After our third 20+ hour train ride in almost as many days we were slowing chugging into Lhasa train station, in what was the culmination of upwards of 3 months planning, sourcing permits, visas and wrangling with tour companies. Thankfully on this train there was no being force fed duck necks by well intentioned locals, there were however majestic views aplenty while climbing up the Tibetan plateau into the biggest city and capital of the T.A.R, the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
The T.A.R is officially a prefecture of China after a the communist government of Mao entered in 1950 and a revolution centered in Lhasa was overthrown in 1959. Despite having multiple governments declare Tibet had the right to self-determination from early 1900s up to the 90s, any such support has since evaporated in recent years with the British and EU rescinding the above line in 2008, and former President Obama in 2014 announcing “We view recognise Tibet as part of PRC. We are not in favor of independence” (Joint Press Conference with Xi Xinping, 23 Nov 2014). This is not the view of the 14th Dalai Lama and he maintains his call for independence as the head of the Tibetan government in absentia. But it’s a political hot potato and extremely sensitive one.
Lhasa is a rapidly growing city nestled between two mountain ranges at an altitude of 3650m above sea level, with expansion visible wherever you look, largely empty apartment blocks sit awaiting a greater influx in the near future. However, it is a beautiful city all the same and we were lucky enough to meet a friend of Martina’s, not before negotiating the not-border-crossing whereby we had our passports taken and examined, much like a real border crossing, which this is not. Having someone who knows local customs and speaks fluent Tibetan really has helped us to get under skin a little more. We checked out markets and shops, before wandering around the old part of the city, with its old white brick, black window frame facades and the Bakhor, a street for Kora and prostrating. Both are practices of Buddhist religious devotion where one walks or prayers by clapping the hands and then sliding on the stomach around the holiest of sites, the Jokhang temple. Other than being extremely well versed on all that is Tibetan, Martina’s friend is a hell of baker, and put on a cake party so we got to meet some friends and learn more about life here, as well as nudge ourselves a little closer to type 2 diabetes. One aspect of Tibetan culture is that you do not let your guests foot the bill, and despite elbowing, racing and anything short of tying her to the chair it’s impossible to pay for food or drinks! At one stage Martina had handed over the cash and it was being processed when our friend said something in Tibetan and we were handed back our money with a smile. Despite these trials we’ve had a great time with our informal guide.
Official guides however are mandatory, so after sourcing your Chinese visa, the permit process can start in earnest, with a registered tour operator the only possible way to negotiate the bureaucratic quagmire in a process that took roughly 6 weeks from us submitting the required information to receiving the permit. It is a relatively expensive process as well costing roughly $120 USD pp per day. Tibet however so far has been worth the price of admission. After the cake party we met with our official guide and Martina’s friend to hike along a ridge with panoramic views over the city visiting a couple of the many monasteries and nunneries that adorn the hills overlooking the city. The hike, albeit a trial during our acclimatisation with the altitude exceeding 4200m, was fun despite Mark carrying a melon that he swears weighted at least 6kgs to drop off with the nuns. We encountered some monks attempting to nurse a new-born puppy after being abandoned by its mother and we tried to impart as much wisdom as we could about rearing a 2hr old pup before entering into a philosophical debate with a monk that kindly forced us to have tea with him, not taking “sorry it’s getting dark and we need to get down this perilous track” as a suitable answer.
One must-do while in Lhasa is actually to get out of Lhasa and head to Namtso lake, a picturesque body of water reached by going over a pass at 5190m, the lake is framed by mountains, eliciting a literally breathtaking backdrop with an altitude of 4780m. Almost as interesting as the lake itself was getting there. There were a few reasons, the landscape, the rural towns and villages, the farmers harvesting, the mega projects of new roads and power plants, but chiefly the truly lamentable standard of driving. From the view of Lhasa we’d seen the day before, our guide pointed out the driving school, a relatively simple looking empty course. It’ was clear to all and sundry the box about overtaking was filled with “not applicable” in most cases. We saw no less than 3 recent accidents, many discarded autos languishing in the roadside ditches and an uncountable number of near misses. All this happens despite the implementation of a gate system, where drivers average speed are measured between two points. People know this but still speed and recklessly overtake, only to have to wait at the other end, in one case, 7 minutes!! you can imagine the driving hellscape that bought that wait on. But, back to the lake. This is one of 3 holy lakes in Tibet meaning no fishing or use of the water for any purpose other than to walk around and take pictures, which suits us down to the ground. It’s well worth getting there, although don’t expect to sleep much, we got up at 3am to star gaze with the thin dry air making Lhasa’s 3600m seem like low-lying land and making deep sleep unlikely.
Back in Lhasa after other eventful day on the roads we visited a pleasant little nunnery in the city. After meandering around and watching the daily lives of the nuns go on in front of us we watched them praying and chanting mantras. One nun forced us to take an apple, once again, trying to say no to a Tibetan is futile, just take the apple. Another nun asked where we are from and when Martina – through our guides translation – said Switzerland, she engaged her in conversation as she had a family member living there, asking rather optimistically whether we knew him. After swapping WeChat details and taking a couple of photos together, the exchange lasted maybe 15 minutes. Apparently this was too long for the ever watchful eye of the security apparatus, who send some police to check out what we were up to, as it’s an uncommon amount of time to spend here. It puts in to perspective the umbrella the locals live under, and who is really in charge. Tibet so far has been as beautiful as it has been engaging, with locals warmly smiling as we say hello or thank them in the local dialect, making sure we never go hungry or thirsty happy to share what they can about Tibet, so if you were looking at getting somewhere different, we’d recommend Tibet 100%, just try to leave the politics to one side.
@catchustravelling on Instagram