“Japan or Tibet”, I asked her and without thinking twice she replied, “You know my answer”. I gave her a smile and this is how we decided to visit Tibet.
We traveled from Hong Kong to Chengdu by flight, the first half of our journey. From here for our onward journey we would take the train for Lhasa.
A narrow alley in Chengdu
After days of research and considering various factors we finally decided to board the train, the 44hrs long train journey, from Chengdu to Lhasa rather than flying for below two reasons –
a) Early acclimatization. The train takes time and climbs upto 5200 mtrs and then descends down to 3600 mtrs before it reaches Lhasa. If flying, the body has to go through a torture of sudden change in altitude and oxygen of sea level to 3600 mtrs in just 2 and a half hours. We rather decided to fly back to Chengdu which was far easy as we would fly from higher altitude to sea level.
b) We wanted to enjoy the views. The train would pass through the cross section of China and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity.
The train departed Chengdu North station in the evening right on time. The first evening and the second day was uneventful. We had with us two fellow passengers from Thailand and we were enjoying the time and the views outside together. It was the second evening in the train and the actual ramp started after Xining, a somewhat not so famous town before entering Tibet autonomous region.
The four of us and the train to Lhasa at Xining Station, 2275 mtrs. From left – my wife, me and the Thai couple travelling in our coupe
The doctor came to check if we have had any chronic breathing problem and explained the emergency procedure and demonstrated how the oxygen outlets worked if we needed some extra air to breath in. That night we couldn’t sleep well. Our head was as heavy as stone. The next morning we woke up with headache. The worst thing was one lady got fainted in the toilet and the train staff and her husband had to break the door lock.Another lady was continuously puking at the wash basin. We understood that the altitude was taking its toll although we knew that we already had passed through the highest point of 5200 mtrs and were descending towards 3600 mtrs i.e. Lhasa. Luckily none of us in our coupe was that badly impacted by the mountain sickness.
The dry barren view outside the train shot on iPhone
We had already entered the Tibet autonomous region the previous evening, after passing Xining but couldn’t see anything out because of the darkness. In the morning, despite the incidents of altitude sickness, breath taking views outside the window of the barren high altitude desert mesmerized us. Probably for the whole first half of the day we didn’t see a single tree or bush.
It was only after the lunch my wife was excited to find green patches in the brown dead high altitude desert. We understood we were reaching Lhasa.
A small patch of green, probably a small settlement before reaching Lhasa. Shot on iPhone from the train window
Some of the scenes which mesmerized me can only be shown in monochrome. The cloud, the mighty mountains created an atmosphere of hide and seek of the sun rays. Not sure if I am able to justify the scenes with my humble iPhone through the train window.
We were warmly greeted by our guide Dhargeyal at the Lhasa rail station with traditional white Thangkas, the silk scarfs which are gifted to the guests of honor in Buddhist culture.
I must give a bit of information here that being a foreigner one can not travel on his own in Tibet. One must book a guided trip from an authorized travel agent. First Chinese Visa should be applied for and after that a special permit needs to be applied for entering Tibet. If one wants to travel to the Mount Everest base camp then there would be another set of paper work needed. But the travel agency would take care of all these stuffs and the traveler just needs to provide the documents needed. Once you are in Tibet the guide will accompany you everywhere you go. You simply can’t go anywhere on your own except within the permitted city limits.
Dhargeyal suggested not to get involved in any activity for the rest of the day and to get adequate rest and to drink a lot of plain water to get acclimatized. But we didn’t listen to him and paid for it. We went out of the hotel in the evening but soon realized even a walking of just a hundred meter was making us breathless. After having just noodles in all three meals for the entire 44 hrs journey we had our proper dinner at a Nepalese restaurant and bought bottled water and went back to the hotel. I woke up in the middle of the night with a bad headache and the sound of my own heart beating loud and fast. Trust me I could hear it, as soon as I was lying on my side with my ears on the pillow. Man I was scared ! I knew that the mountain sickness was taking me. I saw my wife was sleeping like a baby. I sat up for a while and was even thinking of calling someone from the reception to take me to the doctor or to give me a bottle of oxygen. But after sitting for a while, may be an hour I don’t really remember, my heart beat slowed down and I finally went to sleep. The next morning we met many people in the breakfast table complaining the same.
We started our day with headache. Almost everyone in the group had some sort of discomfort. There was a US couple, a Kiwi family of 4 adults and a young Taiwanese couple along with us in the van.
Potala Place view from outside
We started with the Potala Palace, the capital of Tibetan Buddhism. A very interesting architecture indeed. Built like a fortified city it has many layers and many floors. The entire building is primarily colored in white with black bordered windows with maroon patches of a foot wide in between. Later I found the same color coding in all other monasteries and small houses in Tibet. The black borders on the windows absorbs the heat and thus keeps the rooms warm during the unforgiving harsh winters.
The entrance of Potala Palace with black bordered windows
She sells currency change notes at the gate. Pilgrims change larger denomination notes to multiple smaller denomination notes for donating inside the monastery. In return she charges very minimum 2 RMB per 100 RMB exchange
We climbed up all the stairs, more than 200 as Dhargeyal had mentioned earlier, with very thin air in our lungs and a bumping heavy head.
That’s part of our team – From the left Dhargeyal, the American couple and my back 🙂 in blue jacket
Pilgrims climbing up the stairs and resting in between for a while
Different layers of the palace holds different sections dedicated to different purpose. As one might assume there are residential quarters inside the palace. But along with that there are schools, libraries, court rooms, temples, Stupas or the tombs of the great monks, administrative offices. It’s a damn whole city inside another city !
May is a holy month for the Tibetans and people from all around Tibet had thronged to do Kora around the Potala Palace. People lie down flat on their tummy and stretch themselves forward. They keep on repeating this in a clock wise direction around any holy thing like a Stupa (tomb) or a temple or even the whole holy city of Lhasa. People even do Kora around big lakes like the Mansarovar or the Namtso. I heard that it takes around a week for them to do kora around Namtso lake.
People doing Kora around Potala Palace
This lady is doing Kora across the whole Lhasa
The view of new or western Lhasa, as they say, from the backyard of Potala Palace is very beautiful. Small houses with green patches surrounded by mighty mountains dry and barren as hell.
It was already lunch time by the time we finished visiting Potala Palace. Dhargeyal instructed us to be at a particular place after we had our lunch. The van we traveled in the morning was gone. We walked to the city center to visit the Jokhang temple.
Dhargeyal told us amazing stories, almost like fairy tales, about the history of the temple. The most interesting part was the roof of the temple. One could see the whole of old Lhasa from there and Potala Palace was at a stone throwing distance.
View of Potala Palace from Jokhang temple
I observed that Lhasa is surrounded 360 degrees by barren dry mountains with patches of snow on the peaks. The same view could be enjoyed from the roof of the temple.
Lhasa from the roof top of the temple
After we visited Jokhang temple we decided to roam around our own. Dhargeyal warned us not to discuss politics in public and not to shoot any government establishment or else the Chinese govt would cancel the whole trip.
In front of Jokhang Temple
We started our walk around the city from the Jokhang temple and were surprised how the city revealed its secrets. As a street photographer I am always interested in the market places. Those are always very busy and full of activities.
A monk bargaining at a shop
A siesta in the afternoon
Traditional cloth stores
They trade fabrics made of animal furs
The late afternoon veggie market right on the streets
While probably not many tourists visit the small alleys we decided to go into those narrow alleys which would reveal some different and interesting story. We never knew that being a capital of Buddhism Lhasa also shares its space for other religions. There were Hindu Nepalese quarters and Muslim quarters inside those small alleys.
A Chinese lady walks by and the mosque at the backdrop
We stayed back till the night fall and in dinner I had Yak meat for the first time in my life 🙂
A butcher selling Yak meat
and I must say that it doesn’t taste bad at all. It’s just like lamb but a little bit chewy. It was already getting bitterly cold and we experienced a light snowfall and could see thunders bolts flashing over the mountains. We decided to get back to the hotel and get to sleep as soon as possible. I woke up once in the night and peered through the window to find a bad snow storm.
The snow storm was over. I could see the snow had claimed far more distance down the mountain ridges as compared to just the peaks the previous day. The sun was about to rise from behind the mountains. It was a heavenly view ! I had never experienced such a wonderful sunrise in my life. A little bit of cloud, the snow and the sunlight made an extraordinary lighting. I was so mesmerized that I forgot to take a photograph. By the time the idea clicked my dumb head the light got changed and was not that good.
Today we were going to visit Drepung monastery in the morning.
Drepung monastery is another monastery just outskirts of Lhasa and is the largest of all Tibetan monasteries and one of the three university monasteries in Tibet. The other two are Ganden and Sera.
The smoke coming out from burning large incense sticks
A glimpse of daily life inside the monastery
Drepung monastery also looked like a fortress but it lacked the glamour of the Potala Palace.
Lama quarters of Drepung Monastery. Same color coding as I mentioned previously
A lama walks by with a flask of yak butter. The butter would be used to lit the butter lamps for the Gods
Pilgrims agreed to gave a couple of shots
The afternoon was booked for watching the famous lama debate in the Sera monastery. Dhargeyal told that the tradition of the debate was brought to Tibet by the scholar Atisha who was none but the Indian scholar Atisha Dipankar Srigyana. He was born into royalty in the kingdom of the Pala Empire in a place called Bikrampur which is now in Bangladesh (after the partition of India in 1947). Later he became a Buddhist monk and traveled to Tibet and Sumatra(present day Indonesia) to spread the philosophy of Buddha.
Monks using the library facility inside Sera monastery
The most discussed debate in Sera monastery
A lama returning back to his quarter after the debate
Lama waiting for his friends while returning back to his quarter after the debate. Observe the background – its the same color coding in Sera monastery as well
After all the visits of different places around Lhasa, Dhargeyal took us to a Tibetan restaurant. We were invited for a Tibetan dinner by the travel agency. For the first time in life we had Yak Butter, Yak Yogurt and Yak meat ( Yak products are not that “yucky” 🙂 ) along with their traditional dish Tsampa and a local spirit made of barley.
Dinner with everybody in the group
With a tired body we finally retired in the bed with the excitement of another journey next day from Lhasa to Shigatse (you can read it here ).
Stay tuned to read about Shigatse and more by subscribing to my blog page.
Keep shooting and travelling
Good Bye !