The moments blur as vivid dreams of warmth and laughter fade in and out. I am startled to the sound of someone struggling of breathing. I can’t seem to catch my breath to see what’s going on, WAIT, it’s me. I CAN’T BREATHE! In an instant, I’m transported back to moments working in the notification area of the emergency room, but this time I’m the patient. I twist in my sleeping bag then bend upward as my legs curl to the side until I’m sitting on the edge of the cot. My heart is pounding as I say to myself, “INCREASE TIDAL VOLUME (amount of air into the lungs), INCREASE RATE (breathe faster)!” What’s happening? I can feel the cold air flowing deep in and out of my chest with each comforting breath. Slowly, it begins to work. I grab for my phone to discover it’s only 11pm…it’s going to be a long night! I sigh with my eyes wide. I did not know what we were in for when we signed up for this trip to Tibet.
I always wanted to visit Mount Everest and even considered climbing it when I was growing up. Yeah, that’s probably a little out of reach, literally, but all kids have dreams. Now that I’m “all grown up” and on an adventure around the world maybe we could just get close enough to see it. With a little persuasion and an itinerary that would take us on a tour of a number of Buddhist monasteries throughout the region, next thing Whitney knows is I have signed us up for an 8-day Everest Base Camp Exploration.
After a week in Kathmandu to sort out our Tibet Travel Permit/Group Visa, we boarded Sichuan Airlines to Lhasa. The peaks of the Himalayan Mountains extended high above the clouds during our scenic flight and we were soon passing through immigration. With excitement we met a member of the tour company and were led out to the van for the 1.5hr drive into the city of Lhasa. The city itself is surprisingly large and seems to be growing exponentially with a growing Chinese presence over the Tibetan population of the region. Many new buildings fill the valley extending in all directions around the historic old city.
Lesson 1: Lhasa is 3600 meters
During our drive into Lhasa, I began to feel as though I was under water with voices becoming muffled at times and my thoughts becoming harder to keep track of. The excitement was fading as a growing headache was quickly forming. We checked into the Tashi Takgye Hotel and with the help of some staff members brought our things up the two flights of stairs to our room. We were dizzy and out of breath as we entered the hotel room and spent the next few minutes simply catching our breath seated on the edge of our beds. Once settled, we met our tour guide, Gillak, a Tibetan tour guide with many years of experience and received a few tips to adjust to the new altitude: “drink plenty of water, eat lots of carbs, and take it easy for now.” The plan was to spend the rest of the day and night adjusting on our own and meet in the morning to begin touring the monasteries of Lhasa.
Day 2 began the same way. Headache and fatigue had ahold of us. Whitney and I split at least a dozen boiling pots of water the first evening and were continuing to guzzle the warm water to start the day. We met Gillak in the lobby and headed off to Drepung Monastery with our new friend Noel, a Texan that impulsively signed up for this adventure by himself. The three of us climbed into the van that would be taking us across the Tibetan region for the short drive to Drepung. This monastery, built in the 15th century, was once the largest in the world and is said to have housed up to 10,000 monks at one time. Currently it is home to only 300 monks (capped by the Chinese government), a stark contrast to the many thousands that lived and learned here in the past. Our tour took us first into the monastery kitchen where groups of monks were boiling the yak butter tea for the day as well as prepping the meals for the other monks. We visited the main assembly hall and various temples while Gillak gave us a thorough introduction to our first Buddhist monastery.
Lesson 2: Yak butter tea is not for us.
It’s lunchtime as we leave Drepung Monastery and we head to Mandala Restaurant in Lhasa. To combat the altitude sickness we order fried rice and with the intriguing chance to try yak butter tea Noel willingly orders a small pot for us to split. I think everyone should try yak butter tea at least once, but be warned that it tasted like I was drinking melted butter from the farm with a musky farm animal flavor. Luckily we had a pot of ginger lemon honey tea to chase it and relieve our taste buds of the consuming flavor.
After lunch and still coping with the altitude, we crawled back into the van to head over to Jokhang Temple, the most sacred and important temple in Tibet. Founded in the 7th century, this temple is the center of old town Lhasa. The streets surrounding the temple hold various shops that were once home to markets for the local villagers, but now are only filled with souvenir shops for tourists. At any given moment of the day the area is bustling with locals and tourists while Buddhist followers are seen performing their prostrations around the Barkhor, the circular street around the temple. We weaved our way through the street then slowly followed Gillak through this more crowded temple as he pointed out the highlights.
Whitney and I napped a bit that afternoon before heading across town to see the enormous Potala Palace from the viewpoint on Chakpori Hill. The altitude sickness finally seemed to be letting up as we had dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant before calling it a night.
The next morning we met Gillak in the lobby and were told Noel would be resting through the morning allowing us the opportunity for a “private tour” of Sera Monastery. This one was also built in the 15th century and we found it to be quieter than the others. We encountered a much smaller number of tourists as we wandered through. As I entered each building, I felt as if I was going back in time. Each room was almost the same as when it was built 500 years ago and the wax and yak butter that has burned for centuries in offerings covers the walls and ceilings. This turned out to be one of our favorite Monasteries to visit.
After having lunch at Mandala Restaurant again we headed to Potala Palace. This palace was built in the 17th century by the 5th Dalai Lama. It became the primary residence of the Dalai Lama and his government until the Tibetan Uprising in 1959 when the 14th Dalai Lama and his government fled to Dharamsala, India. Today, the Potala Palace has become a museum of Buddhist culture supported by the Chinese Government. The visit was interesting, but lacked the authentic atmosphere of other active Monasteries we had seen so far. As with most monasteries, there are no pictures allowed on the inside, but it has been immaculately maintained and is definitely worth a visit.
Lesson 3: Touring Tibet means a very long road trip
The next morning we loaded into a van for the long drive to Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet sitting at an elevation of 3900m. Before leaving Lhasa, a couple new friends joined us for the rest of the trip and off we went for the 7hour drive. The drive was fairly smooth, but felt incredibly slow. In order to reduce car accidents the Chinese have instituted strict and low speed limits as well as check-points for both speeding as well as to check paperwork for everyone moving through the region. It was quite excessive as we stopped sometimes every 30minutes for our guide to show everyone’s paperwork. The drive was still scenic and complete with a stop at an incense factory that also served as our first bathroom stop on the side of the road.
We arrived in Shigatse mid-afternoon and checked into Gesar Hotel, a gorgeous new hotel with “western” toilets, (we didn’t realize how much we took these for granted). We settled into the hotel and boiled up a few pots of hot water before heading to Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Originally founded by the 1st Dalai Lama, it has become the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama the second highest ranking in Tibetian Buddhism. (This introduces an interesting point of contention in the Tibetan and Buddhist culture, but it is too much to write about here). This monastery is built into the edges of the mountains and is just as interesting as the others we have visited. We even had an opportunity to see the evening gathering in the main assembly hall where we witnessed the monks chanting at the end of their day.
Lesson 4: It’s impossible to acclimatize in the back seat of a van
After an early morning breakfast we got on the road for a 10 hour drive all the way to Everest Base Camp. The number of checkpoints increased and we even had to present our passports and Tibet travel permits as if we were going through immigration a handful of times. This coupled with the slow speed limits made for quite a long day. Even so, when we were on the road the views became ever more impressive. After winding along a few roads, next thing we knew we were at an altitude far higher than I had ever been in the past. Our driver pulled off at one of the first mountain passes we came to and gave us an opportunity to fill our camera rolls. We saw the snowcapped peaks all around while noticing that there were less and less plants at this altitude.
I distracted myself from the impending headache, as we jumped out of the van at each opportunity. We noticed the breathlessness increasing with the slightest bit of activity, but we were still enamored by the views of Mount Everest in the distance and the many surrounding 8000meter peaks. Looking at each other every so often, Whitney and I couldn’t believe we’d come so far. The excitement was contagious as we were soon pulling into the final check point at Everest Base Camp. With bright smiles shining, we anxiously and continuously took distorted pictures through the dirty car windows (I still don’t know why I ever take pictures through car windows) until we finally parked in front of our tent for the night.
Lesson 5: 5200 meters is no joke
It’s about 5:30pm when we arrive and the sun is setting behind the mountains. The thin air is cold and dry and dropping with every minute. We excitedly take pictures as the rays of sun slowly fade on the distant peaks. We even manage to squeeze in a number of jumping poses to highlight the achievement. However, the excitement begins to fade as the feelings of breathlessness and the cold consume us. Retreating to the tent for a little warmth from the famed yak-dung fire we try to settle in for the night. Fried rice again for me and the same for Whitney. We drink the boiled water as much as we can, but know that the only restroom in camp is on the other side and is simply a hole in the ground shielded by a tin shed to block the wind (it’s without a doubt the coldest bathroom you can imagine).
After dinner we do our best to stay warm with layers of clothes snuggled in our sleeping bag under a couple blankets. Here’s where my intro to this story comes in. Overall, I slept a combined total of about 2 hours in short increments over the 8 hours I was in my sleeping bag. At one point our friend Michael was feeling such severe symptoms of altitude sickness that I thought we would be loading into the van to drive out of there. He managed to get through with a couple bottles of oxygen and some Diamox that I had brought along just in case, but it was one of the longest nights of our lives.
Lesson 6: Base Camp is only half-way
The next morning we wake up early, actually, we didn’t really sleep we just waited for the sun to come up so we could start our day. From this tourist base camp there is a bus that takes visitors to a small hill with an incredible viewpoint of the enormous Mount Everest. We caught the first bus to the top and took a hundred more photos while shivering in the early morning shade of the surrounding mountains. Not long after, the sun begins to shine into the valley and I finally feel like we have made it. We begin to warm up then pack our bags to get rolling on our 10 hour return trip to Shigatse.
For this long ride we mostly just rested in the car. When offered the chance to get out for more pictures there was a resounding “no” from the group. We were exhausted and looking forward to returning to the beautiful Gesar Hotel for a warm night in a soft bed after a hot shower.
For our final day of this Tibetan road trip we took a more scenic route back to Lhasa. The drive turned out to be much longer that we had experienced the first day on the road, but it was well worth it. The day was met with multiple stops for photos of some of the most beautiful parts of Tibet.
The roads winding through the mountains brought us alongside a group of yaks. These look like the warmest animals in the region. Then we stopped briefly at a small reservoir with the bluest waters I’ve ever seen. Then we passed by the Nyeshen Kangsar Glacier viewing it from several viewpoints on the road.
Later I realized the reservoir was but a preview of the stunning Yamdrok Lake. The contrast of the mountains dipping into the bright blue waters was breathtaking, especially when later seen from high on the ridge. We stopped a number of times as we rounded the edge of this lake and even had the opportunity to see the rare Tibetan Mastiff. This huge dog was hanging out with his owner at one of the viewpoints on the lake waiting for pictures. The animal looked very happy and well taken care of, so we were obliged to pay a few bucks for some pictures. Whitney said this was the highlight of her final day of the road trip.
We ended the trip where we started, but this time easily climbing the stairs to our room in the Tashi Takgye Hotel. Our entire group shared one final meal at the Lhasa Kitchen bringing the entire adventure to a close.
Overall, this was physically one of the hardest things we have ever done. Climbing to such high altitudes in such a fast pace was definitely not for everyone and could easily have led to more significant problems, however, luckily everything worked out well amongst our group. We certainly enjoyed learning about the history and culture of the Tibetan people, but the overbearing Chinese presence can be felt throughout the region. It’s sad to see how the Tibetan culture is slowly fading as a result.