There’s so much we want to say about Tibet, so much of our political opinion regarding Tibet. But we can’t because the powers that be may be reading. So instead we ask you to read between the lines and figure things out for yourself…
We landed in Lhasa, the capital city which is elevated 3650m above sea level and oh boy did we feel it. Getting off the plane we could instantly feel the rush of thin air take our breath away. Our Tibetan tour guide, Dharka met us at the airport and greeted us with long white scarves, lays, and ‘Welcome to Tibet’. She is probably a few years older than us and can speak Tibetan, Mandarin and English. We met our driver in the car park and drove for about an hour to arrive in Lhasa city. Along the way we were surrounded by endless views of dry, brown mountains and empty roads. When we finally arrived at the hotel, the altitude really started to hit us. The one flight of stairs left us gasping for breath so much so that we both thought that we were going to faint. A bit like that feeling when you’re doing the Beep Test in primary school and you think you’re going to die as you do your final sprint, like that, but 100x worse! It took us 3 days to completely recover from the Altitude Sickness which consisted of a combination of shortness of breath, insomnia, headaches and surprisingly diarrhea!
So the city of Lhasa itself is very well developed, just think a larger version of Box Hill, with less cars and NO ENGLISH SIGNS whatsoever. The majority of people there speak Mandarin and Jason failed Grade 5 Mandarin 3 times as a kid, so this was going to be interesting. Walking into a restaurant, actually walking anywhere, the locals immediately thought we were Chinese so would ALWAYS start their rapid Chinese talk as we stood with dumbfounded looks on our faces. We decided downloading a Mandarin App was going to be necessary, so it was the first thing we did when we got back to the hotel.
We spent much of Lhasa either recovering or visiting Monasteries. Tourists from all over China visit these monasteries offering token amounts of money as their way of worship. It was quite clear from the get go that Tibet is very much dominated by Buddhism. Every morning, thousands of locals walk around Patola Palace between 1-3 times whilst holding their prayer wheels (this practice is called Circuambulation and is always done in a clockwise manner), whilst others position themselves in front of the palace and Prostrate (kneel to the ground, bow their head to touch the ground, slide their whole body flat on the ground then repeat). Our guide told us that every Buddhist must have one occasion where they Prostrate 10,000 times in a row … that’s like doing 10,000 slow burpees!
The rest of the Tibet trip was spent driving for hours (between 9-11 hours per day) across a wide variety of terrain: mountainous, rocky, sandy and occasionally forests. The entire landscape of Tibet is very dry, but the views are absolutely spectacular. Often we’d be driving for hours just staring directly at the snow-capped Himalayas. Our guide gave us a lot of information about culture and Buddhism, but it was quite obvious to us that she was steering very clear of anything regarding the recent history of Tibet which she so often ironically referred to it as the ‘cultural revolution’. She was always very paranoid about the very regular checkpoints on the roads and continued to remind us not to take photos of any of them. We would often ask her about other tourists she’s worked with and she’d share her experiences, but then it made us sad to find out that she will never be allowed to get a passport because she is Tibetan. She is never allowed to leave the country. Gosh.
So going back to the checkpoints. They were strange. Everyday we would encounter the following checkpoints:
1) Speed checkpoint – this is where the driver is given a piece of paper with a time stamp as to when he arrived at the first checkpoint, he would then have to give that piece of paper to the next checkpoint which will then determine whether he was speeding during that stretch of road. Often the driver would pull over for 20 minutes before the checkpoint just to make sure that he was deemed to have arrived within the correct amount of time
2) Guide Checkpoint – to ensure the guide had all the correct documentation
3) Tourist Checkpoint – to check our passports
Throughout the trip we had mainly Chinese food because it was actually very difficult to find true Tibetan food, almost as though it was being phased out…
We visited one of the Holy Lakes which is probably the most pristine body of water we have ever seen. No one is allowed to fish in it or bathe in it. It is turquoise and has no pollution. It is the one perfect part of Tibet and was absolutely breathtaking.
Also had the opportunity to stay overnight in a tent at the Tourist Everest Base Camp at 5200m above sea level. The view of Everest itself was spectacular. It was actually hard to
believe that we were standing directly in front of it, mind-blowing really. The tent itself reminded us of the tent in Harry Potter at the Wizard’s Cup, which looks tiny from the outside but when you walk in it is vibrantly colourful and fits about 10 beds. It was incredibly warm for a place that is generally freezing. The owner of the tent was totally drunk when we arrived and provided a few hours of entertainment with his impersonations of his wife. Unfortunately his drunkenness lasted into the night which meant that sleep wasn’t the best for us. We both woke up with thumping headaches so our guide got the oxygen tank out and applied the nasal prongs which greatly helped.
When we reached the border town between Tibet and Nepal we could instantly feel the transition from an extremely strict and rigid regime to a much more relaxed one. Crossing the border was quite bizarre. One moment we were in China, a second later we’d stepped into Nepal.
Overall we have very mixed feelings about Tibet. We are very glad to have gone and experienced the wonders that nature has to offer, but also to see what it is like to be in a country that is no longer a country. We leave Tibet wanting to know more. We want to know how, why, when, what? Those are questions we will find out on our own, in our own time, in another country.
So we’ve got 4 days in Kathmandu to rest up before our month long adventure in India begins
Till next time
Ann & Jason