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9 days in Tibet – From Lhasa to Mount Everest

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Getaway Category: Adventure & Nature and Culture & HeritageGetaway Tags: Asia, China, Everest, Guide, Lhasa, and Tibet

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  • “The Roof of the World” is often used to refer to Tibet, a Chinese province since 1950 that is located in the Himalayan mountains and the Tibetan Plateau. A trip to Tibet is a dream for many and a hard to forget experience for everyone. Imagine monasteries filled with red-robed monks, arid barren landscapes above 4,000m, mountain passes at the top of the world, sky blue lakes and a journey to the footsteps of the world’s highest mountain: Everest. The real-world Shangri-la is a fantastic trip that requires proper planning. We visited with WildChina, experts in taking you to the wildest, most remote and most beautiful parts of China in style and comfort. Here is our week-long itinerary to Everest Base Camp.

    We flew to Chengdu and Xining and then took the train to Lhasa. Here is your personalised guide to Tibet.

    Guide to Tibet – Day 0 – Friday: Fly to Chengdu

    We flew on Friday evening to Chengdu and spent the night at a nearby airport hotel to catch the early morning flight to Xining. There is not much around Chengdu and the city is about 30min away so staying at an airport hotel is a good idea. To save money, hassle and time, get the hotel to organise the pick up for you or, even better, stay at the Chengdu Express Airport Hotel which is the only one walking distance from the terminal. If you are any farther away and need a cab, you will be ripped off as the taxi drivers queue long to take passengers and then don’t want to take you next door. We were charged SGD22 for the 5 min ride as we were unable to negotiate and didn’t speak Chinese.

    Guide to Tibet – Day 1 – Saturday: Train to Lhasa

    If you have more time than a week, the best way to reach Lhasa is after proper acclimatization in Xining and surroundings. After that, you may take the train to Lhasa for the landscapes, the ride and the experience. We thoroughly enjoyed this. If you do not want to take the train, you can also fly straight to Lhasa from Chengdu but your risk of altitude sickness will be higher. If you decide to take the train, opt for the Soft Sleeper cars.

    Fly early morning from Chengdu to Xining and then be picked up by the guide to drop you at the train station. You could potentially take a taxi and go directly but if you do not speak Chinese you will struggle and make your life more complicated. The advantages of getting the guide to welcome you are in the comfort of the minivan ride and also in the proper lunch you will be able to enjoy on the way. The guide will also help you through the passport control at the station and show you the right gate for boarding. We used the lunch break to order some additional food to take away with us on the train as the food served leaves a lot to be desired.

    Once at Xining Station we boarded the train at 2pm. There are also trains later in the day during the peak season but this was a good time to get on. The ones departing later in the day may be better as you cover the least interesting part of the journey during the night but you do spend a day in Xining which may not be very efficient.

    Once in the train sit back, relax and enjoy the ride and the views. You will be pretty much left to yourself throughout. Soft Sleeper beds are comfortable, warm and have everything you need so you will be treated like a king or queen. If you need some food, you can buy it from the dining car or the carts the staff will push through the corridors throughout the journey. Bringing instant noodles, tea bags and a cup is useful as unlimited hot water is provided and you have your own kettle to keep it.

    Guide to Tibet – Day 2 – Sunday: Arrival in Lhasa

    After around 22h you will arrive in Lhasa at around noon. The train station will have yet another permit check where your passport and documentation will be checked by an official at the formal police office at the station’s exit. Your guide and driver will then pick you up. If you need to stay connected throughout the journey ask to stop at the telecom store on the way to the airport. The process is cumbersome but you will be able to get 20GB of internet for SGD20.

    Once you are set, you will most likely be dropped at the hotel. If you are feeling good you can get out and stroll around the city, see the Potala Palace lit at night, enjoy a massage at the hotel’s spa, have the first of many milk or butter teas and generally acclimatise. Most guides will almost force you to take it easy on the first day and it is probably a wise idea to just simply relax, read a book or go for a gentle stroll. You are at 3,600m above sea level and that is excuse enough to cuddle up in bed with a book.

    Guide to Tibet – Day 3 – Monday: Potala Palace and Sera Monastery

    Your guide will have to get the tickets for the Potala Palace on the day you arrive so the timing will be confirmed then. The visit to the Potala Palace needs to be taken slow as the main buildings are 200 steps high so you will effectively be at 3,900m above sea level. Walking up will be tough. The majority of the rooms of the Palace are not accessible to the public but the visit is likely to take all morning because you will be breathless and because there is a lot to see. You will be guided through the many rooms and halls and see where the Dalai Lama used to live. The Potala Palace is a beautiful building but at peak times there can be almost 3,000 visiting per day so you are only allowed one hour inside the main building.

    The Potala Palace used to be the winter residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th and current Dalai Lama fled to India. It is listed as a UNESCO site. The palace received its name from the the mythical abode of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. The buildings were constructed by the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century on the site of an ancient fortress built in the 7th Century by the 33rd King and founder of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo. Songtsen Gampo is depicted in many statues across Tibet and is believed to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet by the hand of his Nepali and Chinese wives. Songtsen Gampo is also credited for creating Lhasa and moving the seat of government to the city which was referred to as “Place of Gods” to allude to Jokhang Temple which he also built. The King was belligerent and there were several battles and incursions from the Chinese emperors into Tibet and vice versa. Tibet expanded during his reign. To gain peace, he finally married the Chinese Princess Wenchen whose statue can also be seen in some of the monasteries, and that brought peace. Chinese history books (and Chinese guides in the Potala Palace or Jokhang Temple) talk about the Palace being built by the king for the Chinese princess, but Tibetan accounts disagree.

    The Potala Palace’s location was at the intersection of the Sera and Drepung Monasteries and near Old Lhasa so it was believed to be an auspicious location. The Potala Palace largely escaped both the 1959 uprising as well as the Cultural Revolution thanks to the intervention of the then Chinese Prime Minister.

    Have lunch in town, we particularly enjoyed a local Tibetan hotel with an intimate and beautiful courtyard where we ate delicious Nepali and Tibetan food surrounded by locals coming to the pilgrimage and visit Tibet’s most important temple: Jokhang Temple.

    In the afternoon, visit Sera Monastery, one of the most important Tibetan temples and also one of the largest with several halls, colleges and facilities. At Sera, you will also notice for the first time a relevant Sky Burial site up in the mountains above it. Tibetans believe that the best burial consists of letting the bodies of those who perished to be taken by the vultures and eagles from high up the hills. The monastery was founded by a disciple of Tsongkhapa in 1419. After the 1959 revolt, Sera Monastery was severely damaged and many monks died. When the Dalai Lama had to exile, many of the Sera monks left for India and founded a Sera Monastery in Mysore in land provided by the Indian Government.

    What makes Sera Monastery most fascinating is the debate sessions that take place almost every afternoon. Monks and teachers gather in the courtyard to discuss topics chosen every day at random by the teachers. The topics range from deep moral questions to simple day to day ones. The monks sit on the floor with the teachers standing in pairs in what feels like a debating tennis match that can last for hours. As a visitor, you can sit on the surroundings and watch the monks clap, loudly speak or argue. It is fascinating, even if you do not understand a word.

    At Sera you will also be able to see the only sand Mandalas available. Mandalas are usually depicted in Thankas or, in Tibet, as 3D replicas in temples and monasteries. The sand Mandalas, built for prayers then destroyed, are hard to see because they are meant just for the prayer. However, Sera Monastery usually has a couple of them on display for visitors to admire.

    Look up the mountains around the monastery for paintings on the rocks. Sera has a lot of rooms and halls so you could spend hours there. See as much or as little as you wish. Toilets are some of the dirtiest you will find so try to avoid using them.

    Back at the hotel for some rest before dinner which you may take down in town or at your hotel. It is likely that the altitude will make it a tough day so eating at the hotel might be a good option. Maybe, you have time for a massage before dinner.

    Guide to Tibet – Day 4 – Tuesday: Ganden Monastery and Jokhang Temple

    Today it is a day of monasteries and exploring the area outside of Lhasa. After a hearty breakfast, drive the 1,5-2h to Ganden Monastery, on top of a mountain ridge at 4,300m with lovely views at either side of the top. Ganden Monastery is known for the Golden Tomb of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the yellow-hat monastic sect that is most followed in Tibet. It was built in 1409 by Je Tsongkhapa Lozang-dragpa, founder of the Gelug order. Today’s buildings are modern buildings based on the previous structures completely destroyed during the rebellion of 1959 and subsequent Cultural Revolution. Tsongkhapa’s mummified body was burned almost entirely except for the skull and some ashes which are kept in Ganden’s sanctum sanctorum containing Tsongkhapa’s reliquary chorten called the Tongwa Donden, “Meaningful to Behold.”

    You should not leave the monastery without at least making it up the hill behind the main buildings for the great view over the valley below. If you are energised, you may walk the kora around the monastery, but you should allow for 3h and so should get up early to have enough time to go back to Lhasa and visit Sera. Lunch can be taken at the monastery’s restaurant, with all the locals.

    In the afternoon, visit the Jokhang Temple, in the middle of the old part of Lhasa. Jokhang is a beautiful and small temple with amazing views of the city and the old square from the rooftop. It is surrounded by hundreds of pilgrims prostrating and going on their kora walk around Barkhor Street and the temple. The atmosphere around the Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Street is mesmerising and shows the real Tibetan culture that is so hard to find under the layer of Chinese development.

    If wandering the streets and window shopping at many colourful shops around Barkhor Street is making you thirsty, stop for a drink, a piece of cake and some WiFi at Accordion Cafe where they bake their own cakes and prepare lovely drinks. Try the shot sized barley wine or the rose tea.

    For dinner, it is best to stay in town and enjoy a local meal at either Snow Land Hotel or Lhasa Kitchen, both of which are within walking distance from the Jokhang Temple.

    Guide to Tibet – Day 5 – Wednesday: From Lhasa to Gyantse

    Leave Lhasa behind and head for the mountains. You will pass some really high mountain passes reaching 5,000m in the Nyochen Kansang Mountains and stop at the turquoise blue Yamdrok Lake. The drive will take a couple of hours after which you will stop at a viewpoint on top of the mountains. The road is winding and the landscapes barren. Yamdrok means turquoise in Tibetan and the lake does certainly live up to its name. It is one of the holy lakes in Tibet and it is considered sacred by its people. You may find locals going around it on their kora which can take up to a week. Fishing in the lake is prohibited as it is holy.

    Stop at Khambala pass at 4,700m for 360 degree views. It does get very cold and windy up there so wrap warm. Along the way and at the pass, you will see locals holding the Tibetan Mastif dog for photographs. These animals, endemic to Tibet, are massive and can reach several hundred kilos. They are docile and have been trained. Yak and yak owners are also there so be sure to tip if you take photos of them. Down at the lake, the water is clear and cold, bordering freezing temperatures.

    Your drive will continue through the Karola Glacier but it is possible that you suffer from altitude sickness and malaise at that point as you will be very high.

    Depending on what time you arrive in Gyantse you can go visit the area or leave it for the next morning. In Spring and Autumn Gyantse can get really cold and the hotels don’t always have heating so stay warm. Dinner can be had locally at one of the restaurants. Tashi Restaurant is a good option.

    Guide to Tibet – Day 6 – Thursday – Zongshan Kangying Relic Site, Pelkor Monastery and Xigatse

    Gyantse is a convenient stop along the way but there is also an interesting Dzong (fortress), stupa and monastery to visit. Castles and fortresses are common in Tibet as the country has a fierce past of invasions, incursions and battles with other armies, in particular Chinese and British in the 20th century. Gyantse is well known in Tibet for the battle against the British troops in 1903 and 1904 which the Tibetan fought despite the clear inferiority of their army against British machine guns and canons. The castle sitting atop the mountain protected the temple from invasions and was brought to the ground in 1904 but reconstructed.

    You will be able to visit the Kumbum Stupa which is made of the three styles of Buddhist architecture: Indian, Nepali and Tibetan. The structure contains 108 stupas and you can walk all the way to the top for the best views. There will be lots of small rooms whose walls are painted with Gods. The three types of architecture are clearly visible in the squared bottom, the rounded middle and the gilded top. Photos of the stupa are strictly forbidden unless you pay a fee and your cameras will have to be left at the entrance in a locker if you don’t pay.

    After the visit, you will drive the short way to Xigatse, Tibet’s second largest cities outside of Lhasa and home of Tashi Lumpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama, which you will visit after lunch. You can take lunch in one of the few restaurants in town where they speak English, very near the monastery, the Songtsen Tibetan Restaurant. Try their honey, lemon, ginger tea for a warm drink. Their sizzling plates are divine.

    One of the highlights of the monastery is the the world’s largest gold gilded bronze statue of the Future Buddha, enshrined in the 5-storey Maltreya Hall. The statue is sitting on a 3m lotus flower and measures 26m high. The monastery also holds the tombs of the 4th to the 10th Panchen Lamas. This is the largest functioning religious building in Tibet and also one of the few to escape the Cultural Revolution. Taking photos or video here can cost up to USD300 so be sure to check the prices in some of the halls.

    Around the monastery you will be able to spot day to day stores selling all sorts of religious, monastic and souvenir items to the locals. The shops selling monk clothing are particularly fascinating. If you ever wanted a prayer wheel, this is the place. Incense, prayer flags and handheld prayer wheels are all available as are the smaller statues of Gods the locals stuff with prayers then take to the temple for a blessing to be finally added to the house chapel room.

    Dinner will most likely be at the same restaurant as the town does not have a lot of options for English speaking menus. You can also try Tashi Restaurant for a change, or eat at the hotel, although food is a bit hit and miss there.

    Guide to Tibet – Day 7 – Friday: Drive to Everest Base Camp

    This is a long driving day as there is not much to stop at in between Shigatse and Everest Base Camp. The drive can take up to 7-8h with a lunch stop and it is a very snaking road with 60km of 360 degree turns that will make your stomach churn. Try to sleep or close your eyes if you have tendency to get car sick. As you will be driving through high mountain roads and passes – snow is a possibility in spring and autumn.

    The only stop will be at Rongbuk Monastery, a few kilometers from Base Camp and a possible accommodation option. You can either stay at their guesthouse or at the tented tourist camp further down the road, closer to Base Camp. The tented camp is more lively and the food is likely better. They are both equally basic accommodation options in shared rooms with no heating and no toilets but the tented camp may be warmer. Beware, it can be extremely cold at Base Camp at night when the wind blows and the wind chill factor drops the thermometer to below freezing temperatures so come prepared with the right clothing. At night, you can see a blanket of stars above your head. Sunrise is not as spectacular but the mountain’s top does get a golden hue from the sunrays reflected on the permanent snow.

    Settle in your tent for the night, under several thick blankets, share stories with the guide and warm yourself with a hot cup of tea and the stove lit with yak dung. You can see how the local Tibetan families live and enjoy a noodle soup prepared by the tent’s owner. There are snacks offered and drinks available. Sleeping at 5,000m will be tough so you are likely going to spend a sleepless night so, if it is not too cold and you are prepared, get outside and look up.

    Guide to Tibet – Day 8 – Saturday: Everest Base Camp

    You will get up early to take the government bus up to Base Camp. If you are properly acclimatised and, frankly, lucky, you may feel strong enough to trek, but most people will not have had the time to do so in a day at 5,000m and will wake up feeling rather tired and breathless so the bus is the only alternative. If you want to trek, prepare to allow for 3h to cover the 8km to Camp uphill. You can also take the bus up and walk down but the anticipation of reaching everest and seeing it as you walk the rocky path is not the same.

    At the top, you will be at 5,150m above sea level and just above the climber’s Base Camp under the shadow of the mountain. You are not allowed to go to the official Base Camp as a tourist but you will have a perfect view of the bowl-shaped flatland under Everest and the yellow tents perched under it. There are prayer flags, which you can add to, and a market point to take photos at. You will likely be very out of breath so even climbing the last few meters to the top of the hill for the view should be done slowly.

    Back at camp, get in your car and drive all the way back to Shigatse where you will reach in the evening for a last night in Tibet.

    Guide to Tibet – Day 9 – Sunday: Back to Lhasa and return home

    Your last day is spent almost entirely driving and flying back to Chengdu or onwards to other cities. From Shigatse it is around a 5h drive to reach the airport, which is located an hour’s drive from Lhasa center. You will be driving through a different route than the one taken to get there so the landscapes will be different and, instead of high mountain passes, Yamdrok lake and barren landscapes you will see the fertile lowlands with plenty of agriculture and farmers. Drive along winding rivers and marvel at the greenery, even if you are still well above 3,500m. You can stop at a local Tibetan house and see how they live. Your guide can knock on the village homes and ask to come in for tea. Tibetan people are very hospitable and will almost surely open the door for you. You should make a donation for the tea and snacks that you will be offered. Taking a peek into the local homes is a great way to understand more about Tibetan life. Have a look into the chapel, the most important room in the house, and see how they cook their meals. Even if you do not speak the language signs go a long way.

    "New Year's Eve in Asia"


  • Where to stay

    Outside of Lhasa there are very limited options to stay at. The best alternatives are:

    Lhasa

    Shangri-la Lhasa in the capital, a luxury hotel about 20min walk from the Potala Palace.

    Gyantse

    Hotel Gyantse in Gyantse is basic and cold but always clean and the best option in town.

    Xigatse

    Tashi Chuta Hotel in Xigatse is the best option around. It is a traditional Tibetan hotel with clean rooms and 3* standard. Breakfast is a bit scarce and very heavy on the savory Chinese dishes.

    Everest Base Camp

    At Everest Base Camp you may choose between the Rongbuk Monastery guesthouse, which is a very basic accommodation with no heating and communal facilities, or the tourist tented camp further down the road closer to Everest. The camp is equally bare and cold but it has better views of the mountain. Given the basic facilities at Base Camp with no shower options and extremely dirty public toilets, you are not advised to spend longer than one night there

    How to get there

    Lhasa is served from main Chinese cities and only from Kathmandu via international flights. If you choose to take the train, the best option if boarding at Xining and flying there via Chengdu. Singapore Airlines has evening flights on Friday and return flights from Chengdu. From Lhasa, it is best to fly to Chengdu and then on to Singapore with the 4-5pm Air China flights to connect to Singapore Airlines. Alternatively, you may also spend a night in Chengdu at the fabulous The Temple House and return the next day morning with Air China.

    Other important things to know

    Visa and permit

    Tibet is not accessible to foreigners independently so you will need to go with an authorised local guide and driver. In order to get to Tibet you need to plan ahead. You may need a Chinese visa, which can easily and effectively be obtained at the Chinese Visa Center on Robinson Road, and then a Tibet Permit which the Wild China team organised for us. With those two, if you want to visit Everest Base Camp, you will need an Alien’s Travel Permit to access the park. To organise all this you will need flights and train tickets booked ahead to show as proof. When you submit your Chinese visa do not mention that you are going to Tibet just in case.

    At every place you spend the night the guide will have to register you with the police so you will have to hand over passports. You will only have to go through controls when entering Everest park.

    Talking to the locals

    Although talking to the locals is largely possible and they will converse with you freely (barring the language barrier), discussing politics, the Chinese occupation or the Dalai Lama is not allowed and the locals may avoid the subject.

    Getting around

    Tourist cars are owned by the government and leased by the travel agencies so they are fitted with speed cameras that will warn the driver if he or she is driving too fast. Other safety announcements will also make it through the car’s speakers.

    Weather and best time to visit

    Tibet’s temperatures will be low at night even in the summer months as the country is located very high up in the mountains. Check the weather forecast and dress appropriately. Everest Base Camp is permanently assaulted by incessant winds that will bring the temperature further down, be prepared with warm clothes. The best months to visit are mid-April to mid-June and then from mid-Sep to mid-October. During the summer it rains and the mountains are hidden behind the clouds. In the winter Tibet gets incredibly cold and the borders may close between December and February so it is not advisable to go.

    Altitude sickness

    Altitude sickness is a real risk that you should not ignore. Being prepared with the right medication, going up ensuring proper acclimatisation and adding an extra couple of days before reaching Lhasa can make a huge difference in your well-being and in how you experience the trip. Consider adding those two days in Xining pre-Lhasa or an extra day between Xigatse and Base Camp if you want to trek instead of taking the bus. Drink plenty of water, eat properly, avoid alcohol and stay warm. Oxygen canisters are available at all hotel rooms and in the tourist cars should you feel suddenly worse. Monitor your symptoms and tell your guide if you suffer from dizziness or vomiting.

    Toilets

    Toilets in Tibet are available at all the major stops but they consist on squat toilets with a hole on a cement floor and a long (or short) drop. There are no doors and no partitions between the holes so bring someone to guard the door.

    What to pack

    Aside from clothes that are adequate to the weather, a good pair of walking shoes is useful to thread the monasteries. Trekking shoes are not required, but you should bring warm shoes that will keep you warm even at Everest.

    Sunscreen is a must as the sun rays are incredibly strong and the atmosphere closer. The sun also reflects on the snow. Hats are necessary when walking around outside to protect your head.

    Lots of tissues and wet wipes are a must as water is not available and toilet paper non-existent. You will need the tissue at restaurants as well as they are not always offered in China. A small bottle of perfume will also be critical to venture into some of the dirtiest toilets and you should consider nature as the easiest and cleanest alternative.

    Wild China packs snacks for the long car journey but it is not a bad idea to bring your own in case you get peckish. All necessary medication is key as you won’t find what you need in Lhasa and you will spend most of the journey outside of the city. Headaches are almost guaranteed with the altitude and they are hard to manage with medication. Talk to your doctor to bring something strong. Account for possible diarrhea and other stomach related issues. At high altitudes your digestive functions are also reduced so you might experience constipation. Drops for eyes and a nose spray are very welcome for the extreme dryness of the landscapes and might save the day. You will likely cough a lot as well so a cough syrup is useful.

    A power adaptor with the three pin Chinese plug will be key outside of Lhasa to keep your electronics charged. An extra battery pack is almost essential, especially for the night at Base Camp when you will not have any access to electricity.

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