Tibet: Not Just for Olympic-Themed Protests

Why black travelers should add Tibet to their must-go lists.

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Activity in the Barkhor, a vibrant and bustling area in Lhasa, courses steady and strong like blood running through veins. I, on the other hand, needed red blood cells, any red blood cells, during my travels there. At 12,000 feet above sea level, the decreased oxygen in the air left me feeling car sick, hung over, jet lagged and pregnant all at once. Every morning I said a prayer before putting my feet on the floor, for God, Buddha, Somebody, Anybody, to remove the headache, nausea and chronic fatigue that left my heart dribbling after climbing just half a flight of stairs. That same fatigue and sickness dogged me every day, like a school bully. But perhaps the energy of the place was meant to compensate for my weakness.

Tibet has been a hot topic over the past several weeks, as American eyes have gazed eastward for the Olympics. Talk of Tibet has been primarily political, as activists have seized the moment to trumpet the cause of greater Tibetan autonomy from its political rulers in Beijing. From appeals by top-tier athletes to Facebook groups organizing candlelight vigils, the Olympic platform is increasing interest in all things Tibet. African Americans should not miss out on this call to explore the region—be it intellectually from afar, or physically and spiritually from its streets, markets and temples.

As black travelers increasingly look to Asia for work, study and play, Tibet is not to be missed. The Central Asian plateau (the highest in the world), surrounded by India, Nepal, Burma, Bhutan and China's southwest provinces, offers an intoxicating array of cultural experiences, that may in many ways, feel surprisingly welcoming and familiar. An ideal place to begin to soak in the culture is Lhasa, Tibet's capital, which is considered sacred by Tibetan Buddhists. Once in Lhasa, the Barkhor beckons.

Both a thriving market and a holy pilgrimage circuit, the Barkhor brings together the essential elements of Tibetan culture. The market forms a web over the nearby Jokhang temple. Pilgrims flow counterclockwise.

As I watched a family of four in matching burgundy robes stride by, I wondered how many times the four little legs that belonged to the two small children would circle Jokhang temple before conquering the next. An old woman marched alone, chanting softly and spinning a handheld prayer wheel—a metal cylindrical object about the size and shape of a pop can, held up with a spindle. The spinning motion released her prayers. Nearby, a handful of temple goers dropped to the ground, prostrating themselves in total reverence. Sporadically, they stood up, just to fall again.

In a less congested part of the Barkhor, a group of middle-aged men played what must be the Tibetan equivalent to dominoes. They cackled upon slapping the pieces on the ground. Pow!

"It should go without saying, that in my travels around Tibet, I did not encounter any women who looked like me. Many long-term expatriates seek a sort of China-cred by exploring Tibet, but I never planned to visit the region. The buzz generated by the installation of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, which made direct travel between Beijing and Lhasa possible, ultimately convinced me to add it to my itinerary last year. I came to love long train rides through China, so the 48-hour journey each way felt inviting. I booked my ticket and added a week-long Tibetan excursion last November to my travels."

Given Tibet's remoteness, I expected the same sort of gawking curiosity I often experienced when traveling through mainland China—a combination of giddiness and trepidation that one might feel upon encountering an oddity like a bearded lady or a lion-boy. But in Tibet, the faces of pedestrians who encountered me brightened warmly, as though I was an unexpected, but welcomed gift.

What surprised me most about Tibet is the visible connection ethnic Tibetans have with their culture. It seeps out onto the streets of Lhasa in their clothing, language and religion. I stopped counting people wearing traditional clothing or walking the streets praying and spinning prayer wheels or the men who weave red thread through the braid spread on top of their heads. Many women wear their hair in "African" style braids. That same cultural exuberance and yearning glimpsed in people's actions and appearance on the streets was apparent in the taxi driver's voice when he asked, upon learning that I was American, if I had ever met the Dalai Lama. I could taste it in every mouthful of yak dumplings, yak noodle soup and yak butter tea.

After living in Beijing for over five years, where evidence of such deep cultural bonds have, too often, been swept away in waves of economic progress—the cultural reverence of the Tibetans was especially glaring.