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Published: November 7th 2008
Tibet conjures up all sorts of images, ones of remote monasteries, scarlet robed monks, prayer flags and, of course, snow capped mountains.
Sitting in a café in Lhasa, reflecting on our past 8 days here, Tibet certainly delivers on all fronts. Outside of Lhasa (and within it in some places), Tibet is so different from our daily lives, it really is from another time and needs to be seen to be believed.
Given the political situation, we had thought hard about whether to come here at all. But everything that we read encouraged visitors, asking that we use Tibetan guides, buy Tibetan goods and go to Tibetan restaurants. Getting here isn’t easy. The Chinese government closed Tibet to foreign nationals after the riots in March and only started to allow visitors again a couple of months ago. The price is that you can’t travel independently. You must be part of a tour group and obtain a permit before you arrive. This means that the Tibetans lose out, as the only way to get here is to use a Chinese agency and, despite asking for a Tibetan guide, there are no guarantees.
Tour groups aren’t usually our thing. Not
that we are snobby about it, it’s just that we like to go our own pace and decide for ourselves what we would like to see. This time we weren’t going to have the option of independent travel. Luckily, we hooked up with a relaxed Dutch couple at the hostel in Chengdu who seemed to have similar ideas to us as to where they would like to go - we were now a tour group of four.
Our trip started in Lhasa, which is the capital. The first thing that hits you is the blue of the sky - just amazing - and the brightness of the sun. Lhasa is a strange mix of Tibetan other worldliness and Chinese development. Our first day was spent getting used to the altitude, Lhasa is at 3,600m, which is a bit of a shock. You find yourself walking very slowly, out of breath. Any steps are exhausting and you constantly need to drink water. We’d been given altitude medicine before we left (all part of the tour service!) but it looked suspiciously like Chinese vitamins. We looked it up on Google before we took any, and it was a Tibetan root that
has been used for centuries. It has recently been found to make athletes perform better and therefore suggests that it increases the oxygen in your blood. No serious side-effects were mentioned so we’d decided to give it a go.
Doing the kora
We walked the short distance to the Jokhang Square, which is in front of the Jokhang Temple, the holiest temple in Tibet, in the middle of Lhasa. You are immediately hit by the smell and sight of Juniper smoke rising up in front of the temple. And then you notice all the people who are dressed in a variety of ethnic clothes. They are twirling prayer wheels, chanting prayers and walking clockwise around the temple. Each circuit is called a kora, and pilgrims from all over Tibet come to walk around the holy sites which are temples, monasteries, lakes and mountains. There are hundreds of them, young and old, male and female - all walking around the temple. We find that we are compelled to join them and do several slow circuits of the temple following the orderly crowd. The route is lined with stalls selling everything from pots and pans to tourist souvenirs. We get
The home of the Dalai Lama
quite a few funny looks from surprised Tibetans, but most people greet us with a welcoming “Tashi Dalek”, which means “Hello”.
The Potala Palace
Perhaps the enduring image of Lhasa is the Potala Palace, which is where the Dalai Lama lived (although the current one, the 14th reincarnation, has been in exile in India for nearly 50 years). This place is simply gargantuan. It is built on the face of a hill, rising up from the surrounding plain and is divided into a white palace and a red palace. The white was used for administrative functions, and the red was for religious purposes. To get in you have to climb god knows how many steps to the huge wooden entrance doors. Getting up was a real struggle with our lungs burning and us gulping in air each time we stopped (after about every 10 steps!).
Inside the palace is a maze of shrines, golden tombs of past Dalai Lamas and elaborately painted walls. The air is smoky from incense sticks and hundreds of yak butter candles that are burned by pilgrims. The distinctive (actually rather unpleasant) smell of the yak butter penetrates your clothes. It really is
completely different from anything we’ve known.
As with the Jokhang, the number of pilgrims here is also startling. They walk clockwise around the palace and visit each of the shrines, adding yak butter to the candles, offering small notes or giving water as offerings to Buddha. Many come from the countryside, so you get to see all sorts of traditional costumes, hairstyles and different physical features. For instance, a tribe called the Khampa are mostly over 6ft and stockily built, which is something we never expected.
Many of the people prostrate their way around when doing the Kora. This is where they raise their hands to the sky in prayer, crouch down and then lie flat on the floor with their arms outstretched. This movement is repeated every few steps, usually whilst chanting some kind of mantra, although many people are static and repeat the movement on the same spot. What hits you is the strength of their Buddhist belief, to travel all this way and do what must be a physically knackering routine to try and obtain a better next life.
The road to Everest
Going to Mount Everest Base Camp must surely be a
once in a lifetime experience. Part of the reason for coming to Tibet was to get there and see what the biggest mountain in the world looks like.
We’d expected the four day trip to base camp and back to be fairly rough going, so along with Peter and Ellen (the Dutch couple), we’d booked a Land Cruiser to get us over the potholes in relative comfort. Mysteriously though, our group of 4 turned into a group of 6 and we were no longer in a reliable Toyota Land cruiser but a Chinese made 19 seat bus! This didn’t bode well.
From Lhasa, we took the old southern road to a place called Gyantse. The road snakes its way up a number of high passes, some of them nearly 5,000m high. The thing that really strikes you is the absolute desolation of the landscape. There is very little vegetation and it seems that the herds of Yak and Sheep must live off lichen and mosses. Yamdrok lake was one of a few stops. The lake is a stunning turquoise blue, much like Lake Taupo in New Zealand. At these desolate stops an amazing number of locals appear and
offer you photos with their yaks and Tibetan dogs - for a price of course. All the women and children have really red cheeks, which at first we think must be make-up, but we realise that it’s raw skin due to the cold weather and the wind.
The landscape is mesmerising and we stare out of the window as we climb up and down high passes, listening to traditional Tibetan folk songs that are playing through the surprisingly modern on board DVD system (if you want a rendition of either the tune or the dance, it’s embedded in our memory!).
Gyantse is a small place with a fortification, the Dzong, that the British defeated in 1904. There is also a monastery, called the Gyantse Kumbum, and we head inside to find it dark and smoky with monks chanting and beating traditional drums. You can’t help feeling that the scene would be the same if we had arrived a hundred years earlier.
Our overnight stop is Shigatse, and the hotel is surprisingly plush. We sleep really well, which is a novelty as since arriving our sleep has been somewhat broken. This is apparently because you wake yourself up
because your slower pace of breathing during sleep means that your brain isn’t getting enough oxygen at the high altitude - nice! A fairly uninterrupted night’s sleep means that we are acclimatising. Maybe the Tibetan root pills are working?
An early start and today we are off to Everest! We stop on the way at the “Everest Base Camp” sign. It’s very surreal. The last section of road is a dirt track and we all start to wish that we were on the Land cruiser. Despite being in the Everest/Qomolungma (the Tibetan name) national park, people still live here and it’s fascinating to see how they eke out a living in this lonely place.
Eventually, after many times of being bounced off the seat and even resorting to learning Dutch (bloomkohl ist leche - I like cauliflower), we arrive at the top of the road at the lookout point and are greeted by the sight of the Himalayas in front of us. They are truly awesome. Everest stands out because of its triangular shape and the fact that it is visibly higher than the rest of the range. Again, some locals appear and apparently tell our guide that
the tents that we are supposed to stay in at base camp have been taken down. Too excited by the prospect of reaching Base Camp, we don’t worry about this too much.
When we get to Base Camp, it doesn’t resemble much of a camp at all. There are no tents and just the basic toilet blocks that must serve hundreds of people in the climbing season. Nevertheless, we head a further 7km up the track to the furthest point you can go without trying to start climbing the mountain. It really is fantastic, with the sheer north face rising up 1,000s of metres. It’s also bitterly cold and after 10 or 15 minutes your fingers and toes are pretty numb. Still, we’re only going to be here once and it’s exhilarating knowing we are looking at the highest point on the earth, so we brave the cold, taking lots of pictures and staring in awe as the sun begins to set over Everest. Looking at it and knowing how cold it is here at the bottom, you really must be mad to climb up Everest.
Once the cold has taken its toll, we head
back to what was Base Camp. It is true. All of the 9 man tents, complete with a nice yak dung burning stove in the middle, have been dissembled as it’s the end of the season. We’re left with the choice of staying in Rongbuk Monastery Guesthouse (which is a monastery right next to base camp - the monks must be crazy to live up here) or heading back down 50km to the next village. Obviously, we choose the monastery and are rewarded with possibly the coldest night of broken sleep we have ever experienced. Despite sleeping with 5 layers, hat and gloves on, covered with a duvet and two thick blankets, it is just impossible to get warm and the cold really does penetrate into your bones. The plan was to get up at sunrise to see the mountain but we give up on sleep early and go to look at the stars - so many. Luckily, despite being told by an experienced and very smug Dutch climber that we were basically going to die sleeping this high up if we weren’t used to it (a rather gross over-exaggeration but this was Lynne’s alarmist interpretation), we don’t suffer from
the pounding headaches many people experience. One of our group, Richard, does suffer badly though and can’t stand up or walk without help.
Fortunately from him then, that the next morning the bus won’t start! It seems that the cold has completely drained the battery and frozen some parts of the engine. We’re not worried as there are a lot of land cruisers around and after leaving the bus in the rising sun for a bit, surely someone will help start the bus with some jump leads? This is where we learn that the Tibetans don’t really like the Chinese (our bus driver was Chinese). Most people refuse point blank to help, many saying they don’t want to lose some of their battery charge. The ones that will help then ask for a ridiculous amount as payment. A couple of times truck drivers try to pull the bus using tow ropes to jump start it, but it’s all a bit comedy really, invariably pulling the bus uphill (??!!?) and never getting enough momentum. We quickly realise we are stranded at Everest Base Camp! The irony is that Richard, who has come ‘round a bit since Lynne gave him some
of the now miraculous Tibetan root medicine, is a bus mechanic in Montreal but they won’t let him touch it.
So we wait and we wait and we wait until about 3 in the afternoon for our guide to sort something out. To be honest, there are far worse places to be stranded. We spend the time gazing back over Everest and going for the occasional walk until our fingers can’t take the cold any more. Whilst it’s ok to spend the day here, few of us have the appetite for another sleepless, freezing night. Finally, we get the ok to hire a land cruiser to take us to a place called Lhatse, and 9 of us with luggage, pack into it. This is a little ironic as the reason we couldn’t have a land cruiser in the first place was because there were too many of us.
Just as things are looking up and we are finally starting to warm up, our guide’s mate (who we picked up for the ride at some random time, we had loads of space in the bus) starts to suffer from travel sickness. Not surprising really when you’re crammed into the
car, swinging round hairpin bends on gravel roads. What is surprising is that he doesn’t ask to stop when he is about to puke, and instead hurls all over our luggage! The smell of yak butter tea will live with me forever. Lynne is ecstatic as her trolley dolly rucksack escapes without a hint of splatter. Mine however takes the full brunt! Oh joy!
Back to Lhasa
We survived the trip to Base Camp without any real effects of the altitude, so we’re now allowed a few celebratory beers! You’re advised not to drink alcohol on the ascent and we managed for 5 days surprisingly with no trouble.
After Lhatse, we head back to Shigatse to visit the Tashilunpo Monastery. As the Potala Palace is the home of the Dalai Lama, this monastery is the home of the Panchen Lama. To be honest, we found it all a little confusing, but the original Dalai and Panchen Lamas were both disciples of Tsongkhapa and it was he who seems to have started Buddhism in Tibet. Tibetans believe that on their death, both the Dalai and Panchen Lamas will be reincarnated, and so a nationwide search starts for young
boys with exceptional talents to identify which one is the reincarnation. This takes a long time and when the 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989, the 11th was only selected in 1995.
We’ll write more about the Panchen Lama when we come out of China. The selection of the 11th Panchen was controversial and apparently it isn’t uncommon for the authorities to monitor communications regarding it!
The monastery is really like a small town, with lots of cobbled alleyways running up and down the hillside. As with the Potala, there are lots of shrines and separate temples. The highlights are the tombs of past Panchen Lamas, which are golden stupas. It is said the tomb of the 10th Panchen Lama cost US $8 million, which I think is hard to justify when most of the population seem to have living standards little above subsistence levels.
The drive back to Lhasa is fairly uneventful apart from it starting to snow. As a result, a speed limit of 50km/hr is placed on all traffic. There are four checkpoints between Shigatse and Lhasa, and at each all drivers have to hand in a card to be stamped. With the speed
restriction now in place, if a driver arrives earlier than they should if driving at 50km/hr, they get fined. What actually happens is that everyone continues to drive as they always did (i.e. erratically), they all get to near the checkpoint half an hour early and then go for a cup of butter tea around the corner from the checkpoint. Comedy and an absolutely pointless piece of bureaucracy!
It seems a little harsh to lump three fantastic spectacles into one section, but I fear we’re writing a thesis on Tibet by now rather than a blog!
One place definitely worth visiting if you happen to find yourself in Tibet is Ganden Monastery. It’s about 50km outside of Lhasa, built high up a mountainside overlooking the Lhasa valley. It looks majestic as you approach it from below. This place was founded by Tsongkhapa, so it particularly important to Tibetans. His tomb is inside, which as is the norm, is a huge golden stupa.
Similarly, Drepung and Sera Monasteries are both worth a visit and much nearer to Lhasa. Drepung is the biggest in Tibet and was said to house 10,000 monks at its peak. Sera
is smaller but famous for the monks debating in one of the courtyards, but we didn’t get to see this as it’s banned for the time being.
Tu Chi Chi Tibet
Or thank you Tibet to you and me. It was well worth the effort to get here. Our tour didn’t always go smoothly and it was expensive to do (unfortunately, most of the money does not seem to find its way to people on the ground and instead is creamed off by the agency in Chengdu or the agency in Tibet!) However, you do get a unique experience, both in terms of the people, the culture and the views which are difficult to beat! We don’t think that we have done a very good job of describing Tibet really, in many ways it’s just too different and special to do justice, but we hope that the pictures give you a better idea.
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