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Nichols: Trip to Tibet was breathtaking, in many ways

POSTED: August 2, 2010 1:00 a.m.

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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