From Xining, we took our second sleeper train across the Tibetan Plateau to Lhasa in Tibet. The ever changing scenery opened out into vast tundra, spotted with thousands of yaks and framed with towering snow-capped mountains. In the middle of the night the train reached its highest point of 5072m and breathing became difficult. We had individual oxygen supplies next to our beds, with tubes that go into your nose and it was good to have some extra oxygen to get rid of the headaches whilst we acclimatised. When we arrived in Lhasa we had a rest day to acclimatise and were surprised how difficult it was to breathe. On our first day, even doing the smallest task or rolling over in bed could cause shortness of breath and climbing stairs felt like doing a 100m sprint!
We had two days in and around Lhasa for sightseeing and acclimatisation. On our first day we visited the cave retreat of the Drak Yerpa Hermitage, stopping off on the way to see a high pass festooned with thousands of colourful prayer flags. In the afternoon, we visited the highly revered Johkang Temple. Built in the 7th century, the dark opulent interior is full of ornate Buddha statues, chanting monks and the strong scents of incense and butter candles. Outside is the Barkhor Circuit, where pilgrims flock to do the kora around the surrounding streets. It was fascinating to watch, with old ladies in traditional Tibetan dress devotedly spinning prayer wheels and chanting as they walked around the circuit. They were joined by a diverse mix of old and young; men and women in traditional dress, cowboys, monks, tourists, soldiers and locals. There seemed to be a constant stream of pilgrims throughout the day. Many pilgrims choose to do the kora as a series of prostrations, where they put their hands together in the praying position, lie face down on the ground with their arms outstretched, get up, walk three paces and then repeat the same pattern. They do this the whole way around the circuit and it can take several hours for them to complete the kora. (This is nothing compared to the two months that it takes to complete a kora around Mount Kailash in the West of Tibet!)
On our second day we visited the iconic Potala Palace, which is perched on a hill overlooking Lhasa. Once the seat of religious and political rule in Tibet and home to the Dali Lama, the palace is now open to tourists. Whilst the palace is no longer a working building, it still houses the ornate assembly halls, private living quarters and the decorative tombs of the past Dali Lamas. In the afternoon we headed to the Sera Monastery where we watched monks engaging in their daily debate. Whilst in Tibet, we were struck by the strong Chinese police and army presence in the cities, as well as the constant police checkpoints across the territory. Tibetans are also required to buy and fly the Chinese flag on every building and are not allowed to fly the Tibetan flag.
From Lhasa, we did a two day round trip to Shigatse. The journey was a chance to view the stunning mountainous scenery. We stopped off at the picturesque and sacred Yamdrok Lake, where deep blue waters snake away towards the snow-capped mountains. There were plenty of photo opportunities with baby mountain goats, huge Tibetan Mastiff dogs and some rather well dressed yaks! Our next stop was the Karola Glacier. The viewpoint was at 5020m and the Glacier towered over us at an impressive 7191m. Whilst we were there it snowed and as we missed the last winter at home, it was the first time we had been in a snow shower for two years. After a number of scenic stops, we visited the Pelkor Chöde Monastery and the 35m high Kumbum Stupa in Gyantse.
The next day we went to the Tashilumpo Monastery, which is the seat of the Panchen Lama, the religious leader of Tibet. The monastery survived the cultural revolution relatively unscathed (apparently because the leaders were told it was destroyed and didn’t check) and was the best example of an active working monastery that we saw in Tibet. Inside, the air was heavy with the smell of yak butter candles and we watched over 100 monks chanting mantras in the assembly hall. The numbers of monks are now strictly controlled in monasteries, but we could imagine what the scene must have been like when up to 5,000 monks gathered at this site to chant and practice their beliefs. The pilgrims and local Tibetans we met were very friendly and we got lots of smiles and greetings from them.
We returned to Lhasa before setting out on a trip to the holy Nam-tso Lake. Nam-tso has some of the most stunning scenery we have ever seen. The elevation was 4730m and the yaks grazed on land covered in vibrant pink flowers, next to the turquoise lake surrounded by the snow-covered Nyenchen Tanglha mountain range, which rises to over 7000m. Pilgrims flock here to do the kora by the edge of the lake and decorate the mountains with traditional white Tibetan scarfs. We stayed the night in a tented guesthouse, with a particularly nasty toilet block. Of all the countries we have travelled to, Tibet wins the award for the worst public toilets. They are always squat toilets, often just holes in the ground, most don’t have doors and many don’t bother with walls either! Luckily the Tibetan scenery makes up for the bad toilet facilities. On our way back, we stopped off for a swim at the Yangpachen Hot Springs (which we have read is the highest swimming pool in the world!) before returning to Lhasa.
Our original plan had been to travel from Lhasa to Kathmandu in Nepal, staying the night at Everest Base Camp on the way. This was booked, but sadly due to the recent earthquakes, Everest Base Camp is closed and the road to Kathmandu needs to be rebuilt because of the damage. Our thoughts are with the people of Nepal and we hope that they are able to rebuild their homes and their lives. We also hope to return another time and visit Mount Everest and Nepal, but for now, we flew to Guangzhou in Southern China…