PALACES, YAKS AND BUTTER TEA: MY JOURNEY TO TIBET

Potala Palace in Tibet

The majestic Potala Palace in Tibet

Tibet had been on my dream destination list since I first learned of its existence. How could I not be fascinated by this fabled place with areas so remote they have never been inhabited? Every time I tried to get there, however, things got complicated, I ran out of time or the entry regulations changed.  Finally, my opportunity arrived.

GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN

The biggest hassle about Tibet is actually getting to Tibet. This is an autonomous region of China where political turmoil flairs up occasionally. The Chinese government maintains strict controls on tourism. Entry regulations are constantly changing. Independent travel is prohibited.  You can only enter Tibet with an organized group and must stay with them for the whole time you are there. This is fine provided you end up with a cool group.  I was lucky. I had been told that non-Chinese tourists needed to be isolated from Chinese tourists and shepherded around by a guide specifically for this purpose. I saw no evidence of this and was happily welcomed into the group of all-Chinese travelers.

Besides this group requirement you need a China visa. You also need a special, separate permit to enter Tibet. This can only be obtained from agencies authorized by the Tibet Tourism Bureau in Lhasa, the capital. These agencies can be found online. You will also need high altitude medicine and an oxygen tank.  I’m not kidding, you actually will need oxygen in several locations depending on where you enter Tibet. Fortunately oxygen tanks are readily available.

There are several ways to enter Tibet by train or car. Our group entered from the north-east and drove in a caravan across central China to Lhasa.  The trip took about three days.  Legend has it during China’s Tang Dynasty, 618 to 907AD, Princess Wencheng took this same road to marry the king of Tibet. I can only imagine how long it took her to make this same trek.

 Journey to Tibet. From Xining to Lhasa and beyond

Map of my journey to Tibet

We flew from Beijing to Xining where we met the group. From Xining, a pleasant, bustling Chinese city with terrific food, we drove to Golund.  I had researched Golund beforehand and found a comment in a guide book that said, “Unless you are a hydraulic engineer or a fugitive hiding from the law there is no earthly reason to go to Golund”. I thought that was pretty funny. It made me curious to see the place.  I wasn’t there long enough to dispel or confirm this description, but I understand Golund has some interesting natural parks.

CARAVANNING THROUGH CENTRAL CHINA

Row of Toyota Land Cruisers stopped for a rest on the journey to Tibet

Caravanning through central China to Lhasa, Tibet

The road to Lhasa on the central China route is isolated. You can travel for miles without seeing a soul. Mostly we drove through deserts and windy plains.  In several locations construction crews seemed to be still building the road even as we approached. In these areas we’d divert and drive on unpaved land, sometimes for miles, until we again found the road. This would have made a great commercial for the Toyota Land Cruiser.

Every once in a while throughout the trip the local police would stop us and check our documents. As we got closer to Tibet the inspections became more frequent and thorough. At one location, about 30 miles from Tibet, we were detained in a guard house.  The guards offered us water, practiced their English on us, checked our papers and let us go. Tibet is the only place in China I have been stopped and questioned. Generally what I do or where I go in China is a matter of supreme indifference to the local authorities.

At Qinghai lake we camped by the lake in tents. We killed and roasted a sheep for dinner. The mayor of the nearby town came over to our camp. I thought maybe we had violated some town ordinance like “no butchering sheep within city limits” but he just wanted to welcome us. We shared our sheep dinner and baidu (Chinese liquor) with him.

I don’t think I have ever seen such a dark night or such a beautiful starlit sky as I did that night by the lake. The tents were all identical. People would leave their tents in the middle of the night to relieve themselves then come back and enter the wrong tent so all night we kept hearing annoyed sleepers complaining.

Throughout the trip the guide kept warning us that soon we would arrive at the highest point on the trip and confirming we had our altitude medication. We did. We had also stocked up on traditional Chinese medicine back in Xining, a tasty tea guaranteed to help with the altitude. We combined the two and, although we did feel the effects of the high altitude, we didn’t end up prostrate across the car seats gasping for breath while someone administered oxygen, as some of our companions did.

That night I had my first experience with oxygen.  We stopped at a hotel that had oxygen tanks in all the rooms. The hotel was a massive structure as are many government hotels in China. But it was almost empty. I wanted to try the oxygen tank even though I didn’t need it but couldn’t get it to work.  I finally figured out you had to insert coins into it like the old fashion vibrating beds in the States. Had I really needed the oxygen I would have been in trouble.

The high point of the trip, literally, was 5,231 meters high, or 17,628 feet. To put this in perspective, Mount Everest is 29,029 feet high.  This is the highest I’ve ever been without an aircraft. At this point it was hard to breath and we had to walk very slowly because any exertion would exhaust us immediately. It was also incredibly cold. We kept throwing on layers and layers of whatever clothing we found.  Still, there was a little feeling of triumph at having made it this far in reasonably good shape.

Arriving at the highest point in Tibet at 5,231 feet, the highest I've ever been without a plane

Arriving at the highest point in Tibet

What’s the most physically challenging activity you’ve ever participated in?

2 Comments

  1. “No butchering sheep within city limits” … that really made me laugh! Killing and cooking a sheep for dinner sounds so out of the ordinary (for me at least!) that it was a little shocking – perhaps that’s what made it so entertaining! I never realized how difficult it is to get into Tibet; this was a real eye-opener, that’s for sure!

    1. I know! Butchering sheep is not really a daily routine. Thanks for your comments. I’m glad I was able to make you laugh.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *