On the 5th of September we wrapped up our tour in Beijing and checked our bags through to Lhasa . After a quick goodbye to Lynn we head down the escalator to security. Since this was a domestic flight, neither of our security guards could explain to us what they needed but after playing a quick round of charades we deciphered that they were looking for our Tibet visa. Now for a little background on this, ourChinese visa was originally denied due to the fact our itinerary said we were going to Lhasa after Beijing . After a fabricated itinerary and some help with our tour guide, we were able to get one once we were in Beijing . Back to the story, once we produced our visa we endured ten minutes of confusion and lots of animated discussion in Chinese among security, we were finally let through to the x-ray machines. At this point dad and I had to stand on a short pedestal while we endured a thorough body search which would have been more appropriately done behind closed doors and after a few drinks. After are rear ends had been thoroughly groped we went on to our final stage of our examination which included a thorough wipe down of us and our carry-on with the bomb detecting fabric. Apparently we passed and were allowed through to Tibet .
Upon arrival we met our guide, we’ll call him Bob, due to the fact he mumbled everything including his name and I am fairly certain even if he spoke clearly we still wouldn’t have understood it. Bob welcomed us with traditional Tibetan fashion by putting a white scarf over our neck. After a one hour drive, through a somewhat desolate but mountainous landscape, we made it to our hotel in a newer part of town. At this point I started to feel the altitude(12000 feet), slightly dizzy and light head, almost along the lines of standing up to quickly, but it didn’t go away after a few seconds or minutes for that matter. We followed our guide up to the desk as we checked in, had to provide our visa again, and at this point I was more or less holding on and trying to stabilize myself with the desk. My dumb, dizzy head, was doing all it could to “try and look normal” even though my eyes at this point seemed to somehow be stuck in the slightly crossed position. The worse part was that I am the young healthy man here, how can Dad at twice my age be fine….We grab our keys and start heading toward the elevator to get to our room. At this point Dad takes a few confused, stumbling steps forward, looks at me and says “I think I am feeling the altitude, a bit”. Thank goodness, I thought I was going to have to blame my slightly crossed eye on a muscle spasm for the whole leg of this trip.
A long walk down what I am fairly certain was crooked hallway (they seemed to have straightened this out by the next day) and we made it to our room. It was fairly nice and they seem to be very concerned with our backs as the box spring beds are twice as stiff as the ones found in Beijing . The hotel was even kind enough to supply us with various altitude sickness medicine and even two canisters of over the counter oxygen, which looked more or less like oversized bottles of Glade.
After a few hours of relaxing in our room, Bob came to pick us up for dinner. We drove from our hotel towards the old section of town and on the way we began to notice the large population of Chinese military. Every street corner, every rooftop, every alleyway had them. Eight armed soldiers with machine guns and riot shields to guard a gas station, four to guard an entrance down one street with another four on the opposing corner. The Chinese had an oppressive force here which has clearly extinguished any thought of an uprising. Somehow nearly a 1:1 ratio of armed soldiers seems excessive against prayer wheel wielding peasants.
Once we made it to our destination, and up the arduous and time consuming climb to the second floor restaurant(there must have been at least 12 steps), we enjoyed our first view of the old city Lhasa . This was my first meal with Yak. As the saying goes “when in Rome ” and dads motto “just try it”, I ordered the yak curry, and once again Dad did not heed his own words and had the chicken curry. As far as yak goes, it’s the best I have ever had, dad on the other hand didn’t find his chicken curry, which was more of a chicken cartilage and bone curry, nearly as satisfying. After a quick fireworks show, when one of the many criss-crossed wires, so typical in 3rd world countries, shorted out just outside our window we headed on back to the hotel for our big next day.
The next morning we woke early and headed down to our hotel breakfast buffet. What surprises would lye in store for us today? It mostly consisted of mystery meat and random dishes that were either inedible due to sanitary reason or they just looked gross. We settled on toast and eggs that are fried in their equivalent volume of oil. I also tried the local drink of Yak Butter Tea, the name very accurately describes the taste…After our satisfying meal we headed off to the Potola Palace , which is the seat of both religion and politics in Tibet .
The Potola is an amazing structure. Sitting on top of a small hill in the middle of the city it is truly an imposing structure, and much bigger than we originally had expected. Upon arrival, and providing your Tibet visa again, you are surrounded by peasants that are on their pilgrimage to pay homage to the Dali Lama. In one hand they have there personal prayer wheel, the other, spinning the thousands of other prayer wheels found around the border of the Potola. It requires three circles around the Potola to complete your pilgrimage in increase your enlightenment, we made it once…
The stairs up the front of the Potola were tough for us, but we were able to do it as we were both in much better shape than we were the day before. Upon reaching the top courtyard we were able to hear a Tibetan chant by women who were beating some drums off in the distance as we soaked in the surreal vista. The inside of the Potola was equally as impressive as the exterior. The rooms housed prayer rooms, yak butter candles, and gigantic golden Budhas made from thousands of kilos of gold and precious stones. Some of the rooms felt far to large to be inside of the structure. Bob introduced us to what seemed to be hundreds of types of Budhas, between the two of us I think we can name three.
After our visit to the Potola we went to many other places and had meals that we ….. ate… Most of my meals consisted of Yak: yak dumplings, yak on a stick, chopped yak, ohh the numerous ways to enjoy yak. The menus at most places had a wonderful “chinglish” translation that was always more enjoyable than the meal, which was not difficult. The best was when our guide took us to the best international French Cuisine that Tibet had to offer. Yak Au Pov, Yak Burgeon, Yak Fricassee, the possibilities and dishes with yak are endless. Not only did the food taste terrible in Tibet the presentation was on par with the flavor. I highly doubt that any fine French restauarant would serve their Yak au Pov in a way that made it look like an overcooked cow pie, surely they would have the proper garnishment. The good news about the food was we both lost a kilo while in Tibet .
Among the other sites we saw were the Sera monastery, which is an active monastery in Lhasa and is built on a mountain overlooking the city. The highlights here were the idols and Budhas painted and carved onto rocks around the monastery. We also went to the Barkhor market which is an endless maze in the old part of Tibet that contain what seemed to be thousands of street vendors selling items ranging from yak butter to blenders. At the far end of the market we went into the Jokhang Temple which offered great views overlooking the Barkhor and of the Potola.
Our final day in Tibet we had the unique opportunity to travel into the countryside to a remote monastery. Along the three hour drive out, we were able to see farmers cut hay and barley by hand with a hand scythe. We went into a working mill that was about as archaic as they come. We got lightheaded again as we climbed to 14,400 feet and walked up stairs in and around the monastery. We saw yaks. It was a good day.