Asia | China | Tibet | Lhasa – Heaven and Earth Meet in Lhasa
Just after 7 a.m., mountains begin piercing through the clouds. More and more jagged peaks become visible, and soon we are descending, almost scraping the ridges of the highest mountains on earth. Tibet’s barren and majestic landscape is in full view and I am emotional at my arrival in this place that I have dreamed of coming to for so long. My journal contains a newspaper clipping that has been posted on my fridge or bulletin board since March of 1999. It reads ‘Heaven and Earth Meet in Lhasa’
Earlier on October 1st, 2004 at 4:15 a.m., the 3:45 a.m. wake-up call for room 2733 rings at Sam’s Guesthouse. A very quick shower, and I’m loading my gear, including the new bike, downstairs for transport to Chengdu International Airport. Pierre and Sonia from Montreal, are surprised to see me, as I thought my flight was in the afternoon. There is not enough room in the jeep for three bicycles, luggage and 5 passengers, so a taxi is summoned, and three of us take that to the airport.
Checking in seems to be going well. Then, I’m asked to bring my bike to counter one, then to the x-ray machine. It won’t fit. Then it’s back to counter one to fill out a form, then to counter 15 to pay 230 yuan over some half-hearted protests, then back to counter 22 to get it tagged, then back to counter one to hand over the bike. Eventually, we are airborne at 6:30 a.m.
On arrival at 3600 meters, I am immediately feeling the effects of the altitude. It is difficult to breathe and inflating my tires is an effort. I feel a mild headache coming on as we load our bikes on the bus for the 100 km trip to Lhasa City.
On arrival at the bus depot, we charter a rickshaw and pedicart to transfer the gear, Pierre and Sonia to the Kirey Hotel. I ride shotgun, pointing the way.
After purchasing some water I sleep for three hours while Pierre and Sonia check out the Barkhor Quarter of town. I’m still a little light headed when I get up – the feeling being a little like too much nitrous oxide from the dentist. Of course, I know the dangers and consequences of Acute Mountain Sickness or Altitude Sickness can be much more severe, so I’m taking it easy. Later we have a pleasant supper at the Shangri-La restaurant of the hotel.
October 2nd: The name Lhasa means “The Gods Descending”, and Tibetans refer to their country as “The Land of the Snows”. I’m feeling better here in Snowland, so we embark on a short 22km ride to what was once one of Tibet’s wealthiest and powerful monastries, Drepung Monastery. We somehow lose Pierre on the way there, but find him again when we were almost back at the bottom of the hill. The ride itself was relatively painless, although we were a little winded at the top. The admission was around $7 US, so we we just took a look around the exterior before going back to town. Enroute, I stop at the Potala, but there are no tickets left for that day.
October 3rd: I’ve decided to explore the Potala and Jokhang in Lhasa today, while Pierre and Sonia take a (very long) trip to Samye Monastery on a bus leaving at 6:00 a.m. At first, the Potala does not want to issue me a ticket, but after also not being able to issue me a ticket for three days hence, and being ‘only one’ person, they tell me to ‘hurry up’ the 300 meter hill to the entrance, leaving some perplexed foreigners at the ticket counter. Making my way past the prayer stones to the entrance of the Mighty Potala, I purchase my 100 Yuan ($18 CDN)entrance ticket.
The Potala is the former home of the Dalai Lama, and contains thousands of statues. It’s considered one of the most important and sacred places in Tibet, containing two major palaces, the red and white. I won’t go into detail about all of the many manadalas, statues, rooms, tombs, chapels, thrones, and residences, but they are interesting, and worth seeing. From the roof, there are panoramic views of the valley, and tourists taking pictures which are forbidden from other areas in the palace.
I also managed to do some ill conceived souvenir shopping, as well as picking up some prayer flags to fly on the upcoming passes. Later, Pierre and Sonia return with tales of adventure, and we share some laughs over dinner at a newly discovered Tibetan restaurant.
October 4th: Today is the first big fully loaded test ride with gear. We will eat breakfast, leave only a few things in left luggage, and then test our mettle by climbing to 4200 m with most of the climb coming at the end of the 60 km ride(that distance includes leaving Lhasa).
We make one wrong turn heading out of town, but discover our mistake within one kilometer. Soon, we are passing the Chinese Military Guards on the bridge out of Lhasa on our way to Ganden Monastery, north-east of Lhasa. Greetings of “hello” and “Tashi Deleh” are soon being called back and forth as we make our way down the well paved highway that eventually hugs the beautiful Kyi Chu turquoise river, nestled beneath the amazing Tibetan landscape. We stop for some noodle soup, and again at a suspension bridge festooned with prayer flags. Travelling at a comfortable 20 km/hour, we soon reach the bottom of the hill that leads to the monastery. Another 9 km and 500 m to climb up a dusty winding road with countless switchbacks and…and we’ll be there.
Yaks graze along the roadside, children stop us wanting to say hello or see if there might be some candy in our pockets, clouds of dust sweep across the road as vehicles pass up and down, and air intake becomes increasingly difficult. On a couple of occaisions, I find myself veering towards the edge of the road where a merciless drop-off waits, unable to unclip my shoes from the pedals. Thankfully, I manage to stop or steer away in time.
After almost two and a half hours, with numerous stops to gather more oxygen in our lungs, we push our bikes for a small distance near the top before riding to the monastery guesthouse. It was exhausting to then load our gear up to the third floor, and our bikes up a stone stairway with steps four and five inches wide, but we did settle in, enjoying the serenity and magnificent views. I forced myself to eat a bowl of noodle soup before collapsing until morning.
October 5th: Apparently, I slept quite soundly through raging winds, hail, and thunder during the night. The snow covered mountains in the distance displayed the storm’s efforts’, as we watch busloads of pilgrims arrive to walk the Ganden Kora. A kora is a clockwise pilgrimage around a sacred holy place that includes numerous rituals such as : spinning prayer wheels, tieing prayer flags, prostrating oneself, burning incense, squeezing through narrow passageways, tieing a piece of one’s hair to a string or rock, putting a noose around your neck and embracing death, rubbing rocks, sometimes with your backside, putting bits of earth or rock on wax or rocks, putting your fingers in small rock indentations, placing your string of beads through a hole in a cliff, lighting candles, and much more. We follow the Lower Kora around until it leads to the monastery, where monks are chanting and debating in the assembly hall. There are numerous chapels to wander through before having a quick lunch and loading up for the trip back to Lhasa.
Our 5.5 or 6 hour ride to the monastery became a 3 hour breeze back to Lhasa City, aided in part by a fantastic tailwind, that at one point erupted into a minor hailstorm. Our previous hotel, and more than a few others were full when we arrived, so we settled on sharing a triple room at the Banok Shol hotel. We figured it was a result of the National Day weeklong holiday coming to an end and the various domestic tourists having to make their way home again. We had a delightful meal at the Kailish Restaurant in the hotel. Pierre had Nepali Tali, Sonia had the Chicken Sizzler, and I had a hearty helping of Spaghetti Bolognese.
October 6th: Rest and errand day. While Pierre and Sonia visited the Potala, I did some errands, and in typical Chinese fashion, they took a lot longer than one might expect. First was the exchange of the bow and arrows that were going to be a huge hassle to ship (what was I thinking when I bought them? Was it altitude sickness?). Then there was the shipping of two parcels and three postcards (2.5 hours), and buying some US dollars at the bank (another 1.15 hours). I did locate some instant cereal packets at the supermarket for the trip, because one can only eat so much noodle soup on the road. I also found a water filter and having assessed my health, decided to postpone my own departure for Nam Tso for at least one more day.
October 7th: Pierre and Sonia leave for Nam Tso. I rest.
October 8th: I buy a bus ticket to take me partway to Nam Tso, and on my return to the hotel, see Pierre and Sonia’s bikes in the left luggage. Turns out there was too much snow to get over the pass, so they’ve returned. We have dinner and plan to leave on the Friendship Highway after one more day.
October 9th: We make some adjustments to the bikes and repack for the journey ahead.