Trains, tea and toilets in Tibet

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November 5th 2008
Published: November 16th 2008
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Permit me to travelPermit me to travelPermit me to travel

I daren't go in to the subtifuge and law breaking I undertook to get this permit, all I can say is Ling Ling Qi would have been proud.
Well, I made it back from my second epic adventure around China, and finally have found a moment to tell you the story of our Tibetan trials and tribulations. And of course show you a few more of some of the 1300 or so photos I managed to take in 3 weeks. If you have the time and patience, read on…

The trip to Shanghai didn’t get off to the best start with fog delaying our departure, but as with my last trip to China, on arrival in Shanghai we took the marvellous Maglev in to the heart of the city. I’d only been away for three years but the city skyline had already changed with the new Shanghai World Financial Centre opening. It was quite a shock as no one had mentioned to me it was finished, you would have thought I’d have been consulted! Ah well, another tall building of the world to add to my list.

The day was spent preparing for the train journey to Lhasa, making sure we had enough snacks and most importantly, enough toilet paper for two days on a train. This is VERY IMPORTANT if you ever take this train, I can tell you that much.
After a visit to my adoptive Chinese family (Admiral Li and Madame Wan) for a quick ‘Ni hao’ and some much appreciated home cooking it was time for us to head off to the station ( illegally through a Chinese navel base, we’re such law breakers) to catch train T162 to Lhasa.

Boarding the train took us to a rather smaller than expected soft sleeper carriage, and with the amount of luggage and snacks the four of us were carrying it was a tight squeeze, I resolved to get munching on the excess cakes as soon as possible to free up some space in the carriage, selfless as ever!

So, the prospect of 49 hours on a train meant we decided to do the sensible thing and start drinking immediately, I think we impressed the canteen staff by the amount of beer we bought on the first night, it’s the best way to improve your Chinese, I was sure I was fluent by the end of the night.

We awoke the next morning in Xi’an and then the train passed through mile after mile of China’s industrial landscape, time passed with some
Geography field tripGeography field tripGeography field trip

Look at that river erosion in action
cake eating, Yahtzee and tea drinking. And of course the constant updating of the ‘Toilet alert’, a similar concept to the Government’s terror alert, whenever the ‘Toilet level’ dropped to ‘just cleaned’, we were all rather relieved (literally).

Next morning, some delightful Chinese music was piped in the carriage rather early to tell us we have arrived in Golmud. Dawn was breaking and overnight it was clear that the scenery outside had changed dramatically. We were now about 3000m above sea level and it was time to start taking the Chinese herbal medicine with was provided with the permit to combat altitude sickness. Golmud is where the train used to end, but now the completion of this final section of the Qinghai railway to Lhasa means people no longer have to drive for two days to get there.

As we left Golmud we started to climb to the highest part of the journey, the Tanggula Pass, at 5,072 m (16,640 feet). I started to wonder if I was going to suffer any effects of the altitude, I envisioned blood seeping out of my eyes and nose and that I would start expanding like Katanga at the end of
Stop the train, I want to get off!Stop the train, I want to get off!Stop the train, I want to get off!

Actually, no I don't. It's the station at the Tanggula Pass, at 5,072 m (16,640 feet) it's the world's highest rail track and a little chilly looking.
‘Live and let die’.

As the train slowly creeped up to the pass the scenery become more spectacular, and of course the first yaks appeared on the horizon accompanied by donkeys, birds of prey, antelopes and many other animals. The Tibetan plateau was teeming with more life than the Australian rainforest, well the bit of it I went to.

I spent the day watching the plateau subtly changing from vast brown plains to snowy mountains and rugged mountains, and it seemed to just go on for ever and ever, not surprising really as the plateau covers a quarter of China. At the highest point they began to pipe in Oxygen in to the train, so luckily I avoided any ill effects. At 1.40pm we reached the highest point which was a pristine white lunar landscape and I felt it was going to be down hill from then on, especially now as at this point we must have been on the fifth loop of the small selection of Chinese and Tibetan CDs which were being continuously played on the train. Still, lying on the bed looking out at that landscape has to be one of the most enjoyable journeys
Holy lake NamtsoHoly lake NamtsoHoly lake Namtso

Guess what, it's the highest salt lake in the world.
I’ve ever taken, certainly sight-seeing for the lazy.

That evening we finally arrived in Lhasa a bit in need of a shower and were met by our guide, Basan (I could well have spelt this wrong), we handed over our permit and he handed over a prayer scarf and took us off to the best hotel you can get in Lhasa. We were staying in the Brahmaputra museum hotel which was rather nice and in a Tibetan style. Checking in, we were given some friendly advice that it still isn’t advised to stay out past 9pm, a little hangover from the troubles earlier this year.

Our first day in Lhasa and we were picked up by our guide and taken straight to the Potola Palace, the home of the Dalai Lama, which rises dramatically out of the heart of the city. To enter the palace you have to climb up quite a few steps, which suddenly let you know you were at altitude. Of course, the Potola palace lost its famous resident quite a few years ago, but there are still plenty of monks milling around. As our guide took us around the palace we got our first
on the way to Lhasaon the way to Lhasaon the way to Lhasa

I'm sure there is some 'highest' claim in here somewhere
taste of how many different types of Buddhas there are, future Buddhas, medicine Buddhas, not to mention all the kings and Lamas as well. And of course, the different sects of monks defined by hats. Yellow, red, white, black and flower hats, I was suffering with too much information and should probably have started the Dunces hat sect after a couple of hours.

This was our first introduction to the delights of all thing yak. The candles are all made from yak’s butter which has its own interesting aroma and seems to leave a bit of a fatty sheen over everything. To celebrate new year, the monks also make ‘flowers’ and statues out of yak’s butter which they paint and leave in the temples, an acquired taste I think.

At lunch I carried on with the yak theme and had some delicious yak meat but also tried the yak’s butter tea, rancid. It was like drinking warm melted, salty butter, most certainly not my cup of tea.

After lunch we headed over to the Jokhang temple and the Barkhor square for some shopping. This was where the troubles began in March. There was still a noticeable military
Pot Noodle Palace?Pot Noodle Palace?Pot Noodle Palace?

Sorry, I meant Potola Palace
presence with guards posted on the roofs over looking the square and many patrols walking through the market. Our guide lived locally and told us how the rioters were not from Lhasa and afterwards made it very hard for the locals living there as they couldn’t work and were under curfew for a few months. Bearing in mind the Dalai Lama only represented one sect of the Tibetans and not that many people seemed to want him back, don’t let me get too political, but they have a lot more privileges and freedom that most people realise.

Next day and it was up early for a trip to see a holy rock, lake and tree. We headed off on the Friendship highway, which is rather bumpy and drove towards the city of Linzhi, (Nyingchi). The drive took us through the spectacular national forest park and to the lake, Basomtso. My usually fantastic sense of direct failed me that day, I blame the altitude, but I was convinced we were heading west in the direction of Mount Everest, turned out I got it completely wrong and we had driven 6 hours east instead, ending up close to the border with
Stop monk-eying aroundStop monk-eying aroundStop monk-eying around

It maybe holy, but the toilets in the palace were not. From 10m you could smell them. I suggest some toilet karma would be a good idea here.
Bhutan. On the way there we headed up over a pass of about 5100m and as I got out and had a walk around I had the very pleasant sensation of feeling a bit drunk on the altitude, at least there was no hangover to come. Heading down the pass, we stopped at another monastery on an island, very holy, and passed through many Tibetan villages along the way.

Linzhi itself wasn’t the nicest of towns, a bit rustic and our hotel had seen better days. But we seemed to have picked the right night though as it was the town festival and we were invited to watch the local folk dancing around a bonfire at the hotel. They seemed quite pleased with our attendance as they took rather a lot of photos of us.

Next day was back to Lhasa after a quick trip to a holy tree and then a bit more bouncing around for a few hours. There were still plenty on nomads in their camps, they still hadn’t headed down the valley for the winter. Their distinctive black tents were surrounded by piles and piles of drying yak’s dung which they use for fuel. The animals roam free and all over the roads, so travelling by road you need to include extra time for animals crossing as you have to slow down all the time.
We had a quick stop off in a traditional Tibetan house, I politely declined the offer of some yak’s butter tea but tried the yak cheese, a little bit salty, thank goodness for chedder.

The following day we finally were heading west in the direction of Mount Everest, although we would be going quite that far. Again we climbed up and up.
We had three high passes that day including the Ganbala pass which took us up to Yamdrok Tso, a lake at the top of the pass. The second one was Karo La pass at over 5060m it passes underneath a glacier, the top of which is about 7100m. I think this part was the most spectacular part of the whole trip for me, the mountains were majestic and really made you realise you were in the actual Himalayas, fantastic!

Heading back down we stopped off in the town of Gyantse, at only 3977m, not too high. Plenty of history here, including an invasion by the
Are you Jokhang?Are you Jokhang?Are you Jokhang?

Actually no, I'm Potola-ing it on. View of the Potala from the Jokhang temple roof
British in 1904, naughty British invading Tibet! The fortress is high on a hill in the centre of town and looks like somewhere Genghis Khan might live (yes I know he wasn’t from these parts, but he would probably have liked it). So of course we went to a monastery, we’ll we hadn’t been to one for a day. In the Palcho monastery they have a tiered Kumbum (it’s a multi-storied aggregate of Buddhist chapels) and very pretty too. I saw this temple on a BBC programme about a year in Tibet, strange how they didn’t mention the smell of the toilets; it’s one of the things that I will always remember of that town.

After finishing up in Gyantse we drove the last leg of the day to Shigatse (Xigaze) 3840m, famous for another monastery, the Tashilhunpo. This is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas (have I lost you yet?). This is probably the biggest one we had been too and was full of Yellow hat monks. We arrived just in time to catch the monks going in to prayer. The prayer involved a lot of wailing by the monks and I have to say I was
I predict a riotI predict a riotI predict a riot

This is where it all started apparently, Barkhor square. Those naughty people who were not from Lhasa caused a lot of trouble and upset for the locals.
rather overcome by the aroma of roast lamb in the room they were praying in. I don’t think they follow the old adage of ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ in Tibet.

So that was it really for Tibet, the next day we flew out of Lhasa to go to Beijing. I’d survived the altitude and our guide even thought I’d be tough enough to make it to Everest base camp, Bear Grylls has nothing on me. Tibet is an amazing place if you enjoy scenery, probably not for everyone as they toilets and altitude are quite challenging, when you find you prefer to stop the car and go behind a bush, you know they have to be bad. Next time Everest via Katmandu I think, just to look mind, don’t think I’ll attempt the climb.

Of course the trip didn't end there, I'll try and find some time to write the final installment, considering I had two more weeks of holiday left after leaving Tibet!

Additional photos below
Photos: 30, Displayed: 30


On your guardOn your guard
On your guard

There was a significant army presence in the whole of Lhasa, they must have heard I was coming.
The friendship highwayThe friendship highway
The friendship highway

Not very friendly to cars with rubbish suspension I can tell you that much.
Summer residenceSummer residence
Summer residence

Most of the nomads live in the tents in the summer then move to nice big houses in the winter.
Holy sh*t!Holy sh*t!
Holy sh*t!

Yak's poo drying by the roadside
Mountains? In Tibet? You don't say!Mountains? In Tibet? You don't say!
Mountains? In Tibet? You don't say!

Think yourself lucky I haven't put up the entire collection of mountain pictures I took, you would be here for a few days going through them all
And anotherAnd another
And another

I quite like mountains, pity you can't ski down them
We're on a road to nowhereWe're on a road to nowhere
We're on a road to nowhere

Crazy pilgrims making their way to Lhasa. We had driven about 4 hours from Lhasa, it will take them about 1 month to cover that distence this way.
Home sweet homeHome sweet home
Home sweet home

Entrance to a traditional house, only had a slight odour of yak's butter...

18th November 2008

Mrs Li??? Mommy will be perplexed. Only Madame Wan in the family. Mainland Chinese women don't change their surname after marriage, so Mrs is not used.
18th November 2008

My humble apologies to Madame Wan
Please forgive my ignorance! I will change the text. I would not want to upset your lovely mother!

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