In the morning, all six of us, the group from Xian and two Singaporean girls, left for the airport. We were all pretty tired so not a lot of bonding took place at this point, but it seemed like the group would have potential. From Xian was our guide Richie, and some English teachers named Rachel and Michael – both American, and myself. The Singaporean girls, Faith and Gwen seemed pretty cool and down to Earth too. The flight was pretty short, but from the windows we got a taste of what was to come. There were some incredible peaks erupting well beyond the cloud line. So, these are the might Himalayas huh?
Outside, on the flight in.
We arrived at the Lhasa airport which, sitting on the Tibetan Plateau is the highest in the world. With legitimate concerns of altitude sickness in play, there being only 68% of the oxygen content at sea level, the only logical thing to do was for everyone in the group to enjoy a cigarette. Most of us didn’t even smoke, but it was a bit of a ‘hit me with your best shot’ gesture before meeting the Tibetan guide and getting to heart of the capital city. Many of the matches we struck wouldn’t ignite, but instead smolder for lack of oxygen.
The ride in took about an hour, but everyone lapped up the incredible scenery. Lhasa is located in a valley, but still maintains an elevation of 3,600m (11,800 feet), higher than Mt. Fuji, and is surrounded by incredible peaks well over that. We got into town, and checked into a pretty nice hotel. For the duration of the tour I was rooming with Rachel, which worked out just fine. After getting settled, we hit the streets.
The first day was designed to be very easy, due to fears of altitude sickness. However confident, I was really amazed at what a difference the altitude made; walking a single flight of stairs had you panting. One other interesting side-effect of the altitude was that it was much more difficult to whistle. Without as much air flowing through your mouth, it was hard to hit and maintain notes. Anyway, out and about we just walked the street in search of food but without any real sense of direction. This was the very fist day that foreign tourists were permitted back in Tibet, so we were a bit of a spectacle. Another observation was the heavy presence of the Chinese military, which forbid taking photos of them. In a town of so many old ladies walking around, it just seemed a bit unnecessary. No one wanted to take the leadership role, so sauntering continued for quite some time before we realized we needed to turn back. Even though walking and talking could make you short of breath, it was a good chance to start making alliances and get to know one another. One of the most significant landmarks of Tibet is the Potala Palace, which we got a great view of on our walk.. Eventually we went back to a restaurant with a reasonable menu. After this basic meal, we went back to the hotel to do whatever we wanted. I was able to hop on the internet where I caught the devastating news that a fraternity friend had paralyzed neck down in a freak accident. I couldn’t imagine the difficulty of that situation.
Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama
After the news and a nap, a few of us decided we wanted to go back to a traditional Tibetan blind massage parlor we saw down the road. It is believed that the best masseuses are of the blind community, so the industry is one of the few places where the blind can still work across China. I went with Gwen and Faith and the 90 minute session turned out to be really relaxing. There was a bit more focus paid to the head, which felt great against the headache I had bubbling up. Eventually, back at the hotel we grabbed a few drinks while we chatted and played cards. The first day we were advised not to shower, since it can lead to altitude sickness. All the caution seemed unnecessary, though I did find myself in the midst of a couple awful headaches during the trip, something I would never get otherwise.
Here we are with the massage folks. I had the lady on the left.
So on our first day of actually doing something we were led to Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lama. Only used for a couple years in the 50s before the Chinese so kindly ran him off to India, it was a nice little place. We were able to see his living quarters, the throne room, as well as the true throne which was comprised of the first western style toilet in all of Tibet. We were able to see things like radios and such, which as a child the Dalai Lama had a fascination with toying with. The beautiful grounds also had a number of temples and artifacts on display. Our tour did a great job to talk about the different paintings and architecture of the temple. After this, we went to a Tibetan history museum. It had all sorts of great exhibits and traditional objects that made it one of the best free museums I’ve yet been to. There was an exhibit that had all of the Jade gifts from the Tibetan government and the Chinese emperors on display, some of which were certainly priceless. From here, our guide brought us to a restaurant run by nuns of a monastery. The food was authentic, and our money was going towards a good cause as well. The noodles didn’t have much flavor, but we were able to enjoy some of the Yak Butter Tea, which was exactly like drinking a heavy butter.
Norbulingka Summer Palace
The rest of the day was spent at the Sera Monastery and the Lhasa marketplace. The Sera Monastery was one of the most interesting, as it allowed me my first chance to see Buddhism practiced by actual monks, rather than just visiting temples and shrines. While at these temples, there were huge numbers of people making a pilgrimage to temples, to have their children anointed and to make offerings to the different incarnations of Buddha. They would give small change in various boxes, and also bring jugs of yak butter to pour into candles. It was a really interesting spectacle to take in. The monks, if not aiding with the people were sitting and meditating or chanting. Then later, all the monks gathered at the debating grounds. Here they engaged in a practice of question and answer, asking deep questions that would test their knowledge and understanding of Buddhist texts and philosophy. As they would do this, the quiz master would would perform a sweeping clap of his right hand into his left. These hands, representing knowledge and darkness respectively, symbolized bringing the light of understanding into the dark. It was really interesting to see all of this happen, just as it has been happening for the last 14 hundred years. As we walked around the grounds, we saw a number of interesting artifacts and aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, but were also waiting constantly for our group member Michael. He was determined to take more pictures than any of us had patience for, and was abandoned numerous times along the way.
Back in town, we walked over to the market which is a great place to purchase some souvenirs. I snagged a few things, but would later come back to gather up the rest of my swag. While in a store, we were ambushed by a hailstorm that absolutely pelted anyone outside. We were eventually able to leave our shelter, get some friend chicken at some fast food chain. On the way back to the hotel, we decided it was a good night to take some fun back with us, so we stopped at the store to get the essentials. It turned into a pretty good night with decent conversation and some good laughs.
The market, where we did the bulk of our shopping
The next morning we took a van for 4 hours to the city of Shigatse. It was a scenic drive along the Yarlung Zangbo River, which flows through the longest and deepest canyon in the world. It eventually flows to India where it become the Brahmaputra. On the way we stopped for some pictures which were nice and eventually we reached the Tashilhunpo Monastary. This too was in active use by monks, and was built by the first Dalai Lama in 1447, though it is traditionally the residence of the Panchen Lama. It had a few decadent tombs of former Panchen Lamas, as well as some impressive chapels. One of the spectacles was the largest Maitreya Buddha in the world. After walking around the grounds for a while, we returned to the city proper where we did dinner and walked around the city a bit. Despite the numerous mistakes the restaurant made, the curry was excellent and we had a good time. On our walk back, we did some shopping and eventually just retired to bed.
After a decent continental breakfast, we had a day full of driving ahead of us. The goal was to work our way back to the capital of Lhasa, but do as much as possible to soak in the beauty of the Himalayas along the way. We made stops at the Gyantse Fortress, some place to ride yaks, and basked in some of the most dynamic scenery imaginable. Some of the roads brought us up to 5000m (16,400 ft), just below the snow line where it was legitimately cold and the lack of oxygen was very obvious. One of the highlights of this drive was our time spent along the Yamdrok Lake, one of the holiest lakes in the region. Due to the mineral composition of the the rock, the lake took on an intense sea foam green hue, very photogenic. Also along the way, we made a rest stop at one of most uninviting toilets I’ve yet come across. Once back in Lhasa, we returned to our hotel and settled into food and each other’s company for the night.
Ye Haw, It’s Yak time…
Here you can see me and my tour guide, Richie. Behind us is the Yamdrok Lake. Notice the otherworldly color of it.
The next morning was the start of our last day, and we went all over the capital city. We stopped at a temple still in ruins after Mao’s Cultural Revolution. There was a lot of damage that came to religious structures and deaths of the monks who defended them. We also made stops at some non touristy local temples, a local family’s home, and at last the Jokhang temple. This temple was built in 647 AD in honor of the Chinese and Nepali wives the King Songsten Gampo had taken. The temple itself was pretty impressive in size, but it also allowed us up onto the roof where we had a full view of the surrounding city. Due to its significance, there were numerous people who would pilgrimage over to this temple, and prostrate themselves in front of the temple in 1000 rep sets. For our last night we had a decent dinner and watched one of our members get a tattoo, some Buddhist mantra he couldn’t hope to ever read.
Cultural Revolution aftermath. Those shiny things in the foreground warm water for tea using the sun.
At last it was time to go home. Coming in it was the airplane, but we would be leaving from Lhasa to Beijing by train. A 45 hour train. I have never found myself needing that much train, but it did offer the opportunity to see 4,000 km of the Chinese in between. On the way out of Tibet, we passed by some 7,700 m peaks that just seemed to tower. Sure, Everest is another 1,000m on that, but something that rises 4.75 miles out of the ground is impressive regardless. The time on the train was spent playing a lot of cards, reading, and chatting. I learned a couple new games, but I also was happy to share my old man and Midwest culture by teaching Cribbage and Euchre to my companions. Also in our train compartment was a Chinese guy who spoke pretty good Japanese, so I was able to chat a bit with him which is always fun. Two days on a nonstop train passed faster than I would have expected, and before I knew it, I was at Beijing West Station. We celebrated our ride with some McDonald’s. At this point, the group was splitting up, some returning home, and a few going on. Once in Beijing, we had an information meeting about the next leg of the trip, and then me and Gwen split a hotel room. A friend of her’s offered to buy us a room at the Shangri-La, which to my dismay she turned down.
Here I am, in my train compartment.
This marked the end of Tibet, but was really an eye opening experience. Of course while the scenery was intense, the real takeaway was the unique culture of the region, especially the religion. Despite efforts to dilute it, the Tibetan strain of Buddhism is alive and well, and is still practiced widely by the people. I was amazed to see young people making pilgrimages to temples, and many others walking around with their prayer beads and prayer wheels. The Philippines too were extremely religious, but what I saw in Tibet really did so much more to define their way of life. These people lived out their beliefs in an amazing way. Tibet is a region of China that has been struggling for independence ever since it was ‘liberated’ by China, and based on everything I saw, it couldn’t be less like the rest of China people. In talking with my guide, Tibetans still want to marry Tibetans, and they see themselves as a different people, whereas China claims them as their own. Aside from this, I really marveled at the beauty of the surrounding terrain. I have a particular affinity for mountains, having come from such a flat part of the world, and to see monsters like what I saw was truly incredible. However, having seen what I saw, I am rethinking a trip to Nepal I wanted to take over my winter holidays for fear of redundancy. I would recommend that anyone get to this region, since its preservation of culture and religion in a modern world is impeccable, however, endangered.
Here is a picture of some ladies with their prayer wheels. They would walk and spin these constantly, wherever they went. The black around the windows is classic Tibetan architecture.
Lastly, here is a video compilation for Tibet as well.