Saturday, 5 November 2011

Seven days in Tibet

If you need a little recap of your Tibetan history, here are a few (admittedly biased) pointers.  The Chinese attacked and “liberated” Tibet in 1950.  Tibet ultimately suffered from its own introspective nature and failed to find any help from the outside world.  Many Tibetans subsquently fled in 1959 following a failed uprising.  Fearing kidnap, the 14th Dalai Lama also fled at this time, and along with the exiled government, is now based in India in Dharamshala.  In the years following, many monasteries were shut down (some were later re-opened).  These monasteries now function under tight political control and exist largely for tourism.  Following the unrest in 2008, many monks were killed or arrested and so their numbers are dramatically down.  Chinese permission must be sought for any monk to enter an order.

Being so close to Tibet seemed too good an opportunity to pass up, even if, in some regards, entering Tibet from Nepal rather than via China is pretty restrictive.  To travel to Tibet from Nepal, you must join a group and be accompanied at all times by a guide.  The entry requirements change quite regularly depending on how paranoid the Chinese are feeling.  Travelling to Tibet either from Nepal or China requires a special TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region) permit.  There is no such thing as independent travel and foreigners are banned from public buses.

Lots of travel agencies in Kathmandu sell trips to Tibet.  They all take a similar form – five days driving and then 2 ½ days in Lhasa before either flying or driving back to Kathmandu.  This is the classic overland route along the Friendship Highway.  When booking such a trip, you should definitely bear in mind the Lonely Planet warning that your guide will be “pretty useless” and that if you think you have booked a jeep rather than a bus or a single supplement, you should expect to be disappointed!  My expectations were therefore set before I booked and my travel agent was honest about the bus and that the first two nights’ accommodation would be “very basic”.  I was travelling for the scenery, remoteness and the sense of mystery.

The night before the trip started, my passport was returned to me (phew!), along with a photocopy of my new Tibet visa (the real entry and exit visas was handed over the next day so that everyone had less time to lose them before we got to the border).  I had been told a couple of days before that there would be 25 people in the group.  Essentially all the tour agencies pool their clients together and all trips leave either on a Tuesday or Saturday.  Arriving at the bus the next morning, this number had increased to 37 people and therefore two buses.  After the beautiful journey to the border, we learned that actually, there would be sixty of us in total and two larger more comfortable buses on the Chinese side to collect us.  It says a lot about some of the journeys I had made in Nepal that I actually thought that the bus for the Nepal side of the journey was pretty comfy!

As soon as you cross the border you see the greater wealth of the Chinese.  On the Nepal side, immigration is somewhat chaotic and old but as soon as you get across, there are armed border guards and a shiny immigration building.  Suddenly you are assigned a number (from your group visa – I was no 11) and everything is conducted in order.  Not such an easy task with sixty people who don’t know each other.  We never did work out who the ever delaying number 8 was…  The main aim of the customs checks appears to be to find pro-Tibetan literature and any photos of the current Dalai Lama.  My Lonely Planet was conveniently hidden on Kindle but a few others had their hard copies investigated, flicked through and returned (I later heard that others flying into Lhasa had theirs confiscated).  It is intriguing (and decidedly disappointing) that the Chinese refuse to put any mention of your Tibet trip into your passport.  Would I be travelling incognito in China?  I think not J  Army controls continued daily all the way to Lhasa.

At the border, we were amazed to see some of the packages that were being carried across.  Men and women were waiting to carry up to 100kg parcels across the border (China to Nepal).  The lorries don’t attempt to cross (the road on the Nepal side is not wide enough to handle them) and so each parcel (maybe 350 woolen sweaters for example) is stood up (this takes three men) and, using a head strap, someone then loads it onto their back and crosses through customs to deliver them to someone on the other side.  I can’t imagine these (mainly women) are paid very much for this back breaking work.

Once out of customs, two buses were supposed to be waiting for the 60 of us but only one was available and so, after some delay, the rest of us were sent ten minutes up the road in taxis.  We then hung around in cold for an hour until the one bus appeared with our black shell suit and shade wearing Chinese guide (I never did find out what the one bus did for an hour…).  After a bite to eat, we again waited for more taxis to be arranged to transport us to our first overnight stop of Nyalam.  It should have been a beautiful 1 ½ hour journey but sadly, due to the transport disorganisation, we ended up making it mainly in the dark.  The guesthouse definitely lived up to its “basic” description with grim toilets and no showers.  The four bed dorm rooms were actually fine but my word they were freezing (rumour was -7C).  I was glad of my thermals and sleeping bag!

One of the very strange things about crossing the border is that your clock moves forward 2 ¼ hours.  The time in Tibet is very unnaturally aligned to Beijing time (around 4,000km away) , making for very strange sunrise and sunset times.  The sun rises very late and the heat of the afternoon sun continues well into what we would expect to be the balmy end of the afternoon.

The next morning marked the start of a big day and we were due to set off at 10am (far too late in everyone’s opinion apart from the guide).  Sadly, bus number two had still not appeared.  Cutting costs, the agents had sent it on an extra journey to the border and so we didn’t start our long day of driving until after 11am.  It was really at this point that we realised that we had absolutely no recourse to anybody and that all complaints would go unheard.  You have to show some respect to our guide for his ability to shrug his shoulders and look “not bothered” regardless of the complainant and the nature/justification of their complaint.

This was not however to detract from the main highlight of the day – various views of Mount Everest.  The weather was very much on our side – bright crisp blue (as it remained throughout our journey).  We reached some heady altitude heights this day – crossing passes three passes above 5,000m, the highest being 5,150m at Tong La Pass.  Many people were really feeling the altitude this day but I seemed to manage fine (no racing up hills!) and never suffered more than a couple of easily remedied headaches and a little breathlessness climbing stairs.  Keep hydrated and eat light meals seems to be the best advice.  I’m really not convinced about the need to take Diamox.  It surely isn’t good for you to take a drug which speeds up the heart…  If you give the body time, it is perfectly capable of learning to cope with the reduction of oxygen in the air.

I did enjoy gazing at Mount Everest although at first I was definitely looking at the wrong mountain… our guide wasn’t very clear.  I actually thought that the mountain that I chose as Everest was in many ways more impressive but maybe that was simply a perspective thing from our first viewing point.  Our best view all day was from the town where we ate lunch, Tingri.  If you walk away from the main strip then there is a lovely peaceful view of the mountain range which is perfect for photo opportunities.  And so from here onto our second “basic” overnight stop in Lhatse.  Hilariously, Torunn (Norwegian girl who had coincidentally also been at Sadhana at the same time as me), scored us an amazing “upgrade” – a room with only twin beds (not four) and with duvets, soft pillows and that classic hotel “white striped” bedding.  We apologised to everyone else about our good fortune and let them come and use our ensuite J (still had freezing water though!).  I farmed out my warm sleeping bag and silk liner to a needy cause.

Day three was a relatively short drive and we arrived at our hotel in Shigatse before midday.  Shigatse is famous for the Tashilumpo Monastery which was founded in the 1400s and is the traditional seat of successive Pachen Lamas (Tibetan religious leader, second behind the Dalai Lama who is the head of state).  During the visit, it was forbidden to ask any questions about the 11th Pachen Lama.  The one chosen by the 14th Dalai Lama “disappeared” with his family and the Chinese selected their own, who resides in Beijing and is never seen.  Sshhh, you never know who might be listening…

Again, day four was a short drive to Gyantse.  It should have taken about 90 minutes but our shell suit guide and cowboy bus driver managed to draw it out to three hours.  The journey was very attractive - brown hills looming large over the golden fields where wheat and barley had just been harvested.  Gyantse offered us lovely tree lined streets through the old town (the leaves were turning golden and dropping) and the famous Kumbum monastery.

As you drive through Tibet, it is starkly apparent what a tough life the people lead.  This is a very remote part of the world and, the odd sparkly Chinese building aside, people live very simply alongside their animals.  Based on the level of hygiene on view, these are hardy folk.  Having read “Seven Years in Tibet” whilst trekking in Nepal, my appreciation increased as I began to visualise the epic journey through such unforgiving terrain.  The Tibetan people are clearly battling hard to maintain some religious freedom, continuing to make pilgrimages to their monasteries and temples and hang up their prayer flags.

A long day on day five took us up over the Kharola Pass (5,010m), around the magnificent Yamdrok Lake, arriving into Lhasa, the highest inhabited plateau on earth, at the end of the afternoon.  Lhasa itself is now unrecognisable from the world that Heinrich Harrer described in “Seven Years in Tibet”.  Very much a Chinese city, the population has risen from 20-30,000 to 500,000 people (for the most part, not Tibetans).  There are fast highways, wide featureless avenues and electronics shops abound.  Armed police and soldiers stand patrol on every corner, ready to quell any discontent, not least in the square in front of the Jokhang Temple.

Nevertheless, Lhasa is a wonderful place and if you focus on the old town, you can watch a more traditional way of life and enjoy views of the Potala as, from that angle, it still rises majestically above the city.  Just ignore all the semi-automatic weapons on display.  The Potala Palace is a truly magnificent structure and fascinating to visit.  My particular highlights in Lhasa were watching the monks debating at the Sera Monastery (slapping their hands to make a point and alternating between whole hearted laughter and seriousness) and looking out at the Potala Palace and Barkhor Square from the Jokhang Temple.

Overall, from a comfort point of view, my expectations were generally exceeded (they had been set very low!).  Things improved every day until everything was very comfortable in Lhasa, staying at the Trichang Labrang hotel.  This former residence of the 14th Dalai Lama’s tutor has been beautifully restored.  The food throughout was reasonable (fried rice, chowmein, noodle soup) and although I generally didn’t trust the meat, I was a convert to the yak burger in Lhasa!  It did seem a struggle to get fresh vegetables but there was plenty of fruit to buy in the streets.  After the first two nights, the standard of hotel was pretty good – especially considering what a budget trip we were on.

Flying out of Lhasa back to Kathmandu was very special indeed and, from my window seat, provided continual views of the Himalayas on the very close horizon.  I was number 11 for the last time as our exit visas were taken away, theoretically removing all formal written trace of the visit.

So, should you go?  Absolutely!  Tibet is a wonderful place and the scenery spectacular.  There is clearly a rich history to be explored.  If you are travelling from Nepal and want to travel by jeep (more comfortable than a bus and more flexible than having to move around in a group of 60!), then make sure that your trip doesn’t leave Kathmandu on a Tuesday or Saturday.  That way you shouldn’t end up on the “throw them all together” trip with useless guide.  If you want the budget trip like me then shop around in Kathmandu and find the cheapest package (mine was $365 for the trip, $85 for the visa  and then the cost of the flight) as no matter what you pay, there is only one type of bus and one type of shared hotel room.  The alternative is to fly into Beijing and take the world’s highest railway – 48 hours to Lhasa by comfortable train.  Having said that, I’m not sure I would have wanted to miss either the overland journey and its scenery, or the flight back to Kathmandu from Lhasa over the Himalayan mountain range.  Maybe I’ll just have to go again one day… and visit a free Tibet?

Day1: Drive to Nepal/Tibet border.  Continue to Nyalam.  Sleep at 3,700m
Day2: Nyalam to Lhatse, lunch in Tingri (~8 hours).  View Mount Everest.  Sleep at 4,350m
Day3: Lhatse to Shigatse arriving at lunchtime.  Tashilumpo Monastery. Sleep at 3,900m
Day4: Shigatse to Gyantse arriving at lunchtime.  Visit Kumbum.  Sleep at 3,950m
Day5: Gyantse to Lhasa (~8 hours).  Sleep at 3,650m
Day6-7: Lhasa – visit Potala Palace, Jokhana Temple, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery
Day8: Fly from Lhasa to Kathmandu over the Himalayas

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