I had to pinch myself, we were actually driving past the Potala Palace! We were all bouncing up and down in our seats with excitement. We have wanted to come here for so long and so many times it looked like we would never make it to Tibet and now we were actually here, we couldn’t quite believe it.
Our journey hadn’t been plain sailing: our much hoped for route to Tibet has been closed since the earthquake 2 years ago; our planned drive through Myanmar to China was closed due to internal conflict and we had all the stress of separating while Steve went by himself through Pakistan. It was then “just” a 2500km through the Taklimakan Desert before we got to Golmud, the last Chinese town, before we hit the mountains. Overlanding isn’t meant to be easy. But it was totally worth it! Lhasa was absolutely amazing, everything we had hoped for.
Even after Golmud, it was a long 3 days drive to Lhasa. Leaving town we could see the peaks shimmering away in the distance across the desert plains, “Not long now till we are in the mountains” we told ourselves. Unfortunately that turned out not to be true, a weigh bridge at a police post at the foot of the incline was causing a 15km tailback of trucks. We had been told that this route was filled with huge lorries taking Chinese goods into Tibet but hadn’t expected to spend a whole day and a half queueing behind them to start our journey. It was going to be especially painful for Steve as he had picked up a stomach bug. The road was good straight tar but mostly up on a bank with steep sides down to the sand. The few cars there were were trying to make their way cross country on sandy tracks were often getting stuck, when we eventually found a track down we followed them. Skirting back onto the road when the tracks ran out and then flitting to the other side when the sand got too thick. The lorry drivers kindly made space out of nowhere, when they saw we were not a goods truck. Eventually at the end, while they got weighed, we were pulled over at another office while the police checked and stamped our special Tibetan Autonomous Region permits. This pattern went on all day, with regular police checks and permit stamping. The volume of trucks on the road was breathtaking with many kilometre long queues whenever there was any sort of hold up. Bizarrely for a road up into the mountains there were no hairpin bends, just a steady incline up.
Driving ourselves across Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) has taken a Himalayan mountain of paperwork and our progress was very much monitored. The distances involved also meant we were on a strict schedule. Whereas we would have usually stopped way before nightfall, our permit said we must spend the night in the small town of Taggulazhen. After 14 hours of driving, we got stuck behind a queue due to another nasty accident (the delays mean the drivers push themselves and often fall asleep at the wheel). Our guide called ahead to the police chief and asked if we could sleep in the truck as it was late to find a hotel and then eat. He agreed but only if we passed through town and stopped outside its limits, I guess then we wouldn’t be his problem. Finally just before 11 we found a lay-by, made fried egg sandwiches and fell into bed.
We might have been dog tired but there was no way we could sleep, we had ascended to 4625m. We had taken this route into Tibet because compared with the other far western route it was less steep but it’s a hell of an ascent. From our time in the Andes we knew we were all good at altitude and we had slept quite high in Golmud but we were all feeling the affects. Lying down doesn’t help, in fact it makes it worse, rapid breathing with our heart racing and our heads aching. When we eventually drifted into a light sleep but Steve and I kept on waking up to check on the girls. Lucy vomited at 2am making us even more worried. However we tried not to freak out, Alisha did the same in the Andes then wolfed down a huge breakfast a few hours later and skipped around the truck, while we staggered around after a sleepless night worrying.
The next morning no one was feeling fabulous but we were all ok and ready for another long day of driving. The scenery almost made up for our aching heads, snow topped peaks surrounded us as we drove steadily higher through barren wide valleys. Wild yaks, blue sheep and Tibetan antelope shared the spare grasslands with small herds of domesticated yaks. Hardly anyone lives in this part of Tibet just a few hardy nomads. Like the day before we were mostly parallel with the highest rail track in the world, an amazing piece of engineering with much of the track laid across permafrost and a huge amount of tunnels and bridges. Tanggula Pass at 5230m was the highest point of the day.
At 6pm we were almost at Nagqu, where we were to spend the night. The local police phoned and told the guide we must be at their office before they closed at 6.30, the only problem was there was a big queue at the police checkpoint outside town. Few foreigners come by road this way, so the police seemed very worried about filling in the paperwork correctly. The guide was great speeding up the usual laborious process by telling them their bosses were waiting for us in town. Eventually we made it to the police station just a few minutes late, Although quite a large town, with a big population of recently arrived Chinese, and many hotels the police told us we were only allowed to stay at one hotel in town but we could sleep in the parking lot in the truck. At the Chinese owned hotel we had to register again, the hotel insisting we must take a basic room for $80, it was so frustrating that we were only allowed to stay in one place. Steve and the guide used their persuasive powers for over an hour until the hotel agreed that we could park round the back next to the bins for $16. The hotel then informed us that we might be woken up in the middle of the night by the local (as in a few blocks) police, so they could check our passports. You can imagine Steve’s response to that! The guide must have translated it well enough, as we were left alone.
It has been more than 60 years since China invaded Tibet. The facts are well documented about how the country and its people have faired since then. Tibet’s much loved spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama and many of his people, have lived in exile in India for nearly 50 years. Having spent quite a lot of time in Dharmsala in the past, I have quite strong opinions on this. Tibet is very much a tightly controlled state. Han Chinese have been encouraged to migrate to Tibet, with the aim of diluting the local Tibetan culture and population. This has been so successful that more than 50% of Lhasa’s population is now said to be non-Tibetan. There is a massive building boom in the whole country, hence the huge numbers of trucks. To be fair to the Chinese it isn’t just for recent immigrants they are also building lots of new houses for Tibetans. Many nomads have been persuaded to move into permanent houses, a complete change of lifestyle for them.
We felt our approach to Lhasa had been arduous but it is nothing compared with Tibetan pilgrims. We saw our first few 500km from the city, if walking through the elements wasn’t hard enough they also do a full body prostration every third step. They walk and prostate for many months before they reach the holy city but still have enough energy for a smile and wave.
Our hotel was a perfect location just on the edge of Barkhor, the traditional Tibetan part of town, it was very smart with a big parking area. Our enthusiasm wained on the night that a couple of rats fell through the bathroom ceiling and woke us up at 6am running around the room. Poor Steve had been unwell all night and was just drifting back to sleep. I know we are supposed to be hardened travellers but there was a lot of screaming when they tried to climb up onto the beds, I knew there was a reason we prefer to sleep in the truck.
Being in the old part of Lhasa was everything we had hoped for. We walked the Barkhor kora, the pilgrimage circuit around Jokhang monastery, the holiest of temples many times during our stay. We mingled with the pilgrims and locals circulating with their spinning prayer wheels and prayer beads muttering mantras. The Tibetans are such amazingly spiritual people that Buddhism seems to permeate every part of their lives. The people were all welcoming smiles as we walked the circuit with them, they were particularly delighted to see the girls, especially Lucy. We often had a small crowd walking with us, exclaiming in Tibetan at how cute they were. The girls got lots of granny-loving, as old ladies couldn’t stop themselves from giving them an affectionate squeeze. The girls were very good, smiling and saying “Tashi Delek” to everyone they met. As well as being a holy area, it is also a busy shopping area for Tibetans, it was a fascinating mix. Lhasa seems to have a booming economy and I was surprised at how prosperous the areas we saw were.
Tibetan Buddhism is far more complicated than the type we have become familiar with in the rest of Asia as it was heavily influenced by the existing local Bön religion. It has a whole pantheon of Protector Deities, Bodhisattvas; Buddhas and historical figures often in different manifestations. Although not usually ones for guided tours, since we had to have a guide it was really good to have him explain the different parts. We were free to wander around town without him but had to be with him for some of the major sites.
At all times of the day Jokhang temple has believers prostrating outside, many for hour after hour. Yak butter lamps burned smokily inside shedding flickering light on the golden statues behind them. Around the main prayer hall were many different chapels dedicated to different deities, every corner had a different statue or sacred mural each more spectacular that the last. It was hard to take it all in, the heady smell of the burning yak butter and the constant murmuring of mantras from the pilgrims made it seem almost otherworldly. Exiting blinking into the bright sunshine we climbed up onto the flat roof to marvel and try and reflect on what we had seen. Looking over Barkhor Square below and Potala Palace in the distance, we had to pinch ourselves again.
Entering the doorway, I wasn’t expecting to get a squirt of water right in the face. Looking around to see which kid had got me with a water pistol, I realised it came from a smiling monk with a the type of squirty bottle you use in the garden – I had just been blessed with holy water. We were at the small temple of Tsepak Lhakhang, especially auspicious for pregnant ladies and those in ill-health. The monk was blessing people as they walked the circuit around the main prayer hall. Although you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, the water blessing monk wanted to take a photo with Lucy during his break so I snapped one too.
We were very excited to get a chance to go inside Potala Palace after seeing it from afar. The 1000 room palace was the former home of the Dalai Lama as well as being the seat of the Tibetan government; it houses countless chapels; as well as the amazing jewelled stupas containing the remains of most of the previous Dalai Lamas. Entering the main gates you feel very small looking up at its imposing ramparts. The building is now mostly a museum, although still occupied by several monks and visited by many pilgrims. It is still an incredibly spiritual place filled with statues and images that inspired much devotion in those around us who were believers; and fascination in everyone else. As images of the current Dalai Lama, who is currently in exile in India, are illegal in China there were no pictures of His Holiness in his chambers but a monk chanted holy scriptures in the corner of his meditation room.
Leaving Lhasa we got another guide, we were sad to say goodbye to the one who brought us up to Lhasa. He had been very professional; fabulous at sorting out the myriad of paperwork; fascinating to talk to, he was also very adaptable, sleeping in the cab the night we slept on the side of the road.