Road Trip Tibet
The Lhasa to Base Camp Run
At dawn, atop Khamba-la Pass at
4,794 meters (15,728 feet) on a ridge overlooking the icy
Yamdrok-tso Lake, shivering almost uncontrollably I setup to
shoot. In the trembling viewfinder I framed the lake cradled
within the snowcapped mountain range beneath what seemed a
frozen mercury sky, pressed the shutter release – but no click.
The button would not depress. Was the mechanism frozen? No. My
finger was. The assigned flesh and bone wouldn’t execute on
signal from the brain.
Just three or four minutes out
of the heated Land Cruiser, frostbite was creeping into the
exposed appendages of my hand. I finally managed to push the
button, then I slung the camera over my
shoulder, jammed my hands into the pockets of my jacket and
started back through the snow in the direction of the vehicle.
That’s when the yaks (and/or
dongs) dropped in to see what humans were doing on the ridge.
The two frost-proof and extraordinarily nimble bovines descended
from even higher altitudes. Despite the fact they smelled pretty
bad, they seemed a little too self-satisfied, a little too
comfortable in the climate, and perhaps a little too showy,
decked out in the pastel ribbons and bone rings gifted to them
by reverential high-altitude local human residents.
Nevertheless, the image of the two shaggy horned beasts with
sky, lake and mountains behind was too good to miss. So I
trudged through a cold so cold it burned, pushed another 100
meters beyond the beckoning warmth of the 4x4, and about six
feet below the yaks I forced my creaking legs into a crouch for
a few more shots.
I got a few before my shooting
finger again seized up. So I thanked the exceedingly unimpressed
yaks and beat it back to the vehicle. Inside was little
immediate comfort. My hands felt like they were bound in blocks
of ice and my fingers had taken on a sort of nice gradient shade
I was out of the vehicle for
only about 10 or 15 minutes total, but now back rapping on the
keyboard in my toasty Beijing apartment, the tip of my smallest
finger remains numb.
But it was worth it. What an
Prelude to Passage
The first leg of the trip began
in moderate climes. Two days before the frigid mountaintop I was
in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, a transit point referred to by
some as the “Gateway to Tibet.” The place is also known for
prosperity, spicy street-side snacking and an unfairly excessive
allocation of good-looking women. After the flight from Beijing,
I stuck around Chengdu for about 40 hours. I was there not only
to have a look around yet another booming Chinese metropolis –
and confirm the reported lopsided abundance of attractive
females – but also to get some paperwork in order.
There is talk they may soon do
away with this requisite, but as of this writing the Tibetan
authorities still require foreigners to obtain official approval
to enter. Said approval materializes in the form of two pieces
of paper sporting the standard red seals. Cost: 500 yuan.
This process can be carried out
directly through government agencies, but I recommend paying a
few extra yuan and handing the assignment off to a travel agent.
In Chengdu, a veteran of this routine, Sam of Chengdu Sam’s
Guesthouse and Travel Service, efficiently expedited the
paperwork in two days, had his associates shuttle me from and to
the airport, and booked me a seat on a previously declared “sold
out” flight into Lhasa.
To reach Lhasa, one no longer
must fly, nor must they face the grimly enduring and perhaps
precarious alternative of a smoke-filled cross-country sleeper
bus. The new Lhasa-bound Qinghai-Tibet Railway now routes
through Chengdu, as well as via a more northerly route, and in
48 hours one can ride the rails from Beijing to Tibet’s capital,
and visa-versa. For those who love trains, this run offers hard
and soft seats, and hard and soft sleeper cabins. The line, the
highest on Earth, also offers some spectacular views as it
traverses the Roof of the World along the Tibet Plateau, a slice
of geography once thought impossible to lay rails across.
But for those more irascible
types who become easily impatient with cramped quarters and long
travel times, it’s best that we fly. So after a two-hour jet
from Chengdu and a one-hour shuttle bus into town, I disembarked
in Lhasa – not long ago an extraordinarily inaccessible and
mysterious place, in which previously I would not have been
Although while relying on the
thin high-altitude air one must climb 125 steps to finally get
inside, in Lhasa the obvious must-see is the one-thousand-room,
13-story-tall Potala Palace. In the early 7th Century, Tibetan
king Songtsen Gampo installed a more modest palace on the
present-day site of Potala as a gift to his bride, Princess
Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). That structure remained
essentially unchanged until 1645, when additional construction
began under the directive of the Fifth Dalai Lama.
By 1648 the Potrang Karpo
(White Palace) portion was complete, and by 1694 the Potrang
Marpo (Red Palace) addition was in place. In total about 7,000
workers and 1,500 artisans contributed to the project. Renovated
and enlarged by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1922, Potala Palace is
perched 130 meters above the Lhasa valley, and today the
structure extends 170 meters in height and spans an interior
space of 130,000 square meters.
Prohibited from taking interior
photos, as I toured this dark sacred place made smoky and
pungent by the ceremonial burning of yak butter lamps, my
thoughts turned to the gold. There’s tons of the stuff in there.
Just the tomb of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682), at about
three stories in height, is coated with 3,700 kg (8,200 pounds)
of gold. I figured the pricey decorations for this guy’s final
resting place, plus the tons of precious metal heavily applied
to and stored within other chambers, were not dug out of the
ground by the monks and masters of the day. But I guess the
hard-laboring peasants got a big spiritual kick out of the deal.
For those who can handle a lot
of steps at high-altitude – and who may not be much smarter than
the writer – right after Potala Palace they can jump in a taxi
and in 15 minutes begin ascent to a more humble but still higher
sort of spiritual site. Tucked into the upper folds of Mount
Gambo Utse and spanning 250,000 square meters, Drepung Monastery
was put into operation in about 1416. In greater days gone the
place accommodated more than 7,000 monks and the spiritual
directors held sway over vast earthly holdings.
This interesting place is
rustic in the extreme, and in certain quarters aromatic in a
very un-yak-butter-candle sort of way. The gentle residents of
Drepung are mostly friendly and the younger monks seem to get a
big kick out of digital cameras. And in the shadow of a mountain
peak, from within a darkened chamber at the highest point of the
compound, after a string of monkly conversation I heard the
unmistakable whine of an electric blender in action. I thought:
But two days in Lhasa is about
all one needs to get a feel for the place. The otherworldly
high-altitude terrain is just a grueling back-road run and a few
frostbitten fingers away.
Beyond Yamdrok-tso Lake, the
place presided over by the aforementioned yaks, some jangling
hours down snow-packed rocky mountain roads – and past scenery
so spectacular it would be pointless to attempt description in
the space allowed here – is the outpost town of Gyantse.
Formally an important trading center on the routes between
India, Sikkim, Bhutan, Tibet and China, here the formidable
fortress of Gyantse Dzong masters the mountainside. Here, too,
is the ornate and exotic Pelkor Choede Monastery. In operation
since 1440, the place comprises 108 chapels on four floors.
After touring the monastery,
intruding on some chanting monks, downing some roadside noodles
and for a while presenting a visual oddity of humanity for the
locals to ogle, we headed for the final stop of the day,
Shigatse. If the reader visits Tibet’s second largest city, be
forewarned that at the better hotels in this town hot showers
and in-room heating are not necessarily part of the deal – no
matter what the Nepalese desk clerk tells you before he’s got
Heading out of Shigatse the
next morning we enjoyed a long stretch of pristine highway.
Then, after a first document check at a PLA stop and a second at
a police checkpoint, we hit the dirt roads again and began to
climb. Finally we rounded a bend, reached a peak and there on
the horizon, seemingly magnified by the thin clear air, was the
Himalaya Range and our final destination, The Big Rock –
After an appropriate duration
of gaping and clicking cameras, with the sun setting and a
freezing wind gusting up, we climbed back in the Land Cruiser to
begin the long descent. We got about 10 meters before the tire
After the Tibetan driver,
Jamdun, and I briefly argued about who would be to blame if we
ended up stranded – me for before the trip suggesting that the
second spare tire be relocated so as to provide more interior
passenger space, or him for actually removing the damn thing
from the vehicle entirely – we got to work with the one spare
tire we had. Racing the rapidly falling sun and declining
temperatures, at pit-stop speed we changed out the bad rubber
and that crisis too did pass.
And so that evening we made our
way for another five hours down winding mountain roads, past
three recently capsized trucks and an equal number of
disheartened former drivers, to spend a cold and not too
sanitary night bunking in a truly remote and primitive village.
At dawn the next day, after 48 hours on the road and more than
700 kilometers since leaving Lhasa, we rolled into Base Camp at
the foot of Mount Everest.
And to the volumes already
written about that remarkable structure of nature … what could I