..and by Tibet, I mean the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Technically, I’ve already been on the Tibetan Plateau for a bit while in Xining, and there are Tibetan regions as well, such as Amdo & Kham, which are partly in Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, & Yunnan Provinces. Nevertheless, I have always dreamed of visiting Tibet, and finally I had the opportunity to do so.
Tibet Travel Restrictions
For foreigners, visiting the TAR can be difficult, with many restrictions and much paperwork. Not only do you need a valid Chinese visa, but you also need a Tibet Travel Permit to be able to board a flight or train into the region. And that permit is only good for Lhasa. Visiting regions outside of Lhasa need other various permits, especially if visiting places near “military zones” of “national security,” such as Mt. Everest or Mt. Kailas in the West. Furthermore, foreigners are not allowed to travel independently within the TAR, but must join a tour group with a guide. Only in Lhasa are you allowed to walk around by yourself, but still for some temples your guide must accompany you. So it is a bit of a hassle to go, but it’s relatively easy to sort out the paperwork once you join a tour, which handles all that on your behalf. I joined the 8 day tour to Mt. Everest by Tibet Vista due to its pricing and timing, and had a really great trip. Traveling to Tibet in the winter poses great opportunities in my opinion. The weather is pretty warm and always sunny, there are less tourists and more locals, and getting train tickets is easier. And although it seems a bit restricting to have to travel with a guide, it’s a good way to learn more about the culture and history, especially if your guide is a local Tibetan. Our guide, Sonam, was the best, and I am thankful to have learned so much about Tibetan life & culture from him.
I took the train from Xining to Lhasa, which runs along the Qinghai-Tibet Railway — the highest railway in the world, crossing the Tibetan Plateau and going up to 5000m. I had read a lot about the railway before, which is a true feat of engineering, going through many mountain tunnels, with tracks built into the permafrost. A definite example of Chinese infrastructure. All in all, the train experience was pretty much the same as all the other slow, overnight trains I’ve been taking. This train does provide oxygen, should the need arise, although its supposedly pressurized, and the surrounding scenery is amazing. In my bunk area was a family of 5 Tibetans from Yushu Autonomous Prefecture in Amdo/southern Qinghai, who I chatted with for a bit in Chinese, although it was a second language for all of us. During the trip, we passed by frozen plains, many animals like sheep and yak, and snow-capped mountains as we climbed higher up the Plateau, passing Delinghua & Golmud, and crossing into Tibet. At one point during the night, I felt so awful — the air was hot and dry, I felt lightheaded, and when I got up, I actually passed out and fell on the ground. Luckily after drinking a lot of water, the rest of the ride was fine, but I was made aware of the seriousness of altitude sickness, so for the rest of the trip kept my self very hydrated and nourished. After arriving in Lhasa, the police pulled me aside to a separate room to check my paperwork, then I met up with Sonam, and we made our way to the hotel in Lhasa old town under a bright blue sky and a shining sun.
Lhasa — Tibet’s cultural & political center
DAY 1: After dropping my stuff at the hotel, I went out with some new friends from my tour group to walk around Lhasa, taking it easy on our first day at this altitude, as Sonam recommended. We headed to the Lhasa old street, walking down insanely crowded streets, full of pilgrims preparing for Losar (Tibetan New Year) on Feb. 16. We went to a teahouse packed with locals, and got ourselves a big canister of Masala chai “sweet tea”, as its known here, as well as Tibetan noodles and friend potatoes. Sitting next to local families, I felt so happy and amazed to be in Tibet. A lot of people tried to speak with me in English too, and were just so friendly and helpful.
Next, we meandered further down the old street to Barkhor Square. Just walking in the old town area, I felt completely in a new place — a new language, new people with different hair & dress, super bright sunlight and blue skies, white buildings with black and colorful trim, a whole new array of “souvenirs” on sale, and the ever present smell of burning incense. We passed through the police check and entered the Barkhor area in front of Jokhang Temple, which was packed with pilgrims prostrating in front between big incense burners and prayer flag covered stupas, and pilgrims doing kora around the temple, some prostrating while doing kora. We decided to do kora as well, so started on our clockwise lap, walking past shops selling all kinds of religious articles, clothing, thangka, rugs, etc. After our first lap, we stopped at a rooftop teahouse for more sweet tea, with great views over the old town roofs to the Potala Palace.
We then set off to finish our three laps (for good luck), and I was surprised to be tapped on the shoulder to find the family of Tibetans from Yushu I was on the train with, who were also doing kora. A really cute moment that made me so happy. As the sun was setting, we walked over to the Potala Palace to take some photos. Finally for dinner, we had a yummy meal of curry potatoes and yak stuffed green peppers.
DAY 2: We got on our tour bus for the week, met our driver and the rest of our group, and set out for Drepung Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa. On the way, Sonam told us lots of interesting things about Tibetan culture, like how Tibetan children are named by monks rather than their parents, and typically don’t have a family name. He also told us about the marriage traditions in Kham (eastern Tibet, where he’s from), about sky burials (a tradition from pre-Buddhist times, where after 3 days, the deceased is given to monks in a ceremony where vultures descend to eat the body), and how his youngest brother is a monk himself. We also learned more about Tibet’s history, and the shift from rule by kings to rule by the lamas, of whom the top three are the Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama, and Karmapa. There were many photos of the lamas (although not the Dalai Lama) in all the temples. We also learned about the Buddhas in the temples, the butter lamps and butter sculptures, many thangka, the 8-spoked wheel of life with the 3 vices, represented by the snake, pig, and rooster. Sonam also told us how Tibetan monks aren’t vegetarian, nor are most Tibetans, but they still don’t eat things like seafood, since you have to take many lives to feel full, whereas a large yak is only one life, but is sufficient to live off of for a long time. This was really interesting to me, because it was a different way of looking at things, and makes sense given Tibet’s harsh natural environment.
Anyway, Drepung Monastery was stunningly beautiful, with white walls (painted in milk) against a blue sky, and resembled a small village with winding paths up & down. We saw some rock paintings up above, some habitations for meditation in the hills, and an enormous wood pile for a cooking fire for New Years. While at Drepung, my camera suddenly stopped working, to my great disappointment, but I was determined not to let that dampen my trip.
After lunch, we went to Sera Monastery, which was equally packed with locals, and gorgeous in its design. The highlight was definitely seeing all the monks debating in the courtyard, with loud voices, louder claps, and prayer beads flying. A really unique experience.
After Sera, we had a quick rest, then the whole group went for a Tibetan dinner at a local restaurant in the old town, complete with 2 types of yak momo, many potatoes, corn, and other veggies, tsampa (barley flour), bread, sweet tea, butter tea, and even homemade chang (Tibetan beer).
DAY 3: Our last day in Lhasa, we visited the Potala Palace in the morning, the former home of the His Holiness the Dalai Lama (as Sonam always called him), and the political center of Tibet for many centuries. It was started in the 7th c., but expanded in the 17th c. by the 5th Dalai Lama. After that, every Dalai Lama would build his own palace extension, which is why the Potala is so expansive (it has over 1000 rooms!). The colors on the Potala Palace: red, yellow, and white — signify the purpose of that area: either a temple area, living space for the Dalai Lama, or political space. Of course, the palace hasn’t been used since 1959, and now mostly functions as a museum. The palace, like every other holy area in Tibet before the New Year, was packed with locals, and walking in, we had to climb up many steps to the top. Much of the palace looked similar to other Tibetan temples I’ve seen, and although beautiful and filled with amazing artwork and precious things, it seemed humbler than, say, European palaces. We saw the living quarters on the 14th Dalai Lama, where he would receive visitors, his private temples, and the tombs of former Dalai Lamas. The 5th Dalai Lama’s tomb is cased in 3,721kg of gold! Even much of the painting throughout the palace was done with crushed precious stones, like rubies and pearls.
After a leisurely lunch at Lhasa Kitchen, where I had yummy yak curry and yogurt, we went to visit Jokhang Temple, which is Tibet’s first and most holy temple. As usual, many pilgrims were prostrating in front. There was also an insanely long line of pilgrims waiting to touch the most important statue in Tibet, which Sonam called ‘the heart of Tibet’, which was brought to Tibet by the Chinese princess way back in the day. We luckily didn’t have to wait in the line, but could only gaze upon the statue. Upstairs, the temple’s golden roofs and brightly colored walls were gorgeous.
In the evening, we had time to stock up on snacks and food for our upcoming journey out of Lhasa into the Himalayas. We first went to Barkhor Supermarket, which was not a supermarket at all, but more of an indoor bazaar, selling dried cheese, nuts, even peacock feathers, and more rugs. We then took a rickshaw to a real supermarket.
Road to Everest — Himalayas, Gyantse, & Shigatse
DAY 4: We left Lhasa at 8:30am, when the sun had barely risen, loading all our stuff on the bus, and snuggling in our yak blankets for the journey. I felt excited to get out of Lhasa and see more of the Tibetan landscape and villages. We passed over the Lhasa River, and into the newly developed section of the city, with Sonam pointing out various roads and tunnels, and the proposed railway extension to Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city. We started our way through and up the mountains, passing by holy mountains designated with a ladder painted on them in order for gods to descend to the Earth and the dead to climb to heaven. The views, though the landscape was mostly dry and brown, was still incredible, and as we drove higher and higher, we would stop at scenic viewpoints. At the first one, there were two, huge, fluffy Tibetan mastiffs!
Moving on, we climbed higher and higher until we reached the viewing point of the turquoise, icy Yamdrok Lake, at 4998m. The lake itself is beautiful and huge, stretching on for seemingly forever through and around the snow-capped mountains, with little ducks swimming close to the edge. The color was unbelievable. We drove down to the lake shore for more close-up views, and I took a photo with a decorated yak for 10元.
We then continued on our way, passing even more beautiful scenery and herds of animals by the lake shore, arriving at Kharola Glacier, 5020m. The glacier mountain peaks are 7191m, and there was a wooden plank path out close to the mountain, as well as a white stupa, and many prayer flags. I really felt like I was deep in the Himalayas.
Our next stop was Simala Pass. Amazing views, but ferocious winds, whipping the prayer flags back and forth. The wind is super strong up at that altitude, and Sonam warned it can easily make you sick and exhausted if you don’t protect your head.
The next stop was the small town of Gyantse, where we visited the Pelkhor Choede Monastery & Kumbum Stupa. The monastery strangely had no lights on inside, so we went on a flashlight tour, with creepy but kinda cool vibes. I really liked the ambiance of the monastery, which was surrounded on the hillside by red walls, and felt very lived in. The stupa was gorgeous, and after some time around there, we explored the old town and views of the Gyantse Fort. It was a very quaint Tibetan town!
Finally, we arrived in Shigatse, had a very late dinner, and got some good rest.
DAY 5: In the morning, we visited the Tashilunpo Monastery in Shigatse with another guide while Sonam went to handle our permits for Everest Base Camp. It’s the most important monastery in Shigatse, and the designated temple of the Panchen Lama. Inside, we visited the tomb of the 5th Panchen Lama, and learned that the tombs of the 6th-9th Panchen Lamas were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The 10th Panchen Lama, who died in 1989, and who’s tomb we also saw there, rebuilt a new tomb for those Lamas, and also fought hard on behalf of the Tibetan people to get Tibetan language reinstated in schools. I also learned that, until 1982, religion was banned in Tibet. Visiting this temple, I was reminded of how horrible the Cultural Revolution was — for everyone: Chinese, Tibetans, etc., and the scars all of China still bears today. Anyway, on another note, a lot of people at the temple were way more traditional than even in Lhasa, with braided hair, colorful jewelry, and weathered faces. After our visit, Sonam returned, and we were off to Everest!
Base Camp of Mount Everest
We set out with the goal of reaching Base Camp before sunset. I loved looking out at the scenery along the way, as we passed small villages of white, square, traditional Tibetan houses, wth outdoor enclosures for their animals, bigger and bigger brown mountains, some with snow-capped peaks with icy streams cutting through, and herders with flat-rimmed hats and prayer beads sitting at a distance watching their flocks of sheep and long-haired grey goats. The sun was intense all day, and the inside of the bus felt like a greenhouse. After stopping for lunch in the tiniest village, we went another 6 hours on the road before stopping at Old Tingri for gas and last-minute snacks. 7km after that, we all had to get off of the bus for a police check. At other stops, Sonam just showed our papers, but here we all had to present ourselves with our passports in person.
Now very near to Everest, we continued on up higher and higher mountains, on the windiest roads I’ve ever been on. We saw Everest from the distance for the first time, which was exciting, and even though we were on a time crunch, racing the sun, we made a short stop at Gyawula Pass, 5198m, where you can see the whole Himalayan Range (including many peaks above 8000m or in the high 7000m range: Everest/Qoomolangma, Lotse, Makalho, & Cho Oyu), since, as our driver pointed out, we had a clear view and you never know what the weather may be like the next day.
After one more police check, we arrived at the Rongpuk Monastery (highest monastery in the world) and the guesthouse we were staying the night at, but we continued onward to get as close to the base camp as possible for sunset. As we were driving, 4 wolves crossed the road directly in front of us, so we stopped to watch them for a while until they ran off in the distance. That was a surreal moment, and so unexpected. I have always wanted to see wild wolves. Up a little further, we ran into a literal road block — huge boulders across the gravel road — so we all hopped off the bus to push them off to the side. We succeeded with some, but the bus still couldn’t fit, even after very skilled attempts by the driver, so we proceeded trekking on foot, up some hills to the best viewpoint.
I climbed up with a German girl from the group, and we were the first ones there! Although the trek was relatively short, even a short distance uphill at that altitude (5200m) was exhausting. Mount Everest (in Tibetan – Qoomolangma) was just breathtaking. Gazing upon its North Face as the setting sun illuminated it pink was a truly unforgettable moment. Yet seeing it in person made me realize how tangible Everest is. It’s always been my dream to go there, but seeing it made me realize it’s not some mystical place, but a place on Earth, remote as it may be. Many Tibetans, like Sonam, have been there a hundred times (not exaggerating), yet I feel like as Westerners we tend to mystify it as unreachable. The moments staring at it though, were magical nonetheless to me. The closest I will ever be to heaven. The roof of the world.
Once the sun set, we hiked back down to the guesthouse in the dark, and I couldn’t help but think of the wolves we had just seen. Back at the guesthouse, it was already pitch black outside, with the temperature dropping significantly. The guesthouse was very simple — just a few rooms with five beds each and an outdoor bathroom, although there was electricity, wifi, and hot water for drinking. We also each had an electric blanket, which coupled with our yak blankets, my many, many layers, and extra heating pads I taped on my feet and neck, kept me very warm while sleeping. We ate our humble meals of whatever snacks we had left and instant noodles, and soon went to sleep. Some others in the group were really starting to feel the altitude, as we were sleeping at 5000m in the cold, but we each got an oxygen bottle. I didn’t feel any altitude sickness though, thankfully. Shoutout to my body for acclimating / also I took it really seriously and did everything I could to ease the process.
DAY 6: In the morning we woke up around 8am to see the sunrise at 8:30, although it really didn’t even rise until 9. Nevertheless, several of us braved the cold and climbed to the top of a nearby hill to watch the mountain emerge in light, with pink clouds drifting by. Soon after, we were on our way back to Shigatse.
Back to Lhasa — Friendship Highway & Yarlung Tsangpo
We went back the same way we came, stopping again at Gyawula Pass for some great views of the peaks and seemingly endless range of mountains with clear skies, doing the passport check again, and stopping for lunch in Old Tingri. Moving on, we stopped at Gyatsola Pass, 5248m, which had particularly biting winds. On the way, I saw some wild antelope-looking-things in the mountain crags. Our next stop was the ‘5000km from Shanghai’ sign on the Sino-Nepal Friendship Highway, which goes all the way Shanghai to the Nepal border. Finally, we were in Shigatse city. In the evening, we went out to walk through the Tibetan old town, under the Potala replica, then wandered through a market, before having dinner at a very local restaurant.
DAY 7: We drove from Shigatse back to Lhasa on the 318 Friendship Highway, a more direct way than we had come, following along the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which was very low now in the dry season. We stopped occasionally at some scenic spots, and had lunch in the most random restaurant in a tiny town, which I just loved. The decor was so cute, and it was full of locals. Since I finished eating early, I walked around the town a little nearby the restaurant. After we arrived in Lhasa, I did a bit of last minute souvenir shopping, and chilled at Summit Cafe for awhile before dinner. We planned to have a big group dinner at Lhasa Kitchen for our last night in Tibet, and invited Sonam to come as well. We ended up staying there until 11pm!
DAY 8: Before my train the next day, I went with the German girl for brunch, again at Lhasa Kitchen on the old street, then we walked around to get provisions and food for our upcoming train rides. Before I knew it, I was onboard my 40+ hour train ride from Lhasa back to Beijing. Just like that, a month of traveling and an amazing week in Tibet had come to an end.
I really, really loved Tibet and my experience over the last 8 days. I learned SO much about the Tibetan way of life and deeply religious culture from Sonam, and saw the most incredible landscapes, with the friendliest locals and roaming yaks. Everything about Tibet was intriguing to me, from the beautiful architecture and artwork, the new cultural customs, the expanses of sky & nothingness, and even the physical challenge of the altitude. It was also interesting to see such a traditional way of life still led by many Tibetans now, although rapidly changing. Aside from the usual struggles traveling in a non-developed place, traveling in a tour group was very comfortable and easy, although Tibet for me was a thought-provoking, intellectually and physically challenging place to visit. It’s inspired me to visit more Tibetan areas around China, and hopefully come back to Tibet and the Himalayas, now that I know more about them, and explore the more off-the-beaten-path places. Tibet is not as remote as it seems, and although traveling in Tibet will always be difficult in some way or another, I love the challenge of it, the natural beauty, the people, and the yaks of course.