Thursday, July 26, 2007

China-Tibet Trip, Part 1

I joined a 2-week tour through China, Tibet, and Nepal with GAP Adventures. It started out in Beijing, and then took a 2-day train to Lhasa, Tibet. After a few days in Lhasa we traveled for the 2nd week in 4-wheel drive SUV’s across Tibet, visiting several towns and Everest base camp before exiting through Nepal.

Day 1 – Transatlantic flight; Arrive in Beijing. Altitude 40m

My flight plan called for a 22 hour transit time, excluding delays from Austin to Beijing via Dallas and Tokyo. The first flight out of Austin was delayed almost an hour due to weather, and so I arrived at the exact time my next flight was supposed to take off. But it was also delayed. As I stepped off the flight I was prepared to make a mad dash to another terminal. I have never had a connecting flight in the same terminal at Dallas. Instead, as I was looking around for the screen that displays departure gates, I noticed that the gate next to me was in fact my flight to Tokyo. My discount ticket meant I ended up in the middle seat of the 5-seat across section. But due to the delays a lot of people missed the flight and I had empty seats on either side so that I only had to climb over one person to get out to go to the restroom.

After another delay in Tokyo, I arrived in Beijing two hours late. I was expecting to experience an immediate culture change, but instead the first thing I saw before I left customs was the Starbucks coffee shop and KFC restaurant in the airport. I took a taxi without incident to the hotel, which was only a few blocks away from Tiananmen square near several shopping malls. This taxi drive gave me my first encounter with the smog. Visibility seemed like around a kilometer. There were lots of tall buildings, some with interesting architecture, but you cannot see them until you are practically next to them.

I arrived with 20 minutes to clean up before meeting the tour group for dinner. We walked a few blocks to a restaurant in a quiet residential neighborhood. It was excellent food. Unfortunately, we were told the neighborhood was scheduled to be torn down and replaced with more modern large buildings and the residents would have to move. There were 12 people in the tour, and 4 of us had met earlier on a tour through Egypt. The tour leader from GAP adventures would stay with us for the whole tour, and local guides would join us along the way.

Day 2 – Beijing; Travel to the north of the city to visit the Great Wall at Mutianyu. An incredible piece of engineering stretching 6000km westwards along the mountain ridges north of Beijing, it was originally constructed to protect the Chinese empires from the Mongolian 'barbarians' of the north.

We were bussed out a couple of hours to a section of the Great Wall. We had to climb up some hills to get to the wall from the parking lot. We had a little less than two hours free time. I took off on my own to reach the end of this section that was open to tourists a few kilometers away. The wall had some rather steep sections, and I started to fall into the mindset on the hills like I learned in trail running over rocky surfaces. That is letting go on the down hills and keeping a steady pace on the uphills. This became my only workout during this trip really applicable to the Tahoe Rim Trail 50k less than one month away. There were some high school students who appeared to be doing a cross country running workout across the top of the wall.

Before I knew it, I had reached the end where there was one final climb with a 45degree angle that switched to 60degres for the final staircase. At the top, there was an observation platform. The wall beyond had not been restored, and was overgrown and crumbling. Smog here was not as bad as Beijing, but still made for an overcast day. I took a few to many pictures along the wall. I returned to our entrance point. I had bought earlier a ticket to descend via an alpine tourist slide from this point back to the base of the mountain.

In the evening, we went to visit a theater to watch a live musical about Kung Fu fightin’.

Day 3 – Beijing; Visit to Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, and free afternoon. Board the train in the evening to begin the journey to Tibet.

We took the subway one stop from our hotel to Tiananmen Square. We walked across the square, fending off the Chairman Mao Watch sellers, and then toured the Forbidden City. I was disappointed to learn there was a Starbucks coffee shop in the middle of the Forbidden City. But I heard it was closed after protests a few weeks later.

We took taxi’s to lunch, and then visited the Temple of Heaven in the afternoon. On the way back we stopped at the Pearl Market which was a 4-story market with all sorts of goods. In the evening we boarded the train to Lhasa.

Day 4-5 – Train ride to Tibet, Arrive in Lhasa evening of 5th day.

Our group had two compartments each sleeping 6. There was a restaurant car, but there were several tour groups competing for the restaurant space so it was hard to eat there except at off hours. At the occasional stop we could get ramen noodles as alternative meals.

On the second day, we woke up to snow on the ground as we passed though one of the highest passes of the trip. The train was pressurized and oxygen was pumped in to reduce altitude sickness among the passengers. Then we went across Tibetan Plateau to Lhasa.

Upon arrival in Lhasa in the evening, we boarded a bus to the hotel. One of the first things that was evident was most of the signs were written with large Chinese characters, with smaller Tibetan translation printed below. Although the tour guides were not supposed to discuss such topics, we learned this made some Tibetans feel as foreigners in their own land. The railroad that had transported us to Tibet was also an opening for increased migration of ethnic Han Chinese into Tibet.

Several nights, we received calls from the front desk waking us up after midnight. The first night, the person asked "are you mas-sa-jay" to which I responded "No, I am John." It turned out the hotel was trying to line up massages in their spa for the next day.

Day 6 – Lhasa: This historic city is situated in a small valley, 3700m above sea level. Lhasa rose to take an important role in the administration of the country over 1300 years ago. At this time, the grand temples of Ramoche and Jokhang were built to house the Buddha images and religious artifacts brought into Tibet as dowries from China and Nepal.

Although little of the 7th-Century Lhasa survives, the 1600s saw a second stage of renovation and development, which included the building of the Potala Palace. Perched on Red Hill overlooking the town, this massive structure dominates the landscape with grace and dignity - a true architectural wonder. The Jokhang Temple is the spiritual heart of Tibet and also the most active. Prostrating pilgrims circle the temple endlessly, day and night, some of them traversing the extremes of the Tibetan landscape by foot to celebrate and express their faith. Nearby are the huge monastic universities of Drepung and Sera are still active institutions.

Begin with a tour of the Jokhang and make a kora (circumnavigation) of the Barkhor, the holiest devotional circuit, which surrounds the Jokhang and houses a market bazaar where people bargain for Buddha images, yak skulls with ruby eyes, woodcarvings, carpets, prayer wheels and the odd goat's head.

Altitude= 11,800ft/3700m.

A short walk from our hotel brought us to the 1300 year old Jokhang temple. Inside it was rather crowded so the group split up as we walked through the shrines that surrounded the main hall of the temple. The roof offered good view of the surrounding square and Potala palace. Our local guide was around, but did not explain what we were seeing unless we specifically asked a question. Many in the group were a little upset and wanted more forthcoming explanation of the places we visit. Eventually, our European tour leader had the local guide replaced, but that would not come until we left Lhasa so we ended up standing on the periphery of other tour groups to hear the explanation of some of the things we saw.

After the temple, we walked around the Barkhor pilgrimage circuit. The circuit is a clockwise walk around the vicinity of the Jokang temple. We were told to always pass certain collums at the corners of the walk on the left to respect the local custom. The walk is lined with markets, street stalls and small shops, selling mostly tourist stuff. After the walk we visited a couple of other temples in the downtown area before lunch.

After lunch we had either a free afternoon, or optional tour of the Depung monastery. Everyone opted for the self-guided tour. We rode the public bus transportation 7km outside the city and then boarded a truck which ferried people from the bus stop up the hill to the monastary. This was a fairly sizable monastery. Prior to the cultural revolution in 1959, there were up to 7000 monks living here. Now there are around 700 and many of the structures have not survived. We observed some of the monks gathered in a courtyard doing their daily spirited debate ritual.

Walking through the city, the Tibetans often had a friendly peaceful smile on their face. This was a bit of a contrast to the passion seen in the debates we witnessed in several of the monasteries.

Day 7 – Lhasa: Visit the Potala Palace and Sera Monastery leaving plenty of time for your own explorations of this wonderful city.

In the morning, we visited the Sera monastery near Lhasa. Then after lunch we took a tour of the Potala Palace, the former seat of the Tibetan government. It was unfortunate our tour guide was not very helpful here, and so we were left again to wander on our own. I was able to stand close enough to other tour groups to hear some explanation, but I am sure I missed explanation of the relevance of some of the rooms. Outside the palace there was a pilgrimage walk lined with prayer wheels.

Day 8 – Free day.

While much of the rest of the group went shopping, I signed up for an all day rafting tour on the free day. We left around 8:00am. It was a 2.5 hour drive outside the city. The drive was very enjoyable. It gave the first up close look and Tibetan villages outside the city. Also the air was perfectly clear, which was a strong contrast to Beijing.

The river was a little low, so instead of the rafts we used inflatable kayaks. These were essentially individual sized rafts. We went for 6 hours down the river through class 3 and 4+ rapids. When we stopped for lunch, there was a quick hail storm, but then the sun came out and we continued on. In the last hour, my hands started to cramp up, but it was OK since it clamped my hands on the paddle.

After we returned to the to the hotel, after 7pm, I skipped the group dinner to do some last minute souvineer shopping. Then I stopped for dinner. I got to talking to a solo tourist at the next table. A college professor traveling on his own. He explained some of the difficulties with paperwork, permits, and delays required for such travel. All this for me is handled by the tour company.

Days 9-15: Travel across Tibet/Nepal

In the second week we traveled by 4-wheel drive vehicle to visit the cities of Gyantse, Shigatse, Sakya, Rombuk/Everest Base Camp, Nyalm, and Kathmandu. For me, these were the highlights of the trip, but I will have to describe them later in other posts.

Up to 25% off GAP AdventuresRelated Posts
- Part 2 – Travel through Tibet
- Tibet trip report, part 3 – Everest and Nepal

- Highlights Album
All Photos:
- Album #1 – Beijing and the Train ride
- Album #2 – Lhasa and the river raft trip
- Album #3 – Gyantse
- Album #4 – Shigatse and Sakya
- Album #5 – Rombuk and Everest Base Camp
- Album #6 – Nepal and Kathmandu

Mt Everest

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1 comment:

  1. Its nice surfing into your blog..such lovely travel pictures and I love traveling to china.. will be back for more read :)

    Leon Koh
    Your reader from SingaBore
    my blog :


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