May 3 - 17, 2010
By Marian Johns
Memory refresher note – Last October 12 DE’s were scheduled for a trip to Tibet, but at the last minute we were told by our Chinese tour company that no Tibet Tourist Permits were being issued for the time of our trip which coincided with the 60th year celebration of the communist Peoples Republic of China. China was fearful of riots and protests in Tibet in response to this event - Tibetans are still chafing from China’s 1951 invasion and takeover of Tibet. Then, we were told we could go after all if we were willing to join a larger group that already had its tourist permits and cut our trip from nine to five days. Six people opted to go then and six held out for nine days this spring.
Well, the six holdouts dwindled to just two - me and Paul Ferry (Neal refuses to go on foreign trips.) Despite the slightly awkward situation, (Neal evidently trusts me) Paul and I decided to go ahead and do the trip - and share a room. May was selected, and a good choice it was; the weather was lovely although generally cool to cold. Ana Romero, who went last October, was impressed with Bempa, their English-speaking Tibetan guide and suggested we deal with him directly; we did that. I’m not sure his prices were any better, but I preferred paying a Tibetan rather than the Chinese tour company.
(click Read More, below, to continue)
The Yak Hotel in Lhasa was our abode for the first three days. We were in the new section – only three years old. The room was quite modern, with the latest bathroom fixtures and….a clear glass “wall” and gauzy curtain between the bedroom and bathroom. I kid you not! Paul and I had to look the other way frequently. The bathroom also had beautiful, but shiny, slick floor tile. The second morning there, I stepped out of the tub/shower onto the bath mat, and (you guessed it) the bath mat and I went zipping across the floor. I landed on my right foot at an awkward angle. I didn’t think it was broken, but it sure was painful. My foot soon turned black and blue and I limped around the rest of the trip.
The Yak is in an excellent location – we were able to walk (even with my sore foot) to the Jokhang Temple, Tibet’s most revered religious structure and the Barkhor, Lhasa’s pilgrimage circuit/lively market in the heart of the old town.
Of course, the highlight of Lhasa and perhaps of all Tibet is the Potala Palace, one of the wonders of great world architecture and home of the successive Dalai Lamas - except for the present, exiled Dalai Lama who now resides in India.
Another important stop on our tour was the Samye Monastery, Tibet’s very first Buddhist Monastery. Although a highlight, it was a bit disappointing because it appeared to be somewhat neglected, with trash here and there and several ditches of stagnant, yucky water. It was there I observed a dramatic little incident when a puppy was run over by a tractor. He yelped, bolted away on three legs and then just collapsed. I was sure he was dead. Several concerned people tried to pick him up, but he just appeared to be a limp, dead dog. After 10 minutes or so they tried again, and this time he was able to stand, but otherwise didn’t move. Next, they carried him over to a shady spot. About that time, Bempa came. When I told him what had happened, he took out his prayer beads, and we walked over together to see how badly he was injured – couldn’t see any blood, so that at least, was a good sign. The pup was alive, but obviously distressed and in pain. People brought him water and food; he touched neither. But after another 20 minutes or so he was able to walk by himself into the courtyard of the monastery. I don’t know if Bempa’s prayer beads helped, but I was impressed to see that Tibetans are kind to animals because, as Buddhists, they believe all life is evolving toward higher levels of consciousness. On the other hand, they do eat meat - yak, lamb, chicken - I’m not sure how they justify the killing of these animals for food.
We spent many hours and many miles in the Landcruiser, driving on roads which are engineering feats that have required extensive labor and $$ to build – many of them are paved and climb over high passes. The Chinese have made a considerable investment into the infrastructure of Tibet. One of the most impressive was the road to the Everest Base Camp. Although unpaved, the switchbacks are a marvel – seems like there must have been a hundred of them up one side of a pass and down the other. When we finally reached a view point, there, stretched out before us on the horizon, in a cloudless sky, were the mighty Himalayas - a line of white, glacier-covered peaks, including Mt. Everest, the largest and highest of all. What a memorable sight that was.
The base camp is 17,000 ft. elevation. I had been taking my high altitude medication and am happy to report no headaches or nausea even at that height. However, climbing a little hill for a better view left me breathless. Paul did fine even without medication and was able to walk right up that hill.
I don’t know why, but the lakes we saw in Tibet are a beautiful blue-turquoise color. One of the most impressive and another highlight was Namtso Lake, the highest salt lake in the world which seemed to be entirely surrounded by white peaks.
On the way to the lake, we passed many black tents of nomads - and right next to the tent, we frequently saw a big truck. I have just learned how these people can afford such a luxury. It’s all because of caterpillar fungus! Used as a traditional medicine, these caterpillars (which the fungus kills and then feeds off of) are collected in rural Tibet and are an important source of income, fetching from US $3,000 to $18,000 per kilo, depending on the quality.
Now, the tale about the last two day’s train ride from Lhasa to Beijing. I had been looking forward for the chance to ride the world’s highest train. Unfortunately, the train trip of a lifetime turned into two days of stress for me because Bempa purchased tickets for the 9:30 a.m. train. The train trip takes 48 hours (and travels about 2400 miles). I had read that the train left at 7:00 a.m. Turns out there are several trains leaving Lhasa every morning. Since my plane from Beijing left at 11:55 a.m., that meant I would have far less time than I’d planned to make my flight. So instead of enjoying the trip, I spent those two days on the train worrying and fretting.Paul did the smart thing; he took the train only as far as Xining and then flew to Beijing and on home.
Despite my apprehension and anxiety, I was delighted to see some wildlife on the desolate high plains of Tibet and Qinghai Province - a couple of long-horned, antelope-type critters and several groups of wild goats and wild asses. They are certainly a hardy lot. Here it was the middle of May and snowing; we awoke to a pure white landscape the second morning.
The train arrived at the station in Beijing exactly at 9:30 a.m. Then it took half an hour standing in a queue with several hundred other people until I was able to get a taxi. Bempa had written me a note in Chinese saying “airport” and “hurry”. My lady taxi driver did her best, but still it took nearly one and a half hours because the airport is far from the heart of Beijing and traffic was unbelievably congested; signals seemed to take an eternity to change from red to green. Bless my driver’s heart – she did it - barely. I think I was the last one to check in and the last one to board the plane. What a relief it was to finally be on that plane, safely belted in and on my way home.
X-rays taken when I got home showed a chipped bone in my right foot, but it hardly bothers me now.
Note: It was amazing to see how much Beijing has changed since I was there in 1984. Gone are the thousands and thousands of bicycles – replaced by thousands and thousands of cars. And the old blue, black and olive green Mao suits have fallen into disuse in favor of more colorful, western-style clothes.