The Guts to Travel to the Roof of the World
“My Gutsy Story®” by Gisela Hausmann
At the age of thirteen I met Heinrich Harrer, confidant and tutor to the Dalai Lama, and author of “Seven Years in Tibet.” After a fascinating slide presentation Harrer signed my copy of his book. Deeply impressed with what I had seen I decided that I would visit the then-forbidden city of Lhasa.
Eleven years later I saw an opportunity to do so. In 1986 I was working in the Austrian movie industry. No movie would be made over the Christmas holidays. Granted it was an icy winter but I had a six-week break and $2,500 stashed away. As they say, “You have to work with what you’ve got.” I decided to cross Russia with the Trans-Siberian Railroad and try to make it into Tibet. There was no telling if I would succeed, alone, without a tourist group.
Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the Chinese often banned foreigners. Icy weather conditions also determined whether planes could land in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, located at 12,000 feet in elevation. But I was determined and started my trip on December 21, 1986.
On January 13, 1987 I arrived in Lhasa. I was fortunate, as everything worked out, including the weather. Very few tourists were in town and I really felt like I was visiting a Tibet not much different from Harrer’s Tibet.
Buddhism was omnipresent. Even the rocky cliffs were painted, depicting Buddha on a lotus flower. Prayer flags were flying everywhere. Tibetan pilgrims were visiting the Jokhang Temple, renowned center for Buddhist pilgrimage. Potala Palace, iconic symbol of Tibet and sacred place to Tibetans, towered over the city. During Winter Lhasa was a mesmerizing city in a barren landscape full of breathtaking spiritual energy.
Nothing could take away from that. Flying into Lhasa I overcame about 10,000 feet of elevation in only two hours. Lhasa’s airport was about 50 miles outside of town, and passengers had to take an old bus to get to the city. The roads were bad, and I was shaken around for three hours. Many of the locals traveled with their screeching chickens cooped up in cages. After one hour on the bus, altitude sickness set in. My knees felt like pudding, and my head like a beehive. When I finally arrived in town I could barely take one step. There were no taxis or buses; everybody walked.
I was forced to carry my forty pounds of luggage, and after numerous stops to catch my breath, I finally reached a hotel. The first thing I noticed in my room was a gaping half inch hole under the window sill. There was no heating despite a night time temperature of 16 degrees Fahrenheit. I decided to sleep fully dressed and used the second mattress as an additional cover.
The following morning I awoke to murmurs outside my door. I figured something special had to be going on out there. I jumped out of bed, grabbed my camera and opened the door. There it was; the picture which would be ingrained in my mind forever.
I saw the white Potala Palace on the hill. The magnificent symbol of Buddhist religion and spirituality towered over the needy buildings in the foreground. The early morning sun’s rays transformed Potala’s white walls into a glowing red, making it look as though it were engulfed in red flames. A dark gray cloud loomed behind it, as though painted on a backdrop of beautiful blue morning sky. I lifted my camera just in time and clicked. I had captured the symbol for religion and culture in Tibet, while a dark cloud hovered over its intense burning, yet peaceful beauty.
I was determined to make the most out of my three-day stay. Like most tourists I downed aspirins as a blood thinner to fight altitude sickness. I lived off dough-cakes baked on a street vendor’s red glowing cast iron oven and Yak-butter tea. On my last day I found the strength to climb the thirteen storey walk up to the Potala Palace.The Dalai Lama’s former quarters were the most serene rooms I had ever encountered. Real time no longer seemed real, but measured by the clacker of metallic prayer mills.
When I left Tibet, I traveled through China to Hong-Kong. The difference between Tibet’s bare vulnerability and Hong Kong’s pulsating life was surreal. Still, I did not realize what I had managed to do by chance.
The years passed. In 2006 China opened the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, a previously unthinkable engineering feat. Nobody knew that this was even possible. Over 80% of the 709-mile-long section between Golmud and Lhasa lies at an elevation of over 13,000 feet. This railway eliminated all the difficulties of travel to Tibet. The Chinese turned Tibet into a business opportunity. There are now souvenir shops and a four lane boulevard right in front of the Potala Palace where I had walked by foot, on a dirt road.
There is no perfect time to do what we feel we must. All we can do is line everything up, do our best, then capture the moment. I am forever grateful for that picture etched in my mind that foresaw Tibet’s changing.
©2014 by Gisela Hausmann, abridged version of story IS TIMING OF THE ESSENCE?, published in “Naked Determination, 41 Stories About Overcoming Fear”
GISELA HAUSMANN BIO: Born to be an adventurer, Gisela Hausmann, is a globe trotter, former movie producer, aerial photo specialist, vintage house renovation, and award-winning author. A unique mixture out of wild risk-taker and careful planner, she has globe-trotted almost 100,000 kilometers on three continents, including to the locations of her favorite books: Doctor Zhivago’s Russia, Heinrich Harrer’s Tibet, and Genghis Khan’s Mongolia. Gisela Hausmann graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Vienna. She now lives with her cats Artemis and Yin-Yang in Greenville, SC. Please find more information and pictures about her work on her website: www.giselahausmann.com
SONIA MARSH SAYS: Thank you for taking us on a spiritual and historical journey through your Gutsy adventure to Tibet.
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