First things first – WE MADE IT!!! We are the first overland group into Tibet in three years. And what a privilege it is to be here. We left Golmud in high spirits having obtained the permits but we still needed to cross the border. We have two nights of bush camping before we reach the border of the province officially, unofficially we are already inside.
These are our first two nights up at high altitude. I think it is fair to say that not many of us were prepared for the way it would make us feel. Having been to 3500m with little effect it is surprising just what an extra 1000m will do. On the drive we climb to 5010m before coming back down to 4700m to camp. Just walking 100m up here leaves me breathless and moving too quickly can make you feel very dizzy. We are also under strict instructions from Teresa to drink at least 3 litres of water a day, needless to say we are stopping every 45 minutes to go to the toilet, making progress slow.
On day two we climb to 5231m and into the snow line, the highest we have been at this point. Once again we come back down to 4700m to camp. Acclimatisation is slow and although day two is easier than day one, everything is a struggle and most of the group is counting down the days until we are lower.
Enjoying the snow once more on the pass
As Tibet is not recognised as an independent country we do not need stamps in our passports nor do we need to go through immigration control, however the checks are almost as stringent as many of the official borders we have crossed. Having been up in grey cloud for the past two days we are all delighted for the sun to be shining again as we officially enter Tibet. We encounter more Chinese bureaucracy along the road to Lhasa where time limits are imposed between check points. We are told we cannot reach the next check point before a certain time, meaning we have plenty of time to stop and check out the scenery along the way.
Lunching in a picturesque location
Yaks heads outside a restaurant in Lhasa, waiting to be turned into yak curry a Tibetan speciality – delish!
Once in Lhasa Sophie (our China guide) and Pen (our Tibet guide) (both compulsory, both lovely) head out to register us for sight-seeing before we are allowed to go anywhere. Once this is done we head, as a group, to the Jokhang Temple. Located in the middle of Lhasa it is the ultimate pilgrimage destination for Tibetan Pilgrims. Originally built by King Songsten Gampo around 642AD the Nepalese and Chinese wives of the king are believed to have bought important Buddhist statues to Tibet that were housed here. Unfortunately in 1966 the temple was ransacked by the Chinese Red Army as part of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and many thousands of the statues were looted and burned. Of course none of this information can give you and impression of what it’s like to actually be there.
The first Buddhist temple I have visited, it is quite a shock to the senses once you get inside. Outside and in are crowds of people chanting, prostrating, throwing their bodies on the floor in worship. Once inside the air is thickly laden with the smell of incense and your eyes take some time to adjust to the light in a dim room lit only from above. The temple it is decorated from top to bottom with murals, prayer flags, scarves and brightly coloured Buddha statues. The central square of the temple is filled with cushions and benches on top of which sit monks deep in conversation. As we make our way slowly around the outside of the room we are met with a crush of people chanting and swinging their pray wheels. All of this makes for a somewhat over-stimulating atmosphere but none the less it leaves quite a profound effect on all of us. As I look around at my fellow truckers faces all I can make out are beaming smiles and mouths agape in awe. We try to take everything in but it is impossible, it suddenly dawns on me that Pen is trying to impart knowledge and I drag my attention away from the beautifully adorned walls willing myself to take in what he is saying (it’s too much, I’ll google it later).
Aspects of the Jokhang temple
Jutting off from the central room are many smaller rooms of worship filled with the statues of important Buddhas, each with their own specific meaning. As the pilgrims make their way around the temple they leave offerings to the Buddhas including rice, flowers and drinks as well as money that is collected by the monks. Fascinated by the prayer wheels that many of the pilgrims are spinning we ask Pen the meaning behind them. He informs us that there are a great many illiterate people in Tibet so the prayer wheels are spun in order to symbolise the reading of the scripture. A sad fact of life in a country this poor. Unfortunately photos are often not allowed inside the tourist attractions of Tibet so I have little to show you but I can assure you it was pretty special.
From the Jokhang temple a few of us decide to follow the pilgrim trail around the outside. One of the holiest pilgrim destinations in Tibet the pilgrim trail must be followed clockwise (as you must always walk around a Buddhist temple, inside and out). The trail is a cobbled street that winds it’s way around the 25,000 square feet of the temple. Lined with shops it is also a popular tourist stop. We follow some of the pilgrims around the trail, again they chant, spin their prayer wheels and prostrate themselves whilst stopping at the various chimneys along the way to burn insence and tree branches. The pilgrims wander around the circuit occasionally asking for money. We hear stories of people who have sold all of their worldly possessions to make this journey and so when they arrive they are hungry and homeless. The ritual is as fascinating as it is bewildering to a non believer.
Our second day in Tibet is spent at the Drepung monastery, sat high on a hill overlooking the city, the monastery is vast, the largest in Tibet. We spend a good few hours wandering around and still fail to see it all. The monastery is home to over 7,000 monks. We are given free rein to wander where we like exploring the living quarters and the kitchen as well as the temples that are dotted about the complex. We bump into a few monks, including one with a fabulous sense of humour, forcing Fiona to cover her head and shoulders before she enters a building; he chuckles to himself whilst leading her into the shower block.
The view over Lhasa from the Drepung Monastery
Lou spinning the prayer wheels
From one building we hear what sounds like a school playing ground, we follow the sound and find ourselves in the midst of the famous debating monks. Enthused by their subject they chatter amongst themselves putting the world to rites, much like we might do over a cup of coffee!
Carvings on the outside of the monastery
Fi enjoying the sun
Cooking up a storm for some of the 7,000 monks and the wonderful drapes inside one of the contemplation rooms
Unfortunately one of the most notable things about the monastery is the obvious police presence. Security cameras line the streets and the police check everyone who enters and leaves the complex. It is also illegal to visit a Tibetan monastery without being accompanied by your local guide, a fact we only became aware of once we returned from Drepung. Given Tibet’s recent history the presence is not a surprise. However given what we know about past events the security cameras feel positively Orwellian, there to keep an eye on the monks rather than keep them safe.
Police presence is a constant theme throughout Tibet. On the roads we are stopped at check points every few miles. We are not allowed anywhere without our guide, time inside big attractions is limited, photographs are restricted and we are reminded constantly that if we do not toe the line it is Pen that will be in trouble not only with his boss but with the authories. Whilst not as oppressive, for us, as Turkmenistan the constant hand holding is an irritation. The Chinese authories live in fear that a monk or a citizen will let slip that actually they want to be free of the Chinese occupation. They need not fear this, the Chinese stranglehold is there for us all to see. The strange clash of the western style shopping malls sat directly next to spiritual centres, that are trying desperatly to hold onto their own identity, reeks of the Chinese forced modernisation. The refusal to understand Tibet’s need for independence from a country that only regained control over Hong Kong and Macau between 1997 and 1999 is frustratingly difficult to comprehend.
On our final day in Lhasa we have finally managed to secure tickets to the Potala Palace. At Y300 (over $30) for a hour inside the price tag is certainly not cheap but realising we may never come back we swallow our pride and the bank balance takes the hit. A Unesco World Heritage site the palace is the winter home of the Dalai Lama. With the current Dalai in exhile in India the palace is inhabited by a few Monks who live along side the tombs of Dalai Lamas past. Set at an altitude of 3700m the complex is made up of both the Red and White Palace. The climb to the top leaves us breathless and with just an hour to explore inside, we are shown a selection of the most impressive rooms at breakneck speed, if nothing else at least this tour will improve our stamina.
Potala Palace by night
The palace contains 698 murals, almost 10,000 painted scrolls, numerous sculptures, carpets, canopies, curtains, porcelain, jade, and fine objects of gold and silver, as well as a large collection of sutras and important historical documents. By far the most impressive rooms are those that house the tombs of the deceased Dalai Lamas. Made of solid gold the price of the tombs runs to multi millions. Despite rushing around the temple (Pen will be in trouble if we are late) it excedes my expectations – the Lonely Planet describes the palace as a mere shell. It does lack some of the charm we have come to expect from the Buddhist temples and monasteries but the building itself is an impressive structure, looking out over the city of Lhasa the complex symbolizes Tibetan Buddhism and its central role in the traditional administration of Tibet. Perhaps not worth the astronomical entrance price but in terms of a cultural and historical interest it is certainly worth a look if you ever find yourself in the capital of Tibet.
From the bustling Lhasa we head to the rather more sleepy town of Shigatse. A small town with one temple we plan a lazy day exploring the pilgrim trail. Starting in the centre of town and winding its way up the moutainside and around the outside of the temple this trail feels much more of a pilgrimage than its counterpart in Lhasa. Littered with animals living off the kindness of the Buddhist pilgrims the trail certainly keeps us entertained for a few hours.
Andy and I with what can only be described as statues of the tourists in Shigatse before we head off on our pilgrimage
As we climb the mountainside we are offered views out over Shigatse, desperately poor most of the town appears to be not much more than a slum. We head up to the Shigatse fort that resembles a small Potala palace and from there make our way back through the winding streets that are littered with yet more stray animals, rubbish and general street grime. Although friendly and welcoming this town is missing some of the Lhasan magic, it feels much more like China than the capital which is a shame.
Making the pilgrimage
Entering Tibet has been a true privalege and for me a surprisingly spiritual experience (now that’s something I’m sure you never thought I’d say). But our time in Tibet is not over, next stop – Top of the World!