A detailed account on my journey to China and Tibet during the period Sep - Nov 2002. Part 4 continues covering Tibet.Other parts: Yunnan province (China):   Tibet:     East coast China: .
Published: Nov 2002
This travelogue was kindly typed from Stas' original notes in the notebook and slightly edited by Ada Ho.
travel, Chinese, Mandarin, hotel, hostel, hike, drive, bus, Lhasa, jeep, kora, Buddhist, stupa, tibetan, Tibet, traveler check, Bank of China, temple, Potala Palace, Barkhor Kora, camping, tent, Chitu-la, Ganden Monastery.
My first day in Lhasa. I've started the day by doing the Barkhor kora (surrounding the Barkhor circle). It was still early and not many pilgrims were doing their kora(s). I was trying to get into the Jokhang complex, but it was closed yet. I went to the Potala Square, where the Chinese were doing some sort of parade. Many soldiers, pupils and citizens were put into rows, so it looked like a parade. The Potala Palace looked grand but not as grand as it seems to be when seen on the pictures. After seeing the Ganden Monastery the day before, that monastery wasn't much bigger, but it's definitely impressive.
I've tried to climb the Changpo Ri Hill which is just in front of the Palace, so to take a good photo, but the Chinese army blocked the access to the top of the hill, so I couldn't make it. I've visited the Palha Lupuk Temple and the Drubthub Nunnery which were both very nice and then headed to the Tibetan museum, which resides in a very beautiful building. For 30Y you get the ticket in and the audio guide which covers some of the exhibits. The museum started from the pre-historic period and went all the way to the modern days. After a few hours in the museum I was quite tired, so I quickly skipped the last few exhibition halls, which was a pity because they were quite interesting. After a lunch I've changed my travel checks in the Bank of China, which was unexpectedly open, since that was Sunday afternoon. Then I visited the Cesar Ling Temple at the Parma Ri Hill, which had a nice side view of the Potala Palace. Next I strolled back to the location of my hotel and went through some side streets to bump into Ramoche Temple which is quite big, but is off the central area, so no tourists reach there. I wandered there for a while, visiting the living quarters, where monks were very friendly and happy to see me.
At the sunset I've decided to return where I've started the morning, the Barkhor Kora circle and the Jokhang Temple. This time I found it open and I waited in a long queue to do the inner kora because it was going through the statues of Jowo Sahyamuni, the main attraction for the devotees, and everybody was stopping to kiss the base of the statue.
Eventually I've got out of the temple and did another Barkhor Kora, this time stopping at a side and watching the pilgrims and other people doing the kora. It was an amazing mix of people from different cities and villages (see photos), all dressed differently and looking a bit different. It was probably the most interesting experience, other than looking at the fine details of the Buddhist drawings and statues in temples and the museum. It was an interesting day.
I was actively looking for people who plan to do 'the Ganden Monastery to the Samye Monastery' trek, but couldn't find any. So I decided to go by myself on the following day.
I've pretty much exhausted Lhasa on the first day and other than the Potala Palace, I had nothing else to do.
So, that day I spent in the Potala Palace and buying provisions and the tent for the 5 days trek.
The Potala Palace was quite impressive though my attention span for the hundreds of statues of deities was quite short, especially as I spent the previous day doing exactly that - watching the small details of thangkas (scroll paintings) and the statues. The price to the Palace exponentially goes up. This time it was 70Y. Only a few months ago it was 40Y.
At the same day I had a pretty good massage in the barber shop.
At 6am I was at the bus station at the Barkhor Square. The bus drivers kept on bouncing me and won't let me on the bus, until a kind monk, who spoke English, helped me to get on the bus. For some reason the drivers didn't like my huge backpack. At about 8am we reached the Ganden Monastery, which I've been to 2 days ago on the way from Zhongdian to Lhasa. A group of young Tibetans invited me to share their breakfast.
At 9am I've set off to the trek. Originally taking the wrong direction, having soon corrected by a Tibetan guy, I've taken again the wrong pass though in the right direction and ended up walking several more hours then it could be.
For some reason my backpack was very, very heavy. It was much heavier than the same backpack while I was trekking in Yunnan Province two weeks earlier. I've left part of things in the hotel though I've added a lot of food, as I had to be self-sufficient and carry a heavy tent (4 kg) which I bought a day before. Also I took 5 litters of water which I finished in the first two days and had to drink the water from the streams anyway. I think the total weight was about 30-35 kg, plus add the high altitude 4.5 km+ and you get the idea. I could hardly ascend needing to stop for rest every 10 meters. It was very unusual. It wasn't a muscles problem but my heart's which tried to jump out of my body. I thought I was well acclimatized for the high altitude as I ran up the Potala Palace's stairs (which go about 100m up) without much trouble. Remember that I came to Lhasa overland and crossed several 5 km+ passes. Though the heavy backpack and the altitude made the following day's journey quite a challenge, I think I was the only person to carry his own gear by himself. All other people I met on the trek had hired yaks and guides, which made their journey so much easier. In my case I wasn't looking for an easy way out.
The binoculars have proved very useful, both for watching the wildlife, but mostly to find the way around as I could see some of the travellers with yaks who went much faster, but at least I could see which turns they made. The Lonely Planet's trekking details weren't adequate, so it was a great help to see where the guides took other trekkers (which were just a few, usually one group of 2-3 people for each day).
After struggling for 9 hours I collapsed. I had no choice but to camp at that place. It was actually a nice place at the edge of the stream. As I was resting a group of young Tibetans came by. First unwilling to being photographed, but delighted by being able to see the immediate photos on my digital camera, they started to pose for me :) They were astonished by the camera as they have never seen such a thing before. I've shown them photos from previous days and they were making a funny "chuckling" sound with their mouths every time I've shown a new photo. Then I opened my tent and went off to sleep as it was dark and I was very tired.
On the same day when I went through local village and asked for directions, one of the boys volunteered to take me out of the village. On the way he was pointing at different animals and saying their Tibetan names. At the edge of the village he said "Money". I said, "Money?". He then demanded money. I gave him some small change but he asked for much more. I told him, "sorry, but you don't get any more, since you don't demand money without asking for it before deed is done. So much for tourism. Earlier when I was approaching that village 3 smaller kids demanded gifts, by showing me a pen and asking for more. Oh, well.
That night I slept at the altitude of about 4600 m.
That was a very hard day, 20 km trek, 1000m ascent and 450m descent. I was crawling like a snail stopping every several meters to rest. On the way up to the Shug-La pass at 5250m, the group of young Tibetans that I met the day before walked all the way with me. Every few minutes they would offer to take my backpack or at least offload half of it, which I was politely refusing. Then they stopped for lunch and offered me to share it with them. They "helped" me finish 1kg of peanuts I brought. Their only food all the way was tsampa (a roasted barley flour), made into balls after adding some water and yak butter. Not a very exciting meal. And remember that they have it every day, three times a day. On the way, every time they stopped for a break, their main activity was searching for lice in each other heads, just like you saw monkeys do in the zoo. Until the last moment I wasn't sure if they were doing the trek or just walking to some village. They were actually doing the trek, as I've learned later.
I was showing them the gadgets that I had: the "leatherman" multi-function knife, the binoculars, the enlarging glass and they were very excited about these. They were really friendly and were walking slower than they would otherwise do to accommodate my slow speed. These fellows didn't have sleeping bags and tents, they were sleeping on the ground dressed in warm sheep cloth. The temperature outside at night was dropping to zero Celsius.
After finally crossing the highest point of the pass, the descent was much easier for me though the first kilometre there was no real trek and I had to navigate huge boulders jumping from one to another. One time a huge boulder I stood on has crashed and luckily nothing has happened. I fell to the side of the mountain on my backpack which amortised the fall. At the end of that day my fellow Tibetan trekkers helped me to ford a wide stream by taking my backpack over it jumping on wet stones. I couldn't do that as my shoes would slip off. So without the load I had to make a huge jump, which I've almost succeeded, with one leg slipping off the shore, but I was dry.
The folks found a place to sleep at the edge of the stream and I continued walking some more, trying to find the other westerners who were supposed to camp somewhere ahead as I was told by one Tibetan whom I met on the way. I didn't find their tents and I was completely exhausted and I had only one hour of light left so I've found a very nice camping spot at the edge of the stream and set my tent there. After a quick dinner I went to sleep. Though I had a fever altitude and couldn't sleep for many hours. Towards the morning the fever went away and I fell asleep. It was an interesting thing with the night fever. I felt perfectly well all the day long, but the moment I was ready to get to sleep my body would go all feverish. It's like it knew that it had to be strong during the day, and was giving up at night. This was happening to me almost all of the trek days. I don't know whether it had anything to do with the acute altitude sickness, just being sick (cold) or the way my body's mobilisation techniques, since in the morning I'd feel perfectly well again. In any case, as the proverb goes: "What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger".
This day was a bit easier as the ascent of 300+ m to the Chitu-la pass was quite gradual. The real problem was that my back was very tired from the previous two days so this time I had to rest more because of my back.
After the pass there were a few beautiful lakes, followed by a 400 m descent which was surprisingly hard, because there was a cold dry wind blowing into the face and the descending wasn't very easy. At around 17:00 I've found a place to camp and stayed there over the night as I couldn't walk anymore even though the way was down. The moment I've finished setting the tent and got in, the fever started again. It's like the body was waiting till I'll finish the efforts and then started some internal fighting. I was drinking a lot of hot tea and ate soups. And this night I've slept ok.
I think it was a combination of dehydration and the high altitude that was showing. This and the previous night I was sleeping at almost 5000 m and the guidelines say to sleep at least 500 m below the highest altitude reached that day. But what could I do. I couldn't get lower, because there was no time nor energy left.
Both nights the temperature was dropping to zero, and in the morning the tent was covered with frost.