June 7, 2012
We are in Lhasa, the largest city in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Our ten-day visit to this part of the world has been fascinating from both a cultural and natural perspective. However, it is what happened leading up to our arrival and what took place while we have been here, that makes us, four months into our expedition, feel very blessed.
Before we left Kathmandu to go trekking in the Mustang Region, we took our passports to be processed for our group visa of two to Tibet. This part of China can only be visited with such a visa and only if we are accompanied by a government guide. However, we were told that the Chinese Government had just changed the rules for the group visa so that the minimum group had to be five persons of the same nationality. Given this news, we were concerned whether or not we would be able to take our planned Tibetan tour.
After we returned from trekking two weeks later, there was still no word about our visa. We began to consider our backup plan to get into central China and Kyrgyzstan, in case we could not go through Tibet. Finally, at 6pm the night before we were scheduled to leave, we received a call saying our visa had been approved. It was submitted with five U.S. names and then the Chinese were told that three of them had become sick and could not go. By some miracle, our remaining two names were approved so we had our group visa to visit!
We were driven the next morning about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the Kathmandu Valley to the border town of Kodari. The road was in terrible shape and we had to pass through no fewer than 10 checkpoints. We were dropped off in the middle of the small town and then walked up hill to clear Nepali immigration. After immigration, we were allowed to cross the Friendship Bridge into China. On the Chinese side of the bridge, we were told to wait for our guide, who would escort us through immigration and customs. We sat in ‘no mans’ land for almost two hours, watching people coming and going through the busy border crossing area. Calls to his cell phone and our tour company in China were unanswered. Finally, we got found each other.
It took us another hour to get through immigration and customs but it was not as bad as we had heard. Our entire luggage was hand searched. The guards were friendly and even welcomed us to China in English. When we completed all the formalities we were driven to the border town of Zhangmu to spend the night. Only later did we learn that the border had been closed for the day just minutes after we left, due to some military exercise by the Nepalese. We were so happy to get through!
Over the next five days we traveled about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) with our government guide and driver from the border to Lhasa. Much of the trip was made on the Friendship Highway. This road is a portion of the national highway that runs over 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) to Shanghai. Along the route there were numerous checkpoints. Some required us to go inside in person with our guide. At others we waited in the car while our guide took our passports, group visa and other paperwork inside. During the times we were there in person we could tell that our guide was receiving questions about why there were only two of us, given the new requirements. We appreciated his perseverance and felt very fortunate to be able to continue our journey after each checkpoint crossing.
After leaving Zhangmu, we drove up to the Tong La pass at 16,900 feet (5,150 meters), the first in a series of passes over 13,123 feet (4,000 meters). Each pass is marked with prayer flags. The views were spectacular, especially when portions of the Himalayas were visible. This area is sparsely populated with small white mud building villages. While driving, we saw many Tibetans in traditional dress. For the women, the color of the wool garment they wear denotes their home town.
For two nights we slept at very basic guesthouses, with no electricity or heat and shared bathrooms (outhouse) at 13,287 feet (4,050 meters) and 14,108 feet (4,300 meters). We were actually fairly comfortable, except when we could hear stray dogs barking outside or mice scurrying in the roof above us.
One of the highlights of our time was the trip to Everest Base Camp, located at about 17,000 feet (5,200 meters). To get there, we drove 62 miles (100 kilometers) down a very rough dirt road. The road led us to the Rombuk Monastery, which is the highest monastery in the world at 16,340 feet (4,980 meters). As we crossed the last pass leading to area set aside for tourists to visit base camp, we were simply beside ourselves to have clear views of the north side of Mount Everest (the tallest mountain in the world at 29,035 feet / 8,848 meters). Our guide informed us that it is only clear on about 10 days a month and many groups come only to be disappointed. We felt so privileged to be able to see this amazing place so clearly!
The base camp for climbers is located a short distance past the monastery so we continued to drive to the tourist portion of the camp, which is the furthest that a vehicle can go. Here there are a series of small restaurants and shops and we ate lunch there. Sandy had a sign language conversation with the proprietor there and showed her pictures of our family while she met her children. It is a further 2 ½ miles (4 kilometers) hike to the climbers camp, but at this altitude we were happy with the views and pictures from where we were.
Upon leaving the base camp and monastery, we took a different ‘main’ dirt road back 62 miles (100 kilometers) to meet the Friendship Highway. At one point, the road snakes up to a pass at about 16,404 feet (5,000 meters) high. From there we had more breathtaking views of Everest and the range of mountains surrounding it. While eating dinner that evening at the guesthouse, our guide let us know that, just after we had left the base camp area, that Everest had been closed by the government to foreign tourists. So, we once again counted our blessings as we continued our journey.
The next day we moved on to the cities of Shigatse and Gyantse and their famous monasteries. Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet and the Tashilhunpo Monastery was founded by the First Dalai Lama in 1447. This monastery is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas. We visited several former Panchen Lama tombs as we toured the individual chapels.
We happened to be traveling during the yearly Saga Dawa festival. It honors the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha and it is popular for people to make pilgrimages to monasteries during this time. So as we visited we were able to walk along side the pilgrims. A smile and nod towards them almost always received a friendly smile back. There were very few Westerners besides us there.
In Gyantse, we went to the Palcho Monastery, also built in the same time frame as Tashilhunpo Monastery. The Palcho Monastery contains the largest chorten (structure containing relics) in Tibet. The structure, known as the Kumbum, has 77 chapels on its seven floors and contains over 10,000 murals. In the main monastery chapel we saw special sacred art, called mandalas, which had been hand drawn with colored sand especially for the Saga Dawa festival. As was the case in Shigatse, there were hundreds of pilgrims walking clockwise around the monastery area as part of the festival.
As we were leaving, a festival parade was being set up to honor the thangka (a Tibetan silk painting with embroidery that usually depicts a Buddhist deity or scene) that was being brought in to the monastery to be hung on an outer wall. We waited for the procession and watched as the faithful tossed khatas (strips of white cloth) as it passed by. It was an amazing sight to see!
En route to Lhasa the next day we drove around Yamdrok Yutso Lake, which is one of the three largest holy lakes in Tibet. From the 15,748 foot (4,800 meter) Gampa La Pass, we had clear views of the turquoise colored lake with snowcapped mountains behind it.
It was about 62 miles (100 kilometers) from here to our final destination of Lhasa. There had been some unrest in Lhasa just prior to our visit, so our independent movements were somewhat restricted. We had to take all our meals at our hotel and could not walk around independently. However, the sightseeing we did with our guide more than made up for this.
We spent one day visiting the two major palaces. Norbulingka was the summer palace of Dali Lamas from when it was built by the 7th Dali Lama in 1755. The grounds contain beautiful buildings and secluded park areas. We were able to see the current Dali Lama’s living quarters where he lived until his exile in 1959.
In the afternoon we visited the Potala Palace. With its commanding location on top of a red-clay mountain, it can be seen all over Lhasa. The complex, built by the 5th Dali Lama in the 17th century, contains over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and about 200,000 statues. We climbed the stairs to the top and then walked through both the Red Palace and White Palace sections, visiting many beautiful rooms full of Tibetan Buddhism antiquities. Again, we saw chambers dedicated to Dali Lamas, as this palace served as the winter residence. It was an amazing place and it reminded us a little of the Vatican in terms of all the treasures that it held.
Our final day in Lhasa was spent seeing several monasteries. Drepung Monastery is the largest of all Tibetan monasteries and our guide timed our visit so that we could watch, spellbound, as hundreds of monks chanted in the main chapel. We observed this for about 45 minutes and our guide told us that the sessions can last three hours or longer.
At the Sera Monastery we witnessed the afternoon “Monk Debates”, which are a question-and-answer session on the teachings of Buddha and the philosophy of Buddhism between groups of junior monks and their more senior monk leader. Taking place in a courtyard, we watched multiple spirited discussions taking place.
Our last visit was to Jokhang Temple, located in the Barkhor Square old section of Lhasa. It was built in the 7th century and very crowded, as it is one of the most sacred and important temples in Tibet. Here, as everywhere else in Lhasa that we visited, had tight airport-style security.
During our Tibetan journey, we felt so blessed to make it through every hurdle, from the visa process, to crossing the border, to visiting Everest Base Camp, to seeing the amazing sights in Lhasa, even as it seemed that things were closing just behind us. We learned so much about this part of the world and feel blessed for having come here and have things work out so well, four months into our journey.
Postscript: While we were on the train from Lhasa to Lanzhou in central China, we were surprised to learn that Tibet had just been totally closed to Western foreigners and no visas would be issued for the foreseeable future.