Prayer flags-blue for the sky, white for clouds, green for grass, yellow for the earth and red for fire-flutter in the wind throughout Tibet, even in the most remote and uninviting locations. As pilgrims traverse the country they leave them tied to piles of rocks or strung together flapping from makeshift flagpoles on high mountain passes, hilltops and chötens (shrines erected at important religious sites). They believe that as the wind brushes across the fabric of the flags the prayers written onto them are transported to heaven bringing merit to the one who puts them in place.
Pilgrimages to the significant religious sites scattered across the country are central to the lives of Tibetans. The hardships involved seem incidental. People are prepared to travel for days on the back of trucks to reach their destinations.
The dust in summer is choking and during winter the pilgrims endure the bitter cold, biting winds and freezing temperatures with only their thick yak hair coats to protect them.
They cross a landscape parched brown, strewn with rocky rubble and treeless to the horizon. It resembles an alien place, inhospitable, unprotected, barren and often uninhabited.
In places wild rivers cut through the moonscape eroding the exposed earth, eating it away and sending steep hillsides and roadways tumbling into their surging waters.
In other places vehicles turn the stony bottom of a dry river-bed into a road as they cross a high plateau but at such an altitude that mountain tops 5 thousand metres high are at eye level.
Some roads cross vast plains that expand into the distance where Himalayan peaks sparkle white below the deep blue of the high altitude sky, and skirt glaciers-jumbled and mangled chunks of ice the size of houses-which shimmer blue-green in the sunlight as they slither, imperceptibly, from mountainsides. Lack of oxygen brings on headaches and mild nausea for travellers not used to the altitude even though they are sitting quietly on a bus or the back of a truck.
The expense of these journeys can sometimes leave the pilgrims without enough money to get home. Despite this, thousands are still prepared to undertake the hardships in order to gain merit, highlighting one of the most significant aspects of Tibetan life: the devout, and almost universal, adherence to Tibet’s unique branch of the Buddhist religion.
Travellers arrive in Lhasa every day to pay homage at the great monasteries, and temples and visit the red and white washed Potala Palace, once the home of the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.
From early in the morning pilgrims climb the steep ramp from street-level into the lower courtyard of the Potala. They shuffle their way up through the massive labyrinth of half lit halls, shrines and tombs of past Dalai Lamas in a single file, clutching the coat of the person in front. Inching down narrow, dark corridors, past exquisite images of Buddhist deities, up ancient wooden staircases and into cavernous rooms barely lit by yak butter lamps, pilgrims slowly make their way to the roof where they are afforded a panoramic view across Lhasa and the surrounding countryside.
Young monks work hard to gain as much knowledge as they can in order to progress through the various levels of understanding.  
During debates held in monasteries across Tibet the monks are tested by their peers in a frenzied question and answer session that goes on for several hours.
Surrounded by his colleagues, question after question is thrown at the young monk. His responses are met with a shout, a stamp of the questioners foot and an aggressive, single hand clap over the initiates head signifying if the answer is correct. The teachers at the monasteries instruct the questioners to "stamp your feet so hard that the door of hell will be broken open and clap your hands so loud that the voice of knowledge will frighten the devils all over the world."
The twenty-first century arrives slowly in Tibet. The first motorised transport did not arrive until the 1950's and Buddhist scriptures are still printed one page at a time from wooden printing blocks. In some senses not much has changed from the days when pilgrims might have ridden their horses or even walked across Tibet in their quest to hear for themselves ‘the voice of knowledge’.


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