Tibet is a fascinating place. It is as rich in culture and legends as it is in high mountain vistas. There is much to see on a visit to Tibet.
Our 7 day tour of Tibet began at the border town Kerung. From there we headed to our first destination, Everest Base Camp (EBC). On the drive we passed small towns, with traditional Tibetan flat-roofed, compressed-mud buildings. The disheartening part was seeing the newly built Chinese homes, high rise apartments and strip malls that surround them. Some of the new homes were constructed in the spirit of traditional Tibetan homes but were clearly pre-built developments as the houses were all exactly the same. Chinese ‘progress’ has taken away a lot of the character of these villages.
Tibet is located on a high plateau in southwestern China with an average elevation of 4,500 m. It is in the rain shadow of the Himalayas and is therefore very arid. The landscape consists of barren, brown hills in shallow valleys. The rocky ground is difficult to farm. Nevertheless people have been farming in these valleys for generations.
As we drove further the roads climbed in elevation and hills became mountains. Our van drove up and up a winding road of switchbacks to the top of Gyatchu La (Pass) (5,220 m). As we neared the pass it started to snow; a sign of the start of monsoon season. We were hoping for views of Everest, Cho Oyu and other 8,0000 m peaks from the pass. Unfortunately though, we could not see any mountains because of the snow and thick clouds.
From the pass we drove down another series of switchbacks as we travelled down the other side. Just before the turn off to Everest Base Camp is Rongbuk Gompa. Located at an elevation of 5,009 m (16,434 ft), this old Buddhist Monastery is the highest monastery in the world. Climbers from early Everest expeditions stopped at this monastery before attempting an ascent of the mountain.
The Chinese government is very strict with entry to this part of China. In order to visit Tibet, you have to join a guided tour. Tour agencies are required to adhere very closely to approved itineraries. There are police and army check points at the entrance to all tourist and important sites. As well, there are regular check points along most highways. We had hoped to visit Rongbruk Gompa, but the gompa and a few other sites we were interested in were not on our itinerary, so we were not allowed to enter. We could only look at the monastery from the outside.
The summit of Everest is on the border between China (Tibet) and Nepal. Climbers can begin their ascent of the mountain from either country. Unlike basecamp in Nepal where you have to reach it by foot, Tibet’s Everest Base Camp (EBC) is almost accessible by car. The road ends at a tourist camp which is only a couple of kilometers from the climbers’ base camp. At 4,900 m, tourist camp is a series of sultan style tents with yak-dung burning stoves and attached basic kitchens. We should have seen Everest from this camp, but by the time we arrived it was snowing and blowing so hard there was no visibility. We couldn’t even see the tents at the end of camp.
After a restless sleep at nearly 5,000 m we woke with excitement at the anticipation of seeing Everest. But as soon as we stepped out of the tent and into 5 cm of fresh snow our heart’s fell. Looking toward Everest, was a huge disappointment. All we could see were thick, low monsoon clouds. There would be no North Everest view for us this trip. It was especially disappointing for Richard since he summited Everest from the Nepalese side a few years earlier. You can read about his Everest climb here.
Back in the van, the arid landscape was covered in snow. Even Rongbuk Gompa looked different that morning, covered in a layer of fresh snow.
Tibet is the birthplace of the doctrine of Tibetan Buddhism. Having travelled to many areas which base their beliefs on Tibetan Buddhism we were excited to finally visit the area for ourselves.
We spent the next 3 days driving toward the capital city of Lhasa, stopping at a few interesting towns on the way. In the town of Shigatse, we visited Tashi Lhunpo Gompa (monastery), built by the 1st Dalai Lama. It is a massive complex with 3 very large shrines: one for Future Buddha, a second for the 4th – 9th Panchen Lama and one for the 10th Panchen Lama. Panchen Lama is the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism after Dalai Lama.
Tashi Lhunpo Gompa is a very important Buddhist site. During our visit we saw many Tibetans at the monastery on pilgrimages. Most were performing Koras around a group of chortens. They carried prayer beads and prayer wheels. Many were chanting Buddhist mantras. The ladies were dressed in their traditional attire wearing long black skirts covered in colourful aprons. A Kora is the clockwise circling around a Buddhist structure, such as: mani stone, chorten, monastery complex or even a mountain or lake. Performing a Kora is a way to gain merit.
We did a Kora around the outside of the entire Tashi Lhunpo complex. There were many Tibetans doing the same. The walk passes many prayer wheels and colourful mani stones. It was interesting to be a part of their customs.
On a hill above Shigatse is an ancient white fortress that looks similar to Potala Palace in Lhasa. We had a great view of Shigatse Dzong (fortress) from the Kora.
During the drive we saw many fields being plowed. Farmers guided wooden plows that we being pulled by yaks. Near the Tso La (Pass), the scene was a bit unusual. Many of the yaks and goats were decorated with colourful scarves and ribbons.
On the outskirts of the town of Gyantse, perched high up on a hill, are the ruins of Gyantse Dzong (Fortress). It was an important fortress built to protect the valley that leads to the capital of Lhasa.
Gyantse is also home to the 600-year-old Phalkor Monastery (1418). The monastery is unusual because it is now used by the 3 different sects of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelugpa, Sakyapa, and Butonpa) each with their own college. Inside, the audience hall is colourfully decorated with large draperies hanging from the ceiling and covering the pillars. A large golden Buddha has a prominent spot at the front of the hall.
Beside the monastery is a large 5 story chorten called Kumbum. It was built in 1427. Each floor has a number of small shrines with statues and paintings. It’s a beautifully designed and maintained structure. From the top we had a great view of Gyantse and its Dzong (fortress).
Our drive continued east passing the glacier covered Karola Mountain and Karola Pass. We stopped to look at the gorgeous Manla Reservoir below Simila Pass. If you look closely you can see a ruin on an island in the middle of the lake.
Closer to Lhasa is the very large lake Yamdrok Tso. From this lake, the terrain slowly became flatter and greener with fields growing rice, wheat, corn and other crops. When we reached the important Brahmaputra River we knew we were close to Lhasa and were excited to experience the mystery that surrounds it.
Coming up next: Part 2, Lhasa’s incredible Potala Palace
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