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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Travels: Trip to Tibet was breathtaking, in many ways

August 5, 2010

Tom Nichols
Gainesville Times
August 2, 2010

In the late 1980s, I had an airplane ride around
Mount Denali in Alaska piloted by Lowell Thomas
Jr. son of one of the most famous radio
commentators of the day. He and his father had
made a three-week visit to Tibet going in from
India on horseback, as Tibet had neither roads nor wheels.

The pilot said his dad was invited to come to
Tibet by the Dalai Lama because he felt the
Chinese were abusing their power and draining any
real power from him. The Dalai Lama felt the
world would want to know how badly he was being treated.

Lowell Jr. said his father had taped his radio
broadcasts and sent the tapes out by mule train.
When the tour was over, their entourage rode out
on mules and horses. His dad fell off his mount
and broke his leg. Helicopters from the Indian
Amy rescued his father and took him to a hospital in India, where he recovered.

I told Lowell that I was planning to lead a tour
to Tibet and wondered if I could borrow the
videotape his father made for the National
Geographic Society's TV program. He told me that,
legally, he could not lend the tape, and it was
the only one that still existed.

My tour of Tibet would be small, with 10 members.
Eight joined me for the trip. The nine of us
landed at the airport that serves Lhasa, at a
lower altitude and a two-hour bus ride up the mountains to Lhasa.

The elevation of Lhasa is 11,450 feet. In
contrast, the mile high city of Denver rests at
5,780 feet. So Lhasa is almost twice as high as Denver.

The Chinese agent waiting for us to arrive
counted our group as we deplaned. Since we were
only nine, and he had orders to collect a group
of 10 Americans, he thought our group was not his group.

We waited for him to arrive. When he did not
appear, I asked another group from the UK if we
could hitch a ride on their bus up to the only hotel in Lhasa open to tourists.

We sat in the lobby with our luggage and waited
for four hours. Finally, our local agent arrived
and contacted me. Since we were not 10, there
would be no national guide to go with us after
Tibet to all Chinese cities on our schedule. So I
served as our national guide, taking us city to
city. We still had two local guides for Tibet,
and one for every other city like Beijing and Shanghai.

While we were in Lhasa, Jimmy Carter and his wife
arrived for a state visit. I watched the Secret
Service unload the red carpet and the food and water that came with Carter.

The Carters were given a state dinner and a
concert of native music and dance. Therefore, we
were diverted to an arts and music training high
school. The teenage boys and girls danced
beautifully for us. I hope President Carter
enjoyed his concert as much as we did ours.

We toured Jokung Temple and the Sera "Wild Rose"
monastery. But the best building was the Potala,
built about 300 years ago to house the Dalai
Lama, 1,000 monks and government officials. It
stands some 13 stories tall and about a block
wide. Parts are painted white, yellow or maroon
depending on the function of the rooms behind the painting.

We took a small Japanese built bus over a high
mountain pass to Shigatse, the second largest
city in Tibet. I needed oxygen at the altitude of
some 17,000 feet. We had just two bags for the
nine of us. But I was the only one who needed assistance.

Coming back to Lhasa two days later, I stretched
out flat on the back bench across the rear of the
bus and avoided any need for oxygen.

Tibet is not a theocracy (combined civil and
religious state) as in the past. The Chinese have
shut down more than a thousand monasteries. The
few that remain open are working to prepare monks
to serve society as in the past, but on a much smaller scale.

The best moment for me came when we were standing
at the top level of the Potala and looking at the
city below. I heard someone on the other side of
the valley playing on a flute the fantastic
melody that concludes Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, "Ode  to Joy."

We really are one world of universal culture.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who
lives in Gainesville. His column appears
regularly on Mondays and on
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