Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Traveling in Tibet

Potala Palace

Traveling in Tibet is a different beast than any other type of traveling that we've done. China began occupying Tibet in the early 1950s, and it's clear that the occupation is still unwelcome. At least in theory, foreigners can't travel in Tibet with just a Chinese tourist visa. They must also get a Tibet Travel permit -- and only travel agents can arrange the special travel permits. So, the upshot is that you need to get a travel agent to arrange a tour for you -- no way to easily backpack and simply move from city to city.

Pilgrims walking Cora around Jokhran Temple

Our first full day in Lhasa, we went to the Potala Palace ticket office, and registered to tour the palace the next day. Our first night we had slept in a hotel in the Chinese part of Lhasa. While it was a perfectly nice hotel, it didn't feel like "Tibet", and so we moved to the Mandala hotel which is half a block away from the Jokhang Temple -- one of the holiest in Tibet.

Buddhists walking Cora

This was the perfect vantage point to see real Tibetans. Thousands of Tibetan Buddhists walk Cora every day -- a clockwise procession around Jokhang Temple and the surrounding buildings. Jokhang Temple is a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage for many Tibetans, and many spend all day prostrating themselves in front of the temple's doors. (In fact, on the roads driving around Lhasa, we saw people that spent up to a year traveling from remote parts of Tibet, walking a few steps, then prostrating themselves on the ground. Then walking a few more steps, and prostrating themselves. Amazing!)

For us, the people walking the Cora showed the best and the worst of the situation with China. The rural Tibetans were amazed at our four children, and they couldn't stop smiling, talking about them, touching them, and saying "Namaste" ("Hello").

For many of them, Lhasa might have been their first time ever seeing someone from outside of China, and then to see 4 white children -- probably shocking. (I should mention that the rural Tibetans were amazing to see -- we just wanted to smile at them and say "hi" -- it felt like we were transported into the pages of National Geographic. We even had a couple of Tibetan monks with cell phones who were taking pictures of our kids -- though most of the pilgrims were way too poor to have a camera.)

However, the police do not want Tibetans talking with foreigners, and by the second day, we had a police escort whenever we walked near Jokhran Temple. As soon as people would start to smile and come towards us, the police would wave them away. (We were able to evade the police a couple of times, but not for more than a couple of minutes.)
While our first two weeks in China left us with a very positive impression of the Chinese, our few days in Tibet made it very clear that the Chinese occupation was completely unwanted by the Tibetans. It also made it clear how poorly the Tibetans are treated, and how paranoid the Chinese are. (For example, when we crossed the land border into Nepal at the end of our trip, soldiers went through our bags very carefully, removing travel books, and ripping out pages that referred to the Dalai Lama.)

Other impressions of China's occupation: there's a tremendous amount of economic development -- but it's coming at the expense of the Tibetan cultural sites. Tibetan buildings are being ripped down and replaced with modern concrete apartment buildings. (One Tibetan we spoke with was evicted from her apartment so that China could tear it down and put another in its place. They were supposed to get a stipend to rent a new place, but the government never sent the money.) The Tibetan architecture is beautiful, but disappearing quickly.

Beautiful Hillside Monastery about 1.5 Hours Outside Lhasa

Signs in Tibet have locations in both Chinese and Tibetan, but the Chinese letters are much larger -- and some signs have no Tibetan at all. (And many Tibetans can't read Chinese.)

Brooks Kids walking a non-traditional Cora around said Monastery

China also actively encourages Han Chinese citizens to move from mainland China to Tibet, apparently to ensure that native Tibetans are not a majority in their own country.

There were police photographers posted on the roof of our hotel, presumably to photograph people that might be trying to assemble without permission. And there were soldiers with rifles on the roofs of many neighboring buildings.

Our time in Lhasa was truly eye-opening, and left us feeling a little less positively towards China.

After Lhasa

After 4 or 5 days in Lhasa, we climbed into our trusty bus with our guide, driver, and 5 other fellow travelers, and headed out to start our trip to Everest Base Camp and our trip overland to Nepal.

Did I mention that Tibet is really high up? The night before we left, we bought 6 canisters of Oxygen, and as we left Lhasa we pretty quickly climbed from about 3500 meters to 5200 meters. ("Quickly" is perhaps an overstatement, given that we were traveling in an 18-passenger bus. However, we did begin climbing almost immediately, and reached 5200 meters within a few hours.)

Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS) is real, and noticeable at about 3,000 meters. You get out of breath quickly, get dizzy, develop headaches, and can have a hard time sleeping. And that's if you climb slowly. Go too fast, and you can drop dead. (Our guide recommended against that.)

On the first day after Lhasa, we encountered a number of the indigenous animals. Charlie and Mae quickly managed to wrestle some of the more ferocious beasts into line.

We then continued on, visiting monasteries, forts, the odd buffet, and people's houses.

People we Met

Tibetan Prayer Flags and a Fort

Typical Tibetan House -- Yak Dung Stored on Fence

Tibetan Famer

Pack Yaks (yep, they really use them)

But, for me (Chris) at least, the highlight was seeing Mount Everest. Here's a completely spontaneous, non-posed, candid photo of our family when we first saw Everest.

Our First Glimpse of Everest (we weren't oxygen deprived at all!)

Everest really was in the background there -- you could see it in person. We then took a slight detour to see the summit of Mount Blue Job.

Peak of Mt Blue Job on a Clear Day ;-)

Our bus then spent hours laboring up a winding dirt / gravel road to get to Everest Base Camp. It was a stomach churning, though beautiful ride. After about 3 years, we arrived at a series of "tea house tents" that sit 4 km away from Everest Base Camp.

Our Teahouse Tent at EBC

Not to mention, the world's highest post office.

World's Highest Post Office

The view was amazing. The next morning, Wendy and I slipped out at 6:00 am to catch the sunrise the next morning.

Wendy at Sunrise at EBC

And then, we headed to Everest Base Camp. This is where the expeditions that are climbing from the Tibet side spend a week or two acclimating to the height. (You can see the tents in the background of these pictures.) We met one climber -- he looked exhausted. He had 4 days before they began their ascent proper, and he was spending his days climbing up 1,000 meters, and then coming back down to base camp.

The morning after sleeping below Everest Base Camp in Tibet

Mt. Qumolang = Mt. Everest. Really

The Brooks Brothers at Everest Base Camp

Mae sucking down some Oxygen (We all got sick)

Everest Base Camp was our 7th day in Tibet. After that, we re-boarded the bus, and headed to the border with Nepal. That was an experience in itself -- the last 30 kilometers must drop 2,000 meters, and the road barely hangs on the the side of the most amazing cliffs that I've ever seen. The driver was (in my opinion) driving like an idiot -- way to fast on a one-way road around blind corners, and simply slamming on his brakes to slow down. Finally, one of our fellow passengers (thanks Antony!) asked the driver to stop so that he could take a picture. It immediately became obvious that something was wrong with the brakes when we got out -- there was a strong smell and the tires were smoking! So, the photo opp became a half-hour wait while the driver hauled water from a nearby stream to bathe the brakes.

We did that twice more on the way down, and the driver still ended up crashing into the guardrail and bashing up the side of the bus. By the end, we were all telling the driver to slow down. One of the scariest trips in a wheeled vehicle in my entire life.


Mom/Cappa said...

My Dear Family, Incredible, amazing wanderings! How will you ever be able to top a trip like this? I had imagined sitting down with you one evening and hearing of your adventures. But now I realize it will take weeks, months to hear everything from everyone. But I can't wait to make a start on it all. I miss you all so very much. Love Mom/Cappa. PS This was very well written, Christopher...always with your usual sense of humor. Loved it! M/C

Karen said...

Wow, guys, that is good reading! (Much better than my current book!) You have so many amazing stories to tell. -Karen L