The Roof of the World

The start to our adventure was very smooth. There were the occasional traffic stoppages en route to the airport, but we were there with an hour to spare. Check in was blissfully easy and we paid Rp50,000 each (~Au$6) to go into a reasonable lounge. 

Then, of course, the plane was more than an hour late in leaving. We arrived at the Kuala Lumpur Low Cost Carrier Terminal towards midnight. The expensive (by Asian standards) taxi took us to the same monument to Besser bricks which we had previously patronized. It was a bit cleaner than we remembered and we had a good 5 hours of sleep. 

Next morning, we did the kiosk check in and the helpful attendant directed us to the baggage drop counter. Wrong one, and, we waited behind one of those particular folk who somehow make it to the end of the process only to have an anomaly. It was plain sailing after that. There are some duty-free shops at the LCCT now and I lashed out and bought a good Canon digital SLR. It is easy to use but will take a lot of practice to use to it’s full potential (like most technology, I suppose).

It felt good to be back in China – Chengdu has about half the population of Australia, and is very modern. The subway system isn’t quite finished, so the roads are disrupted a bit. Again, we were struck by how well-dressed and confident most urban people are. We changed money to pay the Tibet tour people, then wandered around near our hotel to get some last-minute necessities. 

Helen had been corresponding with Taschi from the tour company, so it was a bit if a surprise when he turned up with our permits to collect his money. He seemed nice, and answered a few questions we had. We booked a private tour so that we would have some flexibility. 

The Civil Aviation Hotel was a typical Chinese hotel, with rock-hard mattresses, and, in the bathroom, in addition to the usual hotel toiletries there were changes of underwear and several different packets of condoms. Some guests must really have a good time. 

We took a taxi to an entertainment section of town. In the taxi, we realised that we had committed the cardinal sin in China – we had forgotten to get the hotel card! We were looking for a particular bar which was listed in the well-known travel guide. We eventually found a dodgy-looking place and the proprietress informed us that the place we sought had ceased to exist 5 years previously. Our copy of the travel guide isn’t recent. 

On our return, it took us two taxi trips and some walking, in the drizzle, before we finally  located the hotel. 

Breakfast was entirely local fare. I can’t remember previously staying in a hotel that didn’t serve coffee or tea – we had a choice of hot lemon juice, milk or soy milk. We had coffee and a lamington at Starbucks. 

The taxi driver who took us to the airport refused, initially, to use the meter, then gave us a “magical mystery tour”. Luckily, the rare rip offs by Chinese taxi drivers usually only cost an extra two or three dollars. 

We got a thorough but courteous going over before being allowed to the departure gates. Chengdu airport is modern, clean and, as yet, under-utilized. 

The flight to Lhasa was good. There was a camera at the nose of the plane, so the TV screen showed a view similar to that of the pilots during takeoff and landing. 

After the 50km trop from the airport, our Landcruiser turned off the main drag down some alleyways and deposited us in front of a yak meat shop. The Khandro Hotel, opposite, was gaudily done out in Tibet style. The staff were friendly and helpful although none seemed to speak English. 

Two left turns from the hotel’s door (a Tibetan hanging) had us at the Barkhor. Nearly everyone was  doing the clockwise circuit and many were spinning their prayer wheels clockwise. The route was lined with stalls selling all sorts of colourful souvenirs. The smell of rancid yak butter pervaded almost everywhere.  We found a first-floor restaurant and watched the continuous procession while we sampled some tasty eggplant pancakes and the local beer. 

We had obviously overdone things a bit because we both had the symptoms of altitude sickness – headaches and fatigue. We went to bed fairly early and tossed and turned. A painkiller each at about midnight fixed the headaches. 

Breakfast consisted of warmed bread and a greasy fried egg with orange cordial and a choice of tea or instant coffee. We were well enough to eat most of it. It was punctuated with the sound of China – someone hoiking their insides out. 

Our guide, Kalsan, met us in the foyer and we walked around to the 1300-year-old Jokhang Temple, in the centre of the Barkhor. It was packed, mainly with pilgrims and Chinese tourists. We walked around the two levels and up to the roof. We only caught glimpse of the gold Buddha – it was in one of the numerous alcoves, and one of the monks tending it kept standing in front of it. The statues and decorations were amazing, although it seems that spirit levels and plumb lines didn’t get a lot of use in ancient Tibet. 

Judging by the look of the pilgrims, life is still pretty tough outside Lhasa. “Weatherbeaten” is clearly the adjective to use, and most folk were dressed much more poorly than the Chinese. People were either very dark, or the climate has given them the appearance of having had a very bad, permanent facial. 

Religion is obviously a major aspect of Tibetan life. Pilgrims prostrate themselves everywhere and anywhere in a yoga-like ritual. Apparently, 500 prostrations is the acceptable minimum. In the temples, each chamber has, as well as at least three Buddhas, vats of candles fuelled by yak butter. The pilgrims elbow each other out of the way to top up the candles and a monk ladles it around for optimum burning. 

There is very noticeable military presence in the old city. Kalsan told us not to take photos of the soldiers. They were always on the alert for some sign of trouble. 

We went to the Potala palace, after a lunch of biscuits and water. It was amazing. Most of it was built in the 17th century but there were a couple of the original 7th century rooms in the top section. There were gilded Buddhas everywhere and all the previous Dalai Lamas have gold-leafed, bejewelled burial stupas. There is an enormous library of scrolls – nowadays the monks read from photocopies. 

It was pretty heavy going climbing to the top, which meant that it was nowhere near as crowded as Jokhang temple. Having been the home of the Dalai Lama, we were surprised that it needed a good clean. In fact, from all of our observations in Tibet, cleanliness is definitely not next to Buddha-ness. 

We went souvenir shopping in the afternoon and picked up a few trinkets.  We had a drink at a nice cafe, where the wi-fi didn’t work then dinner a nice-looking place in Beijing Lu. Helen’s momo’s took a while and were nice but my nasi goreng was a poor choice. 

Back at the Khandro Hotel, Helen was feeling unwell. We were in bed by 8.30pm, and then the Chinese tour group arrived. They had rooms each side of ours and stood at each end of the landing yelling at each other. When I went out and abused them they quietened for a while, but it was after 11pm before they ended up in their own rooms. It didn’t matter that much to me because my nasi goreng had been well and truly laced with MSG, so I tossed and turned most of the night. 

We forewent the eggs at breakfast the next morning (which Helen suggested would be a common request) and augmented the warmed, sweet bread with bananas and honey we had purchased the previous day. Then, we headed off to Drepung monastery, a short way out of town. It was really interesting, with plenty of Buddhas. We couldn’t, however, imagine that, in the past, 10,000 monks crowded into the assembly hall. 


Back in town, we found a reasonable cafe for lunch, then bought some jackets for the Everest base camp. Two shifty-looking blokes crowded into the shop and I realised that a pocket on my backpack was open. They were saved from arrest only by the fact that nothing was missing (too tight to pull anything out) and I was only 99.99% sure one of them had done it. They left very quickly when I saw the open pocket. 

Next stop was the Sera monastery, where the “highlight” is the debating session by the monks. (I would have thought that, after more than 1,000 tears of Tibetan Buddhism, there was nothing much left to debate.) Just before we got there, Kalsan received a phone call to tell her that “the monks were out at a picnic” and that the monastery was closed. 

We returned to town and went to the cafe in which we had a drink the previous day to see if my missing clip-on sunglasses were there. (They were.) Helen headed off to shop and I wended my way back to the hotel. 

We had a lovely dinner at the Dunya restaurant in Beijing Lu. However, we shouldn’t have had the two glasses of wine with it and the two scotches in our hotel room – the altitude sickness returned. (The other thing we noticed was that shampoo and other things that had been manufactured near sea level came spurting out of the tube as soon as they were opened. Helen’s soy bars popped as they were opened.)

The Chinese tourists were even worse the second night. Despite us miming, twice, that we wanted to sleep, they didn’t go into their rooms until after 10:30pm. Then, from about 11pm, a little girl ran around the landings playing loudly. I went out at 11:30pm and mimed for her and the young woman with her to disappear, which they did. We had a public bathroom through the wall from our bed and it seemed like the tourists had a roster to continuously use it until nearly 2am. 

I wasn’t 100% and got worse as the day progressed. Even so, it was a wonderful experience. We left Lhasa and headed for the “hills”. The road took us winding up over the mountains to the pass, 5000m above sea level. I sat in the front and our driver, Tenzin, was cornering a bit too fast for my liking. We came around one bend and encountered an accident involving a car, a bus and a truck. It seemed that, luckily, no-one had been hurt. 

For more than 100km out of Lhasa we had to stop at regular speed checkpoints. Because everyone speeds, we had to stop before each checkpoint and wait until the “correct” time. 

Before the pass, we stopped at Yamdrok lake, which is sacred. At least a hundred other tourists were there, taking photos, as well. We skirted the lake for ages them climbed up to the pass. The glaciers were amazing but obviously receding. 

I was feeling terrible and dozed a lot of the way to cope. We stopped in a town for lunch. Helen and I just ambles around – neither of us could face food. The town was composed of dirty grey boxes for buildings and was devoid of vegetation. Everything and everyone was filthy. 

We drove through plains of barley that stretched to the mountains, dotted with little hamlets of grey boxes. The next town, Gyantse, was even more depressing than the previous one. It is home to Pelchor monastery next to Kumpa stupa, with Tibet’s biggest stupa. I wasn’t really up to climbing the stupa. 

From there, we forged on to Shigatse, Tibet’s 2nd biggest city. It is a hole. It is very Chinese in the building style, and filthy. We pulled into the Yak Hotel and unloaded our bags. There was no booking so we ended up at the Tenzin Hotel, which was very basic. We were both unwell and went to bed after a dinner of dry biscuits. 

We were both a lot better in the morning and even had some Tibetan unleavened bread for breakfast. Still, we were not anything like well. Kalsan and Tenzin dropped us off at the Tashilumo monastery while they went to get our Mt. Everest permits. It was quite spectacular and the large Buddha was very impressive. 

The Landcruiser headed up towards the Everest base camp. We went through basins planted with yellow rape seed and then barley. We headed up and stopped at the 5200m Gyalpo-la pass, from which we could see the snow-capped peaks. It even snowed lightly while we were there. The terrain got very rocky and we passed herds of cattle, goats, sheep and yaks grazing on the sparse vegetation.

We arrived at the town of Shegar to spend the night at the Tingri Qomolangma Resort. The hot water took 10 minutes to arrive through the pipes and the electricity was on from 7pm until midnight (and the generator was right near our room). It was quite hot when we arrived, but cooled quickly as the sun began to set, at about 8pm. We both ended up with bad headaches and laid down for a while. We decided to risk some vegetarian momos at the Tashi restaurant in front of the hotel. 

Both of us still had headaches when we went to bed. We had painkillers but Helen had to have another one. 

In the morning we were a bit better. We had some warmed bread with nondescript jam before boarding the Landcruiser for Everest. The 100+km road was terrible but the scenery was incredible. A lot of the terrain was strewn with rocks but, every now and then, a hamlet with barley fields appeared. Along the way we collected a second tour guide and dropped her off 5km further on. 

There was a significant number of cyclists on the road. We could only admire them – it was gruelling enough by car! (The husband of a Dutch friend, in Guangzhou, did the Lhasa to Katmandu cycle with some mates.)

It was getting a bit “close” in the front with Tenzin. To be fair to the Tibetans, if your main water source is a glacial stream and your main energy source is dried animal excrement, hot water for washing clothes or bodies is a luxury. Also, most inhabited areas smell strongly of yak butter and various varieties of excrement, and in this climate people don’t sweat much. So, in normal Tibetan circumstances a bit of body odour would be barely noticeable. However, the absence of water for washing hands (particularly between putting a couple of handfuls of dried dung on the fire and eating) must have an impact on community health.

Eventually, we reached our destination, a campsite just short of the base camp. It cost extra to go to the base camp, and Kalsan said that there was nothing different to see, so we repaired to our yak-hair tent for a while. Each tent has a different name and are quite comfortable. Much to the dismay of Tenzin and his mates, I declared the Holyland Ka Mar Lha Hotel (our tent) non-smoking. 

Helen and I did a quick tour of the compound then returned to the tent. We resolved to try and control our bodies so that visits to the (predictably) disgusting toilets would be kept to a minimum. (There was nowhere at the campsite to wash, even hands, except in the stream 50m away. Even in our tent, at no time were we offered water for washing.)  Later, we went for another walk and, while I was forced to sprint to the latrines, Helen went weak in the legs and fell. She recovered but was shaken by it.  

We had instant noodles for dinner and basically just hung out in the tent. When it got too cold we prevailed upon the proprietress to light the dung stove. It smoked us out a bit but was nice and warm. 

The proprietress made up beds for us on the narrow bench seats and we burrowed in as it got dark (~8pm). There was a constant stream of Tibetans through the dark tent to the staff quarters, behind, until midnight. Then, the light came on! “What’s happening?” “She’s making up our beds”. I refrained from asking why this didn’t happen at 8pm. So, it seems that Tibetans talk from dusk until midnight, then sleep until dawn, just before 8am. 

When we went to bed, I felt terrible and Helen was okay. By dawn, the situation had reversed. My situation was helped by the fact that I had gone outside to relieve myself at midnight and had re-made my bed, with one less doona. Helen was hot and claustrophobic all night. We put most of it down to the water in the cup of tea we were given on arrival. 

In the morning, dawn over Everest  was shrouded in mist, so we headed downwards. A lot of vehicles had come in after us during the night and the traffic had almost destroyed the road down. (The road has not been sealed because of the effects on the environment – Kalsan said that the snowline has already receded dramatically in the past five years. Also, there are already too many vehicles on the road.) Helen did well not to succumb to the constant jolting. We had been very fortunate the previous day to see the Himalayas because they were now shrouded in cloud. 

We stopped at Shegar for a basic lunch then pressed on to Shigatse. The scenery was just as beautiful on the return journey. This time, we actually did have a booking at the Yak Hotel, which was quite nice. (Like many hotels throughout the world, it had been built as a really nice hotel but was gradually running down because of poor, or no, maintenance.) We walked up into town and had nice curries at the Tashi restaurant, which would have been unthinkable 24 hours before. 

We had our first proper sleep for the trip and felt good in the morning – well enough to enjoy the fried potatoes with breakfast. 

Tenzin kept us waiting for the second morning in a row, but we pulled out of Shigatse as the sun rose (~7:45am). We followed the Brahmaputra River for more than 200km to Lhasa. The first 70km was “under construction”. It was even worse than the Everest road. We then had a 175km downhill run to Lhasa  The scenery was, again, breath-taking. At one stage Tenzin stopped at stream that tumbled down the mountain side into the river. It is, apparently, blessed. Tenzin had a wash and a drink and collected a bottle full. Kalsan and I had a drink.

We stopped in a filthy little village for lunch. We risked some fried rice and fried noodles with vegetables. They were tasty but greasy. I went looking for some soft drink but couldn’t find a sealed bottle I was prepared to put near my mouth. 

We encountered the checkpoints from then on which slowed our return to Lhasa. Even so, we were back at the Khandro Hotel by 2:30pm. 

Helen wanted to do some last-minute shopping so we headed out separately. I walked a long way to find an ATM then caught a pedicab back to Beijing Lu where I bought a new backpack. We met up and had a drink at a quaint little bar just off Beijing Lu. We then had another nice meal at Dunya. 

We had a very pleasant room back at the Khandro in which we uploaded and viewed our photos before going to sleep. This time, it was French tourists who woke us, but, unlike the Chinese, they had a go at being quiet when asked. 

We were both a bit nauseous during the night, which we suspected may have had something to do with the wine at Dunya. Otherwise we were fine and met Tenzin out in the main street. We got to the airport in time to join about 20 foreigners, 5 Tibetans and several thousand Chinese at check-in. (And, many years ago, I was cursed by the God of Slow Queues.) However, we got a window seat and boarded on time. 

Despite some headaches and nausea, we thoroughly enjoyed Tibet. It is an amazing country, and to know that people have been living the same way of life for a thousand years is awe-inspiring. The Tibetans still make up the majority of the citizenry but the commerce is, clearly, Chinese-controlled. There seems to be a conscious effort to preserve and promote Tibetan culture, but it is hard to make a judgement from a brief visit. 

To borrow from “The Life of Brian”, the Chinese have brought electricity, roads, education and telecommunications to Tibet. (China Mobile has covered the whole country with solar-powered transmitters.) Public health and environmental education programs would be a logical next step.

The Chinese are not going to leave, so it appears that the only viable solution for the Tibetan people is to work with the Chinese government to gain some sort of control over what happens to their country.

Back in Chengdu, Helen indulged her favourite pastime – shopping. I wandered about in the drizzle and bought a couple of things. In the evening, we caught a taxi to Hooters – Helen pointed out the ironic globalism of going to an American chain restaurant, predicated primarily on voyeurism, housed in a bank building owned by an Indonesian, committed Christian in a huge, modern, Chinese city that few people in the Western world would have heard of. We had an enjoyable evening because the staff obviously enjoyed their jobs and the food was good. 

In the morning, we went by taxi to the Giant Panda Research Station. It was very well set out and we were there early enough to beat the crowds – actually, there were a lot of people there when we arrived but we walked while most of the others waited for the big golf carts to take them around. The pandas don’t do a lot but they are cute. We saw some young ones but no small ones. 

We were back at the hotel with plenty of time to finish packing, then we had an uneventful trip to the airport and check in. The new Air Asia Airbus 330 had us in KL not too far behind schedule. We had a slight wait for our luggage, checked in for our flight to Jakarta and Helen did some duty-free shopping. Then, the final flight was the same as the first – delayed an hour because flights in and out of Jakarta get progressively later as each day goes on.

In the end, we were only 20 minutes late into Soekarno-Hatta, and the taxi had us home just before 1am. We were tired, but had had a great holiday.


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