Queues don’t exist in Tibet.
Zak, Rachel and I are in the middle of a crowd of jostling nomads from Eastern Tibet. Smooshed in on all sides, slowly shuffling forward. Babies strapped to backs with strips of cloth. Women with yak-fur lined jackets, long black hair braided with colourful strings and headdresses of turquoise, coral, yak bone. Men mumbling mantras, with thermoses of liquid yak butter to top-up the butter lamps in the temples.
We’ve climbed the 250+ steps up to Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, and now we’re trying to visit the inner temples. Our guide attempts to lead us forward, but none of us can move except in a slow shuffle.
Even when we’re inside the Palace, there are still more stairways to navigate. Steep stairways that look over a hundred years old … not that you can see the steps, you just follow the person in front of you, slowly climbing up or down the steps. We stand a good 6” or more taller than everyone else (Zak much more!) so while climbing up we also have to watch our heads on the low ceilings and doorways.
The guide tells us that in the summer, there are more tourists. But we’re visiting in winter, and we’re the only Westerners. The Tibetans surrounding us are pilgrims from Eastern Tibet. Most of these people are nomads, spending the summers with their animals (yaks, goats), but in the winter they make religious pilgrimages to the major Tibetan Buddhist sites. There are hundreds of them. And three of us.
I’m absolutely enchanted.
Normally when travelling I HATE being in crowds, because it’s usually crowds of annoying tourists, shuffling through the Louvre, posing in front of Big Ben, everyone doing the circuit of guidebook highlights.
This experience is totally different. We’re tourists, in a sea of nomads on pilgrimage. We’re all fascinated by each other. I’m following behind Zak, so I catch people gesturing at his feet with wide eyes – they can’t believe how big his feet are (size 13 US!) A few people sidle up behind him to compare their height to his. I catch their eyes and make a ‘big’ gesture with my hands. Everyone laughs. In no way do we blend into the crowd!
Inside a Tibetan Buddhist Temple
Unfortunately it’s forbidden to take photos in most Tibetan temples or monasteries, so I can’t share the beauty of it with you here – but to give you some idea…
Apparently there are multiple Buddhas. (I didn’t realise this. I thought there was Buddha, then a bunch of other lesser deities and bodhisattvas). There’s the Compassion Buddha, Longevity Buddha, Medicine Buddha, Future Buddha etc. A monastery (or Potala Palace, for example) contains multiple rooms/temples, each with a major statue of a Buddha or sometimes a stupa commemorating an important person. These might be immense and covered with gold leaf, or smaller and brightly coloured. It’s hard to describe how much is going on in a temple. There are decorations everywhere you look. Walls covered with paintings, Mandalas on the ceiling, decorations on the pillars, every surface is covered.
In front of the primary statue, or stupa, is a butter lamp. Butter lamps are large metal basins filled with semi-solid yak butter, studded with several burning wicks. It smells slightly pungent like old butter and slightly smoky.
The Pilgrims leave 1 yuan notes (around 10 cents) in piles around the statues or stupas. They pour or scoop butter in to top off the lamps. We even saw a few statues with a ‘bouquet’ of small lollipops stuck into a vase as an offering! But no one can really move because you’re just shuffling around in a big pressing crowd, everyone chanting their mantra and trying to make their offering.
Old Boys’ Market
Our time in Tibet was focused around monasteries and temples, as Tibetan culture is so entwined with Tibetan Buddhism. But of course, we also visited a few markets (probably my favorite travel activity!)
The most interesting market was more like an ‘old boys club’ selling semi-precious stones. In Lhasa Old Town, there’s a small outdoor food market, and in the evenings older men gather in the nearby square wearing strands of stones around their necks. The ‘market’ is simply milling around and checking out the guys’ necklaces. (I hesitate to say ‘necklaces’ … many of the stones are up to the size of an egg or bigger, strung on cords. I’m not sure if they sell the entire strands or just the individual stones) So you wander around through the crowd, and if you see a necklace that takes your fancy, you negotiate with the guy to buy it.
We also spent two days driving out of Lhasa to visit monasteries and a glacier.
Gotta Go Right Now?
Brace yourself for the public toilets outside of Lhasa. Several times we encountered what must be “pit latrines” (I’d read this term before, but never fully appreciated what it was until I walked into one. Suddenly the term just made sense!)
Using the toilet doesn’t need to be a private activity in Tibet! You can chat with your neighbours the whole time! Zak confirmed this was the same in the men and the ladies room. Rachel used pure willpower to wait until we got to our hotel!
At one rest area, I walked into the concrete square room marked “Ladies” and there were simply two squat toilets in the centre of the room, right beside each other. No divider or wall between them, no sink or mirror or toilet paper (!) just a concrete room with two squat toilets. I wasn’t sure of the etiquette, so I waited outside until a Tibetan lady finished, and she gave me a really strange look when she walked out (which either meant “Ooh look at the big white person!” or “Why is this crazy lady standing outside when she could come in and use the toilet?”)
Then it got worse. The local restaurant where we had lunch did not have a toilet. They told us to cross the street, walk up a hill, and use the communal toilet. It cost 1 yuan (10 cents) to use. It was another concrete room with no dividers, but this time, there were no squatty potties either. Simply a long rectangular gap in the concrete running the width of the room … opening down into a pit. Yeah. No one else was there so I just had to invent how to use it … basically straddle the pit sideways and squat …hoping my foot doesn’t slip, and that I don’t drop my cell phone! I cannot imaging bringing a kid in to use that toilet, I would be so worried they’d fall into the pit! Top Tip: Always remember to bring your own TP and hand sanitizer!
Fortunately I only encountered 2 of those grim pit toilets during our time there. The rest of the time (including our hotels), had normal Western toilets, sinks, and hot water … so just beware when you travel outside of Lhasa!
Altitude. You might remember I was really worried about the effects of high-altitude. But in the end, Zak and I took prescription Diamox tablets and didn’t have any bad effects from the height. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t feel it…
On our drive out of Lhasa, we crossed the Kampa-la Pass (4797m) and then the Karo-la Pass (5050m) to see the Mt. Noijin Kangsang glacier (7206m). I downloaded an altimeter app on my phone so we could track the altitude en route (which was almost as exciting as checking the “Making Oxygen Machine Room” altimeter on the train!) While driving in the car, we were fine. But when we stopped at the viewpoint overlooking the glacier – WOW, could you feel the altitude! There were 15 steps up to the viewing platform, and it felt like dragging leaden legs up each step. We were so out of breath and tired at the top. After only 15 steps! Plus, you just feel a little spacey and slightly giddy/dizzy.
The drive out of Lhasa is long, but the scenery is spectacular.
Final Thoughts on Tibet
Overall, we had a fantastic time in Tibet. Our tour company was top-notch, and we especially loved our hotel in Lhasa, House of Shambhala. Their restaurant is one of the top-rated restaurants in Lhasa, and we ate there several times – everything was delicious. They made incredible Momo (dumplings) filled with tender minced yak or homemade cheese. Great Indian food (especially the lentil Dal with ginger and coriander). Yak noodle soup in a rich broth that was so filling and warming in the cold weather. Hot honey, lemon and fresh ginger tea. Plus the hotel was filled with Tibetan antiques and traditional decorations.
And – all the beds had electric blankets! Soooo nice to crawl into a warm bed after spending the day in the cold weather.
I was really dreading this part of the trip, especially the potential for altitude sickness. But in the end, this trip was incredible. I highly recommend doing the combination of the Xining-Lhasa train (in soft sleeper class!), and then spending a few days in Lhasa, if you ever have the chance. You can always fly out of Lhasa at the end to save time. Tibet is unlike anywhere else I’ve been, it felt so warm and welcoming, so devout, delicious food, vast landscapes, friendly people. In this case, I admit I was completely wrong about my expectations for this trip – and I’m so glad Zak pushed me to do it. Onwards!