There are few places in the world that are more difficult to get to than Tibet, but it turns out that the juice really is worth the squeeze. Three surprise days in a central Chinese airport, a few failed landing attempts and an I-take-myself-motherfucking-seriously government didn’t get in the way of the most incredible trip of my life.
Sichuan: a Little Spice and a lot of Airporting
You know where I never thought I’d spend the holidays? Chengdu, China. I’ve never met anyone from Chengdu, Pandas aren’t really my thing, and I’m quite happy melting my lips off with spicy dishes from other parts of the world thank you very much. But, as fate would have it, I didn’t have a choice.
We departed Kathmandu for Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet after a lengthy delay. Our descent over the Himalayas into the Tibetan plateau got rocked by strong winds and serious turbulence so we were re-routed to Chengdu.
Our routine for the following three days was something like this: get up at 4 a.m., go to the airport, board plane for Lhasa, start final descent, pilot reveals he’s fucking with you, return to Chengdu, wait in airport for another flight out until dinner time, go to hotel, be sad. Repeat.
There were a couple of memorable happenings in Chengdu worth sharing:
Stranded in a hotel with no English speakers, Joey somehow knows enough Mandarin to understand where our room is and get us there despite all numbers and words are in Chinese. Interestingly the only thing he couldn’t remember how to say (see: never learned) was vegetarian. Unhelpful.
While playing a game of cards surrounded by curious observers in the airport (Chinese loving gambling is not an undeserved stereotype), I spent all of my patience waiting for Joey to painstakingly play his next hand. Hand after hand after hand. A curious Tibetan woman leaning over me pointed at Joey, shook her head at him and exclaimed “men!” Some things are truly universal. We had a roaring laugh. When he eventually won she announced the only other two English words in her vocab: “so luck!”
Chengdu is known for Panda tourism. Thanks to Joey, I have the South Park sexual harassment panda song stuck in my head. Also, to this day I hope he was joking about all of the street meat skewers he ate actually being panda kabobs. Sad panda.
Sidebar: How can I visit Tibet?
Step 1: Pay a registered Chinese tour company a lot of money to apply for a visa and permits.
Step 2: Wait for paperwork while drinking Everest beer in Kathmandu.
Step 3: Psychologically prepare yourself for thorough examination by every person you come across in uniform (spoiler: record is over 15 individual visa checks in one day!)
Step 4: Read Seven Years in Tibet and then delete it on your Kindle because freeing Tibet makes China grumpy and I don’t want to be a Chengdu-er for life.
Step 5: Try to download a new book unsuccessfully thanks to a government that thinks 97 percent of the internet is stoopid.
Step 6: Enjoy Tibet!
Second Sidebar: What is Tibet?
If you’re in the know about Tibet, I suggest skipping this little blurb. For a refresher on what the deal is with Tibet, I took this summary from freetibet.org:
Tibet has a rich history as a nation, existing side-by-side with China for centuries. In 1950, the newly established Chinese Communist regime decided that Tibet must become a permanent part of the People’s Republic of China and launched an invasion.
For China, possessing Tibet gave access to rich natural resources and allowed it to militarise the strategically important border with India. With 40,000 Chinese troops in its sparsely populated country, the Tibetan government – led by the still teenaged Dalai Lama – was forced to recognise China’s rule in return for promises to protect Tibet’s political system and Tibetan Buddhism.
China failed to keep its promises and ongoing Tibetan resistance came to a head on 10 March 1959. Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans surrounded the Potala Palace in Lhasa fearing that the Dalai Lama was about to be kidnapped or assassinated. The uprising was brutally suppressed and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee into exile. To this day Tibet remains an independent state under illegal occupation.
Out of Body Experience
We re-traced our usual steps the morning of December 24. Board a delayed flight, take an airplane ride, and end up
where we started out in Lhasa! As we bobbed and weaved through the Tibetan Plateau’s rugged, sandy peaks on our final descent, a large clearing opened before us and a small river traced up through a valley. A wee dot along the horizon gradually came into focus and my heart skipped a beat. The Potala Palace. Through misted eyes I made out its magnificent prominence, and studied the contrast between its sharp lines of maroon and white, and surrounding flat, dull land. Words can’t express the power of that moment. I’ll never forget it.
When our plane’s wheels hit the ground I realized my dream of Tibet had finally come true. After an hour-long hold-up at the airport to ensure we had secured the correct visas (everyone had to see it – can’t have anyone feeling left out, thanks China) our guide picked us up and we were on our way into this mysterious, remote land.
What our hotel in Lhasa lacked in basic amenities like heat, it made up for in hospitality, character and charm. We were welcomed with a small surprise Christmas eve celebration hosted by the hotel’s staff. They prepared pancakes and hot sweet tea, and gave us each a small wrapped gift. We quickly learned that this was reflective of Tibetans as a whole – kind, warm and incredibly welcoming.
Everest or Bust!
Because of our fun little Chengdu diversion we missed the first three days of our tour and had to jump into the itinerary halfway. The good news was we were able to extend our trip and check out the things we missed at the tail-end of our sojourn instead! Stay tuned for my Lhasa musings in a future post.
Unfortunately we didn’t have any time to acclimatize to the altitude (Lhasa sits at 3,656m) before hopping in a bus to Shigatse (4,464m), the second largest city in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The scenery was incredible. I expected more snow and extreme conditions, but was surprised to see low lying arid dunes surrounded by soaring rocky mountains. Spectacular jade rivers carved out valleys along our six-hour drive. Did you know Tibet is where Asia’s 10 major river systems originate?
Shigatse delivered nicely against the trip’s freeze-your-nipples-off theme as we enjoyed our second day without heat. We kept warm by staying active and visited the remarkable Tashilhunpo Buddhist Monastery, founded in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama.
We left early the next morning after a chilly night for Everest Base Camp. The nine-hour drive seemed to take eons given my pee-mah-pants excitement.
And then, when she was ready… she presented herself. We rounded the peak of a summit pass and to our awe and amazement saw the Mahalangur mountain range, lined with 8,000m peaks and Everest (8,848m) in all her glory standing proudly in the middle! We were still an hour away from Base Camp, but every corner we turned presented a new angle and different view of her majesty, and an exhilarating rush of uncontainable excitement.
We arrived at Everest Base Camp before sunset and cruised around for the better part of an hour trying to stay warm and limit our exposure to the elements. The wind was howling and I was taken back by how raw and harsh the environment was. Of course there were no tents as climbing season wouldn’t begin again until Spring (if at all due to earthquake damage), but I couldn’t stop myself from imagining what it must be like to sit at the foot of the mountain preparing for an expedition of this magnitude.
I went back and forth about including this in the blog, and decided to make it short and sweet because vagabonding (now known as ‘Veritybonding’) is about having an authentic experience, not a perfect one!
We shared our tour with a handful of other tourists from various parts of Europe and Asia including our visit to base camp. The guide made arrangements to stay afterward at a hotel an hour away, however some of the more vocal group members wanted to stay at base camp for the ‘adventure factor’. This just in: you didn’t climb the fucking mountain, so staying at base camp for one night doesn’t make you a mountaineer, douchetard! I digress…
The guide strongly suggested against staying there as there was no running water, heat, electricity or food and it was -25C (-13F). Understandable! Joey and I, among others, were not prepared for those types of conditions but ended up being outnumbered.
We ended up staying in a dilapidated structure, and I listened to poor Joey gasp for air throughout the night while shaking uncontrollably. Gotta love freezing temperatures when you are suddenly at altitude! One of our group members from Russia who was worried about the conditions refused to get out of the bus and held out there in protest, sobbing until the wee hours of the night.
Ah, but as fate would have it I did find solace in the fact that every one of those George Mallory motherfuckers froze their tails off and regretted making such a big scene over staying at base camp. I love when that happens.
My spirituality, if you can call it that, is deeply connected with the natural world and I’ll admit it now, from the comfort of a warm home, that a part of me felt zen weathering that night because it only represented the tiniest flavor of what my heroes, the mountaineers and adventurers of this world, endure to accomplish extraordinary things.
We gradually thawed ourselves during the bus ride back to Shigatse the next morning, and proceeded to Lhasa the day after. Lots of exploring (and visa verification) left to do in Tibet!
BRB just doings stuff for a bit k?