We hit two monasteries before leaving Lhasa- Sera and Drepung. At both we were able to witness robed monks in action. Unfortunately monasteries that once educated 1,000 monks at a time are now only operating at a capacity of 300 due to limitations by the Chinese government. Since many have historically expressed anti-government opinions, this is a way to keep them “in check”.
Drepung is the largest monastery in Tibet, and here I was able to snap a few pictures- for a fee, of course. And that fee was applied to each area we walked into, so I took some in the first assembly hall, and then put it away. Some money goes to monastic operations, but a lot of it (including donations and offerings) line Chinese government pockets. As with Potola Palace, the monastery housed assembly halls, Buddhist statues/relics and scriptures. Everything was old, beautiful and amazing, with butter lamps a-plenty. As we exited, there was a ceremony being performed where monks were gathered and two were being recognized: a kind of graduation of sorts. The sea of red and dot of yellow (the graduates wore a yellow hat) provided quite a contrast against the white buildings and blue sky.
Sera Monastery is famous for their monk debates. Out in the courtyard they assemble in groups of three with two sitting on the ground and one standing above them. The questioner asks the defenders about Buddhist doctrines, but they are more theoretical than clear-cut. If the defenders respond to the satisfaction of the standing monk, he claps his hands in an exaggerated gesture. Participants are young, energetic, smiling and engaged; not exactly the calm and quiet demeanor expected of such spiritual men. I was spellbound watching the theatrical movements and laughter. Who says monks don’t know how to have fun?
After two days in Lhasa, the six of us- driver, guide, Vivek, Pim, Val and I- piled into a Toyota Land Cruiser headed towards Nepal. We would spend the next five days on the Friendship Road averaging six or more hours of driving each day. Most of it was paved, but while they constructed a new road to Everest Base Camp, the detour was… well… rock. At times you couldn’t even see a path. Good thing the driver knew where he was going. We were also not immune to the many checkpoints along the way by police and military. They’d check our passports, look in our car, and sometimes look through our bags. It was definitely a reminder that someone was watching.
Sakya Monastery in Shigatse was one of my favorites. It’s huge (not that the others aren’t), but it’s almost like its own little city with cobbled paths in between buildings where monks and locals could be seen walking around.
At one point a large groups of monks emerged, perhaps from a lesson? I found their shoes particularly amusing. They were like red, platform elf shoes that came to a point at the toe. Cheap and functional, I’m sure, but also unique and a bit comical. My visit to Sakya Monastery also coincided with my grandma’s birthday, so I decided to take a picture with a sign I scribbled to commemorate the occasion- especially since she was very much part of my decision to come to Tibet. Unfortunately I missed a beat on her age and wrote, “Happy 92nd Birthday” when it was really her 93rd. Oopsy. This is where you say, “Aw, well, it’s the thought that counts!” And it did count, for the photo is magnetized to her refrigerator.
Then before I could smuggle a thousand-year old artifact into my bag, we were on the road again, where the altitude kept rising. Before arriving at Everest Base Camp, we crossed a few mountain passes covered in prayer flags that violently fluttered in the wind. It was cold. And it was windy. Good thing I bought a puffy jacket in Lhasa! I jumped out of the car to click a few photos, then jumped back in. Brrrr! If there’s anything worse than cold, it’s windy cold. And then there’s the altitude which we’ll get to, well, now.
Rongbuk is the highest monastery in the world, and we were to visit after our lunch of yak noodle soup (yes, it’s gamey). My headache had gotten worse and I felt extremely out of breath. As we literally walked across the street to the monastery from the restaurant, it was like the road lengthened and the sky closed in. There was a small hill up to the monastery- and I mean REALLY small- but I couldn’t do it. I told the group that I was just going to wait in the car. Then I felt nauseous and things were just not right. I made my way to the restroom (I don’t even know why I call it this), which was across a courtyard. I dragged my lead feet as I gasped for breath, feeling like I would either throw up or faint, and hopefully not both at the same time. If that wasn’t enough, there was the lovely toilet stench. I thought Indian bathrooms were the worst in the world… until I got to China. It’s true many have no stall doors for privacy; there are just half-wall dividers between holes in the ground so you can’t see your neighbor squatting, but anyone walking in can see you hovering over a hole, covering your nose and mouth with anything handy- a sleeve, a scarf, whatever. The courtyard may as well have been the Sahara desert for as quickly as I walked back across it. I was the only one on the tour who didn’t take altitude sickness pills, so I like to think that’s why I was the only one who really suffered from it. Yes, that’s what I tell myself.
When we got to our tent accommodations near base camp, our driver whipped out an oxygen canister and loaded me up. It was just a light flow through a nasal cannula, but it helped immensely. I was careful not to overdo it, but after about 15 minutes, I felt significantly better. “Who’s up for climbing this Everest thing?” Ok, maybe not that much better.
Our little tent city was quite charming with several lined up on two sides, all pretty much offering the same thing- food and a place to sleep. There was even a China Post tent with Everest in the postamark, or so I was told. It’s all in Chinese. The tent “hotels” are set up by the locals who run them each year, and then at the end of the season they’re broken down. Ours slept six comfortably with bench-like furniture around the perimeter. Blankets were stacked to the ceiling, and a wood stove anchored the space with a pipe going through the top. Yak hair insulated the tent, and yak dung also fueled the fire which is used to heat the tent and boil water for drinking. Hot water is big in Tibet, which is good because you know it’s safe to drink (and it’s cold out!). Our dinner of noodle soup was also prepared and served in the tent. I have to say, considering where we were, the accommodations were pretty nice.
Once I stocked up on O2, we all took a mini bus up to base camp, four miles away. I was pretty excited about this. I’d imagined a lot of hustle and bustle among the climbers who would be surrounded by food and oxygen stations, North Face kiosks and t-shirts for the tourists reading “Mt. Everest: I’m just looking”… you know, pretty much Disneyland. So you can imagine my surprise and somewhat disappointment to find a sign and prayer flags. That’s it. There was no triumphant music, no handshake welcoming us to the starting point for the highest mountain in the world. There was just a sign. And because it was the end of the very short climbing season, there were also no climbers and no tents to decorate the otherwise desolate landscape. I’m not quite sure where my outlandish expectations came from, but clearly I never read “Into Thin Air” or any other Everest book to temper my vision. So we took some smiley-faced photos and I hopped in the minivan to return to our camp while the others walked back.
Due to cloudy conditions, the peak of Everest was obscured most of the time, but I did manage to grab a shot at dusk when it peeked out (pun intended) for a few minutes.
After a nice night’s sleep we started our journey to the Nepal border. Our guide and driver weren’t able to cross, so basically they dropped us off, helped with the paperwork, and waved goodbye as we left the immigration office. Once through, we walked across the Friendship Bridge which links Tibet with Nepal. I have to say it was definitely the coolest border crossing I’ve experienced. Once we got to the Nepal immigration office it was utter chaos. There were supposedly lines, but they weren’t marked and we didn’t know which one was ours. Eventually we got our paperwork done, handed over our money and passports, and were stamped through. On the other side were taxi drivers all salivating over the new arrivals. Because Hindi and Nepali are similar, Vivek did the negotiating and we were on our way to Kathmandu, about four hours from the border. I wasn’t thrilled about yet another car ride, but alas. We made it through several checkpoints (apparently they look for immigrants and gold) before arriving in Kathmandu. Nepal reminded me a lot of India when I first arrived, so it felt strange to be “back”.
Tibet definitely ranks at the top of my list for Asian destinations. It’s probably the most different place I have ever been, and the most untouched by the outside world (Chinese government aside). The people are warm, and there is a spiritual vibe in the thin, mountainous air. Aside from an influx of mainland Chinese, there aren’t many tourists, so it feels authentic and well-preserved. The driving became tedious at times and the monasteries started to look similar, but it was still a magical place and I will treasure my time there. I personally support a free Tibetan state, especially after visiting, but hopefully they’re able to preserve their culture under the existing situation. It’s a beautiful one indeed.
If you’re interested in traveling to Tibet and could use some logistical information about visas, travel permits and which tour operators to use, please read this article I wrote for Tour Matters.