Existing Member?

No Worries 'Mas o Menos' 2 years on the road, travelling South East Asia, China, South & Central America and who knows where after that... Photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dojo77/collections/

On Top of the World

CHINA | Friday, 30 October 2009 | Views [3764] | Comments [2]

Travelling to the “roof top of the world” wasn’t one of the easiest decisions we’ve made. It’s a place of constant religious and political tension, so the Tibet ‘story’ is a fascinating one. China has always considered Tibet to be part of its Empire, but the Tibetans with their own language, distinct way of life and religion have always, on some level, fought Chinese occupation. In the early 20th century the Tibetans enjoyed a period of de facto independence, until the 1950’s when the Chinese decided to liberate the Tibetans from their supposed poverty and feudal lifestyle. Many Tibetans view this as a destruction of their culture and heritage and tensions continue to run high many years later.

For a budget traveller Tibet is an expensive place to visit because you need a special permit to visit the region on top of a Chinese visa. The only way to obtain this permit is to sign up to a tour with a private guide, driver and car to get you around. You’re not allowed to travel independently, which we have become used to, so choices are restricted. So, why go to all this trouble when you can just fly across Tibet to get to the sub-continent? Hopefully this blog will answer those questions for you :)

Having met a pair of Perthites looking to do the same journey at the same time while in Laos, we teamed up with Catie and Lindsay to cross the Tibetan wilderness together. (Yes, Lindsay is a man’s name too you know!)

The Qinghai - Tibet Railway

was completed in 2006 and is a massive feat of engineering. It’s the highest railway in the world and includes sections of land that have to be frozen all year round to support the track. The journey was 25 hours and extra oxygen is piped in to cope with the altitude climb that peaks at 5100m high.

However, it’s not a great idea to crack open a beer at this altitude as the gas can’t wait to rush out, as the boys soon discovered! Vast plains and snow capped mountains lined the route along with ice flowing rivers.

The track also passes by the highest freshwater lake in the world

and some of the remotest train stations in the world, including a poor guard who had to stand on duty for 30 mins while the train was restocked and he didn’t move an inch!

We arrived in Lhasa late at night and were met by our guide for the week, Chong La, an adorable 20 year old keen to use her English to teach us about her culture. I did feel guilty for travelling to Tibet by the train as it felt intrusive arriving at a huge concrete station that is obviously out of place for Tibet, but it’s the most sensible way to travel there for altitude reasons.


Our itinerary for Lhasa covered the main temples and monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism. The timeless Jokhang temple in the Barkhor district of town was a blast to the senses. The kora is packed with pilgrims walking clockwise around the temple with prayer wheels and beads in hands, chanting mantras to themselves, all wearing amazing traditional outfits. The front of the temple was full of pilgrims prostrating themselves on the ground over and over again, in what is considered the spiritual centre of Tibet.

There were many more pilgrims queuing outside because a local Lama had passed away four days before, so people were praying for the peaceful passing of his soul. Inside, the temple was full of small, individual chapels. We were not allowed to take any pictures inside but even a picture couldn’t capture the smell of the yak butter candles, the burning incense, the sound of chanting, drums beating, horns blowing, people pushing past with handfuls of small currency to give as offerings, trying to touch columns with their foreheads, reaching out to encased Buddhas to pray for family and loved ones. The atmosphere was intense but so peaceful and we felt honoured to witness this. No photo could ever show what it actually feels like to be inside a temple of this importance to the Tibetans.

We headed to the roof top area to get some perspective of the temple and that’s where we caught our first glimpse of the famous Potala Palace.

The military presence was a stark contrast. Chinese troops marched around the narrow cobblestone streets in groups of 6 and pairs of soldiers observed from roof tops. The night before we could only drive near to our hotel and had to walk some way because the soldiers block off roads in the Tibetan district to quash disturbances and protests, which last occurred in 2008.

At the Sera monastery we witnessed the Monks’ debating court, where they smack their hands together and point to someone to answer a question, it’s very vocal and exciting and they have to answer the question correctly or they quickly get shouted at!

Norbulingka was the Summer Palace retreat of the Dalai Lama. The grounds contain temples each containing thrones with the outfits of the Dalai Lama’s that used to sit there. One temple contains sedans and carriages offered to the Dalai Lama as gifts, including one from Queen Elizabeth 2. There is also a small tricycle just visible under one carriage, which we discovered ,from the monk who looks after the collection, was a birthday gift to the 14th Dalai Lama from his English teacher when he was 7 years old, our guide didn’t realise this and you could see how special it was for her to be so close to one of his possessions.

The 14th (current) Dalai Lama built a new palace within the grounds in the early 1950’s, and it still contains the furniture he used and the clock on the stairway is stopped at 9 o clock, the time he had to leave the palace to flee Tibet in 1959 as the Chinese were going to kidnap him. It’s a beautiful building but so quiet and as our guide said, ‘it’s a place full of beautiful things, but so empty’.

This palace is also the only place in Tibet where you can see a picture of the 14th Dalai Lama, on a mural behind his throne when he was in his twenties. He has no glasses on but it’s still recognisable as the man we see today. When we mentioned this to Chong La she didn’t know what we meant as she had never seen a current image of her leader.

After a taster of the Potala Palace the day before we were looking forward to climbing up the 13 stories to see inside this impressive structure from the 17th century.

It’s separated into the White Palace for government use, where you can view the room the Dalai Lama used to meet with high officials, along with his personal waiting room.

The Red Palace is the religious section and contains over 1000 rooms, including the funeral stupas of the 5th to 11th Dalai Lamas. These are where the holiest men of Tibet are laid to rest, so it’s a sacred site for all Tibetans. Again, we could take no photos inside but it was a never ending maze of temple after temple, ancient wooden doors hiding stupas, thrones, guardians and Buddhas and an endless stream of pilgrims making melted yak butter offerings. It was fascinating and felt like stepping back into mediaeval times. The Tibetan style of architecture has been kept the same throughout the centuries, they are proud of their culture and see no need to modernise like many other cultures.

To help us reflect on the visit to this powerful building, we tried a Tibetan speciality, yak butter tea, hmmmm sounds bad...yep it is bad...better to stick to regular tea from now on.

Drepung monastery was much quieter on the outskirts of town, but again had something new to offer, especially when one pilgrim nearly set fire to the temple when his one yuan offering caught alight in a candle, he looked very worried but gave a quick prayer and it went out, he looked very relieved!

One aspect of the monasteries we couldn’t quite fathom out was the wall painting technique, which involves getting a bowl full of paint and just throwing it at a wall or stupa, no paint brushes involved. Another version is to pour paint down a hose from above and aim the end over the top of a stupa hoping it will run down the correct side. If this wasn’t bad enough they don’t stop to let pilgrims walk past, so most people get splashed with whitewash as well.

The Tibetan Plateau

After four days in Lhasa (we could have stayed a week) it was time to jump in the Land Cruiser and meet our driver Tenzing (what a cool name) and what a cool guy he was too, leather jacket on, dark sun glasses and slick back hair and he turned out to be a good driver, especially when we got stuck in a traffic jam and he just drove all the way down the outside of it to beat the crowds. Go Tenzing Go

The drive across Tibet to the Nepal border was to take 4 days and it was full of beautiful scenery, barren land and high passes over 5000 meters high. Yamdrok-tso Lake looked like someone had coloured it in blue, it almost seemed fake but was beautiful.

Further along we found more lakes and some literally breathtaking scenery, as trying to climb a hill at 5000+m high is hard work, the oxygen is thinner and when you realise you’ve lost your breath it can take a while to get it back again.

We overnighted in Gyantse, a town with another impressive monastery with Nepali influences and this time we got to visit the library, something maybe only a Librarian can get excited about.

The downside of being at the top of the world is that it’s much colder, the air is drier and I woke up in the night with breathing difficulties. So I had to take it easy the next day when we travelled to Shigatse and had Tenzing chauffeur me across town while the others had to walk, he he.

Shigatse is the home town of the Panchen Lama, second to the Dalai Lama in the most followed (Gelupa or yellow hat sect) form of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery contained the tomb of the 10th Panchen Lama, as well as the tallest bronze Buddha in the world, but as usual no photos were allowed, you will just have to imagine it. The current Panchen Lama was chosen when he was 6 years old but he was not the choice of the Chinese government so he was ‘taken’ to ‘live’ in Beijing at the age of 6 and has, along with his family, never been seen or heard from since.

So you may wonder how well we are getting on with the Aussies on the trip? Well, dorming together, eating copious amounts of of momo’s (yak meat filled parcels), experiencing Lhasa beer, playing game after game of Yanif, 21 and Uno seems to be working out well. I’m not keeping score but I think the Brits are winning :)

After a bad nights sleep for all, as the air was so cold and dry and everyone kept waking up thirsty, we started the long drive to visit the most sacred monastery of the Sakyapa or the red hat sect. We thought we had seen it all but each monastery always has something new to offer and here was no different. It was nice to see the contrasts between the different sects of Tibetan Buddhism.


After another day of fantastic scenery we entered the Qomolangma area (Tibetan)at 5250m...read as Mount Everest!!!!!!! Guess what? My breathing cleared up completely, I must be a high altitude dudette and just suffer mid-altitude sickness, bring on the Everest peak climb I say!

Our first view of Everest was a wow wow wow moment, and we were all awestruck. It was amazing to see the highest point in the world and a memorable experience that probably ‘tops’ everything else we have seen this year.

We drove further into the Everest area and picked up our permits in Shergar, a town we were happy to leave because of the packs of Tibetan Mastif dogs roaming the streets and guarding the toilets, growling at us to get back in our car! It was a 3 hour off road journey to the base camp. The scenery was from another planet, Mars perhaps, so dry, rocky and desolate, no life out there at all, until you bump into a yak or goat herder miles from anywhere just wandering around!

We made it to Everest base camp at 9pm and stayed the night in a 4 bed dorm with no heating at -10 degrees, thank goodness they gave us two heavy duvets each and a blanket, plus we all slept in our clothes to keep warm, there was no way we were getting undressed.

The only problem was the toilet...the outside toilet with no light. It was so gross that people chose to pee in the car park in the dark rather than venture to the unstable hut with a few holes in the ground, mainly because no one wanted to fall through into the cesspit below.

It was quite an experience peeing in the dark covered by thousands of stars and a moonlit north face of Mount Everest staring down at you, one number one we will never forget.

Next morning we somehow managed to crawl out from under the warm duvets to see sunrise on Everest, although due to China having only one time zone across the whole country, the sun didn’t rise until after 8am so it wasn’t so early.

We stayed at base camp for 30 minutes before we all had to give up the awesome view in the hope of rescuing our frozen toes...the question, ‘how soon does it take for frostbite to set in?’ had us all running for the car and at -15 degrees the view was beautiful but dangerous. I have no idea how people can climb further to the peak and deal with the elements, so no peak climb for me, crazy people!

On our way to the border we drove through small villages where all the kids stop and wave incessantly, happy to see some strangers whiz through. The best part of the drive was when we approached and then crested the Tong La pass at 5000m with the most amazing view I have seen, the Himalayas spread out over the horizon.

It was so cool to see them as a group rather than an individual like Everest. You can really appreciate how this range of mountains divides up the world.

We then started the 3000m descent to Zhangmu on the Nepal border, a strange town built along a switch back road that is full of Chinese and colourful Nepali Tata trucks taking up half the road so that chaos followed as soon as someone tried to overtake, which is pretty normal for Chinese roads.

But we made it to the bottom and finished our trip off in a ‘lovely’ 4 bed dorm (or maybe a taster of room design to come in the sub-continent) and a dinner with the compulsory Lhasa beer to celebrate.

We made it, we loved it, we have had experiences in one week that equal the experiences we have had so far this year and that’s saying something. Everest is Awesome!!! Good work team!

Tibet observations:

Dedication - I have never seen, up close, religious dedication to this extent, people walking the kora always an odd number of times, prostrating themselves on the ground all over Lhasa. It’s a place for pilgrims, amazing to watch and you can’t help but respect these people. Some of them travel on foot from Qinghai, over 1800kms away!

Tibetan Buddhism - just when you think you are beginning to understand it, another aspect is revealed that you need to get your head around. Really need a Buddhism for Dummies guide!

14th Dalai Lama - it is a shame that he may never be able to return to Tibet, for him and the Tibetans, we hope we see this change to at least some extent in the future. The Potala Palace is empty without him.

Food - Tibetans eat good, hearty, ‘keep you warm’ food, from thick noodle soups, big chunks of yak meat and momos, 3 of the group became obsessed with these! However, if you order potato stew, be prepared to eat a whole plate of boiled potatoes, something was lost in translation on one menu!

Music - travelling in a Land Cruiser across the Tibetan plateau, having the driver put on a Movie Soundtrack ballads cd (read as Titanic, Bodyguard and Lion King) with the four of us crooning along in the back, making the guide giggle, was hilarious! Then they put the Tibetan songs back on...much better than Thai and Laos pop though.

And lastly...Tibetans - these are some of the coolest people we have ever met. There are big, burly, butch men, with huge yak fur coats with swords hanging from their hips, definitely not to be messed with! The women all dress in traditional costume and even though they look much older than they are because of the weather, they always smile and look beautiful. They live in a land with some of the harshest elements around, freezing cold winters, barren wind swept plains with no one in sight for miles, yet they just deal with it like they have for centuries. They are hardcore and inspirational.

What a blast...

Jo & Ryan


And if you want to see more about Tibet, here’s the link to Catie & Linds pictures: http://www.flickr.com/photos/catieandlinds/ and their blog: http://beyondbagot.wordpress.com/

Tags: dalai lama, everest base camp, gyantse, lhasa, potala palace, qinghai to tibet railway, sakya, shigatse, tibet, zhangmu




Amazing stuff once again guys. Soooo glad you like Tibet. Tibetans are without doubt the kindest, warmest, friendliest, best of everything people in the world.

I hope you enjoy India and Nepal. If you are in Kathmandu make sure you visit Bodha. It's full of Tibetans and a great place to stay if you tire of Thamel. Also, when in India make sure you go to Dharamsala. Tibet in miniature.


  Len Nov 5, 2009 8:29 PM


Hey ryanandjo,

We like your story and have decided to feature it this week so that others can enjoy it too.

Happy Travels!

World Nomads

  World Nomads Nov 16, 2009 2:36 PM

About ryanandjo

Follow Me

Where I've been


Photo Galleries


Near Misses

My trip journals

See all my tags 



Travel Answers about China

Do you have a travel question? Ask other World Nomads.