What possessed us to go to Tibet in Winter I’m not quite sure, but the pull was irresistible, and we wanted to have an adventure outside of our little world here in Dhulikhel while Kylie was visiting from Australia. As it turned out, it was an experience that while I sometimes wondered WHY we chose to have it, it was certainly worth having. It’s a high, brown, cold, occupied land, but beautiful, as are the Tibetans - an amazing people. One doesn’t have to go to Tibet to realise that, but going to see for yourself does heighten the amazingness quotient in my book.
So we did the research, commenced the communications with various potentially dodgy tour companies and after a few weeks, sent our deposits into the ether, hoping the transfer would result in genuine plane tickets from Kathmandu to Lhasa, genuine Chinese ‘Tibet’ visas and a tour guide waiting on the other end (going on an organised tour is a requirement of the Chinese government).
As it turned out, the visa thing did NOT work smoothly, and involved an exciting couple of days in Kathmandu chasing down tour companies who were supposed to be partners with our Tibetan tour company. It seems that the Tibetan tour company (visittibet.com) neglected to inform the Nepali company that they were their new Kathmandu partner. Not the best way to begin…
Finally, after hours of delays in the moshpit of Tribuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, we were on an Air China plane flying over endless brown lumpiness with the occasional snow covered range or peak. We descended and landed in the middle of it, with no hint of a city nearby, but there was certainly a very nice international airport that wouldn’t have been out of place in the middle of Europe.
Lonely Planet guidebooks are banned in China – radical, government-undermining things that they are – but ours was safely hidden away on our Kindles. I guess the authorities will be onto that sooner or later (probably thanks to this blog). Other travellers on the plane were searched quite thoroughly for guidebooks and we heard stories of travellers brave or stupid enough to have packed a ‘Free Tibet’ flag. They were on the next plane out.
Lhasa is basically a medium sized, very Chinese city – wide streets, identical buildings - that Tibetans feel very out of place in these days. However it has some absolutely amazing aspects. It’s possibly the most amazing people-watching town I’ve ever been in, due to numerous the friendly, character-filled Tibetans who have travelled there on a pilgrimage. You see them circling the major sites spinning prayer wheels and shuffling beads or sometimes prostrating themselves the whole way – something that I did not realise could be such an extreme sport until I saw some young guys doing it along a street, taking a run up, launching themselves and landing on their wood-block protected hands then sliding for a metre or two before rising and doing it all again. They are always ready with a smile or handshake (and once, even a sly poke of the tongue at some nearby Chinese soldiers). I’ve never been anywhere where the people are all so obviously committed to their religion, and their religion is integrated into every part of their life.
We spent 3 days in Lhasa kicking around either lying in bed with altitude sickness (or just recovering from a few hours of walking in the high altitude cold), walking around by ourselves (one of the few places in Tibet foreigners are allowed to do this) or being shown the sites by our guide, Sonam – a nice guy who we were lucky to have.
Sera Monastery, with its clapping, debating monks was a highlight. The monasteries only have a fraction of the monks and buildings that they had before the Chinese invasion, but they are still interesting, vibrant places. The Chinese strictly limit the number of people who can become monks, although the demand is very much there.
Jokhang Temple and the surrounding Barkor is quite a site… the most sacred temple to Tibetans, there is a continuous stream of thousands of pilgrims circling it and it’s a fantastic experience walking with them past the hundreds of stalls selling anything a travelling pilgrim could want. Inside the temple are suffocating smells, thousands of statues, pilgrims, burning butter wicks and tiny donated notes and centuries of dirt. Intense.
After a three days in Lhasa, we spent three days on the road in a landcruiser with Sonam and Doong Doong (our driver). Great guys who love their country. On paper, it seemed like an easy way to spend a few days, and in many ways it was, but the altitude, the intense cold and some food I ate in Lhasa ensured it was a challenging few days.
Say what you want about the Chinese occupation, but they DO know how to make a good highway. The first day took us up over a few 5000m passes, past the BLUE Yamdroktso Lake, Kharola Glacier, Kumbum Monastery in Gyatse and onto Shigatse – Tibet’s second largest city. The accommodation was in what at first looked like a very nice Chinese hotel, but it turned out to be a façade as nothing worked and the place was freezing.
The next day we spent the morning in Shigatse checking out the Tibetan markets, including a huge number fresh Yak heads. We also had a look at the palace of the Panchen Lama. He’s sort of second to the Dalai Lama in the holiness stakes, however the Chinese cleverly got rid of the one the Tibetan’s recognised as their own and the current guy is generally regarded as a Chinese puppet.
Old Tingri was our destination for the day, about 300km. We got in at dusk and it was windy, cold and desolate. The rooms in the courtyard at the guesthouse looking incredibly cold and uninviting so we chose to bed down in the dining area with the family who ran the place. In terms of health, this was probably the low point of the trip for me, so of it, I will say no more.
The next day was Everest Base Camp – a 2 hour off-road drive. Or it would have been 2 hours if we did not make an ill-fated ice-creek crossing which resulted in the landcruiser breaking through the ice and being up to its axles in ice/water. The couple of hours it took to find some help and get us out were probably the most enjoyable we had in Tibet. The locals were happy, willing helpers and at one point there were probably 20 of them taking part on the ropes trying to budge the vehicle. Despite plenty of feet going into the icy water, there were no complaints. Ultimately though, it took two tractors to get the landcruiser out, with the entire mission almost coming unstuck when one of the tractors made its own ill-fated creek crossing.
Everest Base Camp itself was sufficiently spectacular, but I was a little disappointed at the arbitrary location of the ‘camp’ – a little too far from the actual ‘base’ of Everest in my opinion. Still, it was Everest and it was a clear, beautiful day. Juggling was performed.
Due to the day’s delays, we spent the night at the same place in Old Tingri. I think the family that ran the guesthouse were a little less enthusiastic about sharing their living area for a second night running. But there was no way we were going to those little unheated rooms in -15 degree temperatures.
The final day involved a few more 5000m passes before the long descent back into Nepal – and the welcome site of vegetation. Trees are indeed beautiful things. The Chinese showed particular interest in Kylie’s camera at the border, checking every photo that she took in Tibet. Once satisfied that none of her photos had the potential to undermine Chinese rule, we were on our way. What a contrast to Nepal. The wide, paved roads and sparse traffic gave way to chaos once more.
We had intended to spend the night at “The Last Resort”, a little getaway not far from the border and an ideal place to recuperate overnight before heading back to work, however after showering (hot showers – hallelujah!), lunching and taking a little nap, we were advised by the owners of the resort that due to a little local disturbance, we would have to be evacuated and there was a car waiting. Basically, the locals want the bridge that the Last Resort built. We found out via the news that things were sorted out the next day, however at the time the Aussie owner thought it had the potential to “get a little rowdy”, so we heeded his advice. Beautiful place though.