After spending two months in Nepal, I was ready for a change of scenery. I got out a map to find out what was nearby (yep, my geography is appalling). That’s how I ended up going to Tibet.
It was the trip that almost didn’t happen. The day I submitted my passport to the tour company (there’s no independent travel to Tibet), the Chinese government decided to exercise its right to arbitrarily change the rules. From that moment on, only groups of people from the same country were granted a visa. Oh, and there had to be a minimum of five in a group. Oddly enough, I didn’t know four other Australians who happened to be in Nepal at that time and wanted to go to Tibet. But the tour companies managed to pool their resources; “How many Australians have you got?” “I’ve got two.” Great, I’ve got three, let’s put them together and call it a tour!” That’s how I found myself in a car with an Australian man in his 60’s and three young Australian girls of Chinese descent. Let’s just say it was not a group that exactly gelled, which is brilliant when you’re spending 12 hours a day in an SUV together.
We get picked up from our hotels in Kathmandu and drive towards the Kodari border. On the way we stop off at the Last Resort and take a walk across a huge swinging bridge which is used for bungy jumping. From the platform, you can see all the way down the canyon.
We get back into the car and drive to the checkpoint. Crossing into Tibet isn’t exactly the wondrous experience I imagined it to be. The checkpoint is more like an airport, filled with men with guns, body scanners and luggage x-ray machines. We’ve been warned not to pack any books featuring the Dalai Lama; even carrying a picture of His Holiness is against the (Chinese) law.
Through the checkpoint, and the town of Zhangmu on the other side feels more like China than Tibet. All the signs are written in Mandarin and I quickly learn that the Tibetans speak much better Chinese than they do English. Suddenly I’m grateful to be travelling with three girls who speak fluent Mandarin.
I have time to walk on my own through the town; the single road winds up and up. I stop when I see three Tibetan kids playing with a cardboard box. As soon as I start taking photos, they start posing like they’re in a music video, which gives me a good laugh.
The rest of the town is a little sterile, there's no greenery, just concrete and shops full of tacky Chinese merchandise. But the food in the restaurant I go to for dinner is decidedly Tibetan; Thenthuk (Tibetan noodle soup) and momos (dumplings), oh, and yak butter tea is on the menu, but I steer clear of that (it's the kind of thing you only try once, and I made that mistake in India while listening to the Dalai Lama's teachings).
We spend a lot of time in the car, which is fine because the scenery is spectacular. I’m not sure what I was expecting from Tibet, but it wasn’t this. It’s a land of such wide open, desolate spaces; brown earth under a piercing blue sky, and always the snow capped mountains standing stoically in the background.
Passing families in horse drawn carts, cyclists and herds of goats, we take a winding route up to the Nyalam Pass (3,800m).
The pass is the first time I get to see the Himalayas in all their glory and it’s a very humbling experience. There’s nothing like seeing the biggest mountain range in the world to make you feel small.
I have little trouble with the altitude, but unfortunately one of the girls in our group gets pretty sick and we’re not sure if we’re going to be able to continue to Everest Base Camp. We spend the night in an outpost in the Snow Leopard hotel, which unfortunately doesn't quite live up to the beauty of its name. Luckily, the toilet in my room flushes, but the others in the group aren’t so fortunate.
We take off early in the morning. For the most part, there’s sealed road, but at other times we’re driving across country, bumping along in a car that seems ill equipped for the rough conditions, hoping the driver is actually following something resembling a road.
It gets colder as we weave our way up towards Everest Base Camp (EBC). The girl who is sick is attached to an oxygen tank in the back seat and we manage to limp into base camp. The camp is a collection of permanent tents, and there’s even a couple of guys playing pool. They laughingly tell us it’s the highest pool table in the world.
We trek towards the look out point; it’s freezing and difficult to breathe this high up. Everest is…impressive, imposing and achingly beautiful, but seeing it certainly doesn’t make me want to climb it!
After spending a few hours at EBC, we start the drive down, stopping at a monastery to take photos and watch the locals try and control their yaks, which we're told only thrive at altitudes above 3,000 metres.
The drive back down from EBC is long and dusty, complete with a flat tyre in the middle of nowhere, which gives us a chance to get out and take photos in this beautiful but desolate place.
After a long drive, we head up and over the Gyatsola Pass (5248m), which again makes it a little hard to breathe and gives me a slight headache. But the views are spectacular and make it all worth it.
After a few more hours in the car, we enter Tibet’s second biggest city, Shigatse. It’s a fascinating place, although it has kind of a Stepford Wives (China style) feel to it. All the buildings are in neat rows and the streets are so clean. People walk around in traditional Tibetan dress, which is in contrast to the modern city that surrounds them.
The hotel we stay in overnight is nice and modern, although the staff don’t speak English and I can’t get a room service menu, so I end up buying a packet of two minute noodles and eating them with a hotel toothbrush.
Today starts with a tour of the Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse, which was founded by the first Dalai Lama. The monks have created a huge sand mandala, which is stunning in its design and intricacy. Despite months of painstaking work, it will all be swept away when it's completed, as a lesson in impermanence and non-attachment.
After the tour, we head to the traditional old town of Gyantse where we tour the Phalkor monastery which houses an enormous gold Buddha statue. Watching the Tibetan people prostrating themselves, praying and sipping yak butter tea is such a fascinating insight into the culture.
Afterwards, we walk through the old town. Cows line the streets and most of the houses look abandoned. But children play in the streets, although they’re too shy to speak to us.
Leaving Gyantse, we drive to the shores of the amazingly azure Yamdrok Lake. It's one of the highest lakes in the world, but I'm sad to hear that it's been dammed so it can produce hydro electricity.
We drive down to the shoreline, which is dotted with little piles of stones; a tribute to the dead.
We drive on and finally we arrive in Lhasa, the capital of the Roof of the World. It is like walking around in two different worlds; the women in traditional dress and plaited hair walk the streets among the rickshaws and modern department stores.
The Potala Palace looms over the city and is truly one of the most spectacular, although imposing, buildings I’ve seen. The palace consists of room after room of priceless treasures, gold and buddha statues (unfortunately no photos allowed). Even though going into the depths of the palace is a truly amazing experience, unfortunately each person only gets an hour to see the entire red palace, and so we are rushed through while being shoved by noisy Chinese tourists.
While is Lhasa, we also visit the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, which is far less imposing than the Potala. It’s light and quite small and surrounded by pretty gardens and lakes.
It is quite touching to see where the young Dalai Lama slept and studied and made him seem more relevant somehow, like he isn’t just a figurehead, but a real person.
We also visit a nunnery, which is close to the main square. To enter, we have to go through a checkpoint where our bags are searched and water bottles are emptied (in case they contain flammable liquids). Before we arrived, there were a number of self-immolations and the Chinese soldiers are everywhere, carrying fire extinguishers on their backs.
It’s a reminder that we’re in an occupied territory. The Tibetans do not have freedom in their own country and as a tourist, it’s a difficult concept to get your head around. Tibetans cannot own a passport, and can't leave their country, unless they take a dangerous journey over the Himalayas to live in exile. They have to pass through multiple check points even to move around inside Tibet, and there is no freedom of speech. But despite all this, they remain sweet natured, peaceful, deeply religious people who for the most part seem to accept their lot living under occupation.
After our last night, we get on a flight back to Kathmandu. It’s a clear day and we get to see the Himalayas and Everest from another viewpoint. It’s a truly spectacular experience to cap off a memorable trip to the Roof of the World.