By Photographer Jimmy Walsh / Edited by Jose Morales
The pain hit me within minutes of stepping off the plane: a dull throbbing sensation in my skull. Waiting at the baggage carousel, I struggled to stand. I had expected altitude sickness but had not realized I would feel the effects so soon after arriving. I had just landed on the rooftop of the world, Tibet, where mountains are plentiful, and oxygen is not.
I dimly recall my guide meeting me outside the airport and cheerfully wrapping a white silk scarf around my neck – a Tibetan gesture of welcome. After that, my memories are faint. My guide dropped me at my hotel, and I fell into a 16-hour sleep as my body struggled to acclimatize.
The following morning, I stepped onto the streets of Lhasa. People were busily walking by, dressed in thick coats. Not far from my hotel, I found Jokhang Temple. Located in Barkour Square, the temple is a focal point of the city and considered by some to be the most sacred temple in Tibet.
I had arrived in Tibet in the first days of the Butter Lamp Festival. The festival is an annual event, drawing Buddhist pilgrims from across Tibet. Here, in the early morning light, I watched as they milled around the exterior temple walls, murmuring prayers. Some repeatedly prostrated on the ground, their arms outstretched in front of them. Later, my guide would tell me that this practice accumulates merit. Inside the temple, I found rows of small lamps, after which the Butter Lamp festival is named. Each lamp was filled with rich, yellow butter made from yak fat. The lamps represent the light that shines from Buddhism.
My first morning in Tibet had filled me with wonder – the architecture, the warm smiles, the striking mountains surrounding Lhasa. However, it also left me with incredible discomfort. In stark contrast to the pilgrims peacefully observing their religion were the military and the police. They were present on every street bearing their guns, tanks, and riot armor: an ever-present reminder of Tibet’s ongoing occupation by the Chinese government.
In Tibet, you are constantly aware that you are being monitored. This was no more obvious than when I visited the Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama. The Palace stands tall above the city of Lhasa, a multi-tiered structure of white, maroon and saffron. At its entrance, your identity and permits are checked multiple times. Your bags are searched, and you are patted down. Soldiers watch your every move. You soon learn that if you take their photograph, you will be required to delete it immediately. Once inside the Palace, you are ensconced in a labyrinth of paintings, tapestries, shrines, and statues. With over 1000 rooms, the Palace is both elaborate and vast.
After a few days acclimatizing in Lhasa, we commenced our journey west towards Mt. Everest. The landscape was stark and dry. We stopped for the night in the city of Shigatse. That afternoon, I had the rare chance to go exploring without the supervision of my guide. I wandered through Tashilunpo Monastery watching people and taking photographs. An older man, who was repeatedly encircling a stupa, would stop each time to place a small seed on the wall. My guide later told me that he was using the seeds to keep count. He was encircling the stupa once for every year of his life.
After two long days of traveling, winding roads had taken us far to the west of Lhasa. Our minivan had lurched and creaked over hundreds of kilometers of patchy road. The final stretch was dry and gravelly, following a glacial stream up a narrow valley. Ahead of us, we could see the north face of Chomolungma, Mount Everest.
While waiting for the sun to set, I explored the nearby Rongbuk Temple. Perched at 4980m, the temple is supposed to be the highest in the world. At this altitude, I was feeling the effects of the decreased oxygen in the air again. A few steps up the rocky slope were enough to leave me gasping for air. Around the temple grounds, I found large stones, engraved with Buddhist scriptures. Prayer flags were strung across the landscape, flapping frantically in the frequent gusts of mountain wind.
As the last rays of light disappeared from Chomolungma, its peaks were illuminated by a soft pink glow. I raised my camera, steadied myself, and snapped a few frames. Making my way back to the van, I reflected on the short time I had spent at the rooftop of the world. Traveling in Tibet had not been without its challenges – the physical strain of altitude, the political tension caused by occupation and the harsh dry environment. However, traveling to Tibet cannot be understated. It truly is breathtaking. – GM
GUILD MAGAZINE - THE TRAVEL ISSUE