Trip Start Sep 03, 2006
Trip End Jul 21, 2007

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Chinese infitration in Lhasa

It took us 3 hours to fly from Chengdu to Lhasa; from the plane we could see the Himalayas, dry mountains and tall snow capped peaks as far away as one can see. If we had gone by bus, it would have taken us a week to do the same trip. Like everybody else, we had seen pictures of the Potala palace and scenes of monks praying, it all looked very mysterious and mythical. Well, the first hours spent in the city didn't live up to our expectations! Lhasa had actually become very modern and very Chinese, with shops, buildings and supermarkets everywhere. There were a few Tibetan shops but nothing special at the first glance. It's a city where you don't want to stay too long and some people are so put off that they want to leave the place as quickly as possible. But as you get used to the city, and stroll in the Tibetan quarters, you'll find that Lhasa is not as bland as it may look in the first place.
We've heard a lot about the evil Chinese occupying Tibet, but it's not all black and white, most people are just trying to make a living in Tibet like anyone else. During the cultural revolution, the Chinese have destroyed almost all the temples and other buildings of interest, they are also diluting local culture with their own,  but on the other hand they have modernised the country. Given the number of Chinese people in Tibet it is likely that the inhabitants will mix up sooner or later...As for now the Tibetan culture is still lively and active, especially outside of Lhasa where there are less Chinese people.

Pilgrims everywhere

 Lhasa is located at 3600 meters above sea level so it takes a couple of days to acclimatise. During the first 3 days we got used to the city and witnessed hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims going around town. Everything about them is fascinating: their clothes, skins, faces, hair and religious practises. Like Indian pilgrims on the Ganges, you can spend hours just watching them doing their things: walking around sacred builings spinning their prayer wheels and reciting prayers, laying their bodies on the ground and praying. The most impressive act of religion we've seen is for pilgrims to walk from their villages to a sacred place such as the Potala or the Shigatse monastery (given the size of Tibet, some come from very far) and, as they walk they lay down every two or three steps, touching their forehead on the ground... That's how they get a distinctive round scar on the forehead! Some spend months and months travelling this way, maybe years. To prevent their clothes and their hands from being worn out in no time, they wear very much needed leather aprons and wooden hand pads. We've seen them in Lhasa but also on their way, on remote roads in the countryside, that does inspire respect! 
In the Potala Palace

On the few first days, we visited the Potala Palace, the famous temple on top of a hill overlooking the city and home to the Dalai Lama before he was forced to flee the country in the seventies. It's probably the most well known piece of Tibetan architecture worldwide. We arrived early, pilgrims were already walking around the building with their prayer wheels, some were prosternating in front of it. We happened to visit the site at the same time as a big group of Thai monks, it was surprising to hear Thai language in China and seeing monks with hats and video recorders! Inside we followed the pilgrims who had come with thermos of melted yak butter to pour in the giant candle holders, hence the strong smell. We watched them pray, give their offerings and press their foreheads against, apparently, anything and everything.

Jeep tour with Katie and Jeff

We didn't want to linger too long in Lhasa and decided to take a tour to Lake Namtso and Everest base camp. We could only visit these areas by hiring a jeep as public transport was neither reliable nor comprehensive or permitted. We put an add on the backpackers hostels and travel agencies notice boards to find travel companions. A few hours later we met Katie and Jeff, two Americans from New Hampshire who wanted to visit Everest base camp and were planning to continue their travel onto Nepal. We agreed the itinerary with the travel agent and a day later we were on the roads of Tibet with Woodgy, our Tibetan driver who spoke very little English. He was a bit of a playboy chatting wih girls everywhere we stopped for the night. It was a great trip: we had a good time ourselves chatting in the car with Katie and Jeff and the landscape was fantastic. Patrick dubbed our American couple the "Jumping Americans". Indeed, to make their pictures more interesting, they would jump in as many ways as possible to avoid the static "me in front of  the monument" kind of picture. We did like the idea very much and you will very likely spot their influence on our shots from now on... IWe were 4 in our jeep but soon met another group of 3 who was doing the same circuit.n the other group, there was Naren the Indian, Carlos the Swiss and Kevin the Welch, we immediately clicked with them and traveled together from day one. Our drivers also seemed to enjoy each other's company so it was perfect! We had some great moments with our new friends and some experiences we would never have had, had we not met them.

Incredible landscape and faces

 It's on the road that we saw what Tibet was like: yaks and furry goats grazing in the wild, shepherd tents with little stone fences, Tibetans on their motorbikes, small villages of mud bricks, pilgrims prosternating on the road as they walk...The landscape is more varied than one would have thought: green plateaus, snow capped mountains, frozen lakes, bare rocks and even sand dunes!
Namtso lake (3-4 hours drive from Lhasa) was our first stop, and in our opinion,it's a must see! The lake is magnificent, even though it was still frozen (we were in March). It's supposed to be at its best when the sky reflects its blue colour on the water but to see the broken ice crust natural sculptures at the edge is very much worth visiting it in winter. The ice was thick enough to walk on the edge and maybe further but we didn't want to risk it. 
Tibetans are easy to approach children and adults alike. Outside Lhasa, some of them have rarely had contact with foreigners so we were a bit of an attraction for them too. They also like a good laugh, enjoy chatting and posing for photos. Children in particular love to see their images on digital cameras, and if you give them a print of the pictures you've taken it makes people very happy. Interacting with Tibetans was one of the highlights of the jeep tour along with visiting the Shigatse temple, the most active religious centre we've seen in Tibet. Dozens of pilgrims come here everyday, seeing them perform their religious practices as well as the monks living their everyday life was one of the most amazing things we've seen during our whole travel. We could not take any pictures inside and that's a shame because you would have seen monks chanting their prayers in groups, giant statues of their gods, portraits of the Panchem Lama (the head of Tibet whilst the Dalai Lama is still busy growing up), people offering money and tsampa floor, many monks counting stacks of banknotes offered by pilgrims, tombs of former dalai lamas...Pilgrims alone deserved the visit: a lot of them seem to be coming from remote rural areas, they had incredible looks and faces, a real photohrapher's paradise!

Outside temples and monuments, there was not much to do but chat with locals and amuse the children. At one of our night stops (in New Tingri), Naren, one the cheekiest man on hearth ;-), spotted a tractor and its trailer. He then managed to rent the vehicule and its driver so that we could all go for a ride accompanied by the kids of the village. It was so much fun!

We reach Everest base camp

Our next stop, Everest base camp, is a bit of a strange place. In Chinese Everest is called Qomolangma (Everest is the Western name given after the cartograph who discovered it was the highest peak in the world). The road winding through the mountains gave us good views of the peak but it's not until we reached the camp that we realised the enormity of the rock. It was the beginning of the trekking season and there were a few tents awaiting the expeditions. Among those tents, they were sherpas guides waiting for their clients, one of them had already climbed Everest 7 times, respect! 
On our way back from the base camp we met two French guys trekking with their huge backpacks. They had been travelling on their own for a couple of weeks and were having some hard times moving around. Not only public transport was scarce but everytime they would arrive in a village, people were following them asking for money. It got so annoying that they sometimes made extra kilometres to avoid villages. Be warned: Tibet is not Nepal and is no trekkers' paradise, there is very little means of transport for the independent traveller and you can easily get stucked somewhere for days. That night we stayed a few kilometres away from the base camp in one of the tent guesthouses that were set up for the season. There are about a dozen of them close next to each other awaiting for jeep loads of visitors. The sourroundings being rather bare, they use dried yak dung as combustible. It sounds rather smelly but is actually odourless! The next morning we were to part with the travellers going to Nepal (lucky them!) and said goodbye to Carlos, Katie and Jeff and headed back to Lhasa.
We really enjoyed our 5 days jeep tour and it did reconcile us with the charmless city of Lhasa. The day after we visited the Jokhang temple - probably the most important temple in Tibet but for us it was not as lively as the Shigatse one - made some souvenir shopping and arranged our train ticket to our next stop: Beijing.

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