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Seven Days In Tibet

CHINA | Tuesday, 12 February 2008 | Views [7171] | Comments [2]

The Tibetan Plateau.

The Tibetan Plateau.

As the title suggests, we've now been in Tibet for a week and thought it was time to update this with our latest news.

We took the train from Chengdu to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet on the 3rd Feb. Of the 22 trains we are taking on this trip, this one will be the longest at 44 hours. The train proved to be considerably better than those we had taken around Southern China. The guards were pleasant, the dining car didn't have the air of a late night smoking den and our travel companions didn't spit their chickens' feet onto the floor. In fact, our soft sleeper berths even had individual TVs, although sadly without any English language channels, in fact, for the most part without any channels at all which does make you wonder why they bothered installing them.

As you can see from the photos, the scenery was surreal. Literally for days, we crossed vast open spaces, occasionally interrupted by a huge frozen lake or a house, miles and miles away from anywhere. The train passed over 5000m so they issue everyone with nasal oxygen tubes which you can see me sporting in one of the photos. They seemed to highlight the ridiculousness of building a train line across such a harsh landscape, and with most of the train sporting them at some point during the journey it made it feel a bit like a high altitude, moving hospital.

We arrived in Lhasa, heavily oxygenated, but still wheezing and out of breath, on the 5th Feb. Our first couple of days here were spent wandering around the sights of Lhasa and enjoying Losar (Tibetan New Year). It transpired on our first night that most of the shops, hotels and restaurants were shutting up shop for anywhere between two days and two weeks. Fortunately although the shutters were down, the city was very much alive. On the first night after a welcome Nepali dhal bhat, we followed the pilgrims around the Barkhor Circuit, the kora (holy walking route) around the Jokhang, the main temple in Lhasa. Once you enter this circuit it's easy to get lost in the crowds of people walking around, mumbling incantations and in some cases prostrating themselves on the ground as they take each step. Some of the pilgrims that make their way to Lhasa for Losar prostrate themselves all the way from their village to the capital. This can take a year if, for example, they live 900 miles away, which some of them do. It really is quite awe inspiring. The pilgrims wear cloth sacks to cover their clothes, knee pads and have scraps of something which looks like laminate flooring on the ground which they use to protect their hands. They also often sport a nasty red scab on their forehead from continually scraping it on the ground. Midnight Mass seems a little tame in comparison.

Back to that first night, where along with the prostrating pilgrims it turned out that the local tradition was to light huge bonfires and set off as many fireworks as they could lay their hands on. In some cases, this would mean chucking a box of firecrackers into one of the many bonfires, in others it involved shooting fireworks across the street at your neighbours. We ducked our way around these festivities without losing an eye or being set alight and made our way back to our hotel.

On Losar itself, after a breakfast of dried yak meat, biscuits and yak butter tea (not my new favourite foods) we spent the morning watching the Tibetans circling the Jokhang in their best outfits; furry hats, cowboy hats, stripy silk aprons, sheepskin lined jackets with gilt trims, shiny black boots and super long sleeved jackets worn over one shoulder with the sleeves tied up. In the afternoon we were invited to the house of one of the Tibetans who works in our hotel. Here we were given endless cups of tea (sweet rather than Yak butter fortunately) and more biscuits, dried yak meat and dried yak cheese. We were shown their house temple and, on leaving, were given silk Tashi Delek scarves as New Year gifts. The Tibetan people really are the most friendly and welcoming people I've ever met. Wherever we go we are offered tea, sweets and biscuits and regardless of the language barrier a 'Tashi Delek' seems to result in beaming smiles, hand holding and in the case of the little ones, fits of giggles.

On the second day after Losar we went out to Bumpo Ri, a mountain on the outskirts of Lhasa where, from daybreak, the Tibetans replace the thousands of prayer flags draped across the peaks. Streams of people work their way up and down with flags, juniper to throw on the fires and paper prayers which they throw into the air shouting 'Wooo Lassoooo' or something that sounded very similar. As you can see from the pictures, we joined in and now have our very own prayers fluttering on the hill along with all the others.

Having spent a bit of time in Lhasa seeing the Potala Palace, Drepung Monastery and all of the above Losar festivities (including Tim getting roped into a Losar drinking session with the hotel employees one night), we decided it was time to explore some of the surrounding area. Easier said than done, due to some relatively special bureaucracy, but we eventually managed to head out to the Yarlung Tsangpo valley yesterday morning along with a new friend Sam, a Canadian Chinese professional photographer that we met on the train from Chengdu.

After a few wrong turns and a totally baffled taxi driver we were dropped off by the side of a river where some boats were tied up and a group of kids with a tractor were putting up new prayer flays whilst doing some kind of ritual that, from where I was standing, seemed to involve chanting while holding spoons above a fire (not the same kind of ritual that they practice with hot spoons in Hackney). We eventually tracked down a boat owner and after helping a nun load a large amount of beer onto the boat we were off to our intended destination, Dorje Drak Monastery.

Half an hour later amd six hours since we left Lhasa, we arrived at the monastery nestled at the bottom of a steep hill next to the river, truly in the middle of nowhere. We were a little concerned that they might not let us stay the night, but we needn't have worried. We were met at the gate, by a Tibetan lady with a wicked laugh who threw off her hat and flicked her grey pigtails woven with blue thread over her head and into Tim's face (if she hadn't been about 4ft tall). She then took great pleasure in rolling down her collar to show us the enormous goitre attached to her neck, all the while laughing like a madwoman. We suspected she may have been a little tipsy and our suspicions were confirmed when an extremely grubby and slightly shifty looking chap came hobbling down the stairs towards us with two bottles of Chang (local beer that tastes like fizzy vinegar) in his hand.

Despite having the foulest breath that we had ever smelled, being completely hammered and only speaking Tibetan, we managed to convey to him that we needed a bed for the night. He swiftly dropped off the beer with the old ladies and took us upstairs where he unlocked the guestroom. I don't think they'd had guests for a while judging by the spectacular level of dust over everything, but we had beds, blankets and an outdoor, rooftop, long-drop loo with a fantastic view!

That afternoon, after a tour of the monastery from one of the few monks who hadn't gone away for Losar, Tim and I decided to take what the Lonely Planet described as a challenging kora up the hill around the monastery while Sam went off to take some photos. The challenging walk turned out to be more of a climb, but we did get amazing views of the surreal valley; spindly trees, sand dunes, low brown mountains and in the middle of it all, the red, white and gold of the monastery. We slid down the sand dunes and returned to the monastery in time for a candlelit picnic of Tibetan bread and pot noodles with a friendly monk who told us about the monastery and its living buddha. In return we taught him some English.

This morning we woke early to catch the boat back, this time with a car and two motorbikes on board. This is more impressive than it sounds given that it was little more than an overgrown rowing boat. Our intention was to hitch to another monastery 45k down the road. We bottled it however, as the wind was creating a hideous sandstorm throughout the valley, and unlike the hardened pilgrims we saw there still prostrating at every step on their way home from Lhasa, we didn't fancy hanging around outdoors in that weather. We hopped onto a Lhasa bound bus where smoking and singing along to the Buddhist pop songs on the stereo seemed to be mandatory.

So now we are back in Lhasa for a few days. Our next outing is a four day trek between Ganden and Samye monasteries. The trek passes over a couple of 5000 metre passes amd we're sleeping in tents so it's probably going to be fairly cold. On the up side we have two yaks and a cook which is pretty exciting.

Losar La Tashi Delek.

Tim and Sam.

Tags: mountains, tibet



any story with the dogs at the temples?

  nnmsat Feb 13, 2008 4:05 AM



I'm traveling to Tibet this summer and it's great to read your stories. I'm really looking forward to it.

I just wanted to ask what kind of visa or permit you needed to travel Tibet? I've read mixed information that I would only need a China visa but then once in Tibet I'd have to apply for an Alien permit which can only be obtained by joining a tour group?

It would be great to get your insight on this.

Thanks for your time!

  Dana Feb 5, 2009 2:13 PM

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