Flying into Lhasa (the capital of Tibet) from Kathmandu was an experience in itself and one of the only times I have ever requested a window seat: I normally opt for the isle for more leg room. The dry and barren terrain was covered in snow-capped peaks, as endless high altitude lakes dotted the earth’s surface. Without some infrastructure and life it could have resembled another planet’s surface. With an average elevation over 4,500m it was clear to see why the Tibetan plateau is considered the “roof of the world”.
As a western tourist the only way to see the Tibet (or the Tibet Autonomous Region – TAR – as it is formally known) is on a guided tour, also requiring a special permit. As we planned to travel onwards to China after Tibet this also doubled as our Chinese Visa (unfortunately only for 25 days and non-extendable). Our local Tibetan guide met us at the Lhasa airport where we boarded a mini-bus along with 2 other Australians, a Brit, an American and a Colombian – whom formed the tour group for our 8-day tour of Tibet. Upon entering the mini-bus we noticed the camera staring back at us. One thing that really surprised us was the level of monitoring in Tibet, which also extended to restaurants and public spaces. We drove to our hotel in the old town of the city, situated on a square that became a buzzing local produce market into the long sunlit evenings. As crazy as it may sound China only has one time zone so in Tibet, during the summer months, it stays light well into the evening after the sun has set in Beijing and Shanghai to the East (over a similar longitudinal distance Russia has 5!).
Without going into detail on the events in the 1950’s that lead to the Government of Tibet being dissolved and Tibet formally coming under control of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Lhasa was not exactly what I had pictured in my mind. It is split into two halves, the new town and the old town. The old town is a well-constructed rebuild of what the old Tibet would have looked like prior to the takeover (with cobbled streets, Tibetan architecture and lovely Buddhist temples and monasteries). The new town on the other hand is no different to any other modern day Chinese city with tall apartment blocks, neon lights and electric billboards, shopping malls and restaurants, with cranes dominating the skyline. This isn’t what I was expecting but it shows the change that has occurred in recent decades and the influence the PRC has had in the region. The last decade in particular has seen major investment in infrastructure along with a growing number of Chinese who are moving to the region for economic purposes.
The first few days, spent in Lhasa, were simply amazing. We visited the monasteries and palaces that are very important to Tibetans and have played a key role in it’s past. At 3,600m the days were warm and sunny, with the mercury dropping a lot lower in the evening. May was a good time to visit as our guide explained it is an auspicious month in Buddhism due to the birth of Buddha, enlightenment of Buddha and the death of Buddha. This brings an increased number of Tibetan people from rural areas to Lhasa on pilgrimage, leaving the Lhasa air full of incense, chanted mantras and the smell of yak butter (like off parmesan in case you are wondering).
The first stop was the Drepung Monastery. Perched at the foot of the West Valley Mountain and sitting above Lhasa this is the largest of all monasteries in Tibet and historically used to house 7,700 Buddhist monks, with the number now dwindling around 300. As one of the main monasteries of the Gelug-pa School, the physical size of the grounds was breathtaking as we wandered through the various temples, halls and accommodation areas. Our guide started building on our knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism through outlining the different schools, leadership and belief systems. It is rather complex and I’ll admit I didn’t quite have a full grasp on it all by the end of the week.
After lunch in a local Tibetan restaurant on Barkhor Square we ventured into the heart of the old town to see the Jokhang Temple, which originated in 647AD. Maintained by the Gelug-pa School it accepts worshippers from all sects of Buddhism. Tibetans consider the temple to be the most sacred of all in Tibet and when visiting at either night or day one is swept into the clockwise sea of Buddhists circumnavigating the temple carrying prayer beads and repeating mantras, swinging prayer wheels in their hand or prostrating along the ground (with one lap taking 2-3hrs). The physical devotion to religion was really something, something beautiful. In the evenings there were a lot of young people out and it was nice to observe that the Tibetan culture and religion is not lost in the younger generations.
The next day started with a visit to the world’s most spectacular building. The Potala Palace! This structure completely (and unexpectedly) blew me away. The shear size and physical presence of the palace truly can’t be described. Inside the palace the ornate architecture and intricate artwork is amazing, especially given that it was constructed in the 7th century. The Palace was home to the Dalai Lama in winter and his cabinet (Tibetan Government) up until 1959. All but 3 of the past 13 Dalai Lamas are also buried within the palace. We went back as the sun went down and stayed until dark to see it all lit up – an amazing experience that sent shivers down my spine (and still does when looking at the pictures today).
With a stomach full of yak Momos (Tibetan dumplings) we then headed for the Sera Monastery. Starting to feel a little ‘monasteried-out’ by this point this one had something a little different to witness. In the afternoon a small courtyard in the monastery comes alive with debating monks. Small groups of monks form to test each other on Tibetan Buddhism scripture and philosophy in a very jovial way. Each question is followed by a slap of the hands directed at the student. It was highly entertaining to watch.
From Lhasa we jumped in the mini-bus to explore the more rural areas of the Tibetan plateau, en route to Mount Everest (or Chomolungma as it is called in Tibetan). The long days on the road to cover the large distances weren’t helped by the continual traffic restrictions and monitoring by the government. Every 50km or so there was registration checks, speed checks and sometimes passport checks. What used to be a 4hr drive now takes 7hrs due to the low (60km) speed limit on straight rural roads.
We headed west along the Yarlung Tsangpo River to Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest town and home to the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, traditionally the seat of the Panchen Lama (the highest ranking Lama after the Dalai Lama). The size and presence of the Monastery was once again staggering as we wound between all the buildings and observed the various chanting halls and tombs of past Panchen Lamas. That evening we all went out for a group dinner and wandering the streets of Shigatse.
The road to Mount Everest the next morning wound us over 3 high mountain passes standing at 4,500m, 5,248m and 5,198m, all covered in colourful Tibetan prayer flags. On the final pass we were treated to a spectacular panorama of the Himalayas including Mt Everest and Mt Lhotse (the world’s forth highest peak). The summit of Everest was trying hard to peak through the clouds but it wasn’t until we reached the first base camp (aimed at tourists) that we could see the mountain in full glory. The north face of Mt Everest, as seen from the Tibetan side, is completely unobstructed and wow just WOW. It was amazing to be in the ‘roof of the world’ viewing the top of the world.
We spent the night in a Yak tent at the 5,000m base camp and awoke at 5am to walk up another 200m in elevation to view the mountain at sunrise. It was bitterly cold, with frost on our packs and jackets, as we strolled along with our head torches lighting the way. We hung our group prayer flag covered with personal messages and danced to some music to keep warm as we waited for the sun to hit the snow on the Everest slopes. With not a cloud in sight we had the most spectacular view of this majestic mountain that will stay with us forever.
At 4,980m stood the Rongbuk Monastery – the highest monastery in the world. Unfortunately it was closed due to maintenance works but this didn’t stop us from taking some photos with Everest in the backdrop. The monks could not complain about the view from their window.
After spending another night in Shigatse on the long drive back to Lhasa we took an alternate route to see the town of Gyantse. Surrounded by an agricultural area it was a lot greener than the rest of the dry arid conditions we had seen. The old town was very quaint and I could have roamed the cobbled streets for hours. The main tourist draw card here is the Pelkor Chode Monastery (Palcho Monastery) along with its 9-tiered Kumbum (large Stupa), housing 77 chapels with amazing works of art. Exploring the various floors and chapels was a unique experience. We were also fortunate enough to see the monks chanting in the main assembly hall of the Monastery (something that only happens once a month in modern times).
The final leg of the journey led us along the shores of Yamdrok Lake, one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet. The turquoise water was in stark contrast to the dry mountains and blue sky.
Back in Lhasa we went out for our final dinner and after saying our goodbyes to the group the next morning we boarded a 34hr train to Xi’an. The Qinghai-Tibet railway is the highest in the world climbing over 5,000m altitude. Extra oxygen is pumped into the carriages as a safety precaution to avoid any passengers getting altitude sickness. As horrible as a 34hr train ride may sound it was actually a very pleasant experience. We dined in the restaurant cart, took in some fresh mountain air from the train platform as it snowed and admired the changing landscape as we climbed and descended through the plateau. It was a perfect way to round out our eye opening Tibetan experience.