We pack up and head out of Kathmandu on 4th April. I think we are all happy to be moving on from Nepal… it feels like we have been kicking our heels a little, waiting for the Tibet borders to open, but now we are off to Kathmandu Int airport, trying to ignore all the cheerful warnings from other travellers about what a dodgy airport/flight route we are in for. I have loved Nepal but I am so so excited to be moving on… into Tibet of all places!
The only way we could get ourselves into the country was to be invited, which means booking with a Tibetan tour company, so Tibet Vista have our business and they will spend the next 8 days taking us through the countryside: SW from Lhasa past villages, lakes, monasteries and temples to Tibet’s Base Camp of Everest, then back to Lhasa where they push us gently but firmly out of Tibet and into China on the slightly daunting 43 hour high pass train to Chengdu.
It takes just over an hour to get to Lhasa. Good job it’s not more… there is quite a lot of turbulence as we climb up through the mountains, and we are all looking a little green when we gratefully disembark. Weirdly the time zone has changed and we are now 3 hours ahead of Nepal. Nothing to do with geography, all to do with the sheer bloody mindedness of insisting that the whole expense of China operates to the same time zone. So now it is light at 21:30 dark at 08:30… Sign of things to come? Yup.
Lhasa is a schizophrenic place. On the one hand there are these huge roads, big cars, clean streets, modern bridges and broadways (and a bloody Burger King!) and then crammed next to that are old cobbled streets, bright primary coloured fabrics fluttering, dark wood carvings, rusty rickshaws, tiny dark restaurants selling incomprehensible dishes, shrines of incense, traditional tibetan clothing, prostrating pilgrims and jabbering hawkers. The two sides are like oil and water in a glass… together but not mixing well.
We join our group in the foyer of our rather sterile hotel and head to the enormous Jokhang Buddhist monastery. It is a crisp bright morning and we should be striding along, but we are all moving slowly. I’m floored by how hard it is to catch my breath, I didn’t really register that Lhasa is, at 3650m, one of the highest cities in the world. I thought I was pretty acclimatised to altitude by now, but I thought wrong.
The massive monastery sits in a walled enclosure in a square in the centre of town. It is only open to the public for a few hours in the morning. We arrive at 9am and the queue already snakes all around the circumference. Joining the end feels just like when I was a teenager at Alton towers. As we wait, our guide Penpa tells us some of the history of Lhasa (one thing that Tibet has a lot of is history and legend). Tibetan Buddhism is the religion here. Derived from Indian Buddhism it has remained truer to the religions ancient roots. The spiritual leader is the Dalai Lama, (Dalai meaning ocean) and the second, the Panchen Lama (the scholar). The practitioners aspire to ultimate enlightenment, as did the Buddhas, each in their own way. There are many different Buddhas, but the favourite of the people is Compassionate Buddha, and he is who they pray to most often. As we stand in line we see crowds of Tibetans walking clockwise around us, spinning prayer wheels, reciting mantras, rubbing prayer bead necklaces and sometimes prostrating themselves by folding flat onto the stones, then unfolding, taking a few steps and repeating the process. Now that is dedication. It’s also fascinating to watch.
Once inside there is no photography, but it is a wonder to see. Incredibly detailed murals in dark reds, blues, greens and mustards cover the walls. Huge gold statues of Buddhas adorn the walls. Yak butter candles offer flickering yellow light and black smoke. Offerings of incense, fruit, drinks, flowers, more yak butter and money… so much money! Tiny paper notes worth a fraction of a Yuan are stuffed into every conceivable nook and cranny. The floor of the main chapel is covered in cushions, where the monks gather at dawn to chant. At the top of the chapel is a higher chair, where the Dalai Lama would sit and preside. They are all empty now. Some monks are dotted about, I think to watch over the thronging crowds. Because we have queued so long we don’t actually have much time inside before the monastery closes, and there is a sense of urgency in the crowd to get around the circuit. There are many little chapels winding off the main rooms, each dedicated to a different god or Buddha, and the locals each have their own preferred deity that they need to get to before we all get booted out. So it’s quite a jostle. But the air is hushed and overwhelmingly infused with spicy smelling yak butter.
The next day we go to Potala Palace. This is historically where the government sits, and where the successive Dalai Lamas lived, studied and are now entombed. The palace as we know it was built by the great fifth Dalai Lama. The red part of the palace is for the lamas, the white part for the government. There are over 1000 rooms, 10,000 shrines, and 200,000 statues. The tombs of Dalai Lamas past are quite mind bogglingly spectacular: towering structures of ornately wrought gold and precious stones, shrouded in shadows and candlelight. The base walls are over 5 meters thick, making it quite the fortress. Again, tourist entrance is restricted, and we have to make the best use of our time slot. The current Dalai Lama is carefully omitted from any discussions.
Joe is feeling the altitude so we go to the hotel clinic, and they arm him with meds and an oxygen canister. Then it’s time to get on the road. Our transportation is a small private bus. Crowded but comfy. Penpa gives us all lots of water and big fluffy blankets and off we go. We drive. And drive. The landscape loses buildings and gains majesty. We make pretty regular stops for bathroom breaks (mostly au natural) and to stretch our legs and lungs. But it’s soooo many hours on a bus. The roads losely follow the trade paths of the old time merchants who headed for Bhutan and Nepal to sell their teas and spices. They wind through the mountains, smooth and very well maintained. There is not a single pothole! ‘Someone’ has ploughed a fortune into the infrastructure here…
We go through a lot of official checkpoints, our passports are checked and rechecked. We climb and climb and the surroundings get more and more stunning.
But it doesn’t feel right somehow. We came to Tibet in part because it was challenging… to get ourselves here, to visit a country that is so cloaked in mystery and tragedy. I wanted to visit Everest because we trekked the Annapurnas instead of EBC in Nepal, and you kinda just have to see Everest if you’re in this neighbourhood. But whatever it was that I was hoping to find here, I’m not going to find it sitting in a tourist bus, in a line of tourist buses, on a pristine homogenised road. We are in this country but removed from it. We are shown and told about only what has been determined that we shall see and hear about, and every majestic photo I take has 50 other tourists taking the same photograph just out of shot.
An example: Tibetan mastiffs are the most amazing dogs. They are absolutely massive, great furry fuzzy bear like things. If you came across one in the woods you would assume your ticket was punched. I was hoping to see some when we passed through the villages. I needn’t have worried. Whenever we stop for a photo op there are people selling their wares, and a line of mastiffs sitting on tables, their owners have added lion-mane ruffs of fur to their necks, and if the dogs lie down they are poked back into a more attractive sitting position. You can take a selfie for ¥10.
There are exceptions. Some things are amazing in spite of all the tourists. We go to a monastery called Sera and watch the monks debating in the garden. They debate facets of the Buddhist doctrine in pairs, each making his own point, clapping hands, clacking stones to emphasise a point or signal when it is the others turn. It’s brilliant to watch. Or the Wonderfully intricate but ephemeral sand mandalas that are made by the monks… I can’t understand the mindset of expending so much energy and skill on something with will be swept away on the whim of the next breeze.
Still we wind inexorably towards Everest. The bus has oxygen canisters on standby. People are wilting. I suppose I’m glad after all that we’re not walking this one. Our ears pop. That oxygen is starting to look pretty good. We start to see glaciers on the tops of the peaks. The highest pass is 5244m and we finally arrive at the foot of Everest just before sunset. It is shrouded in clouds and the sun hits the snowy peaks and everything glows. But it is bloody freezing! But not as cold as Thorong La. This is a completely different experience. Somehow I don’t feel like we earned this view without the hardship of trekking… if we could walk 5 or 6kms closer that would be amazing, but we can’t because the whole area has been declared a military zone and we are not allowed there. Forbidden. It’s a sentiment you become well acquainted with here.
We are staying just down the road at Rong Phu monastery, the highest monastery in the world. There is a temple in a tiny cave, we cram ourselves in through the narrow hatch and just about fit. It’s warm from the perpetual candlelight and very atmospheric. According to legend, a monk won the cave from the demons that held forth there by sitting with his unassailable devotion until he beat them back. A handful of monks and nuns live at the monastery at any given time, and we stay the night in their guesthouse just down the road. I say stay, but we don’t sleep. It’s warm and comfortable, but we are over 5000m up and my body won’t let me relax enough to switch off. I just wait till dawn and the Tasha and I get up to see the sunrise hit Everest. It is an awesome mountain. I’m so glad we came to see it.
Soon it’s time to reload ourselves onto the bus and head back down to oxygen and civilisation. We are all very sleepy and before we know it we are back in Shigatse. Penpa takes us all out for a traditional dinner of brass hot pots and entertainment. And a lot of Tibetan beer. We all get very merry and cement our new friendships. Tasha and I learn some Swedish drinking songs (needs a bit of practice) and we have all have a terrific last evening together.
They next day we are back in Lhasa, saying our goodbyes and readying ourselves for the next stage… 43 hours on a train to China. Let’s do this.