Tibet is one of those magical places on this planet that can amaze, enthrall, and infuriate all at the same time. Most travelers to Tibet start in Lhasa (3600m), the ancient capital of this Buddhist stronghold. These days Lhasa can be reached by road, rail, or air. Whichever method of transport you choose to take, the high mountain plateau that graces the landscape is absolutely stunning. Soaring mountain peaks, seemingly endless prairie, green/blue lakes, and countless grazing yaks. Throw in a rainbow or a circular rainbow in the sky and you have the makings for a Hollywood film (ie 7 Years in Tibet).
My stay in Tibet lasted 10 days (11 days if you count the excruciating 34 hour train journey from Xian to Lhasa in a hard-seat). The first 4 days were spent sightseeing around Lhasa – the Barkhor, Potala Palace, Norbulingka, Jokhang Temple, Sera Monastery. The Barkhor is the main market and is also one of the 3 circles or rings of Lhasa. All traffic in the Barkhor is clockwise (except for the Chinese soldiers who always walk counter-clockwise). The other 2 rings are the Jokhang itself and the city of Lhasa. The Potala Palace is the home of the Dalai Lama, although as most people know he’s living in exile in northern India. It’s an amazing building filled with priceless artifacts and temples within that are sacred to the Tibetan people. The Norbulingka is the Dalai Lama’s summer palace. Sera Monastery is a large monastery housing hundreds of monks and is famous for the lively scholarly debates that take place in the courtyard.
The next few days consisted of a road trip along the Friendship Highway to the China-Nepal border. We stayed overnight at Gyantse, Shigatse, Shegar, Everest Base Camp, Tingri, and Zhangmu.
Gyantse’s attractions are a fort perched atop a hill and a beautiful monastery with the largest stupa in Tibet, the Kumbum Stupa.
Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet, is the home of the Panchen Lama, the 2nd highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism. The large Tashilhunpo Monastery is home to the Panchen Lama and to hundreds of other monks.
Shegar is a tiny town just outside the protected area around Mount Everest (Qomolangma). Our guide Sonam purchased our Everest Base Camp tickets here. All the shops were stocked with expired packaged foods, which I don’t think anyone realized till long after we left town.
Everest Base Camp lies at 5200m above sea level and is a journey unto itself. Unlike the rest of the Friendship Highway, the road to EBC is unpaved so it was a long bumpy road winding up, over, and down a high pass. On top of that were numerous unnecessary and time-consuming police checkpoints. We arrived in the early morning and settled in at the only tent lodge run by the local monastery. The other tents were private businesses presumably run by local families. Only authorized climbers are allowed to sleep beyond the military checkpoint at EBC, the tent lodges are all located 4km away which is serviced by a supposedly eco-friendly shuttle bus.
After a long nap, we trekked the 4km to EBC. Given the very high altitude, it took us a while to get there and two people had to turn back. Since it wasn’t climbing season EBC was empty. Thankfully the trek back to the tent lodge camp was nice and easy since it was a gradual descent. Since there’s no heat at night we were wrapped with about 8 very thick blankets and put to sleep. I actually had to peel off a few because I was sweating in the middle of the night.
Tingri was another small town on the way to the border. It happens to be where Sonam grew up and many trekkers come here because it’s the starting point for the 4 day trek to Everest Base Camp. The hot shower at the place where we stayed (the nicest in town) took an hour to setup because of the logistics involved: water had to be retrieved from the on-site well and boiled, the hose had to be extended about 70m from the well to the showers, a female member of the staff then stood on top of the shower stall and poured a mix of the boiled and cold water on you while you signaled to her if it was too hot or too cold. And it cost 10 yuan. I took a bucket shower with the cold water from the well instead knowing that a proper shower was available in Zhangmu.
Due to its location on the border, Zhangmu is a larger town and the Friendship Highway is its main street. The accommodation here was the best since we left Shigatse, but it was hardly anything worth raving about other than that it had a working hot shower. We arrived here on 4 July, so in honor of Independence Day in the US we all had a beer! I was going to have a Budweiser but it was 4x more expensive than the local beer so I had the local beer instead. Budweiser is owned by InBev anyhow!
My favorite things about Tibet are its people, its culture, and its stunning natural wonders. The things I didn’t like were the overwhelming Chinese police and military presence, the massive talking propaganda billboard across the street from the Potala, and the government requirement that all foreigners have a guide.