Written by Light Travels on 08 Jul, 2010
When the teenage girl walked down the train corridor towards me, stopped, and lent up against my carriage door, all I could think of to say was a quiet ‘hello’. The response was unexpected as her eyes rolled back in her head and she toppled…Read More
When the teenage girl walked down the train corridor towards me, stopped, and lent up against my carriage door, all I could think of to say was a quiet ‘hello’. The response was unexpected as her eyes rolled back in her head and she toppled backwards onto the floor like a sack of potatoes with a resounding thump. I guessed we must have reached 16.640 feet!I was traveling on the highest train in the world from Beijing, China, to the Tibetan capitol of Lhasa, and altitude sickness, ( headaches, nausea, dizziness, and fainting ) was apparently common.I picked up the stricken girl, carried her to her parents compartment at the end of the car, and instructed them on usage of the provided "individual diffuser" contraption issued to us by the conductors,( a small tube with a nosepiece that pugs into outlets by your seat/bed and throughout the train) Once the fallen teenager had had a good dose of 40% oxygen from said outlet, the color returned again to her rosy cheeks.I had boarded this engineering marvel in Beijing the previous day, ready for the 1.215 mile journey across China and climbing up and over the Tunggula Pass reaching altitudes equal to some commuter jet flights, before dropping ‘down’ into Lhasa at a mere 15.000 feet. It was a journey I had always dreamed of doing, listed as one of the top 10 train rides in the world, and a final destination I had only imagined ever seeing. At the last moment, at the colossal Beijing Railway Station I opted for luxury and upgraded my "hard sleeper" ticket to the more comfortable sounding "soft sleeper". I was relieved to have done so when I boarded in the usual controlled chaos typical of the 1.2 billion populated China. As I explored the train I realized the ‘’hard sleeper consisted of 6 (soft) bunks crammed in a small compartment with no door to the corridor, giving the whole carriage a general dormitory feel, which I discovered once we were underway, also became a meeting/sleeping/card playing area for the hundreds of Han Chinese making the journey. My "soft sleeper’ was relative luxury, consisting of a much more recognizable cabin with 4 beds (2 seats and a 2 bunks that could be dropped down at night), a lockable door, a small table on which stood the ubiquitous thermos flask to hold your hot water for tea and noodles. I settled in with my fellow passengers in the carriage, mainly travelers like myself, wealthy local businessmen, and the occasional Chinese Government official, for the 3 day, 2 night journey on the highest train in the world.This train had been a dream of the Chinese leadership for years, with the first lines completed in 1979, a 500 mile stretch from Xining in Western China to Golmud at the base of the Kunlun Mountains. It was not until 2001 that a prosperous China returned to the hardest stage of the project. It took over 5 years, cost $ 3.2 billion, used 100,00 workers to lay 700 miles of track over some of the most extreme and harsh geography in the world. Unbelievably most of this section runs over perma frost, and a varied system of cooling experimental systems under the tracks to keep that perma frosty.As I explored the train it became clear why this one of a kind train had become such a controversial project, with many opposing its building and subsequent use. It was easy to see as I moved down the train past the chaos, cooking and chatting of the ‘hard sleeper cars into the main bulk of carriages that made up 80% of the train. The 3rd class, or ‘hard seat’ cars were packed full of Han Chinese, with huge bags, trunks, tarpaulin wrapped bundles, whole families, it seemed like whole villages were on the move, and they obviously had a one way ticket. It was clear that the critics were right in accusing the Chinese of using the train to populate Tibet with vast numbers of Chinese, and as a result marginalise the Tibetan people in their own country.After the first day of travel all across China, watching from either the large window in my compartment , or the neat little pull down seat in the corridor, giving you the opposing view, I headed to the restaurant car for dinner. This was already packed and it was obvious that the Chinese ‘Maitre d’ would decide who would, or would not eat anything that night. After 20 minutes we were all politely ‘cleared ‘from the restaurant as a very important Party Official and his entourage wanted to eat, and they obviously liked to do that alone. After a dinner of the local ‘on the go’ diet of pot noodles, prepared having filled my thermos with scalding hot water from a faucet by the sinks and restrooms( western and Chinese varieties) at the end of the car. I fell asleep to the blissful sound and rocking that only a train can provide as it ambled its way up and over the Tunggula Pass.When I awoke on the second day at 5.00 am I was on another planet. I have been lucky enough to see some spectacular views around the world, but the sun rising through the mist on the Tibetan Plateau is one that I will never forget. It was like something I have never seen or imagined, truly a different world of such never ending vastness and opennes. The Tibetan Plateau is said to be the size of Western Europe and much of it and the mountain ranges of Altyn Tugh surrounding it are still unexplored. It feels so remote and cut off, and occasionally, literally in the middle of nowhere you see a family of Khampas (Tibetan nomad Yak herders) sitting chatting / eating/smiling and waving at the passing train.or even more extraordinary a solitary soldier, standing to immaculate attention as the pride of China whizzes by. It was here that the conductor handed out our ‘individual diffusers’ as we were now at the highest point on this incredible journey, 16.642 feet, a mere 1000 ft less than Everest base camp!The plateau continued to hypnotize and surprise as the day went by, beautiful and ever changing., littered with small Stupas( round temples ) and multicolored prayer flags.That night I was one of the chosen few in the dining car and had a luxurious dinner watching the sunset on this mythical view, before returning to my compartment and falling asleep looking at the clearest and closest night sky I have ever experienced. The following day we would be in Lhasa, and a new adventure would begin. It had been an unforgettable journey, and the perfect preparation, not only in altitude acclimatization, but also in giving me a taste of the culture and geography to one of the most magical places on the roof of the worldTravel DetailsBook rail tickets through a China Based Government Sanctioned agency such as CITS.They will charge a handling fee etc., but it is almost impossible to buy tickets yourself at the station. This is no normal train. Ticket prices as of Jan 2010Soft Sleeper - $158Hard Sleeper -$102Hard Seat - $ 51All prices are one way.You will also need to apply Tibetan Travel Permit in China ($ 55.00 ), but it is recommend to sign up for a tour within Tibet, and the tour operator will organize all travel permits depending on which region you are traveling.Train RouteIf you have time it is recommended to take advantage of the train stops across China .Pingyao- a rare example of a Chinese City that still has its original ancient perimeter wall Xian - This is the nearest city to the famous Terra-cotta Army, on display just north of city. Close
Written by Sierra on 15 Jul, 2008
Or, How I Learned To Laugh About Myself Under Scrutiny From The Locals* * *Until recent times, Lhasa was the gateway to the Tibetan frontier. Today, travelers usually come into Tibet either through Lhasa or Chengdu, to the southeast; but Lhasa has the far more…Read More
Or, How I Learned To Laugh About Myself Under Scrutiny From The Locals* * *Until recent times, Lhasa was the gateway to the Tibetan frontier. Today, travelers usually come into Tibet either through Lhasa or Chengdu, to the southeast; but Lhasa has the far more romantic draw to it.The Chinese have made Lhasa their own, however, as hundreds of thousands of settlers have moved west to this city in the sky, and today, you are probably more likely to see signs in Chinese than Tibetan script. The city could almost have a clear line drawn through it as well, differentiating the older Tibetan sections of the city from the new Chinese sections.In the center of the city, the Potala Palace (in Tibetan, Budala Gong) still rises proud and serene; but the Chinese have turned it into a museum. While still holding religious significance, it feels strangely empty – perhaps because its rightful denizen, the Dalai Lama, is in exile. It has been restored and looks as beautiful and regal as ever, reminding every visitor about the city’s – and the region’s – history and religion. Across the street, the Chinese created a vast, flat cement plaza (now called Potala Square) dominated with a memorial to Communism or the motherland or something. To anybody who knows their Tibetan history, it seems incongruous to have the bastion of Tibetan Buddhism with Chinese flags waving at its feet. Lhasa sits along a river valley, ringed by mountains. The air here is thin and still relatively clean by Chinese standards, with plenty of sunshine and great views. The Potala is the most potent reminder of Lhasa’s past; but certainly not the only one. I spent a lot of time walking around Lhasa, as we had a few days there to acclimatize ourselves to the thin Tibetan atmosphere. I was enthralled by the city, and would readily return to spend far more time exploring it. In the case of the Potala, you want to get there early; tickets (¥100, about $15) are available on a limited, first-come, first serve basis, and you are given a specific time to return to enter; the tickets are often gone as early as 11 am. You climb to the top – somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 to 15 stories’ worth of climbing, so hit that Stairmaster before you go! – and then work your way down. An average visit takes 1-2 hours, depending on time of day, and how crowded it is at a given time. Since I was having trouble adjusting to the altitude (it was only our second day there), I did not climb the Potala, although the rest of my group did. One of my group mates expressed disappointment that they really didn’t get to see as much as they thought they would, and they had to move through faster then they would have liked – plus, there are almost no locations within the Potala where you are allowed to take pictures, including on the roof, unless you have special permission.Instead of climbing the Potala, I opted instead for doing the Potala’s kora, the traditional clockwise prayer route around a site of religious importance. Every monastery and temple in Tibet has this route; some are truly spectacular, such as Shigatze’s, which climbs the side of the mountain behind the monastery. The Potala’s route is flat, but it is almost entirely ringed by prayer wheels. The devout will spin every wheel, or do the kora in the traditional prostrated fashion; but most of the people I saw walking the path were spinning their own personal prayer wheel and only occasionally spinning the larger ones that lined the route.There’s a park behind the Potala, with a lake and a lot of trees – depending on what map you're looking at, it's called either Liberation Park, Jiefang Gongyuan, or on the map I had, Zang Gyab Lukhang. On an interesting side note, the lake in the park was formed when water filled the hole where dirt was removed to build the Potala. In early autumn, it was really quite lovely, with the trees’ leaves turning to shades of gold. If you have ever seen the pictures of the Potala rising above a lake, those pictures were taken from this park. Unfortunately, although that particular view was a picture I had intended to take, I completely forgot about them due to other things that happened to me in this park! It was actually my second walk in the park, but it was mid-morning on a Sunday and surprisingly busy, and I was a bit aware of the fact that I was taller than most of the people I walked past. The Tibetans, like the Chinese, will blatantly stare when something catches their attention, and despite Lhasa’s rise as a tourist attraction, foreigners still stand out. Especially somebody like me – a redheaded, plus-size Western woman - and I had attracted stares, gawking, and even requests for photographs across China. The Tibetans are generally slender and fit; like the Chinese, it is unusual to see an overweight or even stocky person among the citizens. (The introduction of a Western diet has begun to change this, however.) But their Buddha images are often portly, with cherubic faces. Where the Chinese might have stared or even giggled at a person that they find unusual, the Tibetans have no embarrassment over touching somebody they don’t even know, to confirm for themselves things like hairy arms, beards, blonde or red hair, or in my case, broad hips and an (ahem) curvaceous derriere and thighs. Imagine my surprise as I was walking through the park, and somebody suddenly grabbed my butt! I looked over in shock to find a grinning Tibetan man. I chastised him with a gentle "No!" and a wag of my finger, which he found hilarious. "Bad boy!" I added, not assuming he spoke English, but wanting to get the message across that it wasn’t polite to grab somebody’s butt without warning! "Bad boy!" he repeated with a laugh, then coyly reached out and give my butt another squeeze before darting away. "Bad boy!"Not even fifteen minutes later, I was elsewhere in the park, when a Tibetan woman fell into step beside me and began chatting at me in Tibetan. I could tell by the tone of her voice that she had some concern, so I nodded and smiled and then she reached out and began patting my thigh and hip repeatedly, laughing a little and continuing her talking.At this point, I really didn’t know what to say, I was so floored! I smiled brightly, and tried to reassure her that despite my weight, I was healthy and feeling okay. She kept walking with me, still patting my thigh, and talking, and I began to wonder if she was going to follow me all the way around the Potala. She finally gave me a few more pats on the hip, and then waved goodbye to me with a little laugh, and walked off. Those two wouldn’t be the last to pat my hindquarters as we made our way across Tibet, either, but more on that later.Despite the butt-touching and the blatant stares, I loved the park and found myself back there a few times. It was very relaxing to sit by the lake and reflect, or to watch the devout walking the kora route, turning the prayer wheels. Besides, the best thing you can bring back from a vacation are outstanding memories - and I can tell you that I will not soon forget my experiences in Lhasa! Close
Written by Sierra on 07 Jun, 2008
Many years ago, a book by Paul Theroux named Riding the Iron Rooster fed not only my interest in China, but my desire to take a journey in China via train. My journeys through China took me on several trains, in fact; but the one…Read More
Many years ago, a book by Paul Theroux named Riding the Iron Rooster fed not only my interest in China, but my desire to take a journey in China via train. My journeys through China took me on several trains, in fact; but the one I will always remember most is the Qinghai–Tibet railway - more commonly known outside of China as the Trans-Tibet Express.The Qinghai–Tibet railway was completed in 2005 and opened to public use on July 1, 2006. The Chinese government has faced criticism over the construction, which ranged from socio-economic issues to environmental ones. Part of the train's path extends over hundreds of miles of "barely permanent" permafrost - that is, permafrost that has a top layer that partially thaws in the summer months. It presented a special engineering challenge, but special refridgerated support structures were built. People have also criticized it as a method to extend the iron dragon of Chinese influence into Tibet. (In 2008, it was announced that train service would be built towards the Indian and Nepalese borders; construction is expected to be completed around 2013.)In addition to the controversy, however, there are also the benefits of the train: namely, it is easier to move supplies (including food and medicine) to the region, and it promotes tourism, which brings money to the region. And Tibet is proving a popular draw among both Chinese and foreigners. The train cars are specially constructed, designed to have extra oxygen pumped through them for much of the journey, and to withstand the extra ultraviolet radiation at higher altitudes. More than 80% of the stretch from Golmud to Lhasa is at an altitude of over 4,000m (over 13,100 feet), including the Tanggula Pass, which at 5,072m (16,640 feet) is only 1,000 feet shy of the elevation of Everest Base Camp. The rail line not only claims the highest elevations but also the highest railway station in the world - Tanggular Mountain station, at 5,068 m. (The highest that passengers are allowed to step out for is NaQu, 4,526 m [14,850 ft]).It is now possible to board trains to Tibet from Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Xining and Lanzhou. The journey from Beijing takes 48 hours. We took the evening train from Beijing, leaving from a station on the western side of the city around 9pm. All of China is on the same time zone, so although we would cross 2-3 time zones worth of territory in our trip, we would remain on Beijing time. I was headed to Tibet with 14 other like-minded travelers on a G.A.P. Adventures tour called "Tibet Adventure". (Unfortunately, due to recent issues in Tibet, travel there is currently restricted; be sure to check current conditions before you go.) Our tour guide was originally from New Zealand; when we reached Lhasa, our group would gain a second, required local Tibetan guide who would remain with us until the Nepalese border. There are found kinds of seating on the Trans-Tibet, just as there are on trains throughout China: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper. Soft sleeper is obviously the best, with only four beds per compartment and individual TV screens for each person. We were traveling the week of National Day, which meant the trains were packed, and we had hard sleeper - six beds per semi-private (no door) compartment. (Those riding in the top bunks told us that those bunks got very chilly at night, due to their proximity to the roof and the freezing outside temperatures at those elevations.)Our group took up two full cabins and half the bunks in a third. Since the first half of the train's journey, from Beijing to Golmud, goes through more heavily populated areas of the country, you may find that your fellow passengers in your compartment change overnight. From Beijing to Xi'an, the trip was relatively uneventful; the train rolled through the darkness past rainy farmlands and factory towns. Our only cabin companion for that stretch was a 20-year-old Chinese girl who was a student in Beijing, on her way to Xi'an (elevation 1,330 feet) to visit friends and family during the National Day holiday week.When she left at Xi'an the next morning, an older Chinese couple took the lower and middle bunks. The husband was clearly startled to find foreigners in the same compartment as he was in. His wife seemed nice; I think the woman thought I was traveling by myself since the other two from our group weren't usually in the cabin. So she gave me a piece of her pomegranate; and later, she gave me a whole one for myself. Somewhere between Xi'an and Golmud, our cabin was rounded out with a single Chinese guy, probably around 30, who had a bunch of boxes strapped up with tape, who quietly tucked his boxes under the bottom bunk, and spent his time either napping, or away from the cabin.When the couple got off the train in Golmud at 5:15am, I was awake, so the woman bid me a warm "bye-bye!" and off they went, into the pre-dawn darkness.Golmud's elevation is just over 9,200 feet, which means an average hourly elevation gain just over 560 feet per hour since leaving Xi'an. That might not sound like a lot, but you have definitely begun to feel it by then. I certainly felt it overnight; I had a dream in which I was in my house, caught in an earthquake and it was sliding downhill. I awoke, disorientated in the dark, to the rattling and shaking of the train, trying to figure out if I was, in fact, in an earthquake or still on the train.The second day on the train is truly spectacular. Near Golmud, it is rather flat; but as dark breaks over the train, you roll into gentle, cocoa-colored mountains. Because you are so far west, but the whole country still is on the same time zone, the sun comes up around 7:30-7:45am.From there on out, it is impossible to stay away from the windows. Wide-open steppe rolls away to meet rounded hills. Every so often you get a glimpse of distant snow-capped mountain peaks between the hills. Much of this countryside - close to the desert lands of Inner Mongolia - is desolate, with only the occasional couple of yaks or sheep to break the monotony. There are sometimes roads, and you seldomly glimpse a truck or bus or lonely car. Once we spotted a car that had broken down by the roadside, with two guys sitting beside it, waiting for the next vehicle to pass by to give them a ride.The views are awesome... rust-red hills giving way to more chocolate-colored ones, frosted with snow as we passed into the higher elevation. Skies so clear and bright as to seem unreal; lakes shimmering on the ground like magic mirrors embedded in the soft mustard-yellow and olive-green lichens.I have to admit I spent far more of this trip asleep or laying down than I thought I would have. I never had much issue with altitude, either at school in Colorado, or any time I went skiing. But then, I wasn't at 14,000+ feet, either, and much of this train ride between Golmud and Lhasa is spent nearly three miles high.To fight off elevation sickness, you have to drink water - and lots of it. Most of us had boarded the train with three days worth of instant soups, fruit and water bottles. (There is also a dining car available.) As a result, I also had to use the bathroom way, way more often than I would have liked on the train; you could've set your watch by my regular 90-minute trip down the passageway. There are only "Western-style" toilets in the soft sleeper cars; the rest have "squatter" models. The train personnel are also very strict about checking tickets of passengers who want into the soft sleeper cars! Let's just say that by the time we rolled into Lhasa, the squatter-style toilet had become old hat. I spent all the hours of the last day on the train gazing out the window, at the lovely mountainous countryside, with farmlands lining either side of the tracks, lakes, the barren plateaus. Big herds of yaks, occasionally sheep or goats, and colorfully dressed Tibetans occasionally appeared alongside the tracks, but at our speed, they and their small settlements quickly disappeared. The final miles, we followed a winding river valley into Lhasa. A bruise-colored sunset gave us a spectacular welcome as we pulled into Lhasa.In some ways, it was a surreal journey - leaving the modern, neon-lined bustle of Beijing, crossing fantastic and sometimes somewhat archaic countryside, and then emerging two nights later into the half-Tibetan, half-Chinese Lhasa. Our Tibetan guide greeted us at the station with beautiful smiles and white khata scarves (also known as Jael-dhar) for each of us. Tashi dalek - good luck and welcome to Tibet! Close
Written by Composthp on 25 Sep, 2005
We left Nyingchi town after a peaceful night. For once, we were not kept awake by karaoka crooners till the wee hours. Our first stop was to see the "greatest cypress in China", it is over 50 meters tall, 5.8 meters wide and about…Read More
We left Nyingchi town after a peaceful night. For once, we were not kept awake by karaoka crooners till the wee hours. Our first stop was to see the "greatest cypress in China", it is over 50 meters tall, 5.8 meters wide and about 2,500 years old. Colourful prayer flags surround the tree, a stone inscribed with the facts of the tree stood before the tree. Tourists took turns to take photos of the stone with the tree behind. We did a little kora around the tree and left soon after for Basongtso (Basong lake), approximately a 2 hour drive.
Basongtso is an alpine lake at the middle and upper reaches of the Ba River (the largest tributary of the Niyang River). The lake surface is on average about 3,538 meters above sea level and covers an area of 25.9 square kilometers. This emerald lake is also considered a sacred lake by the Tibetans.
From the car park, we climbed down a flight of stairs leading to the lake. The main attraction here besides the lake is the islet of Tsodzong in the middle of the lake. A sturdy floating wooden path connects the islet to the mainland. There we explored the 17th century monastery of the Yellow Sect with the temple managed by nuns only.
We followed the pilgrims’ circuit; from the temple, we walked clockwise, passing a 2-1 tree, a combination of cypress and cherry, a rock from the Shitavana burial ground with the imprint of the body Ling Gesar, the stone paw of the tigress said to have leapt down from the mountains and landed there in a single bound, more stone prints of Sangye Lingpa, the tree with magic leaves (said to have naturally inscribed seed-syllables and animal year signs), a stone snake, a Tashi Obar stupa and finally a white stone that represents the mistress of the lake. *Phew* All this in a little islet.
On the distant shore of the lake, look out for four prominent snow peaks: Mount Aa Jomo Taktse (5963m) to the northwest, Mount Namla Karpo (6750m) to the north, Mount Naphu Gomri (5663m) to the northeast and Mount Darchenri to the east.
Since it was an exceptionally good day, we decided to take a 1 hour cruise round the lake too. For 90 RMB per person (after negotiation by our driver), we sped off to the opposite shore of the lake. There, we alighted into a shaded cove. Following a stone-lined path, we hiked upwards and soon came across a clear waterfall roaring its way down towards the lake. The place was densely forested with wild flowers blooming where the light pierced through and brightly coloured mushrooms dotting the ground. Near the top of the waterfall was a little cave with the deity of fertility. Those seeking to concieve offer their prayers here.
Back to the opposite shore, we made our way back to our chalet located within walking distance and was greeted with a beautiful rainbow streaking across the lake. What a way to end the day.
We departed from our dreary hotel in Drigung town for Nyingchi (Nyangtri county. This was the old capital of Nyangtri county and is located in southeast Tibet, where the Himalaya Mountains and Nyainqentanglha Mountains extend from west to east, like parallel huge dragons, to…Read More
We departed from our dreary hotel in Drigung town for Nyingchi (Nyangtri county. This was the old capital of Nyangtri county and is located in southeast Tibet, where the Himalaya Mountains and Nyainqentanglha Mountains extend from west to east, like parallel huge dragons, to join the Hengduan Mountains in the east. The route was by far the most scenic, passing pastoral farmlands, grasslands dotted with wildflowers and forested mountains with towering pine trees. The journey was also our longest, 7 hours in total before we reached Nyingchi.
We followed the Niyang river, a tributary of the great Yarlung river and crossed the watershed pass of Mi La or Mamzhong La pass (4930m), between Meldro and Nyang-chu rivers. Here, the landscape changed gradually from green to grey and by the time we reached Mi La pass, we were in winter wonderland. We stopped for some photographs and a little snowball fight. We were fortunate to have the place to ourselves as it was crowded with locals and tourists a few days later on our return to Lhasa. The snow too had also disappeared by then.
Descending from the Mi La pass, we witnessed one of the first of the many road accidents enroute (5 in all, some new, some days’ old). The two lane narrow road around a bend was blocked by a logging truck and a land cruiser that had flipped into the ditch. There were no casualties (this time) but the road was made impassable. The snow and rain had made driving conditions extremely difficult. The only way to continue our journey was to drive around the truck; a highly risky manoeuvre for a miscalculation meant a freefall into the valley below. Our driver took the risk for turning around was not an option and we lived to tell the tale.
We reached the Chinese town of Nyingchi, known by locals as mini Hong Kong. It has the makings of a city; with time, it probably will be, particularly with the completion of the railway linking Tibet to the rest of China. From karaoka bars, cafes, restaurants, shops selling anything and everything, there were little traces of Tibet here.
This highway from Lhasa to Nyingchi and further is one of the main routes loggers used to ship logs to Lhasa. En route, we passed by countless lorries carrying logs piled as high as two stories (which can be dangerous and foolhardy). Parts of the highway were damaged or under repair. In one instance, a heavily loaded lorry was stuck in mud trying to drive round the damaged road. It created a huge traffic jam (a rarity in Tibet’s countryside) as tourist buses, land cruisers and more lorries on both sides of the road waited for the lorry to get out of the way. It set our journey time an hour later. As we passed the offending lorry, we saw that another, smaller truck had flipped over earlier, and the driver did not survive.
Written by Composthp on 23 Sep, 2005
The wet season had made the road to Mt Everest base camp impassable. Visiting Drigung Thel monastery (4,280m) and the Charnel ground (Drigung Durtro), the most famed site for sky burial was the alternative offered. Drigung Thel monastery was built precariously at the edge…Read More
The wet season had made the road to Mt Everest base camp impassable. Visiting Drigung Thel monastery (4,280m) and the Charnel ground (Drigung Durtro), the most famed site for sky burial was the alternative offered. Drigung Thel monastery was built precariously at the edge of the cliffs overlooking the valley and dates back to the early 12th century. The journey there was most perilously as we turned off from the highway into a dirt road. We jostled and bounced through the valley for about an hour, grabbing hard onto our seats to avoid being bumped on the head and sustaining serious head injuries, passed a narrow bridge that was obviously built for lighter and smaller vehicles, and slowly climbed the narrow and winding cliffs that overlooked the green valley (you bet we prayed hard!). The landscape that unfolded before us was spectacular. On the distant horizon, the snow-capped mountain ranges were half shrouded in mist, and before us were ploughed fields and wild flowers in vivid blues, purple, and yellow. As we approached the monastery, we awed at the magnificence of the monastery that seemed to be carved out of the cliffs. The journey from Lhasa to Drigung Thel monastery took 5 hours in all.
The monastery was under repair at the time of our visit. Apart from a few German tourists, we were the only other visitors. The morning was wet and grey again. As if reflecting this, the atmosphere at the monastery was dark and dank. We were told that two bodies were being brought to the Drigung Charnel ground for a sky burial. We were not allowed to view this ritual by order of the law. We could, however, view the site later when the ritual is completed. Once reserved for kings and nobles, a sky burial is considered the highest and cleanest form of burial. The body is dismembered and the bones crushed and mixed with tsampa before being fed to vultures and crows.
We followed the mint-lined path that would lead us to the burial site. Under normal conditions, the hike is suppose to take approximately 15 minutes, but we took almost an hour as we stopped often, either to hide under some shrub to wait out a heavy downpour or to take pictures of the different alpine flora that littered both sides of the path. The rain had brought out the scent of mint; it was an invigorating hike that brought us another 200m above sea level. We halt just before the actual site and waited for the ritual to end. Two donkeys grazed peacefully farther up the slope and large vultures were seen standing immobile with their wings spread wide-open. This, according to our driver, was to dry their wet wings. A large black dog with bloody eyes came down from the site and stood quietly before us as if to make sure we did not approach the site before the proper time. Our driver went ahead of us, and, after waiting about 30 minutes, we were finally signalled to climb the final steep slope. The view of the surrounds from the site was simply incredible. I felt like Julie Andrews in the opening scene from the "Sound of Music" and would have burst into song but for the inappropriateness of the occasion. As we circled the perimeter of the burial ground, we saw vultures and crows still feeding on the remains. A pit used for cremation still held fragments of bones and lining the slope were prayer wheels encased in windmill-like poles.
We left Drigung Thel monastery for Nyingchi, our next destination, our disappointment over not being able to see Mt Everest somewhat assuaged.
Written by Composthp on 22 Sep, 2005
We arrived at Namtso National Reserve in the late afternoon, whizzing by Damzhung, a dull and dirty little town that was busy paving their roads and sidewalks with cement, towards the green mountain ranges and the Lhachen La pass (5,150m). The scenery changed dramatically…Read More
We arrived at Namtso National Reserve in the late afternoon, whizzing by Damzhung, a dull and dirty little town that was busy paving their roads and sidewalks with cement, towards the green mountain ranges and the Lhachen La pass (5,150m). The scenery changed dramatically after crossing the "checkpoint" cum ticket booth with a billiard table placed at the side of the road, presumably a favourite pastime for the locals. From flat green pastures and farmlands, we drove into the grassland valley dotted with black yak tents pitched by nomads with herds of yaks and sheep grazing peacefully, perched at an insane angle on the side of the mountains. At the peak of Lhachen La pass, we stopped for a panoramic view of the second largest saltwater lake on the Tibetan plateau, Namtso Lake (4,718m), which is 70km long and 30km wide. Here, pilgrims endured the constant merciless wind to hang prayer flags and some even performed prostration. The wind was so strong; I now knew the meaning of windswept. A word of caution: avoid standing near the edge of the cliff or you just might be blown over.
The descent to Tashidor took another half an hour. This is a small encampment where visitors can rent a bed for as little as 15 RMB in either longhouses or in Tibetan-style tents near the hermitage caves. There are minimal facilities, as tents do not have heat and the only hot water is in a large thermos flask provided by the staff running the camp. The tent we were sharing was meant for six people. It looked fairly comfortable, and it would have been comfortable but for the lack of heat. We were ill-prepared for this day and rushed to put on as many layers as possible. The day had been a wet and cold one, and we suspect, the night might be worse. The wind chilled us right into our bones, and none wanted to venture any farther than the warm main tent, where guests were received with hot tea/yak milk boiled over a stove fuelled by dried yak dung. Our mummies were planning to sleep here instead of our cold, dark tent.
We did venture out eventually, all wrapped up like Chinese dumplings, down the path leading towards the lake. We were waylaid enroute by locals offering horse rides along the edge of the lake. We were too cold to accept, not even tempted to when one cheekily offered to put me in his wool coat. In fact, we were too cold to even walk down to the edge of the lake. We took in the breathtaking view of this sacred lake surrounded by the snow-capped mountain ranges of Nyanchen Tahglha with ominous clouds hanging low, obscuring the peaks. We circled around the sentinels of Tarshidor, two tall rock towers decorated with prayer flags the nunnery and headed back to the warmth of the main tent. We met the mummies on the way back; the grandfather of the camp was leading them to the ladies, a modern brick building sticking quite sorely out of the rocks. It was clean, but like all other toilets we encountered, it was basically holes built over a cesspool, with no plumbing so to speak.
Dinner was a simple affair of fried rice and Chinese tea. Our guide and driver were enjoying their tsampa with yoghurt and butter milk. After-dinner entertainment was the usual chat and, later, karaoke (yes, this wonderous Japanese pasttime has reached far flung places). We slipped back to our cold tent early and burrowed into thick, heavy blankets that smelled of butter milk. The sound of the generator kept us awake initially till lights-out at around 12am. This was replaced by the sound of thunder and rain soon after. We felt the full force of Mother Nature upon our sturdy tent (thank God it was sturdy!). Towards morning, we woke to the sound of dogs barking; it seemed as if the camp was being attacked by a pack of wild dogs. None of us moved. Certainly, I was at my grumpiest, having not really slept at all the night before (couldn’t even toss and turn, as the blankets were too heavy).
The rain did not let up at all, and none of us wanted to stay to explore the lake region in this miserable weather. The only other living creature in sight besides man, horse, and yak was a lone eagle flying overhead searching for prey. A pity. Our driver informed us that on a good day, the lake would be a wonderous blue. *sigh*
Kudos to the deeply devouted pilgrims who circle the lake, some on an annual basis (18 days to complete the circuit on foot) and to the workers hard at work repairing the roads leading to the lake.
Written by Composthp on 20 Sep, 2005
We had completed our tour of the 2 main "attractions" in this area, the Pelkhor Chode Temple Complex in nearby Gyantse and the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. We checked out of our hotel after a 2-night stay, reluctantly; it was one of the better…Read More
We had completed our tour of the 2 main "attractions" in this area, the Pelkhor Chode Temple Complex in nearby Gyantse and the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. We checked out of our hotel after a 2-night stay, reluctantly; it was one of the better hotels we had stayed in. That, and we were not looking forward to hours of holding our bladders. Our route today would bring us back to Lhasa before turning north to Dumzhung county via the Northern route. Our final destination would be Tashidor and Namtso Chukmo.
The route brought us into the grassland region, passing horses and domestic farm animals grazing peacefully, sometimes halting to give way to the animals that had decided to cross over for greener pastures. In the horizon, the snow capped mountain ranges of Nyenchen Tanglha (7,088m) seemed almost within reach. Along the way, both our guide and driver seemed more alert and animated as we passed by farmers and their families in their various vehicles. Halfway, our driver turned suddenly into an open field and we were informed by our guide that there might be a possibility of us watching a local Tibetan horse festival. We were at Dulong, an hour before Yangbajin. Though it was noon and we were a little hungry, we could not let this chance meeting slipped by since we were informed that the festival was suppose to be over by now.
The field was crowded with locals. Colourful tents lined both sides of the designated "race course" demarcated by a wire fence. The locals were busy socialising inside the tents; some were doing good business selling hot snacks, drinks, toys and sundry. It was as if the circus had come to town and everyone was enjoying themselves. An out of tune song blared from what seemed like the commentator’s headquarters added some festivity and contributed to more ringing in our ears. The children were the most delighted group as they dart between the stalls, eyeing at the food and toys, some already playing with their new toys bought by indulgent grandparents/parents. A little boy was busy trying to make his new toy car run with a remote attached ingeniously by a piece of wire (sans battery!)
By 12:30pm, we were feeling hungry and restless as there seemed to be no sign of the horses. We heard murmurings that the competitions would not begin until 3 pm and were getting somewhat alarmed. Finally, at 1pm, the competition officiated by the local mayor, prayers were offered and the crowd were treated with a parade of the competitors dressed to the nines. It was over in about 10mins and we could not stay any longer. For a brief moment, we glimpsed yet another piece of Tibetan culture and were content.
We passed Yangbajin, a hotspring area with a geothermal power station that supplies power to Lhasa almost an hour later and stopped nearby for a late lunch before continuing our journey to Namtso. The total journey from Shigatse to Namtso took about 7 hours.
Written by Composthp on 19 Sep, 2005
Day 5 :
We have covered most of the major sights in and around Lhasa and all of us had acclimatised somewhat to the altitude. We were to begin our "nomadic" life from here on, heading further afield to view the beautiful sacred lakes of Yamdrok…Read More
Day 5 :
We have covered most of the major sights in and around Lhasa and all of us had acclimatised somewhat to the altitude. We were to begin our "nomadic" life from here on, heading further afield to view the beautiful sacred lakes of Yamdrok tso, Namtso and Basomtso, and to Rongbuk to marvel over God’s creation, the highest mountain in the world, Mt Everest.
We started our journey at 9am; our first stop was Yamzhong tso. It was the first of our long drives ahead. We took the southern route via Gyantse to Shigatse, crossing the Tsangpo bridge; we began our long and winding way up to Khamba La for a panoramic view of the pincer-shaped Yamdrok tso (the Turquoise Lake). The roads were surprisingly in better condition than expected. However, it can be deceptive, as drivers must stay constantly alert for falling rocks, domestic animals crossing and roads washed off by rain. The roads are also narrow and we soon learnt to appreciate the skills of our driver.
We reached the peak of Khamba La (4794m) an hour later, our bus almost stalling as it slowly made the steep climb. We were not alone as tour buses, land cruisers and mini vans were parked haphazardly in both directions, waiting for tourists to snap pictures of the magnificent lake in all its turquoise splendour. Jostling among the tourists were enterprising Tibetans offering their colourfully decorated yaks, ponies and even a large clownish dog for photo-taking at a small fee (of course). Despite the garishness and commercialism, the breathtaking view of the lake with the Nojin Gangzang snow ranges (7191m) and Mt Donang Sangwari (5340m) in the distant background more than compensates for it. For the perfect view, head towards the prayer flags but do watch out for "land mines" (being the droppings of various animals and possibly humans too).
Yamdrok tso (4408m) is one of five sacred lakes of Tibet and also the largest freshwater lake. It is revered as a talisman for Tibet and the locals believed that should this lake dry off, Tibet will become uninhabitable. It is no wonder that the Chinese hydroelectric power station project that utilise the waters of the lake came under heavy criticism from all quarters. We were supposed to head down towards the lake, alas, the rain had washed off the road, making it impossible. We went back the way where we came from and took the Western route this time, following the canyons running along the Yarlung River towards Shigatse, our next stop and resting place. It took about 6 hours to arrive. The drive was fairly smooth, passing scenic rural landscapes, impressive canyons and waterfalls. Our driver and guide were accommodating as we made occasional stops in the middle of nowhere to take photographs of the sweeping vista.
It was also on this trip that we learnt how strong our bladders were. There were hardly any public toilets or rest stops in between. It was with a happy sigh of relief when we finally glimpse civilisation in the form of the Chinese town, Shigatse (no matter how ugly it was) appearing suddenly out of nowhere. We had travelled a total distance of 348km.
Written by Composthp on 13 Sep, 2005
Due to its unique geographical position and vastness, the weather in Tibet is variable. For example, while travelling from Drigung to Nyingchi, we experienced rain, snow, and sun all in a day. We were ill prepared for that day and were scrambling to put on…Read More
Due to its unique geographical position and vastness, the weather in Tibet is variable. For example, while travelling from Drigung to Nyingchi, we experienced rain, snow, and sun all in a day. We were ill prepared for that day and were scrambling to put on layers upon layers as we travel, only to start "stripping" again in the afternoon when we reached our final destination. In short, be prepared for extreme weather conditions.
Healthcare services are negligent at best, so purchasing good travel insurance that provides 100% coverage, particularly for evacuation (which easily costs >US$25,000) is of utmost importance. In our case, our departure plane was delayed for 24 hours, resulting in 1 lost day in Chengdu (we had planned to visit the panda-breeding reserve). Needless to say, we filed for compensation with our travel insurance company as soon as we returned home.
What to pack:
1.Sunglasses- the glare from the sun can be blinding, particularly if it is sunny on a snowy landscape.
2. Sunblock, preferably with UV, UAB, and PAB protection (SPF of 40 or above).
3. Lightweight jacket for temperatures below 10°C, thermal wear, gloves, and scarves, regardless of the season you are visiting (we had a snowball fight in the middle of summer).
4. Umbrella or raincoat. The months of July to August are peak rainy season, so do bring along a strong umbrella or raincoat. We encountered rain almost every day during our trip, and contrary to what we were told, it can rain quite heavily. The upside of it was that we managed to observe beautiful rainbows streaking across the sky on several occasions.
4. Toilet paper (if you are a heavy user) or lots of packets of tissue paper and wet wipes.Public toilets (if you can find it) have no flushing or tap water for washing hands and most charge a small fee of $0.10 to $0.20 RMB ( about US$0.05). Public toilets, especially those in the rural areas, are basically holes dug over or near a ravine or river. Be prepared for the stench of accumulated waste and wriggling maggots. You might want to try dabbing a few drops of perfume on a handkerchief of tissue and covering it over the nose and mouth to mask some of the stench. We basically hold our breath and pee as fast as we can. Hygiene seemed to be of low priority, and all of Tibet seemed to be an open toilet with locals peeing in the open fields and toilet training their toddlers on the pavements outside shops.
6. Extra battery packs and film. You can recharge your batteries in most hotels in major towns. Films, if sold, are of the usual variety, ISO200-400, at exorbitant prices.
7. Extra bags. Tibet has a strict policy against shops issuing plastic bags to shoppers in the name of protecting the environment. If you intend to do a little shopping, it is best to carry your own shopping bag.
8. First aid kit. It would be handy to bring your own first-aid kit consisting of bandages, disinfectant, antiseptic cream, and medication. Basic kits are available at most pharmacies and major department stores in your country. Medical assistance may be difficult, particularly in remote areas, so don't leave home without a basic first-aid kit.
8. Food. There are basically two types of food available throughout Tibet. Tsampa or millet mixed with yak milk and sugar into a paste (tastes like uncooked cookie dough), accompanied with yoghurt, is the main staple of Tibetan diet. Although filling, this can be somewhat monotonous. Tibetans do not consume fish due to the practice of water burial. However, there are a variety of vegetables and fruits (thanks to the Chinese agricultural efforts).
Chinese, namely Sichuan-styled (i.e., tongue-numbing, spicy-hot, oil-layered, and salty) is the other available food. The latter offers more variety, but standards differ according to the chef’s skills. We ate mostly the latter, but gave specified instructions upon placing our orders to reduce the salt, spiciness, and oil content. It soon became a sing-song catchphrase for our guide before ordering each meal.
Western-style food is available only in major towns like Lhasa, Gyantse, and Zedang. It’s best to bring your own instant foods if you are fussy about it (you can always donate to the locals at the end of the trip). Most hotels provide hot water on request or have water kettles, so preparing instant foods should not be a problem. High-energy bars and snacks are handy, especially during long journeys.
What to buy
Tankas: These are wall hangings or scrolls depicting Buddhism and Buddhist scriptures either sewn or painted onto cloth or silk. They were originally used by monks for teaching purposes.
Buddhist artefacts: Found commonly outside monasteries and temples, these include incense, water-offering bowls, prayer wheels, and prayer beads.
Tian-chu (Heaven’s pearl/Tibetan pearl): There are many imitations widely available in Tibet, so choose wisely and buy from reputable stores (unless you have the intention to buy imitations, in which case, bargain hard). Tibetans prize them for their healing and protective properties. Tian-chu, or Tibetan pearl, is smooth to touch and normally comes in shades of brown and white. The darker the color, the more valuable it is. Many shops would scratch the pearl against glass as a test against fakes. However, we learnt that good quality imitations will pass this test. The only way to differentiate is to place it under a scan, or cut the pearl into half. The core should reveal concentric circles. Each pearl is unique and has significant meaning, so be sure to ask the shop assistant to write it down.
Prayer flags: Tibetan prayer flags come in five colors: white, red, yellow, green, and blue, signifying clouds, fire, earth, lake, and sky. This should not be confused with the Chinese flags hang from buildings.
Offering scarves or Kataks. We received these from our guide as soon as we arrived in Tibet, a Tibetan welcome. These scarves are usually made of cotton or silk and can be easily purchased at the local markets for pilgrims as offerings in temples and monasteries. They are available in a variety of colours, white, signifying sincerity, being the most common.
Saffron: A highly prized spice, Tibetan saffron are available at herbal shops or at the Tibetan pharmaceutical factory in Lhasa.
For in-depth information:
"Tibet" by Michael Buckley, published under the Bradt Travel Guide, offers a Western perspective which offers some useful if not somewhat bias information, while "Tibet" by Gyurme Dorje, published under Footprint, offers a more moderate perspective. The latter can be confusing at times, as places follow the Tibetan names rather than the current Chinese names. For an amusing read, Michael Palin’s Himalayas offer some interesting insights on Tibet.