Sunday, 5 June 2011

7 Days in Tibet

Our tour bus on the other side of the border was a lot better that I was expecting and considerably better than the Nepalese one. This was a great relief as we’d be spending a significant amount of time in it. Another great improvement to our comfort was the smooth tarmac, a product of Chinese road construction.

During the first full day on the Friendship Highway we drove past the most spectacular mountain scenery. As the road wound its way higher and higher we got views of Shishapangma (the world’s 14th highest mountain) shrouded in clouds. We crossed passes reaching 5200m, driving past remote Tibetan settlements, their squat black and white houses nestling into the desolate landscape.

At lunchtime we stopped for yak butter tea and noodles in a small village with views of Cho Oyu (the world’s 6th highest mountain) and there, in the distance, rose the summit of Mount Everest. And yet, despite the remoteness, Chinese development was evident. Mobile phone masts run by solar power and trunk road signs (including one that said Mt Everest this way!) had been built at regular intervals. However, the vastness of the landscape swallows these structures up and the mountains dominate the vistas.

We had to pass through check point after check point with the result that the drive took a total of 12 hours that day and some people got quite sick from the altitude. Our guide had oxygen at hand to ease the effects. That evening in Shigatse Steve, the Irish representative, said, “I’ve heard that drinking a lot helps with the effects of altitude, anyone for another beer?”

The following day the monastery marathon started. Over the next couple of days we visited every tourist approved monastery en route to Lhasa. A couple in particular stand out. Firstly, the huge monastery at Gyangze which is overlooked by an impressive fort. This fort was thought to be impenetrable by the Tibetans, but when British officer and ‘diplomat’ Sir Francis Younghusband conquered it at the turn of the 20th Century the Tibetans were so shocked that Younghusband then continued to Lhasa unchallenged. It is said that that Chinese walked into Tibet on the back of Younghusband. Sorry about that.

That evening in Gyangzi we were able to explore the town without our guide. A couple of us went to try to get a cup of tea and found a local cafĂ© which resembled a garden centre; a covered courtyard with potted plants everywhere. Without a menu in English we got across that we just wanted a cup of tea and were presented with a cup and a teabag. We spent a content couple of hours chatting and having our tea cup regularly topped up with hot water. When it was time to leave we couldn’t understand the bill - 250 RMB (about 25 pounds) for 5 cups of tea. Eventually we got to the bottom of it. We had gone to a teashop and asked for tea, like a millionaire going to a wine bar and asking for wine - the staff had given us the most expensive option on the menu – and then doubled the price for good measure. We eventually paid 2.50 pounds each and went for dinner. About 15 of us headed to a local restaurant for food and created much entertainment to the giggly waitresses. We had the usual rigmarole when sorting out the bill at the end. The discrepancy was due to a pot of butter tea that was ordered by mistake. After this we decided that we should avoid tea and just drink beer instead.

Another monastery which I found particularly interesting was the Sera monastery in Lhasa. Outside in a gravel courtyard, in the shade of large, leafy trees we were able to watch the monks debating. In pairs or small groups over 200 monks debated Buddhist philosophy having read the scriptures that morning. The monks sitting cross legged on the ground proposed a question whilst the standing monks answered, defending their point of view with passion and humour, culminating with a loud clapping of the hands.

Driving into Lhasa any romantic images of the city evapourate instantly. Three lane roads with speed cameras and huge shopping malls indicative of any Chinese city dominate the cityscape, but the Potala Place is still as impressive as ever and hidden away the Jokhang Temple was interesting, especially in the evening.

We stayed in the delightful traditional Trichang Labrang Hotel close to the Jokhang Temple. When not on monastery tour duties we were free to wander around Lhasa. Taking in the atmosphere it had a feeling of a city under occupation. Soldiers were posted on every corner, there were police in Robocop-style riot gear, shields and batons at the ready and arms guards stood at monastery entrances. There was a distinct feeling of being watched. However the only person who approached us in the park near the Potala Place was a monk wanting a photo with James.
 Tibet vistas
Typical monastery

The fort at Gyansi

Steve (Ireland), Louise (Australia), Me and Mauro (Brazil) 

Monastery building

Black noses from being blessed.

 Monks debating

1 comment:

  1. Hi, would you recommend any agency to hire this tour? Me and my girlfriend are planning to do it, but we want to have the long permits you mentioned (30days), so we can follow our trip to China at least 20 more days ...
    Would you recommend any agency?
    Thank you very much! all the information in your blog is really helpful!
    Felipe and Mari (Brazil)