LHASA | TIBET
I FELT A GROWING SENSE OF EXCITEMENT AS I BOARDED THE TRAIN TO TIBET. HERE IT WAS : A LAND STEEPED IN MYSTERY AND INTRIGUE, A COUNTRY THAT FELT AS CUT OFF FROM THE REST OF THE WORLD AS THE BLIZZARD WHIPPED PEAKS OF THE HIMALAYAS. THIS WAS A REAL CHALLENGE.
The train carriages themselves didn’t look too different from the regular Chinese sleepers – open plan bunks. There were differences if you looked hard enough, such as the oxygen outlet fitted behind every bed. As we were traveling on the world’s highest railway I guess you can’t be too careful. I’d no idea how to actually operate it if I needed to. The instructions were in Chinese. Oh, and the fact that the train carriages themselves looked like reinforced military grade nightmares designed by the Incredible Hulk. The carriages are pressurized, just like airplane cabins. Sweet.
Everyone had a form to fill in once on board. Again, this form was entirely in Chinese. I must have cut a pretty pathetic and confused looking figure because I soon got help from the girl in the bunk across from me who helped me fill it in. That was just before the first of several visits from my over-friendly train conductor, a stern no nonsense uniformed figure whose face lit up the moment she saw me. I handed her my completed form and she looked at it, and me, like a loving grandmother beaming over an “A+” school report. Then she began ruffling my hair and beard, much to the amusement of everyone else in the carriage. This became the norm. Every once in a while she would do her rounds, stop and fondle my face for a minute, make a hilarious but indecipherable comment, and continue on her way. After a while I asked my friend just what the hell she was saying. “She say you so handsome….because you so hairy!” More laughing. I settled back into bed, stroking my beard, content with my new found sex symbol status among menopausal Chinese train conductors.
The view of the Tibetan plateau was pretty barren for the most part. Every so often the brown hills would part and you’d be offered a glimpse of the snow capped Himalayas and the excitement would return. A few hours from Lhasa the train ran parallel to the highway on which hundreds of Chinese troop carriers were making their way into Tibet. I later learned it was a “change over”. Troops that had been stationed there for months were now heading home and these were the replacement garrisons.
Lhasa train station wasn’t what I expected. It’s a small but very modern looking building just outside the town centre. My travel agency was late to pick me up. Due to bad weather flights into Lhasa were delayed, and they were running all over the city picking people up at different times. I had booked an 8 day tour with a Tibetan tour company (PM me if you’re interested in the name – I’d highly recommend them). Like I’d mentioned in a previous post, traveling into Tibet isn’t straightforward. Access is tightly controlled by China and the rules and regulations are constantly changing with the political climate. Luckily for me the rules were uncharacteristically relaxed when I was applying. I needed a Chinese visa obviously but also a Tibet Travel Permit from a licensed travel agency with whom I’d booked my tour. Independent travel was forbidden, you must be on a registered guided tour. The agency advised me when I was applying for my Chinese visa not to reveal I would be leaving China via Tibet. Book a refundable ticket to Hong Kong or somewhere,they said, don’t tell them anything about Tibet. Once the lie was complete I was free to travel, my wallet and conscience as empty as my soul. I had emailed a scan of my passport page and visa and the agency replied with the permit. This is what I could use to buy my train / plane ticket to Lhasa. In all, the whole thing went surprisingly smoothly. I’d heard horror stories about permits being refused because of bizarre temporary rules, rules such as there had to be at least three other people of your nationality in your group, sometimes five.
I think I was the first to arrive at our hotel so I went for something to eat – a yak steak in curry sauce. It was a little tough but seeing as it was the first real meal after another 33 hours on the Hulk Train, it felt like there was a party in my mouth. I went to bed after having a bizarre pitch black meeting with my room buddy Mike in the middle of the night. I could only hear his voice, so I assumed he was American. It was surprising to wake up the next morning with a Korean dude in the bed across from me instead. How long had I been asleep? Was I even still in Tibet?
Mike was born in Korea but adopted by an American family. I learned this the next day along with other things about the people I’d be traveling with with. We had an interesting and varied bunch with folks from England, US, Korea, Argentina, Vietnam, Malaysia and even a girl from Russia who taught belly dancing to kids. Kids shouldn’t belly dance, so we argued about this a lot.
We left the town and headed up to a small monastery nestled in the hills. Here after side stepping a herd of donkeys we got our first taste of Tibetan Buddhism. The entire mountain was draped in colourful prayer flags and the cute little red buildings had painted white and yellow windows. The paint reminded me of the old white-wash used back home in rural Ireland. The shrines were dark, illuminated only by flickering candles and decorated with painted wooden statues of the Buddha in their various forms. Back in town we dropped in to some of the larger monasteries such as Gelugpa Sera monastery where we sat back and watched the monks debating Buddhist scripture. It was quite fun to watch. One monk would stand up, slapping his hands together every time he made a point or refuted an argument. Then another one stood up and so on. Definitely a lot more polite than “arguments” back home. Usually the slapping involves the other persons face. Soon the courtyard resounded with the sounds of slapping, it was almost like a large scale Three Stoges routine.
The next day saw us entering the incomparable Potala Palace. This thirteen story, 1,000 room palace was the residence of the Dalai Lama from the 17th century until their exile to India in 1959. It also contains the stuppa, or tombs of the previous Dalai Lamas. It’s situated in old town Lhasa on top of a hill known as the Red Mountain. The building itself resembles a mountain – an enormous white avalanche of an edifice looms over you as you walk up the winding cobble steps. According to legend copper was even poured into its foundations to protect it against earthquakes. Pictures are forbidden inside, which is a shame. There is a central prayer hall which contains huge hangings and tapestries, the light filters down through the small windows above and just out of the corner of your eye are the alcoves containing the bejeweled golden tombs of the previous spiritual leaders of Tibet. I walked inside, alone momentarily, and it was quite a surreal experience. The structure is so large it’s actually divided in two. The White Palace contains the living quarters of the Dalai Lama while the Red Palace was devoted to prayer.
A short journey from the Palace is the center of Tibetan Buddhism, The Jokhang Temple. The ancient name for Jokhang meant “House of Mysteries” which is something I’ve been contemplating for my own house. It was built by Tibetan King Songtsan Gampo to house important Buddhist statues brought to him by his wives from China and Nepal. It’s especially important for Budhhists as they believe one of the statues to have been blessed by the Buddha himself. A religious equivalent of a author signing his own book I presume. You must remember to follow the correct line of prayer through the temple. Enter and turn left, making a clockwise circle. Also, when given a prayer scarf don’t wear it like a football scarf. It’s disrespectful. I won’t do that. Again. Outside when trying to take a group picture in Bakhor Square we encountered the first of the Chinese imposed restrictions – no more than ten people can gather publicly at a time. The security guard obliged by taking the picture, on the requirement that our group of eleven split up immediately afterwards. We stuck it to the man by agreeing and apologising. Hey I’ve seen Banged Up Abroad. I bet the Tibetan version is brutal.
That night we were treated to a Tibetan folk music and dance show. The show consisted of various costumes and dances, a few of which were accompanied by a Yak which danced like someone lit a fire under its ass. After the show a few of us wandered around old town Lhasa in search of more beer. One thing that struck me, for such an old city replete with amazing traditional Tibetan buildings they had the coolest and most futuristic lamp posts I’d ever seen. Strange the random details that stick in your mind. We landed at the top floor of a bar which was decorated like a tent with Buddhist wheels woven into the roof. They also had Lhasa beer. So we stayed.
Morning arrived with us leaving Lhasa in the rear view mirror. Our destination was Gyanste about seven hours away, it’s home to the largest Stuppa in Tibet – the Kumpa, or Ten Thousands Stuppa. But first we stopped at the beautiful Yamdrok lake. It is believed this lake was created by the transformation of a goddess making it one of the holiest lakes in Tibet. Here we jumped up on some yaks and donned some furry hats for pictures. There were three yaks here, two were mild and pleasant while the other looked like it was one more tourist away from going postal. “Don’t go near that one!” one of the handlers yelled “It will hole you!” Why is it even here then? Surely that’s an insurance nightmare waiting to happen.
Despite Lhasa already being at 12,00 feet in altitude, we continued to climb. That evening we crossed a road passing by the Karola glacier which was over 18,000 feet. Things were getting a little whoozey inside the head. Altitude sickness was something I was warned extensively about before I came to Tibet. I’d had been completely unaffected until now. I didn’t feel sick, nor was I in any pain, just a slight lightheaded feeling, like when you realise you’re getting drunk.
Shigatse, our destination the next day, is the second largest city in Tibet. It is the home of the Panchen Lama, a figure a Tibetan buddhism second only to the Dalia Lama. The huge monastery here, Tashilhunpo Monastery, is like a town in itself. Once you leave the relative safety of the donkey riding merchants out front you descend into a maze of cobble stones and white washed alleyways. It is also home to Tibet’s largest Buddha statue at almost 27 meters high. While we were doing our best Pacman impressions inside the maze of religion (with angry monks as ghosts), our guide was away to secure our permits to visit Everest Base Camp. When news reached us they had been secured I got a little shiver of excitement.
Before we set out on the road to Everest the next morning we stopped at Shegar Dzong Monastery. Old and a little dilapidated, while dangling from the side of a cliff, it stuck in my mind as a stereotypical windswept Tibetan monastery. If only it wasn’t July and the middle of summer we could have got a bit of snow swirling around it and filmed a movie here. It was a lot of fun to wander around inside. The monks allowed us to take pictures in the prayer halls (off limits in other monasteries) and I even discovered the Tibetan latrine, basically a hole in the floor dropping down into the valley below. A nice reminder that holy men are still human at the end of the day, but I doubt it’s the kind of gift from heaven the people below were looking for. Despite seeing a lot larger and fancier monasteries in my time here the smaller and more remote Shegar remains one of my favourites. A lot of the monastery’s buildings higher up the mountain were destroyed during China’s cultural revolution,an unfortunate event, the results evident in many places I’d seen in Tibet already.
Tomorrow is the big day. Everest. Maybe we’ll see a yeti after all. Like a kid on Christmas eve I can barely close my eyes. We are all praying for clear skies and diarrhea free colons.
Next time: The big one. Everest. No diarrhea.