Tibet and Nepal 2009

Tibet and Nepal 2009

Two weeks on the roof of the world

Finally it was time for Paula to go on her dream vacation! We had been toying with the idea of this trip ever since we came to Korea, but all the red tape and uncertainties of arranging a trip to Tibet had kept us away from there until September 2009 - only a couple of months before our planned departure from Korea.

But after several months of planning, applying for visas and travel permits, we had finally packed our bags and were heading for Busan airport. Paula couldn't believe it. I think it first really dawned on her when we had walked through all the security checks in Shanghai airport and had finally boarded the plane to Lhasa via Xi'an.

I had come off my bike in the mountains two weeks earlier and was still a marked man. I was to limp through the entire first week in Tibet!

The flight into Lhasa was pretty spectacular with the Himalayas coming into sight. Once landed in Lhasa we were picked up by our guide Keltze and dropped at our hotel in central Lhasa, 40km from the airport. What comes to mind from the trip into town was our first sight of the Potala Palace. This was a truly magnificent sight!

Even though we had just flown up to 3700m of altitude directly from sea level, we felt surprisingly well. There was some lightheadedness and we definitely didn't feel like running a marathon, but we didn't suffer from headache or labored breathing - two common signs of altitude sickness. We did sleep very poorly at night though, but I put that down to sleeping on a bed hard as a rock! Still, we took it easy for the first few days, glad that we had incorporated 3 days on our own before the mandatory tour started (one cannot visit Tibet without being part of a tour these days!)

First day walking around in the old Tibetan part of town we were taken aback by the heavy Chinese military presence, but were still able to see beyond it and appreciate the old buildings, the pilgrims and the traditional lifestyle which is apparent all over in the old quarter. This part of town is very much unchanged by the passing of town and it was not difficult to imagine how Tibet had been 100 years ago, before the present political mess-up.

We walked down to the central square, Bakhore Square and followed the pilgrims on the kora - the religious circuit of the Jokhan Temple, which is the single most important temple in Tibet. Local residents join pilgrims on one or several circuits of the outside of the temple, spinning their prayer wheels and praying all the way. Some even make full body prostrations for every few meters. The display of faith is incredible. Unfortunately we mostly saw older people showing their faith in this manner, which made us think that this religious practice might be lost on the younger generation. Or maybe the younger generation was held up by work....

The following days the impressions settled a bit and we got to notice another side of Tibet which made us a little sad. As I mentioned before, the military presence was heavy, and we slowly started to pay more attention to all the surveillance cameras outside all the temples, the "policemen" in full combat gear carrying teargas guns or automatic rifles on every street corner and temple entrance, the poor living conditions for the Tibetans compared to the Chinese in the new town etc. The politics of the Chinese administration is clear - as they have realized that Tibetans will never feel Chinese, they have decided to open up Tibet for Chinese settlers and thus push out Tibetan culture and make the Tibetans a minority in their own country. The tactics has already shown it's worth. The businesses are all controlled by the Chinese and Tibetans cannot find work if they don't speak Chinese (which has no resemblance what so ever with Tibetan). Still, Tibetans do not receive neither a Chinese ID card nor passport, so they are prisoners in their own country, but left to see foreign aggressors eat up their land bit by bit!

Everywhere ...

Some openly and others more discrete.

We started to get depressed .....

On our forth day in Tibet we joined a tour which eventually would leave us at the Nepali border, 7 days later. This turned out to be pretty good for us, as our spirits were suffering a bit from what we were seeing around us. On a tour you don't get to see these things and so we slowly started to forget. Funny how easy it is to jump over to the other side and forget the previous days impressions ..... I guess that's why the Chinese force you to go on a tour if you want to visit Tibet. By keeping you busy they can draw a different picture of Tibet.

About the whole travel situation in Tibet, I suppose that you could just book a two day tour and then add some days on your own, as we did. But once in Tibet, you need a travel permit to move around outside Lhasa, so you'd be limited to what you could do there. They've got it pretty locked down!

Anyway, we started with a tour of the Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's summer palace until 1959 when he fled to India. After this we went to see the winter palace - the Potala. The Potala dominates the Lhasa skyline from everywhere. Built on a hill at the old Western gate, it has a commanding position in town. You are never in doubt of it's significance, as you could be with the Jokhan Temple, Tibet's most important temple but a little insignificant looking from the outside. The Potala is everything but insignificant looking !

The white part of the palace was used for political purposes and the red part for religious. After the usual security check we started scaling the stairs up to the white palace where we paid our hefty entrance fee. If only this money was used for the maintenance of the Potala it would be alright, but we have no such fantasies. Once inside we got a one-hour tour of the inner rooms containing assembly halls, tombs of previous Dalai Lamas and various religious statues. It was all very impressive although somewhat deserted. Only a few caretaker monks live in the palace at the moment together with the fire brigade, so instead you now have to close your eyes and imagine how this place would have been when the Dalai Lama lived here with all his entourage! It would have been quite a sight!

The day ended at the Jokhan Temple. As opposed to the Potala, entry to the Jokhan is not regulated and organized in set visiting times, so the temple is always crowded. So much that it is a little difficult to appreciate. For me, the main attraction was seeing how popular it is with the pilgrims. Just outside the temple gates, 50 -100 people will gather throughout the morning to pray, displaying their faith by full body prostrations. Others (or indeed the same people) will circumnavigate the outer temple circuit (the kora) several times while spinning their prayer wheels and praying using their praying beads (mana). It is quite impressive how big a part religion plays in their lives.

Next day we drove outside of town to a big monastery called Drepung. This is a very important monastery in the history of Tibet - both for religious and political reasons. Traditionally almost 30% of the male Tibetan population were monks, so it is no surprise that many political movements have started in the monasteries. Also political unrest, and Drepung has played a big part in this, as it was perhaps the biggest monastery in Tibet with almost 10.000 monks living there before the Chinese invasion. Now the resident monks are counted in hundreds, if that. Like the Potala, it was an impressive sight, although a bit deserted with only a few monks and the fire brigade around.

In the afternoon we tried to go to another big monastery in the Lhasa outskirts, Sera, but as it was closed for the day (the head monk had taken the day off!?!), we were free to walk around the old town instead. We adopted Dale and Wilson and showed them around some of the places we had explored on our own in the days leading up to the tour start. Both are keen photographers, so they we happy just wandering around the narrow alleys, entering peoples houses (!) and sticking their lenses up the locals noses !!!! There are plenty of good photos in the old town...

Next day Paula and I decided against spending 9 hours in the bus to go see a sacred lake to the north of Lhasa. Instead we made our own way down to the river to people-watch as the locals were washing their carpets in the cold water, and then back to Sera, which was now open. Sera is known for its debating monks. At 3 in the afternoon monks begin to gather in the debating courtyard. One monk will sit down on a cushion and wait for another monk to take up position in front of him. The standing monk will then start asking questions relating to the prayer books, clapping his hands with every question asked. The sitting monk will have to answer to the satisfaction of the other monk. We saw what appeared to be a teacher walking around, listening to various debates - the sessions are used to prepare the monks for when they leave the monastery and have to "deal" with the public. It was clear that the monks enjoyed these sessions - the laughs seemed heartfelt and not just for the sake of the tourists (which were many!).

On September 18th we celebrated Chile's independence day together with the group. As it happens it was also the Hebrew New Year and Miriam brought on the traditional apples and honey! It was probably the most peculiar September 18th we will ever celebrate!

While we were in Lhasa we tried to support the locals as much as we could. When eating we would always chose the Tibetan restaurants (except for our favorite cafe which was Nepali - at least it wasn't Chinese!) and Paula always checked if the souvenir stall was Tibetan or Chinese. When possible, she would buy her souvenirs at the temple shops, where there was a better chance that the goods had been made by Tibetans as well as being sold by them. We could see how the Tibetans were squeezed in their own town, so we weren't going to add to their troubles!

Sunday it was time to leave Lhasa after a week there. One person from our group, Miriam, could not join us as her blood pressure had risen and it would be safe to continue up to higher elevations. Adam, one of the Polish guys, had been feeling sick for 3 days already, but decided to come along anyway. He wasn't to feel better until we reached lower altitude in Nepal, the poor thing!

Pretty soon we started to hit the mountains and some high passes. The scenery was grand and we even got snowed on, to Paula's delight! Most of the passes were at around 5000m of altitude but we managed without complications. When not climbing up switchbacks we were driving through valleys full of barley fields and small villages. We had a long way to drive, but we still managed to stop at all the passes and enjoy the scenery.

When we reached Gyantse it was time for a longer stop at the Pelkor Chode monastery. Our guide Keltze had handed us over to another guide (possibly due to compatibility problems with one of the guests - something the rest of us would also experience!). Dawa turned out to be an excellent guide. What I especially liked about him was that he is a firm believer (Buddhist) and could therefore give some thoroughly interesting explanations of the Tibetan society, seeing that religion plays such a huge part in their lives. Apart from that he was a genuinely nice guy.

But back to the Pelkor Chode monastery. Main feature here is an enormous stupa, big enough to hold 74 small chapels, each with it's own Buddha or protector. It was pretty impressive! Unfortunately we did not have enough time to explore the small town of Gyantse. It seemed like an interesting place to wander around with an old quarter and a Potala-like fortress overlooking town. But we had to press on to Shigatse.

In Shigatse we managed to visit another big monastery before nightfall. And we were lucky enough to be there at the time of a small festival. Unfortunately we only got to see the end part of a procession and all the monks leaving. Still, it was better than nothing.

In the evening, at the hotel, some of us discovered that any key card could open all the hotel rooms, so we decided to make a surprise party in Dale's room! By now a core group within the group had already formed, with Jessica and Piet from Holland, Paula and me, Dale from Canada and Wilson from USA/China spending a lot of time together. The three other members of the group were Adam and Majiek from Poland and Joanna from Greece. Adam was as I mentioned before not in a good shape and did not speak any English, so those two only joined in occasionally and Joanna .... well, there was a reason why Keltze had ditched us !!!

Next day we were off to Everest Base Camp!!! Unfortunately Adam was not feeling any better by now, so we had to leave him in a small village just before the checkpoint, to come back for him the next day. To reach the Base Camp we would have to drive 5 hours in on a dirt road, so if he would start to feel worse in the higher altitude, we would all have to drive back immediately, so he took one for the team. Thanks - but what a petty for him!

Coming over the Pang-la pass we would get a first view of the really big mountains after one hour on the switchbacks. Even with the cloud cover it was a spectacular sight - one which does not easily translate to print or monitor. But let me tell you, seeing the cloud that obscured the world's highest mountain and another cloud containing another 8k mountain had some value, even if it sounds daft!

From there we drove through a lovely valley dotted with barley-growing farms and villages until we just before nightfall reached a bend in the road and Mt. Everest straight ahead! This time without Mr. Cloud .... It was time for some serious photo sessions before the light disappeared. After all, we didn't know how the visibility would be in the morning....

At the Base Camp there is no hardship for the visiting tourists. There are a s***load of nomad tents already put up with funny names such as "The Everest Hilton" and "Snow Area Happy Hotel". The tents are large and only 4-5 people are allowed per tent, so all in all it was pretty comfortable. Lots of blankets and a stove in the middle takes care of the temperature control. The toilets were under the open sky though, and it was an impressive decoration. The air was so clear and the stars so plentiful that you almost feared that they would all come tumbling down!

We had plans to get up early and walk the last 4 km up to the "real" base camp (i.e. the last checkpoint, beyond which you would have to pay a large amount of money to go!), but all through the night I had a splitting headache and didn't sleep one minute. It wasn't until 6am when we were supposed to head off that I got hold of an altitude sickness remedy, but by then it was too late for me. Too wasted! Paula decided to stay with me (thanks P!) but she could have just as well gone walking with the other guys, because in 5 minutes my headache was gone and I was able to get half an hours sleep. At dawn we got up and enjoyed the slow illumination of a perfectly clear Mount Everest. WOW .....

We waited in the cold for the bus to take us the 4 km which we had missed out on, but I guess that the driver had a better nights sleep than I did! But in the end it turned up and Wilson and Joanna joined us together with Dawa. When almost at the base camp we picked up Majiek, Piet and Jessica - cold to the bone! They were happy to get out of the cold and sit to warm up in the bus. Dale, as the seasoned hiker, was better prepared for the cold and walked back on his own. At the base camp we had to check in (again) , show passports, be double checked with our travel permits etc. What a hassle! We were also warned against taking photos with our own national flags (???), taking photos of the military facilities (just a simple shack) and walking beyond the well trodden path. Their paranoia was even bigger than the mountain itself! Not that we saw the mountain, cause the fog had by now moved in and hid the mountain from us.

From Everest we headed towards Zhangmu at the Nepali border. It was once again a long drive, but we already knew that the Friendship Highway was under repair and one stretch would only be open after 7pm, so we had plenty of time to stop for photos and lunch. Unfortunately not everyone on the bus understood this, which caused a little friction! But at least 9 out of 10 were enjoying themselves .....

The scenery in Tibet is very grand but also very barren. Generally being located at an elevation above the treeline, there is no shade to be found anywhere and there is nothing to break the wind. For some reason we didn't experience too much wind except at the passes, but the sun was relentless and the dry atmosphere took it's toll on our lips and skin in general. After passing the last spectacular pass, we started to descend the Tibetan plateau for good. The closer to Nepal we got (i.e. the further down the mountain we got) the greener it got. I don't know who thought up the location for the Friendship Highway, but whoever it was must have been smoking dope! This road is unbelievable ... we hit the most dramatic part of the road just as it was getting dark, but we still got a good idea of the steep drops on the side of the road, the river far below us and the waterfalls on both sides of the valley .... and on top of the road for that matter - we basically drove through a few waterfalls!

When it was completely dark and we were on the section under repair, we all of a sudden were held back by about 10 trucks trying to drive up the mountain. Well, they weren't really trying to get anywhere. They were pointed upwards but they were just parked there in the middle of the 1-lane road. One hour was spent trying to figure out what was happening and trying to position our bus at the very edge of a huge drop-off so that the trucks could pass, but to no avail. Some wanted to hike the last stretch down to Zhangmu, others were planning to overnight in the bus while Dawa was acting traffic police while getting more and more annoyed with our Chinese driver and Chinese in general. I must admit that what I saw this night was probably the most stupid traffic I have ever seen. Especially after we finally got past the trucks only to find that when the road finally turned into a 2-lane road again, one lane was permanently occupied by parked trucks and traffic kept coming towards us up the mountain where there was absolutely no room left! The last 5km down to Zhangmu took over 3 hours if I recall right! We arrived at our hotel at 11pm (crappy hotel by the way!).

In the morning light we could appreciate the previous nights problem a little better. Zhangmu only has one tiny road as the whole village is located on a steep mountain side. The road which is basically a small 2-lane road must accommodate parked cars and double direction traffic. And as it is one of the only border crossings between Nepal and Tibet, it sees a large amount of trucks also. Not an easy situation. We got stuck pretty soon on the last few kms down to the border, so we picked up our bags and walked instead. Dawa promised that he would not drive back to Lhasa with "his" Chinese driver ... There was no love lost between them at this point!!

At the border we had to go through the usual stupid bureaucracy again. All the group had to pass through the control together (even though we had not arrived in Tibet together), photocopies of the travel permits were not valid, bags were scanned and afterwards all our luggage was checked physically, every page in our guide books were turned etc. Paula was furious and for good reason. It was clear to us that Dawa was very frustrated also. Just this same morning he had received a phone call from his agency telling him that Tibet had been closed for foreigners the day before. His next group had already arrived in China to pick up their Tibet Travel Permits, but were not given any ! I guess we were lucky not to be affected as we were leaving anyway, but that was only a poor relief for Dawa. Many Tibetans survive on the tourists coming to visit, and they are left absolutely helpless by these erratic travel restrictions. The reason for this closure was the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the communist party rule in China. Man ... if the party is such a good thing then why do they have to enforce such strict control???!!

We had an emotional farewell with Tibet and Dawa and went on our way futher down the mountain....

The trip down to Kathmandu was just as memorable as on the Tibet side. The scenery, the crowded bus, the busy market towns we passed through and the near-death experience! I was happy to make it to Kathmandu alive ....

In Kathmandu we had to apply for a new Chinese visa, as the embassy in Korea doesn't give out multiple entry visas and we had to fly home via Chengdu in China. After driving through half of Kathmandu several times, our taxi driver finally found the embassy, only to find out that it was closed and would be so for the next week due to the upcoming Dashain Festival - Nepal's most important festival. So we had to return to our hotel and start rearranging our flight. The first day was spent this way, but in the end we got a direct flight back to Seoul instead our original flight with one overnight stay in China, so even better! We also got an extra day in Kathmandu.

So what did we do in Kathmandu ? Well, not a whole lot. Kathmandu for the traveler is like a split town. There is the Thamel district which caters to the tourist with it's great food, trekking gear and souvenir shops and cheap guest houses. and then there is the rest of Kathmandu, which basically is very Indian - for better or worse. It is infinitely easier to just wander around Thamel and hang out at the cafes instead of venturing out in the crowded, chaotic and dirty streets of real Kathmandu. We did both, but mainly the first! The core group stuck together the 5 days we were in Kathmandu, so the company was excellent.

One day we went to the burning ghats. I had gone there in 1995 and the memory had stayed with me. It wasn't really a pleasant memory, but the other guys would like to see it, so I joined them. Nothing much had changed. There were still children swimming in the same river that the ashes (and unburnt body parts ?) was washed into, the smell was still horrific, the lepers were still lying on the stairs and the holy man still offered to show us how to lift a 100kg heavy stone in his penis! Some things apparently never change.

My view of Kathmandu is ambivalent. On one hand Thamel is an excellent place in this part of the world to relax in good company, with good food, drinks and live music. On the other hand it is a chaotic and very dirty place with many unfortunate people. So I will stick to my first impression from 14 years ago: Nepal in general is for trekking and Kathmandu is best for just a few days preparing for the trek and a few days after to party with the people you have met on the trek! That said, we still had a great 5 days there.

But Tibet was the star of our trip!

Below a slideshow from our trip. Same can be found in the photo album on www.peder.biz for full screen viewing and longer time between slides.

And below a few video clips from the trip: