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Photo credit CiteXt Wing and Will Pagel

Seven days in Tibet

Tibet is one of those mythical places that stirs the imagination and fuels the travel bug. Nicknamed 'the Land of the Snows', winter might not seem like the best time to go, however when we found ourselves in Nepal in December we were too close not to drop in on her mysterious Northern neighbour. Braving the elements, the snowed-in passes and the burden of Chinese bureaucracy, Follow Me East spent seven days in Tibet. On the road trip of a lifetime we discovered a landscape that left us breathless (at times we were more than 5000 metres above sea level, I literally mean breathless) and we spent the entire seven days with a sense of surreal, otherworldliness.

Road trip of a lifetime

The Friendship Highway connects Kathmandu to Lhasa. It climbs through mountain passes, impossibly wraps around the sides of mountains and continues along valley floors for 1000 km. It is the road trip of a lifetime. 

Having climbed up through the mountains on the Nepali side of the Himalayas - steep roads, zig zagged with switch backs and scarred by the aftermath of fatal landslides- the road settles down to a relatively smooth passage along the Tibetan Plateau. The Highway from the Nepali border to Lhasa was completely paved in 2008, so it is no longer the bumpy dirt track of yore. This might have taken some of the ruggedness out of the journey, but it takes nothing away from the views.

The Tibetan Plateau is a wide, tundra-like basin perched on top of the world. From here you see Everest, Xisapangma and Cho-oyu all rising over 8000 metres, but cruising along on the plateau, which sits at over 4000 metres itself, it is difficult to keep perspective. There is something indescribably awe-inspiring about being surrounded by the giants of the Himalayas. It is easy to understand why it is such a place of pilgrimage.

In the days before we embarked on our road trip, the pass from the Nepali border was snowed in. It was touch and go as to whether our trip could go ahead, then at 6pm the night before, we got the all clear. The road had been ploughed, it was no longer snowing and we could go. Our guide and driver (who had picked us up at Chinese immigration) were very concerned about the snow closing in again and so covered two days driving in one to get through the danger zone while it was still clear. On that first day we traveled from Kathmandu at 1300 metres all the way to Tingri at 4900 metres, the highest point we were to sleep at. The air was thin, the light was crisply brilliant and, in December, it was absolutely freezing. The entire time we were keenly aware that we were on top of the world. It was exhilarating.

Villages

For most of the drive from the border we saw very few signs of human habitation, we looked out at a winter-barren landscape, stunning in its emptiness. Then at a carefully demarcated point the sudden appearance of ultra-modern, solar-powered street lights indicated the start of a village. A paved footpath appeared and for some 500 metres houses lined either side of the road in uniform regularity. Just as suddenly the village ended and the wilderness moved back in.

The uniformity of the villages against the wild Himalayas was surreal. Despite some modern trappings - the footpath, streetlights and the occasional kids' playground- the villages were unlike any other we'd seen. Tibet has a unique architectural style developed in response to the climate, locally available materials and the aesthetics of Tibetan Buddhism. The whole house and a yard are enclosed by a thick stone wall, often with patties of yaks' dung stuck to the outside to dry in the sun and provide fuel for fires.

Lhasa

Lhasa was the end-point of our great road trip. After five days of nothing but Himalayan peaks and sporadic villages dotted across the broad plateau, we drove into Lhasa. Like the villages, the capital appears suddenly, with very little urban sprawl to announce it. We found ourselves driving along a wide boulevard. The buildings either side of the road were clearly new, several stories high but with many of the Tibetan architectural flourishes we had seen in the villages. The boulevard was pristine with not so much as a stray chocolate wrapper to mar it - a stark contrast from the litter strewn villages. There was something about all of this modern cleanliness that rang artificial.

In amongst the rapidly expanding new city, lies Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Market. Turn down a narrow lane way off one of the wide boulevards and you will quickly find yourself caught up in the pilgrim's circuit around the Temple, which sits at the heart of Old Lhasa. This area, known as Barkhor Market is as eerily pristine as the rest of town and the market stalls have recently been ordered in-doors, but it is still a maze of small streets, with shops selling all kinds of exotic wares from prayer wheels to the ornate silver and copper belts that accessorise traditional Tibetan dress. The area is well catered for with teahouses that feel, like so much else in Lhasa, like stepping into another time and another world. Warm, collegial spaces filled with heavy wooden benches, the tea houses offer a cosy reprieve from the cold. Ordering is straight forward, pick up a thermos of tea (try to avoid the yak butter tea, if you don't want to give offense by spitting it straight out again) and order a steaming plate of momos (delicious Tibetan dumplings, filled with a mixture of meat and vegetables).

In Old Lhasa it seems that all streets funnel into the human tide, which is the constant procession around the Jokhang Temple. Let yourself get swept along as you marvel at the strangness of your surroundings.

Our initial disappointment at leaving behind the wild plateau for a city was quickly overcome. Lhasa is like no other city we had ever seen. The irrepressible Tibetan culture is in evidence all around, from the pilgrims prostrating themselves to the native dress and the tea houses. It all adds to the unreal feeling of the city. Where many other capital cities tend to have elements of sameness, in Lhasa everything felt foreign.

How we did it

At the time we travelled (December 2014) the Chinese government required all foreign tourists to hire a guide and driver. It was necessary to get permits for entry into Lhasa and separate permits for everywhere we went outside of Lhasa (as well as a visa for China). You must arrange all travel permits before you arrive. The rules change constantly, so do your own research before heading out. Given all these requirements Follow Me East opted to arrange the trip through an agent in Nepal. Thamel is full of such agencies. Our main requirement was that the guide, the driver and the company they worked for were Tibetan. Anecdotally this is easier to ensure if you are booking from Nepal rather than from within China.

Where we went

Our journey took us from Kathmandu to Lhasa, along the Friendship Highway stopping at Tingri, Shigatse and Gyantse. Unless you're racing the snow clouds, I would recommend spending your first night in Nyalam to acclimatise. If you are doing this trip in the warmer months, there are some good short walks here too.

Final consensus on Tibet? It was hard work to get there, it was very expensive and it was worth every penny. Go in with your eyes wide open, the human rights of Tibetan people are seriously curtailed by the Chinse government and we are very glad we got to see this fast disappearing culture.

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