My trip to Tibet From Lhasa to the Nepal Border
When I was planning my holidays last December (2011) I had the idea of visit Tibet. I was going to Beijing and wanted to reach India, so a stop in this marvelous Shangri-La seemed a once in a life time opportunity. After finally convincing my sister about getting there, we started a long procedure of searching a proper Tibet travel agency to buy a tour from. I contacted around 15 agencies in two weeks to get prices and itineraries.
The amount of information I had to analyze was overwhelming! Some agencies had extremely cheap prices, but when I looked closer they didn’t include things that most other agencies do—e.g. entrance fees—. In addition, most agencies seemed to only care about the money and not so much about the service quality (asking me to pay as soon as possible but sending me aggressive emails with a lack of “client “concept). Being a keen environmentalist and craving a true Tibetan experience, I came up with Explore Tibet Team. Not only was this the only agency which truly responded my email with a kind and attentive language, but the price was within an affordable range. The best thing was that they were a responsible eco-tourism agency: following principle of working from Tibetans only and taking care of Mother Nature. Shortly before I contacted them, they told me that they had a sponsor from the Columbia University, which is still giving them courses so they can protect nature while giving their tours, such as eco-friendly-cooking at Mt. Everest base camp tour !
Sonam Jamphel, the owner of the agency, was who answered all of my questions and was extremely helpful throughout the entire journey. We asked him to buy railway tickets from Beijing to Lhasa (a two day journey with amazing views of the Himalayas) for us and they even delivered them for us at the hostel we were staying at. He never rushed me for the money and never hesitated that he could get the tickets for me. That gave me a lot of confidence regarding his service. So, I did all in and embarked myself in an adventure I had never imagined.
We took the train on December 22nd at Beijing West railway station. This place was an unpleasant experience, as many travelers were heading to small villages inside China, carrying huge rice bags and sacks of the sort. Being the only westerners, we caught a lot of attention but managed to get on the train safe. Our section in the wagon had 6 comfortable beds (hint: pick the lowest ones! Are the ones with most space), with pillows and blankets. We had 4 people accompanying us only for the first day because they were heading to those small villages. After that, we had the entire room for us all the way until Lhasa. We got to see beautiful snowy landscapes and breathtaking views. We also saw some pilgrims doing prostrations on their way to Lhasa. They moved one prostration at a time, touching their forehead with their hands and then laying entirely down on the road. The proofs of faith they give to Buddha are just unimaginable. Sure, this was nothing compared to what we were going to see for the next days.
We arrived to Lhasa on December 245th. Sam, our guide for the entire tour, received us there with white khatas, a tradition in Tibet for the upcoming friends. He had excellent English and was very kind. Tashi, our driver, was very nice too and helped us with our full-of-winter-clothes-bags. A few minutes after gliding into the car, we got our first glimpse of Lhasa. The Potala Palace, the signature of Tibet, emerged from our right with a powerful vibe that can only be described as magical. Red and white, its majesty was not comparable to anything I had seen before. In the middle of the mountains, it protected the entire city. Tashi and Sam dropped us at our hotel “Yak Hotel”, owned, of course, by Tibetans. Our room was huge and with a proper western toilet (heaven after a month in China!). We rested for that day and had a sneak-preview at the Barkhor Square, just a block away.
Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Square
We woke up early and had breakfast at the hotel and Sam and Tashi picked us up at 9 to see the Potala Palace. They gave us water bottles and some blankets to carry on the car! Also, Sonam Jamphel called us that day to see if everything was ok (he called us every two days!). We asked him to lend us some sleeping bag because at Mt. Everest we would need them and we didn’t have. He offered them for us on courtesy of the agency! I was very happy with our choice.
We finally got to the Palace. Being in front of it, we took amazing pictures and had fun talking to Sam about the culture. There was not one question he wouldn’t answer with a smile. We walked with the pilgrims, who held praying wheels that shone with the morning sun, and reached the top of the Palace (with great effort!). I could give many details about this because it was my favorite part but honestly— you just have to see it. We caught some great views of the city and after that headed towards the Jokhang Temple. On the way, the story that Sam told us about this temple, linked to the one of the Potala, was incredible. Man pilgrims were outside, praying and doing prostrations, other going around the Temple in a clock-wise circuit with their praying wheels. Faith. The Holy Land is full of Faithfull people. I was speechless. We saw some monks inside, who blessed some bracelets we had and had our tour, full of the yak-butter candles smell. After more pictures, we went out and bargain in Barkhor Square to get some Mala beads. That night, of course, we tried yak meat and momos. Delicious!
Drepung and Sera Monastery
These two monasteries are a short distance from Lhasa. In Drepung, we saw tons of praying flags hanging between mountains just centimeters from us and giant Thangkas that were painted in a festival before we arrived. We learned a lot about the monks traditions and in the Sera monastery we actually saw them debating! The energy they have to argument was worth the whole Tibet trip ! Sam was like an encyclopedia of Buddhist knowledge. He recognized every deity inside the monastery and explained to us the Buddhist philosophy about reincarnation! He, a Buddhist himself, was immensely passionate and happy to answer all of my geeky questions (I am a student, hence the habit). Not to mention that the monasteries inside are beautiful, full of giant Buddha and colorful paintings. There, we saw some sand Mandela, so detailed and incredibly creative. We were stunned by everything that was in front of our eyes. By night, we said good-bye to Lhasa.
Yamdrok Lake, Mt. Nyechen Kangsar Glaciar, Gyatse Monastery, Shigatse.
The next day we woke up very early to catch the road on our way to Shigatse. This was one of the days in which we were able to get the best pictures. The landscapes were just breathtaking. Imagine the contrast of tall brown mountains, a deep blue sky and lakes that looked like mirrors. We stopped as much as we wanted to and our cameras were almost full by the end of the day. On the way, we stopped on Yamdrok Lake, one of the Holy Lakes in Tibet and also in a Glacier called Nyenchen Kangsar and another one called Karola. Finally, we got to our main destination which was Gyatse Monastery. In the middle of the mountains, this monastery has a beautiful Stupa with many levels that you can get into. Inside, gigantic buddhas of all colors and sizes, as well as deities are to be found. This was my favorite monastery, as it was filled with vibrant praying monks and the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen, with praying wheels decorating the mountain as well as praying flags. At night, we stayed at Shigatse and the hotel, also named “Yak Hotel”, was not as nice but it was OK. Shigatse- Lhatse (Tashi Lumpo and Sakya)- New Tingri. This day we went to one of the wealthiest monasteries in Tibet—Tashi Lumpo. This is lf illumination, one of the biggest with architectural downlights and well restored (architecturally speaking) priories. Full of pilgrims as well, the Sakya monastery was next. This was more like a community monastery and we got to see the monks chanting inside one of the chapels. Also here, we got to see a very interesting chapel in which a “fairy” deity captured with chains was venerated. The spooky paintings that decorated this were somewhat scary, but the sense of faith and magic was never away. We also tried tsampa that day! I liked it a lot! But my sister did not. It was given to us in a Tibetan restaurant because we asked Sam if we could try it. It was free and gave us a great sense of one of the most important dishes in Tibet. On our way, we saw Mt.Everest far away and took this picture. I was freezing! We stayed in a kind of resort. It was nice but the water was not working due to the frozen pipes (not their fault, of course!). The food was OK.
We saw some pretty nice landscape on this road as well. Some Yaks eating at the feet of the mountains and an absolutely beautiful sky. It was very refreshing after the bad night we had. Other than that, there is not much. We then arrived to Zhengmu. There was a more foresty scenery, which was nice. The weather was warmer here as well. Sadly, our hotel was not nice again (even though they were many other available) Nothing compared to our beautiful Yak Hotel in Lhasa. It was one-star and the shower was very cold. We moved to a hostel and in the morning took breakfast with Sam and Tashi again.
We then drove to Kodari, the border with Nepal. They left us there and we continued our journey to India. It is about 5-6 hours by car to get to Kathmandú and Sam introduced us to a taxi driver who took us there without any problem (and let us stopped for pictures on the way too!). The views here are amazing as well. They stole my mobile phone (out of my pocket) when I was getting my Tibet visa, so be careful!
My Tibet tour was truly unforgettable and I would advise everyone that if they had the opportunity, give Tibet a try. I am a student so the price was somewhat difficult for me, even with discount; I think that is why I had so much trouble accepting some of the accommodation conditions. Also, this was my first backpacking trip, so I was certainly not used to this as well. I am sure that if you explicitly ask Sonam Jamphel about any preference you have regarding this, he would sort it out for you. He is really a kind and nice person!
Regardless of this, the magic of Tibet stayed with me during the whole trip and I am planning to go again and visit Namtso Lake this time, of course with Tibet travel agency Explore Tibet Team. They were awesome! Seriously! I had the trip of my life with them!