Known as the rooftop of the world for its extreme elevation, and also renowned as the home of Buddhism, I was very excited to visit Tibet as part of my big trip to China. I have to say that nothing about my time in Tibet disappointed. The landscape is breath-taking and the culture fascinating. It was also quite eye opening to see how exactly Tibet is run by the Chinese government.
While the Chinese government will tell you that Tibet is part of China, you need a whole other visa to visit Tibet, in addition to your valid Chinese visa. While people from mainland China and Hong Kong can travel to Tibet freely, foreign travellers need to apply for a special visa through a registered tourist company, as independent travel within the region is not allowed.
You will need this visa to even get on a plane or train to Tibet, and if you leave the capital of Lhasa, it will also be checked regularly by Chinese police to ensure that you are meant to be there.
Our Tibet travel agent was based in Chengdu, so we made our way there to start our trip. We had the option of jumping on a plane, or taking the scenic Qinghai-Tibet train. The train is said to be beautifully scenic, and the slow climb in altitude is also said to help travellers adjust. However, the train takes 40 hours and we wanted time to explore Chengdu, so we got on the plane, which deposited us in the territory’s capital, Lhasa.
While in Lhasa, we stayed in the Tashitagke Hotel, also known as the Yak Hotel, which is located pretty much right in the centre of all the main historic sites in the city, all of which were in easy walking distance. The hotel was chosen by our tour company rather than us, but I can higly recommend it. The rooms were comfortable, and the buffet breakfast on teh rooftop terrace excellent. We did have to walk up at least two flights of stairs to get to our room. That sounds like nothing, but at the altitude, it was killer with our bags.
When we came back after our forat outside the city, the hotel must have been full as we spent at night at the House of Shambhala, which was very close by and also very good. I would stay that it was more stylish than the first hotel, but that the service wasn’t quite as good.
We also met fellow travellers who stayed at the Lhasa Badacang Hotel, and they raved about it. I think that it was more geared towards western guests than the two hotels we stayed in, and so had all the creature comforts that this couple were accustomed to.
Where to stay:
Upon landing we were met by our guide Sonam and some other travelers who we would be touring with for the next ten days. We jumped in a minibus to take us to central Lhasa, and as we pulled into the city one of the girls on the tour commented how large the city was – this seemed strange to me after being in some of China’s biggest cities, 300,000 people vs the 1.5 million in Chengdu, and no buildings were more than a couple of stories high.
We were released into the city that evening before the tour officially began the following morning – so food and markets! At the markets my brother’s fiance bought a prayer wheel. She started to play with it and the stall keeper stopped her in horror – it must only be turned clockwise! We also tried some famous Tibetan dried yak cheese – utterly, utterly disgusting!
We finished the evening by heading to the Potala Palace and taking some pictures from the square across the road. You had to go through airport like security to get into this area – quite strange. After taking some photos we decided to join a constant but not crowded stream of people circumnavigating the palace, it took maybe an hour. All around the palace are prayer wheels that people spin as they make their pilgrimage. A couple of young boys followed us most of the way around, and we were pretty freaked out as Sonam had given us the obligatory warning about pick pockets etc. on the ride from the airport. Eventually we got the courage to confront them, and in broken Chinese determined that all they really wanted was a photo, but were too shy to ask. we had already experienced being photo attractions in China, this was only likely to be more so in Tibet.
I really liked the vibe of the architecture in Lhasa, kind of an eastern take on traditional Italian architecture. The people were also fascinating – I love the Tibetan clothing and especially jewelry! In the streets there was a mix of classic Tibetan and modern Chinese. There were times in China that you could have someone on one side of you in all the latest designer clothes, iPhone in hand, and someone on the other side in the basics squatting in the middle of the street eating rice, looking like they belonged to the time of the of communist regime. To be fair, it only ended in the 1980s, so very much within living memory.
We had been warned about altitude sickness, but I fared fine throughout the journey. The first set if stairs was a shock though, because of the altitude it felt like climbing with someone sat on your shoulders! The next morning the others were feeling unwell – apparently a symptom of the altitude. Some people recommend getting the train into Tibet rather than flying to give you a chance to acclimate to the altitude, but some of the others in our group did this and it didn’t seem to help them. Interestingly the altitude sickness hit the Chinese in the group more than the westerners. I wonder why that is.
Our guided visit to Tibet officially began that morning with our first official trip to the Potala Palace – this time we were going inside, where, unfortunately, you cannot take pictures. I say unfortunately, but I must say I am not one of those people who likes to take a picture of everything I’ve seen, I like to spend time absorbing, and so the no camera rule did take a bit of the pressure off and let me relax. Anyway, we had to climb 130 meters of stairs to the entrance. The group was a bit worried about this, but Sonam set a leisurely pace, stopping to point things out and tell stories, a strategy clearly developed from experience to get us all to the top in one piece. I say this in jest, but as we were leaving the palace we saw a western woman receiving CPR. This seemed to go on forever, which is not a good sign, and eventually the man delivering the CPR walked away. Someone in his group caught his attention and he just shook his head grimly. It is scary to think that person probably died from the sudden change in pressure on their body. As we watched, Sonam told us that in Tibet they used to practice Sky burials, cutting the body up into tiny pieces that the vultures would take away, completely eliminating the body. Apparently it is now illegal, but some of the very wealthy still have the ceremony.
The Potala Palace itself was full of shrines to the gods – there were so many that they are difficult to distinguish in my memory. Each shrine was surrounded with piles of money, given as offerings. There were also many monks throughout the building going about their business. The place was busy, and there was a lot of ‘queue walking’, but apparently it is a lot less busy now as fewer Tibetans come because they must now pay to enter. My favourite concept that I was introduced to at Potala was the divine trinity of past, present and future (think Dickens).
We split up for lunch and we went to Lhasa Kitchen, a pretty well-known restaurant near the market. We had fried Yak dumplings, Tibetan meat stuffed bread, some naan and a chicken curry – it was all delicious. Unlike yak’s cheese, I can recommend yak meat.
After lunch was the Jokhang Temple. We went in the afternoon as use of the temple is divided, with locals coming in the morning, and tourists able to enter in the afternoon. Outside there were big incense burners and a small shrine full of candles that people lit for the dead. In Tibetan tradition that treat the spirit as present for 49 days, and then it goes off to heaven or hell. The temple was also surrounded by people praying lying down and prostrating themselves, and then standing up, again and again (they kind of looked like they were doing a yoga sun salutation). As well as doing this in large groups in front of the temple, some people did this moving around the temple, completing circumnavigating it while prostrating themselves Sonam suggested to us that he believed prayer to be an effective healing practice. He said at some point he had a stomach ache for some time and no medicine would work, and then a monk told him to prostrate himself around the temple, he did, and he was cured. It was strange to think of someone who came across as having a very modern world view believing this, but maybe that’s me showing my ignorance.
Sonam explained that this temple was built on this site in the 7th century, where there used to be a lake, as a king threw his crown into the lake and a rainbow appeared, which was apparently a good omen. He also explained that the location of the temples is very important, as the land of Tibet is seen as a demon, and the role of the temples to hold him down.
He also explained that many of the sculptures we saw appeared ‘naturally’ (something he referred to several times throughout the trip) and were not man made (I guess like people say the Turin shroud is ‘natural’). One of the main statues in this temple was a healing statue, discovered naturally, and brought to the temple by a Nepali wife of a king. Interestingly, statues of the men who carried the statue were placed in the temple alongside it. Linked to this, this temple has Nepali architecture, distinct from that of the Potala Palace. It was very beautiful, but many of the wall and ceiling decorations were blackened, damaged from the smoke from butter candles used as offerings.
The main concept I remember from this experience was learning about the trinity of Llamas (trinities clearly a common religious theme): the Dalai Llama who embodies wisdom, the Panchen Llama who is peace, and the Karmapa Llama who embodies anger. We also learnt about the god, ubiquitous in temples and market stalls, wearing a crown of skulls – young children are taken to see him to banish bad dreams, he scares them off.
The temple is in the neighbourhood of the Barka Street markets, which we also explored that afternoon. That evening we went to a place called Dunya for dinner, a westernish place owned by a Dutch ex-pat. We did speak about how exciting it would be to own the ex-pat place in a town like Lhasa. We had their famous Yak burgers, which were only OK, a bit under-seasoned and overcooked.
After dinner we went back to the Potala Palace as we heard that there was some kind of evening fountain display on in the square across the way each night, which we missed on the previous evening. It was quite spectacular. The fountains and the music was beautiful, but more so was the people coming together to dance and sing. One of the things I loved about China was how people come together in public spaces, something that is sadly missing in the west.
The next morning we rose early to head to nearby Drepung Monastery about an hour’s drive from Lhasa. It is nestled among mountains, and I can completely understand how being in these locations could encourage a clam, meditative outlook on life! Drepung was also our first introduction to toilets outside Lhasa. With even less ‘to them’ than the public toilets in China, we are talking a whole in the ground with barely a wall for privacy!
Again we had to climb quite a few stairs to get to the monastery, and the way was paved with prayer wheels spun by the devout – Sonam explained that there are little votives inside. As we climbed we could see the hill side dotted with decorated rocks featuring the founder of the temple and his two disciples. There was also some massive red scaffolding on which they hang a giant Thangka image once a year.
The monastery itself was actually relatively new, restored after it was largely destroyed in 1959. It looks quite similar to the Potala Palace, and it was both the home of the Dalai Llama and administrative centre before the Potala Palace was built. The place was full, and I mean full, of gold. Hundreds of statues made from mud and pained with gold minerals. Here I learnt that the god of wisdom has a sword at one shoulder and a book at the other. Also, if you buy a statue to go in your household shrine, it must be taken to a monastery where the monks pray over it for three days – otherwise it is just a statue…
The temple contained a small chapel to the god of knowledge – which appeared ‘naturally’ – and as you went past a monk tapped you twice on the back with a blunt sword to bless you. Nearby was a small hole in the wall which people queue up to walk towards with their eyes closed and their finger outstretched. If your finger goes in the hole your wish will come true – I missed.
For lunch we went to a local Chinese restaurant. Most of the restaurants we went to on our travels outside Lhasa were Chinese szechuan places – they seem to have a monopoly on the market. We had yak dumplings, potato jewels, dried yak’s cheese (well not me, but others were keen), soup with mini dumplings, cabbage soup, mushroom rice, deep fried egg plant radish, spinach, bright green veg, some fried meat, a corn dish, tomato and egg. They were still bringing out food when I was so full I thought I would explode!
In the afternoon we headed to the Sera Monastery. This place is famous for monk training, and you can watch the monks debate at 3pm every day (commercialising their assets, like we do in the museums). One monk sits on the floor and answers questions posed by a standing monk, who uses a series of proscribed gestures to lead the conversation. One clap is a caution, two claps means that you are wrong.
Making the most of our last evening in Lhasa before heading further afield, we went back to Dunya for drinks, Lhasa kitchen for yak momo (dumplings), and the Potala Palace for the fountain display.
Where to Stay in Lhasa
We ventured out of Lhasa for the next phase of our trip, which involved heading to Everest base camp, and seeing the sites on the way. We had an early morning start on the minibus to Shigatse, leaving at 8am and arriving at about 1pm for an overnight stay. Part of the reason it took so long is that there are strict speed limits, monitored by check points. Sometimes our driver would just pull up on the side of the road 100 metres from the checkpoint and wait for enough time to have passed to go through. Our passports and visas were also regularly checked at these stations by Chinese police.
For lunch after arriving in Shigatse we had yak burgers – in fact double yak burgers – they were juicy and delicious and I definitely got what the fuss was all about!
After lunch we went to the local temple, founded by the Dalai Llama and gifted to the Penchant Llama. Here there were lots of murals showing the different stances for meditation, teaching, concentration and listening. I have found that the way you hold yourself can influence how you feel, so found this concept engaging. I am also enamored by the idea of meditation to calm my mind, but have never found the patience. I find capoeira meditative, in that I clear my mind and just play, but that is another story.
After the monastery we wandered the streets, hitting the local market and going into a few supermarkets where bulk buy was the order of the day. We had dinner at the restaurant and found all the Tibetans gathered there watching the daily soap! We had a brief chat with Sonam there and he told us that for breakfast Tibetans basically eat flour mixed with water, though he did not recommend it if your stomach was not accustomed.
Here we stared at the 7Days Inn, again chosen by the tour company rather than us. It was pretty basic and uninspiring, but did the job considering how tired we were after a day on the road.
The following day was dedicated to driving in order to get to Everest base camp. I didn’t mind sitting in the minibus, the scenery is beautiful and I listened to audiobooks – a revelation for me in terms of walking and running – or chatting with the group. We left Shigatse at 730am and arrived at 630pm, again slowed by the enforced speed limits. The final 100km was the worst, as the roads were very bad so we must have not got above 20km per hour the whole way!
Every time we stopped – for the bathroom, food, to look at a market stall, take pictures – we were surrounded by children who would ask us for money, that we studiously ignored as instructed. However, at one of these stops we were all distracted by two tiny, gorgeous kittens, but one of the group pointed out, a malnourished looking child we studiously ignored, kittens, wow! It is complicated. It is clear that the children have been trained to beg, and they may be better off than they seem, but it is difficult when you know how well off you are compared to them.
As we watched the landscape through the windows the thought occurred to us all that it would have been amazing to have this as your playground. But the villages we passed seemed very old fashioned, without running water, electricity or many of the other things we take for granted. Also, the landscape was marred by electricity poles, and also rubbish, just everywhere. Sonam said that people just throw things out of their cars. He said that the government will crack down on this with CCTV, which in theory seems like a good thing, but none of us like the idea of the government, any government, looking over our shoulders.
We arrived at Everest base camp around 630pm and got straight on the bus that takes you up to the main site. The skies were clear, and there was no guarantee that they would be in the morning, so we seized the opportunity (despite being tired from the day of bumpy sitting). I was ever so slightly underwhelmed. The location is set up for tourists – they drive you up about 5km in the bus and deposit you on a platform to take pictures – it just didn’t feel like an accomplishment.
At the bottom of the camp we stayed in a big tent, run by some lovely Tibetan folk: they spoke little English but were very communicative and kind. Some of the group needed to take oxygen because the high altitude was causing them nausea and headaches. Sonam said that if anyone got really bad we would have to jump in the bus and stay at a hotel further down, but luckily this didn’t happen (I say luckily, but despite feeling fine a few times I thought a hotel would be nice…). There were two huge oven fires in the tent to keep it warm, and it was stifling, though I was also grateful. When we went to bed, under many layers of blankets that in fact felt a little crushing, the women who ran the place said that at midnight I would need to hide under the covers as the police came around and checked that there were not too many people staying in any tent. I don’t know what happened in the end as I was fast asleep.
I will say that the toilets at Everest were the worst that I had encountered in Tibet. They were uncovered decks on stilts, which the rain had warped so they looked unstable, and under each whole the pile of ‘use’ was so high you could touch it from the deck. Just awful, but needs must.
We woke at around 730am to hopefully see the peak again, but it was cloudy, so we were grateful that we had gone up the night before to get the best view. The reverse of the long journey of the day before started at 8am, which would get us back to Lhasa, via Shigatse, the following evening.
On the way back down we picked up a kid who needed dropping off. The poor thing, probably because of the very bumpy ride, was sick all over the floor of the bus! It seemed that he was ill a few times before anyone noticed, as he was too shy to get anyone’s attention, I felt terrible for him!
It was only on this return journey that we finally stopped at a Tibetan restaurant (rather than a Chinese one). In addition to the momo and other wonderful dishes we had been introduced to in Lhasa, we had our first taste of Tibetan bread – kind of oily (in a good way) and just fluffy and divine.
We also stopped at the Gyantse Kumbum, an extensive series of chapels dedicated to the various gods.
We also stopped at a large dam formed by glacier waters that were the most amazing green!
Usually on these organised tours, Everest base camp is the last stop, and I can see why. It is such an amazing highlight it is hard to imagine what you would want to do next. But after a night in Lhasa we headed for Lake Namsto. At the start of the journey I was struggling, but it was amazing.
We spent most of the trip speaking with our guide Sonam, finding out more about him and Tibetan culture. He told us that he had been a guide for 9 years, and before that had worked for an NGO, but that the organisation had left Tibet in 2008.
He is from the lower altitude region in the East. In the country side people just build homes and it is accepted that they own them. In Lhasa you have to buy them, making it very difficult. He did say that all houses have toilets in Lhasa, while in the villages there are public bath houses. In the East is it common for brothers to marry the same woman, so he has 5 fathers, who are all brothers, and so they can only guess which is their real father based on looks! He now lives in Lhasa with his wife, two small children, his mother and one of his siblings: in their small place he shares a room with his wife, his mother shares a room with the children and his sibling sleeps on the couch. In Lhasa there is a limit of two children, but this is not applied in the countryside and he has 16 siblings! He is the oldest of his siblings and learnt English and Chinese at school, and then improved it working at the NGO. He said that they learn Buddhism at school, which starts at 7am and ends at 6pm but, they go home for lunch. He had to take a test to become an authorised guide and allowed to take groups like ours beyond Lhasa. You have to take the test before you are 35. His wife works for the same travel agent, but in the office making permits. The longest he has been away from home is 49 days!
Lake Namsto was a Utopia! The waters were fantastically blue and it was so big that it touched the horizon. It felt like a peaceful place. When we arrived we walked around part of the lake, the shores of which were populated by rocks and cave formations. There is one particular rock formation which you can climb to get amazing views of sunrise and sunset – we did both (of course)!
The region also carried some concerns. There were literally hundreds of stray dogs wandering the lake. They traveled in packs, which was scary, but of course it was fine. In the evening we did hear some dogs barking and children screaming, but I imagine that, like us, they were just afraid.
We stayed in a small hut on stilts, which was very, very, cold. And we found a mouse in our bed in the middle of the night. It was really rather cute, but the ruckus it caused was slightly hilarious.
We headed back to Lhasa to finish our trip, visiting our favourite food haunts and revisiting the markets and the Potala Palace. It was such a beautiful place, and the people were so kind and wonderful that I wanted to want to stay there forever, but I was ready to return to civilisation.