In May 2014, I was able to tick Tibet off my bucket list when I travelled to this remote and mystical land with a group of travel agents. We spent 6 days travelling to Lhasa, Gyangtse and Shigatse in the southern and central region. Lhasa is one of the world’s highest capitals at 3650m.  It’s a country of glaciers, steep winding mountains and open grassland.  The lake region has a vast number of hot springs and is arid and wind-swept with salt and fresh-water lakes and turquoise blue rivers.  Because of limited arable land, farmers mainly raise livestock such as cattle, sheep, camels, goats, yak and horses and the main crops are potatoes, rapeseeds, cotton, rye, wheat, barley, buckwheat and certain fruits and vegetables.

Most of us suffered altitude sickness of varying degrees however the experience of being able to visit this land of snow and religion was well worth it. We generally suffered bad headaches which came on the day after we arrived and lasted until the end of our trip. The air only contains about 68% oxygen and when we left Lhasa to ascend even higher, we carried oxygen bottles, but didn’t find it necessary to use them. 

The highlight of our stay in Lhasa was a visit to the Potala Palace which was the winter residence of the Dalai Lama and continues to be a major pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists.  The palace is painted every New Year with milk and sugar by volunteers.  We were required to climb 365 steps – very slowly due to altitude sickness and the need to conserve our energy.  The history was impressive as were the views.

Potala Palace

The people of Tibet are deeply religious and it plays an important role in their day to day lives where meditation and prayer are commonplace. I’ve visited a lot of temples in Asia, however, have never come across so much devotion as I did in Tibet. The interior of Tibetan monasteries is quite dark and usually lit by yak butter candles so care is required when moving about and you need to allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness.

Catching up …

We toured the Da Zhao Si Temple in Lhasa which is the site of the Barkhor Circuit and is the holiest of Lhasa’s pilgrim circuits. Thousands of pilgrims from all over Tibet come to walk the Barkhor every day. It can sometimes take 6-7 months to get to the Barkhor from their home, even as much as 2 years, and the reason it takes so long is because they take 3 steps and then fully prostrate themselves on the ground, get up, take 3 steps, then fully prostrate again – all the way!    Whilst we were there, our guide pointed out an elderly lady and he said it took her 7 months to reach the Barkhor. 

Two days later we travelled to Gyangtse.  The countryside is dotted with villages and farms where it’s not uncommon to see yaks drawing the ploughs. These beasts of burden are primarily kept for their meat, milk and fibre. 

On our journey from Lhasa to Gyangtse we came across groups of elderly people walking along the side of the road, around a mountain. Our guide, Tenzin (who was a former Himalayan guide and loved his cigarettes and Red Bull!), told us that they walked around the mountain every day. The trek would take about 6 hours and it was usually only the retired and elderly who did this as the younger people had to work. 

At one of our stops high up on a mountain road, Tenzin told us about Tibetan funerals. There were two kinds – a sky funeral which takes place on a mountain or a river funeral. Most people chose the sky funeral and I’m about to relay something which I found quite gruesome as this was something I had never heard about before. A deceased person’s back would be carved with a Yundo (which looks like a swastika and means Peace and Love), their body would then get chopped into pieces and left for the vultures. Once the vultures were finished, the priests would pound the bones to splinters, mix them with barley flour and feed them to the crows and hawks.

Regarding the river funeral, Tenzin said that although some restaurants serve fish (for the tourists), Tibetans won’t eat fish because the fish eat the flesh off the dead bodies in the river and if they were to eat fish, there’s the possibility that they might be eating someone. 

Coca Cola even found it’s way here!

Before reaching Gyangtse (4000m), we stopped on the “Top of the World” which had an elevation of 5000m for a quick photo shot. 

I felt the effects of altitude sickness more acutely at Gyangtse after we descended.  During the night, I was feeling cold and got out of bed to retrieve a blanket from the cupboard.  I felt so weak and it took a lot of effort to spread the blanket on the bed. 

We visited the Pelkhor Chode Monastery which was built in 1427 and witnessed monks at prayer, study and work.  One group of monks were preparing a design for a beautiful sand mandula which they’ll destroy 15 days after completion – to show that nothing lasts forever.

This Mandula was a gift from Tenzin. He had each one blessed by a monk.

After we left Gyangtse, we had the opportunity to visit a farm, owned by Tenzin’s friend. It was a real treat to get an insight into a Tibetan farmer’s way of life. They made clay bricks which they would sell, farmed the land and kept yaks, sheep and chickens. We were taken on a tour of their farmhouse and invited to drink butter tea and homemade beer. Their sleeping quarters also substituted as a sewing room where they made all their own clothes and wove their own blankets. One room was set aside as their own private temple. 

We arrived at Shigatse which is about 90km from Gyangtse and here we stopped at the Tashilhumpo Monastery where Panchen Lama (reincarnation of the Amitabha which means Buddha of Infinite Light) is meant to live.  It’s also the home of the world’s largest indoor buddha.

Monks at play
Monks at work

We returned to Lhasa for another night and a hotel inspection of the Shangri-La hotel, a beautiful property with an Oxygen Room for those who have the need.

So if you have a desire to find your inner zen, best time to visit Tibet is between April and November, however it’s recommended to avoid it around August which is usually prone to landslides due to rain.

Flying over the Himalayas

Please feel free to share and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.

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