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Archive for the ‘Tibet’ Category

When we first reached Kathmandu at the end of February the capital was still blanketed in late winter fogs and a cold breeze persisted during the day. It’s now the middle of May and the city has begun to swelter. The spring trekking season has come to an end and only a trickle of tourists now remain. The summer monsoons are not far away, but we are still here waiting for our Tibetan permits and Chinese visas to be approved.Crossing the Himalayas into Tibet and China is our only option if we are to reach Singapore without flying.

We must go north. The east is blocked by Burma which currently has no border crossings open. So it is with much relief that we finally receive the good news of our approval from Pradip. It has taken a couple of weeks longer than expected and put us behind schedule but our path to Singapore seems finally clear. This was possibly our last great concern, from a visa point of view at least. For the first time I begin to sense that we are going to make it.

A four wheel drive is waiting downstairs to transport us to the Tibetan frontier. For the second time on our journey we are forced to take an organised tour. The other being the three days we travelled through Turkmenistan to the Uzbekistan border. It’s not in accordance with how we wanted to travel but the rules of entering Tibet are simple…No independent travel permitted, an approved guide and private transport is required.

Rick is coming with us as far as Lhasa but Matt is flying back to the UK. Our time with him in Nepal has been too short but his visit much appreciated and a wonderful and unexpected surprise. He had promised over a year ago when we started in Africa to see us somewhere on the journey and he managed to keep his word.

Having spent almost three months here we are naturally sad to be leaving. Nepal has been a combination of difficult but rewarding days trekking over passes. Colossal views with cold mornings and colder nights high in the mountains. Long lazy days in Pokhara having long lazy breakfasts at Olive café. Sitting by the lake under the shade of Frangipani and Mango trees, contemplating what to do next. Fire and Ice pizzas, K-too pepper steaks and real chocolate milkshakes.

Leaving Nepal

Leaving Nepal

I think about all the people we have met on the trails. Jaylan the young boy from Adelaide who crossed a pass that many men turned back on. His older brother Liam and parents Sue and Phil. It’s impossible not to think of that trek without thinking of them. Nasir and Habib who returned to Pakistan many weeks ago now. Then there was Jeremy from New Zealand and Chris from the US who were both at times so sick on the Everest trek but battled on regardless. Robbie and Marie from Scotland who were so happy and complimentary we made it over the pass, despite their own disappointments. August from Sweden who fell off a plastic chair in a tea house when one of the legs broke. They have all left, already thousands of miles away in distant countries and now it’s our turn, but our departure will be much slower and gradual than theirs.

We wind our way through Kathmandu’s tight streets sadly one last time and head north through fertile green valley’s towards the Tibetan border. The sun climbs higher in the sky waking a chorus of insects. The heat builds and the haze intensifies. We pass through many checkpoints more than is expected for Nepal. Our driver tells us this is due to the sensitivity of the Tibetan border or more officially the Chinese border. The road is in terrible condition and possibly one of the worst we have travelled along for many months. It’s as though Nepal doesn’t want you to leave and is trying to prevent your departure by physically blocking your way. The efforts are so intense that I manage to hurt my neck in the process.

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Lush Nepal valleys

Four hours after leaving Kathmandu we arrive at a collection of multi-story run down hotels and the Nepalese immigration. It looks so sterile and not at all like the office we entered when we left India. The staff on the other hand are warm and helpful. They inspect our many documents mainly Tibetan and Chinese to ensure we won’t be sent back. Scrutinised and approved we are sent up a grubby road to a concrete bridge that spans a narrow gorge. Friendship bridge as it is known seems anything but. On the other side is Tibet or as it is now the People’s Republic of China. Half way across the bridge is a white line patrolled by two stern looking Chinese soldiers. Nepal it would seem is happy not to be represented.

They inspect our passports motioning us one at a time to proceed to the immigration building at the far end of the bridge. It’s a cold and disciplined greeting, efficient, organised and brief. Inside our bags are scanned and searched. We are asked by one officer if we have any books. I decline then change my mind and respond… not sure. This seems to amuse the officer who checks regardless but somehow misses the small bag on my back. Much to Rick’s annoyance his recently purchased copy of the Snow leopard is found and confiscated because it makes references to Tibet.

Waiting for us is a tall slim Tibetan man. His hair is blow waved and slightly receding. His jeans hang low on his slender hips. If not for a tight belt they would probably fall to the ground. His name is Jamyong and he will be our official guide while in Tibet for the next 8 days. Our bags absent one less book are transferred to back of another four wheel drive. The buildings on the Chinese side of the valley are generic and unremarkable and for the first time in 10 months we are back to driving on the right hand side of the road.

Climbing up to the Tibetan plateau. Nepal on the other side of the river

Climbing up to the Tibetan plateau. Nepal on the other side of the river

The road once out of town climbs steeply. The forest gives way to low spindly bushes and eventually open grass lands. The temperature drops dramatically. With every hairpin we lose a few degrees. In just 36 kilometres we gain over 2000 meters in height. It’s hard to believe that just a few short hours ago we were sweating in the heat of Kathmandu. The green valleys and crops are gone now, this is an utterly different world.

The sterility of the Chinese border town is replaced with more aesthetically pleasing Tibetan villages. Flat roofed white washed buildings adorned with decorative painted wooden beams, door frames and windows. Colourful bunches of prayer flags complete the charming abodes. The villages may be Tibetan but the roads are very much Chinese. Smooth and unblemished, no one can discount their abilities to construct world class infrastructure in remote locations.

Tibtan Plateau

Welcome to Tibet

We stop for the night in Nyalam a village 3800m above sea level. Our time trekking in Nepal should ensure we are acclimatised but our last 10 days were spent in Kathmandu at the relatively low altitude of 1100m. We are a little unsure if this may be a problem. Our itinerary outlines that we will spend the first night in a… very basic guesthouse. The fact they have seen fit to emphasise the word very is noted and we all laugh with nervous anticipation. The room comes as a surprise and is better than expected with comfortable beds and an ample supply of floral printed blankets. The common toilet would be best described as… very disgusting and thankfully is not attached to our room.

The next morning we leave early. It’s again a relatively short drive owing to the steep climb in altitude. We reach Tingri at 4200m well before lunch. It’s another… very basic guesthouse this time with an… exceptionally disgusting toilet. We go looking for some snacks preferably chocolate or any form of crisps. I gaze at hundreds of strange products in each shop searching desperately for a brand I recognise, just a Snickers bar would do… but there are none to be found.

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That night we are woken to a chorus of canines howling and barking. They have spent most of the day asleep under cars getting ready for a busy night ahead. The barking goes on for hours but is so constant and regular that sleep is eventually possible. I discover the next morning after talking to the others that this is a view shared only by myself. I walk to the breakfast room praying for cornflakes on the menu but it’s just a cruel self-imposed torture. After a disappointing and lack lustre meal of noodles and a lifesaving but oily fried egg we head for Everest Base camp.

Cho Oyu

North face of Cho Oyu

We turn off the sealed road and head across a lunar surface. In the distance we can see Everest or Qomolangma as it’s known in Tibet, Mother goddess of the Earth. It seems a more fitting title as opposed to a British surveyor. More dramatically and immediately in front of us is Cho Oyu, the 6th highest mountain in the world. It feels strange to be seeing it from the north when only two weeks ago we were looking at the south face in Nepal. I can’t describe why but I feel a longing to go back. I take in as much as I can almost fearful I shall never see it again.

It’s a bleak road ahead that stretches to base camp. Bleached and baked by an unrelenting sun that floats in a deep blue sky. The sun is warm but the air is cold and dry. The cough that plagued me for several weeks in the Khumbu quickly returns. My ribs are still sore from the ordeal, it’s like being stabbed in the back with several sharp knives. I begin to day dream about warm moist air and a hammock stretched between two Palm trees. It’s amazing what altitude can do to the mind. We are now back over 5000m or 16,000 feet and despite being well acclimatised we all begin to suffer a little. Ambitions and aspirations are dealt a discarding blow by thin air.

Eversest base camp

walking up to base camp

Three kilometres from the base camp is a collection of Tibetan nomadic tents that have been set up as accommodation for tourists. They are surprisingly comfortable, spacious and most importantly kept warm by a central stove. Our hostess has a kind face and extremely red cheeks. Her skin looks tough and wrinkled from the years spent at high altitude. Lying in a cot is small boy perhaps 10 months old. He seems curious to our presence and tries to pull himself up for a better look. He might be small in stature but already his heart and lungs are performing much better than the gasping guests in the village.

We take a short rest before walking up to the official base camp. Owing to the road it’s a gradual climb and not too difficult. The strength of the wind however is cutting, large plumes of snow and cloud are being ripped from the summit of Everest. The North face is exposed and more of the mountain can be seen from the Tibetan side than from Nepal. It appears completely different in shape but still dwarfs all its neighbours.

Inside the tent

Inside the tent

Waiting at the base of a small hill is a large armoured personnel carrier. Inside are three very impatient Chinese soldiers. The sun is going down and casts a pink light across the mountains. The soldiers seem unaware or perhaps uncaring of nature’s work and start blaring the horn to signal it’s time to leave. This would never happen in Nepal or India where uncaring takes on a different meaning.

The next morning and we all awake with a decent headache. Nothing too bad but enough to desire a quick departure. After backtracking to Tingri we reconnect with the friendship highway and head towards Shigatse, Tibet’s 2nd biggest city. Tibetan cities and towns seem to follow a pattern. The new and unimaginative Chinese part of the city that rapidly envelops the old and charming Tibetan quarter…Shigatse is no exception. But despite the Cultural Revolution and an ever increasing presence of Han Chinese Tibetan culture persists. The Tashilunpo monastery is the home of the Panchen Lama but Jamyong tells us he spends most of his time in Beijing now.

Jamyong our guide

Jamyong our guide

I find Tibetan Buddhism highly confusing. Dali Lamas and Panchen Lamas, Future Buddas, Compassionate Buddas, Blue Buddas and Green Buddas. The eleven headed Budda and the thousand armed Budda. Reclining Buddas, standing Buddas and Buddas seated in the lotus position. The rituals of burning juniper, prostrating and pilgrimage all stem from Bon beliefs which was the indigenous religion of Tibet before Buddhism swept the lands in the third century.

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Six days after leaving Kathmandu we arrive at the ancient Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Atop a small plateau sits the unmistakable shape of the Potala Palace. But there is very little that is ancient nor even old about Lhasa these days. A once mysterious and forbidden city is now rushing into modernity at an alarming rate. Thankfully just east of the Palace is the old Tibetan quarter that still retains much of the cities former charms. At the centre is the Jokhang Temple which dates back to medieval times. Contained inside is a statue of the Budda said to be over 2500 years old and blessed by the Budda himself. It sits in a dark alcove, face golden and eyes staring at the faithful who have worshiped here for centuries. They regard the statue with wonderment as if it were the Buddha himself. Jamyong tells us it is the 2nd most important statue in Tibetan religion. They seem to find rankings very important.

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At nearly four kilometres above sea level and with over 300 steep stairs to ascend, our visit to the Potala Place must be one of the most asphyxiating tours on earth. The palace once inhabited by monks and The Dalai Lama is now occupied by tourists and their guides. Most impressive is the tombs of the previous or prior incarnations of the Dalai Lama. The fifth Dalai Lama’s tomb is gilded with more than 4000kg of gold. I can’t help but to think how a religion dedicated to meditation and enlightenment evolved into tombs cover with Fort Knox. But it seems to be a pattern with world religions. Despite being possibly a fiscal waste there is no denying the Magnificence of the finished product.

The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa

The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa

Ten Kilometres from the city centre is the Sera Monastery. I am not certain where it ranks among Tibet’s hierarchy but it does every afternoon host a bizarre event. The Buddha originally believed that teachings and philosophies should always be questioned and examined before one can accept them. With this in mind the monks gather and for several hours argue about the teachings of the Budda. Some men sit and propose ideas while the standing monks refute and argue the claims passionately with hand slaps and personal remarks. Occasionally small rocks are thrown and even the odd face slap made. But it’s mostly all in good fun. One particular battle rages close to us for over an hour. At first it seems difficult to gauge who is winning but eventually the standing monk goes into a flurry of mocking laughter and repeated slaps of the hand. His opponent looks dejected and defeated. He calls for reinforcement but it’s too late and the standing monk see this rightfully as a sign of weakness. We never do learn what tenants of Buddhism are discussed.

Sera Monastery

Mad Monks?

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It’s now our last day in Lhasa and our last day with Rick. For the second time on our trip we say goodbye. It’s hard to separate when you have spent so much time together, but it’s time for us to move on. We board a train bound for Shanghai. It will take almost 50 hours to travel over 3400km. By far the most efficient mode of transport we have taken since starting in South Africa. As night descends on the high plateau my mind drifts back over the last few months spent in the Himalayas. When we disembark two days later, we will enter a very different world…

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