Over the last few days, I’ve had several people send me messages, assuming that we are in Tibet. Although we ARE surrounded by Tibetan Culture, we are actually not in the province of Tibet. We were planning to go to Lhasa and mount Everest initially, but our plans were thwarted due to permit issues. I understand that this part of China can be a little confusing, so let me begin by explaining more clearly.
The Tibetan Autonomous Region is a special area of China. If you’ve paid attention to global news over the last few decades, you’ve surely heard about the conflict there. Tibet has long wanted its independence, but of course, China does not want this. So, instead, they’ve given them a special ‘autonomous region’s status.
You need a special permit to be able to enter the TAR. Hypothetically speaking, this shouldn’t have been a problem. We had everything in order long before the trip. Until recently, Tibet WAS closed to tourism for foreigners, but in May, the ban was lifted. Still, the government isn’t actually issuing any permits, so even if we can technically should be able to go to TAR now, without that piece of paper, we wouldn’t be allowed to enter.
Just as there are different forms of Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, Mormons…), there are also different forms of Buddhism. Although they are all similar, there are key differences in the different sects of Buddhism. I won’t go into much detail here because I’m no an expert on this stuff, but what I will say is that most Buddhism falls under one of the following categories: Theravada Vinaya (located in south east Asia mostly), Dharmaguptaka Vinaya (mostly found in China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan) and Mulasarvastivada Vinaya (practiced on the Tibetan Plateau as well as in Mongolia and northern India). There are many sub sects within each of these categories, of course. Buddhism is a very old and complex faith. You can learn more about the finer details of Buddhism here
Up until recently, Dave and I had only ever experienced the first 2 categories of Buddhism. We’ve seen many temples in south east Asia, of course. So many that we have actually started skipping many of those temples when we travel. Tibetan temples though, have been a completely new experience for us.
Another thing that sets Tibetan Buddhism apart from many other sects is their use of Prayer Flags. I learned about these since arriving here and I’ve gotta say, they’re kind of a nice idea.
Each color of the flag represents different elements of the earth (wind, water, fire, etc.), and each flag has an Om written on it. The idea is that the wind will carry the good wishes of the Om through the wind that makes the flags flap. That’s why these flags are only found in windy places like Nepal and the Tibetan plateau.
These Buddhist prayer flags are found everywhere we’ve gone so far on this trip. One other interesting thing I discovered while learning about them is that the older the flags get, the more auspicious they are considered. If you see a prayer flag with faded colors, it means that it’s done it’s job, and spread compassion, ethics, patience, diligence, wisdom and other values out into the world. Nice tradition, I think!
I always knew these flags were meaningful, but after seeing (and hearing) them up close, I appreciate them that much more.
We visited Kumbum monestary yesterday, near Xining. It was a beautiful visit and I’ll have more on that soon!