I need to admit that I booked this tour for a couple of reasons – The Great Wall of China, travelling via train through remote China, seeing where the Dalai Lami previously lived and of course Mt Everest! I knew Tibet was controversial but not to the extent I have experienced and seen with my own eyes.
There is so much more I want to write about Tibet (mainly the controversial if I’m being honest) because it has really affected me, opened my mind and realised how lucky I am being to live a free life in Australia. However at the same I time I don’t feel it’s my place to do so as I have only whisked through the country and looked in as an outsider (or perhaps a Westerner?). Tibetans have lived through the events of the past 60 odd years and I think its their story to tell. However I hope you still enjoy my “revised” version of events. If you ever get the chance to travel to Tibet – go for it – its a once in a life time experience.
Lhasa (18 May to 21 May 2014)
I stood in Barkhor Sqaure in Lhasa in the shadow of a cold brick wall, it’s 8am. The warm sun was rising over the white washed walls of Jokhang Temple. The air was fresh and cool and I pulled my jacket closer around me, my nose running and my eyes watering. Looking left I see the large prayer flag tower quietly flapping in the morning breeze. The large incense burner gathers momentum and thick smoke billows from its spout. The cobblestone pavers across the Square lead to small shops with colourful lanterns dangling from their entrances. Behind the buildings rises a ruggered mountain range – dry and barren yes, but against the backdrop of a crisp blue sky, stunning.
It is quiet and peaceful but I hear two distinct noises – sliding along the cold cobblestone ground and jingling from the spinning prayer wheels.
Pilgrims stand in front of Jokhang Temple and “prostrate”. This involves standing up-right before moving to a kneeling position, the arms are swung forward and placed onto pads to assist the arms to slide forward, creating the sliding sound that is so common. The arms are brought back to the sides of the body, the knees lifted and the pilgrims swiftly move to their feet and upright. This is a constant, ongoing movement.
Barkhor is used as a “kora” or pilgrim circuit. Pilgrams walk clockwise around the Square, completing laps and laps of Barkhor. The women with their long, dark hair braided and plaited and wearing heavy skirts, the men shuffle with bowler and cowboy hats. Most carry their sacred prayer wheel which is also swung in a clockwise movement, creating a jingling noise as the wheels are spun.
Barkhor Square and Jokhang Temple are the pilgrims’ mecca of Lhasa, possibly Tibet. It doesn’t matter what time of the day or night pilgrims come to “praise”. The dedication and their belief in Buddha is unbelievable. They hold their religion as the first priority and it certainly shows. Walking from an alley side street for the first time into their circle is incredible – you get swept into their flow and follow at a steady pace behind the pilgrams.
The Potala Palace, former home of the Dalali Lamas, sits thirteen stories high, overseeing the city of Lhasa. The combination of altitude and steps makes the climb into the Palace quite a feat.
However there are some beautiful views looking below. It was quite an experience to walk through such an incredible place (construction commenced in 1645), even if it does seem a little empty due to nobody living here anymore bar a few monks. The Palace is maze of steep stair ways, dark rooms and carpeted hallways that lead to incense-filled tombs of previous Dalali Lamas. Money (mostly fake notes) have been tightly squeezed into window sills, cracks in walls or simply thrown in front of Budda statues as an offering.
The journey to Nam Tso Lake was a long day, travelling for 12 hours. The road weaves through the Tangula Range which rises to over 7000m in some parts. Along the way I saw the nomadic tent camps of the people living in this area. They burn yak dung inside the tent with a stove to keep warm and cook. They herd their sheep and goats and move as required. The lake itself it a gorgeous turquoise colour and with the snow capped mountains in the background – stunning.
The weather in Lhasa has been warm and sunny during the day and sunscreen is a must as the sun burns. So even if I have jacket on and there is a slight breeze, the sun is still nasty. Altitude sickness is slightly affecting me – walking up stairs is a challenge due to the puffing but apart from that I am fine – no headaches or bleeding noses. I have had five days in Lhasa to adapt to the change in altitude.
Samye (22 May 2014)
Travelling about five hours to the dusty, little town of Samye, hidden high in the mountain ranges – about 3600m, the views again are incredible. I like to think as Samye as the town of dogs! There are so many that roam the streets – most are friendly enough, although there was one nasty dog fight. Most of the dogs appear to be strays (or live outside a restaurant!) but its nice to see most are well fed on scraps.
While in Samye I visited the oldest monasteries in Tibet – built around the 7th century. It has been invaded many times but the first floor of the monastery is still fairly well original. The monks inside were chanting as I entered. Some monks beat drums and blew horns while others chanted in a sing song trance. The accommodation I stayed at was within the monastery so that was an experience only being a few steps away. Most of the accommodation is slowly getting back on their feet after the 2008 riots when Tibet was closed to the outside world and tourism basically ceased. Maintenance was a huge issue in nearly all of the accommodation on the tour – there were issues with door handles breaking off, windows not locking, bathrooms leaking and no hot water. Most owners did as much as they could to solve the problems but with no incoming money for several years they are still struggling.
In the afternoon myself and a few other tour buddies climbed to the top of Hepo Ri Hill. We met a stray dog who followed us all the way up and all the way back to the hotel. The walk shouldn’t have been hard, but due to the lack of oxygen high in the mountains, I puffed the whole way up because I just can’t suck enough oxygen in that I’m used too. The altitude just gets you – even a few steps up and I’m out of breath, usually its a quick recovery once I stop, but its a crappy feeling! Its feels like I am so unfit and it just makes normal, daily life a struggle!
Gyantse (23 May 2014)
A big drive today from Sayme to Gyantse which took 10 hours in a bumpy bus. The scenery was spectacular as we climbed up and up and up the Kamba Pass (over 4700m). The drive kind of reminded me of those television shows on the world’s most dangerous roads – we hugged the corners tightly and peered over the edge of the drop, whist being overtaken around corners and trying to avoid broken down trucks!
The peak of Kamba Pass was incredible. There are two views – one back towards the mountains and the other towards Yamdrok Tso Lake.
The road then leads around the massive Yamdrok Tso Lake took hours and hours to drive. We stopped by the shore to wash our faces with the water. The Tibeatens believe this lake is one of the four most holiest in the country.
To bide the time on the long drive I snacked on grapes and mandarins that I bought in a local fruit stall, which is a lovely change to bananas that I have been living on. Also I listen to music and nap. I have been dubbed the best sleeper on the tour as I can sleep through anything! We also pass around chocolate biscuits and mini Snickers bars when a sugar fix is required! There is a great vibe on the bus and we all chat away and scream out when the bus hits a massive bump!
We currently have a game going, where each afternoon we place bets on what time we will arrive at the hotel. We each nominate a time and put 1 Yen into the kitty. This came from our tour guides, Jane and Pama, telling us we are only travelling for 9 hours and it ends up being a lot further! Its all in good fun though! No-one has won as yet…but there is still time!
Toilet stops have become another excellent topic of conversation. I am very glad I got over my fear of squat toilets because everywhere (except the guest hotels I am staying in) has squatters or drop dunnies. And unlike Australian drop toilets; where you look into a black hole, here you can see EVERYTHING!!!!
One of the travellers, Sarah, created a “flush rating system” when visiting toilets on the side of the road or in a restaurant. Someone goes first and comes back and gives a rating from one to five flushes. A five flush is if there is toilet paper, hand soap and paper towel (but its still a squat toilet). One flush is a timber shack, its flilthy, you can see everything and its smells!! We actually enjoy the stops on the side of the road, where you can hide behind a tree, its the cleanest way to go!!
Funny story – poor Lisa accidentally dropped her prescription sunglasses into a drop toilet! The owner of the toilet had to go underneath and collect them! I bet he wasn’t happy! Surprisingly they came out fairly unscathed considering!
Gyantse to Shigatse (24 May 2014)
I spent the morning in Gyantse and checked out another temple complex called Pelkhor Chode, built in 1414. The group and I then walked the back streets of Old Town – amazing! Truly what I had pictured of Tibet. The streets are dusty and the houses are simple and white washed, most are displaying prayer flags on their roofs. Cow and yak dung are laid in the front yard to dry. Cows are tied up to the front doors of their houses so milk can be accessed easily. Its a simple life. There was one little chubby boy up on the top of his house calling hello as I walked by. As I walked to the side of his house I saw his cat sitting on a ledge. I called to him “kitty, kitty” and pointed. His little head ducked off, the next minute the cat was pulled from the ledge and he reappeared waving the kitty’s paw to me!
The drive to Shigatse was only about three hours and we made many stops due to running ahead of schedule. In Tibet, they have police checks, similar to how New South Wales have speed checks on the truck drivers. However here the driver has to get out of the vehicle and hand a pink piece of paper to the police. The time is written on it to track the driver’s progress.
Shigatse is another town of dogs, although this time the dogs aren’t as healthy. I witnessed a dog get his paw run over by a small tractor, nobody cared about the yelping the poor pup made and I felt utterly and completely helpless. The dogs have terrible bleeding wounds and sores on them, some have convulsions in the street. Its just heart breaking, I hate seeing these animals in distress.
Shigatse (25 May 2014)
SICK! The sniffles and coughs that my tour buddies have had over the past few days have caught up to me. I woke up with a sore throat and with possibly the flu. I decided to miss out on the day’s activities and spend it in bed sleeping and taking Nurofen, which seems to be doing the trick. I’m not going to head out for dinner tonight, I don’t want to make anyone else sick, so today is just a rest and recovery day.
Shigatse to Sakya (26 May 2014)
Thankfully I woke up a lot better today but still fluy. I also had a terribly bloody nose this morning, I assume from the altitude. The bus left Shigatse at about 9am and arrived in the very small village of Sakya at about 1.30pm. Pama, the local guide, won the bet today! He was only 2 minutes out of his guess so the group kindly gave him the winnings from the last couple of days.
The countryside changed again today and now it is barren mountain ranges and dry fields. Shepherds follow their goats and sheep around the sides of the road, with a big stick. The goats and sheep aren’t skinny but there isn’t much to eat apart from a few weeds. The animals are very mangy looking – most of their wool is tangled and some have patches missing.
Farmers still use bulls and horses to plough their small plots. The sturdy animals trudge along the soft soil with the plough over their backs while the farmer directs them the right way. Sometimes the wife (I assume) follows behind and throws the seeds.
The bus stopped in on a tiny village beside the road and the group was allowed to go into a family home. Downstairs was the storage room – mainly for the dried yak dung which always has a pleasant odour! Upstairs there is an outside area that then leads to a separate room for the kitchen, bedrooms, lounge area and bathroom/toilet. The lounge area surprisingly did have a TV but a dirt floor that has been packed down. Dirt is warmer then concrete and cheaper then timber. The house is surrounded by a large brick wall where the yak dung happily dries away. Chickens roam free and baby calves munch on grass in the paddock next door.
Once arriving in Sakya the group visited the monastery in town and then climbed up a hill to visit a nunnery. The combination of altitude and being sick has really knocked me around. Even sitting here typing this I can’t actually take a deep, full breath each time I want to. I have to take small, baby steps and walk in such a slow pace otherwise I feel so breathless.
The nuns were chatty and happy and the group was allowed to take photos of them and inside the nunnery. I was however a bit taken back when a nun spotted “Peanut”, an elephant key chain my Mum gave me before I left, and she wanted it right or wrong!! There was no way I was giving up Peanut but I did give in and give her another elephant key ring I had purchased in Laos. I was truly shocked!! I thought nuns lived a life where possessions meant nothing?
The next day saw an early start and a biiiiggg drive to Mt Everest with lots of exciting events!
Watch this space!
I finished this blog in Kathmandu, Nepal. I’m sitting in a little cafe and have just had something to eat for the first time in about 40 hours. I have no idea what I could have eaten that made me so ill. The hotel even called a doctor to visit me. However being a bad tummy bug meant he caused really help.
I have decided not to join the last few days of my tour, which runs from Kathmandu to Delhi. The first part of the tour finished and all bar myself and one other person would have kept going. I am in the midst of organising my own plans which includes travelling to Chitwan National Park on Friday and then flying to Delhi, India. I am feeling very confident and happy in myself that I can set off travelling solo again after travelling with a group since the end of April.
Photos of the beautiful land that is Tibet are here. Be warned! There are about 180 of them!