Seven years in Tibet...and some yak tea with the Dalai Lama!
Oct 10th. I know its boring but yes, i'm up early again.. this is getting a bit tiring! Left guest house at 5:30am to meet Bishnu who took me to meet the bus for Tibet! So excited. Hmmn so much for "it will be like a private tour Stefanie, just you and probably 3 or 4 others.. "eh, no, there is a giant bus load of people here". No surprise, everyone had the same story from their travel agent and it ended up there were nearly 40 of us "independant travelers" herded together with one guide who took us to the Nepali border and through Chinese immigration (well, just the first part.. and into our 4x4's for the beginning of our journey to the magical city of Lhasa, capital of Tibet). On the way to the border, i first sat with Alain, a lovely French-Canadian chap, then had a great chat with Tarik, crazy Dr.Tarik from Turkey! Brilliant guy... more on him in a mo'!
OK have to tell you about our guerrilla checkpoint with the Maoist rebels!! Hahah! I mean really, if you hear the name Maoist rebels, don't you want to see someone in a combat uniform with a big gun looking menacingly at you when they ask for your 500 Nepali rupees as a contribution to the cause. No - we got a very accomodating young man who passed through the bus chatting and smiling and of course giving us a receipt for our cash. Really, a receipt from a rebel! Brilliant!
Once through the first level of immigration (we were promised a temperature check and eye scan to make sure we were "safe" to enter China aka Tibet but it didn't happen!) we had to divide into groups of 4 for the Land Cruisers we would be driving in for the next 5 days! Tricky business i tell you - you gotta get the best folks and guess what - yup, lucky me i did it again! Please meet "the four Momo's gang" - Tarik, a fabulous doctor from Turkey; seriously crazy with his camera; Fernando, air traffic controller extraordinaire, originally from Madrid now living in Seville (given to quoting "according to my Lonely Planet"...) and Emilio, x-ray technician expert from Madrid who found everything "just so much beautiful" and loved, loved, loved to sing - oh yes and video everything he saw - literally!! Yup -i hit the jackpot!
So - due to the complete ineptitude of our tour guide, we had to stay our first night in the border town (yukky place so no need for me to remember the name!). After throwing my pack into our 8 lady dorm room (yes, nice when the guide shouts out to the group "all the single women traveling alone, come this way!".....huh), I made the acquaintance of the latest and greatest member of our gang, who unfortunately we couldn't squeeze into our car - Ms Michaila ....British born, Australian raised! Brilliant girl who became my fab roomie as soon as we got past our group sleeping arrangements of the first two days. So me and Ms M. went for a beer and met the boys.. after some chatting - "should we mix alcohol and altitude sickness tablets Tarik?".. we decided to venture out for some delicious Tibetan morsels. So "according to Fernando's Lonely Planet".. there was a fab restaurant, just around the corner, no, just up the hill, no.. there was no restaurant. Instead, and to give him his due, he did find it, we had dinner in this "room" where all the girls working there just kept giggling at us, and the only customer they had, helped us order dinner. And it was fantastic too! Yak curry, buffalo momo's (dumpling type dish very typically Tibetan), more yak this time stir fried with green peppers and one stinky dish of raw minced beef mixed with tomatoes and garlic.. the boys tried, me..ahh no thanks, and Michaila was a veggie so def not for her! So the reason from this night forth we called ourselves "the Four Momo's Gang", was that one plate of the dumplings cost a mere half a yuen and one yuen is just over 1 US cent, you can see why we thought it might just be one dumpling on a plate....so we ordered four plates of the stuff. Hey, it had been a long day and I was with some healthy appetites (yes, as usual, I was including myself in that!). However, when the plates came, each one was piled high with momos, and this brought forth even more giggles from the girls when they saw our faces (no wonder they looked at us strangely when we ordered so much!). We all laughed our heads off, and then proceeded to share them with a bunch of local men who had just come in.. they were very shy but we just kept saying "please, there are only so many momo's a person can eat!". Great night and realised we were in for some fun times ahead with such good traveling companions! Ahh magical, mystical Lhasa...here we come!
Oct 11th. One of the joys of dorm living is listening to people scrunch around with plastic bags, at an inordinately early hour of the morning (before 6am!!!), for no apparant reason as we weren't leaving for the immigration office to finish our paperwork till 10am! Aaaaahh! Anyway, finally got through immigration after what seemed like hours of standing next to smoke spewing lorries on their way out of China to Nepal. Gotta love those catalytic convertors all the trucks in China have - not! Met two more fun loving Tibet bound folks - Jonas and Alexis from Sweden - young things who were newly entrenched in the world of ski instructing; they are two of the most articulate 20 yr olds i have ever met - and no surprise, super nice too! See this trip just gets better and better and we hadn't left immigration yet!
But soon we did and wow, once we got going (me and my three compadres), the scenery was just incredible. Massive mountains everywhere; really amazing. The roads were a bit wild, and there was so much dust ...but then, as the boys shook me awake (ok so i dozed off big deal, i am old!) what did we see but MOUNT EVEREST - LIVE!!! So exciting.. and thank goodness they woke me up! Really quite impressive although no surprise there tho'. As we stopped to take pics, i began to realise i wasn't feeling too hot. Didn't want to admit to altitude sickness cos i've been in other really high places - Machu Pichu, La Paz and never felt anything dodgy, but this was definitely the highest place ive visited. We later found out that so many of us in the group were sick, primarily because we went from about 3,000 to over 5,000 feet (or is it metres??? i'm useless!) far too quickly....oh well! What can you do. I was walking like a granny - really. Couldn't walk more than 3-4 paces then totally winded and a wicked headache -but hey, the scenery was incredible. I mean MOUNT EVEREST - LIVE! This totally took over!!! Did i mention i loved my boys already and knew i had the best car!!! Yah! They were so good to me and very protective, such gents! We continued on our way, much more incredible scenery - don't thing the pics really did the giantness of it justice! Our second night we arrived in the town of Lhatse; one of those towns that looks like it should have tumbleweeds rolling through the wide main street (and didnt seem to have much else going on..).
Bit of a strange place... we were in smaller dorm rooms this time, not bad this time apart from some mouse poop i had to flick off my bed, and walking across the car park in front of very loud truck drivers in your pj's to go to the loo at midnight.. but hey, really it wasn't bad at all - teehee! (just me being my usual dramatic self!). Highlights of today - i think definitely our lovely Tibetan guide and Emilio chatting away like two old friends speaking completely different languages, neither understanding the other, but totally knowing what each other was saying. Brilliant! Oh yes and our first sing-a-long was today - everything from ska, to rock and pop, each of our national anthems ... i tried to squeeze in some Madonna but the boys werent having it..well, that and the fact i cant actually sing didnt help! In terms of what we saw, it is definitely a very, very hard life here for the Tibetan people. The landscape, although beautiful, is very barren. Doesn't look like any type of crop can grow here, and the people seem incredibly poor. According to the Dalai Lama, traditional life in Tibet is being eroded as "fake" towns are built and the Han people of China are forcibly repatriated to many parts of the country; not doing the hard agricultural jobs, but the easier, shopkeeping work, etc. It is akin to cultural genocide with the Tibetan people becoming a minority in their own country; their own country which is now technically a province of China. Food for thought eh!
Oct 12th. Had breakfast, or rather sat down and then realised there was an audience at the front door, which would break your heart watching children and adults alike pushing and shoving, asking for food. Of course we all gave our breakfasts to them - wish it had been good nutritious food at least, as it looks like its been a long time since these people have seen fruit and vegetables! But it was the usual eggs, fried bread and more eggs that seem to be the staple breakfast on this trip to Lhasa. After this, we headed off and had a much shorter drive to the second biggest city in Tibet; Xigatse. Still felt the effects of the altitude, as did many others in our group. Poor Michaila now had a full blown flu; not helped by the real cold here... so yes, we are a bunch of very healthy, happy campers! Xigatse feels very Chinese, from the lettering on the hotels and shops around us, to the people themselves. Our hotel, as are pretty much all hotels in Tibet, is also Chinese. But who cares 'cos its really quite nice and now we are in a cosy room with just me and Ms M so i'm so happy! Chinese not big on toilet paper...not sure why. Everywhere we go, you get this tiny bit of left over toilet roll, and if you dare ask for some more (only 'cos Michaila had a flu and had to blow her poor wee nose!), the looks you got were hilarious..."more toilet roll??" they would look mystified, then give you yet another tiny wee left over roll!! Too strange! We went off to visit the famous Tashilumpo Monastery (the seat of the Panchem Lama), with the boys and two more fabulous additions to the group (yup i can't help it, the people on this trip were just brillo!) - the fab Ms Arantxa and Jose from Tarifa down on the south coast of Spain. We saw the impressive giant Buddha whose fingers alone were over 1 metre long each. The Buddha was covered in over 300kg of gold and is apparantly the highest sitting Buddha in the world! A beautiful monastery and my first real "monk-like" experience....so many monks here.... although only in certain areas where they were working, as much of the rest of the compound seemed quite empty.
Some of the people we met here were friendly, not overly so but ok. It is quite clear the class (for want of a better word) distinction between the Chinese and the Tibetan people; with the Tibetans clearly second or third class citizens in their own land. A wee bit of info on the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region). Population is 2.7 million - FYI did you know the global Tibetan population is 5.5 million. TAR is 1/8 of China's total land mass! And the local drink here is yak butter tea (totally gross... sorry Tibetans everywhere... but it has to be an acquired taste!). Nomads drink approx. 40 cups of hot yak butter tea a day - why? Cos imagine what its like when it gets to be cold yak butter tea! Oh yes, and to show respect here in Tibet - stick out your tongue - really!
Oct 13th. And Friday too! Today we headed for Gyantse, at 3,950m quite a high town, located in the Nyang-Chu valley. Gyantse is famous for its Kunbum, the largest chorten (similar to a stupa) in Tibet. All the 4x4's headed out in our usual convoy, but of course, only our poor guy gets stopped by the dodgy police who extracted 200 yuen from him (for what, we never found out!) - flippin' disgusting! You know the poor man doesn't have it and you don't really know if the tour company will reimburse him for this corruption! Hate this constant abuse of power by small people in nylon uniforms - remember similar situation in Vietnam!!
Scenery not quite as dramatic today but still an absolutely gorgeous drive and of course we had the best chats. Fave celebs; best looking girls..and boys of course George Clooney no need to say any more!!!, more singing - just fantastic. Hard to put into words but just a really brilliant time! Got into Gyantse quite quickly so had the day to explore. Really liked this town - felt more Tibetan for a start. We visited the famous Kunbum Chorten and the Pelkor Chode Monastery...checked out the monastery first and I loved it here. As we sat in a prayer room, listening to so many monks chanting away, it was an almost hypnotic feeling...really quite surreal to me! And just what i had been imagining Tibet to be like. Many of the monk "helpers" sell jewellery to raise money for the monastery so no surprise, you know who bought quite a lot of bracelets, (all genuinely blessed by the big DL himself - ok not so sure about that!). The bigger surprise was how Fernando, Emilio, Jonas and Alexis practically bought the guy out of everything he had - talk about pushy shoppers! Too funny! The famous phrase on so many things Tibetan is "Om Mani Padme Hum" loosely translated to "Hail to the jewel in the lotus flower"!!
Outside, the views were gorgeous and today we had the bluest skies too. But just when we were standing chatting, admiring our surroundings, it started to snow! Too wierd on this hot, sunny day! No surprise, we all walked up to the top of the stupa/chorten to check out the view across the valley. And it was well worth it! The Kunbum Chorten was built way back in 1400AD and really is quite an amazing building. Had a zen moment with Fernando, Arantxa and Jonas on the top - check it out!
Later, as we wandered around the atmospheric streets of the old town, we wondered where Emilio was. Lets just say he was always getting lost or rather at the back of the group due to his crazy video recording and also his penchant for buying masks, he loves them and collects them avidly whenever he travels. This was his downfall as we saw this Tibetan woman running after him shouting "cinqo cinqo" in Spanish to try and get him to buy a second mask; yes, he had already made one purchase from her! Emilio then tried to get away from her (in a very polite, no thank you i only need one mask way!) and the whole thing unfolded into the funniest scene - he ran, she ran, he shouted, she shouted, he laughed, she said "come back with me" and pulled on his arm and grinned laciviously....i mean it, i think she had her eye on him! Needless to say we finally managed to break up the happy couple and wandered on our merry way, with the second mask in hand!!!
Oct 14th. Before i get started some more "did you know" about Tibet. The famous prayer flags that are EVERYWHERE here, (using the following colours to signify different elements; red (fire), green (wood), yellow (earth), blue (sky) and white (water i think?)....are hung up to purify the air and pacify the gods. When the flags flutter in the wind, it is thought the prayers are released to the heavens, spreading good luck and happiness to all (isn't that just a lovely thought!).
So back to our day! And what a day it was...well, a tad sad as it was our last time in the car for the gang...boo hoo! How would i cope without these three lunatics! Hmmn, probably quite well! Just kidding - but i think they are all sighing with relief to get away from my verbal diarrohea..hahah! Today we were heading into Lhasa, an 8 hour drive to Tibet's capital, the home of the Potala Palace, historical home of the Dalai Lama (well, not anymore but if he comes back, this is where home sweet home would be!). And so we had our usual brillo chats, our rousing singalongs...and then - we arrived. First impressions! Honestly - I was really surprised. Giant wide streets, hideous 70's looking street lights, and there was so much neon and tack everywhere. Everything looked so brash and unattractive! I had this image of Lhasa, home of the Dalai Lama and all things relating to Tibetan Buddism, as this mystical, spiritual enclave of serenity with lots of rustic and traditional buildings and temples. I mean yes, there are some of those left, primarily in the "Tibetan Quarter" as it now called, but so much of the city is just that, a big Chinese city.
Lhasa is actually one of the worlds highest cities at 3,600m although technically La Paz in Bolivia is the worlds highest CAPITAL city at 3,500m and no, I didn't get altitude sickness when i was there, so it's just Tibet that does it to you! Anyway i digress! The population here is about 240,000 people, up from 20-30,000 not too long ago. So things have changed dramatically here.. in fact i read that Tibet has changed more in the last 20 years than in the last 1,000 years of its existence. The Tibetan Quarter, as I mentioned, is now an isolated enclave in the eastern part of the city, making up only 4% of Lhasa. And yet it is by far the most atmospheric area with the Jokhang Temple and surrounding Barkhor Market... but more on that later.
Our jeeps dropped us off at the most ridiculously over the top hotel you can imagine. It looked like something out of Las Vegas! And so wierd after the poverty and hardship we had seen in the first few days of our journey. Talk about contrasts.. we all said "this is not Tibet". From people begging for your breakfast and bleak, desolate hardship to crystal chandeliers and a bathroom with 18 different shower head options. Too strange! Being honest - again - there was a tiny bit of me that said, actually its quite nice to enjoy a wee bit of luxury, but def. another part that felt somewhat guilty about it...!
A crowd of us - the inimitable Four Momos gang of Michaila, Fernando, Tarik and Emilio, as well as the fabby Arantxa and Jose, and two other lovely pals from Chile, Claudio and Gabriella - decided to take a walk to Barkhar Square. What a brilliant place with the best atmosphere - ok, so the smell of yak butter wasn't so great and there was tons and tons of it around, but who cared! Originally built in the 7th century (I think!), the Jokhang temple, the most revered religious structure in Tibet, is the spiritual heart of this part of town, and it was incredible to see so many pilgrims all walking the Kora circuit - clockwise of course as is their tradition; always clockwise outside and inside Buddhist temples! Amazing mix of deep religiousity and "push and shove" market economics here...brilliant! Also saw many pilgrims prostrating themselves again and again in front of the temple! Incredible to see! And very powerful, thinking about why they do this and what it means to them!
So enough of all that - time for beer! How shallow and uncouth am I! We all headed up to a rooftop bar with a great view over the square, and had lots of chats .. and yes, a few wee beers amongst us too! Found out Claudio and Gabriella, from Santiago, now live in California...great conversations with them...seriously - its hard to explain when you get such a good bunch together and you feel like you've all been pals for ages.. happens so often to me i can't believe it! It's my guardian angel medal, my lace crystal from the Chakra place i visited in Australia and of course my special bit of quartz a Vietnamese quarry man gave me for luck - its all working for me!! Yah!
Oct 15th. Have i mentioned that everyone is still pretty sick - this time it's Michaila's dreaded flu virus she has passed around (sorry missy - love you lots but think you are the culprit!!) but to be fair, poor girl has felt so awful, can't be mad at her! A few of us have it now, and Fernando being a typical boy, is now milking it to death.. too funny (and sorry Fernando but you know its true - and yes, you got lots of sympathy!!). Visited the Drepung Monastery this morning on the outskirts of town. So many things to remember here - pilgrims pushing past you with their flasks of melted yak butter to add to the many lighted shrines in front of Dalai Lama or holy god photos; quite right as it is their place of worship after all but it's funny sometimes how they have no qualms of really pushing past you! amazing smells (some good - like incense, some bad - like lotsa yak butter!),
vibrant colours of the Tibetan womens clothes (so many of the Tibetan people remind me of the way the people in the Andean highlands of South America look - long plaited hair, jewels in their hair, brightly coloured clothes with many layers..lots of high cheek bones and smiling, brown faces)....
Went for lunch and was attacked - by my good pal Ariel! Yup -he turns up everywhere! But i knew he was going to be in Lhasa for a few days before he started his 17 day cycle back to Kathmandu - crazy boy, i mean what's wrong with a plane or jeep like most normal people use as their mode of transport! After lunch we had our "tour" of the Jokhang Temple - which i think is my favourite place so far in Tibet. Much smaller and more intimate than some of the other temples; still very ornate but has a much quieter, spiritual feel, well, for me anyway.
Sat in a prayer hall and just listened to the chanting - so beautiful! Funny thing - just as i opened my eyes and was thinking "aah this is a very spiritual moment and my heart is full of good thoughts" I look over at this monk, and the cheeky thing looks up, sticks his tongue out at me, then head down and back to his chanting! Nearly fell over laughing ....a funny wee moment in the midst of "oohhmmmmmm land"....
Afternoon was stinky trying to organize plane tickets out of Lhasa.. very hard to do, especially when you can't use your credit card, cash only please, and then the ATM takes your card! Disaster! But all worked out in the end (well, apart from the fact there were only 2 seats and Michaila, Tarik and I were looking for tickets.. as always Tarik the gentleman said we should have them, and he would go back to Kathmandu via jeep and visit Everest Base Camp..what a guy!) Need to go to the Bank of China tomorrow to get my bank card....hopefully! But on the whole, another wonderful adventure in Tibet! Think this city is growing on me!
Oct 16th. Today is the "piece de resistance" - our visit to the Potala Palace! Hmmn... slightly soured by the fact we were only allowed one hour to visit per the rules and regulations! WHAT! We drive overland for a week to get here and we can only be in the building for one hour! Hmmnn... we were not impressed but clearly the idea is to get as many tourists through the door as possible, hence the time limit! Also in the face of Tibetan tradition, the tour goes anti-clockwise around the temple, in complete contradiction to Buddhist beliefs - terrible! Don't get me wrong now - I'm not anti-Chinese at all - i'm just more and more pro- or at least very sympathetic to - the Tibetan situation...even tho' I fully admit i know very little surrounding the background and current situation.. (luckily i had watched the film, Kundun by Oliver Stone, for an idiots guide to how the Chinese began to make inroads into Tibet..and then took it over!). The name "Potala" comes from the Tibetan word "paradise" or "pure land", and the palace has been the home of successive Dalai Lamas and is the seat of the Tibetan government. Some very impressive sights within the Potala e.g. the Kalachakra chapel with its stunning 3D mandala over 6m in diameter with over 170 statues in it.. AND we saw the private rooms of the current DL (he's the 14th DL - I think!). So an impressive place - on the outside and inside.. sometimes i like these places more for the people watching (in this case the many many pilgrims) than the temples; Potala had a good mix of both!
Our last big dinner tonight as people were beginning to head off to different locales tomorrow - so we had a brilliant night out. Yup, you guessed it - lotsa chat, beer but no yak butter tea.. that we will leave to the nomads. Oh - forgot to mention Michaila and I (and we made Fernando come too as he was all stressed out organizing visa stuff for him and Emilio!) decided to treat ourselves to a massage at our hotel. Hmmnnn... what kind of massage takes place on a double bed when there is a massage table right next to it.. AND its with a boy massager (ok i know the real name but this sounds better!) AND there are lots of pictures of naked women on motorbikes all over the place! Yes - very wierd! I put my foot down - literally - and decided to change my order to a "roses and milk" foot massage thank you! Michaila quickly followed but Fernando, not knowing this, had a lady masseuse but said "no thanks" to the offer of something "a litte extra" - can you believe it! Tut tut - no, not Fernando - the hotel, offering such things! Tibet eh!!!!
Oct 17th. Fond farewell over breakfast to my wonderful Spanish boys...they were off to Shanghai or Shendung or somewhere like that in mainland China.. sorry boys, cant remember the name!! And my lovely Tarik had left very early this morning to begin his overland trip back to Kathmandu via Everest Base Camp - but no fear, we were meeting up with him in a few days to hear all about it!! Jonas and Alexis were also heading out - back to Kathmandu via plane this morning, but we would see them soon too, so not too bad! But still, a sad day breaking up the Four Momos gang!! And so there were a few less of us! As this was the last official day of the tour, Michaila, Arantxa, Jose, Gabriella, Claudio and I headed from the hotel (in the red light district of town no less! - maybe that's why there was the "extra offer" at the massage suite!) towards the Tibetan Quarter. We all checked into the International Youth Hostel (ahh... back to our basic roots.. no more 18 pressure point showers for us!)...What's the first thing we do - what else! Head to the Friends cafe across the street for some real coffee .. ahh yes real Tibetan style! OK so we had a giggle about being in the middle of Lhasa in a Friends cafe - but so what!!! After muchas cafe, alot of pottering, this time through the Muslim area of town. Saw some lovely mosques and some fab markets..home for a snooze then more coffee and chat! A brilliant night with me and the Spanish gang - poor Michaila stayed in 'cos she was still feeling rotten! We had a great night of passionate discussion - a bilingual evening you could call it; lots of chat about American, Spanish, South American and British politics; religions; the state of Tibetan Buddhism and whether the Dalai Lama (or the DL as we talked in code - hey you can't be too careful. Two tourists were sent to prison for giving someone a photo of the "DL".. but yes, our code wasn't exactly too hard to crack eh!)...have to say I was quite chuffed at how much Spanish i could understand.. now, when it came to talking it, that was a different matter! I definitely need some major help here! But another great night in Tibet!
Oct 18th. Met Ariel for breakfast before he began his big bike adventure! Fab breakfast in wee local place - he does find all the best places to eat! Great laugh with the folks! Pottered some more although it started getting much much colder here in Lhasa..internet, market, shopping, muffin shop (yes yummy muffins here in Lhasa!).. and a very civilized last supper in Tibet.. think we have all warmed to the city after all, but are ready to head back to the crazy civilization of Nepal.. up tomorrow bright and early for our flight back...yes, flight and i'm sooo happy to be flying and not taking 3-4 days in a jeep! Phew! What an amazing, incredible, interesting and eventful time I have had here in Tibet. So glad i came .... although it was very different from my initial expectations, i did really enjoy myself and of course, it goes without saying, i have met the most brilliant people ever - wouldn't be the same without all of you so thanks very much from the heart of my bottom!