Lhasa was more developed than we expected. It’s a lovely city, much cleaner than other Chinese cities. The air is good, too. A nice change. The altitude in Tibet take considerable adjustment. At over 3600 metres, you really feel it. Several times during our trip through Tibet (Lhasa, Gyantse, Shigatse, Mt. Everest) we went over mountain passes higher than 5300 metres. You can feel positively terrible. It’s a delicate balancing act you need to strike between the need to drink a lot of water (three litres per day) to aid acclimatization, and the need to constantly pee, something made worse by taking Diamox. In the end, we took the Diamox we brought with us and just accepted the ever-present feeling of a full bladder. It helped a lot and actually made it possible to go to Everest Base Camp.
Tibet was an incredible experience. And the one thing we took away is the complex truths that exists here. In the West, the politics of Tibet are black and white. But the reality is very grey. We were only there a few days, so we don’t feel competent to make a very informed commentary. But it was eye-opening for sure.
Our second day was spent touring Lhasa and some of the monastic sites outside the city. The major attraction is the Potala Palace. Thousands of pilgrims circumambulate the palace in a clockwise journey that can either include just the palace complex itself, or the entire city of Lhasa. A long, slow-moving and tightly-crammed line of visitors goes into the front entrance of the Potala, up through the palace and out. It takes a couple of hours. There is a Chinese flag that flies from the very top of the Potala. And the Chinese recently built a massive plaza directly across from it that includes a fighter jet prominently displayed in the plaza centre. We left feeling the place has become a tourist spoof of itself. A parody. Interestingly, the former living quarters of the 14th Dalai Lama were not on the tour. But you could walk through the living rooms of the 13th Dalai Lama.
If you’ve ever read Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer, or watched the movie starring Brad Pitt, a visit to the present-day Potala will kill any prior notions you may have. The same goes for the Barkhor in the heart of the city. It has been mostly torn down and reconstructed in the way that China commonly does at historic sites everywhere in the country. But it was still fascinating. What was more interesting was the total military presence. This is an occupied country. On every corner stood three or four soldiers or police behind orange barricades and wire. It reminded us of pictures we’ve seen of Belfast in the 70s or 80s.
Jokhang Monastery is of the most sacred pilgrimage sites for Tibetans, located in the Barkhor, at the heart of the city. Outside, dozens of pilgrims were prostrating using the prostration boards they carry with them, sometimes from villages hundreds of kilometres away. We had to go through metal detectors on the way in. From the roof we could see the entire city. The oldest parts of Jokhang were built in 652 AD.
We visited Sera Monastery just outside of Lhasa.There we watched the monks engage in debates. We had watched the monks debate at the Dalai Lama’s temple in Dharamsala some years before. But this was a much larger affair. About 200 young monks debated here.
After the day touring Lhasa, we headed out of the city on our way to Yamdrok Lake, Gyantse, Shigatse and Everest.
Our first stop was Drepung Monastery about five km out of Lhasa. Founded in 1416, it’s the largest of the Gelugpa monasteries (the Buddhist sect head by the Dalai Lama). Prior to the 1950s, it housed as many as 10,000 monks.There are now many fewer than that. And the security cameras installed throughout the complex were likely also a new phenomena. But it was definitely a very special place. It felt different than the other monastic sites we visited.
Chinese style bathroom breaks
Next we stopped at Yamdrok Lake. There was a sort of primitive rest stop on a high hilltop overlooking the southeastern part of the lake. Our small minivan pulled up alongside about ten full tour buses packed with Chinese tourists. We had stopped there so we could all use the bathroom. Diamox and water were calling. Scott entered the long concrete bunker that served as the washroom. Along one side were about a dozen stalls with rough holes cut in the floor. The holes were hanging over a steep embankment. Each stall was divided by a low wall about two feet high. There no doors. Across from the stalls was a concrete wall with a shallow trough that ran along the bottom. So, urinal wall and toilet stalls. He picked one near the far end of the bunker, pulled his pants down and squatted. We’ve used squat toilets before, so this wasn’t new.
Having to take a shit in full view of twenty other people was new, however. To Scott’s right was a neighbour, “hi!” And to his left the wall of the bunker. Across from him, about five feet directly in front, was the urinal wall. He had the most private stall in the whole place. Only about five people watched him going to the bathroom. A young man ran in and stood right in front of Scott by the urinal wall. He was in a lot of distress, huffing and puffing and groaning. All the toilet stalls were occupied. He dropped his pants and removed his underwear. They were drenched with brown liquid. He was suffering a debilitating bout of diarrhea. He plopped off the messy undies, leaving them tucked into the corner to Scott’s left. Wiped himself with some tissues he had brought along and, after dropping the tissues on the floor to Scott’s right. Put his pants back on and left. China. Scott finished, wiped, threw his toilet tissue down the hillside through the hole and walked out.
The lake was beautiful. We drove around it for another hour or so, stopped for a fifteen minute view break, then proceeded on over a steep mountain pass nearpeak and on to Gyantse where we would stay for the night.
In Gyantse, the highlight was a visit to Palcho monastery. Next was the long drive to Shigatse, where we made arrangements for our Alien Permits and our Everest permits. The first was needed because we were entering the border region, the second was needed in addition to the Alien Permit in order to be granted access to Everest Base Camp. We stayed one night.
After Shigatse, we drove west and then south off the main road, toward the Himalayas. We left Tingri, the last major village before we made the first of two very high passes along the 100km approach to Rong Pu Monastery where we’d spend the night before ascending to Everest base camp.
After several hours of twisting, winding, bumpy road, and two more full security checkpoints, we turned around a bend just before sundown.and suddenly saw Everest looming in the distance. It was a shocking site. We had seen views of Everest all day on the horizon at the summit of each high pass. But it had disappeared from view for several hours. Then suddenly we there!
Rong Pu was among the quietest, darkest places we have every visited. It’s the highest monastery in the world. We stayed in a family house across from it. Because so few tourists were allowed into Tibet this year, we were alone. There were five of us, including Elly and two Indonesians. It was also very cold and the altitude was affecting us all. We had bad headaches and felt terrible. But the view of Mount Everest on a clear evening, the sun shining off the summit and it’s blowing scarf of snow, made all of the pain manageable. It was an incredible sight. We felt alone in the world.
We shared a room with Elly. The three of us spent a very chilly night. Scott took the bed next to the window, which might as well have been open for all the protection it offered from the howling wind. We awoke to Elly in a crisis. She was convinced she was too ill to make it to base camp. She was crying with disappointment. She asked us to take her camera so she could have a photo to show her family and friends.
We weren’t having any of that nonsense. Scott suddenly produced Starbucks coffee packets. Elly looked up, surprised. She had been missing good coffee. We all had. He also left the room, went out to the van and grabbed a bottle of oxygen. He showed her how to breathe it in, holding the bottle for her. Finally, he convinced her to take an extra-strength Advil – the ‘golden’ egg. Within a few minutes, Elly was smiling and we were all ready to go eat some Tsampa porridge and butter tea in preparation for our visit to base camp.
The photos tell the story here. It’s impossible to describe. Qomolongma is an incredible experience. On the Nepal side of Mount Everest, there are routinely up to 600 people at base camp. There are hotels and hawkers selling trinkets and water bottles and other crap. Not here. We were alone. It truly felt like we’d won the lottery. Later that day, as we left Rong Puk we all just sat in silence. We headed back the way we had come – several hours of bumpy, bladder busting road before turning back on to the highway and on to Xangmu, the seedy, filthy border town we’d stay in on our last night in Tibet,
We loved our time in Tibet. The tour was great (but accommodation was a bit lacking at times). Our guide, Chong Lha and our driver, Mr Yang, were wonderful and we highly recommend them.
Crossing Over into Nepal
Tibet is intense, security-wise. In just two and a half days, traveling from Gyantse to Everest Base Camp to the border, we passed through no fewer than twelve or thirteen security check points — eight in one day, alone. At each check point, we had to present our four different travel documents: passports with China Visa, Tibet Travel Permit, border area permit (or Aliens Travel Permit, as it’s officially and affectionately known), and our Everest permits.
This morning we crossed the Friendship Bridge that spans the Nepal-China border. Chong Lha helped us sort through the passport and permit checks, the bag scans and the physical bag check (yes, they actually open up your luggage and check through each bag to see if you have any books or other things they don’t like (such as photos of the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan flag).
However, passing this final security test, we hugged our sweet guide, and said goodbye. There’s something special about Chong Lha. We both hope to see her again, someday.
Walking over the bridge into Nepal, you immediately enter a very (very) different world from China. Security becomes lax (or maybe returns to normal levels). Touts try to “help” you even before you’ve actually got a Visa to enter Nepal. The whole thing felt very familiar, including the surrounding geography and buildings, reminding us strongly of Mcleod Ganj in India. We had expected a flat, dry land crossing for some reason. Instead, leaving Tibet into Nepal is to cross a very deep, richly forested, lush narrow river canyon. Steep mountain sides rise into the mists on either side. It’s quite stunning. Think of the most beautiful coastal British Columbia scenery. Now put it on steroids.
Nepal is so not like China. This short video was taken in our taxi ride to Kathmandu. This was literally our first 30 seconds in the car. The difference between the feeling in Nepal was so different from the feeling in China. The music in this video is coming from the car. Yes, it was that loud. And fantastic.
In China, it’s impossible to not know exactly where you should go when crossing the border. In Nepal, it was nearly impossible to find our way to the immigration hall. We passed several soldiers, and like a dozen stores and hotels, before we found the right Visa office. It looked like just a random, sort of ramshackle (Caitlin) shop, like the others that lined the narrow street. So different. Memories of India came flooding back. Warm, welcoming smiles. We filled out our Visa applications and requested a 60-day Visa thinking we’d have to apply separately later for an extension. But when we went to the counter to hand over our documents, the Nepalese official said they only offer 30-day or 90-day Visas. We wanted a 90-day visa, anyway, so we’ll take 90 days please!
We’re now at our hotel in Kathmandu. And this is where we’ll leave things for a few days. We hope to post again in the next couple of days before we head out on our Annapurna Trek. The trek will take approximately 21 days and we are pretty sure that there will almost no internet along the way. So expect another post soon.