Sunday, 5 May 2013

A Journey to Tibet

When I was a boy, there were two places that cropped up in boys’ adventure stories from time to time that fascinated me and I always wanted to visit them. One was Manaus on the Amazon in Brazil, which I have visited 3 times, and the other was Lhasa in Tibet. Then in 2009 I saw an advert for a 2 week tour to Tibet, so I followed it up and went on the tour along with 11 other well travelled tourists.

The tour started in Beijing where we spent 2 days, then on the second evening we boarded a train for a 48 hour journey to Lhasa. The train journey was better than we had expected with 4 comfortable bunks to a cabin and the restaurant served good Chinese and European food. I had asked my doctor if I was likely to be troubled by altitude sickness and he said that I should be all right as we were going up gradually and would have time to acclimatise. However, it wasn’t like that. For the first day we travelled west across China and went up to about a kilometre above sea level, then we turned south onto the new railway into Tibet, put on a more powerful engine to cope with the gradients, and went up a further 4 kilometres during the night. When we looked out next morning the view was like WOW! We were up on the Tibet plateau with yaks grazing and herdsmens’ huts and mountains in the distance. As for the altitude sickness, I was OK until I got up, then I felt dizzy and sat down for a few minutes until it passed, and after that I felt normal but had to take things easy. One colleague was quite delirious so we got him back on his bunk and turned on the oxygen supply that was fitted to each bunk, and he gradually recovered.

From the plateau we went up a further 500 metres and over a mountain pass, then spent the rest of the day going gradually down to Lhasa, which is 4 kilometres above sea level, and checked into a very good hotel for the next 4 nights.

In Beijing we had a Chinese tour guide who came with us for the whole of the journey and in Lhasa we picked up a Tibetan guide and the Chinese became the tour manager. Both were very professional and kept their views on the Chinese occupation of Tibet to themselves. As tourists we were kept away from the prisons and the brutality of the Chinese soldiers but we were well aware of the Chinese presence. At intervals along the streets there would be soldiers standing guard under a green sunshade to protect them from the sun and at petrol stations there would be a soldier with a fire extinguisher at each entrance. The Tibetans were obviously under constant surveillance. On the train and in our hotel rooms were propaganda leaflets in English containing stories about the “liberation” of Tibet with anecdotes about the Chinese throwing out the feudal landlords and freeing the peasants from slavery. That is not how the Tibetans saw it!

The next day I realised a lifelong ambition and visited the Potala palace. We started off in gardens at the base of the mound. This used to be a village where the people who worked in the palace lived until it was flattened by the Chinese. There were pilgrims walking all round the base of the mound, always in a clockwise direction, chanting and carrying their prayer wheels, and all in traditional Tibetan dress. It was a long climb up several flights of steps, along with monks and other pilgrims, to reach the entrance to the palace. Once inside, we saw the Dalai Lama’s throne, the hall where he met with his religious elders and the one where he met with his political elders, the great hall where they all met together on special occasions, and the prayer room where he spent the night in meditation and prayer before making any major decisions.

After the palace we went to Barkhor square which is a very large square with the Potala palace at one end and the Johang temple at the other and shops along either side. The square was bustling with people, all in traditional dress, and we strolled around for a while soaking up the atmosphere then we went into the Johang temple. Once inside we were confronted by more steps and I decided to opt out of this visit and wait by the entrance for the rest of the party to return. As I sat there a steady stream of Tibetans came in and out, all staring at me as they were not used to seeing a European, and I even had my photograph taken twice.

The next day we went to the Dali Lama’s summer palace which is quite small and is set in a walled garden. The garden is inside a public park and, being Sunday afternoon, there were Tibetan families sitting on the grass and enjoying picnics. There was a sentry building in the park, and at one point 8 Chinese soldiers came out dressed in full riot gear with helmets and shields and batons. They marched round in and out of the picnickers for about 20 minutes just to make their presence felt. They didn’t hit anybody but they completely destroyed the happy peaceful atmosphere that had previously been so obvious.

One evening we went to Potala square which is a large paved square laid out by the Chinese facing the Potala palace. It was crowded with Tibetans and there was music playing over loud speakers and 2 fountains that danced to the rhythm of the music. There was a plinth with the Chinese flag on a pole and 2 armed Chinese soldiers standing guard. Our guide left us to stroll around the square for an hour and then return to him. He had a small union jack on a cane which he held up for us to locate him in the crowd. At this point one of the Chinese soldiers jumped off the plinth and dashed across shouting “only Chinese flag allowed in this square” and snatched the flag off him.

Public Square opposite the Potala Palace
When we left Lhasa we split up into four Nissan 4x4s for the journey into the mountains. We crossed the Brahmaputra river and then went seriously up. Our driver was a bit of a hothead and attacked the hill climb at full throttle until there was a loud bang and his radiator cap flew off and the radiator boiled over. We had several crates of bottled water for our use and we had to give up our precious water to replenish the radiator. One of the drivers found the cap and knocked it back into shape with a stone and we went off at a more sedate pace.

We travelled for 2 days up and down over mountain passes, usually at about 5.5 kilometres above sea level and each one adorned with prayer flags. In the valleys there was some basic agriculture wherever there was any flat land and there was little evidence of the Chinese occupation in this rural area. We stopped in small country towns and eventually reached a bigger town called Shigatse where we stayed for 2 nights in a pleasant hotel.

There was a young concierge in the hotel who was learning English and welcomed the opportunity to speak with us. He was writing a paper in English and asked 2 of us to check it for spelling and grammar. We found it to be a call to arms for Tibetans to rise up and overthrow the Chinese aggressors which he was going to post on the internet. We asked if he was aware of the risks he was taking and he said that he was but would go ahead with it anyway. We did his corrections and wished him luck.

The next day we went on to the village of New Tingry which consists of a reasonable hotel, where we stayed, and a few backpacker hostels and not much else, but it is the gateway to the Tibetan side of mount Everest. We set off early the next morning as our guide wanted us to see the sunrise over Everest and we had to pass through a Chinese check point which could take quite a while. Luckily there was very little traffic so shortly we each had to go in and show our passports to the soldiers. Our tour manager had the necessary paperwork and as he was Chinese it was accepted quickly. We arrived at the vantage point in plenty of time and the sight of the sun rising over the shoulder of Everest was amazing.

Solar Powered Kettle
From the vantage point it was a 100km drive on a dirt road to the Everest base camp on the Tibetan side. This is much more accessible than the more popular Nepalese base camp as it can be reached by road. The camp is a small plateau with a circle of canvas buildings, some of which operate as small hotels. There are also yaks, guides and porters for the few people that manage to get through the Chinese beaurocracy and climb Everest. The camp is at 5.5kms above sea level and the summit is 8.8kms so we were fairly close and it was an amazing experience to sit on a rock and contemplate the sheer size of the mountain.

Yurts at Everest Base Camp
There was also a Chinese sentry building on the plateau with a battered old bicycle leaning against it. The bicycle looked very forlorn and one of our party took a picture of it. With that a soldier ran out of the building, snatched the camera, deleted the image and shouted angrily at the lady before giving it back.

We went back to the hotel at New Tingry for an early night then next morning set out on the final leg of our journey. We had to go through the same check point and this time there was a queue of traffic and it took over an hour to get through. Next we went over a small pass and across to the south facing side of the Himalayas. Tibet stretches quite a way down the southern slopes and we stopped for the night at the last town in Tibet.

Looking Across The Friendship Bridge to Nepal
Next morning we walked down to the Chinese border post where our luggage was searched by the Chinese border guards who took everybody’s camera and viewed the images, deleting any they didn’t approve of. I was still using film on this trip and the guard couldn’t fathom out my camera so he flung it on the ground in disgust. When the guards had finished with us we walked across the bridge into Nepal and felt as if we were escaping from the Chinese. The good natured chaos of the Nepalese immigration was a direct contrast to the cold hostility on the other side. We continued then through the Nepalese countryside to Kathmandu and the end of our journey.

John Kirby

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