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Yarlung Tsangpo to Brahmaputra

By Amit Baruah

LHASA (TIBET), JULY 22. It is a roundabout route that we have taken to Lhasa, roof of the world and capital of China's Tibet Autonomous Region. I am part of a group of Indian journalists invited by the Chinese Government to visit Lhasa and other parts of Tibet. Our route: New Delhi-Beijing-Chengdu-Lhasa.

As the Air China flight A-4112A glides into Gonggar airport, I crane my neck to get a view of the majestic mountains I have seen in pictures. They do not disappoint you. Green and brown mountains dominate the landscape; Tibet is not known as the roof of the world without reason. At an average elevation of 4,000 metres above sea level, adjectives do not do justice in describing Tibet.

Our Airbus A 340-400 aircraft, which took off from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province (home to all the hot food in China), landed a little before 9 a.m., having taken off finally at 6.20 a.m. Our flight the previous day was cancelled, reminding me a little about the routine cancellations of the Delhi-Leh flight.

* * *

The 100-km drive from Gonggar airport takes a little more than half-an-hour. Our bus, a left-hand drive vehicle, makes good progress on a two-lane highway. Our hosts have already warned us about high-altitude sickness, the dos and don'ts that go along with it. For me the drive is a treat.

Alongside the road flows the Yarlung Tsangpo (our geography books in my school years earlier simply called it the Tsangpo) that turns into the mighty Brahmaputra river in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.

Setting sights on the "mother river" for an Assamese is a clear bonus. I ask Shirab Phuntsok, Secretary, Association of Foreign Cultural Exchange of Tibet Autonomous Region, China, who is travelling with us in the bus, what Yarlung Tsangpo means.

"It means nice place in the Tibetan language," he says.

I tell him that the Yarlung Tsangpo is not such a "nice place" for the people of Assam living downstream — because it has repeated its annual flooding venture.

But in Tibet, the Tsangpo flows peacefully from its birth in the Kailash range in the far west of the Tibetan plateau.

* * *

Lhasa is well connected by air. Apart from several daily fights from Chengdu, there's a twice-a-week flight from Kathmandu, perhaps the most convenient way for Indian tourists to Tibet. Lhasa is also directly linked to other Chinese cities such as Chamdo, Chonquing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Xi'an and Xining.

Apart from coming in from Beijing and other Chinese cities, travellers can also fly directly from Bangkok and Singapore to Chengdu. Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Yangon and Singapore also have flights to Kunming, from where a connection is available.

By road, tourists often use the 920-km Friendship Highway from Kathmandu to Lhasa. There is also the 1,115-km Qinghai-Tibet highway, the 2,400-km long Chengdu-Lhasaa road, the Yunan-Tibet highway and the Xinjiang-Tibet highway into the roof of the world. They are used in varying degrees by tourists; with the last said to be off limits.

Chinese airports are full of travellers — mostly Chinese citizens. The sign of a booming economy? A traffic jam to the entrance of Beijing airport. Both in Beijing and at Chengdu, the queues to check in are long. The Chinese are travelling not just outside their country but also within their massive nation.

* * *

We are told to rest by our hosts for fear of being hit by high-altitude sickness. However, we are sufficiently rested to visit the Tibetan Museum and the Norbulingka, the summer palace built for the Dalai Lama in 1956. It was from here that the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India disguised as a soldier in 1959.

Both the museum and the Norbulingka are well worth a visit. The Chinese Government regards the Tibetan heritage as part of its larger national culture. "Across the space of history, we see the contribution made by the Tibetan people in building up the brilliant culture of the Chinese nation and in national unification which brings us under the profound impression that the prosperity, decline glory and humiliation of Tibet are always intimately connected to the fate of our great motherland," a large sign at the museum in English, Mandarin and Tibetan declares.

"Tibetan is one of China's nationalities with long history and outstanding cultural traditions. The traditional culture of Tibet is a gem in the cultural thesaurus of the Chinese nation," another sign says.

The Norbulingka is well cared for — as if waiting for the return of the Dalai Lama. Tourists abound — clicking pictures and clucking appreciatively at the summer place of Tenzin Gyatso, who at age four-and-a-half was installed as the 14th Dalai Lama on February 22, 1940.

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