We settle into our seats and watch Beijing start to slip by the window of our train. Almost immediately, the Chinese guy with whom we’re sharing our compartment rolls over in his bunk and farts – as if to say, “Welcome to China!” We’re heading to Tibet on the Beijing to Lhasa express, one of the world’s great train journeys, traversing the highest track in the world at 5000m above sea level.
Once a power to rival Imperial China, after centuries of decline Tibet is now a tightly controlled and restive Chinese province that few people get to visit. My trip, organised by Insight Himalaya, a Ghurka-run firm from Nepal, will be taking my travel buddy and I to South-East Tibet, an area quite unlike the rest of the country. It’s a set of incongruously lush alpine river-valleys set amidst the barren and stony Himalayan border between India and China. It’s remote, dramatic and contains some of the deepest gorges in the world.
You can’t travel to Tibet without an officially sanctioned guide and a Tibet Travel Permit, available only through vetted travel agents like Insight. However, if you’re already in China you can join a “tour” to Lhasa in many hostels. Your travel, permit and hotel will be sorted out for you, but you’ll not see a guide until arrival in Lhasa.
Back in our now-fragrant cabin, we start the long crawl across thousands of kilometres of desert, dry hills and high-altitude plateau. On the way, we’ll cross nearly 700 bridges, heading through an earthquake zone (the last quake in 2001 measured 8.1 on the Richter scale), and gaining 5000m in altitude. We’ll be travelling through the world’s highest tunnel and stopping at the world’s highest station.
After 24 hours of the arid plains and dusty towns of northern China, I doze off to the realisation we’ve barely covered half the width of this immense country. I wake the following morning to silence and a dull altitude headache. There’s a hissing as oxygen is pumped into our compartment to mitigate the effects of climbing 5000m in just over a day.
I twitch the curtain and look out on to a monochrome world where gusts of heavy snow periodically obscure the surrounding peaks. We’re stopped at Tangula. A lonely concrete building sitting at 5068m, it’s the highest railway station in the world. It’s so cold, the single toilet (for a carriage of 50) is frozen and I have to wait for an attendant to unfreeze it before going for a pee.
The rest of the day is spent slurping Tsing Tao beers in the restaurant car and watching the bleak and beautiful Tibetan plateau unroll in front of us. No one really talks to us; English isn’t widely spoken here.
When we reach Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, the military presence is immediate, in your face and stifling. There are more armed guards than passengers. You’re not allowed to linger in the vast concrete station. Instead we’re rushed outside where we’re met by Chun Kee, our Lhasa guide. As we follow her, I struggle for breath and have to pause every few steps like an asthmatic pensioner, gulping mouthfuls of thin air. And I still have that dull ache behind my eyes. It lasts for two days.
We spend those days acclimatising and exploring Lhasa. Until the Fifties it was a small but thriving capital city. Then the “liberation” happened and for 40 years it stagnated in poverty under the heavy hand of the Chinese. With the Nineties came trade, a huge influx of Han Chinese, and a bustling new town that sprang up around the old Tibetan settlement. The city has grown from a population of 40,000 to 400,000 since then. Shopping malls have sprung up like toadstools in manure, but the old territory still sits at the centre of everything, defiantly Tibetan.
It quickly becomes clear that this isn’t a party town. There aren’t any bars outside the tourist hotels that we’re allowed in to. At any rate, the ubiquitous army presence dampens any party atmosphere. I feel on edge and absurdly guilty under their gaze.
The highlight is the 1500-year-old Jokhang Monastery. It squats like a grizzled old monk in the dead centre of old Lhasa. Inside, a mass of chanting devotees worship serene golden Buddhas, leering black demons decked with skulls, and monarchs crowned with tiny gods. As I shuffle around, the close atmosphere, crowds and incense make it hard to breathe. Flames from yak butter lamps make the demonic eyes dance and a constant pulsing drum beat makes me feel increasingly peculiar. It’s my first brush with the intensity of religion here.
The only thing missing is monks. Monasteries should be heaving with them, but most have only a skeleton crew. I ask Chun Kee about this. “They’re in their rooms,” she says evasively. This seems unlikely, and I know monasteries have been at the centre of recent unrest, but I don’t press her. I could get deported for asking the wrong questions, but she could lose her livelihood and end up in jail.
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We leave Lhasa in a two jeeps with local drivers and a new guide called Temba. He’s quietly spoken, calm, and seems to know everyone. After we pass the third checkpoint in as many hours, it becomes clear that he is as much fixer as guide, smoothing the way with local officials.
Travelling east, the road shadows the mighty Yarlung Tsampo river along the mountainous Indian border. This was one of the routes the Chinese army used when they marched west to “liberate” Tibet, and the way is dotted with temple ruins, some no more than blackened walls where they were blown to pieces.
We set our course for Rawu, which has the largest lake in eastern Tibet and is surrounded by great glaciers. It’s also as far east as we can get after the Chinese decide to close the border. Some Tibetan monks in the neighbouring province of Sichuan have set themselves on fire and there are protests breaking out.
Along the way we stay in local villages. Accommodation is pretty basic: an unheated room, a fetid hole (often over the pigsty) for a toilet. The climate is damp from the monsoon that sweeps up the gorges from India, and it’s freezing at night as winds rush down from the surrounding peaks.
The forested slopes are full of leeches. Check yourself carefully if you slip into the bushes for a call of nature – these bloodsuckers will latch on to anything. On one occasion, after stomping through long grass, I look down to see a thick mottled leech greedily sucking at my ankle. With a yell, I knock the bastard off. The drivers and Temba find this very amusing.
One day out of Rawu, we trek to a glacier. Heading into a forest we pass a pair of yak skulls balanced on a pile of stones. Prayer flags stretch out from tree to tree like a colourful spider web. It’s a Bon shrine. This is the local animist religion that predates Buddhism. Temba tells me it’s particularly strong here. “The prayer flags release prayers as they unravel in wind,” he says, fluttering his fingers. “Yak skull bring good fortune.”
At the top of a ridge we come face to face with a great frozen mass of ice inching down the mountainside to the sound of groans and cracks. I feel very small indeed.
Rawu itself is a nondescript village huddling on the shore of the lake. We’re here to explore some of the most remote countryside in the world. Being a long way from anything is an exhilarating experience. We trek into the nearby mountains, keeping an eye out as bears, and even leopards, are said to frequent these slopes.
Stepping through the forest, we walk up steep escarpments carpeted with pine needles, fungi and springy moss. At the top of one slope we look out over a great wilderness. Mountains loom overhead. But just I’m contemplating them, there’s a sudden snapping of twigs. I whirl around, heart in mouth, expecting to see flashing claws and fangs. All I glimpse is some dark fur retreating into the undergrowth. Whatever it is, it’s big.
We reach Basum Tso three days later. This holy lake was once home to Guru Rinpoche, a revered Buddhist sage. It’s magnificent, deep turquoise and utterly still. We walk reverently across a bridge to an island temple when I stop dead. I’m staring straight down the business end of an enormous wooden penis. A snigger bursts from my mouth, I can’t help it and look guiltily around. The local pilgrims seem to find my reaction amusing.
We reach a second shrine across the lake in a motorboat driven at terrifying speed by a 12-year-old. The shrine is a large boulder with a great vertical crack, and offerings of money are tied to trees all around. Temba explains that, like the big wooden cock, “it’s fertility shrine. It look like”, he stops and clears his throat, “woman’s private parts”. This was not quite what I expected when planning a trip to Tibet.
But that’s the joy of coming here. As we head back to Lhasa, I reflect that our vision of Tibet as both a mystical Himalayan Shangri-la, and an oppressed and occupied country, is only partly right. Travelling away from the main tourist haunts gives you a glimpse of what life is like here. It’s rugged and hard, but also beautiful and fascinating. But for how long? How long before the tourist dollar starts to turn temples into museums, and market stalls into tacky gift shops?
GETTING THERE: Catch the express train from Beijing West station to Lhasa (47hrs). A soft sleeper ticket costs around £130 one-way (chinatibettrain.com). Flights from London to Lhasa, via Amsterdam and Guangzhou, start at about £631 return with China Southern (csair.com/en)
WHEN TO GO: Spring, early summer and late autumn are the best times to visit. Monsoons affect Tibet from mid-June until the end of September. There are discounts on accommodation and car hire throughout April.
CURRENCY: £1 = CNY9.67 (Chinese Yuan)
ACCOMMODATION: In Lhasa, try the simple Dong Cuo International Youth Hostel, close to Jokhang Monastery. It’s in the busy heart of the city and provides all the usual services. Rooms from about £5pn. (hihostels.com)
Aaron Davies travelled from Lhasa to South-East Tibet with Insight Himalaya insighthimalaya.com
Insight’s UK-based agent is Ussher Tours usshertours.com
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Best of the Rest: What to see and do in Tibet
After Lhasa, this is Tibet’s most important city. It contains the immense Tashilhunpo Monastery, the home of the Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second-most important Buddhist leader. Other sites include the Samdrubtse Dzong fortress. The current building was reconstructed for tourists after the Chinese forced locals to take the 15th-century original apart brick by brick in 1961.
This corner of South-West Tibet is riddled with canyons carved by the elements in the soft orange stone. It’s a magical sight as it catches the late evening sun, making the rocks glow. There are also the ruins of great fortresses and temples carved into the sides of mountains by the rulers of Guge more than 500 years ago.
TREKKING TO MOUNT KAILASH
This distinctive bell-shaped mountain in the far west of Tibet is revered by Buddhists and Hindus alike. It soars, snowy peaked, above the surrounding countryside. You can trek the traditional pilgrimage route around the base of the mountain, washing away your sins. It’s a three-day circuit and not for the faint-hearted. And you have to get there first.
Click for the insider’s guide to Tibet…
The insider’s guide
Binod Rai is co-owner and guide at Insight Himalaya
When is the best time to go to Tibet?
From May to November for tours by vehicle, and from June to October for trekking.
What are the dos and don’ts of travelling in Tibet?
Chinese authorities do not like any books on Buddhism or the Dalai Lama, so leave them at home. Sometimes they confiscate Tibet Lonely Planet guides as well. Also, refrain from taking photos that display Chinese oppression. They can stop and check cameras randomly at the border or the airport.
What’s your top tip for anyone travelling to Tibet?
Take enough warm clothes, even in the summer, and a couple of scarves to protect yourself from the dust.
What’s Tibet’s best-kept secret?
The Earth Forest of Guge, South-West Tibet, and the primeval forests and valleys of Kongpo in South-East Tibet.
Where’s good for chilling out?
All teahouses along Tibet’s highways are well stocked with local beer, but the best Tibetan bars and restaurants are in Lhasa.
Where’s good for an adventure?
The ancient pilgrimage trek from North-West Nepal to Mt Kailash, the high altitude trek to the Kangshung Face of Everest, and the overland tour to South-East Tibet, where the Tibetan Plateau falls to elevations where tropical jungles survive.
Where’s good to party?
Although there isn’t much of a party scene, Tibetans do know how to have a good time and Phin Tsok Ge Don restaurant in Lhasa is particularly good!