(A mix of travel notes and comments added later)
02-09-2014 - Tuesday – Arriving in Lhasa
The flight was great with only minimal turbulence in a thin cloud layer on ascent and descent. From the lush green hills and swollen muddy rivers of Nepal we climbed to the true alpine plateau of Tibet. The Tibetan rivers were also swollen—apparently with more than the usual rainfall—but vast bare rock & scree mountain ranges determine their course.
The approach to Lhasa Gonggar Airport was fascinating for several reasons. It is one of the highest international airports in the world at 3570m (~11,000 foots for my U.S. mates) and one of the few times I've landed without having to 'pop clear' my ears & sinus on descent. Even on the ground you are high enough that your ears don’t pop! The Gonggar approach path is a spiral descent into a river valley surrounded by high mountains, a bit like Queenstown NZ but missing the big lake!
One difference from Nepal was apparent before even landing. The civil engineering infrastructure visible on approach was an incredible contrast. Wide arrow straight highways and railways with tunnels piercing, even quite small, hills rather than diverting around them and long bridges. There were new looking towns and industrial areas built to grid plans imposed on the countryside rather than the organic chaos that is Kathmandu. A sign we were heading somewhere rather different.
The airport terminal itself was international standard, about a decade old, with jet bridges. A contrast to Kathmandu's old style, but quite large, terminal which had no jet bridges used hot buses (no air-conditioning) to take you to the aircraft.
I had been expecting, warned, the Chinese border crossing would be tiresome—bag inspections etc.—but could genuinely press the "Greatly Satisfied" button on their survey booth.
Must admit did wonder what the impact of pressing the ‘Dissatisfied’ button might be!
Apart from the hassle manoeuvring the bike through the scanner it was relatively fuss free, no worse than any western airport, dealing with the officials.
Same couldn't be said for some of the other passengers. An obnoxious Russian group all tried to push through at the same time, blocking the scanner as they fussed around with baggage tickets. A Latvian group on the same flight discreetly said: 'We're not Russian, not like them!'.
We were met at the airport by Tashi*, our Tibetan guide, and a policeman. Tashi told us the police were ‘for our protection’ and would be accompanying us on the trip…
* Found out when I got home Tashi means "good fortune" or "auspiciousness" in Tibetan. It was our good fortune to have him as a guide as he was a genuinely lovely guy.
It is about 40km, on one of those new super highways, from the airport to Lhasa. I reckon one tunnel was 2 or 3 kilometres long!
The road is fairly new and cut 40 minutes travel time off (about halved) the old route to the airport. China National Highway 318 (G318) runs from Shanghai through Lhasa to Zhangmu on the China-Nepal border [with kilometre stones all the way!].
During the drive there was quite a bit of discussion between Tashi, Sujan and the policeman. We drove to a Police Station where he departed never to be seen again. Apparently it was pointed out that we were camping for some of the trip and didn’t have a tent or provisions for an extra person. Seems the prospect of camping out with tourists was more than he could stomach.
I think this was a good thing for us!
We stopped at a Bank to get Yuan as it was getting a bit late to leave it until after checking in to the hotel. Although some went to the counters a bunch of us were encouraged to use a Forex ATM to speed things up—no forms required—as they were due to close.
It digested $US and dispensed the local currency, mostly. I was the last in line only to find ASB had given me old style US$100 bills and the machine only accepted the new ones. I was amazed, impressed, and thankful when the bank teller who'd come to assist me took the correct amount (actually rounded the conversion up a bit in my favour) of Yuan from his own (personal) account in trade for my bill. Very kind indeed. We scuttled out as they closed, actually they had to unlock the door to let me out!
On the way into the bank I had pulled another us$100 bill from the bundle in my wallet. The bank had put a rubber band around them and the stupid US paper money tore in half! I guess I’m used to the more robust plastic notes NZ& AU use. I kept the bits and was happy ASB took it back, and converted to NZ$, when I got home.
From the bank we drove through 'new' Lhasa, a vast area of recent construction with housing, commercial and retail. There's a six lane main highway running through the city right past the Potala Palace. All the photos I remember show farmland there…
The Yak Hotel is on the edge of old Lhasa, a mix of traditional temples, shops and restaurants in heritage buildings. The hotel itself was fine. A bit crude in places (like some of the wiring!) but all the basics are there and the location is great.
According to my phone* the hotel room is at 3656 meters altitude. So far I haven't had any problem with headaches or anything—yay Diamox?—but you do notice shortness of breath climbing stairs. Lugging the bikes to our 3rd floor room, no lift or space to store them in the lobby, made that very apparent!
Our, sharing with Andy, room is close enough to reception to have reasonable Wi-Fi. I found Twitter and Facebook were blocked (countrywide not the hotels doing) but Microsoft Outlook.com and OneDrive worked?
I only recently learned those official Microsoft services are hosted by a Chinese owned entity so you weren’t actually crossing the great firewall of China to get to them.
My TypePad blog loaded but I couldn’t get to the TypePad.com dashboard to create/edit content. I posted to my test blog from the phone using email but decided it would be an all off-line trip for me. Besides, what chance of mobile data in the Himalayas…
Because I'd packed sun cream (bottle too large to carry as hand luggage) into my overland bag I went to the supermarket after dinner in search of some as tomorrow will be out in the sun walking.
It was quite an experience as travelators take you up 3 stories from the entrance and the only way out is to circulate around the 3 floors of the store to the ground floor checkouts and exit. There appeared to be no shortcut way out! I found the sunscreen and got some other snacks as Bas had recommended stocking up. Fresh apples were a treat, snickers & candy cycling fuel and some bottled water.
I noticed you had to get fruit weighed & priced in the department, far from the checkouts, but caused a kerfuffle when I mixed red & green apples in the same bag. They were the same price/kg but had to be sorted into separate bags to be weighed & priced!
Later learned Eric & Kirsten had done a reverse direction sprint up the travelator from the checkouts back to the produce dept. to get their fruit priced. Quite a feat at this altitude!
03-09-2014 - Wednesday - Deprung Monastery
After breakfast we drove out to the Deprung Monastery. It is on a hill about 10km from old Lhasa. Until fairly recent times it looked out over an empty valley but that is now full of modern residential and commercial development. The bus went most of the way up the hill but there was still a considerable climb as we toured the monastery.
The steps, particularly up to the mountain rock paintings, gave our altitude adaption a real test. Nicola worked out, with her iPhone altitude app, that the top of the monastery was actually higher than Mt Cook Summit!
I hadn’t even thought about using the phone for altitude checking so when back at the hotel (Wi-Fi) downloaded an app for my Windows Phone. Will see how it goes for the rest of the trip.
* I used an excellent free Windows Phone altitude app ‘Altimeter Pro 1.0’ by Doug Holland. It was great for tracking progress in a trip where altitude was a huge factor! Thanks Doug!
The Monastery was amazing. The thought of building a vast structure to house up to 10,000 monks out of stone & wood on the side of a mountain, by hand, absolutely mindboggling. Tashi gave a comprehensive history of both the Monastery, Buddhism in Tibet and the lives of the various Dalai Lama. I was surprised at his openness regarding discussing the current state of affairs although that was more along spiritual than political lines.
Tashi also told us about the traditional Tibetan Sky & River burial practices. I found it interesting but was rather glad not to witness one. I suspected it would be rather more confronting than the funeral pyres we saw in Nepal.
On returning home I stumbled upon a strange comment (from a reader) on a free Tibet site about ‘not supporting people who do such barbaric practices’. They’d linked to a web post with a video of a sky burial.
Although very confronting viewing it was fascinating to see and I thought no more barbaric—albeit more visible—than any other form body of disposal. To quote to the post:
“Sky burial is a ritual that has great religious meaning. Tibetans are encouraged to witness this ritual, to confront death openly and to feel the impermanence of life. They believe that the corpse is nothing more than an empty vessel. The spirit, or the soul, of the deceased has exited the body to be reincarnated into another circle of life. It is believed that the Drigung Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism established the tradition in this land of snow, although there are other versions of its origin.”
Back in Lhasa Andy & I walked the short circuit around the Jokhang Temple near the hotel. This is a daily ritual for locals. We joined literally hundreds walking clockwise around the temple perimeter. Some pilgrims do this prostrating themselves, onto knees then flat on the ground, every few steps. I can’t imagine how they manage it on their journey from their villages to Lhasa, some taking months. Their well worn knee & hand pads showed how arduous it was.
A Monk asked Andy to be in a photo with him outside the Temple & I was approached by a local holding a book. At first thought he was attempting to sell it but it was his own English phrase book and he wanted practice. He'd read the phrase, ask for comment on his rendition, but would then try to extend the conversation on his own. He was pretty good and seemed to understand the context of the words. We managed to have a conversation, great for both of us and a real tribute to his English skills! Unfortunately he didn't know where New Zealand was and I didn't have my phone, on charge back at the hotel, to show him on the map. Think he did understand 18 hours flying to Tibet meant it was a far away!
We were ‘on our own’ for dinner tonight, no group booking, but inevitably ran into a few others in the restaurant!
04-09-2014 - Thursday - Jokhang Temple, Potala Palace & bike assembly
After breakfast we walked over for a tour of the Jokhang Temple we circumnavigated last night. The interior was spectacular but it was jam packed with worshippers. Actually felt a bit bad as we got an ‘express tourist entry’ past literally hundreds of genuine worshippers queuing to enter. Crowds combined with the dim lighting and ever present incense/candle smoke meant the atmosphere was pretty oppressive. I was glad to get up to the roof terrace with its fresh air and spectacular views of the city & Potala Palace. Security was ever present, cameras everywhere, and on a nearby rooftop you could see the Army morning parade…
After that it was time to assemble some bikes, happy to find mine got to Lhasa intact! We have a shakedown ride tomorrow as most have some essential bits, in my case pedals, in the overland luggage which arrives late tonight.
The mix of bikes is impressive from full suspension, front suspension hardtail mountain bikes (like mine) and a few no suspension touring bikes. One standout is a titanium frame bike with 14 speed hub gears (like the old 3 spd Sturmey Archer ones on steroids) and belt (not chain) drivetrain. Another, a ten year old Warehouse "Milazo Physco III" bike which is original (albeit serviced for the trip) and will be left in Nepal. Maybe I shouldn’t have spent so much on Rapid Rob!
After a bite to eat we headed for the Potala Palace. It is another massive hilltop structure with about 70 metres [actually 74!] stair climbing to test our lungs.
- Potala base altitude: 3657.000 meters
- Potala entry door altitude: 3713.000 meters
- Potala White Palace Terrace altitude: 3731.000 meters
It is well worth the effort with intricately decorated rooms & halls packed with religious treasures. It was the chief residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India during the 1959 Tibetan uprising. It is now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site and very much controlled by the authorities. The access is regulated as you book a time, although we still had to wait at the entry, and have a strict 1 hour limit to view the interior.
Not sure how much of this ‘management’ is just practical crowd control or just control for the sake of it but it wasn’t overrun with people when we were there.
The views from the Potala Palace over the city, not long ago farmland, were amazing. Thankfully a rather evil looking storm burst, may have even been snowing, stayed in the distant mountains.
Back town I went for a wander around the back streets & alleys behind our hotel. Neat paved areas, courtyards full of solar kettles, a bit different to Kathmandu!
Being a Fiat fan i was amused to see, having previously read about, a Chinese built ‘tribute’ to the Fiat Panda. Well it looked like a Panda but hadn’t ever seen the inside of a Fiat factory. Not the only look-a-like vehicle we would encounter.
05-09-2014 - Friday - Lhasa City ride, Norbulingka Palace
Had our first bike ride in Tibet this morning. From the hotel we headed down the main street, Beijing East Rd (very East), towards the Potala. From there we looped out around the city on country roads through relatively deserted new development areas. We were led by the bus which worked well although involved some ‘interesting’ lane changes for left hand turns (Tibet is RHD). At one stage, an a more rural area, a dog followed us for several kilometres. It wasn't aggressive, just seemed to enjoy the run before heading back from where it came.
After about 20km we arrived back near the Potala at Norbulingka Palace. It was the traditional summer residence of the successive Dalai Lamas until the 14th's exile.
Again I was quite surprised how much was said about the exile. Although there is a very definite ‘Official line’ it was acknowledged the exile happened, if not the gory detail of the events which prompted it.
The grounds were impressive, a nice relief from the heat, noise and bustle of Lhasa. We toured the impressively decorated, furnished buildings and park like gardens. Robbie & Jan found a cat, or rather it found them, although by now this wasn’t an unusual thing!
Then it was back on the bikes to our Yak Hotel. This meant navigating the main street of Lhasa in a busy part of the day. Although crowded and fairly chaotic the traffic all moves pretty slow. The limit in town is 30km/h and often they don't even do that. In spite of a few interesting moments I really felt safer on the streets of Lhasa than I do in busy Auckland traffic.
One aspect of Lhasa was very different to Nepal. Although both have lots of scooters in Lhasa the vast majority are electric. No two stroke engine noise to announce their arrival, no trail of smoke showing where they have been. I was impressed at the amount of alternative energy, solar power & electric vehicles, we saw in Tibet. Lots of investment from the overlords…
The purpose of the ride was to see some sights and shakedown any cycle problems while still in the vicinity of some hope of repairing them. No cycle workshops on the Tibetan Plateau, not many in Lhasa! Bikes appeared to be fine with only a few adjustments needed, to be expected after the transit they have all been through.
I can (just) use my IXUS compact camera one handed while riding but the results are a bit random. I was pleased to get quite a good selfie riding past the Potala!
Democracy and voting in Tibet!?
Given the plight of the Tibetan people it was odd that me being in Tibet meant missing a New Zealand general election. I had asked about voting before departure but it wasn’t possible as the candidate lists hadn’t been published, so no special voting forms.
Helen found out we could download a voting form and post a special vote to the NZ Embassy in Beijing. Although not especially politically active I’ve always voted and it seemed more important to do so in a country where the citizens can’t.
We got the PDF’s ok, no firewall block on the elections website, but the copy shop near the hotel I saw on my back alley wander would/could not print them. I doubt this was for technical reasons, he was using Adobe software to make business cards, but later wondered if printing for a foreigner might have led to trouble?
Helen came to the rescue, accompanying Tashi to another copy shop and posting the papers. I think we voted in Tibet. Not many people can say that!
Tomorrow it all gets serious, the first real day on the road.
Quote of the day (by request)
Post 4. Lhasa to Gangna (Village) Camp