KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We had a difficult time finding a tour company in Beijing to arrange the necessary permit to travel to Tibet, but it was finally faxed to our hotel in Xi'an and we were thrilled. We booked a flight because it had proven too difficult to find anyone who could sell us tickets on the train over the new route that had just been completed. It seems most people who travel on the train are on tours arranged overseas; it's one of the downsides we face when we want to plan our own trip as we go.
When the pilot announced that the flight from Xi'an to Lhasa would take three hours, it really began to sink in just how big a country China is. About two hours into the flight we looked out the window to see the snow-covered Himalayas looming in the distance. At last we reached the Tibetan plateau and found the landscape to be dry and barren. Here and there we could see narrow roads and small villages nestled in the valleys. It was late in the fall and the crops had been harvested and the scenery looked decidedly bleak. As we approached the capital of Tibet, we could see the pale waters of the Lhasa River below; water that will eventually become part of the mighty Bhramaputra River.
As we descended to land at the ultra-modern airport, I began to wonder about how the high altitude would affect us. The city is located at almost 12,000 ft above sea level. I have had mixed experiences with high altitudes in the past; trouble with 14,000 ft at Pike's Peak in Colorado and little problem with 12,400 ft in Sikkim, India, earlier in April 2007. Flying straight in to Lhasa would not give us any time to acclimatize and I had read that it is impossible to predict who will suffer from altitude sickness. I just hoped that I would not be the one to hold back the others when it came time to explore the city.
Editor's Note: Lhasa, Tibet is on the same time-zone as Perth, in Western Australia!!!!
We all felt fine when we got off the airplane, walked through the airport and made arrangements for the airport bus into the city. We made a point of moving slowly and not lifting our bags too vigorously. The one-hour trip to Lhasa was pleasant as we passed through dozens of small villages and had our first look at the distinctive Tibetan architecture. As we entered the edge of the city, we could see the impact that the Chinese have had. Factories, schools and modern government buildings sprawled in every direction. We did not see any traditional buildings until we entered the city core, and there, looming above us all was the eye-catching Potala Palace. It has always been a dream of ours to visit this remote place; we had to pinch ourselves to be sure it was real.
We transferred to a taxi and began to look for a hotel; there are no Super 8s in Tibet. Maybe that's a good thing. The Lonely Planet had a few mid-range suggestions, but after stopping at two, we decided to abandon the guidebook and look for something better. One of the guesthouses would have put us on the fourth floor; we weren't interested in climbing stairs to have a room at an even higher altitude! At last we found the delightful Himalayan Hotel down a side street and rejoiced that it had an elevator. The rooms were large, nicely furnished and each room had an oxygen machine for easing altitude sickness. Perfect.
Shortly after checking in, I began to have a splitting headache; I wasn't sure if it was just a migraine or whether the combination of the bad stomach from the previous day and the altitude were taking its toll. I climbed into bed and the others headed into town to visit the ATM and have dinner. The first evening and night are a complete blur for me as I was violently sick for much of it. In the morning we learned that David and Jeong Ae were down with altitude sickness and we made the decision to purchase store-cards for the oxygen machines and put them to good use. Our second day was spent quietly in bed letting our bodies adapt as much as they could. Anil had only a slight headache and we all wondered if his long-distance running was the key to his lack of discomfort. Here was the only "senior citizen" in our group and he was in the best shape of all.
Late that afternoon, we finally ventured out to explore the heart of Lhasa. We had a meal at a small Tibetan restaurant, Tashi II, a favorite of foreign tourists. The staff speaks fairly good English and the menu reflects the westerner's tastes. Tea with ginger and honey was a welcome drink for our upset tummies and simple rice and noodle dishes hit the spot. Anil ordered some rice pudding and we all sampled the hot, cinnamon-flavoured sweet. Fortified, we left the restaurant and ventured into the famous Barkhor market area.
At the heart of the city of Lhasa stands the 1300-year-old Jokhang Temple, the spiritual heart of Tibet. Pilgrims seek to visit the temple at least once in their lifetime and they complete dozens of clockwise circles around the temple, chanting and spinning their hand-held prayer wheels. It is easy to get swept up in this dora (pilgrim circuit) and as you walk along you realize that a colourful market has sprung up along the edges to hawk spiritual items and tourists’ trinkets. Prayer flags, turquoise jewellery, yak butter, Tibetan clothing, Nepalese biscuits and Yak! Yak! Yak!........T-shirts abound. I still felt a little shaky or I would have gone crazy with my camera once again.
By our third day in Tibet we were all feeling much better. Since we had delayed our tour of the temple and the palace by one day this was our only day left.
The government keeps careful control on the permits for visiting Tibet and the permit usually specifies which day one visits the Potala Palace. In this way, they are able to control the crowds and preserve this special treasure. Now that the new Qinghai-Tibet railway has been completed, Lhasa will experience the tourist frenzy that has happened all over China. I am sorry we were not able to travel on the train; our time was limited because Jeong Ae could only be away from Edmonton for two and a half weeks; David is able to stay and travel for another month. We have learned over time that if we have to struggle to make something happen, it isn't meant to be. We just go with the flow and adjust our plans accordingly. In hindsight, I don't think any of us would have enjoyed a train ride out of Tibet, after several days of feeling poorly.
We went for an early breakfast at Tashi II and shivered in the early morning cold in the unheated building. A young couple arrived shortly after us with their white-blond little boy. He looked so sweet and foreign to us after nearly a month with black-haired people. I could see he would be a real novelty wherever they took him. We all avoided eggs for breakfast but decided to order one cup of yak butter tea so we could at least say we had tried it. The tea was really salty but we were glad that they didn't serve the rancid butter tea - I'm sure there isn't a foreigner alive that would actually enjoy it.
I have written separate entries for the Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace. Please view the photos and stories by clicking on the appropriate links.
There are amazing places to visit outside of the capital, but the conditions are basic at best and require suitable clothing and a hearty constitution. We had come to experience the "roof of the world" and visit the awe-inspiring Potala Palace. Although it would have been an experience of a lifetime to travel on to the Everest Base Camp and visit the high lakes and monasteries along the way, we had accomplished what we had set out to do and it was time to leave the altitude sickness behind and descend to a more habitable area of China. We purchased our tickets to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, and looked forward to breathing easily once again. At the airport, we spoke with a young German couple who looked haggard and bedraggled. They had spent ten days in Tibet, touring all the "must-see" places, but confided in us that even though they are avid outdoor enthusiasts, the headaches never let up for the entire trip and they too were looking forward to the lower altitudes.
As we flew eastward, the magnificent Himalayas displayed their awesome beauty once again. We would have had to fly much farther west from Lhasa in order to see Mt. Everest, but I was satisfied with the wonders below. I observed a couple of deep mountain gorges and the light reflected off the blue rivers deep in the valleys. The mighty Mekong, Yangtze and Bhramaputra rivers are all born in this region, perhaps it was one of these famous waterways I could see from so high above.
As we reached the edge of Tibet, the mountains suddenly disappeared and we could see a vast sea of clouds stacked up against them. The mountains lock in the weather and keep Sichuan overcast for much of the time. We descended into the bank of clouds and landed at the Chengdu airport without really ever spying the land. I am looking forward to exploring this interesting province, one that didn't even give me a peek at its beauty as we landed.