"City in the Sky"
Tibet is a place I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. Today, all going well, I would finally get there.
Friday 11th September - Onwards and upwards, literally, to Lhasa, Tibet.
Before leaving for Tibet, our guide gave us a stern talking to about not mentioning politics to anyone, or not only would we be in trouble, so would she and the whole trip would be cancelled. China makes it so hard to enter Tibet that we're not about to blow our chance. We've made up the code word 'Sichuan pepper' for 'political situation'.
Our Chengdu panda spotting game finished at the airport. I won, just.
Before we even left Chengdu airport, I had another first - serving a meal on the tarmac whilst the flight is delayed. It was also the first time I've tried congee, a rice porrige popular with Chinese for breakfast. With the provided sachet of pickled vegetables added, it was palatable, just.
Leaving an hour late, the almost empty plane gave all of us a window seat. As we crossed over the Tibetan Plateau, smog gave way to a sea of clouds below us. Excitement rippled through the group an we played musical chairs as the windows on both sides of the plane offered breathtaking views. You don't need gaps in the clouds when the mountains poke above them. In the distance, snow covered Mount Gongga Shan stood supreme at 7556m. As gaps in the clouds became more frequent, we could see little villages, the only sign of people in this massive landscape of mountain peaks that is the Himalaya.
Below me, a wide river wound like a ribbon across a flat valley between the mountains as we came into land.
YAY! I'm finally in Tibet! I know I'm going to have wonderful time here.
We hadn't got far into our 90 minute drive from the airport to Lhasa when we were stopped at a checkpoint and had to all hand over our passports. I get the feeling that with the 'Sichuan pepper" the way it is, getting the permits to come here was the easy part and being here is not going to be straighforward.
Our hotel is located in the middle of a busy market street only one car wide. The street is a riot of colour and a carcophany of noise. Umbrellas of red, green, blue and yellow adorn vendors down both sides of the narrow stree like the beach on a summers day and the harsh sun under a blue sky add to the comparison. This is not a 'tourist' street and the items for sale are for locals at local prices. It didn't take long to discover a vendor next door selling freshly cooked kettle style chips for less than 20 cents a bag and you sprinkle on your own seasonings and give it a shake. Adds a new dimension to the phrase, "Cheap as chips."
Hungry, we all went out to a restaurant around the corner. My first meal in Tibet was a crispy and tasty Yak Pie which I washed down with a tart yak yoghurt banana lassi. I would discover shortly that if you love yak, you'll love Tibet. Michelle make such moaning noises eating her yak meatballs that I think she had a gastrogasm. (Don't bother looking that one up. It's a Malcolm neologism. Look that word up instead.) Amanda had vegetarian momos. Momos are Tibetan dumplings.
At over 3500m ASL, even climbing the stairs in the hotel leaves you short of breath. Having got up early this morning for the flight, and being careful not to overexert until I get acclimatised to the altitude, I took an afternoon nap before meeting the group at 5 for an orientation walk of Lhasa.
Ling took us just a couple of streets away to the streets surrounding the Jokang Temple. Pilgrims spinning prayer wheels walk laps of the temple and being popular with tourists gawking at the devotees, these streets ARE lined with tourist stalls. Grey storm clouds were brewing, but the sun was low in the sky and not blocked by cloud. Warm golden light bathed the temple and surrounding buildings and I couldn't help but take lots of photos making the most of the magical light splashed onto lovely old Tibetan buildings. Depending which way I took the photos, some backgrounds are grey clouds, whilst others have blue sky and white fluffy clouds.
I went onto the rooftop of the hotel to take some sunset photos. At 5 stories high, this is one of the larger buildings and it's a good view of the flat city.
Lhasa itself is flat, built on the valley floor, but on all sides you are surrounded by mountains. At 3595m ASL, it is pipped only by 65m by La Paz in Bolivia as the world's highest capital city. There are some similarities and differences between the cities. The women look so similar in appearance and dress it's uncanny. Bowler hats, long black hair tied into a single plait and similar clothing had me doing a double take. Looking directly at their face, they're different, but otherwise Tibetan and Bolivian women have a lot in common. Both cities are surrounded by mountains, but in La Paz they're closer and higher. La Paz is steep all over and the city encroaches on the surrounding mountains because it has to. Here in Lhasa there's much more feeling of space and the city itself is dead flat. The surrounding mountains are distant.
From the roof of the hotel we have a good view of the only high thing in Lhasa, the Potala Palace. World famous icon of Lhasa, it was built 1300 years ago on the only hill in town. It is to the west of us, which meant the sunset view was no good for photos as it was in shadow.
We're here for 5 days and have lots of free time, including doing our own thing for meals. 5 of us went to a Tibetan restaurant for dinner. Tashi 1 is known for it's house specialty of bobis, pronounced boobies. I've never met a boobie I didn't like and these Tibetan bobis were no exception. You get served 3 flat breads (bobis) like a soft tortilla and add the filling you've chosen, in my case yak, and wrap it up like a burrito and eat it. Yak yogurt banana lassi and a tart yak yoghurt cheese cake finished off a lovely dinner.
Back at the hotel I went up to the roof and took some photos of Potala Palace under floodlight before heading to bed.
The hotel here is interesting. They sweep the carpet, rather than vacuum it. The water is solar, but you have to run the shower for 15 minutes and even then it's barely hot. No wonder when everyone is running your stored hot water to waste. Crazy system. The ceiling of the shower is covered in blood spots. Is this really the Bates Motel? When you use the loo, you can hear it trickling into the shower drain. Might explain the smell on arrival. Must make sure to always flush. As usual in Tibet, you place used toilet paper in a bin, not the loo. Seems the plumbing can handle grogans, but not dunny paper.
First impressions of Lhasa would have to be the military presence. This is no token show. Soldiers patrol everywhere, walking single file in groups of 7. At most street corners there are gun-toting soldiers stationed within tape of the type they put around a crime scene, as snipers on rooftops survey from on high. All this takes place under the watchful eyes of CCTV cameras anywhere you care to look. I feel like they probably even know when I fart, which will be keeping someone in a full-time job as it's something I get at altitude. This is the third time I've spend time over 3500m (Peru/Bolivia 2004, Pakistan 2007) and I trumpet like a trooper.
Saturday - Take it easy day to help acclimatise to the altitude.
I woke before sunrise, so took my camera and tripod to the hotel roof for some night shots and maybe some golden light on the palace. Lhasa isn't that photogenic across the city, but the sunrise was colourful. Unfortunately, despite being up there patiently for an hour and a half, a cloud blocked the sun reaching the palace as golden light danced off surrounding mountains, just not where I wanted it to be.
Even our breakfast today came to us via yak. Yak yoghurt with muesli. It's very tart, even more so than goats milk/cheese.
We had a Tibetan lesson this morning, but rather than focus on a few useful words like hello, good-bye, yes, no, please and thankyou, we went through a long and useless list of words we'll never use in the two weeks we're here.
I went for a walk the full length of 'our' street and what a selection of vendors. Vibrant swathes of fabric and colourful piles of Nike ripoff shoes contrasted with the pungent rancid smell of yak butter stores that you can smell before you see the bright yellow of the butter blocks. Just as well that incense smoke regularly wafts up the street. At the far end I found butchers with yak, of course, just hanging up unrefrigerated. Air-dried mountain beef anyone?
Amanda and I had a lunch of Thukpa, Tibetan noodle soup. I had yak and Amanda had vegies. Both were good.
This afternoon we caught taxis to Sera Monastery. Seems they drive to cheat death here too.
The entrance to the monastery gave me my first look at Tibetan prayer wheels. Gold cylinders with prayers written on them. Vertically mounted, pilgrims walk past spinning them and each revolution sends that prayer off once. (All over the streets of Lhasa you will see people carrying a personal version of this with a prayer written inside and they walk around all day spinning their personal prayer wheel.)
Sera Monastery is famous for the debating monks each afternoon, but first we had a tour of the temple. Large and dimly lit by the light of yak butter candles, it had a sooty smell and what was once colourful fabric and paint was now grimy. There were many different Buddahs for people to pray to and each one accepted money to make your prayer have more chance of success. There were piles of money in front of each of them. You could have helped yourself, but you don't have to believe to know that would be BAD karma. Whether it's the Catholic church accepting money for masses to get people out of pergatory, Christians being expected to tithe, or this blatand throwing money at idols, one thing religions all over the world have got sorted is how to take people's money. Amazing that whatever all-powerful deity you believe in, they are always strapped for cash.
Escaping the monastery into the fresh air, we went next door to a courtyard full of monks. Under the dappled shade of poplar trees, everywhere you looked they were debating with each other. So many in fact you could say it was a mass debate. Paired off, one monk would be seated and the other stood and asked the questions. As they answered, the asking monk would emphatically slap his hands to indicate a right or wrong answer.
We tokk the chance and caught a bus back to our hotel. I say 'took the chance' because we are allowed to catch taxis and pedal rickshaws, but not a bus unless we have our Tibetan guide with us. They don't make it easy.
Later in the afternoon, Amanda and I took our cameras and explored the back streets and alleyways of Barkhor, the old Tibetan part of Lhasa surrounding the Jokhand Temple. I found a spot where the light was good and pilgrims walked laps of the temple and standing off to the side out of the way, I used a long lens to take some awesome portraits. Such a variety of people. Young and old, men and women, colourfully dressed and not, I got it all.
We had a sunset dinner tonight at an Indian restaurant overlooking the town square in front of the Jokhang Temple. China only has one time zone and we are in the far west, so the sun doesn't set until about 8pm.
I tried a Lhasa Beer that claimed to be "Beer from the roof of the world". I'm not sure which roof it came from, but it did taste of rainwater.
Sunday - Two temples today.
I got up early today and this time I did get the sunrise photo of the Potala Palace from the roof of our hotel. Unlike yesterday, the golden light did bathe the palace, albeit briefly.
We all met in reception at 10am today after breakfast. We are going to the Jokhang Temple this morning and to the Potala Palace (temple) this afternoon.
We're well located at the Oh Dan Hotel and the temple is just a short walk.
Outside the Jokhang Temple, pilgrims kowtowed, which involves chanting and clapping your hands over your head and then prostrating yourself. Most wore clogs on their hands and many used knee pads. The ones out front today did it in one spot, but if you follow the pilgims walk around the temple you will find them doing it facing the temple and then taking one step to the left and doing it again. Makes for a long lap.
Inside the temple we were greeted with the same dark yak butter smelling temple as yesterday. There were a dozen different Buddahs and grotesque other idols, and our guide insisted on giving us the full rundown on each with a voice that could only be heard by those closest to her. Uninspired, I escaped to the roof with my camera. NOW I'm inspired. Lovely light landed on golden figures of animals. In the distance I could see Potala Palace. Very photogenic up here.
We met up again at 1pm for our afternoon visit to the Potala Palace. What a rigmorole! Bus there was the easy part. You have an allocated time only, ours was 2pm and then you only have one hour. Two different passport checks and then a full bag scan to make sure you aren't bringing in any water - dangerous stuff. Then, without water on a hot day under a blazing sun you have to climb innumerable steps to reach the top, where overpriced water is waiting. Scamming people is one thing, but putting their health at risk to do it was not appreciated. The views of Lhasa from the top are expansive as this is the only high point in town. You aren't allowed to take photos inside, so you buy their postcards? The Potala Palace is made up of various temples to different Buddahs (diiferent Buddahs, same yak butter smell) and thrones of the Dali Lamas. The tomb for the 5th Dali Lama is topped with 3554 KG of gold, apparently. Originally built 1300 years ago, it is truely amazing piece of building.
It was a hot afternoon, so Amanda and I caught a cycle rickshaw back to the hotel and paid the guy twice the agreed price. Glad it wasn't me out there working at this altitude.
We bought some biscuits from a little shop. One was a Danish butter style, but the other started as a ginger snap and then the distinctive taste of Sichuan pepper kicked in. Sichuan pepper biscuits.
Today I got a haircut. Our street here has everything, including a hairdresser. She clipped away, as I looked in the mirror at the poster of 80's tragic hair dos on the wall behind her. Finishing with a dry shave on the back of the neck with a cut throat razor, I figured the shave cream version probably cost more than the $2 I paid.
I'd seen the sunrise over the Potala Palace but wanted sunset, from a different side. With lots of free time here in Lhasa I've been able to do photography that's more than just taking what you can when you are there. I've been able to go back to places of interest at the right time of day for the light I want. In time for sunset, Amanda and I caught a rickshaw to the Potala Palace. We walked a full lap with golden light flooding the palace walls and making the golden prayer wheels even more golden.
Rickshaw back for dinner at the Snowland Hotel. I was here at lunch for yak stew, but had seen a plate go past called Yak Sizzler and wanted to try that. If you like yak, you'll LOVE Tibet. My yak was delicious, but the local beer, Chang, not so. Lemon tartness at the first sip turns to a burnt taste at the back of your mouth. It's like bad home brew and just as cloudy.
Monday - Momo making, markets and more.
We're now missing Brett, who at 25 is the youngest in the group. He's been sick for days and this morning he went to hospital with what turned out to be pulmonary odema, and maybe more. They're stabilising him before getting him to a lower altitude. He's a tough Army guy and just kept on keeping on when he should have taken it easy. our guide Ling will have a busy day I'm sure.
The hotel kitchen closed for breakfast at 10:30 and at 10:40 we had a momo making lesson. Momos are Tibetan dumplings and the chef had a batch of vegetable filling, yak meat filling and some dough to wrap it in. We then spent the next hour making a multitude of momos in a variety of shapes, many of them non-traditional. They were then steamed and served at about noon, making it a perfect brunch for me. I was glad I hadn't eaten breakfast, so I had more room for the tasty momos. We still had plenty left and had fun in taking them out to the street and sharing them with smiling locals.
We met up again at 2pm and walked through even more random streets lined with vendors to reach the school for Braile without Borders. BwB is an organisation that empowers blind people with tuition and work skills so they can contribute to their family and community. Tibet has a high rate of blindness, due in part to poor health care. Many 'simple' things go untreated with dire consequences. Sad too that the Tibetans believe blindness to be a result of bad karma and marginalise blind people, though with education, I'm told this is improving. It was touching to be shown around the tiny school of 44 students and see what they're up to. They have no heating, so I imagine it gets bloody cold in winter up here in the mountains.
With the rest of the afternoon free, Amanda and I explored the markets we'd walked through on the way there and then wandered some more and found different streets. The variety of vendors and vibrancy of the colours made for some interesting photos and yes, I got a case of digital diahorrea and took too many photos. EVERYTHING was begging to be photographed.
Dinner tonight was a buffet with a Tibetan cultural show included. I took the chance to try something other than yak meat. New things for me included: gnocchi with yak butter, tasted as rancid as it smelt; sheep's lungs, so tender and tasty I went back for seconds; and yak butter tea, tasted like butter and water. I think they should cal it yuck butter. There are a couple of yak butter shops that you smell before you see them, selling it from giant unrefigerated yellow blocks. After dinner there was a show by three men that included singing, guitars and a big drum hit with a stick that looked like a sickle with a blob on the end of it. The finale was a pantomime yak that used two of the men and the other man 'teased' it like a mad bull. The yak then 'charged' around the room and Amanda was the first to be attacked. I have a video of it that I will link in on my return. It was a fun evening.
We kicked on to the roof top bar of the Yak Hotel, but whilst the views were great, the atmosphere was not and someone said, "We're going to another place." To which I said, "Where?" "Another Place" was the reply. Sure enough, just around the corner in a dark little lane was Another Place, a funky little bar in which we scored a little room for the group of us. Those who shared the bottle of red wine called Dynasty, said it was more like Die Nasty, but the rest of us were happy with our beers and Bacardi Breezers. Another Place is the kind of cool bar you usually only find when you live in a place.
Tuesday - Free day.
There were no planned activities today, so everyone did their own thing, which turned out to be shopping for most people.
Fuelling up for a day of bargaining and haggling, Amanda and I began with breakfast at Tashi 1. We'd eaten here on our first night when we had the bobis. Omelette, followed by yak yoghurt muesli with apples, banana and pineapple drizzled with honey was a breakfast to remember.
Shopping took care of the next few hours and I'm sure my nieces and nephews will be pleased with Uncle Malcolm. Can you believe that I bought a pair of genuine Gucci sunglasses for $5.
Walking around the pilgrim circuit - kora - of the Jokhang Temple continues to amaze with what you find and see. Just people watching is interesting.
It's right near where we were, so we had a late light lunch back at Tashi 1. A yak burger for me and vegetable momos for Amanda and a quick game of Euchre for both of us and we continued wandering. I bought a double CD of Tibetan music. Can't wait to hear it. Hope I like it. Yesterday I'd seen a man in a random alley fixing a backpack. My daypack needed stitching but the repair people I'd showed it to in China all said "Too hard." This guy had a big thick needle and was sewing leather so I knew he meant business. My backpack is now fixed, on the spot. While I was there, Amanda was making friends with a couple of local ladies, showing them her photos and then taking one of them and showing it to them on the back of the camera. Digital is great for that. Walking back I spotted one of the soldiers stationed on a street corner, wiggling to the music from a nearby vendor. As I walked toward him I made eye contact and did a little jiggle too. He smiled and it made me realise that, despite their uniform and what they represent, they're still people. He's a young man, but I have no idea of his background. Maybe this was his only chance at a decent life?
Brett has now been medivaced to Chengdu Hospital so he can recover without altitude. ......and then there were 11.
We have a fantastic group and as the hyperactive youngster of the group, he will be missed.
We all went out for dinner tonight to a rooftop restaurant overlooking the pilgrim's walk around Jokhang Temple. As the sun set, the golden shapes of the top of the temple that I described to you two days ago, lit up beautifully. The view from here was as good as the food was bad. I'm kinda glad my yak tongue with mushrooms never arrived as those that did were diabolical. I'll spare you the details. We've had an unbroken run of great meals, so I'm not complaining.
Someone suggested cheesecake at Tashi 1. Those that hadn't tried it had heard from those of us who had how good it was, and so it was that I found myself at the same restaurant for the third time in a day. Ling described her yak yoghurt cheesecake as the best one of her life. Quite a claim.
Well readers, that's Lhasa for me. Tomorrow we head of by four wheel drive to Gyantse. No showers or much else but we're told the views are spectacular. From now on it's up and up and deeper into the Himalayas, gaining altitude until we reach Everest Base Camp at over 5000m ASL in 6 days time.
I'll keep you up to date as I can, but until then I'll leave you with the following thoughts.
With so many people here wearing surgical masks, I was curious as to why. Swine flu, dusty environment, hiding your identity from the CCTV cameras, or as our guide suggested, avoiding sun on their faces so their cheeks don't go pink. With many not covering their cheeks, I eliminated that one. With some roads out of here being closed, I now know. It is because of what the Chinese call Pig Sick. That's right. Despite it's isolation, swine flu has reached Lhasa and the locals are taking no chances. With low nutrition and poor health amongst the Tibetans, I can't say I blame them.
I've struggled to find Chinglish for you here in Tibet. Unlike China, the Tibetans have a much better grasp of English, evidenced by the fact that many people speak it and when it's written on signs it's not all mangled into Chinglish. Don't fear readers, I have many signs from China that I spotted and photographed for you. I will put them all into a Flickr folder on my return and advise the link. What I have been getting lots of photos of is mops. Mops? That will be another Flickr folder and it all started with a walk through the hutongs of Beijing. I took three photos of mops for their artistic merit. They made a good photo.
I chose then to look out for mop shots of merit. Why? When in somewhere as different as China, it's easy to be overwhelmed with it all. Looking for mops has made me notice the details, though anyone who's been hiking with me knows I don't really need help for that. I don't find mop photos outside Prada and Gucci stores and have to walk the back streets where mops, and much more, are on display. I like to explore and wander where others don't and the mop shots are just the cream. The only rules I've set myself is that I don't alter anything. I haven't moved things into position to make a better photo, just capture what's there as best I can and try and make a creative photo for you. It's been fun and has drawn some funny looks from locals when there's Malcolm photographing a mop. I'll make a folder of them on Flickr for you too. You will be amazed at the variety of settings in which I've spotted mops. Today I got a classic with an old dusty bike that looked like it hadn't been riden in years with a bright red mop hanging on it to dry. 101 Mops of China?