2 days in the Tibetan countryside

Updated - December 05, 2021 12:01 am IST

Published - August 24, 2014 07:35 am IST

This is a blog post from


In Beijing, we are prepared for our impending flight to the roof of the world. Our flight to Lhasa will take 4 hours, and we are climbing to an average altitude of 4,000 metres. I was last here in 2007, on the famous Beijing-Lhasa railway that takes 40 hours and allows you to acclimatise gradually. Not this time, and I begin to feel the effects of rarer air as soon as we land. Altitude sickness makes my head light and my legs feel heavy, but in its extreme, the sickness can be fatal. We are given Tibetan herbal medicine to drink, and an oxygen can at our hotel for emergencies. Get rest, and dont bathe for a day, say our guides. We're much too dazed by the air and stunned by the beauty of Tibet to do more than nod.


We drive into the thoroughly modern yet quiet town of Tsetang on a sunny afternoon. There's construction going on everywhere, the roads are broad and smooth, and the town is well planned and new. Most of the people we see are Han Chinese, and must have moved more recently for jobs. Tsetang is also an army base, and soldiers can be seen guarding many of the smart buildings we pass by. But there is an older town, called old Tsetang or the Tibetan quarter. Having seen the same in New Lhasa, and old Lhasa, I presume this is the pattern in many Tibetan towns: a developed modern town populated by Han Chinese and the traditional old town populated by Tibetans which still retains narrow muddy lanes, crowded homes and many monasteries. Like a more segregated and starkly different version of New and Old Delhi.


On the outskirts of Tsetang is the Changzhu or Tsongdu monastery, which is believed to be the oldest Buddhist location in Tibet. This was originally a palace belonging to Songtsen Gampo, the 7th century King who introduced Buddhism into Tibet, and his two wives, Tang Dynasty princess Wenchen and Nepali princess Birkuti. We are taken into the restored building that hosts some real wonders, including a Tangkha wall hanging of the Buddha, believed to be sewn with gold thread by Princess Wenchen herself more than 1300 years ago! Another Tangkha is completely woven with 29,000 pearls. Only a few visitors get to see those, and no photographs are allowed. The main statue of Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, also called the 2nd Buddha is flanked by an ancient Indian Manjushri statue. As I look closer, a photograph seems familiar...it shows the current Sakya Lama, a senior Buddhist figure who now lives in Dehradun, where I have met him! We may be on the roof of the world, but it’s still a very small world.


The imagery of Songsten Gampo has a modern meaning for the Chinese government too. In the new push for a "grand unification" of all regions in China, officials in Tibet are reportedly promoting mixed marriages between Tibetans and the Han Chinese here. >A Washington Post report quotes an official report of the Communist party that says mixed marriages have grown from 666 couples in 2008 to 4,795 in 2013. Tibet's administration insists the marriages promote harmony, and officials often use the region's most famous mixed couple, the revered King Songtsen Gampo and Chinese Princess Wenchen for the promotion.


For the people of Tsetang, though, the challenges are more basic. These are simple rural families, mainly depending on agriculture, cattle breeding and handicrafts to get by. Our Chinese hosts take us to a "model village" that the government hopes to make the template for other villages- with very modern schools, solar panel street lighting, bio-gas plants for fuel, and weaver’s cooperatives. The Provincial official we meet tells us 1/3 of the prefecture's villages have similar amenities. Whatever the truth of that claim, our fellow delegates from Nepal and Bhutan agree, each of those ideas are good for all our villages too. Tsetang houses a massive 300-bed Tibetan medical hospital where the locals flock. At the pharmacy, I meet Tsamdue, a local ironsmith who says he has never been cured by western medicine, and only believe in the traditional pouches he comes here for. The president of the hospital Tashi Tseren says they treat about 100,000 patients each year,on the basis of a science developed 1,000 years ago. As I profer my wrist for a quick diagnosis, the doctor tells me my stomach is cold from all the ice-cream and chilled water I love...and I have to give them up. I sigh, but his diagnosis is spot on, as he goes through the other journalists, guessing one's breathing problems, and another's short temper!

China diary heads to Lhasa next! Please write in on twitter >@suhasinih

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.