TIBET – August 2019
Paul and I are going on a month long 5,000km overland expedition through China, Tibet and Nepal. The Journey starts at Xi’an in east China and heads west out across the central plains. At Golmud we turn south and work our way across the vast Tibetan plateau to Lhasa. We then continue on through the Himalayan passes into Nepal and finish in Kathmandu. The journal is separated into the three separate posts of China, Tibet and Nepal.
Tibet – We spend about 12 days in Tibet. From Golmud we slowly climb through the Tanggula ranges and then meander our way across the Tibetan plateau to Lhasa with its dramatic scenery, remote towns and historic monasteries. Tibet sits on the largest and highest plateau in the world with average heights over 3,500m and many passes over 5,000m. This vast plateau is bound by the Himalayas to the south and the Tanggula ranges to the north, some parts are so remote they remain uninhabited.
Golmud – After a couple of nights of wild camping we arrive in the town of Golmud overnighting in a small local hotel. For the next 4 days we slowly drive up onto the Tibetan plateau acclimatising to the altitude and crossing the famous Tanggula Pass (5,231m). We picked up a Tibetan guide (Jimmy) at Golmud to help us with translation and to smooth our way through the Police checks.
Tanggul – On the first day, the weather is sunny, the road is good and spirits are high as we head south through the desert passing numerous wind and solar farms, the train line to Lhasa off in the distance. Later the desert turns to grassland and the road is now busy, rough and broken with trucks hauling products to and from Lhasa. Climbing all the way, it’s late, cold and drizzly as we reach our dodgy accommodation in the small muddy town of Tanggul.
Nagqu – The next day it’s rainy and drizzly all the way, the road is muddy and broken by the freezing winters and the heavy summer traffic. There are fantastic grasslands with snow-capped mountains as backdrop and the occasional glacier as we trudge up the Tanggula Pass (5,231m). We stop for a photo op but the sleet and wind soon drives us back inside the truck. Then it’s a slow, downhill run with more trucks, grassland and mountain backdrops. It’s late and cold but the rain has stopped as we pull into Nagqu, a decent sized tidy town with pleasant accommodation.
Gongtang – The third day it’s more trucks and broken roads, more beautiful scenery and further police checks. It’s been a leisurely start and an early arrival into the colourful town of Gongtang. Paul and I forgo a visit over rough roads to the local lake and spend time wandering the streets looking at the shops, markets and resting up. The locals are friendly and curious, they all have mobiles and we are in many selfies, of course every photo shoot attracts a crowd of locals. We turn in early but the lake trip group has still not returned.
Arriving in Lhasa – an unhurried start the next morning, after our early night we’re fresh while the lake visitors gradually drag themselves to breakfast at a local early opener. The roads have improved, the commercial traffic is still heavy, the sun is out and our spirits high after our long journey, we are in range of Lhasa. When we arrive there is some issue with parking the truck so some of the boys jump out and bounce the white Passat into the next parking bay as locals look on, Jason backs the truck up in front of the hotel and we are comfortably parked at our accommodation in Lhasa – it’s time to find a latte with skinny yak milk. Paul and I spend some time walking the streets of the old city and stumble across a little food courtyard, so we order a couple of yak pizzas and beer and reflect on our journey from Golmud to Lhasa.
Pilgrims – Pilgrims walk, ride bikes or pull carts from Golmud to Lhasa – it’s a Buddhist thing and has been going on for centuries. As we approached Lhasa, Jimmy our guide was able to point out remnants of the ancient tracks that were once used to reach Lhasa by pilgrims and traders walking or riding yaks or goats.
Roadside Markers – Roadside posts mark the kilometres from Tiananmen Square, Beijing all the way to Lhasa and perhaps beyond…we photographed the post number 3,333 which of course is at 3,333km from Beijing.
Getting to Lhasa – Seriously you should fly or catch a train! Very few travellers go by road and without a guide it would be a real challenge. The current road is appalling, there is virtually no English and all signage is in Chinese or Tibetan and impossible to read and even if you do find a hotel it probably won’t take foreign travellers.
Mountain Passes – altitude is a real challenge for the truck and the travellers. The main passes from Golmud to Lhasa are: Dangjin Shankou Pass 3519m, Kunlun Pass 4849m, Fire & Wind Pass 4930m, Tanggula Pass 5231m and Kyogche La Pass 4900m.
Lhasa – Lhasa is the religious, cultural and economic centre of Tibet and we have three days here with plenty of free time to wander the streets as well as some group visits. Ahh…what can I say about Lhasa with a population of about 1m plus many pilgrims and visitors and an altitude >3,500m, nothing happens in a hurry. The new area is like most modern cities with offices, banks and administration. The old quarter down around the Jokhang Temple where we stayed, is a mass of laneways and old buildings, many selling Buddhist paraphernalia along with traditional clothing and village crafts and is just loaded with character. Oh, and lots of tea houses and a surprise Pizza Hut which is more popular with locals than visitors.
To Buddhists, Lhasa is similar to the Vatican or Mecca. While locals can visit daily many others from rural and distant areas try to make an annual pilgrimage. Around the Jokhang Temple are the usual prayer wheels as well as the sacred pathway for those wanting to prostrate the circuit, and many do, even in the rain. Overlooking the city high on a nearby hill is the Potala Palace, the 13-storey, 1000 room palace of the Dalai Lama.
We spend lots of time wandering the old town discovering and getting lost, up and down laneways. The locals are friendly with a fair bit of helpful pointing but seldom any English. We visit the Potala Palace the former winter residence of the Dalai Lama, the Jokhang Temple the centrepiece of Lhasa and the most sacred and important temple in Tibet and the Norbulingka Palace, the former summer residence of the Dalai Lama. But as with most important buildings taking photos inside is not allowed. It is a great city to visit and rest up but after three days we were ready to move on. The next stage is onto Rongbuk Monastery & Everest Base Camp and then over the Himalayas to Nepal.
Drive to Rongbuk Monastery – We spend an extraordinary few days driving through high grasslands, desert valleys, mountains, across fast flowing rivers and through long high winding Himalayan passes to one of the remotest monasteries in the world.
Gyantse – a small agricultural town famed for its wool carpets, a monastery and a fort famous for resisting the 1904 British invasion and what seems like a secret three day festival of horse and yak races culminating in the Gyantse Cup which happens to occur on the day we arrived in the virtually emptied town. A couple of us split from the group and get lost in the boisterous crowd at the races, they are having great fun – then the military spot us and surprise us by ushering us in to a special viewing platform, 10 minutes later the Sargent comes by and throws us out. We pick our way back through the crowd accidently come across a vendor selling fresh cooked French fries in chilli sauce, so we burn our fingers on the chips and our tongues on the chilli sauce as we work our way back to the Fort. We reach the fort and find we have it to ourselves, we stare at each other, thinking – what a great day to plan an invasion.
Shigatse – Tibet’s second biggest city and previous capital, it comes complete with worthy architecture, fortresses, palaces and an impressive 26m high copper and gold sculpture of Buddha Jampa (the future Buddha) – sorry no photos inside but plenty of nice architecture and lots of colourful locals paying homage.
New Tingri – also known as Shegar is a frontier town – its claim to fame is the junction to Everest Base Camp so really just a technical stop.
Rongbuk Monastery – An early start to Rongbuk Monastery for an overnight stay. The Monastery set in a small Himalayan valley and is (was) one of the remotest monasteries in the world. Well, except now there is a reasonable track in and there is a handful of visitors already staying at the monastery guest house when we arrived, some had even arrived on bicycles. Close by is a small encampment of locals offering some tent accommodation, hot tea and local food, village souvenirs and even a little tent post office. Rustic, charming and friendly are the adjectives that come to mind for this little outpost but at 5,200m breathless is also accurate.
Mount Everest Base Camp – or EBC as it is known to locals is close to the Monastery. This is the EBC on the Tibetan side, not the Nepalese side. But it’s a bit more complex than that, as there are several base camps. For climbers ascending Mount Everest there is a separate EBC about a day’s hike, for obvious reasons it’s off limits to curious visitors. There are a couple of other EBCs for visitors depending if they are staying overnight or just hiking for the day. However the approach to Mt Everest from Tibet has been closed for a clean-up of old tents, oxygen bottles, utensils and even the occasional body. A new temporary EBC has been established about 30 minutes up the track from the Monastery but at 5,200m, it’s still a decent effort. What all the EBCs have in common are magnificent views (on a clear day) up the valley to Mount Everest. However, quite often the clouds sit on top of the valley and obscure the view.
In the late afternoon we hike the EBC track but it’s overcast and drizzly so no magical views…so we spend the evening in the warmth of a local eatery telling travel stories, and then just after 8pm the whisper goes around – the sky has cleared so once more we hike the track in the freezing southerly wind to see a clearing sky a full moon then we get our magical glimpse of Mount Everest and all the cameras and phones go click, click…ahh the new whisper is the early morning will be even better…perhaps but we are satisfied with our glimpse, and I am absolutely delighted with my pics of the travellers taking their selfies at EBC. In the morning it’s 1 degree, still, foggy and snowing. We linger for a while hoping for another magical view but by 10.00 we throw in the prayer flags and head back down the valley.
Gyrong and the Nepal Border – We leave the Monastery and prayer flags behind and wind our way down the valley and then grind our way up the myriad of switchbacks to the stunning Gawu La pass (5,236m), and then slowly down the other side and along the valley to overnight at Tingri. It’s a one street town of shops, truck stop and stray dogs, which clings to the side of a small secondary road…its redeeming feature is a spectacular view up the valley to the Himalayas with the evening sun reflecting off a distant peak resting in a sea of clouds…well there is our second view of Mount Everest.
Early morning start to overnight at the border town of Gyrong. Stunning scenery along straight roads through big broad high grasslands and occasional lakes with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, we notice the km posts which started at about 4,600km are getting less, Jimmy informs us that this road also goes to Kashgar in China’s far west and the post measure the distance, then dryly remarks, ‘we will turn off before then…’ We grind our way up the switchbacks of the Qomolangma our last pass (5,236m) so we toss ‘Windy Horse’ papers I bought in Lhasa in the air giving blessings to all, then slowly down the other side.
Tibetan passes between Lhasa, Rongbuk Monastery and the Nepal Border include: Gyatso La Pass 5,240m (where Paul leaves his phone, we returned to find it much to the amusement of local vendors who then have another crack at selling us souvenirs. Tsoli Pass 5,248 and the Gawu La Pass 5,198m.
We pick up the Trishuli River that happens to run all the way to Kathmandu. The road follows the river through the gorge, at first through stark dry desert dropping quickly, it turns to sub-alpine conifer forest with stunning waterfalls and we pop out of the valley and drop into the border town of Gyrong. Sophia our Chinese guide and Jimmy our Tibetan guide leave us in Gyrong and we will be traveling through Nepal with just the Dragoman crew of Jemima and Jason so we have a celebratory dinner and wish them farewell.
Early morning start to the border crossing, an amazing bureaucracy that is a story in itself… enough to say we are now in Nepal at a much lower altitude and outside the Chinese digital firewall.
Goodbye Tibet – Thank you for your dramatic scenery, high mountains and spectacular bleak passes, your tolerance of high altitudes and naive westerners, great smiles and humour, your dedicated faith and colourful prayer flags….thank you.