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"....you 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 entrances...you 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 durable...it’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 ride...like 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.