I left the Crown Plaza Panda Garden in the hotel car around 08:00, for the long drive through the massive city to Chengdu Airport and my flight to Lhasa, Tibet. I always try to use the hotel car for several reasons. They are nicer. They are safer, more dependable, and I can trust them. They help me with my bags. I get dropped off at the right spot. Finally, they don’t cost that much more than a taxi. Also, I can charge it to my room and get the reward points for it. Since I arrived in Chengdu at night, I wasn’t able to see much except for millions of bright lights as my car sped through the city to my hotel. However, on the return trip, I was able to get a glimpse of how massive Chengdu really is. There were thousands of high-rise apartment complexes. I didn’t see a single community of single-family homes. It appeared that everyone lived in an apartment that didn’t seem very large. Furthermore, they all looked the same. It reminded me of that old Peter, Paul, and Mary song, “Little boxes made of ticky-tacky and they all looked just the same.” I guess it was okay if you didn’t know any better. Once again, I thank God for my way of life.
The traffic was very heavy through the city. However, my driver maneuvered through it like a seasoned NASCAR driver. We arrived with plenty of time to spare. The driver assisted me as far as security would permit him. Then, I was on my own to run the security gauntlet. I found the Air China Business Class check-in point, which was separate from the others and less crowded. After dropping my bags off, I needed to trot clear to the other end of the airport to get my Starbucks Coffee mug from Chengdu! The round trip was several hundred yards and the jog did me good!
I can’t get over the security procedures. They x-ray everything when you enter the airport. They check it again at check-in. They check it again at airport security, then they x-ray it again when you arrive. Of course, they don’t have TSA Pre-check, so the usual hassle is the norm and multiplied.
The flight to Lhasa, Tibet was normal. I sat next to a Russian gentleman who spoke excellent English. It appears that he and 7 other men go on vacation, together, each year. They go to a different place each year. This seemed a bit suspicious. However, I gave up being an intel. officer almost 30 years ago, so I chose to ignore these thoughts and mind my own business.
The flight from Chengdu was about 2 hours and 45 minutes. While the ground below was cloud- covered, the sky was bright and clear at out altitude. Suddenly, huge mountain peaks began to sprout up through the clouds. We were flying near the Himalayan Mountain Range and one of those mountains was the famous Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. It just so happens that Sir Edmund Hillary conquered that mountain 65 years ago, the week we were arriving in Lhasa. The view was truly impressive and I will share my shots of Mt Everest during my Nepal / Bhutan travelogues.
Speaking of arriving in Lhasa, one can’t simply go there as one would visit other cities in China. Special permission and a permit must be obtained from the Chinese government well ahead of a planned visit to Tibet. In fact, months prior to my visit, I had begun working with Vivien of Tibet Tours, in order to obtain the necessary documents. This was due to the political discourse between the Chinese and the Tibetan people. Once I had obtained permission to visit Tibet, Vivien had forwarded the original paper work to my hotel in Chengdu. It was waiting for me at the concierge’s desk when I checked into the hotel. Without that proper paperwork, I would NOT have been permitted to board the plane for Lhasa, Tibet.
Our approach to Lhasa was a bit exciting. Pilots have to receive special training prior to being qualified to land at Gonggar Airport at Lhasa, Tibet. They have to contend with landing at an airport with an altitude of 12,000 ft. I was told that there are only 25 pilots qualified to land there. I believe that! We flew through valleys with housing rising on hills above the aircraft. Once on the ground, I noticed that there was NOT an abundance of runway. We arrived mid-afternoon and the airport didn’t seem very busy.
Once off the plane, I immediately felt the effects of the high altitude. I was light headed. It was almost like having a bad hangover without taking a drink! I did not like the feeling. Lhasa is one of the highest cities in the world at 12,000 feet above sea level. Because of this, I had the remainder of the day to acclimate myself to the atmospheric conditions.
I was very pleased to see my tour guide, Ciwang, waiting for me as I left the Customs area. He had a nice Toyota 4 Runner that easily carried my baggage. From the airport, we set out along the modern 4 lane highway for the hour-long, 40-mile drive to Lhasa. The road took us through the mountain valleys where there was still snow on the ground in some areas. Although it was a welcome change from the heat and high humidity of Chengdu, China, I was grateful that I had my all-weather parka with me. I had to be prepared for all weather conditions as this trip took me from dry, triple digit heat; to 90-degree temps and high humidity; to freezing cold weather with snow on the ground. This demonstrated why I had so much luggage!
We arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel, Lhasa Paradise. It was an unusual hotel with a unique multi-triangle design and demonstrated that Lhasa, with the help of the Chinese, was trying to enter into the 21st century. My guide instructed me to spend the rest of the day getting rested and acclimated to the altitude and we would start the tour the next day. I didn’t argue and spent the rest of the day trying to shake my woozy feelings. To help the
visitors adjust to the altitude, the hotel actually pumps additional oxygen into the guest rooms during the hours of 20:00 and 06:00. I could feel the difference. The hotel had another unique aspect. Most of the dining areas were in an open-air atrium. This made for chilly dining, especially in the morning when the temperature was below freezing. I opted to try the steak for dinner that night. It wasn’t black angus, Iowa corn fed beef.
My guide picked me up at 09:00. This allowed for an invigorating breakfast in open air atrium. With the help of the forced fed oxygen during the night, I felt much better but not 100%. Yet, I really wanted to see Lhasa, Tibet, especially the iconic Potala Palace. But first, we did a drive tour around the city of Lhasa.
In 1913, Tibet declared its independence from China. However, on October 7, 1950, the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army invaded Tibet. Since then, Tibet has been one of the Autonomous Regions of China. Lhasa was the traditional capital and the currently serves as a prefecture-level city of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. All that means is that Lhasa is still the capital city of Tibet but with strong Chinese influence and control. There are subtle signs of Chinese efforts to exercise this influence. Chinese flags fly everywhere and there were no Tibetan flags visible. There was a detectable underlying resentment of the Chinese among the Tibetans that I met, including my guide and driver. In March 1959, such resentments exploded into a full revolt of the Tibetan people against the Chinese. The revolt was quickly suppressed resulting in even stronger Chinese control over Tibet. Fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists, fled the country and is currently living in exile in India.
After the tour of the city of Lhasa, we parked the SUV and proceeded on foot down the famous Barkhor street toward the Jokhang Temple located in the old town of Lhasa. This was both the spiritual heart of Lhasa as well as one of the main shopping areas. The streets were crowded, noisy, and filled with religious and souvenir shops as well as the residential shopping. The pungent mix of food from sidewalk restaurants and burning incense filled the air. Right in the middle of Barkhor Square was a Burger King! I made note of its location. The sidewalk restaurants didn’t look all that appealing.
We finally reached the Jokhang Temple Monastery which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tibet is 91% Buddhist even though the Chinese government does their best to discourage religion. The word “Jokhang” means house of Buddha. The Tibetans consider the Jokhang Temple to be the most important and sacred temple
in Tibet. The Temple is considered the spiritual center of Tibet and is the holiest destination for Tibetan pilgrims. Built in the 7th century, this 4 story building has roofs made of gilded bronze tiles. It is truly a spectacular site.
Unfortunately, photography was not permitted inside the Temple, which consisted of numerous small chapels dedicated to various Gods and Buddhas. Thousands of Buddha statues, ranging in size from very small to life size, lined the maze of walkways on each floor. The entire interior was lit by thousands of candles. The yak butter candles and numerous incense josh sticks combined to make an unusual aroma that filled the entire temple. A bit spooky, it reminded of a set from an Indian Jones film. The temple was definitely not handicap accessible. I found climbing the 4 levels of narrow wooden stairways at Lhasa’s altitude to be a bit taxing. I was envious of my younger guide who was used to the thin air. However, I appreciated his patience and understanding.
Leaving the Jokhang Temple, we returned to the area around Barkhor Square where my guide, Ciwang, suggested/insisted that we have some sweet tea. We entered a single room that had over 100 people sitting elbow to elbow on wooden benches in front of narrow tables. Ciwang ordered a glass of hot sweet tea for both of us. Soon, one of the servers poured the hot, milky tea in a glass before I had a chance to check its cleanliness. Oh well, when in Rome… The sweet tea tasted like a light hot chocolate and wasn’t bad. I finished it and before I had a chance to decline, Ciwang ordered a second round. I was able to decline the third round.
All the time, while enjoying the sweet tea and having a bit of a broken conversation with Ciwang, I noticed that I was the focus of attention of everyone around me. It was more than being the stranger in town. I was at least a foot taller and 50 lbs. heavier than anyone else in the room. Furthermore, my fair skin and white hair was totally strange to them. Instead of starring back, I simply returned their stares with smiles and that seemed to break the ice. Everyone seemed to accept me. Since I declined the third round of sweet tea, Ciwang decided that the tea break was over and we continued to walk around Barkhor Square.
It was nearing lunch time and Ciwang was about to suggest we eat at a local restaurant. I proposed that since we had gone to one of “his” coffee shops, I would treat him to lunch at Burger King. To my relief, he readily agreed. We went to the second story oasis of American fast food and enjoyed a bit of Americana. I didn’t realize that right after lunch, we were going to climb to the top of the Potala Palace. If I had known that, I would have either skipped lunch or at least skipped the french-fries.
For me and many others, the most recognizable attraction of Tibet is the Potala Palace, another UNESCO World
Heritage Site. It reminded me of the palace in the mythical place called Shangri-La as depicted in the classic movie, “Lost Horizon.” The Potala Palace is the highest ancient palace in the world! Built in 1645 by the 5th Dalai Lama, the Potala Palace was the winter home for the Dalai Lamas until 1959 when the 14th Dalai Lama was forced into exile in India. Rising over 1,000 ft. above the city of Lhasa, the palace has over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines, and an estimated 200,000 statues., 10,000 painted scrolls, and 698 murals. There are also over 3,000 images of Buddha.
Many parts of the palace are accessible to tourists and pilgrims. However, to reach the top of the palace, for some, is a daunting challenge. Remember, the climb starts at 12,000 ft. and goes up another 1,000 ft. via 432 uneven stone steps. The altitude and thin air become very obvious. Once at the doorway to the Palace, there are 13 stories to climb before reaching the top. Winding through the narrow hallways and up the wooden stairways to the next level, we passed numerous chapels, priceless works of art, Buddhist shrines, and the occasional tomb of a former Dalai Lama. All the while, as we made our way to the top, the aroma of yak butter candles and incense filled the air. Buddhists would stop at a particular shrine or statue and offer a prayer, leaving a donation. There was money everywhere. Yet, the thought of pilferage, apparently, never entered peoples’ minds.
Once at the top, I felt a true sense of accomplishment and was grateful that Ciwang had patiently stuck with me. My reward for the climb was a spectacular view of Lhasa and surrounding Valley. Trust me, the climb was worth it as you will see in the photos. Also, at top of the palace were the obligatory souvenir stands. At one of them, I
purchased Buddhist good luck hanging for my mail carrier, Yoyo. She is a practicing Buddhist from Japan. When hearing that I planned to visit Lhasa, Tibet, she was the one who informed me that the Dalai Lama was in exile and wasn’t going to be home. Yoyo is the best mail carrier our neighborhood has ever had. I was happy to bring her a souvenir from the Potala Palace.
The sun was beginning to head toward the western horizon. It was time to retrace our steps down a thousand feet to the base of the Palace. However, our trek downward took a different, easier route. My first question was, “Why didn’t we come up this way?” The best answer I could get was the climb up the steps at the front of the Palace was a sort of rite of passage. Well, I passed the test but I would have rather made the easier climb up to the top. At my age, I am well beyond the point where I need to prove anything to anybody.
By the time we returned to my hotel, I was truly exhausted. I had climbed up over 432 steps at altitudes between 12,000 and 13,000 ft. I climbed down nearly the same number of steps. While I felt better than I did the day before, I was still feeling a bit woozy. I bid good evening to Ciwang and our driver and agreed to meet at the same time in the morning. My plan was to have a light dinner and get a good night’s sleep after I took care of my cameras by charging the batteries and cleaning the lenses.
Dinner consisted of fruit and a lot of water. Those two items are excellent when dealing with the effects of high altitude. When the appropriate time came, I turned on the forced oxygen and soon began realizing the effects. Sleep came soon after.
The next travelogue will cover day two of my visit to Lhasa, Tibet and my flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. I hope you enjoyed this first travelogue on Lhasa, Tibet. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions.