Golden temples, reincarnate lamas and colourful pilgrims - this is the Shangri La that bring to our minds memories of the magical world of childhood fairy tales.
It is now possible to fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa in an hour, surely one of the most spectacular flights in the world. Our plane floats along the Himalayan Range taking a left turn around Mount Everest. At this point the white mountains stretch to the horizon separating the lush greenery of Nepal from the dry moonscape of Tibet. We land at 12,000 feet and are met by our guide Phubu, to be whisked away in a minibus along sparkling rivers through high rocky folds for the 1 1/2 hour drive into Lhasa. We expected poor food from all we had heard, but are delighted to find that every meal is a seven course feast in all our Chinese hotels.
Travelling by bus from Lhasa to Gyantse and Shigatse over several days, we were witness to many wonders - chanting red robed monks, prayer flags on high passes, a yak skin boat on a turquoise lake, glorious fifteenth century paintings in a mandala shaped temple, small horses threshing grain, or pulling entire families to market hitched to two wheeled carts, and always the smiling faces of the Tibetan people. The contrast between the Tibetans and the Chinese was palpable, and it was difficult not to make comparisons - hospitable and warm versus stern and cold, colourful and spiritual versus drab and practical.
Tibetan women are beautiful. They circle the Jokhang temple spinning prayer wheels, with turquoise and silver twined into their shiny black braids. The men wear multicoloured hand-woven cloaks lined in lambskin. Is this the 20th century or have we somehow been transported back on a magic carpet to the 10th century pilgrimages that we read about in our history books?
Temple roofs are sheathed in gold with dharma wheels and snow lion gargoyles glimmering in the sun. Inside, colours of ochre, red, maroon, vermilion and gold surround us and the statues of Buddhas and Lamas glow in the soft light of hundreds of butter lamps. Brightly painted wrathful gods recall the Last Judgments of 10th century France. The devoted pilgrims prostrate themselves before the deities on paving stones worn into deep furrows by the thousands who have preceeded them. They brush by us making their offerings of butter, silk scarves and money, touching their foreheads to the base of the gods in respect.
The Chinese are busy rebuilding some temples and repairing others, for this is what the tourists come to see. Surveillance cameras line rooftops, the monasteries are empty, the prisons full and Tibetans are restricted in their activities. For now, the borders are open to tourists travelling in groups.
We felt privileged to see Tibet. It affected us all and changed us in a profound way that is difficult to put into words.