Our train out of Xi’an was delayed nearly two hours, meaning a long uncomfortable wait in the cramped and sweaty station, but somehow arrived in Xining on time at 09:48!?! We were the only tourists on the train and shared our hard sleeper cabin (6 berth) with some cute elderly Chinese passengers, we tried communicating but neither of us spoke the others language. I had the bottom bunk and woke at 07:30ish with three of them sitting on the bunk opposite looking at me whilst chewing chicken wings, quite surreal.
We left our backpacks in left luggage and took a harrowing taxi ride into the surprisingly large city of Xining, which lies on the former border between China and Tibet. We went to the office of Snowlion Tours who were arranging our trip as independent travel is not permitted in Tibet, all tourists must have a guide and visitor permit granted by the Chinese government, which can only be applied for through a tour agency. We did a lot of research into tour agencies as most are Chinese government run and we wanted to have a Tibetan guide. We meet the manager, Wangden, with whom we had previously exchanged hundreds of emails to arrange the tour. He was a really great guy and after picking up our Tibet entry permits, train tickets, and of course paying we had lunch (we tried Yak meat for the first time – nice) together in a local restaurant, and being Tibetan he gave us a helpful insight into the culture and religion of Tibet.
We only had 4 hours or so in Xining as our train to Tibets capital, Lhasa, departed (thankfully) at 15:02 on time – boarding Chinese trains is a bit chaotic. There were several other tourists boarding the train, including a large group of elderly Dutch. The train was a bit nicer than the other Chinese trains we had taken, including some western toilets, again we were in hard sleeper but this time Lisa and I had both bottom bunks. Xining is at 2200m and there were lots of mountains around as we left, but this soon changed to open plains with some large lakes (including the largest in China apparently). Over a dinner of cuppa soup we rolled into the valleys between some large mountains, the train having to make some long tight turns and sometimes full circles going back under or over the track previously taken.
We awoke to find patches of snow outside with snow capped mountains in the distance – very scenic. The railway to Tibet is the highest in the world reaching just over 5000m at the highest point in the Tanggula Pass, much of the line is built on permafrost, quite a feat of engineering. Because of the altitude extra oxygen is pumped into the passenger carriages – I had a light headache at times during the journey but the train was a bubble which protected us from anything too severe. We descended into Lhasa, which lies at 3641m, and caught a distant glimpse of the Potala Palace (the icon of Tibet) on the mountainside overlooking the city. We arrived about 30 mins late 24 hours after leaving Xining.
Here ended out 10’000km train journey from St Petersburg to Lhasa, about 200 hours of train travel – crazily it suddenly all seemed so quick, what an experience!
Waiting at the station was our Tibetan guide Tenzin, a very friendly and polite guy from Lhasa. Having studied In the Dalai Lamas school he has a broad understanding of all things Tibetan. He draped us in a white silk scarf (kada) which is a sign of friendship and the purity of ones heart. We drove across Lhasa through the modern Chinese areas to the traditional centre where our simple but cosy hotel (Rama Kharpo Hotel) was located. We took it easy due to the altitude and had a little walk in the small alleys and bustling market at Barkhor Street, which circles the Jokhang Temple – Tibets holiest temple. Pilgrims come from all of Tibet to walk the 1km or so circuit spinning handheld prayer drums and clutching beaded buddhist rosaries, we joined them for a lap, and watched them prostrating in front of the Jowo Buddha statue. Some even prostrate a body length at a time around the temple instead of walking, quite an effort. Unfortunately this spiritual scene is a little ruined by the many marching Chinese army patrols in riot gear. We had a dinner of Momos (steamed dumplings filled with Yak or Veg) before heading for bed.
Unfortunately I didn’t sleep too well as the altitude caught up with me and I felt nauseous most of the night. 🙁 I forced myself out the next morning though as we visited the Jokhang Temple and whilst the smell of the burning butter lamps was a little off-putting the temple was like no other I have seen with many golden Buddha statues (Tenzin impressively knew the name and significance of each), wall murals, and prayer chanting monks. Here is a photo of us infront of the Dalai Lamas private quarters?
Instead of lunch I went back to bed for a few hours and woke feeling better and in the afternoon we visited the Sera Monastery. The monastery is located on the mountainside on the outskirts of Lhasa and is home to 800 monks, before the Chinese communist rule there were 10’000. The monastery was a peaceful place and we walked around it’s large grounds and looked inside several chapels – all of course with lot’s of gold Buddhas. More interesting was watching the monks debating in a courtyard, where monks pair up to discuss philosophical questions. One monk poses a question to the other who must answer, and if the answer is deemed correct by the questioner then a new question is posed. Questions are posed quite aggressively with lots of shouting and answers are shown to be true or false by the questioner clapping his hands – a backhanded clap states an incorrect answer and the question is posed again. There were a couple of hundred monks debating when we were there so it was quite loud!
Back at the hotel we caught a bit of the Royal Wedding on chinese TV, a bit surreal and in the evening we went to a restaurant overlooking the Barkhor Square before heading in for an early night.
I slept really well and felt nearly normal again the next morning. Originally we were going to visit the Potala Palace the day before but as there are lots of steps and I didn’t feel 100% we postponed this until our second day. Now feeling better I was glad I did as the palace was the highlight of our visit to Lhasa. The only disappointment for me is that it is now effectively a museum rather than the winter home of the Dalai Lama for which it has been used since the 17th century, initially by the 5th Dalai Lama (current is the 14th). The area around the Potala is quite modern and a busy road runs in front of it, a square which is supposed to mirror Beijing’s Tianamen Square has been built across the road, and from the roof of the palace flies the Chinese flag.
It’s a steep climb up lots of stairs into the Potala and then more stairs on the inside. The palace is decorated in red, white, and black representing religion, peace, and protection respectively. Many buddhist murals are painted on the inside walls and of course lots and lots of golden Buddha statues – the main three being past, present, and future Buddha. The Dalai Lamas throne, living quarters, and reception halls can also be seen. I thought it might not be too interesting on the inside but it was as impressive as the outside – a very impressive and spiritual place.
After lunch we checked out the summer palace, which is a few km away from the Winter palace (Potala) built by the current Dalai Lama in the 1950’s and was where he spent most of his time before going into excile in 1959. The palace is small compared to the Potala but sent in the middle of a large park, which made it a relaxing a peaceful place to be. The residence of the Dalai Lama is a small and simple golden building, it has a western bathroom and there are lots of gifts such as radios, furniture, and carriages given by numerous countries. There are also some chapels, a really nice one is surrounded by a lake which had lots of fish, including done big carp, sunning themselves on the surface. We took advantage of tge sunny day and chilled out for a while in the park 🙂
Next morning we were picked up by Tenzin and our driver Tashi (very friendly but spoke no English!) in his Toyota Land Cruiser (the main tourist vehicle here) to begin a 5 day tour of southern Tibet. The scenery soon after leaving Lhasa was amazing, mountains, rivers, and even glaciers – we stopped regularly to take photos.
We also had to stop at many police checkpoints to show out documents, the (usually fat) police seemingly on a power trip! Due to road works we had to take a detour over the mountains on a winding dirt track, which had some scary drop offs. It was worth it though as once over the Karo La mountain pass (5010m) we had some great views of the holy turqoise-coloured Yamdrok lake in the valley below. After the lake we (thankfully!) picked up the tarmac road again and drove several scenic hours to the town of Gyantse. We visited the Pelkor Monastery, which features Tibets largest Stupa, the 100’000 Buddha Pagoda, which was built in the 15th century. The usual collection of golden statues, butter lamps, and monks but climbing the staircase inside the Stupa gave some good views over the monastery and town from the top. It rained heavily as we were about to leave and a friendly monk offered us shelter and soon we were joined by lots of pilgrims, including a month and her two young girls. We had a nice experience talking with them, Tenzin acting as translator, and we gave the girls some chocolate which made them smile. 🙂
We then drove another 90km to Tibets second largest city, Shigatse, where we overnighted in the sudo posh Yak Hotel – typical Chinese construction, a copy of a western hotel – half finished! Being hungry I got carried away and had a Yak burger in the resturant, which was a bit raw and I could’nt face eating it – lesson learnt – stick to local dishes! Thankfully on the advice of Lisa’s doctor Dad we had some German herbal liquor with us and I suffered no ill effects as a result.
In the morning we visited the Tashilhunpo monastery, where we saw the giant Maitreya Buddha – at 26m the biggest in Tibet. The monastery was really busy that morning with lots of pilgrims pushing and shoving their way around the various chapels. The monastery has a strong connection to the Panchen Lama, the second most important Lama after the Dalai Lama, and there are many tombs to each incarnation here. We took a rest on some steps and had a laugh with some elderly pilgrims who kindly allowed us to take a photo with them.
In the afternoon we drove 250km to the small town of Shegar, which is the closest to Mt. Everest, on the way we went over some long and winding mountain passes – Tso-La (4500m) and Gyatso-La (5252m). We also passed lots of small settlements with people working the land to grow barley using basic machinery and Yaks – a hard life I suspect given the altitude and remoteness. Many of these rural Tibetans, adults and children, have tough weathered skin with red cheeks, despite there difficulties their lifestyle must present they always had a smile on their face and waved as we passed. The scenary was great but it started snowing and it got very cold as we arrived in Shegar at our very basic hotel – no running water or heating here.
We arrived with enough time to visit the Shegar Monastery, and whilst I wasn’t too thrilled about seeing another monastery this one turned out to be the best yet. Set atop a mountain overlooking the town, a 30 minute uphill walk, and surrounded by the ruins of an old fort it was very picturesque. At one time home to 800 monks, now only 30 remain a few of whom gladly showed us round. The monastery has a small chapel with a surprisingly large Buddha statue. The friendliness of the monks made our visit special though as they presented us with white Koda friendship scarfs as we left – very humbling – even for Tenzin.
In the cold evening we found (thankfully) the hotels communal room had a stove and served hot food, so we sat there drinking Tibetan butter tea (salty and a bit strange!) and played cards with Tenzin and Tashi. Overnight whilst we slept in our clothes it snowed heavily and visibility in the morning was poor – not good for seeing Everest. Despite this we decided it was worth the risk expense (nearly £100 to enter for all of us and the vehicle) and took the long and winding dirt track from Shegar to Everest Base Camp (EBC). We drove up and down rocky mountain passes, the road was like a poor mans Monaco with lots of back and forth around tight hairpin bends allowing us to ascend or descend, this went on for 100km and all the time we could see only cloud – Tenzin said we should be able to see Everest and other 8000m+ peaks on the high passes. Crazily there were lots of tourists cycling this road, it didn’t look too pleasant!
Eventually we passed the small Rongbuk Monestary and pulled into the collection of Yak hair tents that is EBC at 5250m – climbers use another camp known as Advanced Base Camp (ABC) a few KM closer to the mountain, tourists can take a bus between the two but understandably can not stay there. The weather brightened up a bit and some rays of sun broke through but Everest remained hidden. It was blummin freezing and with intermitant snow falls there was little to do but sit next to the stove (a godsend!) read, drink tea, haggle for souvenirs with the tent owners, and play cards to wait it out. Late in the afternoon for a couple of tantalising minutes the summit tip (over 3500m above us) could be glimpsed through the clouds – how could 8848m of mountain be so elusive?! We were told it had been like this for the last week, here’s the view we had – our Landcruiser is parked in front of our tent and Everest should be seen directly above?
Darkness fell and we went to bed buried under a mountain of much needed blankets. It was a restless night as I kept waking up, probably due to the altitude and everytime I moved cold air (the stove wasn’t maintained overnight) creapt under the blankets. Our water went slushy and I was thankful when a few rays of light appeared around 7am. I went outside for a wee to be greeted by deep snow and on stealing a glance in the direction of Everest it seemed like I could make it out something. I woke Lisa and we watched the clouds start to dispearse and suddenly we could make it out – we could see Everest!!
We had it too ourselves for a few minutes and then the other tourists came out en-mass paparazzi style. Seeing Everest was better than I had imagined, it is quite striking, and having read many books from climbers it was good to see it from my own perspective. Unfortunately it was a bit cold to be outside too long, but thankfully the stove was lit in out tent and we could warm up our painful feet!
It took the sun a while to breach our valley but once it did things warmed up quickly and the view improved as the clouds dispersed. I took the bus to ABC (Lisa preferred to have the warmth of the stove nearby), which offered a closer view and I was also interested to see the climbers. Living in tiny Igloo tents it must be hard bearing in mind they may be here for two months, one climber looked weather beaten – although no one had climbed for a week due to the weather. It was still a bit of a walk to the mountain from their camp, but they certainly have a great view out of their tent window!
Back in the Yak hair tent we had breakfast of pancakes before heading for lower altitudes. We stopped at the Rongbuk Monestary on the way, the highest monestary in the world apparently and probably the most picturesque with Everest in the background.
We said a thank you prayer for allowing us to see Everest to Buddha, God, or whoever was listening and then drove the mountain road back to Shegar. This time we saw the views we had missed the day before lot’s and lot’s of snow capped peaks – including 4 over 8000m, very spectacular.
Back on the tarmac road it was all about driving as we headed back to Shigatse for an overnight stop, there we stayed in the same hotel and treated ourselves to a big Indian meal – just the job 🙂
Today was more driving, about 5 hours back to Lhasa, but it was a lovely sunny day with great visibility and the views were great and we stopped reguarly for photos (we have taken so many photos here!). We arrived in Lhasa around 3pm and went out onto Barkhor Street to do some souvenir shopping (Mum, expect a big parcel!). We had an evening meal of Yak Sizzler in the New Mandala restaurant overlooking the Jokhang Temple as the sun went down – the perfect end to what has been an amazing trip through Tibet. We don’t really want to leave – It really is a special place, the people especially. It will be interesting to see how Tivet develops with increasing numbers of Chinese migrants, political issues, and increasing exposure to western cultures – maybe we will have to come back in 5-10 years and see!
Tomorrow we fly to Shanghai, it feels like cheating to fly but it’s nearly 5000km and we are now tight on time for getting into Australia before my visa expires around mid-May. We are looking forward to some R&R on a beach somewhere – it has been a very intense trip so far!