Day 131 (4th of July, 2016) – Lhasa, Tibet, China
Todd and I woke up at 8am in our Chengdu hostel to set out for Wenshu Monastery. The Monastery was in walking distance, so we navigated our way through the tree-lined alleys and across a river to find it. Chengdu continued to cement its impression on me as being one of China’s larger cities which still retains all of its authenticity.
The tea houses which we passed on the way all had a very distinct Chinese style to them.
The entrance to the monastery was marked by a prayer statue which was surrounding by elderly people praying to the Buddhist Gods. They clutched their hands together and would shake them up towards the tower from each side before moving into the monastery.
In the temples people were doing the same – they would circle the rooms in a clockwise fashion making a prayer to each of the paintings or statues. Sometimes, they would place apples or peanuts on the shrines as an offering.
In the only picture which I was able to take on the inside, you can notice one member of the public yelling at me to stop taking photos. Needless to say it was the last I took.
In parts of the Monastery, people would rub the statues of dragons before rubbing each part of their body to give themselves good luck. They would touch the dragon’s head, then their own, then the dragons eyes, then their own, and so on.
Then, people would light incense and place it out the front of the main temple.
Out the front of the monastery, as in many religious places in the country, crippled homeless people sat begging for food and money. This is much more confronting than in Australia, because many of the people are disfigured and lack any sort of wheelchair or other equipment to move.
Todd pointed out a sign which had been placed directly next to them.
It was posted by the government to say that all of the beggars were fake, and that it was their job to ask for money. It had still shots from CCTV footage to prove it.
I was a little conflicted about the whole thing. I can’t help but think that being severely disabled is probably good enough evidence that you need a bit of assistance.
For breakfast, Todd and I dropped into a local baker before eating some beef noodles.
After getting back to the hostel, I hastily packed and left with an hour and forty five minutes before my plane to Lhasa boarded. I thought that this would give me plenty of time. I said my goodbyes to Todd and jumped in a taxi.
An hour and a quarter later, I arrived at the airport. With just half an hour to boarding, I was sure that I was about to miss the flight. I sprinted through the airport and couldn’t find the Air China checkin section until I realised that I was in the wrong terminal. Sprinting back outside, I jumped in another taxi. Finally, after another few hundred metres of sprinting, I found myself at the Air China checkin counter.
I shamefully skipped to the front of the queue and asked to checkin, but was told that the “seats had already all been selected”, and that I would have to get on another flight. I thought that was ridiculous, and so I rushed to the first class counter to beg them to help me. Within a few minutes, they had checked me in without question and I sprinted to security. I was put through an agonising wait while they went through the extensive process of approving my permit to travel to Tibet. You need special permission from the government to be able to enter that part of the country because of political tensions. The documentation is quite extensive, and it needs to be sent to you from a tour company within Tibet.
I sprinted all the way to my gate and when I arrived with under fifteen minutes until takeoff, I was told that the flight had been delayed for three hours. I couldn’t believe it. Regardless, I won’t be making the mistake of leaving late again.
The flight (when I was eventually able to board) was two and a half hours long. As we descended into Tibet, the scenery was stunning. The Earth’s surface looked like cardboard which had been crumpled into extensive mountain ranges and gorges.
In many ways the scenery surrounding the airport reminded me of landing in Queenstown in New Zealand.
The drive into Lhasa took an hour, and we passed many bright yellow fields and mountains along the way. The scenery was mind-boggling. It’s a good taste for what’s to come.
From a distance, the first glance of Potala Palace took my breath away.
Potala Palace is a monument which I can very clearly remember researching as a young child. One of the first books I bought on my own was a geographical guide to each country. I used to be obsessed with flicking through each place and learning facts about their population, main religions, languages and famous sites. This particular book listed Tibet as a separate country from China (controversial…) and it featured a page spread of this white palace which the Dalai Lama once called home. I told myself then and there that I would one day see it.
We drove past it from a closer distance on the way to the hotel. It’s massive.
Lhasa is a city of over two million people, and its primary language is Tibetan. Most of the population can also speak Mandarin, since that’s the compulsory language of education at school.
Culturally, though, the place is Tibetan through and through. The buildings are all uniquely colourful and ornate.
Player flags can be spotted everywhere, including above our hotel.
The hotel is quite nice. Although Lhasa isn’t the top destination on many Western travellers’ wish lists, this hotel certainly has a lot of foreigners.
The lobby is even kitted out with a 24 hour altitude sickness treatment facility. I must say that I have been feeling very light headed today, but I’m still unsure if it’s just mind over matter.
For dinner we ate Tibetan and Nepalese fusion. I ordered a Yak curry. I loved it. I don’t know my good Yak from my bad Yak, but as far as I could tell this was good Yak.
As my drink I ordered “Tibetan Buttered Tea”. This was by far the hardest thing to stomach while I’ve been in China.
It was literally a cup of melted (Yak) butter. Nothing else. Just butter. And if you left it for too long between sips, a thin skin would form on the top. I bravely finished it.
Back at the hostel before going to sleep, I had the sudden revelation that my hiking backpack can open as a regular suitcase. This puts to bed all my woes of having important stuff get shoved down to the bottom of the bag.
Day 132 (5th of July, 2016) – Lhasa, Tibet, China
At 8:30am this morning, I rose after a restless night. I’m sure that the altitude is getting to me now – I’ve had a non-stop headache and I’m permanently short of breath. It definitely didn’t help my sleep.
After a hotel breakfast, the group headed out to our first stop – Drepung Monastery. For those who don’t know, a monastery is like a ‘school for monks’. Drepung is the world’s largest, at one point housing 10,000 monks. It was founded in 1416 as the principal seat of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The Gelugpa sect is the most well-known sect of Buddhism in the West, since it calls the Dalai Lama its leader. Drepung was the home for the Dalai Lamas until the 5th Dalai Lama constructed Potala Palace (we are now up to the 14th Dalai Lama), which I will visit tomorrow. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution in which Mao Zedong pushed for the destruction of the ‘Four Olds’, Red Guards stormed Lhasa and destroyed around 40% of the Drepung Monastery. Luckily, though, many of its most important artefacts were saved.
Arriving at Drepung, you are greeted by locals burning leaves and incense.
Our tour group of eleven people pushed up the steep stairs higher into the mountain towards the heart of the monastery.
Along the way, it wasn’t uncommon to see a monk.
The buildings and gates all retain their original form.
Lining the streets were Buddhist prayer wheels which were either spun manually or by the water flowing beneath them.
Painted on the rocks high in the mountains were murals celebrating the Nirvana.
Perhaps most stunning was the monastery’s position part way up Mount Gephel.
The main assembly hall is where the monks gather for morning prayer. After a brief photo I realised that I wasn’t allowed to use my camera, so you might not get to see the inside of many monasteries in this blog.
I found the monks to be the most fascinating part of the visit. They are very common in the city centre of Lhasa, but around here it’s amazing to see the range of ages from young boys to frail old men.
I particularly liked this shot. ‘The Modern Monk’.
After a brief pit stop for a local lunch, we moved on to our next stop: Sera Monastery. Sera Monastery is another one of the major Gelugpa Monasteries in the world, once having housed 7,000 monks. Today it educates 550 monks. It too suffered immense damage from bombardment during the Cultural Revolution. The few surviving monks fled to India to establish another Sera Monastery, which now is home to over 3,000 monks.
The monastery’s position amidst the mountains was once again a focal point.
One thing which I’ve noticed so far about Lhasa is how many people are dressed in traditional Tibetan clothing even outside of religious areas.
As we made our way deeper into the monastery, a rumble from one of the halls took my attention. After asking our tour guide what it was, he said that the monks were doing their daily debate. Then he invited me to come and watch.
Standing before me were hundreds of monks debating Buddhist philosophy. Their topic today was the ‘Theory of Emptiness’ (how everything we see is just an illusion). The monks were paired with partners. The one standing up would launch questions at the sitting monks with a loud clap. Upon giving an answer, the standing monk would do one of three things: nod (signifying a satisfactory answer), clap backhanded (asking for an elaboration) or twirl his beads (signifying an unsatisfactory answer). The whole event was incredibly entertaining to watch.
It was many of these monks at Sera whose protesting against Chinese government’s oppressive rule led to the 2008 riots. Rumours of the government kidnapping and killing monks and invasive policy on freedom of religion led Tibetans to torch public vehicles and clash with police in central Lhasa. Chinese media reported that 22 people died in the events, mostly Han Chinese. Tibetan and Western media, on the other hand, speculates that well over 300 people died, mostly of Tibetan descent. Whatever the case may be, it was clearly a sign of underlying tensions. Blame has been thrown in all directions since the event, with the Chinese government asserting that it was the Dalai Lama who orchestrated the events from India. In response, the Dalai Lama said that the riots were a natural result of a dissatisfaction with being governed from all the way in Beijing.
One of the most striking things about Tibet as opposed to the rest of China are the bright, royal blue skies.
In the bus on the way back to the hotel, I spotted this street.
I instantly knew that I wanted to go exploring there for some dinner. An hour later, I returned.
The street was full of traditional Tibetan shops selling everything from Yak to Thangkas (Tibetan paintings).
At the end of the street, I spotted a security checkpoint with hordes of monks filing through. I thought I’d see what the fuss was about and I joined the queue. I found myself in the most incredible circuit around a large temple. I poked my head in to see what was going on, and before I knew it I was stuck in the prayer pit with people surrounding me. I was told to put my camera away and passed a cushion to lie on. Before I could work out what was happening, the monk next to me began indicating to me to follow the masses and pray. For some time I lay there dragging along the ground and only lifting to hold my hands in a prayer motion. It was the most surreal experience.
After finally emerging from the temple, I witnessed hundreds of people crawling across the ground chanting prayers, and hundreds more were pinning prayer flags on the flag poles. It was at this point that I realised that I have never been to a place as devoutly religious as this. Not even the Vatican left such an impression of such intense worshipping to a God. Religion here is really sewn into peoples’ daily lives like no other place.
Someone even snapped a picture of me before I returned to go to bed.
Day 133 (6th of July, 2016) – Lhasa, Tibet, China
This morning, the group set off at 9am for Jokhang Temple. We walked from the hotel, and it was only a few minutes in that I realised that it was in fact the place I stumbled into last night.
Walking through the narrow streets, I couldn’t help but notice the absurd quantity of Chinese flags everywhere. Asking the tour guide why this was, he laughed and said that no one had consented to it. Apparently putting a Chinese flag outside your business makes you eligible for government benefits without which the cost of business would be crippling.
The strong smell of burning leaves and incense was the first thing that hit me upon setting foot onto the famous Parkhor Street surrounding the temple.
Hundreds of people flowed past in a clockwise fashion for their morning prayers. Apparently most Tibetans will do this walk around their local temple once, three, five or seven times per day.
As we approached the entrance to the Jokhang Temple, the density of people praying on the ground grew.
I was allowed to take photos in the entrance of the temple. Like most religious places in Tibet, the first hallway was lined with ‘protector’ figures.
Jokhang Temple is normally considered the most sacred temple in Tibet. Quite incredibly, the temple was built in the year 652. That number in itself took me some time to get my head around. It’s rare that we have the privilege of seeing such ancient pieces of history which have been kept in such good condition. The temple was originally built for the two wives of one of Tibet’s most well known Kings – Songtsen Gampo. His wives were Princess Wencheng from the Chinese Tang Dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. Each wife brought with them a number of artefacts from their hometowns. Princess Wenching brought a painting of Sakyamuni Buddha as a young prince which was touched and seen by Buddha himself. This picture along with some of the other sacred artefacts remarkably survived the Cultural Revolution by being hidden behind a false wall with “Long Live Chairman Mao” graffitied on it so that the Red Guards wouldn’t knock the wall down.
The golden structure itself is an incredible sight.
From atop the temple, we could look down upon Parkhor Street and witness the Tibetans flock around the prayer poles.
We could also spot the Potala Palace from a distance, which was the afternoon’s destination.
Before moving onto the palace, however, we split up to find some lunch. I went with my closest friends in the tour – Jacinta from Perth and Celine from outside of Paris. Here’s a picture of me about to be run over just outside the restaurant.
As we strolled through the centre of Lhasa, we also passed a middle school during the lunch break when the parents would take the children out for a meal.
The next stop was Potala Palace. As I mentioned earlier, Potala always formed my image of what Tibet was like. It is a place which has fascinated me from a very young age. I actually laughed at how absurd it was that I was standing before it – I never expected to. I had been told that since 2008 it was too hard to gain entry into this region, and I also didn’t think that I could dig up the money to freely travel for such a long period of time. I really was at my happiest when I was standing before the structure. The palace was built in 637 by the same great King of Tibet who built the Jokhang Temple. It wasn’t until 1645 that the Fifth Dalai Lama (often considered the Dalai Lama who had the most marked impact on Tibet) renovated the structure and converted it into the Tibetan parliament. The building is huge, measuring 400 by 350 metres. Customs regarding dress code and group size are very strict when entering the area.
I even chucked a sneaky shaka in front of it.
You can’t help but notice the Chinese flag in the most prized position of the landmark. Our guide said that it was forced onto the Tibetan people. The Tibetan flag is banned throughout China – it’s seen as a symbol which promotes political unrest. It is only sold in Hong Kong, but apparently a lot of suppliers are beginning to abandon it out of fear. The recent kidnappings of the book publishers in Hong Kong has a lot of people scared that the Chinese government’s power reaches far outside of the regular Provinces.
The palace continued to tower over us as we approached it.
Climbing it was actually quite difficult – the high altitude constantly left you short of breath.
The view of the central square and the city at the base of the mountain was breathtaking.
The walls of the Potala are as much as five metres thick at the base to support the weight of the structure and to protect it in the event of an earthquake.
Upon summiting the palace, we were able to see the tombs of every Dalai Lama from the fifth to the thirteenth (the most recent Dalai Lama to pass away). The bodies are placed in ‘stupors’, the biggest of which was made out of almost 4000kg of gold. Many Tibetans are afraid that upon the current Dalai Lama’s passing that the body will not be able to be brought back to the palace due to his exile from China.
We also got to walk through the bedroom and study of the Dalai Lamas, including the current Dalai Lama until he fled China in 1959.
When leaving Potala Palace, there were many children sliding along the ground for prayer. It’s hard to fathom how children grow up so differently all depending on which borders they lie in.
For dinner, I went out with Jacinta, Celine, Rob and Riley (a father and son from Wellington) to Lhasa’s ‘Times Square’. We caught cycling rickshaws there.
For dinner we ate some more traditional Tibetan food. I ordered the Yak noodles. The street of the restaurant was particularly remarkable with the surrounding mountains poking above the end of the street.
Back at the hotel, I tried out the ‘blind massage centre’. I hadn’t heard of this concept before and wasn’t sure if it was a mistranslation or if the masseuses were blind. Upon arriving, it became evident that the latter was true. I was so glad that they were making a career out of giving massages – you could tell that they had pretty tough lives given their condition. I had a traditional Tibetan massage which was a welcome relief from the fast paced travel of the previous week.
Day 134 (7th of July, 2016) – Shigatse, Tibet, China
Today is centred around a ten hour drive to Shigatse – one of Tibet’s other big cities.
A ten hour drive on a tour wouldn’t sound very attractive in any place but Tibet, where everywhere you look are more mountains.
We stopped at a viewpoint where there were Red Tibetan Mastiffs sitting ready for photos to be taken with them. These are the dogs which are used by the farmers to herd yaks. Jacinta and I had a photo taken with one of them.
I had my photo taken with another dog too.
The elevation of the viewpoint was almost 5200m, and the pervasive headaches and shortness of breath made me all too aware of that.
The next stop was Yamdrok Lake – a beautiful lake hidden in the Tibetan mountains. The thing which strikes you about it is how striking the blue of the water is.
The viewpoints had prayer flags strung to them, which was how you knew where to stop.
We drove down to the shore of the lake to get a closer view.
I loved the perfect contrast between the green of the hills and the blue of the water.
There were a few yaks taking a dip in the water.
After another few hours of driving, we stopped off in a small village for lunch. I ordered the ‘fried rotten meat with vermicelli’.
The next stop was probably my favourite of the day – Karola Glacier. I find glaciers to be much more impressive in summer when they’re not disguised by the snow around them. This one really dominated the landscape.
Here’s me contemplating the meaning of life.
The altitude here was 5020m, and the top of the glacier was as high as 7191m. It really was a sublime structure.
I was able to take a few photos of the locals too.
The police presence here was as noticeable as anywhere in this region.
Between here and our next stop, we passed through a military checkpoint. It was quite surreal. Standing in front of the bus were half a dozen soldiers with assault rifles, and either side of the bus were lines of tank-like military vehicles with soldiers poking out of the top. We had to produce our passports before we were allowed through.
I obviously didn’t take any photos.
Hiding behind the checkpoint was a stunning man-made lake called the Simila Pass.
I found myself fixated on the little hydropower station which looked perfectly perched on the shoreline.
The last stop of the day was the Pelkhor Chode Monastery.
It looked like much more of a fort than a monastery. There was no hiding the fact that many people including me were very tired of visiting monasteries and would have preferred to spend more time looking at the mountains. But either way, religion is a big part of Tibet and visiting their sacred sites is a rich experience.
The stupor here was much bigger than any of the other ones we’d seen.
Day 135 (8th of July, 2016) – Everest Base Camp, Tibet, China
Today is Everest. Finally, after years of researching the mountain and the areas around it, I’ll get to see it with my own eyes.
During the day-long drive there, we stopped off to see a local family making some ‘tsampa’. This is made by crushing barley, and after having it most nights this week I’ve come to enjoy it.
The family’s property went onto a big piece of grassland. It was beautiful, especially beneath the mountain.
You could even see the occasional local riding by on their motorbike.
One of the bathroom stops was at one of the highest points we’ve reached so far – 5265m. The view beyond the prayer flags was equally breathtaking.
On another note, though, the bathrooms in this region are objectively the most shocking abominations of a loo on the planet. It really gives truth to the word ‘shithouse’.
I won’t attach a picture because of how offensive it is to the eyes, but just picture mud houses with a small hole in the ground where the previous waste hasn’t been cleared for months. I had an episode of gastro today and had to nurse myself in one of these places, and I can tell you that I have never wanted to be home more.
But my attitude quickly changed.
As each hour ticked by and we slowly approached the Himalayas, the mountains became markedly steeper.
Winding roads traversing the hills sparked images of Europe, albeit far less green.
And then, almost with out warning, we were told that we had reached a viewpoint of the Himalayan mountain range. Standing before us were four mountains reaching over 8000m: Mt. Everest, Mt. Makalu, Mt. Lotse and Mt. Cho Oyu.
But there was just one problem. While we got a stellar view of some of the other mountains:
Mt. Everest was covered in thick cloud:
I was still sure to get my picture in front of the range.
One thing which struck me the most about the scene was how the steep walls of the mountains ascended vertically into the clouds and beyond.
Hopping back on the bus slightly disheartened, I had to remind myself that this was to be expected. July is the rainy season in this part of the world, and it’s not an optimal time to view Everest. Typically, you would have to come in May or September to be guaranteed a clear view.
We continued our drive through the mountains, passing remote villages along the way. We even spotted the occasional nomad.
But then, just as we thought our chance was over, she revealed herself from behind a hill.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mt. Everest.
And what perfect timing it was with the sunset. With all of China being in the same timezone, it was at almost 10pm that these photos were taken.
Jacinta and I chucked another shaka in front of it.
I sat there on a dirt hill and watched as the line of the sun’s rays spilled over the peak.
By the time we reached our accommodation for the night, I still couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. It was dark by the time we arrived at the Tibetan Everest Base Camp, but the tents were all warmed up and ready for our arrival.
Sleeping in the tent and cooking on the small stoves was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had in my life. It reminded me of Shibu Onsen in Japan – being incredible cozy inside a small abode while just outside is a roaring wind.
I fell asleep satisfied at the conclusion of what will remain one of the most memorable days of my life.
Day 136 (9th of July, 2016) – Shigatse, Tibet, China
It was at 5:30am that we rose the next morning. We embarked on a hike to a viewpoint much closer to Mt. Everest so that we could see it during a sunrise. By the nature of the landscape, a sunrise is more spectacular on the Nepali side, but the Tibetan side still has unique character in the morning.
We tracked our way between rivers and streams on the way up the hill. The walk was extremely difficult at the high altitude. After one of the tour members fainted, we all took a much needed break while some people had some oxygen. Even just a few steps had your heart racing.
It was worth it for views like this, though.
As the sun rose, the face of the mountain began to shine brighter.
Staring at the infamous ‘death zone’ on the approach to the peak, I couldn’t help but think of all of the bodies which still remain up there. One Australian body, even, which is just a few weeks old. It almost puts life into perspective when you can see a structure which embodies the pinnacle of success and failure alike. It’s odd that we as a species are driven to do absurd things like climb to the tops of deadly peaks like this, and yet it’s what makes us uniquely human.
I also thought of all the mutual beauties and horrors of the mountain – the charcoal-black rock and the deep crevasses alike.
After another half an hour of walking, we finally reached the furthest point that a tourist can go without a climbing permit.
The Tibetan’s call this ‘Mt. Qomolangma Base Camp’.
Here I am at the closest point I could reach to the mountain.
I had to lie down on the hill for a while just to relieve myself from my pervasive headache. The altitude has the effect of making your head feel like it’s just about to split open, and after no relief from that feeling for days it started to make walking very difficult. A lot of other people were feeling the same way, but eventually we mustered up the energy to continue the trek back down.
There’s no doubt that I have a far greater admiration for the people who climb 3000m higher than this on the mountain, especially those who do it without oxygen.
Before I headed back down, I snapped a quick picture with our tour guide.
By the fire last night, he told us about how he avoided the legal immigration process of moving to Nepal and India for studying by trekking through the Himalayas. He recounted a story of being refused reentry into Tibet because his Nepali and Indian educations had ‘brainwashed’ him. Since his siblings had moved away and his parents had no one to take care of them, he decided to cross the border illegally and find them. After being caught by border patrol during a blizzard and losing two toes to frostbite, he was ordered to spend five months in Tibetan detention.
The walk back to Base Camp was misty and eerie, but the alien atmosphere was almost fitting.
After a brief rest, we boarded the bus for the long journey back to Shigatse for the night.
Day 137 (10th of July, 2016) – Lhasa, Tibet, China
I woke up to the familiar smoke-stained smell of our hotel in Shigatse. While it’s probably half a step above The Islander at Schoolies, it’s not much better.
Nonetheless, I stomached the un-stomachable at breakfast and we boarded the bus for the ten hour journey back to Lhasa.
Before leaving the city limits of Shigatse, we made a stop off at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. This monastery was founded in 1447 by the very first Dalai Lama. Only the monks’ residencies were heavily damaged during the Cultural Revolution, meaning that the sacred parts of the monastery were actually left relatively untouched.
The first thing which stood out when I entered the main gates was the prayer flags which were randomly strung on the face of the mountain beyond. The disorganised placement of the flags had a sort of beauty.
I particularly liked the winding alleyways and courtyards of this monastery. It wasn’t uncommon to see a monk flicking through his textbooks or some scripture as he strolled along the cobblestone.
Wedged in the middle of the monastery were three beautiful stupors.
Most remarkably, Tashi Lhunpo Monastery is the residence for the Panchen Lama (second highest ranking to the Dalai Lama in the tulku lineage of the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism). The current Panchen Lama, despite having spent much of his life in Beijing, has recently moved back to this monastery. Normally, the Dalai and Panchen Lamas have a teacher-student relationship where they aim to strengthen each other’s knowledge of Buddhist Philosophy, but due to political tensions the current Dalai and Panchen Lamas have never been able to meet.
This is where he sleeps.
The bodies of each of the recent Panchen Lamas are kept consecrated in statues in this building.
Unfortunately, many of the stupors and statues were broken open during the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese Red Guards threw the remains of the Panchen Lamas into the nearby river, but some of them were saved by locals.
I waved goodbye to the last monastery of the trip on my way out.
The rest of the afternoon was spent on the bus. By the time we arrived back at the hotel, it was time for dinner.
Jacinta, Celine, Rob, Riley and I all went out to find a local dinner. We eventually found a Lhasa version of a bistro, and I ordered what has to be one of the spiciest dishes I have ever had.
On the way back to my room, I said goodbye to everyone for the last time. I have to leave at 7am tomorrow for my flight, so I won’t see anyone else. Making friends during travel becomes a whole lot more valuable when you’re on your own, so I was very grateful for their companionship. Hopefully Aimee and I will be able to link up briefly with Jacinta in Northern Europe at the end of the year.
I hope everyone had as good of a week as I had!
Until next time,