So how did I end up traveling in Tibet, the rooftop of the world? Well, my original plan from the very start of my trip was to go to Everest Base Camp, and the idea was to access it from the Nepalese side as Everest is divided between China and Nepal sitting right on the border between the two countries.
The biggest issue I had was trying to time the weather as November is said to be the best month to visit Everest Base Camp as the skies are usually the clearest they will be during the year although its obviously a bit colder than October. Had I stayed in mainland China and then flew to Kathmandu, the trek would have taken longer and the weather would not have been as optimal so I decided to access Everest straight from Tibet. The problem is, traveling into this rooftop of the world, as many of you are aware, is not as simple as just showing up. You have to obtain a Tibet travel permit in advance of your trip as well as find a guide for your travels through the region. It doesn’t mean you have to be ‘guided’ everywhere you go but you are supposed to be on some type of ‘guided tour’ per the Chinese government. There may be some loopholes out there to get around this but since I planned everything in just over a week, I didn’t have much time to explore other options. And getting all the paperwork ready in just a week’s time is no easy feat either! I had only received my Tibet travel permit just 12 hours before my flight into Lhasa…
I ended up flying from Chengdu over the Himalayas to get to Lhasa, Tibet’s largest city. The flight took only a couple hours and had some breathtaking views from the plane but taking the train would have been the better option. If you have the opportunity, take the train. It’s a bit more expensive and takes over two days (if traveling from Chengdu) but it is the highest railroad in the world and snakes its way through the Himalayas which is arguably the most scenic railway in the world. It was also completed just a few years ago.
Since I wanted to spend a few extra days in Chengdu I decided to just fly. But another advantage to taking the train is the ability to acclimate to the altitude change over a couple days as you travel into Lhasa. Since I flew, I ended up feeling the altitude change the minute I got off the plane. This is another reason they call Tibet the rooftop of the world! It’s hard to go from an elevation of around 1,640 feet in Chengdu to 11,450 feet in Lhasa in a matter of a couple hours. I instantly felt pressure in my head and within three hours, I had a pretty serious headache and also felt dizzy and light-headed. If you’ve ever had altitude sickness then you can relate. It’s not fun.
They say that everyone reacts differently to altitude change and there is no way to predict how someone will be affected. And as some of you know, I’m no stranger to physical activity but even the easiest of tasks became extremely challenging. Just ten steps up the stairs and I’d be winded and dizzy. The first day was rough. Thankfully we really didn’t do much that first day other than walk around the town.
Since the Potala Palace is one of the major sites in Lhasa, we headed that way first to check things out. While standing out in front of the palace, it was amazing the amount of locals that would come up to us smiling and asking us where we were from with no ‘hidden agenda’ that you sometimes get in other countries. Shortly after, we were walking up a hill to get a better view of the palace when we were invited into a small monastery. When we got inside, it seemed more like a room in someone’s house than it did a monastery but it was still very interesting to just be there. There were three monks inside that welcomed us in and then continued on with their prayers.
Later, we headed into the center where all the street vendors congregate. As we continued to walk around, we were still getting many friendly smiles and it wasn’t just with the kids. It was Tibetans of all ages. They are just a very simple, friendly and peaceful people.
I had hoped to be able to discuss some of the history of Tibet after spending time here but its just so complex that even after all my time here, I still can’t understand it well enough to be able to go into much detail. And one of the problems is the fact that information regarding their history has been blocked by the Chinese government and you’ll find that a lot of the local people don’t want to discuss it. I remember when we crossed the border from Tibet into Nepal, my friends Lonely Planet ‘Tibet’ guide was confiscated by the Chinese authorities.
And while you’re here, at least in Lhasa, you are constantly under surveillance by the Chinese government. There were military and police on every street corner. Literally. They were even on the rooftops throughout the town, just watching and monitoring the people. It is hard to believe there is so much security needed for such a peaceful people but it likely stems from the uprising they had back in 2008. They even have ‘secret agents’ that work inside the monasteries against the Tibetan people. You just don’t feel completely at ease while you’re here and you had better not photograph the authorities either or you can say goodbye to your camera. And if you’re wondering why I’ve chosen to put Tibet into a category of its own, it’s because you can hardly associate Tibet as being part of China. Everything here is so different from mainland China. The people even look so different that you can spot a Chinese tourist from a mile away.
Our first official destination on this ‘tour’ through Lhasa was visiting the inside of the Potala Palace. Exploring the inside of it resembled nothing I had seen before and it is a bit hard to describe all the various rooms we walked through. Unfortunately, they would not allow photos to be taken while inside. After we left from the palace, we headed over to the Sera Monastery which was not too far from the center of Lhasa. It is a huge monastery where hundreds of monks occupy its space. Later that day, we went into the center of town to visit yet another monastery as well as to walk through the markets. All in all, we’d spent only two days in Lhasa but it would have been nice to have stayed longer. This ‘guided’ trip was set to last only seven days. And the dates of the tour were based strictly on our Tibet permit dates as well as to when our Chinese Visas would expire so collectively, we had to keep traveling towards the Nepal border everyday and still had quite a ways to travel before we would finally reach Everest.