Recently, I went on a trip in which I had wanted to go for years. Tibet was not a place that was easily accessible. While planning was fairly complicated due to inconsistencies of ticket prices and scarcity of transportation in and out of the region, the trip itself was fairly smooth. However, Tibet is a plateau region in southwest china and well above the sea level with an average elevation of 4,900 meters (16,000 ft). It is easy for first time travelers to such altitudes to get high-altitude sickness. Climbing 2 flight of stairs feels like climbing 10 as air is thinner and your heart has to work harder to provide more oxygen to the brain. In short, if you ever lived through college, you know how hangovers and shortness of breath feel like. It’s on par with the worst one you’ve ever experienced, but you learn to deal with things like this.
Visiting Tibet requires a series of visas and permits. As a US Citizen, I needed a Chinese Visa, A Tibet permit (acquire through travel agency), and other special permits (i.e. Everest Permit) depending on which areas you are traveling to in Tibet. I joined this tour group ( http://www.accesstibettour.com/index.html ) before heading to Tibet and was able to get all my permits in order. I arranged all the additional transportation on my own, but the agency can help you if you’re not as much of a deal searcher as me. While this seems like a lot of work ( which it is), I feel that what you get to see will outweigh any of the trouble you will face while booking.
You can reach Tibet in 2 ways. One is to take a plane from Cheng Du to Lhasa. The other is to take a train from Any major city in China (Guang Zhou, Xian, Bejing, Shanghai, etc) to Lhasa. I took the train from Shanghai hoping that it would allow me ample time to get used to the high altitude. But was I wrong. They had oxygen fed into the train cars. There are 3 types of tickets for the train: Seat, Hard Sleeper and Soft Sleeper. Did I mention from Shanghai to Lhasa is 47 hours!? Two days on a seat would ruin the trip for you. If you’re a bit tight on budget, I suggest you get a hard sleeper if you can which would cost you roughly 800 yuan (130 usd). The hard sleeper and the soft sleeper varies in 3 very basic ways. Hard sleepers are a room for 6, while the soft is for 4. There are no doors on hard sleeper for each cabin so expect some noise. Soft is double the price of Hard, therefore only foreign tourist book them at over inflated agency prices.
Upon arriving in Tibet, my tour guide found me at the train station and off to the hotel I went. My tour guide is Tibetan. He speaks the language and was born in Lhasa. He learned English from Canadian missionaries. He’s quite funny and jokes a lot which is quite a relief from the more serious tone from the occupation of Tibet. Surprisingly our arrival is considered day 1 of our tour. Getting used to the altitude is a full day’s work.
The following day, my first visit with Access Tibet Tours was to the Potala Palace. Built in 637 AD by Songtsen Gampo, it was the former winter residence for the Dalai Lamas. I was truly amazed by this splendid architecture. It has been preserved quite well and the sheer size of it amazes me. I could not understand how brick and wood construction enable this to be the tallest building in all of Lhasa. The climb up the palaces was quite a bit of work as the thin air made me felt much older than my age. The details and the interior was equally as impressive. The many room in which you travel through allows you to see how the religious ruling class lived prior to the Chinese occupation. While there was no photography allowed in the interior, the vibrant colors left a vivid image. However, crowds of Chinese tourist that rush in and out of chambers made the experience a little less memorable.
After lunch, we witness the famous debate sessions by the monks at Sera Monastery. “Sera” means raspberry in Tibetan, but I didn’t find any there. Next, visit we visited the Jokhang Temple, the center of Tibetan Buddhism, also built in the 7th century on the legendary pond of “Wothang.” All around the temple was hordes of people circling the building clockwise making their pilgrimage to this holy place. Close by was a market where people test their bartering skills.
The next day we left Lhasa for Shiatse on the Friendship Highway that connects China to Nepal. There were a few rather interesting sight points. But the main attraction had to be the abundance of vegetation on a giant river in a desert on top of the plateau of the mountains (yes, I know its a run-on sentence). In Shiatse, we visited a monastery that contained many giant Buddhas. If you feel absolutely rich or need good memories, consider forking out 100 Yuan (16 usd) before taking pictures of them. Free time during dinner allow my group to explore local cuisine. For 4 yuan (75 cents), You can get a large bowl of Tibetan mixed noodles. Two of those is bound to fill even the most heavy eater.
Day 4 was probably the most exciting but had the most travel time. On our way to Everest Base Camp (EBC) there were many scenic points in which we stopped for pictures and restroom breaks (in the middle of fields). I really wished that our tour guide would allot more time at these scenic stops. We reached EBC around 6pm and only spent about 30 minutes there. We spent a night in a camp nearby. The sky was so clear that you can see the milky way. Unfortunately, it was impossible to take with the TX-5 as there was no manual mode to extend the exposure. That night was not exactly comfortable. The camp had cold rooms with little amenities. I don’t remember sleeping at all that night from. I did get up early to see more of the Milky way, witness a Moonrise, and enjoyed the splendid sunrise at the Everest.
After Breakfast we took off for Shigatse again. Taking the same route and almost did no stops. I have to say today was almost completely a day of travel with little activities. On our last day, we travel from Shigatse to Lhasa via Gyantse on the Southern Friendship Highway. We stopped by an scenic area where it was just a glacier on top of a mountain. Crossing over the summit of Kamba La (4794 m), you’ll see the tranquil turquoise waters of Lake Yamdrok below; one of the three holiest lakes in Tibet. It was pretties lake I’ve ever seen but like I mentioned before we spent no more than 30 minutes at that location. After that we headed for Lhasa where I spent my last night before flying back to Shanghai via Chengdu.
I dont particularly like talking about tibet’s politics because it is very sad. Tibet is a politically sensitive area of the world. It’s history in the last 50 years has not exactly been as peaceful. People’s Liberation Army presence is strong there and I was many soldiers marching leisurely down streets with automatic rifles. However, I did not see any conflict at all. It almost seemed that the Tibetans had accepted it as part of their daily sights. While I see that the Chinese government have invested heavily in this region, I feel it’s not getting better for any of the right reasons. Yes there is better infrastructure, more equality between the different classes, and more amenities, but the religious sanction that it was known for seem to have been heavily influenced and transformed by the commercialism that has been brought here. While I see many people praying everywhere and religion being practiced, it doesn’t feel the population is wholeheartedly as religious as they used to be. One very detail I observed from my tour guide who is Tibetan is that while he doesn’t like the Chinese language and refers it as “blah blah” and avoids talking in Chinese if he can, I find it interesting he loves listening and singing pop songs in Mandarin….
A few years back I wrote a pretty long article and had some debates regarding about my thoughts about Tibet in 2008. And after visiting it, I still agree with most of the points I previously made the. If you like to know more about Tibet, please read the original article here: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=21313179952
And thanks for reading.
Photos in this article were all taken with a Sony TX5 point and shoot.