15.10.2009 - 26.10.2009
A lazy morning. Then in the afternoon we went down to the train station to board the Chengdu - Lhasa train. This train was to be our home for the next 44 hours. After successfully scrummaging onto the train ahead of most other people we found we were able to stow our bags under the beds. The sleeper train consisted of 6 bed compartments.
In order to board we had to show passports, tickets, the tour group itinery once in Tibet and our permits. These were scrutinised by police and then for some reason photographed - but we made it, along with the other 6 people in our hastily put together tour group. It is impossible to enter Tibet without being part of a tour group. The tour companies, not surprisingly, have cottoned on to this and now charge extravagent prices for simple tours. How much of this money goes towards the tour guides, drivers, companies, Tibetan people and the Chinese Government is anyone's guess but I think the latter probably picks up a fair chunk.
The train was comfortable enough. Sadly, one of the Chinese ladies sharing my compartment gave me a set of earplugs as we set off, explaining that her brother (standing sheepishly behind her) was a massive snorer. She wasn't wrong. I was also on the top bunk which involved some fairly precarious climbing manouvres in order to make it up. More than once I either stepped on someone or landed in amongst a large Chinese family gathering at the bottom.
The 2 days went by reasonably quickly. We hung out in the restaurant carriage - ordering a constant flow of small water bottles to enable us to keep our space. This infuriated the waitress for some reason who on the 2nd night flew into a rage and yelled at us. We had actually eaten some of the food as well but obviously not enough to avoid a mammouth ear bashing from her.
The train went north from Chengdu, through Xining and then west. Shortly before entering Tibet the train stewardesses came round with oxygen tubes. A little later the atnosphere inside the train became somewhat artificial as oxygen was pumped in and the heating turned up a notch. This was beacuse the train line rose to over 5000 metres high (far higher than any mountain in Europe). In our group of 8 we had several headaches, some nausea, a couple of nose bleeds and 1 fainting. Happily, I was fine!! As was Marsha once she'd cleared up the nose bleeds.... Altitude sickness is apparently a real problem and a slow graduated climb is reccommended. Unfortunately, the train has to pass over 5000 metres before coming down to 3650 metres in Lhasa. But, this is still the preferred route in rather than flying.
The train line is a remarkable feat of engineering. We travelled over mountains and along the Tibetan plateau. The view was stunning nearly all the time. The sunsets and sunrises were absolutely beautiful. At times we were well above the snow line in amongst the jagged peaks. Outside life went on somehow: Tibetan houses, Yak, hawks, antelope and gazelles all happily going about their business in the snow. At other times sand dunes dominated the landscape. As we neared Lhasa the train travelled along the plateau - flat baron land either side of the track with snowy mountain peaks jostling for room on the horizon.
The train pulled into Lasa/Lhasa/Lahasa about 4pm. The city seems to use each of these spellings for some reason. We were met by Yutun (our tour guide) and 2 landcruisers and 2 drivers. Marsha and I checked into the Wyichu Hotel in the centre of Lhasa. After making arrangements for meeting up the next day we then walked down to the Bakhor region of town. This region is essentially a circuit around the Jokhang Temple. It ignites all the senses. A sea of people walk clockwise around the 1km long circuit. Tourists, monks, elderly ladies clutching and spinning prayer wheels and Tibetan people selling their wares. Incense burns creating a spicy aroma. The place is noisy - some good natured haggling over Tibetan clothes and artefacts and the low chanting and murmouring as the religous Tibetan buddhists complete their circuits. We were swept up into the circuit and went round a couple of times.
Some of the people weren't just walking around - several men and women clad in yak wool aprons and with padded gloves were throwing themselves to the ground every few steps fully laying out on their stomachs with arms outstretched. They performed these spiritual protestations several times a minute.
Back out in the main streets the Chinese army was very visible. Groups of armed soldiers, some with riot gear, marched the roads. These boys (for that's all they were) guarded various streets and positions in town. It was a little scary. We avoided eye contact with them and found ourselves in a little Tibetan restaurant called Tashi 1.
A fairly restless night - apparently the altitude can play havoc with your sleep. Although, we were managing to blame the altitude on all sorts of minor goings on - from spilling a drink to tripping on the pavement. The 8 of us met Yutun and we visited Drepung Monastery in the morning and Jokhang Temple in the afternoon. The monastery used to house 7000 monks - now only 500. It also used to be the seat of government in Tibet. The Temple was the King's palace before Potala Palace was built. Each was filled with endless pilgrims and monks performing various spiritual tasks - protestations, emptying yak butter into vats, chanting, spinning prayer wheels and throwing money into all the different chambers. Both places had many stupas and Buddha figures. Our guide tried to explain the very complicated history and meanings of Buddhism. I had no idea it was so complicated - and at times, not a little far fetched to say the least.
Yutun explained a little of the Tibetan history but refused to be drawn into any opinions regarding the Chinese occupation. 'There are people with ears', she told us, 'everywhere!'. The temples and monasteries and streets and people in general are alive with colour. It is a great place to simply sit and people watch. Towards the end of the day's tour we came to the top of the temple overlooking the square in town. We just sat and watched for a while. And then, a group of about 6 monks turned up. I don't know quite who was the more excited but, we all took turns standing with each other posing for photos. Marsha was even made to take a video of one of the monks as he performed some sort of prayer ritual with his lucky prayer scarf.
In fact, we had all been made to wear these white prayer scarves. They are supposed to bring luck. However, after Marsha had first tripped up on hers and then nearly garotted herself on it whilst trying to disentagle her camera from it we decided we would try and cope without...
Here's some snaps:
Marsha and I joined 3 of the other tour group members for a dinner at New Mandala restaurant which was cheap and very tasty.
The Dalai Lama lives in exile in India. His home when in Tibet, along with many of his predecessors was the Potala Palace. Once again, efforts to engage in a discussion with our tour guide about his exile and the possibility of his return was met with silence. Instead, as we climbed the many stairs to the top of the palace, she pointed out the huge monument we could see across the road a square from the palace. 'That is the monument to comemorate the Liberation of Tibet by the Chinese', she told us.
(People have ears...)
The palace contained the mummified corpses and stupa tombs of several Dalai Lama. We also visited the study rooms and chambers of the present Dalai Lama - albeit, sadly, unused at present.
We had a whirlwind tour - the officials in their wisdom only allow you an hour inside. We could easily have spent several hours. Stupas, buddhas, caves, ancient scriptures, statues and paintings cover each room from floor to ceiling - and there are 1000 rooms. Truly an extraordinary place.
After lunch at the Durnya Cafe we trooped along to Sera Monastery. Here about 50 monks sat around in a garden and debated Buddhist issues. This involved groups sitting together and 1 monk standing up and rather aggressively firing questions at the seated monks by throwing his whole body into a clap and pointing vigourously at one of them. The seated ones looked bored out of their minds whereas the questioners appeared to be rather enjoying their roles.
The previous evening we tried to book flights from Kathmandu online using my credit card. It failed. So, we rang the bank on Skype. 'Ah, yes', the lady on the other end said,'I notice you have tried to use your card. We've blocked it', she added happily. I asked why and receied some baffling reason to do with Christmas as an answer. Anyhow, once she had affirmed my date of birth and various other information she informed me that the card was now unblocked. 'Try now, it will work', she said half heartedly - clearly she was applying lipstick or filing her nails or something else important. So I tried and it failed again. I called back and got through to the same woman. 'Hello again, my card still doesn't work', I said after giving my credit card number. 'Oh'. A pause. Clearly playing for time she then insisted in asking me exactly the same personal detail questions as before. A few minutes later she suddenly announced that she had fixed the problem. I tried again and it didn't work. By this time the owner of the wifi cafe we were sitting in decided to close and ushered us out. Great!
We go up an hour early to try again. A couple of phone calls - one of which resulted in me being passed on to someone else 3 times eventually fixed the card. No reason was given other than a similarly bizzare reason to do with Christmas again. Anyhow, it was too late to book flights as we were due in the car park of the hotel.
The 8 of us travelled north and east of Lhasa via some ridiculously expensive hot springs to Lake Namtso. The claim by the Chinese is that this lake is the highest in the world - 4700 metres above sea level. The road there was gorgeous. We went over a 5200 metre pass - snow all around and still peaks towering above us. The lake itself was a brilliant blue colour, surrounded by hills and mountains. The snow reached down almost to the shore. We spent nearly 2 hours walking along the shore taking endless photos. It was impossible to take a bad one.
We eventually left the lake and drove round to Reting Monastery. On the way at a police checkpoint our guide was told that we would not be able to stay there and would have to return to Lhasa. The reason? – ‘troubles’ in the region. We went anyway and, not surprisingly, everything was quiet. There were no monks rampaging the countryside causing havoc. And so, arriving late, we were shown to the pretty basic sleeping quarters of the monastery. Some noodles and a couple of drinks before bed.
I had slept fine – despite what seemed like hundreds of dogs barking at each other throughout the night but some of the group were not feeling too well. The altitude was over 4000 metres. Some rather plain rice for breakfast did nothing to improve things. Very cold, we all joined in the tour around the small monastery nestled at the bottom of hills that stretched up all around. It is the place where the Dalai Lama has made it known that he would quite like to return to – if ever that day happens. It was very picturesque and involved climbing up the hill a short way. The thinness of the air was very obvious. Even a short climb up a wee hill left us all breathless.
Once the tour ended everyone traipsed back down the hill, but, on seeing some stupas to our right, Marsha and I went down a different route. It was beautiful – many stupas sat in amongst the trees with Yak lazily chewing grass around them. Behind, the Tibetan landscape undulating in the sunshine. It was the best part of the day and we arrived back at the car park to find everyone else ready to leave.
The road back to Lhasa took us through little villages. The people were very friendly, however, the roads and surrounds were covered in litter. Arriving back in Lhasa we this time checked into the Yak Hotel and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon and evening there before meeting up with the others for dinner at the New Mandala restaurant.
We left Lhasa for the last time and started the journey that would eventually end up in Kathmandu. The 2 days were fantastic driving. The road went higher and higher as we neared the Himalayas. The route climbed over passes in excess of 5000 metres several times. Once over 4000 metres shortly out of Lhasa, we never went lower. Tibetan houses and their colourfully clothed occupants waved as we travelled by. They obliged by posing for photos – a very photogenic race of people. We visited a couple of lakes in the hills. Both were incredibly blue. Again, snowy mountains rose up in view behind. We perched ourselves on rocky outcrops and took pictures.
We passed a glacier that reached down nearly to the road.
Overnight we stayed in a town that boasted a 1000 year old fort and a walled monastery both of which we visited in the morning.
The road then continued further south to Shigatze where we checked into the Everest Hotel. Again, as every little village or town seems to have, we found ourselves in a monastery. Perhaps we were beginning to feel that they all looked the same! Not this one though apparently! Oh no. This one houses the world’s biggest Buddha we were told. Erm, ok. Not entirely convinced we visited anyhow and eventually found it. Clearly it was a lot smaller than many others we had seen. Either an extraordinary optical illusion was taking place or the claim, like in other places, was a little optimistic. Apparently not! This is the largest Buddha that is seated and gilded and something else and various other things. The list went on until obviously every other larger Buddha was discounted for some reason or another leaving this one to be the biggest in its particular category. Feeling ever so slightly cheated we left and wandered around the old market. Once we had almost stumbled over a pile of goat heads sitting on the ground we decided it was time to head back to the hotel and then out to dinner at the 3rd Eye Restaurant.
Just simply the most spectacular landscape I have and probably will ever see. The 3 days took us from Shigatze towards the Himalayas where we stayed at Everest Base Camp. Then onto the Friendship highway that links Tibet and Nepal and through the Himalayan mountain range to the border town. The next day we followed a gorge down all the way into Kathmandu – the Himalayas soaring impossibly high into the sky behind us.
We set off early in the morning on the 24th and the road immediately took us upwards. We passed what was to be the highest point of our journey – 5248 metres. The Himalayan mountains soon appeared on the horizon. Everest appeared and Marsha and I argued as to who’d seen it first. Even at 5000 metres the enormous mountain soared nearly 4000 metres above us. The road continued on towards it.
Everest loomed larger and larger as the day went on. At last we rounded a bend having not seen the mountain in a while and there she stood before us. We were to stay the night at the world's highest monastery, only 6km from base camp. Once we'd checked in and left our bags we went up to base camp. The sun was setting on Everest. The whole mountain was there in front of us. The air was thin as we were over 5000 metres high; just how climbers have the energy to make it to the top is beyond me.
The light on the top of the mountain as the sun set was breathtaking. We all just stood and watched. And then, for a reason that still escapes me, 3 of us decided the whole situation would be improved somewhat by an impromptu strip. Me - only topless. And that was definitely cold enough! Still the photos will be good I reckoned at the time. As you will be able to see - they weren't at all...
The night at the monastery was freezing. We stayed in the 'restaurant' as long as possible delaying the inevitable cold bed. One of our group stumbled in the restaurant whilst carrying a bowl of noodles and ended up thowing them all over one of the other diners. Despite this very amusing incident there was little else going on and so we went to bed. Outside, as we walked to the rooms, the moon was bright in the sky in amongst the twinkling stars. The giant mountain was silhouetted above us. It was still just about visible from our beds.
The sunrise was less spectacular than the sunset but, still, staring up at the tallest mountain in the world from half way up whilst the sun edged its way up and over the adjacent hills gradually throwing more and more golden light onto the snowy slopes was unforgettable. Again, we just stood and watched the spectacle unfold. It was, however, very cold and so reluctantly we left mid-morning.
The 3 hour journey to Old Thingri was downwards through the foothills of the Himalayas (these 'foothills' still being higher than any mountain in Europe). The views were superb which made up for the bone jarring journey. The town of Old Thingri sat on a plain with the Himalayan range in the distance. It was as though the little town had not changed ever. The old Tibetan houses with some walls made of cow dung looked as though they'd stood colourfully for as long as the mountains behind them. Horses and Yak pulled carts down the street where little children played.
We had lunch and walked for a while before convincing our guide that we would like to visit the nearby hot springs.
A little bathe in hot springs looking up at the mountains seemed like the perfect way to spend the afternoon. But, on arrival, some fella was washing his underwear in the green mossy water and alongside him his friend was cleaning out his lunch plate. They invited us to climb on in but, unsurprisingly, we declined and headed on to the border. The road followed a gorge down several thousand metres to the border. Again, stunning. We passed through the Himalayan mountain range. Towering white peaks lay in front, then surrounded us and finally were at our backs.
We were held up at a construction site for a short while a few miles from the border town and Marsha and I can now claim to have helped build the Friendship Highway!
In town, after checking in and having dinner, a few of us wandered into the nearby karaoke bar. We were invited into a private room where about 10 Chinese men lay scattered about as drunk as could be. We sang Auld Lang Syne and Eidleveiss before some official looking people came along and for some reason broke up the party. The previously very drunk men immediately sobered up and filed out dutifully - and so we left as well.
In the morning we left Tibet - and China, although it had felt in many ways as though we'd left China 11 days previously. Through the border to Nepal. Everything seemed to get instantly more colourful - even if the road became considerably worse. The van we hired to Kathmandu was cramped as it bumped over the terrible tracks/roads. Kathmandu sits at only 1337 metres and as we neared we glimpsed the Himalayas behind us. From a considerably lower elevation the mountains 6 or 7 thousand metres above looked impossibly high. We saw hills, sky above, then cloud and finally jagged peaks poking through the top! Incredible.
We arrived into a bustling Kathmandu and stayed at the Marco Polo Hostel in Thamel. Having been to Kathmandu several years before we were in no hurry to do anything other than enyoy the Nepalese cuisine and the hectic streets. The 8 in the tour group all met up again at the Rum Doodle which had changed somewhat to our last visit. We decided against returning to it again.
The Tibet trip had been a fantastic one and well worth the wait. It had got better almost as time went by culminating with the breathtaking trip through the mountains via Everest.