoid bad situations, or do you think you’re more likely to go with the flow and hope for the best?

I do listen to my intuition, and assume that it always knows more than I do. Though I do seek out difficulty, I don’t want to place myself needlessly in the way of danger; I see no value in people from relatively safe places courting death just for the thrill of it. But travel is not about physical movement; it’s about trying to journey out of your assumptions into the eyes and shoes of another. If it can be done without harming the other, or yourself, it can only be good; if not, then one has to ask why one’s doing it.

6. As much as traveling can create the sense that one is connected to the world, it can also create the feeling of being unsettled. What do you do to stay grounded and keep track of yourself in the process?

I tend to be too settled, so I seek out being unsettled–at the very least, that can test the ground I have. Everywhere man is settled, as Emerson says, and only insofar as he unsettled is there any hope for him. I hope I have solid ground within me–I do after all spend two months a year in a monastery, and eight months in a monastic life in Japan (a two-room apartment without cellphone or printer or World Wide Web or car or bicycle), and I have been living in these simple cells now for more than 16 years, so I feel that I am rooted, as much as I need to be, in what is real and stable.

But to stay too long in these places that I know as well as my heartbeat would be to risk complacency, blindness and inertia. So I try to force myself out of my grooves, feeling that groundedness is what I have, unsettledness what I need.

7. With all the locations you’ve written about, what location totally surprised you-a place where you expected one thing, but found something completely different? Either for the good or the bad.

Atlanta, Georgia is, on paper, one of the great global players on the planet–the home of CNN, Coca-Cola, Holiday Inn and Delta Airlines. But spending weeks and months on end there in 1996, at the time of its Olympic Games, I wondered if it was global beneath the surface. I suppose I expected, I hoped for an easy acquaintance with the larger world of the kind one finds in a Miami or a Vancouver; but I found (with apologies to those who know Atlanta better than I do) a small town’s idea of what a big town should be, and a sense of power without a corresponding sense of confidence. Atlanta began to seem to be a force on paper more than in its heart or global imagination.

8. Is there a piece of travel wisdom someone told you that you took to heart? What was it?
The Dalai Lama always suggests that there’s no virtue in looking backward–the future is what we can change–and I suppose that is what has guided me in my traveling life. Most of the travelers I love and learned from are in some ways journeying back into the past, to explain the present; I, by making most of my central travels to places like Los Angeles Airport or the state of jet lag (or even to the monastery) have always pointed myself towards the future. My interest is not in what the world has been but what we can make of it, especially those 21st century citizens who are, to some degree, children of possibility (alarming or pretentious as that phrase might sound to some).

9. Wherever you go, from what I gather, you seem to feel comfortable. Are there settings that feel odd to you? Ones where you ask yourself, how did I end up here anyway?

I like being by myself, so I’m not always at ease at big parties or among large groups of people. And, having grown up with movement, I haven’t always excelled at placing myself within a home, a family or a community. But I see any of these discomforts as something to be cherished, ways of confronting what, left to myself, I’d try to avoid. I suppose I do see every situation or setting as a possibility, and to fight against it would be to do it, and myself a disservice. Better to see what one can produce together.

10. When you arrive back home after a long trip, what are the things you do to slip back into your at home routine?
Alas, my home routine very quickly slips back into me. Within 36 hours of my return–certainly after one full day at home–I am back at my desk, taking walks (on foot and in the imagination), gobbling down tea and yogurt, going to sleep again at 8:30 p.m. Jet lag helps keep one unsettled and out of joint for a while, but left to my own devices I can very quickly resume the routine that I took the trip to break out of. Indeed, it’s the persistence and power of routine that probably these days moves me to travel, as I would never do otherwise.

11. I tend to see you in unusual locations-the almost off the map sort of locations. Let’s talk about mainstream.

Have you ever been to Disney World or Disneyland? If so which ride was your most favorite and why?
I go to Disneyland–and to Tokyo Disneyland–all the time, and I grew up on Space Mountain, while sustaining a lingering affection for the Country Bear Jamboree. My traveling life was probably begun in the frenzy of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and I screamed for a good (or bad) eight years or so at the Matterhorn, but it’s the country-and-western jingles of the fiddling raccoons and drawling bears that may have made (or unmade) me for life.

I should say that I do spend most of my life in mainstream locations–if monasteries count as such–and I think that they are just as interesting, rich and rare as Easter Island or North Korea. In my experience, the destination has never been very important; all that matters is the awakened eye you can (or cannot) bring to it. As Thoreau famously put it, to paraphrase a bit, “It matters little how far you go, the farthest commonly the worst. The only important thing is how alive you are.

12. And one more. Is it a small world after all?

It’s a huge, heterogeneous, endlessly various and surprising world, only made small by our illusions that distance has disappeared. I think the differences and distances between places are now perhaps as great as they have ever been, partly because of the illusion of closeness.

To enter the contest for the chance to win a copy of the book The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

  • Simply leave a comment below telling us one of the places where you’ve traveled that made you wish you could capture its essence on paper.
  • The comment must be left before Monday, March 23 at 5:00 PM Eastern Time.
  • You may enter only once.
  • Two winners will be selected in a random drawing.
  • These two random winners will each receive a copy of the paperback book The Open Road, (valued at $14.95)
  • Click here for complete Official Rules.
  • Open to legal residents of the 50 United States, including the District of Columbia who are 18 and older.