He Said/She Said: Should You Visit Tibet?

He Said/She Said: Should You Visit Tibet?

Tibet is a place that many people in the world have opinions about.  Between Chinese and many Westerners, the difference in opinion is quite strong.  Given the opinions and history, should you visit Tibet?


Tibet, China. Minnesota, USA.  State and country, that’s the way it is.  If you can’t accept that don’t go to Tibet.  In fact, please return any land you own to the natives immediately.  Whether we like it or not, modern borders exist over what was once another’s territory.  Hundreds of years from now new borders will exist over the countries we currently know.  The populations of the former countries will be separated, exiled, assimilated or oppressed.  So goes the world, and in today’s world, Tibet is part of China.

While most people can accept that they personally live on ill-gotten land, they cannot accept that Tibet is in China.  While the Dalai Lama has proven to be a great spokesperson to “free Tibet”, it isn’t clear why this is dearer to anyone’s heart than other calls for liberation.  The Tibetan people aren’t caged like Palestinians, massacred like Armenians (info), slaughtered like the Australian Aboriginals (info), or forced to “Reservations” like in the USA (info).  While most of us sleep well at night with the acts committed to build our home country, why is it that we question China’s claim to Tibet?

Prior to visiting Tibet I certainly had an opinion.  My opinion was based on the information I had received from movies, A Journey to Ladakh and the Dalai Lama’s books.  I thought I knew something, that China was wrong, that Tibet was better off before China got involved.  Seeing Tibet changed my mind, I believe the Tibetan people are better off being part of China.  Though many people would disagree with my last statement, it’s hard to make a credible case without seeing it for yourself.

My mind was changed when I saw Potala Palace.  Before that I was under the impression that the Dalai Lama lived a pious life of worldly sacrifice.  I couldn’t have imagined that his palace contained riches on par with Europe’s greatest, with treasures that would make the Queen of England jealous.  I didn’t know that the Dalai Lama’s bodies were entombed in massive gold stupas.  For example, the fifth Dalai Lama’s tomb is made from over $200,000,000 USD of gold (3727 kg at $1793 per oz).  The 13th Dalai Lama’s body rests in a tomb nearly as large, slightly less golden, but with over 200,000 pearls (see Wikipedia entry). While the population of Tibet worked the fields in under feudal rule, it’s leaders did not.

I am opposed to this style of government anywhere, anytime.  I do not believe in the divine rights of kings or religious leaders to live better than their subjects.  I believe that people should have the right of self-discovery and determination.  That they should not be forced into state religions such as Tibetans were.  While I cannot agree with all China stands for, I am certainly glad that the Tibetans have more choices and opportunities than is ever afforded by their former religious leaders and monarchs.

The final realization I had, was that China did not take over Tibet to raid it or crush its culture.  The fact is that Potala Palace still stands, filled with priceless artifacts.  Think back to other conquering nations, would the Spanish or British have left billions of dollars in gold in a vanquished state?  Would the Spanish or British have allowed a religion different from their own to continue?  As far as conquerors go, in the case of Tibet, China has done much less damage to a country it took over than any European nation would have.  Prior to visiting, I wouldn’t have believed myself.

If you can visit Tibet with an open mind and see for yourself before cementing your opinion: definitely visit Tibet.  If your mind is made up and China clearly did something wrong, don’t visit Tibet.


There are a lot of reasons not to visit Tibet; politics, cost, and time to name a few.  Here are a few reasons you should include Tibet in your itinerary; the hospitable and friendly people, the incredibly spiritual atmosphere and the gorgeous scenery both natural and man-made.  If you skip out on this deeply religious and beautiful area of China you will regret it.  So, put your “Free Tibet” bumper stickers away, because the military won’t be very sympathetic, and go see this breathtaking area of China with an open mind.

The Tibetan people are welcoming to visitors and quick with a smile.  Unlike the rest of China, Tibetans don’t seem to be in such a hurry and aren’t as pushy.  When walking down the street or buying something the people are warm and don’t force the sale.  It is refreshing to interact with Tibetans, they are very proud people and excited to share their culture along with their beliefs.  Our guide, while it was his job, happily shared the stories of Buddhism and without any negative feelings translated the story of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese taking power.

The spiritual atmosphere that permeates Tibet and affects daily life not just for monks, but for everyone including travelers passing through can only be described as intense.  Lhasa, Tibet’s capital and the spiritual epicenter of Tibetan Buddhism magically sweeps you up with the crowds of pilgrims fingering their prayer beads on the Barkhor circuit.  You can’t help but feel the affect of so many people’s focused prayers.  The wonderful sense of shared beliefs serves as a lesson in creating a higher awareness.  I would challenge you to visit Tibet and not be overwhelmed not just by the religious fervor of the devoted, but by a deep seated spiritual calm.  The kind of calm that can only come with the belief that your troubles are in a higher powers hands.

Finally if you go to Tibet for no other reason than the Himalayas and monasteries you won’t be disappointed.  There are few places in the world with more jaw droppingly, stunning scenery anywhere else in the world, around every turn is a higher peak and a larger monastery.  Nothing is more incredible than the sight of Everest on a clear day, but the views you take in on the way to and from Everest base camp are amazing.  Yamdrok Lake is an unreal turquoise blue and the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Rongphu Monastery are like no other religious structures I have seen.  In short the scenery, views and art you will witness in Tibet will blow your mind.  If you still have doubts about visiting Tibet I don’t know what will convince you.

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» Bka :
Sep 21, 2011

Your posts at times are like attending history/social/political science class…..nothing compares to boots on the ground perspective…….will take some more time and reading on this issue……fortunately, no bumper stickers to scrape off……peace…….bka

LOCAVORista Reply:

Dad, each place we visit we take into account the historical, social and political issues. So, that is often reflected in our posts, however I had to just say that it is beautiful and deeply spiritual because those are the two things that really stuck with me.

» P.J.Andros :
Sep 24, 2011

Unlike most of the people posting, I’d advise you both to follow sage advice and stay home. Yes, that’s right, stay home. People like the self-obsessive Paul Theroux get paid to travel and write travelogs touting tourism. It’s much too late to visit Lhasa or anywhere else in Tibet. The Chinese Communists have seen to that. Dharamsala, if you happen to be in the neighborhood, would be a better connection to Yellow Hat Buddhists (or any other Buddhists for that matter).

Anyway, my question to you both is, why are you wasting three irretrievable years on the money-soaked, too well-traveled
gringo trails that the world’s become? Time is the one thing you never get back, all for some pretty pictures (if you get lucky and can avoid the rampant pollution), casual acquaintances, and mostly vapid experiences. The people you meet are invariably superficial working on outsized personas. Stay home. Be happy. Grow a garden. Raise a kid or two. Relax.

LOCAVORista Reply:

P.J., did my parents pay you to write this comment, hoping I would hop on a plane home and produce grandchildren? In all seriousness, I appreciate your perspective and understand three years on the road isn’t the key to everyone’s happiness. But, this trip is not a waste of time in my mind and it’s not pretty pictures I’m after, although they do serve as great souvenirs.

Each experience I’ve had has served as a lesson I would never be able to get in a classroom and much different than the education I would receive at home raising children and growing a garden. Almost every “casual acquaintance” has turned into a friendship and this trip has been anything but superficial in all of my interactions. The more I travel the more I learn about other cultures and the many different ways to live your life. The more understanding we all have of each other the less “us vs. them” mentality there is.

Ultimately, staying home wouldn’t make me happy, as you suggest.

» cindy :
Sep 25, 2011

Very interesting comments and perspective.

» Sandie :
Oct 2, 2011

Have you guys seen the show An Idiot Abroad? It follows a man who hates traveling and in the last episode revealed his idea of a good time was sitting alone on the toilet until his legs went numb. I watch the show mainly because it’s amusing for me to see a different perspective on traveling.

While many popular places in the world have been visited by millions, it doesn’t make it any less special when it’s YOUR experience. Like they say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. The people you are with, your state of mind, makes travel a unique experience you can claim as your own. You can turn on the tv to watch a travel abroad show or read a book about it but it is nothing compared to the experience when you are there in person. Funny thing is the same thing can be said about having kids and a garden. When you guys are old and gray, you guys can relax in your rocking chairs and reminisce about experiences only the two of you share.

Just by reading your blog, I’ve learned so much about what North Korea is like. Your average traveler, like me, with the constraints of time, money, and desire will most likely to see NK firsthand so both your posts have let me vicariously understand more about the country and it’s people. How else would I have learned about “fan death”? :)

Tibet has been a dream destination of mine and it sounds just like I’ve imagined it to be except for the wealth you’ve described. I imagine the shock is like when you see monks and nuns traveling in first class. While there are many faults to be found in China’s government, there are certain things that I’m afraid I agree with. For instance, the very controversial rule of China’s one kid policy that is mainly enforced in the city. During the era of my grandparents (who later fled China to Taiwan), it was believed that the more people China had, the greater the country would be, so they encouraged and even enforced large families by banning contraceptives and abortions. Add in a ingrained belief that sons are worth more than daughters that goes back thousands of years, you’ve got a recipe for disaster when it comes female infanticide or abandoned baby girls. But at the same time, when you see China firsthand and hear how common it is for people to leave their house by 5 am just to struggle with 2-3 hours of traffic, it is obvious there are more people than the country can already handle. It’s easy to read about something in the paper and scoff at how backwards another country is until you see the problem firsthand. I can’t imagine what China would be like today if the rule wasn’t implemented. When you talk to the average person, you realize that many don’t resent having only one kid in the city because the cost of a private school (where most middle class people send their kids) and living in the city is enough stress for them. Like any country, if you have enough money, you can circumvent the rules so there is no need to feel sorry for everyone. You guys have written about the amount of people you fight your way through. I’m sure the thought that “there is too many people” has occurred to you more than once.
Sorry about the super long post but when talking about the Chinese gov, it’s something that has really stuck with me since going there. Reading your blog has become a daily ritual of mine and I can’t wait to see where you guys head next. Take care! :)

thinkCHUA Reply:

Sandy, thanks for the comment! We appreciate it, we hope that not only can we help show what some of these places are, but also make travel more accessible as well. We are working on something for the time and budget constrained people which we will hopefully announce soon to help people travel. I think it is important that people travel, even if it is on the tourist circuit, because the more of the world you see, the more people you interact with (even if they are other travelers) the more we find that people everywhere are more similar than different. When we hear about wars in distant lands or our “enemies” it is too easy to fall into an “us versus them” mentality, when in actuality, we are all in this together, worried about our finances, wanting to be safe, and wanting the world to be better for our children than it was for us. The reality of the “tourist circuit” is that it covers most of the highlights and it is better able to serve tourists which makes travel more accessible. For example, off the tourist track, while I wish everyone could go to Myanmar, there are few people that I can imagine willing to deal with the harshness of the travel (buses, trains and lodging).

Keep reading and stay in touch.

» Samir Mangalick :
Nov 10, 2011


It’s great that you two have had the opportunity to see Tibet. Growing up, I have had mixed feelings of the Chinese control of Tibet, but that has been largely constructed from seeing movies such as “Seven Years in Tibet,” and listening to comments made by the Dalia Lama. Yet at the same time, I can’t help but equate it to how the Popes reacted when Italy was consolidated into a single nation.

Comparing how most occupied/conquered territories are treated, it appears to me (and I could be completely wrong) that the Tibetan occupation has been vastly overplayed, and that the Chinese have been rather engaging rather than oppressing in their approach. Your comparisons as to how the Australian Natives and our American Indians have been treated is great.

BTW, I concur that staying at home would not give you happiness.

thinkCHUA Reply:


It’s hard to say what is right or wrong, all I know is that you should see for yourself to decide. There are two sides to every story and since history has no control experiment there is no way to know if it would be better another way. All we know is how it is, how it played out, and moving on is as important as anything, otherwise the whole world would be like Palestine/Israel.

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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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