On this night in June, it's getting dark in the square across from the Potala Palace. The majestic red-and-white compound looms over Lhasa, Tibet, but it's now bathed in lights diffracted by waterspouts that dance across the plaza. It's a lovely sight, easy on the eyes -- and easier on the lungs than when we seven Canadians and six Americans had huffed up hundreds of steps 12,000 feet above sea level to see chapels, tombs and living quarters.
The Potala has symbolized Tibet since its construction began in 1645, and its roots date back a thousand years before that. It's a statistics mill: 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines, nearly 400 feet tall, rising to nearly 1,000 feet when the Red Hill it sits on is factored in.
Yet the Potala proves to be something of a haunted house, a "cultural relic" rather than a functioning seat of government or religion. And its most famous resident, the 14th Dalai Lama, has been in exile in India since fleeing in 1959, when a rebellion of Tibetans chafing under Chinese rule was suppressed.
Today, Tibet's population of anywhere from 3 million to 6 million includes a debated number of ethnic Chinese, and a dueling narrative rises just behind us. The Monument to the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet is a white spire 100 feet or so tall. With two heroic-mode statues up front, this decade-old interpretation of Mount Everest celebrates the putative accomplishments of the Chinese government since its troops poured into Tibet in 1950. Stanchions isolate it, and when I put my camera bag down to frame a shot, a polite but firm Tibetan policeman asks me to move it.
It's a small moment, but it's part and parcel of a pervasive security blanket. Reportedly, more than 30 protesting monks and nuns have set themselves on fire in Tibet since March 2011, and in late May of this year, two people did so in Lhasa itself. Now a sea of scanners and at-attention Chinese soldiers man the street corners. In a surreal scene, camouflage-wearing riflemen seek shade under large umbrellas labeled "Bud" and "Red Bull"; a soldier peers out from behind a minaret on the mosque used by Lhasa's small Muslim community.
G Adventures, our tour operator and one of several that run Tibet trips, defines adventure travel as "active exploration, cultural immersion, embracing the unexpected, escaping the well-trod path." Its use of local guides, transportation, accommodations and restaurants attracts people who "don't like being herded about like a bunch of tourists" and makes trips more affordable. This style isn't for those seeking five-star service, but more than 750 G Adventures tours dispatch more than 100,000 travelers a year to more than 100 countries, leading the Toronto-based firm to claim that it is the world's largest adventure travel company.
Staging trips to what might now be called "Chi-bet" will put G's tenets to the test.
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Beijing, 1:20 a.m., a few days before. Aside from the sightseeing trifecta of the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, China's capital is where we're to board the train for a two-day trip to Lhasa.
A get-acquainted meeting has introduced the G Adventures chief experience officer, or CEO, a Tibetan who will shepherd our group through his homeland.
(Editor's note: The G Adventures guides and CEO are not named in this report due to political sensitivities in Tibet.)
Eight men and five women -- G Adventures caps this trip at 15 participants -- we range from age 30 to 67, from those who've just flown over to a seven-month trekker. Some have G Adventure tours from Antarctica to Peru to their credit.
My assigned roommate, Clint Blandford, 66, is a retired teacher from St. Louis. A visitor to more than 120 countries, he's fresh from North Korea and will go on to India with G. His fascination with Tibet dates to his childhood.
"My mother had the Reader's Digest Book Club, and one of the books was 'Seven Years in Tibet.' I also was brought up on National Geographic and always wanted to go to places far away," he says.
He's previously traveled with G Adventures along the Trans-Siberian Railway.
"They make the organization possible," he says. "There's no way I could do it." He also praises G's clientele: "I like the companionship of people who are well traveled and a little gutsy."
Yet it's been a challenge to get even this far. China is selecting new leaders this year, so "stability" and "harmony" are being stressed even more than usual. To keep tabs on visitors, Tibet travel permits are requiring a minimum, fluctuating number for each foreign nationality: three? Four? Now five! G Adventures has scrambled to save canceled trips booked as much as six months in advance.
"We started looking at every single departure," Neil Hamdani, who in G Adventure's torqued rhetoric is billed as "chief inciter and customer advocate," will recount. "We contacted everybody, shifted people. This is an elusive destination, and we wanted to show that we had loyalty to them."
Ken Doyle, an emergency physician from Montreal, is on his fourth attempt to visit Tibet since 2008. I've been invited to make the American contingent whole.
Right now, though, we're getting a wake-up call in both senses of the phrase. It's Ann Zhenyi, the East Asia manager. For reasons that will remain unknown, only half our group, the Canadians, will be allowed to ride the train; the Americans will have to wait, then fly.
It's a mixed blessing. We'd been looking forward to seeing the Chinese heartland and mixing with traveling Chinese, but some in the group view the rail link as a conveyor belt of Chinese control even as the Chinese government cites modernization and tourism-related jobs.
Over two days, the Canadians will sing Justin Bieber's "Baby" with gaggles of Tibetan school kids. And they will share sinks and squat toilets.
"People were super-nice," Jacklyn Chang, a 30-year-old London, Ontario, businesswoman, reports. "I laughed, I cried," she adds, parodying a reviewer.
G Adventures doesn't forget the American left-behinds. Zhenyi extends our hotel rooms, her recommendation to check out Beijing's avant-garde 798 Art District is a winner, and the flights she escorts us to land in Lhasa just in time for us to hear the train whistle of our arriving Canadian compadres.
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The Kyichu (Happy) Hotel is our base in Lhasa. It's clean, with large rooms and a courtyard strung with the pennants we'll see displayed with increasing intricacy as we traverse the country: Five colors represent both the elements and the syllables of the "Om" prayer. It's a good place for me to practice t'ai chi and for us all to share rumors with travelers from Canada and Mexico.
This just in: The border has been closed behind us. According to the Wall Street Journal, "the blanket ban is Beijing's response to the flood of bad news from the region in recent weeks" and to a collapse in dialog between Chinese officials, who feel they've lifted the country from medievalism, and Tibetan negotiators-in-exile, who insist on autonomy of culture, language and movement. China Daily, however, reports only that Lhasa has requested more air links with the rest of China to handle a visitor boom.
But we're in, so we tour. The hotel is on the main drag, Beijing East Road, where hole-in-the-wall local shops are giving way to Adidas, China Telecom and the under-construction Times Square minimall just across the street.
At the nearly 1,500-year-old Jokhang Temple, the holy of holies, a monk prostrates himself, circumnavigating the exterior like a red-and-yellow-clad inchworm. At the Sera Monastery, some of the 600 monks in residence (formerly 6,000) debate Buddhist teachings, emphasizing points with exaggerated chops and stomps.
Contention underlies everything. The Norbulingka, the former residence of various Dalai Lamas, is a pacific 90-acre "Treasure Garden," a Unesco World Heritage Site and the location from which the current Dalai Lama escaped to India.
Just down the block, at the Tibet Museum, PG-rated arrays of happy faces and a striking pastel mural of a bullet train passing a smiling Tibetan rotating a prayer wheel state the official Chinese case.
As we tour, it becomes clear that Westerners are not the mainstream travelers here. According to China Daily, tourism in Tibet was up 25% during the first five months of 2012, to 1.5 million, and all but 30,000 were Chinese. At the various shrines, some Chinese bow, some donate yuan and many take photos.
When I snap a Chinese tourist photographing his friends, another Chinese tourist snaps me. But when one of our travelers accidentally captures a few "military shoulders" on the street, he is approached and asked to delete the shot.
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Our CEO, an independent contractor retained by G Adventures, praises the company's "special way."
"They try to have a unique and local way so people can experience in that culture," he says. CEOs are charged with "anticipating problems," and here comes another big one: The Everest base camp, the literal apex of our itinerary, has undergone one of its periodic closings to foreigners. There's no official explanation, just chatter about an incident between travelers and soldiers. As part of his nightly reports, our CEO will work to solve the situation to our advantage.
Some in our group mutter about the government. Others are more philosophical: It's still Tibet; we'll see the mountain from the road. As it turns out, we'll create our own compensation.
Our van heads out on the Friendship Highway, which stretches 500 miles to Nepal. Switchbacks rise toward stark brown moonscapes and wide blue horizons. At 16,500 feet, the Karo La (pass) brings snowcaps as well as pennants amid power line towers.
Gyantse, seven hours from Lhasa, offers an interesting monastery and fort. Shigatse is Tibet's second-largest city (80,000 to 90,000 people vs. anywhere between 400,000 and 600,000 in Lhasa); besides much new construction, it features Tashilhunpo, perhaps Tibet's largest active monastery (many were destroyed up to and during the Cultural Revolution).
We have a poignant respite at the entrance to one of its halls, seated around our CEO as he assumes a half-lotus position and explains the intricacies of the various Buddhist schools. Aside from offering similarly informative comments, our local guide is our designated jogger, running to present our permits at the checkpoints that crop up every 100 kilometers or so.
Making a bottled-water run before settling in, two of us encounter a young Chinese couple from Guilin, the city whose lush scenery often graces scrolls. In the new China, they're prosperous enough to manage a two-month car trip. She loves Tibet "for the people," says she is a Buddhist but demurs when asked about the local situation: "I'm not political." Most interestingly, she is scheduled to go to Mount Everest the next day, as are two Hong Kong women we encounter at the resplendent Tso La pass. What about us?
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Moving down the highway, we bond over yaks. Some of us have posed for pictures, yak-back, and my dinner tonight is yak stroganoff, which follows yak momo (steamed dumplings), yak sausage, yak tongue and hard yak cheese.
Anticipating rural destinations to come, Elizabeth Irizarry, 32, an Internet executive from New York, introduces the concept of "a one-yak town." Maybe we can reach the Everest base camp inside a Trojan Yak?
"Why did the yak cross the road?"
"Because his permit came through."
Three stops relieve the march of the monasteries. Inside a small barley mill, a farmer refines one of Tibet's key crops. Then, walls of insulating yak dung reinforce the home of a relatively prosperous family even as a satellite dish tops it off.
The third stop is the most personal. In Sakya, 90 miles down the road, we clamber over a squat, Mongolian-style monastery, then hike to a small holy place partway up a mountain. The terrain baffles my bifocals, but a tourmate and a local boy lend a shoulder when needed.
One of my dogs, a Tibetan terrier named Karma, died last year, and I've brought some of his ashes to scatter at "home." Mission accomplished, as Karma blows in the wind.
More passes, more mountains, more checkpoints; less power and water at the next hotels. Though our expectations have been lowered, we are closing in on our moment of truth. Suddenly, there it is, Everest, looming on the left. But foreigners are not being admitted to the base camp. To protect us from landslides is one explanation. The closest we get is an Everest road sign at a fork in the road, 60 miles away. But you can't hide the Himalayas, which appear at several vistas.
"That's what we paid the big money for," says Frank Ivanusic, 53, a fun-loving civil engineer from Montreal, and my helpmate on the slopes.
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Our consolation base camp is the Thingri Snow Land Hotel. A yak-chip stove heats the hotel's common area; tapestries cover the walls of small, clean rooms that lack running water.
When Dani Cardoso, 37, a businessman from London, Ontario, sees our driver washing the van, he asks, "Why isn't he washing me?" But the courtyard view of Everest and the almost-as-tall Cho Oyu mountain is grand, and it will become a fitting backdrop for a Tibetan version of "Cinderella."
Dani is a G Adventures loyalist. He's a veteran backpacker, but his partner, Jacklyn Chang, hadn't traveled as much. Dani likes G Adventures because he lives close to its main office, but he also thinks that the company delivers. A trip to Peru was rewarding: "I never thought we'd see everything we saw." He cites a midnight cruise and the spectacle of 5,000 bats as special moments.
Dani and Jacklyn have also just visited India with G. "They picked us up and chauffeured us around. Everything was perfect," Dani says. Tibet had been on his "bucket list," and he'd hung in even after being offered a refund from an earlier cancelation. They'll be going with G Adventures to Kenya and Tanzania in December.
Dani has two, more personal reasons to travel with an tour operator. First, a young nephew had died, and "I didn't feel like major planning." Second, he'd asked G Adventures to help him get engaged to Jackie at the Everest base camp, including recruiting a monk to certify their union.
Carrying more iPads and cameras than a Best Buy, Dani manages to contact Jacklyn's father in Canada and win his permission for marriage. When most of us go to a local hot spring, Dani gives Jacklyn an engagement ring. But there's no Everest. What to do?
Enter our CEO. He gently vectors most of us into eating together at the hotel, then borrows the owner's motorcycle to retrieve two of our group who are out for a walk. Then Dani and Jacklyn spring their surprise.
Our guide folds prayer shawls in the corner, and the couple are wrapped in local clothing. Dani, a burly guy wearing sunglasses and a large hat, looks like a Portuguese-Canadian-Tibetan version of the rapper Notorious B.I.G.
The door opens and a young monk named Dovjee appears, having been enlisted by our CEO. We all walk across the two-lane "highway" and "Little Monk" performs a ceremony, reading from Buddhist scripture. Dani and Jacklyn are not especially religious, but they accept water sprinkled on them. With the Himalayas and new friends as their witnesses, they are united.
"We love changing people's lives," says G Adventures' public relations manager, Timothy Chan, when he learns about the ceremony. "One of our core values is leading with service."
Back in Thingri, Budweiser, wine and dancing to Motown tunes certify the nuptials. Beaming, Jacklyn looks around the spartan but now-transformed common area. "This is the most romantic guesthouse ever," she declares.
We'll still visit ruined forts, then drop thousands of feet into the verdant border area adjoining Nepal and the end of our journey. But evaluations already are coming in. "I give G credit for going with it," Clint Blandford says about the past two weeks. "It would have been easier for them to cancel. The people were great, and I enjoyed what I saw."
G Adventures has put Tibet in its brochure for next year, knowing that restrictions have blown over in the past. But right now, if you'll pardon the pun, Dani's and Jacklyn's wedding goes down as our Tibet trip's "peak experience."
Abe Peck is director of business-to-business communication for the Medill School at Northwestern University. He previously visited Senegal for Travel Weekly.