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| Ana Marie Romero & Chuck Mitchell | Trip Reports

2009 Trip Reports - Desert Explorers in Tibet


By Ana Romero

This is not a trip for anyone with any kind of health issues. The lowest  elevation is Lhasa at 11, 863 ft going up to a high of 17,000. Everyone got  varying degrees of high altitude sickness. We suffered neverending headaches,  lightheadedness, confusion, vomiting, out-of-breath with any kind of exertion,  and tiring easily. Catherine got heart palpitations and for a while thought she  might have to request oxygen or even leave. The roads are poor, and the last 123  miles to Everest is a washboard road. Catherine and I bloated up like balloons.  Loose clothing became tight on us, although the others didn't seem to have the  same problem. We were really glad that we didn't have a bunch of monasteries to visit. The  interiors are not that pleasant to be in. They are dark, crowded, dirty and  smell of the ever-burning yak butter used as candle wax. The Potala Palace was  indeed interesting. Over 1000 rooms, but we, of course, only saw probably a  couple of dozen. Many steps to climb to get to the Palace. Catherine and I had  to stop often to catch our breaths. Chuck and Kathy didn't go to the Palace. The food was okay, although you kinda get tired of Tibetan or Chinese food for  all three meals. The toilets are disgusting! with little or no toilet paper available. There was  an occasional "western style" toilet, but even that was not pleasant. Sometimes  they flushed and sometimes they didn't. All toilets smelled really bad. In all  honesty, we prayed for constipation, and thank goodness, we usually were.

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The hotels varied. Interesting was that the lobbies of the hotels we stayed at  were pretty nice, but that was just a facade. The rooms themselves were what we  would probably call one-star hotels. Not even close to 3 or 4-star hotels. There  is no such thing as a 5-star hotel in Tibet. We were amused that every hotel  lacked some amenity that if we could only get everything at the same hotel, we  might actually have a 3-star hotel! Some hotels, lacked toilet paper and/or hot  water. They all had filthy carpeting, We found dried up bed bug larvae husks,  but no bed bugs! Black mold was growing in some bathrooms. Bed and bath linen  were clean! Although soap was provided in the hotels, restaurants did not  provide hand soap nor paper towels. Paper products in general, like toilet  paper, napkins, paper towels are scarce or non-existent. Tissues are  non-existent. Smoking is prevalent in Tibet. Smoking is allowed everywhere including  restaurants. If you are squeamish about cleanliness in restaurants, you won't be  too happy about eating in Tibet. Especially, given that there is no soap and  sometimes no water to wash your hands after going to the so-called toilet (pit  toilets which were usually filthy and smelly). They don't have laws about  washing your hands after going to the toilet in Tibet. However, none of us got  sick. Okay, now for the good stuff. Our guide, Bempa, was great! He was knowledgeable,  knew people wherever we went. The high point of our trip was, of course, seeing  Mt. Everest! We were so very fortunate in getting to see Everest with no cloud  cover whatsoever! It was magnificent! Met others who never got to see it due to  cloud cover. As expected, it was really really cold at Everest. We slept in  tents of Tibetans who were camping near the base camp because the new guesthouse  rooms at Rongbuk Monastery were full. The old guesthouse rooms were unacceptable  to us. We feel that our travel agent was not quite honest with us about our  accommodations near the base camp. As it turned out, my daughters and I were  quite happy with our stay with a Tibetan family in their tent which was heated  with a stove in the middle of the tent that burned yak dung! Our hosts were warm  and gracious. I'm not sure the others were as pleased. They slept in a different  tent than my daughters and I. The Tibetan people are wonderful! The lakes are a  deep turquoise-color and very beautiful! We saw a few wild yaks, but mostly  herds of domesticated yaks. We didn't see too many birds at those altitudes;  mostly what looked to me like minah birds, crows, and sparrows that looked an  awful lot like our English sparrows. There were the cutest dogs all over the  place. We asked our guide if dogs were eaten in Tibet and he told us that no one  would eat a dog since they are considered "good luck" to have around. Although  we saw many unkempt dogs, none seemed to be starving. As expected, there is much  poverty, and we ran into our fair share of begging children and the occasional  adult beggar. Lhasa is an armed camp! There are about a dozen Chinese soldiers on every block  in riot gear carrying shields and rifles. Over the Barkor Market area, there are  snipers stationed on the roofs with machine guns. Of course, you don't take  pictures of them nor do you say anything that might be unwelcome. We were told  that spies abound among the city crowds. There is a palpable tension among the  Chinese and Tibetan people. The city of Lhasa is divided into the Chinese area  and the Tibetan areas. Both areas are under heavy military supervision. Most of our time was spent sitting in a vehicle. Everest is almost 500 miles  away from Lhasa. Undoubtedly, we sufferered more from high altitude sickness because we had to be  in and out of Tibet in just 5 days. We didn't have time to acclimate to the high  altitude. However, what do you do with the extra time except visit monasteries  of which there are hundreds, most of which are reconstructed due to being  destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. We visited four monasteries, and felt  that was plenty. That was one too many for Chuck and Kathy who opted out of  visiting the Potala Palace due to the number of stairs and opted to rest  instead. Fortunately, the company was excellent. I think that helped all of us to bear up  under what were sometimes challenging conditions. Actually, I think that if one  were trekking and camping out in Tibet, one would have a better experience,  that's of course, if you don't get high altitude sickness. All in all, we're glad we went, but, once is enough.  

Tibet Trip Another View By Chuck Mitchell Since the Tibet trip reports seem to focus on "substandard toilets and mold in  the bathrooms", I thought I might add my comments. Overall the trip was great.  We saw a lot of countryside, visited more monasteries than I can remember, ate  new food and met new people. We frequently had to be up very early and breakfast  before dawn because of the distances to travel. Some had trouble sleeping  because Chinese mattress come in two grades...Hard, and Concrete. While allowed  a 10% loss, we all survived with no loss of appendages nor intestinal  disturbances. Our six did, in fact, join with a larger tour group who traveled in a bus.  However we saw them only occasionally at checkpoints or sometimes at meals. We  traveled independently in our Land Cruisers with three to a vehicle. There were  frequent stops at checkpoints and our travel permit (which included our names)  compared with our passports. We were told that in the past there had been fatal  crashes due to driving at unsafe speeds on the roads, and in an effort to  control speed, the government allowed a specific amount of time to travel  between checkpoints. If you arrived at the next checkpoint "early" must  have been speeding. This sometimes resulted in parking by the side of the road  within sight of the next checkpoint to "run out the clock". This reason may or  may not be true, but in any case, the location of visitors is monitored  constantly. I should also add that at the Beijing airport and at the Beijing  hotels there are video cameras and temperature sensors setup at the may have to extend your "stay" if you have a high temperature. Tibet looks a bit like Baja California without any vegetation. As expected the  days were warm and the nights very cold. Leave the sweaters home and bring a  warm coat and hat. The paved roads are generally in good condition, but like  Baja they are shared with bicycles, farm vehicles, trucks and buses. The dirt  roads are sometimes rough. I used to think the 75 mile graded road between  Vizcaino and Bahia Tortugas was the longest and most miserable, but it has to be  moved to a distant 2nd place by the road to Everest Base Camp with hundreds of  switchbacks. Travel by train: Bring soft luggage. The only place to store your bags is above  the door on a shelf that is about 15 inches high and is only accessible by  climbing onto the upper bunks. We were able to fit 3 bags above but the 4th  relegated to the floor which occupied floor space which was minimal. There were  4 persons per cabin so during the day everyone was seated on the lower bunks or  perhaps on jump seats in the hall. Train was fast and smooth. Snacks and box  lunches were available from cart vendors in the halls, and good food in the  dining car. The dining car was generally open for use only during meal times. Paper must be very limited. Almost universally toilet paper, napkins, and paper  towels were not supplied outside of the hotels. TP is on very small rolls and is  very’s almost impossible to tear...don’t forget your pocket knife  or scissors. Farm houses in the country are similar in design to Shaker farm houses in the US  more than a century ago. The houses are made of handmade mud brick or stone, and  most are two stories with live- stock housed on the ground floor and the  families living on the 2nd floor. This keeps the upper floor warmer in the  winter, and provides easy access to the live- stock. Livestock is yak, cattle,  goat, and sheep along with a trusty "Tibet mastiff" to keep them in line. Yak  dung is routinely collected, mixed and reformed into small pizza sized disks,  then applied (stuck) on to the house or perimeter wall until it is dry. After  drying the dung disk is stacked for use as fuel for cooking and heating. We had yak meat in a number of dishes and it was always tough and  tasteless...perhaps we frequented the wrong places. Dried cheese blocks threaded  on string was equally non-impressive. Vegetables and fruit were always  excellent. Lots of chicken and pork (no, you don’t get swine flu from eating  pork) and some freshwater fish (carp and tilapia). If you tired of Chinese food,  there were always McDonalds and KFC. Coffee as we know it did not exist. An  "instant coffee" was available but it was very sad. Tea was served everywhere  and was good...with the exception of the locally preferred "buttered tea" which  was tea with a tablespoon of rancid yak butter added and whipped to a froth. I  drank some by mistake and it was awful. I don’t think it will make the menu at  Starbuck’s. Travel by car. From posted signs and painted lines on the street surfaces it did  appear that there were perhaps traffic regulations. However there was no  evidence that they are ever complied with or enforced. Without exception we  routinely drove though red lights and stop signs with relaxed abandon by the  driver and guide, and loud inhalations by the passengers. Driving is done in  relaxed deliberate fashion with communication between all vehicles in the  immediate vicinity accomplished by horn signals. On a 2 lane road you close on  the slow moving farm truck in the right lane, you honk and move into the left  lane which is about to be occupied by the oncoming truck, he honks, you honk,  and then you all pass, three vehicles wide. This is all done at a leisurely  pace. In the city 4 lane streets morph into 5 and 6 lanes or more. Traffic from  side streets simply drive into the arterial flow and are entrained somehow  without mishap. Tour guides are "encouraged" to use government listed (health inspected)  facilities for lodging and dining for foreign tourist. All of our meals were  pre-paid and we seldom had the opportunity to select from a menu we couldn’t  read. This was fine since everything was generally good. Chinese beer totally  lacks any character and the Great Wall wine is undrinkable. Almost all of the tourist sites have a Theme Park like atmosphere. To view, you  must first pass through the gift shop, tea shop, silk shop, basket shop, prayer  wheel shop, pottery shop, etc. While visiting the Shao Lin Temple (dubbed  Shaolinland) you can even buy "Shao Lin balm" for you sore legs from a bald  saffron robed monk. To visit the Great Wall you have to run the gauntlet of  vendors to get to the aerial tram taking you from the base of the hill to the  Wall. Your return can be on the tram or the sled a water slide but  without water. You are now back with the vendors in a flash and can buy a "I  Climbed the Great Wall" T shirt. Speaking of vendors....during our overnight at Everest Base Camp I had placed my  temperature recording watch on a table to monitor the night. At 0300 hrs the  temperature was 32F, but at dawn the watch was dead, frozen to death. Two days  later at the markets in Lhasa I was in the market for a cheap watch. Glancing at  a tray of watches, I noticed a Breitling Navitimer ($6,000 US at the Mall). The  vendor pounced and offered it for 450 yuan ($68), 30 seconds of intense  negotiations and I was the owner for 100 yuan ($15). The first part fell off  within a couple of hours, but it snapped back on, and the sharp edges on wrist  band have only scratched my skin a few times.