Boxing Day 2015. My alarm clock rang at 3:30am. I was not feeling optimistic. It seemed like too many things had been conspiring against us since our arrival in China a few days before. We met our friends Tyrone and Virginia at Chengdu airport. Some months earlier, I had pitched the idea of coming to Tibet with us. They hadn’t needed much persuasion. I was now seriously worried that we weren’t going to get in though. What if the permit wasn’t right? What if the guy at immigration just took a disliking to us? Nervously we approached the desk and handed over the permit. A quick glance from the guard and we were waved through with absolutely no problems. We boarded the plane and all four of us broke out into peals of exultant laughter. We’d all secretly been nursing the same unspoken dread. I’d even gone as far as looking into the feasibility of going to Mongolia instead. The whole airport experience had been impossibly easy though. To add to my good mood, the views from the plane were some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, or probably will ever see in my life.
Upon arrival at the airport, we were met by Kalsang, our guide from Snow Lion Tours, who would be with us for the duration of our time in Tibet. The good news also kept on coming. My bag, which had gone missing in Beijing three days earlier, had finally been located and was due to be put on the next flight from Chengdu to Lhasa. When we reached the old part of the city, it was like stepping into a different world. The sky was dazzlingly blue and the air worryingly thin. We walked through a market, where hard faced men sat hacking at dried yak carcasses with machetes, to our hotel. The door was covered by a thick Himalayan rug, which we walked through to the most amazing hotel lobby. There was a roaring turf fire in the middle of the room and bunches of pilgrims and saffron clad monks sat around eating momos and drinking butter milk tea. It was everything that I had imagined Tibet to be and more. Later that afternoon, I had a mad dash across town to find my backpack, which had bizarrely been delivered to the Potala Palace bus station rather than our hotel. It made me think of the first time I went travelling when I was nineteen. A bunch of lads from my local pub asked me “Why don’t you just go to Benidorm?!” Times like this are why. I was exhausted and suffering from altitude sickness but utterly exhilarated by the adventure.
I woke with my head feeling like it was splitting in half. It had been several years since I had slept at this kind of altitude and my body clearly didn’t like it. At 10:00, we gingerly left the hotel and headed for the Potala Palace, Tibet’s most iconic building. Even though I’d seen it on TV and in books many times before, nothing prepares you for actually seeing it up close for the first time. The building seems to just rise up out of the rocks. Janey had been yearning to see this for 25 years and was predictably ecstatic. After the obligatory photos outside, we started the walk up the steep path to the entrance. Kalsang explained the colour system on the building to us. White symbolises purity and the Land of Snows, yellow is the Sun’s rays spreading Buddhism throughout the world and red means energy.
Inside, I liked looking at the room where the youthful Dalai Lama had entertained visiting foreign dignitaries, and particularly enjoyed Kalsang’s stories about the sixth Dalai Lama. As well as being a spiritual leader, apparently he was also a legendary drinker and womaniser. Who says those two things can’t go hand in hand?! The Palace is certainly interesting on the inside, but like many such places, in my opinion the true highlight are the views of it.
After a delicious lunch of yak curry and flatbreads, we made our way towards the Jokhang Temple, centre of the famous Barkhor pilgrim circuit. Tyrone aptly remarked “It’s like a scene from National Geographic.” Kalsang explained that whilst for foreign tourists the highlights of Tibet are Everest and the Potala Palace, for Tibetan pilgrims the Jokhang Temple is the most important place of all. The said pilgrims spend all day circumambulating the temple to cleanse themselves of their sins. Some of the really zealous ones prostrate themselves on the floor, recite an incantation, and then get up again and repeat the process, all the way around the circuit. Apparently, they do this up to 500 times. It must be like doing 500 burpees, the worst fitness class exercise of all. I decided that my soul was sufficiently pure for the day and headed back to the hotel for some yak stew and momos. I even treated myself to a solitary Lhasa Beer. It’s not going to win any brewing awards but it’s certainly the most obscure beer I’ve ever had.
Day 3 started with me feeling even worse than the previous morning. I’d only had one beer. I couldn’t be that much of a lightweight could I?! Our first stop of the day was the Drepung (Pile of Rice) Monastery, which for me was the highlight of Lhasa. The 40 minute drive out of the city afforded us amazing views of the soaring mountains. I found out at this point that these weren’t actually the proper Himalayas and quickly chose to ignore it. I’d been waiting years to see the Himalaya and was not letting something as small as my own ignorance ruin that. There wasn’t much to see at the Monastery (other than a little annex for elderly monks, nuns and cute puppies where they were using old satellite dishes to create solar power) but it’s the location of Drepung that makes it so spectacular.
After posing for dozens of photos with inquisitive locals, we headed to Sera (Storm Monastery). It isn’t as enviably located as Drepung but it’s still incredibly beautiful. The highlight at Sera was watching an abbot deliver some sort of lecture to a group of seated monks, who then broke out into a low guttural chant that lasted for about twenty minutes.
Thousands of miles away in the Tropical Spice Gardens in Penang, there’s an iron sculpture that you put your ear up to and “listen to the sound of the Earth.” This is exactly what the monks sounded like. It was an unforgettable experience. Amusingly though, during the chant some of the younger monks obviously got a bit bored and started throwing stones at each other. When they processed out one of the young reprobates gave me a complicit wink. That evening, I felt sufficiently strengthened to actually walk the Barkhor and double the number of Lhasa beers consumed. The next day we would leave Lhasa and our adventure would truly begin.
- We booked our tour with Snow Lion Tours. They are a Tibetan owned company. Wangden, the manager, speaks excellent English and was a pleasure to deal with, throughout the entire long and complicated booking process. http://snowliontours.com/
- It’s unlikely that you’d be able to book your own accommodation in Lhasa but even if you don’t end up at the same hotel as us, I’d recommend going there for some home cooked authentic Tibetan cuisine. It’s called Rama Kharpo hotel and it’s located in the middle of the old town, not too far from the Barkhor circuit.