I took a trip to Tibet from June 12 – 21, accompanied by Swathish and three Germans: Swathish’s colleague Arndt, Arndt’s wife Carmen, and Carmen’s brother Gege. It was all Swathish’s idea.
Foreigners visiting Xizang Autonomous Region, as the political unit is officially known, are obliged to secure an official visiting permit before embarking on their trip. Most people do this through one of many tour agencies which secure the permit, arrange the tour guide and driver (which are also obliged to accompany foreigners), provide accommodation and handle other logistics. Swathish, his Chinese colleague Maggie and I visited a tour agency in west Beijing to discuss the specifics of what we wanted to do on our trip. Swathish had picked out some top-ten destinations and thrown them together into an itinerary, which the agency made sense of while we were there. I meant to do more research on them before this point but we were all quite busy. Maggie was crucial in our negotiations with the tour agency, who naturally tried to get as much money out of us as they could, but Maggie managed to get several hundred RMB knocked off the price per person. In the negotiations I mused that it would be great to visit one or two “less-visited” attractions that were beautiful but not overrun by tourists, and this tacked on an extra city and an extra day to our trip – to the complaint of no one.
The total price of the services provided by the tour agency, including a train ticket on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway from Xining to Lhasa, came to about 3,500 RMB. When I told this to others who had been to Tibet or knew people who had gone recently, they expressed surprise that the price was low, which was an unexpected reaction. After the whole experience was over, I realized that the best solution would have been to call around to get in direct touch with a Tibetan tour guide in Lhasa who could do the permits himself, as this would remove some of the costs and probably increase flexibility. Never the matter – we were locked in and ready to travel, after separately purchasing a flight to Xining and then the return flight from Lhasa to Beijing, all told doubling the price of the trip. Pain!
We met up at Arndt and Carmen’s apartment on the Friday evening before our departure to finalize plans and payment with the tour operator. Later we enjoyed a large amount of street food in the shadow of the CBD as we got to know each other. I left home to hit the sack in anticipation of a 5:00 AM rise time for our early flight, but the others stayed up to watch the first games of the World Cup. Remembering what happened to me the last time I made such a mistake, I decided to learn from history rather than repeat it.
Xining and the Qinghai-Tibet Railway
Our flight on June 12, a Saturday, left at about 7:30 AM. We landed in Xining, the eastern terminus of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. From there it connects to the rest of the country’s vast and expanding rail network. We could have taken the train from Beijing to Xining and then to Lhasa, but such a move would have added days to our journey and probably would be uncomfortable after a while. We arrived a bit before noon and our train did not leave until about 16:00, so we took the bus from the airport to the town center and walked to the railway station. A breeze blew and the sun was shining, so it was a pleasant time of day to sit out and enjoy some lunch on the terrace near the railway station. We sat for a good two hours after eating, enjoying an interesting cocktail of various flowers, sugars and dried fruits brewed into a tea with infinite refills for ten kuai. We must have enjoyed eight refills before the clouds rolled in and the breeze became a harsh gale, blowing all manner of dirt and construction dust in our faces. Large bottles of water were purchased for the train ride, and we retreated to the safety of the station.
After a long wait, we boarded the train. Our tickets were for “hard sleeper” berths, which means you get one out of six beds in a car. The top bunks are the cheapest, so we had five beds split among three next-door cells in the same car. We engaged in ticket-trading with our neighbors to secure five beds in the same compartment within an hour of getting on the train.
Thus began our 24-hour trip on the Qingzang Railway, one of the world’s modern wonders. Finished in 2006, it is an incredibly important and controversial development for a number of reasons. The most obvious is the facilitated connection of Lhasa and Xizang Autonomous Region in general to the rest of China, which can be seen as any mixture of enormous economic opportunity for Tibet, Beijing tightening its grip on the restive land, the facilitation of massive Han immigration to Tibet, and the opening of Tibet to the rest of China along with many other issues I am not astute enough to know or express. From an engineering standpoint the railway is a fascinating achievement. Over 500 km of its nearly 2,000 km length is on permafrost, the top layer of which melts during part of the year. The railway passes through Tanggula Pass at 5,072 m above sea level, making it the world’s highest railway. As if this were not enough, the tracks run through the seismically active Kunlun Mountains. Oxygen tents where the workers could breathe easier were set up to prevent altitude sickness. I read that during the railway’s construction, the Chinese authorities put up propaganda slogans to inspire the workers: “Never Admit Defeat” and “Conquer Nature” were the most memorable.
The railway is a must for anyone visiting Tibet for the above reasons as well as two more important ones: its enchanting scenery and its role in mitigating the effects of altitude sickness. My heart leaped with awe many times during the twelve or so hours of daylight we were awarded on the journey, and I wish my camera did not have to contend with the moving platform and snapping through smudgy glass to capture barren wastelands, mountains that looked straight out of Final Fantasy and herd after herd of wild yaks. Altitude sickness is something that any traveler to a place higher than 2,000 m should consider. Lhasa’s altitude is 3,490 m and most of the tourist areas in the surrounding area are higher, some as high as 5,000 m. Although it would be ideal to ascend 500 m every two days, starting at Xining’s 2,275 m and taking 24 hours to settle over 1 km higher is better than flying straight from sea level to Lhasa.
The following image was my favorite mountain on the railway. I wish we had passed much closer. It seemed to me to be a roadway leading to the heavens. Someday I hope to climb this mountain.
After the sun came to rest in the West, there was not much to do except read and chat. I read halfway through Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and drifted off while Swathish played Dire Straits and Queen from his phone. In the morning I awoke a bit later than the others, but the sun was only about one hour awake itself. Here we traversed the permafrost portion of the railway, having passed into Xizang during the dark hours of the morning. Whilst asleep my mouth dried out more than I ever recall, due to the rising altitude and resultant dehydration. I chugged a 1.5 liter bottle of water and got some breakfast, then I took a few pictures.
Most of the day I spent reading and sitting by the window, enjoying the beautiful endless landscape. While I sat in the corridor, a woman from the group of Koreans neighboring our compartment sat across from me. She spoke good English and claimed to be “from LA,” but I think she had just lived there for a while at some point in her life. When I asked what they were going to do in Tibet, she quickly glanced around and then did a short hands-together praying motion. I surmised that they were a group of evangelicals visiting Tibet for the stated purpose of tourism, but were really going to proselytize, which she practiced on me after twenty minutes of idle conversation.
Spaced out approximately every fifty kilometers or so (by my baseless estimation) was a tiny outpost tent made of thick thermal blanket material, situated a couple dozen meters from the track. Each one flew a modest-sized PRC flag and was staffed by a single soldier, who saluted the train as it passed. I noticed one such outpost for every settlement in Tibet, even hamlets of only ten dwellings. Paranoia strikes deep.
We arrived in Lhasa at about 16:00 on Sunday. Our guide was not immediately there to greet us, since the train was a bit early. We waited half an hour at the station, including a few minutes in the sun outside and when I tried to walk into the shade a guard waved me away. Thankfully we could take shelter from the hard sun inside the empty atrium of the station.
We met Adoun, our young Tibetan guide, and our driver outside the train station. Adoun spoke good English and greeted us all with a white silk scarf, or khata, which is a gift of welcoming and friendship in Tibet. He took us to our hostel, called Lhasa Hostel, and we agreed on a place to meet for dinner that evening. He encouraged us to rest in the hotel, since too much activity in the acclimatization period increases the chances of altitude sickness – including showering, which can be a system shock, especially if the water is cold. I didn’t shower until late on the second day of our stay in Lhasa.
We met Adoun at one of the many Nepali-Indian-Tibetan-Chinese restaurants in Lhasa. I think this one was named Nirvana. We enjoyed a few random Tibetan dishes, including the very delicious yak momos, basically dumplings with spiced yak meat and a tasty spicy red sauce. We also shared a pot of yak butter tea which, despite the bad rap it gets, was quite refreshing and even mellowed our altitude-induced headaches a bit. We drank no beers that night, opting to watch a bit of the World Cup and sleep since we planned to awaken at a fresh hour.
Breakfast was a poorly and slowly crafted mix of eggs, dry toast and prepackaged sausage at the hotel’s branch across the road. Swathish and I labored up six flights of stairs to enjoy a morning lookout from the hotel’s sixth-floor terrace, where we saw the Potala Palace perched majestically a kilometer to the west.
Adoun greeted us downstairs and led us on the short walk to the main avenue leading directly to the very heart of Tibetan Buddhism, the Jokhang Temple. Jokhang was built by the famous Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century, and for a while it was actually a temple of the pre-Buddhist indigenous Bon religion. It forms the very center of the Tibetan part of Lhasa, and pilgrims from all across the Tibetan cultural sphere come here to circumambulate the temple while spinning their prayer wheels, then enter prostrate to deliver offerings of yak butter for the holy lamps and pay respects to the Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha statue. Tibetan Buddhists circumambulate temples, monasteries and other sacred places in a clockwise direction, an act which is called kora. Bonpo Tibetans circumambulate their holy places – frequently shared by the Buddhists – in a counterclockwise direction, which can invite scorn from the culturally dominant Buddhists. For a traveler, walking clockwise around Jokhang both pits one in the fantastic flow of earnest tradition and allows one to see the old center of Lhasa, which is charming despite being mostly reconstructed with the facade-heavy nature characteristic of PRC “cultural preservation” efforts.
Adoun told us about the history of the old city and of the temple, and we then bypassed the many non-paying pilgrims to enter as paying tourists. The faithful come from all over Tibet, even the parts of the Tibetan ethno-cultural sphere in Sichuan and Qinghai, to pay respects at this most sacred temple. They all had pitchers and buckets and small water bottles full of yak butter, some liquid, some notably cheesy. I am lucky that in my whole time in Tibet I never once got yak butter spilled on me – it was everywhere.
When I entered the temple, I expected much of what I had already seen at Buddhist temples in Asia – basically, see one and you’ve seen them all. My jaded pessimism soon gave way to excited reverence. The best description I can provide of Jokhang is that it is so alive; far from being a poorly preserved tourist museum, it is one of the most active and thriving places of worship I have visited. Jokhang was full of Buddhists continuing the kora inside the temple, dipping into each of the tiny shrines to respect this avatar of the Buddha and that statue of a Lama, always scraping and pouring a bit of yak butter into the large candle-tanks, which exhaled smoke the color of carbon, or pasting yi jiao and wu mao notes to the glass coverings of the idols and artifacts. Combusted yak butter was the overwhelming, yet wholly unoffensive, smell that defined these places of worship. The smoke from poly-centenarian candles caked on the walls, layering a grimy film over the most colorful and elaborate Asian religious paintings I have seen outside of a textbook. The murals bulged and cracked off the walls as they gleamed with a vibrant light of their own. The slow, fanatic march of the crowd was such that someone’s cloak or robe frequently brushed my skin. Yet above these sensations, the most sublime which still brings me a smile as I write this was the endless singing, chanting and stamping that emerged from the center of the temple’s ground floor, a room-sized area occluded by cheap multicolored plastic tarps draped over chicken wire. Adoun explained to us as he pointed to the ground that the floors in these temples are all constructed by a mixture of yak butter and ground-up rocks and other durable accoutrement, which are spread like wet cement and then rhythmic-religiously tamped into a sturdy flat walking surface by teams of volunteers wielding sticks with flat blocks on their ends. That was the chanting and stamping which filled the temple – a work crew repairing the floor in the middle of the room. The music was at once uplifting, active, enthusiastic and addictive. It took a beautiful temple experience to the heights of spiritual appreciation.
After a couple of hours at Jokhang we hopped to our 11 o’clock tee time for Potala Palace (Potala has time-slot tickets that must be reserved). Potala Palace is the famous winter palace of the Dalai Lama and the edifice whose image is most associated with political control of the Tibetan kingdom. Today it is a tourist attraction topped by a Chinese flag. The palace was first built by that legendary King, Songsten Gampo, but the current form was erected in the 17th century a full millennium after Songsten Gampo’s reign. One issue that I had on the trip was reconciling my less-than-bare-bones knowledge of Tibetan history and culture with Adoun’s description of each place or event and their significance. It took a lot of questioning to bring out that the palace was only 350 years old in its current form, rather than being directly descended from Songsten Gampo’s palace. He had a lot of knowledge and cultural reverence for the places we visited, but he often put across the folk pride version of history instead of the actually-happened version. If he were a tour guide in the USA, he would be the type to claim that George Washington actually did chop down a cherry tree, or perhaps that JFK succumbed to a magic bullet. It was interesting nonetheless to hear those interpretations of this fascinating culture.
Potala is quite large and requires a lot of climbing. We were still acclimatizing and a couple of us (thankfully not me) were having a hard time of it. We took the stairs slowly, which gave me plenty of time to soak in the minutiae of the compound. Potala is the most exemplary specimen of Tibetan architecture, a style which is propagated among almost all of the monasteries and temples we saw, as well as many of the regular townhouses. Large rectangular stones are arranged to slightly taper the corners as the building rises, and these are painted white when the building or that section of it is “general purpose.” The other colors of prime importance are an old-gold color which denotes political functions and the deep burgundy red, which denotes religious function. The red sections are usually not made of stones but most traditionally of very tightly bundled sticks which are painted and treated with some mixture that cements, weatherizes and colors them. Before the PRC, the last 400 or so years of Tibet’s history were administered under a theocracy with the Dalai Lama at its top, so the central and highest part of Potala Palace is constructed with the red stick material indicative of religious function.
Overall Potala was necessary and interesting enough, but it lacked some of what you expect in a palace. Much of it has been politically sterilized and there is no way to discern what is interesting and what is not just by looking; the guide must interpret to tell you where the young Tenzin Gyatso studied the scriptures every morning, and where whose bedroom was, and which stupa was to which Lama. Still it is a holy place that is revered by Tibetans, especially those from the eastern-central part of the plateau, and its profile in the Lhasa valley is iconic on a level few other political-religious buildings in the world can boast.
We lunched at another Nepali-Tibetan restaurant in the old city center. Here the food was not as tasty as the previous night’s fare, which was indicative of the culinary experience we had for the rest of the trip. Although it is interesting at first, Tibetan food is generally not that exciting and certainly not as tasty or diverse as Chinese or Indian food, the other culinary traditions on offer. By the end of the trip I ordered Indian food much more frequently than Tibetan, though I never stopped searching for a plate of yak momos to rival the first night’s sample – alas, a vain errand.
The afternoon was hot, intensified by the strong Tibetan sun. At such an altitude the atmospheric cover for the sun is weak, and I burned in just an hour in relatively lower Xining. Therefore I spent the whole time wearing either light long-sleeved shirts or covering myself with a jacket over short sleeves, with the hood up. A critical packing omission was a hat, which I corrected a couple of days later. The heat made a real chore of our afternoon visit to Drepung Monastery, five kilometers west of Lhasa’s city center and perched against Mount Gephel. Carmen, Swathish and I took refuge in a shaded glen while Gege and Arndt made a bull-headed scramble up the side of the mountain to stand next to a large painted Buddha. The combination of the altitude, walking and heat grew burdensome, so I believe we made the right decision in taking sanctuary from activity.
Drepung was sort of what we expected, a good 80% of what we would see in most of the other monasteries on the trip. One of my biggest regrets about the Tibet trip is not taking more time to study up on attractions and travel blogs to see what was worth going out of the way for, what could not be missed, and what could be avoided. If I did the trip again I would avoid Drepung and a couple of other temples and monasteries, inserting in their stead more time for hikes and possibly adding an overnight stay at a very out-of-the-way monastery. After we finished with Drepung our day was largely over and so for the rest of the day I relaxed, showered the first time since leaving Beijing, and watched a bit of World Cup soccer.
The next day on our itinerary called for us to stay overnight at Nam Tso, a holy lake at 4,800 m elevation, but Carmen and Swathish were both feeling quite impaired by the climate, so we decided to swap two days around: we moved our Nam Tso visit back one day and moved what was to be day four up to this, day three. In the process we cut a bit of fat by removing a temple from the offing and we also gained the ability to stay at Nam Tso longer in the morning after awakening. This made everyone happy, as our lackluster Drepung experience made us wary of how many monasteries and temples we had scheduled on this trip. Thus, after another just-for-the-calories breakfast, we piled into the gray van and set off for the hour-ish trip to Ganden Monastery.
This was our first countryside road trip in Tibet, and it was breathtaking. Tibet is gobsmackingly beautiful. The sky is pure and clear, the mountains look like real-life paintings that stretch endlessly and every valley is centered around some meandering river, many of which turn out to be thousands of kilometers long. June is just a month or so before the rainy season, and when the rains come the banks of the rivers swell to many times the width we saw. The wide valleys then become mostly riverbeds for a couple of months.
Ganden had still more of a general “this is a monastery” feel, but its high perch hundreds of meters above the valley floor and the locals hiking up to the sky burial ground made it an interesting place to explore. Most of the time I wandered around by myself, including a scramble to the top of the mountain ridge where I saw the ancient and colossal serenity of the Lhasa River valley displayed before me. I wish I had a better camera and better skills; the sky was such a deep blue and the valleys shone with a healthy grassy green and yellowish silt.
I wound up waiting at the front of the monastery for half an hour when I couldn’t get in touch with the others in my group. I wish I had taken that opportunity to hike up to the sky burial place, though such a journey at 4,300 m altitude would have been quite taxing. When Adoun finally returned with the group, we lunched at the local foodening-hole in the monastery which the monks operate. The floor was covered in dirt, the quarters were cramped and dogs ran around the place. The food was basic and cheap and the yak butter tea had a strong yak kick to it. Most Western people would have retched just looking in. The food was just okay, but the experience was priceless, especially when a stray donkey tried to eat Gege’s noodle soup and then knocked over a bucket of trash. Clumsy ass!
We hightailed it back to Lhasa to visit Sera Monastery, thus completing our visitation of the triumvirate of great Gelukpa sect monasteries in Tibet. The Gelukpa sect is the “Yellow Hat” sect, and claims the Dalai Lama as an adherent. The major thing to do at Sera is watch the monks debate, a key part of education for the monks at any Gelukpa monastery. The monks aggressively question each other on the concepts and minutiae of their scripture to ensure a good indoctrination and understanding of their spiritual tenets. The monks being interrogated sit cross-legged on the ground, facing their inquisitor-peers who wield prayer beads like mace whips, pulling them between their hands as if it were some kind of bow-and-arrow. When the monk finishes asking the question in a loud and intimidating voice, he jumps forward and brings his hands together in a hard clap, pointing them directly in the face of his colleague on the ground who must answer as quickly and wisely as possible.
If I recall correctly, that evening we just drank a lot of water and maybe enjoyed a beer or two on our hostel’s rooftop (Green Barley beer is much better than Lhasa brand beer!), along with watching a bit of World Cup, before sleeping and preparing to awaken for our long-awaited journey to Nam Tso lake.
Our postponed trip to Nam Tso finally came, as we all felt ourselves to be in generally good health and ready to tackle a night at 4,800 m. One more cruddy Western breakfast in our stomachs sent us on our way in the gray minibus to Nam Tso, a little over four hours north of Lhasa. The ride was spectacular as usual, and included an expensive Sichuan meal at a tourist stop town. We downed plenty of water on the trip to combat the dehydration attendant to a climb in altitude. On the road, we passed more than one People’s Liberation Army convoy and several prayer flag sites.
The final hour or so of the journey involves a climb from the valley floor through Laken mountain pass to get to the elevated plateau on which Nam Tso rests. Here we passed a number of giant tour buses – the kind we used to take to go to the Chattanooga Aquarium – full of Chinese tourists, hurtling down the mountain. There were several white-knuckle moments on the trip involving steep roads and hairpin turns, but this was one of the worst. I focused on the beauty of the Tibetan highlands as we rose above the level where even scrubby shrubs live in abundance. A rushing stream flowed next to the road, and we passed several nomads tending their sheep and yaks. At the peak of Laken pass we saw Nam Tso in most of its glory from a height of 5,190 meters, at that time the highest I had ever been on land. A bag of chips that one of the Germans brought from Beijing was swollen so large from the pressure change we feared touching it would burst chips all over the car. The predictable official marker stone stood at Laken Pass, and we had to wait for the many Chinese tourists on their way back to Lhasa to finish their adventure at the official photo-taking spot before we could take any proper photos.
Notice how Nam Tso’s shore does not seem too far away in the picture. However, it is fully 25 km as the crow flies from the mountain pass to the nearest shore! That was something I found to be characteristic of Tibet: the air is so clear, the mountains so high and the valleys so long that what looks like a 30-minute walk will take you all day! This is one of the great charms of visiting Tibet. The natural landscape, while it lasts, is like going back to a time when industry had not yet subdued most of the planet. The Chinese build mine after mine and inject an amazing amount of tourist investment as well as Han immigration into Tibet, so much that had I gone ten years ago it would have been a whole order of magnitude more naturalistic – and I only visited the main tourist circuit areas. There are other areas, for which other permits are required, where you can see a truly nomadic plateau-land where you could walk for days and not see another human being, like Ngari Prefecture and Qamdo Prefecture. An interesting and frightening statistic I read before I went to Tibet states that in 2009 or some recent year, one million people visited Tibet as tourists; the Chinese government wants that figure to be 20 million per year by 2020 (a later NYT article cites this). Every beautiful thing I saw brought this number to mind, and made me sad. It is a typically Western response to lament development like that, but Tibet has something that I truly believe should not be spoiled, especially not by hordes and hordes of tourists in giant buses who just stop at tourist pavilions and snap photos without journeying deeper into the scene.
Most journeys to Nam Tso stop at the scenic area development, which is like a modern-day frontier town made out of prefabricated aluminum barracks-type housing units. This is the most accessible from Lhasa and is conveniently situated on a long peninsula that juts into the lake. I was nervous about our trip to Nam Tso because I had read mixed reports from travel blogs contrasting the holy beauty of the place with being regularly mobbed by Chinese tourists. Fortuna smiled upon us though, as most of the tourists are just day trippers; within an hour of our arrival we were five of perhaps twenty tourists in Nam Tso who would stay the night. I laid my stuff in Swathish’s and my barrack-room, downed a liter of water and walked slowly, almost trudged to prevent exhaustion at this altitude, to the lake’s shore.
Nam Tso is blue like I have not seen before. It is frequently called the world’s highest lake (chalk it up to the Chinese need for validation), and though that is not true, it is the world’s highest salt lake, and quite a large one with a surface area of 1,870 km. In the course of our trip we only walked in the small hilly area around the camp, but there are pilgrims and tourists alike who do the kora around Nam Tso for a month or more. It is revered among Tibetans as a holy place, and before 1959 monks would often cross its frozen surface to stay for over half a year on one of the islands in the lake, meditating until the lake froze over again and they could leave. I was excited to see as much of it as I could.
Swathish and I slowly walked west along the edge of the lake, and although his altitude-induced headache was splitting, every time we rounded a corner and he saw what was ahead he would groan “OK, just to the next bend in the path!” We were totally alone after passing the first small mountain. Soon we came upon several shore-side fields of small hand-made rock stupa piles, of the type I first saw when Kelsey and I went to Big Sur. Stupas are a feature of Buddhism usually meant to honor the dead or mark a holy place, and incense is burned in the large ones. Many pilgrims make small piles of rocks to build their own stupas, and there were hundreds by Nam Tso’s shore. I formed my own, as I have wherever I have seen stupas – at Big Sur, Beomeo Sa temple in Busan, Korea, and at Angkor Wat to name a few.
As we rounded the last mountain, Swathish decided to turn back and nurse his headache. What a mistake. The scenes just beyond the last curve, at the north-west end of the peninsula, were my favorite of my entire time in the PRC. That area made it clear why Nam Tso is considered so holy; it is blessed with many of the auspices of an omphalos or “world navel.” There are several caves, including one called the Cave of Good and Evil, all of them strewn with prayer flags and khata scarves. Another cave shelters a purported holy person’s footprint. A veritable captain’s seat of prayer flag glory offers a place to stand while surrounded by the multicolored billowing words invoking the Buddha as the pilgrim stares across Nam Tso’s broad surface, such that the far shore is not even visible. To the south stands the mountain range which includes the 7,000 meter monster we passed earlier in the day. Yet the greatest thing to be seen was the holy monolith and the “praying-hands” rocks, which look just like hands pressed together in prayer facing the center of Nam Tso’s mysterious and ancient brilliance. I stood there alone for several minutes, gazing through the gap between the praying hands at the blue teardrop of heaven. There was no sound but the wind, no feeling but the breath of the Earth and the Sun’s shower of light. None of Beijing’s pollution, none of the clamor of the ring roads, no stench of open-hole toilets, no poorly Photoshopped advertisements. Only the Earth and myself. I was elevated then.
As I turned back around the corner I met the Germans walking towards the beauty they had not yet seen. I kept at their slow and savory pace, and when we came back around to where the prayer flag station was I stood in the middle and stared out beyond the flags and focused only on the horizon while I tried to lose all of my sensations. I certainly lost my sense of time, but there was unfortunately a large wasp patrolling the periphery, and my vespid phobia kept me from truly ignoring my senses. Nonetheless it was a welcome peace of mind. Gege went down to the shore and stared across the lake at the mountains for a long time, and later stated that the beauty of the scene brought tears to his eyes. If I weren’t such a callous bastard, the same probably would have happened to me. We enjoyed staying there so much we called Adoun and asked him to delay our dinner time by one hour.
While we contemplated the praying-hands rock, we heard a woman’s singing voice. A group of six or so Tibetan nomads slowly walked the lakeside, and one woman voluminously sang a beautiful Tibetan prayer which traveled clear across the lake and echoed off the mountains to the south. It was the only sound other than the wind and it held us transfixed. That was the highlight of Nam Tso for me.
After a too-spicy dinner we went to sleep early. I planned to wake up at 23:00 and stargaze for a half hour or so, and the others agreed to join. When the time came, though, no one else wanted to get up. I resolved to see them myself. After making it past the sound of the gasoline generators, I looked up – and I forgot to breathe for fully 30 seconds. I have never seen half as many stars in the sky as I did at Nam Tso, a situation aided by all the right conditions: Nam Tso is 4,800 meters high which cuts a lot of atmospheric interference, there is practically zero light pollution, when you are close enough to the lake there is no obstruction to your view of the sky, and this particular night was within 48 hours of a new moon. It was revelatory about the Universe and whatever you want to think about our place in it. The night was so black and I could see the Milky Way band in all its glory, something I have not clearly seen in years as light pollution increases around the world. I saw stars of different colors. I would have stayed out by myself but there were wild dogs and who knows who was wandering around in the pitch black. By the next morning, and even up to right now, not staying out longer and enjoying the Nam Tso stars is my biggest regret about my visit to Tibet. It is suspect whether I will ever have such an opportunity again to see stars in that way, unless I make it to outer space or become an extreme mountaineer.
When I awoke the next morning my mouth was drier than sandpaper, the result of altitude-induced dehydration. We set our alarms in time to get up and watch the sunrise, which is another popular activity at Nam Tso. We were told that access to one of the mountaintops was not permitted, but it was clearly untrue as several people hiked the eastern mountain to get a better view. That is another regret of mine, but the sunrise was still fantastic. After the daybreak Gege and I did climb the mountain to look over the lake one last time.
Swathish and I enjoyed a bottle of oxygen each while we drank instant coffee and waited for Adoun and the driver to ready our exit from Nam Tso. Oxygen is cheap; a 1.5 liter bottle can be had for 20 or so RMB and lasts for about fifteen minutes of breathing. At first I didn’t think it was having any effect, but when I stood up to go to the car I started spontaneously singing. The effect wears off quickly; after fifteen seconds I was back to my oxygen-starved self. When we went down the mountain from Laken Pass, the driver’s habits brought the ire of the Germans who knew well how to drive manual-shift cars in the mountains, and you do not do it in the highest gear while relying on your brakes. At the bottom of the pass was a small side road which dipped into a pool of cold water fed by the mountain stream. This pool’s purpose is to instantly cool off the hot brakes of the cars that have been riding the brake pedal while descending the mountain, and when we dipped our van into the pool we heard hissing, saw fumes arise on all sides of the car and smelled the unmistakable odor of burning brake pads. It is a fool’s errand, of course, since rapid changes in temperature are more likely to cause cracks in the brakes. I had to balance my disdain at this clearly government-endorsed practice (they built the road and the pool, after all) with my lightly seasoned “well, this is China” just-go-with-the-flow attitude. Let’s just say I am glad to be back in Beijing in one piece.
On the way back to Lhasa for one more night’s stay in that city, we passed a hot springs. While I love hot springs, this one was fairly commercial and no one else wanted to attend, so we did not. To utilize the time we otherwise would have spent, we decided to find a random mountainside which would be nice for an hour’s hike. When we found a suitable candidate, the driver and Adoun stayed on the side of the road while we walked up to a small mountain stream that cut a small valley from a semi-distant mountaintop. This included passing some local’s yak-dung-brick-fenced yard containing a Tibetan mastiff, one of the more vicious dogs on Earth. I left my camera in the car to just enjoy the hike, but I wish I had taken it with me; the valley was quiet and pretty, a nicely bucolic scene for Tibet. A couple of nomads tending their yaks smiled and waved at us. We could have kept on going up to the mountain if we had enough time, but when it started to rain we turned from the stream ridge and went through the valley floor back to the roadside. Yellow and purple flowers dotted the heath beside the stream. Gege tried to scramble up to the top of the ridge, which would have been impossible without equipment at a point, and certainly would have been exhausting. Though Adoun couldn’t understand why we cared about some simple hike, it was another highlight of the trip for us and we decided to take more of them on our long drives during the rest of our journey.
Our last meal in Lhasa was our best, at a restaurant called “Maji Ami” or “Makyeame” depending on what interpretation you make. It has a branch in Beijing which Arndt and Carmen had enjoyed before, and it was quite popular here and cozy as well. We were lucky enough to stake out the big couches around one table in the middle of the second floor of the restaurant, which is on Barkhor Street behind the Jokhang Temple overlooking the dutiful kora walkers. The food was Tibetan and creative at once. I recommend it, but try to avoid the spinach paneer.
A sunrise ride from Lhasa kicked off a marathon drive to Shigatse, Xizang Province’s second city. This was an all-day journey which included a couple of highly scenic stops. The first of these was an hour-long climb of over one kilometer altitude gain to look over another holy lake, Yamdrok, southwest of Lhasa. The overlook is at 4,800 meters, gazing over the shockingly blue lake 300 meters below. This place is crowded with tourists, though not as many as were entering Nam Tso as we left it. Hawks and touts offered pictures with yaks and mastiffs for several kuai. I let the force of the wind block the human clamor from my ears and contemplated the great valley behind me, the holy lake ahead.
We took a twenty-minute lakeside stop, which was even more crowded with touts and tourists. This was to be the theme of our trip for the day, but the lake was a great sight despite these annoyances.
Nagarze is, I believe, the name of the town where we lunched at a surprisingly affordable and tasty roadside restaurant. There was another group of Western travelers there; one of them was a German who has lived in Wuhan for eight years. Much more laoban (old hand) than I.
The highlight of the day was visible for a good two hours of the trip: Karola glacier. The road from Nagarze to Shigatse passes through a narrow and rugged mountain pass, such that over the course of 40 or so kilometers you can see three sides of the glacier. The necessary designated “scenic spot” gives one a view of the glacier from just under 5,000 meters, and there is a fantastic valley that rolls right up into the menacing rock face topped by the glacier. Karola tops out at over 7,100 meters. Adoun told us to spend only twenty minutes at this spot so we would not be late for Gyantse and finally Shigatse, but our general attitude to this was “hell no.”
There was an unusually thick litter of tourists at this bend in the road, and fully 98% of them were jostling for pole position at the scenic spot marker. Our eyes were firmly fixed beyond, at the fairy-land valley with its gushing glacial streams and faintly visible tribe of goats. We passed the shrill voices and “V” finger signs with the deliberate slowness of moonwalkers so as not to exhaust ourselves in the altitude. Just twenty meters past the marker, the exhaling glacial wind and the lively roll of newborn rivers drowned out any hint that there were human beings behind us. As we crested the corduroy rolls in the tight sea-green heather, the mountain and glacier changed from a scenic backdrop into a throne and a god straddled triumphant atop it. Characteristic of this incredible land, the valley was much longer and deeper than it appeared at first glance. Fifteen minutes of lumbering brought us to the lip of one of the streams, rolling with water that had been locked in ice less than ten minutes ago. The lone goat-herd tending his charge let me take a picture of him in exchange for five kuai. Like at Nam Tso, we gazed at a fundamental force of this planet where one of the major ingredients of life is ultimately drawn into utility.
We wished dearly that we did not have to leave so quickly, and we lingered probably twenty minutes too long for our restrictive agenda. Despite the short stop of less than forty minutes, the time spent in the valley at the foot of Karola glacier is among my top three experiences in Tibet.
The drive from Karola to Gyantse was pleasant. Much of this trip was characterized by green fields next to the Nyang River, through whose valley we traveled to Gyantse and then Shigatse. Gyantse is charming and deserves a whole day, but we regrettably had only a little over an hour to rush through its famous old monastery. Palcho Monastery boasts the largest Kumbum stupa in Tibet, a mandala-esque collection of chapels stacked atop one another. We zipped through as many of the chapels as we could, each with its own intricately decorated statue of this or that Buddha. Gyantse is also home to one of the most famous dzong, or hill fortresses, in Tibet. It used to be the capital of the most powerful king in the area before Tibet was united politically. Unfortunately we did not get to visit this dzong. Adoun demanded we rush through so we could reach Shigatse before 5 PM, when the police office would close – and our ability to legally stay in a Shigatse hotel would be curtailed until the next morning, when the office re-opened.
From Gyantse we rushed to Shigatse. We arrived just barely after 5 PM, but Adoun had some guanxi with the local police and so was able to get our permits stamped to approve us for a stay in Shigatse that night. Our original itinerary called for us to visit Sakya monastery 120 km west of Shigatse, but when we changed our Nam Tso itinerary we replaced it with the local Tashilhunpo Monastery. It was founded by the first Dalai Lama and is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas, the second-highest seat in the Gelukpa tradition. After seeing so many other monasteries and temples there was nothing special about this one, but I took some cool pictures.
That night we ate subpar Nepali food, watched Serbia beat Germany, and then watched the US tie Slovenia. We woke up at 06:00 to begin another day-long marathon drive, but were delayed for a half hour because both rooms had broken their toilet seats by simply sitting on them – this on top of the hot water not working. The hotel tried to force us to pay for them but we got out unscathed, to the consternation of Adoun. They were only asking for 60 kuai but, hey, that’s 60 kuai we didn’t deserve to pay.
Shannan and the Yarlung Valley
Another day-long drive with varied and captivating scenery led us to Shannan Prefecture. Our trip to Shigatse, ostensibly to just see one monastery, held fantastic roadside delights like Yamdrok lake, the Karola glacier and the small hikes we took. After a few hours of driving along the wide valley of the Yarlung Zangbo at this higher elevation, the valley narrowed to steep mountainsides hemming in the turquoise waters. I saw some large fish jumping out of the otherwise perfectly still waters, and small terraced green plots ribbed the cliffsides wherever the Tibetan farmers could shore them up.
When we found a sizable flat field next to the river, we asked the driver to pull over so we could check out the river from about 40 meters above its surface. We crossed the fencing meant to keep out animals and spent the next hour tossing large rocks down the cliff to see if they would reveal geodes when broken. Gege ably scrambled down the rock face until he touched the water. I regret not taking my camera to this relaxing and fun detour. Over four months had passed since I saw a scenic river, the Mekong in Laos. This time, we had the advantage of being totally alone and isolated from all sounds except the light breeze, the splash of the water against the rocks, and the light clacking produced by two Tibetans looking for geodes to sell to tourists.
Just fifteen or twenty kilometers east of here we stopped to eat and drink pot after pot of masala tea at the small, cozy Tao Hua Lin roadside restaurant. They had a large, clean and proper kitchen and the food was delicious. We stayed here for over an hour and a half eating one of the tastiest meals we had enjoyed in Tibet and relaxing on the seats, which were actually beds. Posters of Bollywood stars lined the walls. Adoun pointed out the cars with certain words and symbols written on them; they were “black taxis” that offered faster-than-speed-limit transport for Tibetans who paid a premium, most of which went to bribing the traffic police. Tibet has a ridiculous speed limit system which involves getting a stamp at checkpoints detailing the time, and if you reach the next checkpoint too soon you receive a fine. Thus, drivers simply drive until they are a kilometer or so away from the next checkpoint and pull off on the side of the road to wait until they are safe to check in again. Driving in Tibet, though not terribly crowded, seemed considerably less safe than driving in and around Beijing. The thin, winding roads and poor driving habits on downhill slopes are enough to make anyone white-knuckled at least once on their trip.
Later that afternoon as we entered Shannan Prefecture, whose capital Tsetang was to be the final home base of our Tibet trip, we asked the driver to pull off at an interesting series of dry ravines. The landscape here had changed from fertile greens and the steep valley cut by the Yarlung Zangbo to a thin green belt around the road, beyond which the land and mountainsides were arid – all of this a part of the South Tibet Valley which the Yarlung Zangbo has cut from the rock. These dry and dusty ravines cradled nary a trickle of water. Adoun was annoyed again, warning us about being late to Tsetang – “I don’t know anyone there to help us if we’re late!” – but we went with the intention of keeping a tighter schedule. We stayed out for an hour and fifteen minutes, a bit longer than we should have. Once we ducked into the mouths of the ravines, we could have been a hundred kilometers from any road as far as we knew. The dry air sucked the moisture from our mouths, I could only climb up the sides of the ravine in certain places to reach the gently sloping plateaus above. Gege, in his fashion, walked halfway up the mountain at the end of the ravine before turning back. At one part of the dry bed I passed a small pile of old clothes and broken bottles of baijiu, which I took to be an overnight camp for a few nomadic herdsmen. Somewhere at the end of the ravine I heard the bleating of a goat, but Swathish and I never found its source.
We made Tsetang in time to legally check into the Snow Pigeon Hotel. We had a few hours of daylight and nothing to do in the small city, so the gentlemen of the group decided to take a walk up the mountain that borders Tsetang’s east side. The walk to the base of the mountain took about twenty minutes, and the day was warm such that we were already sweating when we reached the base. As we approached the mountain, we heard some garage rock on our right, just across the stagnant river that runs through Tsetang’s central avenue. We could walk to the left and ascend the mountain, or we could cross the bridge to investigate the music’s source. Our decision was not hard.
In a small garage next to a large pile of construction materials and a dusty road, there rocked a group of young Tibetan punks and scenesters. They were high school age, and they thrashed on their guitars and beat on their drums in front of a small stack of amplifiers in a space just large enough to hold the amps against one wall, the drums against another, and a bed frame with a thin mattress framing the musicians’ basic stage, which faced out over the small road. Girls clad in ironic caps and flannel sat on the bed and listened to these guys playing some Beijing rock, which I recognized. When we four laowai came over to listen, the whole neighborhood started over to see us, forming a nice little audience of twenty or thirty people for this band. We bought some cold Lhasa beers to cool down from our walk and sat down to enjoy their open practice.
About thirty minutes after we sat down to relax at the table in front of the store next to their garage, one of the musicians beckoned for us to come over. In basic Chinese which I was barely able to understand and by gesturing at their instruments, they asked us to sing and play with them. Thus came Gege to play drums and I to sing with this teenage Tibetan garage band on the very few songs that they knew in English: Hotel California (unfortunately) and a few Guns ‘n Roses songs. The foreigners playing with the locals drew an even larger crowd in this, the Tibetan part of Tsetang, to crowd around the front of the garage and stare at us. Toddlers played in and around the gravel heap and massive plumbing pipes across the road. The store proprietor continued to bring us beers. It was amazing. The highlight, aside from playing with these locals, was that while I sang one of the women working nearby came up to me and laid a silky white khata scarf around my neck, eliciting a cheer from all of the locals. I felt so humbled; every tourist coming to Tibet gets one of these and it feels so trite, but here in the marginalized Tibetan section of Xizang Province’s third largest town it was offered to me as a sincere welcome.
When the songs we could mutually perform were exhausted, we four sat down at the storefront table again to enjoy some more beers and a few of the young Tibetans came to chat with us. They knew no English, and we only knew so much Chinese, but for the next two and a half hours I had my first real and substantive, if stilted, conversation in Chinese. We talked about music, who their favorite artists were, what the music scene was like in Tibet and what life in Tsetang was like for Tibetans. It was so interesting and valuable. I learned that the name of their band is “Zang” or 藏, as in “Xizang” for Tibet. They asked us to return the next night to play with them again, and we agreed; I also told them that we would draw up a list of Western artists they should listen to using google.cn/music (a fantastic free music download service which you can only use in mainland China).
We bid goodbye to Zang and their coterie of Sino-hipsters and hiked back to the hotel as the Sun dipped behind the western peaks. Despite our decision to trick Carmen into thinking we had hiked up the mountain she quickly discerned from the beer on our breath that it was unlikely. Dinner was a long and hearty affair at the hotpot restaurant across the street.
Our reasons for visiting Tsetang were to see Samye Monastery, the first monastery in Tibet, and then on the final day of our trip to see Yumbulagang, the legendary palace of the first king of Tibet. The drive to Samye took us on a dirt road over a mountain, and when we reached the town which the Chinese have hastily constructed to support tourism we all had to get out and walk part of the way because of a break in the pavement. Samye was different from all the other monasteries we had seen, in a good way; nay, a very good way. It was built in the late 8th century from a design by the Indian monk Padmasambhava, who was responsible for the spread of tantra-centric Tibetan Buddhism. It is much closer in style to Indian monasteries, as it was constructed before Tibet gained a local style of monastic architecture. The building is not original, of course, as is practically nothing in China, but it is still fascinating. The monastery is laid out in the style of a mandala, and there are stupas on each corner painted different colors and with different decorations. The art in the monastery is vivid and quite apart from the art in the other monasteries we visited; the overall effect of the whole site made me think that Miyamoto must have gotten at least some of his inspiration for The Legend of Zelda from this place even though he has probably never visited it. Unfortunately, taking pictures indoors required a several hundred RMB fee, which is a shame because some of the art inside was incredibly psychedelic. The veiled demon gods surrounded by paintings of grinning skulls was the most interesting. We had plenty of time to enjoy Samye’s interesting aura. I recommend it to anyone visiting Tibet, at the expense of most anything except Nam Tso.
There is a famous sky burial place near Samye that we expressed interest in seeing to Adoun. However, Adoun rejected our request because entering requires purchasing a ticket which we did not pay for in our tour agency fee, but also because it was not indicated on our entry permits. Just as he finished saying this, two plainclothes Chinese policeman came to Adoun and asked to see our entry permit to Tibet, and they checked that we were in Tibet legally, in Shannan legally, and were at Samye legally. All was well, but it is a serious damper on the independent, on-the-fly traveler when you have to determine everything you want to see before you can even enter the province.
On the way back to Tsetang we asked the driver to pull off next to the floodplain of the Yarlung Zangbo and we spent two hours walking and relaxing by the riverside. Arndt and Gege took off their shoes and stood a bit in the river, but it was bedded on quicksand. Just by standing there they began to sink in, and had to have help to get out. Swathish and I saw ducks dive under the water and come back up thirty seconds later.
On the way back to Tsetang we appeased Adoun by visiting a yak meat factory, which I dubbed the “yaktory.” Adoun explained to us earlier on the trip that tour guides in China make no money from any fees that tourists pay, and neither does the driver – all the money is made from commissions on visits to tourist stores. This is an awful system which has to die immediately, but Adoun had grown sour as the trip progressed because we turned down his requests to visit tourist traps like the Tibetan Medical University and a traditional Tibetan dinner performance. Yak meat was interesting though and we had nothing to do for the rest of the afternoon. We ate plenty of toothpick servings of yak meat cured in various spices and even candied in strange ways. We bought some packaged jerky and Adoun was happy when he took our receipts back to the tour guide cartel office to get his kickback. To clarify, Western tourists do pay a fee up front for the driver and the tour guide, but this system is foreign devilry to the Chinese. They expect everything to be extremely cheap, and thus the tourist stores are target at them.
That evening we returned to the garage where Zang rocked. They were setting up when we arrived at about 21:30, and they had told the whole neighborhood, so a healthy crowd of thirty or so locals showed up to hear the laowai sing and play again. We performed the same songs as the day before, and it was fun if short. There are videos, but Swathish has yet to upload them.
We slept for the last time in Tibet, ready to see our final sight the next day and then fly back to Beijing.
The next morning we made an early start since we had a plane to catch that afternoon. Yumbulagang Palace is only ten kilometers south of Tsetang on a promontory overlooking the Yarlung Valley, the ancient cradle of Tibetan civilization. Yumbulagang is the legendary palace of the first Tibetan king and all of his descendants until Songsten Gampo, the supposed 33rd in the Yarlung Dynasty and first king of a united Tibet, moved his court to Lhasa. It is not so over-touristed as other places, and though it is small and not especially interesting, the valley is beautiful and there are some nice walks if you have the time. After seeing the palace, we walked down to a sacred spring said to have curative properties. I washed my hands and face and drank its waters before I climbed up the hill behind it to get a better view of the valley. We descended then to our last lunch in Tibet.
We drove to the airport, paid the driver and Adoun their tips, and then got on the plane to Beijing which made us sad.
Tips, Tricks, Hints and Secrets
Tibet was a great experience and I am glad we got to do so much walking around instead of just seeing monastery after monastery. The biggest bummer is the inability of foreigners to plan their trips on the fly, instead having to plan it all out in advance. The experience of going through a tour agency further cramps one’s style. If I could have gone back and done the trip over, I would have done these things differently:
- Research hard, from travel blogs and articles and guidebooks and history books, every place you think you want to see before you get your permit. The best way to determine what is worth seeing is to ask people who have gone or read accounts like this one. Since you have to plan your itinerary out in advance, list all the things you want to see and then work out getting there with the tour agency, or if you are able…
- Don’t go through a tour agency. Now, every foreigner going to Tibet is legally required to get a special entry permit, and they are required to have a licensed tour guide and a driver for the duration of their stay – the permit has to stay with the guide and the guide has to register your stay in each new town. Furthermore you must receive different permits for the different counties in Xizang Autonomous Province. But the best way to do all of this is to find someone who had a good tour guide (I can’t recommend mine) and get their contact information so you can directly work out with that Tibetan tour guide a trip to Tibet. This will allow you to be a bit more flexible, will cost less money and produce less hassle. Taking this route is not always possible; I tried to do it and couldn’t get in touch with anyone in time, but if you can do it, it’s a great decision. As a further caveat, if you do not have a Chinese visa and need to get one to then go to Tibet, DO NOT tell the consulate that you want to enter China to see Tibet, if you do this they probably will not issue you a regular tourist visa. Just say you want to visit China and arrange the Tibet visa separately, when you’ve already arrived.
- Be wary of altitude sickness. Stop drinking caffeine one week before you leave for Tibet and hydrate well from that point all the way up through your return. Hydration and not exerting yourself are the key factors in staving off altitude sickness and having a better trip experience. The best way to do this is…
- Take the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. This is a necessity simply for the value of seeing the scenery, but also because it helps mitigate the effects of your rise in altitude. It’s much cheaper than taking a plane, which is REALLY expensive (the return flight doubled the price of my trip!) If you can, though, it would be even better to slowly ascend about 500 meters every two days, taking it slow on buses and such until you reach Tibet. If you do this, you should leave Tibet by the railway if you are staying in the PRC.
- Study up on Tibetan history. I knew absolutely nothing about it and I was bewildered by the names of different Buddhas, kings, counties and schools of Buddhism. Be educated and you can appreciate the experience more.
- Take random hikes like we did. Try to allow for more than one hour per stop. Tibet’s natural beauty is its paramount feature and it’s hard not to enjoy it. Ask your guide about this in advance.
- Don’t expect to be able to read on any car ride in Tibet. Drivers are terrible, the roads are winding, it just will not happen. But do take your own music; Chinese people have a terrible habit of putting the same song or disc on repeat for… well, for forever.
- If you see or do something cool, write about it like I did. I had a hard time finding a lot of detailed travel blogs on Tibet, which would have helped us so much when we were planning.
I close with a Chinese proverb I saw written on the wall of Lhasa Hostel: “To gain wisdom, you must measure the world with your own feet.”