Monthly Archives: August 2017

Looking for the real Lhasa.

Initially, Lhasa disappointed.  It looked like any Chinese city with modern high-rise buildings, the usual array of shops, wide roads.  The train station was huge, clearly built recently to accommodate the influx of eager visitors to Tibet.  This was Lhasa, Chinese style.  Did we just spent two or three days on a train for this?  We arrived at dusk and our transport to the hotel awaited us…  No need to fret when what we all needed most was sleep, in the comfort of a bed with soft pillows.

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Potala Palace, Lhasa

In the morning, we were treated to a taste of the ‘real’ Tibet, or let’s be honest, the Tibet and Lhasa we expected to see: traditional buildings, Buddhist prayer flags, quaint roads full of touristy trinkets, and of course Tibetan people dressed in their customary attire.  We visited the Potala Palace, the residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th (and incumbent) Dalai Lama fled to India during the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. The palace is an impressive structure, spanning 400m from East to West and 350m from North to South, and leaning into the ‘Red Hill’.  It contains 1000 rooms and 10,000 shrines over 13 stories and with visitors only allowed to stay inside for just one hour, we only covered a fraction of it.  But still enough time to savour the opulence and grandeur of what was once the winter palace of the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Tibetan government.  No photographs allowed inside though…

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Construction of the current palace started in 1645 on the remains of an earlier fortress.  With walls as thick as 5m at the base and foundations strengthened with added copper to withstand earthquakes, the palace rises a full 300m up from the valley floor and towers over the rest of Lhasa.  However, rapid modernisation and urbanisation is slowly swamping the old Lhasa and in order to strike a balance between progress and preservation, the Chinese government has ruled that buildings must not exceed 21m in height in the area surrounding the palace to safeguard its unique atmosphere.

After a lunch of delicious yak stew and beer (brewed at ‘the roof of the world’) in the Tibetan Lhasa Kitchen, our next stop was the Jokhang Temple, considered the ‘spiritual heart of the city’ and the most sacred temple in Tibet.  The history of the temple was rather lost on all of us.  Sated by stories of the Buddha and totally confused by tales about the past, current and future Dalai Lama, we were engrossed in the riches of the building itself and its surroundings.  And the fact that another relic of the past managed to survive the ‘cultural revolution’ of China, albeit that from 1966 to 1979 Tibetans could no longer worship there and for some time the temple housed a pigsty and slaughterhouse, an army barracks and even a hotel… Eventually the temple was renovated and reconsecrated and is again visited by huge numbers of Tibetan worshippers.

The Johkang temple is located in Barkhor Square, a large square dominated by two enormous incense burners and an imposing prayer flag pole, its dome and staff bulging with blue, white, red, green and yellow cloth.  The five colours represent the five elements (sky and space [blue]; air and wind [white]; fire [red]; water [green]; earth [yellow]) which promote health and harmony when they are in balance.  Prayer flags are not only seen in temples, but most houses and buildings in Tibet feature flag staffs on their roofs.  Contrary to what many people think, prayer flags are not prayers to a god, but the wind brushing them is meant to spread goodwill and compassion to all.

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Every day Tibetans, young and old, congregate at the temple to ‘make kora’.  Kora is both a type of pilgrimage and a type of meditative practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  It typically involves worshippers making a circumambulation (revolution; circling) in a clockwise fashion around a sacred site or object.  Such objects fall into different categories and can be either found in the mystique of nature (such as mountains, or lakes) or in man made structures and buildings (such as temples, monasteries, stupas).  Pilgrims to those sites are seeking religious merit, and the more auspicious the site, the more merit they gain.  Most people walk around, carefully keeping a record of the number of circles on their prayer beads or counting malas.  Some carry their own handheld prayer wheel, whilst others spin the big prayer wheels outside monasteries and temples.  It is believed that touching the prayer wheels equals chanting the Buddhist mantra.  In Tibet it is also common for pilgrims to make kora by making a full-body prostration, which takes a lot of time and effort, but gains the prostrator much more merit, especially when it is performed a favourable number of times.  However, it is not just older people who spend their time walking around the temples, it is surprising to see younger people joining in too.  But as our guide explained, it is the only form of exercise available for many and brings people together…

Barkhor Square is the focal point for worship, as well as a hub of commercial activity with a maze of smaller streets radiating from it.  The ground floors of traditional dwellings have been converted into shops plying tourists with mementos of Tibet: from yak paraphernalia, imitation spinning wheels and healing music bowls to tapestries and thangka paintings. Plenty to choose from and something for all budgets.  Coffee shops offer a pleasant respite from shopping and the sun and benches under the trees and in the shade give shelter to those in need of a rest.  Shopping and making kora can indeed be a taxing pastime..

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Near the mosque, just a few streets away from Barkhor Square, we chanced upon a thriving market in caterpillar fungus.  The curious looking organisms – in winter an animal and in summer a plant – are being harvested on the Himalayan high grounds of Tibet, Nepal and Sikkim (in neighbouring India) at elevations between 4300 and 5000 m.  The fungus is used in Tibetan and also Chinese medicine and has been popular for centuries as a traditional cure for ailments ranging from asthma to impotence.  No wonder that as the Chinese middle class has expanded, so has the demand for the fungus.   The fungus can only be found for a few months each year, from May to August, and has become a major source of income for many Tibetans.   As the prices of the fungus have soared, so has the harvesting of them and environmentalists are warning that the harvest could have a damaging long-term impact on the sensitive environment of the Tibetan Plateau.

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Battling Thin Air on the Way to Tibet.

‘Diamox,’ Maryam maintained, ‘I always take Diamox to prevent altitude sickness. ‘

I laughed it off, I have done altitude before…  A few years ago, in Cusco (Machu Picchu trek in Peru) coca leaf tea was the perfect remedy to battle any symptoms: chew it or brew it.  Who would have thought that the leaves of the cocaine plant had useful medicinal properties after all?  In Nepal, hiking up to the top of Poon Hill, I might have been short of breath at the last stretch, but I certainly did not succumb to spells of dizziness as some of the younger people who collapsed on the one and only bench, head between their legs…  Neither did I realise that my hiking in Yunnan (Southwest China) last October was at heights where altitude sickness can seriously affect you…  We all struggled up that first hill, but then it was a steep incline and after about half an hour any breathlessness had dissipated into thin air…  Altitude sickness was clearly something affecting others, not me, so no need to pop pills.  Anyway,  I would have plenty of time to acclimatise on the three day train journey to Lhasa anyway.

I had eyed the destination for some time: Tibet, Lhasa, Everest Base Camp (EBC), the Himalayas, the mystique of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan monasteries.  Only, the trip in July did not include EBC, but still better to experience some of Tibet than none at all.  And what the trip lacked in Everest views would be more than made up by a spectacular and scenic two-day train journey across China, promising dazzling vistas and an easier ride into the challenges of less oxygen near the roof of the world.

In reality, the two day train journey turned into a three day jaunt, courtesy of ticket touts who bought up all available train tickets to Lhasa in one fell swoop.   In China, train tickets are only released 30 days before the date of travel and by the time I managed to get online to book tickets (10 minutes after release..), there were none left… no hard seats, no hard sleepers, and definitely not the luxurious soft sleepers.   Actually, only two of the other people who were on the same trip had secured a seat: a hard seat for two full days and two full nights…  But instead of offering a refund, our ‘travel agent’ was hopeful that they could sort things out and they would approach their contacts to see if they could get us tickets after all.  Could we just pay them an extra  900 RMB (£90 – £100)…  This money indeed bought us a hard sleeper ticket … from Xining in central China to Lhasa, with absolutely no idea of how to get to the middle of China…  All trains had been sold out, leaving  us just the option of more expensive air travel  or forfeiting all our money…  In the end, reluctant to pay exorbitant flight prices, I kept on looking online and yes, one day a hard sleeper ticket from Shanghai to Xining was available on a different and much slower train, taking two days to reach Xining…  but I had plenty of time, it was the start of the summer holidays.  What was an extra 12 hours on a train…

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‘What’s the food like on these trains?’ I asked Kim, who had just returned from her trip to Tibet, spending a full 24 hours on a train to Lhasa (she flew to central China).  A diet of rice and more rice did not sound appealing, so I took her advice and stocked up on the usual Chinese travel fare:  pot noodles, teabags, lots of unhealthy snacks and some fruit…  Hot water was available for free, so no problem joining the queue on the train to re-hydrate interesting flavoured noodles..  And surely anyone could survive living of such foods for a mere three days.   My bags bulging with ‘culinary delights’, I boarded the train…

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Admittedly, I was pleasantly surprised.  Expecting a hard sleeper to be along the lines of the hard top benches of trains in India, I was impressed with the slightly squishy mattress – definitely softer than the bed in my flat – and enough space to almost sit up on my middle bunk.  On the other hand, bathroom facilities were woefully inadequate from a Western point of view: one squat toilet to be shared between about 60 travellers..  Nowhere to wash or shower…  I settled in, hardly noticing the constant hum of Chinese conversations around me and lost myself in a book…  The kind of peace and quiet I had missed for some time; the perfect space for the ultimate me-time.  Outside, the scenery did little to inspire, an endless monotony of distant brown-ish hills…  At exactly 9.30 pm, the whole train was hushed: lights turned off and everyone obediently quietened down.  I slept blissfully…

I arrived in Xining after 32 hours, glad to stretch my legs and have some real food.  More noodles, but at least they were freshly prepared and did not taste of cardboard.  I met up with the rest of the group who had used various modes of transport to get to Xining before boarding the  next train a few hours later…  Another 22 hours would see us safely in Lhasa, Tibet, at an elevation of 3,656 m, where altitude was likely to have an impact on most of us.  We made ourselves comfortable, it was early evening and soon everyone took to their bunks as we listened to the announcements about our journey ahead.  We could expect some discomfort over breakfast as the train would approach the Tibetan Plateau and even more serious altitude difficulties between 11:00 and 12:00 am the next day when the train would cross the Tanggula Pass (5000 m).  Anyone experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness could rest assured, there was a doctor on board..

At 2.00 am I woke up, head throbbing and engulfed in a wave of nausea.  It wasn’t even breakfast yet…  I made it to the bathroom; no queue as everyone was thankfully asleep…   Altitude sickness??  Surely not, I thought, but the headache lingered for a full day and I just about managed to hold down half an orange and one cup of lukewarm  sugary tea in the next 24 hours.  Altitude sickness hits at its worst at night time,  when breathing becomes shallower and the body takes in less oxygen.   Although none of the others admitted to feeling a little off-colour, headache tablets were gratefully consumed and definitely helped to lift subdued spirits.

Mid-morning the cavalry arrived, dispensing oxygen tubes in anticipation of tackling the Tanggula Pass..  The ‘Sky Train’ or Lhasa Express – as the train is called – comes equipped with two sources of oxygen:  one which is used to pump oxygen into the whole train as it approaches the Tibetan plateau and the other comes via personalised little oxygen outlets near each bunk and along the corridors.  Just attach the oxygen tube, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.  I gave it a go, it wasn’t going to do any harm but neither was it the magic wand to quell the symptoms of altitude sickness…

Outside, the landscape had become more fascinating:  snow-capped peaks,  grazing yaks on grassy plains, yellow desolate mountains, construction workers wrapped in furry coats and warm hats.  A barren and inhospitable terrain that proved a challenge during the construction of the railway itself as workers had to contend with low oxygen levels as well as permafrost.  Fencing along the railway offers protection to the local wildlife and tunnels under the railway give them safe passage to cross the line.  Modern China at its best.

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We arrived in Lhasa, glad to get to our hotel for some rest and a good night’s sleep.  I cannot remember when the malaise finally started to disappear, but breakfast – the best breakfast I have seen in any hotel in China – did not look at all appealing…  I managed a little fruit and some yoghurt but passed on the Yak curry and Yak cheese…  I did however have my generous dose of Butter Tea, the Tibetan answer to coca leaf tea… It is not entirely clear how it is supposed to help overcome altitude sickness, or whether Tibetans even use it for that purpose,  but just the thought that it might brighten the mood, stave off the headaches and stimulate some appetite made all of us drink it with great gusto and a big spoonful of added sugar to mask the unexpected salty taste…

Maybe, Maryam was right and to make the most of a short trip to Tibet, Diamox was the answer…  I know for next time.  Everyone in our group was affected to some degree, mainly headaches and nothing too serious.  Would flying into Lhasa have been the better option??  2% of the people that fly directly to Lhasa develop the more serious types of altitude sickness which affect the lungs and brain, and can be deadly if not treated in time… So far, 0% of those who take the train have suffered the same fate..

Visiting the ‘roof of the world’ is certainly testing…