11 June 2010

Tibet - A Journey to the Roof of the World

For details of a more recent adventure across Tibet you might want to view this 2015 blog entry

May/June 2010

I travelled with The Adventure Company on their Lhasa Overland tour. Special thanks to my genial and accomplished hosts in Nepal and Tibet – Pawan, Rajesh, Rakesh, Ten Zin and Wangdu.


Stumpy in Lhasa, the fine Potala Palace dominating the town
What to think? What to say? 
Tibet is a truly epic place to visit. The indigenous people smile readily, their devotion to Buddha and his many manifestations and deities extremely moving, and the landscape is startling. 
From high ice capped peaks to fields of mustard and barley overlooked by fortresses and monasteries. You really do step back in time.
Naïve romanticism? Of course.
There’s another side to Tibet. An edginess that comes with the hidden hand of the authorities: great work done on infrastructure – roads, power, essential modernisation – but at what price? I won't repeat here the fundamental restriction on human rights for Tibetan people, but you can sense it, feel it, experience it, most notably in the larger towns.
But my abiding memory is of massive skies, choughs soaring into the thin air, monks chanting prayer in the dimly lit monastery assembly rooms, the easy smile of the people, despite their many privations.
Go visit. But don’t leave it too long.

Days 1 and 2

This is one trip seeded with uncertainty. Will what I find disturb me, reassure me, depress me? This is supposed to be a holiday, after all.
After many years of waiting, I’m finally on my way to Tibet, not the Tibetan Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, but Tibet.
The approach to this hidden land is via Nepal, once hidden by the physical barrier of the Himalaya to the south and the vast, barren wastes of central Asia to the north, but now, more often hidden by the Chinese as they tighten their control on this unique land and culture, frequently closing the borders to outsiders if there’s the faintest whiff of dissent emerging from the indigenous population. There are now hordes of Chinese in Tibet, injected into the region rather like a blood transfusion, but with the wrong blood type.
At least, that is how I feel now, the product of years of propaganda, perhaps, from the many lobbyists for Tibet we hear from in the West, from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from lobby groups like Free Tibet, and just observing how the Chinese government reacts every time the Dalai Lama meets a prominent politician from the USA or UK. Good for Obama that he accorded His Holiness full recognition recently, unlike the skulking recognition granted by UK’s Mr Brown in 2008.
So, here I am at last, and let’s go see for myself.
The journey: 6 hours on Gulf Air (adequate seat pitch, average food, very attentive cabin crew, but irritating musak on pre-and post-flight taxis) to Bahrain, passing over Iraq (and spotting many of the gas flares from their oil fields far below), arriving in the soft haze of early morning light over the desert, before a quick transit to connect to Kathmandu. Our flight took something over 5 hours from here, due to a stop in Damman, a rather dull looking outpost in Saudi Arabia, and tracked along the coast of Iran, over Pakistan and the northern plains of India before the ‘big reveal’ of the Himalaya to the north, as usual challenging you to identify the highest peaks jutting out of the cumulus building up in the midday heat.
As before, the flight was heavily populated by young Nepalis returning home from work in the Middle East, excited and laden with gifts for home (and no respect for seat belts signs either).
Passage through Kathmandu’s International Airport was uneventful. It looks like that there’s been some redevelopment since my last visit 8 years ago, and although we were at the very end of the Nepalese trekking season, we were quickly through into the hazy heat of Kathmandu’s bustling streets.
Kathmandu beyond the airport seemed strangely constant, perhaps a little more crowded now with a population of 3 million living here out of the nation’s total of 30 million souls. The same filthy rivers, street vendors, chaotic traffic, random cows wandering down the middle of the road, monkeys climbing the walls – all the usual delights of an Asian city.
Our accommodation, about 20 minutes walk from the tourist honey pot of Thamel is the traditionally appointed Tibet Hotel, tucked away in a quiet side street, a nice spot with friendly staff.
An early dinner at Rum Doodle, recently relocated to new premises in Thamel, and famed for the trekking group plaques adorning the walls in celebration of a completed trip. Alas, there was no room for the Exodus 2002 Everest Base Camp plaque, as the wall was now covered with plaques from 2007 onwards. Ah well, consigned to history again…
We dined on the rooftop, albeit rudely disrupted by a heavy rainstorm mid evening. Impressive, but soon over, and it helped clear the evening air.

Day 3

Up very early to catch a Buddah Air ‘mountain flight’, which leaves the Kathmandu domestic airport terminal and in a one hour round trip takes you east along the Himalaya to get a close up view of Everest.
Collected by the affable Rakesh of Dharma Adventures, it took just 20 minutes to reach the airport in the light early morning traffic. Whisked through security and entertained by a rather mystical Hindu ceremony showing on the terminal TV screens (if you’re really interested,
www.ssdham.org is the place to go), I was soon on to the small Beech 1900 and in the hazy skies over Kathmandu before 0700.
You very quickly see the huge mountains rearing out of the haze. Views north and west to Langtang Lirung, Shishapangma, and then to the fine peaks of Gauri Shankar and Melungtse, before reaching the mighty ‘8000ers’ – Cho Oyu 8201m, Sagamartha (Everest) 8848m, flanked by Nuptse and Lhotse. Ama Dablam, a huge peak that towers over the approach to Everest Base Camp looked insignificant by comparison, although still a fine looking summit. Then west to Makulu 8463m and the distant Kanchenchunga, my trek objective back in 2009. Magnificent.

Mount Everest and Makulu
Mount Everest, and Ama Dablam in the right foreground

If you do take this trip, take a camera with a long lens and polarising filter.
Then back to the hotel for breakfast before a frenetic private tour with Rakesh to areas of the Kathmandu valley I’d not seen before. We headed south through the heart of the city, much busier now, with five lanes of traffic trying to squeeze into one in places, an elephant carrying some crop or the other, those random cows again. 

Ramdom sights in Kathmandu!
But just 20 minutes of this took us into the ancient Durbar Square of Patan, one of the three cities that occupy the Kathmandu Valley. Marvellous temples, each devoted to one of the many Hindu gods, with fine lattice windows, and much devotion from the locals present. Around the Durbar Square we took in the Terracotta Temple, Med Chowk, and the Taliju, Krishna and Kumbeshwor temples, then walked the back streets of Patan to see the many small workshops producing Hindu and Buddhist figurines in bronze, copper and carved wood. 

Durbar Square, Patan

A visit to the Golden Temple for a Buddhist moment, this temple occupied by a young man, given the honour of ‘priesthood’ for one month, before handing over to another. During this time he doesn’t wash or change his clothes but is revered by the local worshipers. I didn’t get too close…

Patan workshops produce many of the best bronze and copper Buddhist and Hindu statues available 
Hindu festival cart in Patan
We visited a couple of specialist shops to look at some beautiful jewel and prayer boxes, set with many precious stones and decorated with silver string, and another shop selling healing bowls (placed on your head, and then tapped with a mallet, which then sends vibrations through your body for a minute or two… a weird feeling I can tell you).

We completed our visit to the south of the city by touring two adjacent villages, Khokana and Bungmati, beyond the ring road, and we were instantly into rural life. Set amongst terraced lands above the Bagmati River, growing vegetables, wheat, maize and rice, these villages were in a time warp. A tradition amongst the local Newar people concerns the role of a chicken in healing the Buddha during his meditation towards Enlightenment, and, as a consequence none of the locals keep chickens for food. Instead, the streets are overrun with ducks! Quite literally, with some carrying coloured cloth on one wing to identify their owner.

Many old people in the villages here, living a life that has been the same for ages, older women strip washing outside their houses, others passing the time chatting and weaving wool on their doorsteps, bunches of garlic hanging from the house frontages to dry, goats tethered and awaiting their fate…
Then, back to Kathmandu for a quick Nepali lunch before returning to the hotel for the group briefing on Tibet, our destination tomorrow.
Grave warnings about not asking guides awkward questions, to take great care about what you capture in your photography (no militia) and the risks of altitude sickness. All standard stuff when you go on holiday…
I then enjoyed a few beers with Pawan, the owner of Dharma Adventures, in a beautifully designed bar and restaurant complex set in the Garden of Dreams (Kaiser Mahal), a few minutes from Thamel. It is really a club, giving access to gardens (with wi-fi internet!) and a bar-restaurant, all beautifully appointed and a little oasis of calm for (mainly) ex pats living in Kathmandu. A good dinner, with interesting tales of Tibetan travel and designs on future forays to the Himalaya. Pawan is keen on his desserts, so we left the restaurant after our main course and headed for a French bistro in Thamel for a final course. As we’re now in the quiet season, Thamel shopkeepers were shutting up as we arrived, but it was good to see some of my previous watering holes still thriving: Ying Yang, Pilgrims and Good Earth, all fine places to eat.
The other surprise here was the presence of many water trucks in the streets and Pawan told me that Kathmandu does not have mains water in most places…everyone in the city relies on these trucks delivering millions of litres each night!
Back to the hotel, packing ready for our journey to the Tibetan plateau tomorrow.

Day 4

Early to Kathmandu airport once again, then a long wait for our Air China flight into Tibet. Delayed by bad weather on the Tibetan side, our flight did not get off the ground until 1600, arriving at Gongkar airport, some 95km south of Lhasa, around 1930 local time, a flight of just over a hour but moving into the Chinese time zone, 2¼ hours ahead of Nepal.
The airport is impressive, having been redeveloped in 2007, and was scrupulously clean and efficient. Proudly displaying their Chinese Immigration uniforms, the staff were friendly, courteous, and efficient, and we were ‘processed’ through as a group in under an hour.
The first thing that you notice when you emerge from the airport is the cleanliness of the air, and a profound silence. You also notice a slightly raised heart rate as we’re now at 3600m. There’s not a lot here, just mountains on both sides of the Yarlung Tsangpo valley (this is the Brahmaputra river which travels all the way down to Bangladesh) and barley fields.
The road was excellent and villages we passed through impeccably presented, with traditional Tibetan architecture and tree-lined thoroughfares. It is Children’s Day here, so many families were enjoying the last of their picnics in the school grounds in the fading light.

Typical Tibetan dwelling, with yak dung patties drying for fuel
We stopped for a quick look at the river en route, catching a nice sunset over the valley, before completing our two hour journey to Tsetang, the second largest town in the Ű region and apparently the most important town in Tibet up to the 7th century. This is the most fertile area in Tibet, and was historically very prominent under the powerful Yarlung Valley dynasty who unified much of central Tibet and extended their influence into both Nepal and China. Interestingly, the power of the Yarlung kings led to a Sino-Tibetan treaty in 821 in which signatories agreed ‘…the whole region to the east…being the country of Great China and the whole region to the west being assuredly that of the country of Great Tibet, from either side of that frontier there shall be no warfare, no hostile invasions, and no seizure of territory…’ Hum.
We had a late dinner in the Tashi Restauarant (yak sizzler, with a disappointingly light Lhasa Beer!). En route to the hotel we passed a strip of shop frontages, each occupied by one or two prostitutes, rather like Amsterdam but in neon light!. Overnight in the modern Tibet Yulong Holiday Hotel for the night. Adequate.

Day 5

This morning we set off south from the sprawling new town of Tsetang, through the rapidly expanding Chinese area and into the old Tibetan quarter nestling under the sacred mountain of Gangpo Ri, 4130m. Our first objective was Yumbulagang, reputed to be the oldest building in Tibet, built to house king Nyentri Tsempo, a mythological figure who is said to have descended from the heavens.
Originally a fortress, and most likely dating from the 7th Century, it is now a chapel consecrated to the ancient kings of Tibet. A smaller chapel on the upper floor is devoted to Chenresig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (the current Dalai Lama is considered to be the 14th manifestation of Chenresig).

It’s a stiff walk up to the tower, sited on the end of a craggy ridge affording fine views of the Yarlung valley, with patchwork fields of mustard and barley far below. Horses and yaks are available for the less able. There were good views from the ridge above the tower and I enjoyed a small kora around the tower base with the usual prayer wheels and incense burners smoking with juniper.
Returning to the village, it was noticeable how many solar cookers are now used to heat water for cooking and tea.
On our way back to Tsetang we paid a quick visit to Trandruk Monastery, one of the demoness-reducing monasteries established in the 7th Century.
We made our way westwards, along the Yarlung valley, now being ‘greened’ with substantial planting programmes in an attempt to stabilise the sand dunes that are created from sediment carried by the huge Yarlung Tsangpo river, and to prevent the road being covered by sand whipped up by the frequent winds, something we were to experience later in the day. Poplar and willow trees have been planted in huge quantities, with lavender coloured bushes also much in evidence in the more open areas. There were big views to the mountains to the north, beyond which lies the capital Lhasa.
We waited an hour or so for a ferry to take us across the Yarlung Tsangpo, a shallow bottomed boat with long-tail engine at the rear (a very basic two stroke). It’s a tricky journey, following the lazy course of this mighty river to avoid the sand banks on the inner curves. It was over an hour before we reached the other side, but time to relax and enjoy the views in all directions in bright sunshine.
After a quick picnic, it was a 20 minute hop to the famed Samye Monastery.
This is the big one. Tibet’s first monastery, founded between 765 and 780, this is where the first seven Buddhist monks in Tibet were ordained, where scholars were first deployed to translate ancient texts into Tibetan, and where the Great Debate took place in 790, in an attempt to resolve the differences between Indian and Chinese interpretations of Buddhism (the Indian way prevailed).
Traditionally home for the Nyingma-pa order, Samye has been damaged and restored many times over the years, the most damaging period during the Chinese Cultural Revolution when structures and priceless iconography were destroyed. Fortunately, restoration has been continuous in recent years and large numbers of monks now study and worship there.

Samye Monastery
The design of this huge temple complex is based on a mandala form of the universe, with the central structure, the Űtse, representing Mt Neru, and the temples around it representing the oceans, continents and subcontinents that ring the mountain in Buddhist cosmology. The Űtse has three levels, the first is Tibetan, the second Chinese, and the third Indian. Entering the temple you can see the stele (dating from 779) with a royal proclamation in Tibetan script that Buddhism was to be the state religion.

Monks in prayer inside the Samye Monastery
There is a fourth floor, affording good views of the surrounding ling chapels and four reconstructed chortens. High on a hill above the monastery (Hepo Ri) is a small palace established by King Trotsen Detsen, the founder of Samye.
This is a marvellous complex and our visit was enriched by attending the afternoon prayer session with about a dozen monks chanting under the watchful eye of a senior monk. We also received a kahtak (prayer scarf) in the room occupied by the Dalai Lama’s of the past.
Returning from Samye was a bit more of a challenge. During the afternoon, the wind from the west had risen significantly and was blasting down the Yarlung Tsangpo valley, raising a sandstorm from the banks of river sediment raised above water level and making for choppy conditions that would make it difficult for the ferryman to see the shallower reaches. It really was a case of earth meets sky, with the upper levels of the sandstorm reaching the base of the rain clouds drifting down from the mountains to our east.

Difficult return crossing of the Yarlung Tsangpo river
We waited it out for a while, but eventually had to get going, albeit casting off with considerable difficulty as the wind and current kept blowing the boat back towards the shoreline. A larger boat had left shortly before us, and we found it stranded on a sand bank 15 minutes out, only to discover they had run out of petrol…we shared some fuel (by draining our own tank!) and they were soon on their way.
Into the early evening we continued our journey by minibus towards Lhasa, travelling west along the valley before crossing the river over a very long bridge, taking us north-eastwards towards Lhasa along the valley of the Kyi Chu river, another huge river flanked by irrigation channels and lush farming country, bounded by some impressive sedimentary mountains to the east.
Entering Lhasa a couple of hours later, we came in from the west, through ‘New Lhasa’, with substantial development along a wide and very straight boulevard. Building standards were high and the new train line and station into Lhasa very contemporary in design. This is Chinese country, with hardly a Tibetan in sight, developed to house the many Han Chinese who now dominate the population of this ancient city. It was notable just how many military settlements we passed on the way in too.
Finally, we reached the old city to the east, the magnificent Potala Palace dominating our view, and then into a different world…the classic Tibetan architecture now holding sway, typically three storeys high, flat roofed, with the traditional windows and adornments.
We turned in towards the Jokhang Temple, passing a few well armed Chinese soldiers (who looked utterly unwelcoming), and quickly located our hotel for the next three nights, the very traditional Dhood Gu, superbly located a couple of minutes walk from this most famous of temples.
A quick dinner, this time a Nepalese selection, and then a late walk around the most famous kora in the world, the pilgrimage circuit around the Jokhang, known as the Barkhor.
Traditional street lamps lit our way along the narrow streets, passing an old woman spinning her prayer wheel and marvelling at the old buildings all around. The area was emptying of people as they drifted home, leaving a few lonely women prostrating outside the temple entrance, although groups of soldiers and police were still much in evidence. Young Chinese mainly, some clearly bored with this posting to the far west. The Potala Palace was glimpsed on one occasion, fantastically lit against the night sky.
A fitting end to a very long day.

Day 6

Our first stop was to the Jokhang temple, the destination for a constant succession of pilgrims to visit the most revered religious location in Tibet. To the front of the building is Barkhor Square, scene of numerous struggles with the Chinese authorities over the years, but today full of people coming to the temple to celebrate Saga Dawa, the month long festival to celebrate the enlightenment of the Buddha (Sakyamuni), his birth, death and first sermon, all of which occurred in the same month.
As you approach the entrance to the Jokhang, you are greeted with the sight of many people, mainly women, prostrating themselves in homage to the Buddha’s and associated deities inside. It’s a humbling experience to observe such profound spiritual devotion at close hand.

Pilgrims prostrating outside the Jokhang temple
Devout pilgrim prostrating on the kora around the Jokhang
Inside the temple, you immediately notice the smell of incense burning (juniper and rhododendron leaves) and the many butter lamps, continually topped up by the pilgrims who bring thermos flasks full of liquid butter as an offering. That, and the queues of pilgrims, young and old, many from distant villages across Tibet, patiently waiting to view the many chapels inside the temple, initially lining up along the perimeter of the dukhang, an assembly hall open to the sky, before entering the darker recesses of the inner temple housing the protective deities, the many manifestations of the Buddha, including the most important shrine in Tibet, the chapel of Jowo Sakyamuni, containing an image of the Buddha at the age of 12 years.
Most of the pilgrims spend hours inside the temple, oppressively dark and filled with pungent butter lamp odours, and it’s a real privilege to be allowed to share in their experience. They file patiently around all of the chapels, pouring butter to renew the lamps and stuffing small denomination notes into any crevice they can find, as an offering.
We visited the first floor of the temple, slightly less frenetic than downstairs, but with pilgrims still pushing past chanting their chosen prayer or mantra. Most tourist visitors end up on the roof, glad for space and a bit of fresh air. From here, you get great views of Barkhor Square, a real sense of the number of pilgrims walking the kora, and, of course, the presence of security cameras, soldiers in riot gear and numerous ‘police’ officers. There are fine views of the Potala Palace to the west, and the mountains, many snow covered, all around. Additional entertainment came in the form of work gangs singing along as they marched up and down, pounding building material just laid to renew areas of the roof.

The Potala Palace, view from the roof of the Jokhang
Barkhor Square, pilgrims doing the kora of the Jokhang in the foreground
Pilgrims walking the kora, Lhasa
Exiting the temple, we joined the kora, the clockwise walk around the temple, lined with many market stalls offering their wares. It’s an amazing experience to be washed along in the flow of people, most with prayer wheels or beads, lost in prayer as they attend to one of their most important spiritual obligations in life. A small number of people, mainly men, and occasionally boys and women, complete this circuit by fully prostrating along the route, advancing a pace or two before dropping to the ground in a full stretch, then on and on. Some do it sideways, so they are constantly facing in the direction of the temple.
I took a side street to pay a visit to the city’s Muslim Quarter, with a large green-roofed mosque, before completing the kora and re-emerging in Barkhor Square. As we did, a pilgrim offered us a mixture of saffron and water as a blessing, somewhat difficult to refuse, and the custom is to have a sip from your cupped hand before spreading the rest over the back of your head. The head got the treatment, but I wasn’t going to risk drinking it.
We turned west to walk across Barkhor Square, with intimidating militia manning small guard posts in places, after which the group headed for lunch. I decided to keep going and grab some pictures of the Potala Palace in good light, from an elevated balcony close to the western gate of the old city, marked by large white stupas. A wonderful spectacle, with snow capped mountains behind, the view only marred by a prominent red flag to the front of the palace. There’s an enormous square in front of the palace, to the rear of which is a monument erected by the Chinese to mark their ‘liberation’ of Tibet. Needless to say, that was one image that my camera didn’t get.

The Potala Palace, Lhasa
Returning to the restaurant I was met by our tour guide, who came running up to me saying ‘there was a situation.’ Apparently, the authorities had seen a visitor photographing the extensive army barracks to the south of the square below the Potala Palace and one of our group (i.e. me) was suspected and that further action (i.e. seizure of camera and local tour operator fined) could result.
Comfortable in the knowledge that I had not been stupid enough to take any pictures of anything remotely related to the military presence here, I was not too concerned, although for an hour or two afterwards I experienced first hand what it must be like to be under the scrutiny of the ever watchful authorities. Later in the day, it seems that they had got the wrong group, so the matter passed, much to the relief of our local tour guides.
Early afternoon we visited the important Sera monastery 5km to the north of the city. Before the Cultural Revolution, this monastery housed over 5,000 monks, but today numbers are considerably reduced (about 300 reside here) as the authorities cap the number. It is one of three great monasteries of the Gelugpa tradition.
Founded in 1419 by Sakya Yeshe, there are three colleges: Sera Me for fundamental precepts of Buddhism, Sera Je for itinerant monks from outside Tibet, and Sera Ngagpa for Tantric studies. We visited the college’s printing works where prayer books are painstakingly produced, then had the good fortune to be allowed to observe five monks starting work on a new sand mandala, before visiting the Sera Je college, an enormous hall for teachings with a number of chapels to the rear.

Afternoon debate at Sera monastery
After this, we attended the afternoon debating session between monks, a theatrical event where the questioner (standing) puts philosophical questions to (sitting) recipients. If answered to the questioner’s satisfaction he lunges forward, loudly clapping his hands with the palms together. If not, he does the same but with one hand inverted.
An odd thing to watch, the younger monks much nosier and animated, the older one’s sitting to the side of the square, enjoying a much calmer debate. They were all clearly enjoying themselves, albeit surrounded by camera and video bearing visitors.
Next stop was the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas, a huge complex known as Norbulingka (literally, ‘jewel park’), founded by the seventh Dalai Lama in 1755. The park houses a lake, a zoo (apparently not for the faint-hearted), and a number of palaces built by successive Dalai Lamas.

Norbulingka, summer palace of the Dalai Lamas
We visited the palace (Kelsang Potrang) of the Eighth Dalai Lama, viewing the main audience hall adorned with its many thangkas, before moving on to the beautifully set palace of the current Dalai Lama, built in the mid 1950s. Approached along a flower lined pathway, this is an impressive building with much to see inside, the most notable point of interest being the superb murals in the Dalai Lama’s audience chamber, depicting the history of Tibet in 301 scenes, the last one marking the visit by the Dalai Lama to Chairman Mao in 1956. We also viewed his private quarters before taking in the final assembly hall containing a huge gilded throne donated to him by the merchants of Lhasa.
Enjoyed dinner at Dunya, a popular restaurant near the hotel, with Ten Zin of Dharma Adventures and John Vincent Bellazza, an explorer, archaeologist and cultural historian living here in Lhasa. An interesting conversation over a simple meal, with much ground covered. What was most noticeable, however, was the extreme care taken not to say anything that could be overheard by the authorities. It’s always assumed that the secret police are eavesdropping.
I walked a final kora of the Barkhor as the last light of the day faded, and took in some rooftop views of the Potala Palace from the hotel.

The Potala Palace at night
Day 7

A cloudy start to the day, with a visit to the massive Potala Palace first thing. Alighting the coach we drifted into crowds of pilgrims doing the kora of the palace.
A quick history before I describe the tour: King Songsten Gampo moved the capital of Tibet from the Yarlung valley in the mid 7th century and built a palace on the present site of the Potala Palace. At the same time the nearby temples of Ramoche and Jokhang were built to house the dowries from his marriage to Chinese and Nepali wives. With the subsequent demise of the Yarlung empire, Lhasa became a backwater until the fifth Dalai Lama who relocated his government from the Drepung Monastery to the Potala Palace.
The White Palace’s nine-storey structure was completed in 1648, and it was not until 12 years after his death that the larger Red Palace was completed in 1694.
It has been home for successive Dalai Lamas since then, although since the construction of the summer palace at Norbulingka it has been used as a winter residence only.
We entered the Potala via the remnants of the Shöl village at the foot of the 130m Marpo Ri (Red Hill) on which the palace is constructed. Passports produced, permits checked (one of three checks as we proceeded into the palace itself), we slowly climbed the steps to reach the White Palace and enter the former living quarters of the Dalai Lama. Then on to the Red Palace, with its various chapels and the tombs of the 7th, 8th, 9th and 13th Dalai Lamas.
Rising steadily through the palace there are fine three dimensional mandalas and further chapels, then finally a large assembly hall and corridors leading to my personal highlight of the palace. This was the Chapel of the Dalai Lama Tombs, dominated by a 14m high chorten of the Fifth Dalai Lama gilded in 3700kg of gold. I had this room to myself apart from a seated monk lost in a chant…a profoundly atmospheric moment.

Drepung Monastery 

Shortly after, I exited the palace on the north side of the hill, taking in views of the modern sprawl of north Lhasa before taking the path down to Lhasa’s West Gate. Hot now as the sun had broken through the earlier clouds.
A quick lunch, then on to the huge monastery complex in Drepung. This was having extensive renovation work at the time of our visit, but it is a worthwhile excursion 8km north west of Lhasa and affords big views of the western suburbs of Lhasa, including the new railway station set above the river valley…a colossal structure which meant many people were relocated away from their traditional farmlands.
Once home to 10,000 monks, Drepung monastery was founded in 1416 by Jamyang Chöje, a disciple of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa order (the Yellow Hats). Within the monastery is the Ganden Palace, established as the home for the second Dalai Lama, and subsequently for the third and fourth, all of whom are now entombed here.
After passing through the Ganden Palace we visited the huge kitchen, staffed by over 100 monks at the peak of the monastery’s habitation. As at Sera the day before, we could hear the monks having their noisy debating session behind closed walls elsewhere in the complex. We completed our tour with a visit to the vast assembly hall, the biggest I’ve ever seen, draped in thangkas and supported by 180 columns, with chapels and iconography all the way around the perimeter. Notable here were butter sculptures of great intricacy, renewed each year by the resident monks.
Returning to Lhasa late afternoon, I took a stroll around the bustling market streets to the north of the Jokham and bought some bits to give kids at an orphanage to be visited later in the journey.
A quiet night in to attend to photos and this blog!

Day 8

We left Lhasa with clouds building up amongst the surrounding mountains but we were soon into brighter weather as we left the valley. Our first stop was an orphanage that The Adventure Company support and we met the house mother, teacher and some of the kids who seemed genuinely pleased to see us, although they were rather formal. Left some paper, pencils and some cash to support them as they only get token amounts from the state. Apparently, some of the children orphaned had parents who had been killed by the Chinese in the various demonstrations in the recent past.

Crossing the Yarlung Tsangpo, en route to Gyantse
Heading for the Kampa La
Crossing the Yarlung Tsangpo once again as we headed south, we were soon ascending away from the wide valley floor towards the Kampa La, a pass at 4794m. Great views in all directions, with the familiar browns of the Tibetan hillsides, interspersed with green terraces ploughed by yaks and planted with barley. At the pass we were rewarded with stunning views of the Yamdrok Tso, a huge lake with wonderful blue and turquoise hues and snow covered mountains behind. Marvellous viewing, and I was glad to note that I’m not too affected by altitude now, even though we’re almost at Mont Blanc summit height.
This is one of the four sacred lakes for Tibetans, and there is great concern about falling water levels following a controversial hydro-electric project which was completed some years ago.

Yamdrok Tso
Beyond the lake is the sedimentary brown rock landscape that typifies Tibet, with high snow capped mountains rising to over 7000m peeping through behind the foothills.
We had a good buffet lunch in a restaurant in Nakartse before moving swiftly on to broach the Karo La (4960m). We’re now in a Toyota Land Cruiser and the roads are remarkably good given the isolation of this area, passing herds of yak and sheep tended by nomads who roam these parts in the summer.
The landscapes get ever more dramatic, and at the pass the 7191m peak of Mt Nojin Kangtsan dominates, with huge hanging glaciers tumbling towards us.

Dramatic scenery en route to Gyantse

Incidentally, the Karo-La is the site of the highest battle in British military history, when Colonel Francis Younghusband took on 3,000 Tibetans there in 1904…it’s a long story that I won’t repeat here, but we were almost as bad as the Chinese in those days…
Onwards, crossing another pass at about 4400m (Simi La) with a very attractive dammed lake to view en route, we eventually descended the wide valley leading us to our objective for the following day, the ancient fort town of Gyantse. The Nyang-Chu valley is flanked by some superbly tilted sedimentary mountains with some great examples of wind erosion.

Yaks for hire!
Arriving in Gyantse, this was clearly an important town for farmers from surrounding villages, with many horses & carts, trailers full of families towed by small tractors, and much hustle and bustle on the street outside our hotel. Overnight in the Jian Zang hotel - not the best: very hard bed and dodgy water system.

Day 9

Gyantse is 254km from Lhasa, and noted for having the largest stupa in Tibet, Gyantse Kumbum. The town is the third largest in Tibet, and at 3950m is our highest stop yet. Its importance stems from its position on trade routes, east-west across Tibet and south to Sikkim and Bhutan.
Our morning started with a drive up to Gyantse Dzong, with its origins in the 10th century but properly established as a fort in the 14th century. Its now most famous as the site of a battle with the English led by Colonel Francis Younghusband, which destroyed much of the fort and killed 300 Tibetans, many of whom leapt off the fort walls rather than surrender. The prize for all this bloodshed was the granting of a trade mission between Britain and Tibet later in the year, only for the British to sell Tibet down the river to the Chinese in a 1906 treaty.


Gyantse Dzong
Gyantse Kumbum and Pelkar Chöde monastery, from Gyantse Dzong
The fort is still a wreck and there is no proper infrastructure, so exposed paths lead you to the top, but worth it for stupendous views in all directions, the town below, both old and new quarters, the lush farmland in the valley bottom, and the brown hued mountains all around us.
A visit to the nearby Pelkar Chöde monastery followed. This was founded in 1418 as a complex of 15 monasteries catering for all the sects and sub-sects of Buddhism that existed at that time. There is an impressive array of Buddhas in this monastery, and many local people, from the very young to the very old, were paying homage. A child of around two years was prostrating at the entrance with her grandmother. The predominant influences in this monastery are Gelugpa, Sakyapa and the more obscure Büton order.

Gyantse Kumbum
Right next to the monastery is the famous Gyantse Kumbum (kumbum means ten thousand), a huge chorten dating from 1427, and the largest in Tibet. Over six floors there are 77 chapels containing between them 100,000 images on murals, many Newari in origin. Needless to say, I didn’t visit all of them, but proceeded up though the chorten on increasingly narrow and steepening steps to emerge just below the gold dome, where a balcony kora gives fabulous views all around, with the dzong dominating the view to the south. An awesome spot.
Had a good lunch in the Tashi Restaurant, before leaving the town for a two-hour drive northwest to Shigatse, the capital of the Tsang province. We followed a wide valley all the way, with many villages along the roadside with barley and vegetable crops in abundance, and mountains on both sides seemingly going off into infinity. This is a wonderful country!

Reaching Shigatse it quickly becomes apparent that this town, the second largest in Tibet with a population of over 100,000, is quite different in character to Gyantse, with many more Chinese in evidence, new apartments and industrial units everywhere, and new roads ready for the next wave of expansion.
In Shigatse our hotel for the night is the spacious Gang-Gyan Hotel, opposite the Tashilhunpo Monastery, one of the finest in Tibet.
I popped into the Old Town to visit the Tibetan market for a spot of shopping, as I feel increasing guilt that I never bring my wife back anything from my trips. So, breaking a habit of a lifetime, I have treated her to a pair of tsompa (the highest quality I could find) to keep her tootsies warm.
Dinner at the Songtsen Tibetan Restaurant, popular with tour groups.

Day 10

We’re now at around 3860m and 250km from Lhasa, and visiting the seat of the Panchen Lama, who has traditionally been based at Tashilhunpo Monastery, when not in the custody of the Chinese, as has been the case in the recent past.
Historically, the Tsang kings wielded power from the impressive Shigatse Dzong (rather like a small version of Potala Palace), although much of it was destroyed during the Cultural Reveloution. We visited Tashilhunpo Monastery first thing, joining great throngs of pilgrims from the Shigatse region and as far afield as western Tibet who come to receive a blessing from the Buddha figures in the many chapels here.

Tashilhumpo monastery, Shigatse

This is one of the foremost Gelugpa monasteries, founded in 1447 by Tsongkapa disciple Genden Drup (who was retrospectively named the first Dalai Lama). It only really came to prominence when the fifth Dalai Lama declared his teacher, the then abbot of Tashilhunpo a manifestation of Öpagme, a deification of Buddha’s perfected cognition and perception, thereby creating the lineage of the Panchen Lamas (Panchen means ‘great scholar’).
Unknowingly, this distinction between Panchen and Dalai Lamas gave rise to potential rivalry in the Gelugpa order, and the subsequent Panchen Lama was declared ruler of Tsang and western Tibet by the Qing dynasty in China.
A similar schism occurred in the 1920s with a dispute over Tashilhunpo’s autonomy, leading to the flight of the 9th Panchen Lama to China, never to return. The 10th Panchen Lama only got out of China shortly before his death.
Tashilhunpo is like a walled town, and fortunately escaped much of the damage occasioned by the Cultural Revolution. First port of call is the Chapel of Jampa, which holds the world’s largest image of the Maitreya (Future) Buddha, standing 24m tall. Gold and copper plate abound.
We then visited the tombs of first Dalai Lama and 4th to the 10th Panchen Lamas.
The Ketsang temple is particularly attractive, with a courtyard and assembly hall housing the throne of the Panchen Lama. Overall well worth the visit, not least for the impressive display of devotion from the many pilgrims who be spending the day here, doing the kora of the monastery, and making their numerous offerings in return for a blessing.
Another visit to the Tibetan market, and I was quite affected when observing a couple of family groups, from Tingri in the west, who were gathering together their gear before their return to their villages after making a pilgrimage to Shigatse. Materially poor, with filthy clothes and bedding, but happy and purposeful. We have much to learn in the western world.

On pilgrimage in Shigatse
A quick lunch then a five hour drive to our stop for the night at Shegar, close to the entry checkpoint to the Qomolangma National Preserve, the gateway to Everest Base Camp.
Leaving Shigatse you are quickly into barren landscapes, dominated by brown sedimentary rock mountains bounding wide valleys with very basic farming: yaks, sheep and some barley fields helped along by irrigation channels. A hot afternoon under perfectly clear skies.

Entering Qomolangma National Preserve

We’re now on the ‘Friendship Highway’ but traffic is very light, a few tourists heading in the same direction as us and lorries coming in from the Nepal/Tibet border. The well surfaced road took us over the 4520m Chong La, with huge views all around, before passing the marker post helpfully telling us that we’re now 5000km from Shanghai.
Onwards to Chusar, passing through yet another military checkpoint, before entering a long gorge leading us into high country to reach Mapu La at 5020m and the official entrance to the Qomolangma National Preserve. Views west to Pula Kangri 6104m from this prayer flag strewn pass.
Downwards again to a major river valley draining the Himalaya directly to our south and suddenly fantastic views of Cho Oyu (the eighth highest mountain in the world), quickly followed by Everest, completely clear of cloud on this northern elevation. Awesome (no apology for repeated use of this word!)...

First view of Everest
Overnight in a basic Chinese run hotel in Shekar, a town earmarked for development by the regional authorities, creating a curious blend of old (high fort with precipitous walls and monastery on the bluff above the town), and new - the town filling up with the usual concrete developments that the Chinese do so well. Power and water was off for much of our stay, although they managed to cobble together a decent Chinese meal. Very gusty winds at night rattled the single glazed windows, another example of excellent Chinese design, turning my bedroom into a fridge. But, hey ho, we’re in Tibet at 4300m, so what else to expect?

Day 11

A perfectly blue sky greeted us and we were off early to pass through the main military checkpoint just beyond Shegar. This was to be the first of many permit/passport checks today, but the ultimate objective was a prize worth having: Everest Base Camp and the famed Rongphu Monastery.

Heading for Everest Base Camp, the road south of Shegar 
Our Land Cruiser took us steadily up gravel roads to Pang La, an amazing viewpoint at 5120m, revealing a huge vista from Makalu in the east and then south and west to Everest, Gyachung, Pumo Ri and Cho Oyu. Truly magnificent.
We then descended, relatively quickly, to the photogenic villages and ruins of the Dzaka valley before turning south after the village of Chödzom to make the final half hour approach to Rongphu, with snow capped peaks progressively revealing themselves and finally confronted with the enormous north face of Everest, dominating all before it.

The magnificent sight of Everest from the north
You can barely take your eyes off this magnificent summit, so clear in the brilliant sunshine, with all of the rock and glacial terrain in sharp relief and the upper yellow sandstone band clearly visible.
After a quick lunch at our hotel for the night (shared loos, but a great terrace more than makes up for that!), we headed up the valley to pick up the shuttle bus service that takes you the final few kilometres to Base Camp itself. Two more permit/passport checks…
I had managed to get a ‘special favour’ from the authorities to walk beyond the Base Camp towards Advanced Base Camp, a walk forbidden to mere mortals. We had been promised three hours, which meant I had packed crampons as we would just have reached the glacier below ABC, but the military at the final checkpoint arbitrarily cut that to 40 minutes. So a fast yomp, now at 5200m and into a strong headwind, taking me and our guide up to the base of the terminal moraine, affording close up views of Lhakpa Ri (a future climbing objective) and even more impressive views of Everest itself.

Stumpy at Everest Base Camp
It was quite an effort, but a beer back at our hotel (recently built and directly opposite the Rongphu Monastery at 4900m) soon led to recovery.

A well-earned beer ;)
With clear weather continuing, I walked a kora around the monastery itself, with yaks grazing the surrounding hills, before a quick visit to the tiny assembly room, with nuns kindly opening up for me. This is the highest monastery in the world and nuns predominate here, about 20 of them. A great spot, which had me quietly chanting to myself…

Everest from Rongphu Monastery
Rongphu Monastery
Basic dinner at the hotel and multiple shots of the sun setting on Everest: completely knackered with the altitude and exertions of the day, but well worth it!

Sunset on the north face of Everest 

Day 12

A poor night’s sleep in this strange hotel, probably because of the altitude, but awoke to first light on Everest and a herd of yaks grazing outside my bedroom window.
Random thought: who on earth could build this guesthouse (originally named Everest View), with 25 rooms and just one toilet for men and one for women, but with no sinks in the entire joint? Must be those Chinese experts again…
We left Rongphu behind us, initially taking the road we came up on, but then we veered north westwards on a very rough track, which, after three hours, would take us back to the Friendship Highway at Tingri.

4WD route from Everest Base Camp towards Tingri

View to Cho Oyu from the Friendship Highway
This took us across very isolated and unyielding country, our 4WD really earning its keep on the extremely rutted track, but the scenery was stupendous, a fantastic variety of craggy rock bluffs, rolling plateau uplands, sand dunes, glaciers, and sparkling white peaks creating a dramatic backdrop to our view south and west. We passed nomads herding sheep, herds of yak, the occasional nomad tent, and, very occasionally the nomads themselves, sun darkened skin offset by red braid in their hair.

Views from the Friendship Highway near Tingri

We passed over the Lamna La at 4800m before the long descent to Tingri, where we enjoyed a superb view south to Everest and Cho Oyu.
Back on the deserted Friendship Highway, we passed through numerous villages with many a horse and cart taking brightly dressed Tibetan ladies to a festival. Yaks and horses helped farmers plough the arid land in these parts, with occasional green patches where irrigation channels have been run to bring river water to the fields, again mainly barley under cultivation. Every home had neat patties of yak dung drying for fuel on their boundary walls.
Further north west from Tingri, under the watchful eye of scared mountain Tsang La (6495m), we observed many ruined fortifications dating from the 17th century, when the Tibetans had to defend themselves from invading Ghurkhas from Nepal.
Then south in an increasingly arid landscape before a long ascent up to the Lalung La (4910m) and closely after the spectacular viewpoint of Yakri-Shungla La at over 5000m, where Phola Ganchen (7661m), Shishapangma (8013m) and a whole crop of sparkling white peaks on the Tibet/Nepal border presented themselves for inspection. One of the best mountain views I’ve ever had in my life…it really does feel like you are on the roof of the world here.

Peaks on the Tibet-Nepal border east of Zhangmu
We then started the long descent to the border, all downhill from now on, dropping from the Tibetan plateau at 5000m to Zhangmu (Khasa in Nepalese) at 2300m.
But first, a late lunch stop in Nyalam in a restaurant festooned with signed Olympic, and Everest, Cho Oyu and Shishapangma expedition flags. Much hotter here but the wind remains as relentless as ever. Most of the buildings here are three storeys tall, as the winter snow frequently buries the ground floor. In Tibetan, Nyalam means ‘gateway to hell’, due to the fact that the long steep gorge below the town fills with cloud during the July/August monsoon.
The gorge below Nyalam is truly spectacular and from just north of the town you pass abruptly from aridity to verdant green slopes. The road is truly magnificent and winds its way very efficiently along the steep valley sides to the east of the river. Just above the border town of Zhangmu we could see how it has been made, with a last unfinished section being completed by gangs of road workers. Notable was the hand finishing of the concrete road sections!

Last of the decent road surfaces before Nepal
Zhangmu is a frenetic town, choked with lorries waiting to cross the border a few kilometres further downhill. It’s a congested little town perched spectacularly on the steep valley sides, but not a place I’d want to linger. The road below the town was also ‘under construction’ with no traffic control, so chaos reigned as usual.
The Kodari border with Nepal is manic. No sooner had we alighted from our 4WDs, we were surrounded by hordes of porters looking for work (to carry our bags through Chinese customs through to a waiting bus on the Nepali side of the border) and money changers. Our guide skilfully led us through the border formalities, and with only cursory searches of our luggage we were into Nepal. Very hot and humid now, but only a hour’s drive further downhill on shockingly narrow and badly surfaced roads passing through many small villages en route, avoiding chickens, ducks and dogs who seemed to think that the road was their territory, very laid back, as are all things in Nepal.
We reached our destination for the day by walking over a long metal suspension bridge to ‘The Last Resort’, (www.thelastresort.com.np), a superb spot with good quality tented accommodation and spa set in lush tropical vegetation on the west side of the Bhote Khosi valley.

Gateway to the Last Resort, Nepal

Established some years ago by a New Zealander, a Mr Allidice (?), it has a 160m bungey jump from the suspension bridge, as well as a Canyon Swing and High Ropes. They also offer canyoning locally. He built the bridge and in return for land, gave villagers in this remote part of Nepal work in the resort and established a school nearby. They regularly contribute to road improvements/repairs in the vicinity.
A great spot, and I enjoyed (endured?) a strong ayurvedic massage (they support www.himalayanhealers.org), followed by a good dinner washed down with some Aussie red. Perfect.

The Last Resort,  Bhote Khosi valley, Nepal
Moreover, I had, by then, decided to abandon the tour (which was heading off for Bhaktapur the following day, a town I’d visited some years ago) and have another day up here in the hills. Bring it on…

Day 13

A great sleep, but awoken early by insects and birds, so enjoyed some yoga and pranayama as the sun rose. A chilled day beckons J
Delightful gardens, with red dragonfly courting, large brown butterflies floating in the hot, humid air, and spectacular vegetated verticality all around. Occasionally a cool breeze from the surrounding hills would quieten the cicadas, only to allow the sound of the fast running Bhote Khosi a couple of hundred metres below us come through.
Another massage, some reading…perhaps this is what I should do on my holidays in future?! A very chilled spot: highly recommended.

Day 14

Around midnight the monsoon arrived. Thankfully tents in this resort have a corrugated metal roof, so no water ingress, thankfully. The rain thundered down for a couple of hours, and I was soon back to sleep, although it was noticeably cooler in the morning, with a good breeze rustling the bamboo trees around my tent. Some yoga to keep the chilled feeling, all too soon to be lost once I return to my wok schedule next week.
Picked up by Rakesh and returned to Kathmandu, following the steep sided Bhote Kohsi valley, with farmers growing maize on the tiny terraces created on the vertiginous ground. The road had clear evidence of regular rockfall, particularly when the monsoon gets well and truly underway. Dropping further, the Bhote Khosi becomes the Sun Khosi at the confluence of the two rivers and the valley widens, with red earth now predominating. Once again, maize but now with rice and bananas cultivated in the hotter climes at lower altitude. Very attractive countryside.
Had lunch at the smart Mirabel Resort in Dhulikhel, about an hour from Kathmandu, joined by GM Antonio. Many ideas for future yoga and meditation trips…
A quick rainstorm cooled things off a bit as we finally got to the Kathmandu valley, but roads through Bhaktapur and central Kathmandu were very clogged as people leave work early on a Friday…the same the world over!

Day 15

A morning visit to Pashupati, the Hindu temple complex and site for cremations. As before, a moving experience to see the way Hindus treat death, and in such a public fashion.


Lunch close to my favourite bookstore in the world, Pilgrims Book House in Thamel: great mountaineering and Buddhist texts, and a superb map section. Finally, Kathmandu, Bahrain, London via Gulf Air.


What to think? What to say?
Tibet is a truly epic place to visit. The indigenous people smile readily, their devotion to Buddha and his many manifestations and deities extremely moving, and the landscape is startling. From high ice capped peaks to fields of mustard and barley overlooked by fortresses and monasteries.
You really do step back in time.
Naïve romanticism? Of course.
There’s another side to Tibet. An edginess that comes with the hidden hand of the authorities: great work done on infrastructure – roads, power, essential modernisation – but at what price?
I won’t repeat here the fundamental restriction on human rights for Tibetan people, but you can sense it, feel it, experience it, most notably in the larger towns.
But my abiding memory is of massive skies, choughs soaring into the thin air, monks chanting prayer in the dimly lit monastery assembly rooms, the easy smile of the people, despite their many privations.
Go visit. But don’t leave it too long.

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