An Adventure in Tibet

If you are a traveler, a Tibetan adventure is a required addition to any kind of bucket list of destinations you are aspiring to visit during your lifetime.  Tibet in itself is not a country but part of China. In 1951 China reasserted it’s claim over the land that it was once part of China under former dynasties in the past. Now it is refereed to as the Tibet Autonomous Region and the policies of China are slowly eroding it’s cultural uniqueness into a historical footnote. Linda and I knew the time to go was now while Tibet still had it's culture intact. To visit Tibet as a non-Chinese national you must have a Tibetan Travel Permit. You cannot board a train, plane, bus or otherwise cross the border without one. To get one you must have a Chinese VISA and be part of a tour with a precise itinerary. Your tour company will then present the documents to the government who issues your permit. Law also requires that even though we went as a private tour with only two of us, as non-nationals we must not only have a guide but a driver as well. It seems like a hassle and and sounds expensive yet Linda and I found a tour company run strictly by Tibetans that made the entire process go smoothly and at a very affordable price.   After seeing a program on the Qinghai-Tibet railway, the highest railway in the world, we decided to take the train from Guangzhou, China to Lhasa.  We flew to Hong Kong to acclimate to a different time zone and then took the train to Guangzhou where our journey would begin.

Hong Kong is a very relaxed introduction to Chinese culture. At one time it was a British Crown Colony and still retains a huge amount of British influence and culture (English is widely spoken and understood along with Cantonese).  Although very Western in appearance it still retains an exotic beauty and mystery of a culture truly foreign to our Western one.  Hong Kong is easy and safe. A taste of the exotic without the hassle.

Linda and I did our best to acclimate ourselves to a new time zone after a 14 hour flight. We managed to stay awake and make our way over to Kowloon on the mainland to watch the "Laser Light Show" that happens nightly on Hong Kong. The laser show was a little disappointing when you compare it to a Dark Side of the Moon show at the local planetarium. Watching the sunset and the buildings put on their colors as it got dark was completely awesome, lasers were not really needed. The perfect nightcap was taking the Star Ferry across the strait back to the Island.

Our train journey started at the new Kowloon train station where we took the high speed train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. China is another forward progressive country with high speed rail. What a joy to ride. Inexpensive, comfortable, smooth, quiet and FAST. My tracking program maxed out today at 196 mph. Cannot figure out why so many countries in the world have high speed rail and so many compete for the fastest while we Americans still fight the concept of efficient mass transit.

Once we arrived in Guangzhou we received the slap in the face and the one two punch to the gut that reminded us we were not in Kansas anymore. Signs were not in English or even Roman script anymore. The information desk at the railway station did not have any English speaking staff.  Chinese railway stations are the stuff that make up your worst nightmares. Linda and I had to retreat into a corner to regroup, figure out a strategy and get our act together.  We needed to search for an ATM that would regurgitate some cash in exchange for our PIN number. If a bank is not part of the VISA, CIRRUS etc… network that your card is, you are shit out of luck here. It becomes a treasure hunt to find an ATM that accepts your card.  With the help of Google Translate and a ChinaCom SIM card we found our ATM.  We should of got some cash in Hong Kong.  Mainland China lacks the civility of the British influences in Hong Kong. Here it is everyone for themselves. Jostling, pushing, racing ahead to get to the head of a non-existent line. The subway is a mob on one side pushing to get out at the same time the mob on the other is pushing to get in. Somehow it happens, everyone eventually gets on the subway, in the elevator or on the escalator.  It is amazing how many people can fit in an elevator. Maximum capacity is only a suggestion as to a minimum number.

Linda and I opted to take the train into Tibet rather than fly. The train from Guangzhou to Lhasa takes 54 hours with 12  very short stops, at times only 7-8 minutes.  A long  journey to be sure yet something to be said about riding on the highest railway in the world. The highest point is Tanggula Pass 16,640 ft (5,072 m) above sea level. Special built railroad cars for elevation have oxygen enriched interiors and oxygen supplies for each passenger. Since they are not pressurized altitude sickness may still be a factor and each train has a full medical staff on board.

When Linda and I finally arrived in Lhasa it was nothing as we had imagined. Multi-story, multi-family apartment blocks holding thousands of residents each dominated the skyline. Not until we arrived at our hotel in the old city did our fantasy images of Tibet start to reveal themselves.

After a few days in Lhasa to acclimate to the elevation (12,000 feet) we started our adventure to Everest Base Camp.  Our 10 day journey would take us through the  towns of Gyantse, Shigatse, Shegar and ultimately Everest base camp where we would stay in the Rongbuk monastery guesthouse.  Along the way we would drive over passes in excess of 17,000 feet, visit numerous monasteries and just stop to take in whatever vistas may have caught our attention.

As we got closer to Everest Base Camp, we began to catch glimpses of Everest in the distance.  The weather could not of been finer to present awe inspiring views of the highest mountains in the world.  Linda and I were fully charged with anticipation of what we might see when we rounded the final curve to the Rongbuk monastery.  We were not disappointed, Mt Everest, the crown jewel of all mountains just dominated the landscape.  Everest in all of its majestic splendor literally took our breath away.  Our guide Samtup commented that he had never seen it so clear and beautiful.  We were certainly blessed.

A few favorite pictures of the Tibetan people we met along the way.  Make sure you click on the picture of the prayer flags at the top of this page to view the full gallery of pictures with captions telling the story of our journey.

I cannot recommed this company enough. If you ever want to go to Tibet this is the tour company to use.  Clicking on the photo below of Linda and I with our guide Samtup at Gawulu Pass (17,100 feet) will take you to their web page.

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