Trip to Tibet - the Mystical Land of Legends and the Dragons
Our stay in Tibet consisted of a five-day stopover that was part of a larger trip that we made through China for almost two months. Before flying to China we pre-planned an itinerary from home with the route we wanted to take. We collect information from travel guides, specialized magazines and, of course, the internet. We organized everything for our own account.
We book hotels in almost all cities and internal flights whose dates would mark the arrival and departure days. It includes the round trip to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. It was a short visit but with long bureaucratic procedures. First of all, we ask for visas from the Chinese embassy, and then an entry permit that is mandatory to fly to Tibet.
To get permission, we had to pay for a tour, because there is no permit if you do not hire them, and is without a tour with a defined itinerary. Getting it was not too difficult. We just had to give a series of dates and pay for a tour package to a travel agency. We decided on one that among other things did not include meals or dinners. So we could walk freely around Lhasa and eat or dine where we wanted. We got a package for five days that included transportation, guide, driver, jeep and lodging with breakfast.
We already had the Tibet travel permit. The booking of the flights according to our travel forecasts was also managed by the agency. The one-way flight (3 hours) was from Xian, Chengdu, while the departure flight was to Lijiang with discount included. We booked a basic package. Our main interest was to know the people and the Tibetan culture, their religion, see the former residence of the Dalai Lama and ultimately observe the life of the Tibetans.
We discarded the idea of trekking through the Himalayas, or meeting more remote populations or going to the base camp of Everest as other travelers do for practical reasons of time. Despite the impressive nature of Tibet is inseparable from its culture and religion, we hired a day trip to see lakes, mountains, and yaks.
DAY 1 - FLIGHT TO LHASA
After about 45 min in a minivan, we arrived at the Xian airport at 08.00 in the morning. After showing the passport in the luggage check-in queue and saying that our destination was Lhasa, two police officers separated us into a different queue. They demanded our passports and the entry permit. They review everything three times and one more as we fill a document with questions such as profession, reasons for travel, and the hotel where we stayed. They check the luggage and make sure that we are not a team of incognito journalists who try to record a clandestine report about Tibet.
They ask if we have professional recording cameras. Then a policeman asks me to accompany him to an office attached to sign a document of responsibility of the group and in which you claimed to have no political or journalistic intentions on your trip to Tibet. Finally, after almost half an hour, we are given back the entry permit and we enter the waiting room of the flight. We are all excited and anxious, in a few hours, we will be in Lhasa.
The flight leaves on time and it passes quietly. After the tension of the airport, everyone sleeps except me. From my window seat, there are spectacular views of the Himalayas. I can perfectly appreciate the languages of the glaciers and the lakes that dot the slopes of mountains empty of vegetation. On this air route we did not pass close to Everest, but a few months later on a flight between New Delhi and Kathmandu in Nepal, I was lucky to see it and even take a picture.
ARRIVAL AT LHASA
At the departure gate of the Gonggar airport, our Tibet guide was waiting for us with a sign in hand. After the initial greetings, he accompanied us to the minivan to introduce us to the driver. Both were local Tibetans, as almost always the driver knows nothing of English and is limited to just driving. They presented the typical image, thin, short, with black hair and skin darkened by the intense sun. Almost all seem quite older than they really are because of the deep wrinkles and faces cracked by the sun. The guide was dressed in simplicity, with dark cloth pants, dusty black shoes, white shirt and red cotton vest.
They loaded the suitcases into the van and then welcomed us with a Tibetan-style ceremony putting each of us in the Khata. The guide explained during the trip to the hotel that the Khata is a traditional scarf typical of the Tibetan culture. It symbolizes purity and compassion, although in our case, in particular, it represented the beginning of our relationship or friendship with him.
They are made of silk and are white to show the pure heart of the one who offers it. While they put it on your neck they say the expression Tashi Delek (good luck). We will not stop seeing them in many places during the next days in Tibet. It is the equivalent of Aloha and the Hawaiian flower necklace.
The airport is about 70 km from Lhasa. We had almost an hour's drive to get to the hotel. On the way, the guide began to give us a series of tips for our stay in Tibet that we had to fulfill. Although his English was quite correct, the accent he had made it very difficult to have a fluent conversation with him. Some things had to be repeated several times and we all tried to translate them. Other times we would smile directly without having any idea of what he had told us.
He also advised us about altitude sickness. Lhasa is 3,500m high. When arriving by plane there is no progressive acclimatization as when we arrive by train. They advise us on the first day to not take a shower until the next day. The fatigue is usually greater, and it is good to hydrate, and better if it is with water. I only noticed a certain feeling of shortness of breath when I lay down on the bed the first night. After that, the remaining days were absolutely normal.
After a while of conversation about the weather and other more trivial issues, he detailed the plan for that day and the next. We had the afternoon free to get to know Lhasa and to get acclimated to the altitude. The next day after breakfast at the hotel he would pick us up for the excursion hired to Lake Yamdrok.
During the trip in the van, we were surprised by a very arid landscape, with little vegetation. There is just some poplar next to the Yearlong Tsangpo river that borders a large part of the road. There are deserted mountains without trees, some with snow on the peaks. The sky was of an intense blue color, without any cloud. We crossed very few towns.
There were only solitary little houses made of gray brick. Many are unpainted, and others painted in white, without finishing, on a single floor, without any concession to the aesthetic or to the ornament beyond the omnipresent Lung ta or Tibetan prayer flags. The roads, in general, are in good condition, especially compared to nearby countries such as Nepal. However, there is a lot of respect for speed limits for fear of fines.
We arrive at the hotel located in the Tibetan part of Lhasa, in the old city. It is a five-minute walk from Barkhor Street and Jokhang Temple, the nerve center of Lhasa, and the main center of Tibetan Buddhism. Our hotel has three floors and is decorated in Tibetan style. According to the agency, it is three star, but although austere it is clean and beautiful.
The staff is composed of two or three local Tibetans with English proficiency and a lot of kindness and sympathy. We take the bags to the rooms several times and in a leisurely way. There is a private bathroom and hot water in each room and the decoration in red and orange colors, with Buddhas, flowers and all the Buddhist iconography is fantastic.
We check-in and were given some welcome tea bowls. The choice of the hotel in Lhasa is fundamental. The western part of the capital resembles all the Chinese cities we had seen before, with an architecture of identical blocks of concrete and shops and without any grace at all. However, in the center, we can breathe the air of an old city. It is closed to traffic, and we have the main temples at a walking distance. It is without a doubt the best possible option. There is a wide range of this type of Tibetan hotels, all very similar in price and aesthetics in this area of the city.
We said goodbye to the guide until the next day at 09.00 in the morning and left the hotel towards Barkhor street. The center of the city remains intact. It is composed of narrow streets with Tibetan architecture that form a large market where we can buy fruit, meat, and almost everything. They are street stalls, sometimes no more than a cart. We can observe the people and the traditional Tibetan culture. The smell of Yak butter is very intense. It pervades everything and it takes a while to get used to it. The wires of light and telephone swirl around the poles and lampposts.
We bought some bananas from a Tibetan woman, who still uses the old manual scales to weigh them. The pieces of beef and yak are kept on top of a wood. Most of the women we meet have a hat to protect themselves from the sun and a mask in their mouths, which I could not find out why they were wearing. They have an austere dress, with dark garments, but always with some elements of an intense color. It is almost always red. The wrinkled skin of the older ones contrasts with the smooth and pink skin of the smallest ones. The looks are very deep and the sincere gestures, or at least that was our first perception.
After five minutes we access Barkhor street through an alley. The image leaves us all shocked. Suddenly we are in the middle of the Tibetan religious epicenter. Hundreds of devout pilgrims walk clockwise around the outer periphery of the Jokhang temple as they turn the prayer wheel. Many come walking from remote regions of Tibet. Many make their way here prostrating on the ground in prayer every three steps. Some of them walk clockwise from dawn to darkness.
They surround the Jokhang temple. They go praying while they walk. After about ten minutes in shock, we decided to go around the temple (in the same direction) and started to take some pictures. There are pilgrims of all ages. There are old people with white and sharp beards, with a cane like stick and orange tunic, that seem to have come out of some tv series. There are women with children in arms, and some walk barefoot.
We stop just like them in front of the Jokhang temple to see how they lie on the ground to make their prayers. The atmosphere has a strange force of spiritual magnetism. The reverential attitude of the pilgrims in front of the temple as it begins to get dark creates an intense moment.
The pilgrims do not stop turning their prayer wheels. We also see that there are many Buddhist monks making the turns around the temple. We take a walk around the esplanade where the Barkhor street is transformed in front of the temple. There are two or three large furnaces or burners from which smoke comes out continually by burning incense as a form of prayer. We see many pilgrims praying beside the flags.
There is a large crowd of people. There are large wooden masts of more than 15 meters crowned with fabrics with the colors of Tibet stand out in the sky of the square. The houses are all the same, of one or two heights. They are painted in white with a red finish on the ceiling and the fabrics of ornament in the windows are with the usual colors. All have a branch on the roof with colored flags with sacred Buddhist texts.
After a while, we look for a place to dine. In a corner of the Barkhor Square, we see a two-story restaurant and a terrace with great views over the square and the Jokhang temple in the background. It is a Nepalese restaurant that we enter through a small side door. We go up the stairs, as the restaurant is on the second floor. The interior is decorated with mandala murals. We found no place on the terrace, and so we sat at a table inside.
We take a look at the menu in English. We see it is a popular restaurant among tourists, as there are enough people, some of them local. After a quick glance, we realize that it is the typical Asian restaurant with a variety of dishes. There are Indian, Nepalese, Chinese, Tibetan, international dishes, generous portions and popular prices for tourists. There are girls going up and down the stairs with trays full of plates.
We decided to share all the dishes. We ordered yak curd curry with white rice, chicken masala, naan, vegetable curry, and dumplings. We see a bottle of white wine in the display and we decided to ask for it. First, we say it to a girl who looks at us surprised. She talks to someone behind the bar and shows us the bottle. We ask then a bucket with ice, and a girl comes and tells us that she cannot sell it to us because it is not for sale.
At the end, we ordered some beers for everyone. The food is reasonably good. After taking tea we walk towards the hotel. We look up to the stars in a clear sky with little pollution. The streets are empty and silent. It is not too late, maybe nine o'clock at night. Exhausted after the whole day we go to bed.
DAY 2 - LAKE YAMDROK
We get up and 24 hours later we can finally go back to shower. We go down to breakfast and the guide is already waiting for us. The breakfast is English, based on eggs, potatoes, toast, and coffee or tea. We left Lhasa in a minivan. At the exit of the city, after passing in front of the Potala Palace, on Jiangsu Road we almost have to stop to avoid cows that walk at ease on the road.
Just crossing the bridge on the river, we notice some stairs painted on the rock walls of the mountains. It seems that it is a symbol of the spiritual ascent to which Tibetan Buddhists should surrender. Later we stop next to some lung ta or Prayer Flags, which are those rectangular pieces of colored cloth, which are often found in mountainous passages and peaks of the Himalayas.
They were on a small mound next to the road with several Tibetans selling souvenirs and fruit. We take some pictures and continue on to the lake. Almost two hours after leaving the hotel we arrived at Lake Yamdrok. To get here we climb a road in good condition, although somewhat narrow, that goes meandering along the slopes of the mountains.
The lake is quite wide. It is almost 5,000 m high. The water is turquoise blue and reflects the clouds as if it were a mirror. It is one of the three sacred lakes of Tibet. On the other side of the lake, we can see a small village with three or four houses on the side of the mountain. We go down and immediately two or three girls come up trying to sell us water or a soft drink.
There are a couple of families and two or three booths. There are enough yaks lying on the shore, some Tibetan mastiff and many Prayer Flags. They offer us a ride on a barge and take pictures with them. We took the typical pictures on the back of a yak. There was a misunderstanding with the price. The discussion was bigger, not because of the price but because of the attitude of the owner of the animals. After a bitter argument, he did not take the money. However, it is a one-off incident, as the vast majority of people are infinitely friendly and kind.
After an hour and a half trekking through the lake area, we returned to Lhasa. We arrived half late and we said goodbye to the driver until the next day. We went for a walk around the city. To the east of the alleys of the old town, we find the Muslim quarter of Lhasa. In a couple of streets, the smell of yak butter has disappeared. The faces are different, without Tibetan features. Men and women dress according to Muslim custom.
They have their own markets and businesses. They do not seem to live off tourism, nor have any relationship with the rest of the city. We see women working with their sewing machines in the street, butchers (or as close as possible) and even parents waiting for children to leave the school, as in any city in the world.
We go to the new part of the city. Beijing Dong Lu street delimits the old area by the north of Lhasa. This street is open to traffic and there is a lot of noise from the horns of the endless motorcycles that do not stop coming. The devotional and ceremonial atmosphere of the surroundings of Barkhor disappears quickly. Here we saw tourists, local people, Chinese from other provinces, some Buddhist monk on a tricycle, mothers with children in their arms going to or coming from the markets.
Beijing Dong Lu is full of shops and western style bars. We enter the bar cum restaurant on the first floor. It has a magnificent terrace in the pub on the top floor. We had some huge cafes on the terrace overlooking the street enjoying the rest. Then we went into another place in an adjacent alley with a great interior patio. We stayed until dusk taking some gin. We get back to the hotel walking quietly. In an alley, we see how they stretch wool threads of more than 20 meters. Exhausted we arrived at the hotel wanting to sleep.
DAY 3 - VISIT TO THE JOKHANG TEMPLE
We left the hotel on foot. In five minutes we arrived at the Barkhor street. There is a whole street market on the sidewalks and behind these stands, there are more shops. Its circular layout, surrounding the Jokhang temple makes it the meeting point par excellence of the city. Religion, culture, economy, and tradition are on this street that is at the same time market and holy place of prayer.
There is a curious mixture. Masks, belts, shoes, jewelry, clothes, knives, coins, relics of Buddhist iconography and crafts, in general, are sold. At night it turns into a night market when lights are turned on, food is offered and you can see the last pilgrims of the day.
We queue while the guide gets us the tickets. Tibetans of all ages come from all over the country, who gather around the entrance to pray. They tilt their body, again and again, whispering continuously the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum as they turn their Prayer Wheel. Once again we witnessed the extraordinary religious fervor that dominates everything in Tibet.
The Jokhang temple has 4 floors with a splendid facade from which hang large fabrics with Tibetan symbols. Above the fabrics on the roof painted red we can see the figure of two large golden deer representing the man and the woman and in the center a large wheel of Dharma. Both are characteristic elements of Buddhist temples, presiding over the entrances regardless of the country where they are located.
Upon entering Norbu tells us that there is a ceremony of monks that take place on certain occasions, and we are very fortunate to be able to witness it. It tells us that we must remain silent and that photos are not allowed during the ceremony. We have quickly accessed the temple by the queue of tourists. The row of pilgrims is a swarm compared to ours.
Some monks regulate the access of the pilgrims, who literally cling together next to the internal walls of the temple to deposit the offerings and pray to the innumerable images of glass-walled Buddha that there is in the interior. In all Tibetan temples and monasteries, pilgrims leave offerings such as yak butter in large bowls with lighted wicks. They also deposit notes at the feet of each of the statues of different Buddhas and sometimes white cloths or even beer.
In the center of the room, there are monks of the Gelug sect sitting in a row on the floor that sound Tibetan trumpets, a kind of copper horn of several meters in length. It consists of several pieces that fit together. While they continually murmur the mantra, the pilgrims deposit money in front of each of the monks. The sound they produce sounds grave, deep, almost can be felt on the skin.
The interior decoration is rich in gold and ornamental elements. The color red is the basis for an infinity of images and floral details. The walls of the temple are a succession of chapels, rooms and various tabernacles.
We went to an open inner courtyard and climbed to the roof. The view from the roof is impressive. We can see the whole Barkhor Square with the pilgrims in constant movement, with the Potala Palace in the background and beyond the mountains that surround Lhasa. The golden finials stand out along the entire roof of the temple. On the roof, there are prayer flags and large golden pinnacles with mantras. It also draws attention to all the golden figures in the form of Buddhas and dragons that surround the roofs.
The visit to the Temple has been a great experience. We have spent the morning flying and decided to go to lunch. We said goodbye to the guide on the way out and stayed for the next day to visit the Potala Palace. We eat at a restaurant near the back of the temple. It has a structure similar to almost all the restaurants in Lhasa. It has a narrow entrance, access stairs and several floors topped by a terrace.
We sit at a table from which we can see how the pilgrims turn around Jokhang. The clients are all tourists. The waitress is helpful and quite young and beautiful. We ordered several dishes to share with all (dumplings, chicken curry, spicy vegetables and beer). We ate and spend a long afternoon with the coffee. Then we went to the hotel to rest, and maybe a nap. Later we went back for a walk around the city to see the sunset. We bought some fruit at a street stall to have dinner in the room and returned to the hotel.
DAY 4 - THE POTALA PALACE
We get up at 07:00 in the morning, Narbu picks us up in the minivan after breakfast and we approach the Potala Palace. After leaving us at the door, he goes with the driver to pick up some Russian tourists to another hotel. It is quite early and although the day is sunny, it does some cool. We have to get to the temple before it opens the doors. We have to book the entry tickets and be on the access list, which the guide did. It is important to be early because it only opens for two hours a day in the morning.
Located on the Red Mountain, in the middle of Beijing East Road, it is impressive to look up at this palace at the entrance. It looks like an immense walled castle of two colors. A compact fortress symbol of the Tibetan nation. It is undoubtedly the dominant element of Lhasa. It presides over the city from Mount Potalaka and is the first thing that impresses us, which monopolizes the first views in the city.
The guide tells us on the way to the inner access gate that it was the official residence of the Dalai Lama until the Chinese occupation, which forced him to flee to India. We feel that his attitude is one of complete reverence and respect right from the very entrance. The main feature of the temple is its incredible dimensions. It is almost 120 meters high with 13 floors, and of course the two colors that make it up. There is the Red Palace and the White Palace. The interior is quite dark. There are multiple rooms and many of them closed or has forbidden access. We can only take pictures in the interior courtyards in the open, but none inside.
The decoration is very ornate and the air is dense with strong smells of incense, butter, and beer that is used for offerings to some Buddhas. The guide tries to explain to us in detail the whole functioning of the temple. He names us the innumerable gods or Buddhas and their functions. As we go through the sacred places, he explains the meaning of everything we see but his accent prevents us from understanding it.
He repeats everything several times. In the end, we chose to renounce his explanations and ask him to stop so as to enjoy everything we were seeing. There are huge statues of Buddhas several meters high, all of gold, spread over many rooms. The Potala Palace, like the rest of the main places of Tibetan pilgrimage, is well stocked with wealth. Its presence behind the glass urns is evident.
In Potala, we can also see a lot of historical relics and sacred scriptures for Buddhists. Inside the colors are red, white and golden yellow, big Tibetan drums hang from the ceilings. The Dalai Lama's private chambers remain intact because of the symbolic hope of a possible return, although it does not seem very likely. The visit takes between one and two hours to complete due to the enormous dimensions.
The exit of the temple is from the back. We go down the sections of the wide exterior stairs. We stop to see the panoramic view of the new city. In the lower part of the temple, the devotees who have come from Potala perform their prayers on the Wheels of Life that surround the palace. Often these wheels adorn the Buddhist temples. They contain the sacred texts of Tibetan Buddhism.
We spent a lot of time observing the people, who with traditional clothes and between continuous murmurs turn the wheels. Many pilgrims stop in front of paintings of different Buddhist deities on the wall of the temple. There they perform various offerings in a devotional attitude. We go out and take a walk around. In front of the palace, there is a large square with a monument that honors the freedom and struggle of the Tibetan people.
We decided to walk back to the old area where we have the hotel. We eat something again in the restaurant and spent the last afternoon in Lhasa enjoying people walking the streets without a specific destination.
DAY 5 - GOODBYE TIBET
We got up very early as the flight to Lijiang left early in the morning. We had breakfast. We lowered our bags and after checking out we said goodbye to the friendly people of the hotel. Before leaving we had to return the entry permit. We took some photos with the guide at the entrance of the hotel to immortalize the moment. We loaded the junk and finally, we got into the minivan.
Soon we realize that we have miscalculated the time. We tell the driver, and he increases the speed and takes the "calculated risks". We have a feeling of uneasiness due to the delay and driving. Despite the early morning, we cannot sleep on the road to the airport.
In the end, we arrived five minutes before the closing of the flight. We run towards the check-in counters, while the driver unloads and enters the suitcases. The doors of the aircraft boarding gate are already open, and we have arrived on time. We recovered our breath and joined the queue to leave Tibet behind.