Last summer we visited Tibet (西藏 or Xīzàng in Simplified Chinese) with Young Pioneer Tours, a part of China, yet not so simple for foreigners to visit. The rules to get in are constantly changing and China often temporarily blocks foreigners from entry. Money always wins in the end, and these bans are usually lifted very quickly.
This time foreign nationals had to be travelling with at least one other person of the same nationality. Fortunately our tour guide was also British so I was able to be on the same pass as him.
On arriving in Tibet we met our Tibetan tour guide and got on the bus that would take us to Lhasa. Lhasa is the capital of Tibet, and has been heavily modernised. A large population of Han live there alongside the local Tibetans (Han Chinese are the majority in China, which has several minorities, including Mongolians and Tibetans).
On the road to Lhasa we took in the most scenic views I’ve ever seen in China. We were travelling through a large valley surrounded with treeless mountains. In many ways this place reminded me of the Eden Valley in Cumbria – the place where I grew up.
We arrived in our hotel in Lhasa. The place we were staying at was in Old Town, a part of Lhasa that preserves the local culture and heritage of Tibet. It is here where you will find most local Tibetans. Outside of Old Town has been heavily modernised and feels like any Chinese city.
One of the first things I noticed about being here was that the air really was thin. Tibet is actually a large plateaux with a really high altitude (around 14,000 – 15,000 feet). Because of this, the air is really thin, so for people used to the dense air closer to the Earth’s surface your body needs to get used to breathing in this air. Although I didn’t get altitude sickness (yet), running up a single flight of stairs would make me queasy and dizzy. I’d have to hold onto the wall and take several deep breaths before I could move again.
After checking in to the hotel we were given some free time to wander around. My girlfriend and I decided to try and find some food, so we wandered down the road and quickly came across a noodle shop. We went in and ordered ourselves spicy beef noodles – the safe bet when you are somewhere strange in China.
When I was applying for the holidays to come to Tibet, my boss told me that he wouldn’t go himself because Tibetans don’t like Han Chinese. Seeing my girlfriend was Han, the Tibetans running the shop decided to talk to her asking where I was from. My Chinese is still terrible, so I understood little of the conversation, but it seemed to be friendly and certainly destroyed the idea that Tibetans don’t like Han.
In the afternoon we got back together as a group and went to wander Old Town. We didn’t have a real plan for the first afternoon – many of us would be suffering from altitude sickness so we were to take things easy. We saw the hustle and bustle of the markets in Tibet. The unpolluted, clear blue skies made the city appear far more colourful than anywhere else I’d seen in China.
We came across a small temple almost hidden behind the market street. On our way down the alley leading to it, several prayer wheels lined the wall on one side. People would touch and spin each one as they went in. In the alley was a door into the main temple. People would go inside, walk around the temple in an orderly fashion and pray to the Buddha statue as they went past. It was our first glimpse into the Tibetan style of Buddhism.
Afterwards we continued wandering the market streets and bought some Tibetan “cheese”. This cheese was more like dried milk. It tasted a bit bland and chewy – with a small hint of gone-off milk.
Before we went to bed we made our way to the first restaurant that we would visit in Tibet. It was a rooftop bar that looked over the Jokhang Temple. They served some western-style food and some drinks. We had a few beers and headed back to our hotel to sleep off the lack of air.
Our Tibetan guide had explained to us that our girlfriend and myself would need to be up at 5 in the morning to sort out the Potala Palace tickets. We were completely unprepared for what would follow the next day…