Guest post by Lyn Taylor of Lyn Taylor’s Adventure Travel. Lyn is based in Sydney Australia and regularly organises trips in Asia and beyond.
TIBET one of those extraordinary destinations where indeed adventure lurks around every corner! Adventure on the road is never short on the beautiful Trans Himalayan drive, through mountain, passes, promising a panorama of a cultural and scenic diversity unsurpassable anywhere. I have had the privilege of traveling overland from Kathmandu to Tibet and visa versa at least six times, I just wish that blogging was in 18 years ago, as it would have been much easier to document my trips rather than trying to rely on my memory.
I will now endeavor to give you an interesting and memorable description of my journey. Tibet culminates on an arid plateau – a variable treasure throve of architectural masterpieces -the Buddhist monasteries of Drepung, once the largest in the country The Jhokhang – a spiritual centre, and the awesome palaces of the Dalai Lama – Norbulinga ( the summer palace) and the Potala ( the traditional seat). Ancient Barkhor Bazaar still barters the bric — a — brac, in a region that’s not so much a little strange as utterly surreal.
HISTORY OF TIBET:
The Land of Snows, the roof of the world
For centuries this mysterious Buddhist kingdom, locked away in its mountain fastness of the Himalaya, has exercised a unique hold on the imagination of the West. For explorers, imperialists and traders it was a forbidden land of treasure and riches. Dreamers on a spiritual quest have long whispered of a lost Shangri-la, steeped in magic and mystery. When the doors were finally flung open in the mid-1980s, Tibet lay in ruins.
Between 1950 and 1970, the Chinese wrested control of the plateau, drove the Tibetans’ spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and some 100, 000 of Tibet’s finest into exile and systematically dismantled most of the Tibetan cultural and historical heritage, all in the name of revolution. For a while images of the Buddha were replaced by icons of Chairman Mao. Today, Tibetan pilgrims across the country are once again mumbling mantras and swinging their prayer wheels in temples that are heavy with the thick intoxicating aroma of juniper incense and yak butter. Monasteries have been restored across the country, along with limited religious freedoms.
If you are considering visiting Tibet then I recommend you read 7 Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer. In the 1940’s Heinrich broke out of a POW prison in India and managed to go overland through the Himalaya and Tibet to Lhasa. His travels and cultural experiences of one of the first westerners to know Tibet is incredible. He ultimately became a friend of the young 14th Dalai Lama and has acted as an emissary to Tibet for the West throughout his life.
On my first visit to Tibet I booked my tour through my friend who owns a trekking company in Kathmandu. He advised me that I needed to join a group tour, as individual tourism is prohibited, so I paid the Chinese Govt. for permits, land cruiser, driver and guide. Fortunately, I planned to visit Tibet at the prettiest time of year with all the cherry blossoms in bloom.
Tibetan New Year Feb/Mar this is the greatest festival in Tibet. In ancient times when the peach tree was in blossom, this was considered the beginning of the New Year. Since the systematization of the Tibetan calendar in 1027 AD, the first day of the first month became fixed as New Year’s Day. On New Years Day, families unite, “auspicious dipper” is offered and the auspicious words “Tashi delek” are greeted. To try and piece together my experience, first I have to say that my heart goes out to the Tibetan people. They are an extremely hospitable, friendly beautiful race of people. Their perseverance and commitment to their Buddhist religion in the face of what amounts to cultural genocide by the Chinese is incredible.
A mystical destination that until fairly recently saw few western visitors visit. Well this was what I was let to believe. We left Kathmandu to fly to Lhasa and on our arrival we were immediately confronted by heavy Chinese military presence. Armed airport military police made us feel quite unwelcome and apprehensive about our visit. It was quite confronting and frightening going through the red tape of immigration, and I remember thinking is this really Tibet, where are the Tibetans everyone seems to be Chinese?
As we left the airport and began our drive by land cruiser into Lhasa I began to feel less anxious and more relaxed as our friendly guide Tashi and driver Pema chatted to us about our visit. On the drive I remember seeing concrete block buildings all neatly placed in rows and thinking why does the infrastructure look like a prison where are cute little nomad houses of old. I was later told that all of these buildings had been constructed to house all the tens of thousands of Chinese who were moving here to take jobs in the Government, they were commissioned her to work as teachers, doctors, and government officials, the Chinese Government were paying them good wages to relocate for a minimum of 2 years, then after the 2 years they were fed up with the cold and dullness of Lhasa they wanted to return to their homeland.
My first thought was that I was going to be totally disillusioned about my first visit to Tibet, but later in the day after a walk around Lhasa’s lively Barkhor square not even the presence of guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons standing in the entrance way and rooftops around the Jokhang could interrupt the colorful stream of pilgrims at Barkor square. Pilgrimage circuit is proof enough that the efforts of the communist Chinese to build a brave new (roof of the) world have floundered on the remarkable and inspiring faith of the Tibetan people.
The first day we visited the former summer palace of the Dalai Lama, the Norbulingka, the Jokhang Temple and the famous Potala Palace. In between visits to these fascinating temples and monasteries we wandered around Barkhor Bazaar and experienced life in present day Tibet. We spent 2 nights in Lhasa 3,700m this allowed us plenty of time to acclimatize before our drive over the high passes to the towns of Gyantse and Shigatse. As we left Lhasa I started to feel like I was in the real Tibet exploring the many forts, temples and monasteries that are unique to Tibet. On our journey we passed several huge snow peaks, a beautiful turquoise lakes and scenery that took our breath away.
For many people, Tibet is a uniquely spiritual place. Those moments of peace, fleeting and precious, when everything seems to be in its proper place, seem to come more frequently in Tibet, whether inspired by the devotion apparent in the face of a pilgrim or the dwarfing scale of a beautiful landscape. Tibet can truly claim to be on a higher plain.
This remarkable place is changing fast. Investment and tourism are flooding into the region, inspired by a new train line from China, and GDP is rising even faster than the train tracks to Lhasa. Unfortunately the modernization is coming first and foremost on China’s terms. China’s current wave of tourists has been dubbed the ‘second invasion’, with a slew of new hotels, restaurants, bars and disco’s set up and run by Chinese for Chinese. Once the remote preserve of hardy backpackers, it is now local Chinese tourists who dominate the queues for the Potala and Jokhang. Lhasa is booming and even small towns across the plateau are being modernized and rebuilt. With every passing month Tibet looks less and less like itself.
The myths and propaganda that have grown up around Tibet can be so enticing, so pervasive and so entrenched that it’s hard to see the place through balanced eyes. The reality is that Tibet is no fragile Shangri-la but a resilient land underpinned by a unique culture and faith. But you are never far from the reality of politics here. For anyone who travels with their eyes open, a visit to Tibet will be a memorable fascinating experience but also sobering experience. It’s a place that’s likely to change the way you see the world and that will remain with you for years to come. And that’s surely the definition of the very best kind of travel.
I must say I was not sad to leave Lhasa as we headed towards Oracle Lake, also known as Lhamo Latso Lake is an area close to border and requires 3 permits, Tibet Permit, Military Entry Permit, Alien’s travel permit. If you are thinking of travelling to Tibet a word of advice it takes half a month to deal with all the necessary permits before you arrive in Tibet. Lhamo Latso Lake is around 350km from Lhasa, and on this tour we passed by famous tourist county Tesdang. We travelled in comfortable 4WD (off-road vehicle) to carry the camping equipment required for our 5 days of trekking.
The radiant oracle lake of Lhamo Latso is the foremost ‘vision’ lake in Tibet and sitting Dalai Lamas were obligated to come here at least once in their lifetimes. This pilgrimage to Lhamo Latso is richly varied and has much to offer: high snow mountains, a magnificent monastery, seldom visited cave hermitages, nomads and their black-tent culture, besides the high point a sacred ‘oracle lake’.
Tsongkhapa once stayed to spreading Buddhist teachings of Gelug Sect. Along this route, we saw the ecological scenery of the Yarlung Tsangpo River and we managed to stay in a local residence. Our trekking days ranged form 7-9 hours and approximately 20-23 klms, of walking. We trekked to the summit of Gyeluo La Snow Mountain 5400mtrs there were magnificent azalea trees everywhere the scenery was stunning. So quiet the world that you feel just out of the world. As the gradual raising altitude, by the time we arrived at our campsite in Nayu Valley (4100 m) we had suitable acclimatized and began to enjoy our journey and strolled around the valley and visited the Nieka Waterfall, located in the rupture part of the Yarlung Tsangpo River.
On the sixth day our trek led us downhill and we reached the Lhamo Latso Lake (4900 m) along the valley. Surrounded by high mountains, the hoof-shaped lake covers an area of about 2 square kilometers. Having so great a faith in its magic predicting capability, the Tibetan eminent monks would go to the lake for observing and finding omens for the recognition of every reincarnated holy boy of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas of all generations. Numerous believers regard it as the treasure mirror, which is able to reveal their fates.
Our journey then took us to Mt Kailash the holiest mountain in Tibet we watched pilgrims prostrate around the mountain on their yearly pilgrimage to this awesome mountain. We passed glaciers, mountains, small villages, farms and pastures. We saw yak, deer, goat, and sheep wandering the high plains in search of grass. We saw nomads wandering and camping with their animals.
We continued on Everest Base Camp where the only choice of accommodation is either a cold damp dirty guesthouse or the monastery I chose to freeze at -20 and slept the night in my tent with 3 sleeping bags to keep me warm. I have been fortunate to view Everest nine times but all from the Nepal side, this was my first time on the Tibet side, and it was magical.
Even though I felt quite light headed I decided to stay another night and explore Yamalung were Guru Rinpoche meditated and received empowerment from the Buddha Amitayus. Although it was nice clear day, the winds were ripping through the valley and one could barely snap a photo before needing to retreat to the car.
The rest of the trip consisted of a long drive to the border, with a few stop off at schools and small villages so we could interact with the locals outside of the big cities. The road down to Zhangmu (border town with Nepal), was the final part of the Friendship Highway that was still under construction. We were held up for several hours waiting for traffic coming in the opposite direction. We were finally on our way to Zhangmu or we thought we were, but we were continued to be delayed by rock slides and landslides as they were demolishing the road before us. This is certainly an incredible feat of engineering,it took us 8 hours to go 56 klm.
We finally arrived at our hotel in Zhangmu with the noise of nightclub music keeping me awake, I dreamed about a nice soft bed at the 5 star Yak and Yeti hotel in Kathmandu. The drive the following day was a contrast to where we have just been from grey landscape, grey military to tropical forests and women wearing colorful saris, to the chaotic traffic of Kathmandu. I knew one day I would return and I did.
In August 2014 why not join Lyn Taylor on another wonderful overland adventure to Tibet. Just one of the tours she organises through her company Lyn Taylor’s Adventure Travel