Saturday, July 5, 2014

Tibet part 2

The second part of our trip to Tibet was much more about traveling around the country side.  We had arranged to go to Everest Base Camp, or Mt Qomolangma as it is called locally.  On the way we went over 3 passes, and got pretty high up in the mountains.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We started out with a drive to Shigatse, and along the way stopped at Kamba-La pass on the way to Yomdrok Lake, and then on to Gyantse for lunch and visiting the Palcho monastery.  Tibet D5-10-40
On the way there we passed through several  typical Tibetan villages.  Usually the houses all had the flags flying on the corners, and many of them had the yak dung piled up drying for the winter burning in the stove.  Tibet D5-10-33  The pass was about 4800 Meters elevation, and the wind was blowing.  It was pretty cold when we stopped to take photos of the lake from the top.  It was a spectacular view.   Once we got down to the lake, there were many people trying to sell photos of Yaks, riding yaks, and other things.   The lake was long and it took us an hour or more to get from one end to the other, with the color of the lake constantly shifting from a bright blue, to reflecting the brown of the mountains around it. 

At the end of the lake, Tibet D5-10-64  there was another pass, even higher this time 5093m in elevation.  We certainly felt it in our heads, and when we got out to walk around we were out of breath very quickly.  This one had a glacier on the mountain next to it.  Tibet D5-10-70  And if you look to the level where my hand is, that is where the glacier came to in 2005.  It has receeded this much in the last 9 years. Tibet D5-10-85  What is surprising to me is that everyone in Tibet seems to know that this is a problem, but that my Chinese colleagues, when I mentioned it to them after my return, none of them knew it was happening, why it was happening, or that it could mean droughts in China as much of the water in China comes from Tibetan Glaciers. At this stop, we met a couple of Italian guys, who were bicycling the Friendship Highway (the road from here to Nepal over the Himalayas).  Not something I think I would want to do at these altitudes.  Or if I did, it would take serious training at altitude before considering it.  We were winded just walking from the car to the Chortan in the above picture.

We passed a second lake which was almost turquoise in color after this pass, and then made our way into Gyantse.  Tibet D5-10-127  There we visited the Palcho monastery, or at least I did, Cindy wasn't feeling too well that afternoon and decided to rest in the car.  You can see in the background up on the hill the large wall where they hang a very large tapestry every year for festivals.  You can see locals returning from their visit to the monastery, in their local dress.  It was very colorful and they all seemed to be happy.

By this time we were pretty tired of visiting monasteries, but this one was different.  The statues inside were all carved from wood, and very different in coloring.  Tibet D5-10-131  Also they had a lot of texts, wrapped up and stored along the walls of the various chapels and rooms.

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They also had a couple of unfinished sand mandalas, which once finished would be wiped away to signify the impermanence of life.


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Tibet D5-10-163After leaving the Monastery, I managed to get a photo of one of the solar cookers used everywhere in that area (and I suspect all over Tibet).  They are used for heating water for Tea, and I'm told it takes about 10 minutes to get boiling water. 

The next day we left for Tingri.  Before leaving we had to go to get a special permit to visit Everest, as the area is controlled by the Chinese Army.  We would have to go through an army checkpoint to get there and needed the proper documentation.

Then we were able to drive on to Tingri.  There were speed checkpoints all along our trip, even on the first day.  Each time we were given a time to arrive at the next checkpoint, and if we had been driving too fast, we would have to stop somewhere before getting in sight of he checkpoint, and rest/wait till it was our allotted time to arrive.  Otherwise the driver would have gotten a ticket.

We also stopped at the Tashilumpo Monastery.  Here we enjoyed watching the people visiting the monastery.
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And we finally made it to New Tingri.  Old Tingri is inside of the Army controlled area, so they built a new town just a few kilometers from the checkpoint.  Most tourists seem to stay there.  We had to leave very early the next morning as there was a 4 hour drive to the base camp, 4 hours back, and we intended also to drive back to Shigatse same day.  So we got up at 5am and had a quick breakfast to leave by 5:30.  We were through the checkpoint by 6:30 and on the gravel road to Everest not long after that.  Here we had to stop at another checkpoint, and I took a couple of early morning photos.  It was almost 7am by this time, but still dark as it is Western China, and all of China is on the same time as Beijing which is more in the east.

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By the way, that is the moon going down, not the sun coming up.
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We arrived at Base Camp somewhere just after 9am, the sun was just hitting the valley.  It was still cold, there was ice on the puddles.  So behind this picture is where the "hotels" (Tents) are, and where the vendors, and the very small town is.  The actual hiker's base camp is close to where the shadow in the photo is.
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It was pretty clear, but the top was shrouded in clouds.   Cindy and I put up another set of prayer flags, here we were at 5200 Meters.  We had passed another pass the day before at the same altitude, and had gotten our very first glimpse of Everest then, but this was really spectacular.  By now we were pretty good with the high altitude, though it still meant walking slowly.

Here Cindy is buying our flags.   The last 15 minutes to this point is on a shuttle bus and we had sat next to him and his wife on the way up. Tibet D6-10-270

You can see they are really promoting tourism to this spot now, there were constant flows of people in and out.  There was even a caravan of cars containing Chinese officials from some other province visiting.Tibet D6-10-272

We also visited the small monastery on the hillside by the base camp.  This one was interesting as they has both male and female monks at the same place.
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And at some point shortly before we left, the clouds blew away enough that we could even see the top....
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This was pretty much the end of our sightseeing.  We had several days of driving back to Lhasa, and then one morning, before getting on the plane back to Hangzhou.

I have to say, this was one of the most wonderful trips I have been on.  The Tibetan people are wonderful, gentle, generous, and obviously very spiritual people.  It was a true pleasure to interact with them, especially at the festival.  It was amazing to see the Himalayas.  It is interesting to see the faces and dress of the people, and to realize how much variety there is, and also to realize how much similarity there is in some of them to the Native American people, especially those in the southwest of the USA.  My one regret is that the horse racing festival was at another time this summer and we couldn't see it, but still absolutely an amazing trip all around.  Thanks to Pintok, our guide, and China Odyssey tours who arranged it.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tibet

Tibet has always been on my bucket list for traveling.  I don't know why, and I'm not sure what I expected to see there.  But it was, so I convinced Cindy to go.  I particularly chose a time when there would be a festival we could visit, and would also fit in with my work schedule.  As it turned out, my work schedule changed a bit, and it wasn't a great time to go, but the trip was booked, so we went anyways.

We did have some concerns about the altitude.  Lhasa, the main city where we went, is at 3,490 meters (11,450 ft).  Many of my colleagues were shocked that we planned to fly there instead of acclimating by taking the new train which goes there.  The train would have been a fun and interesting experience, but I didn't really have the time to spend 48 hours in the train.  First off we arranged the trip through a tour agency.  Foreigners cannot go there without engaging a tour operator.  We went on a tour of 2--customized to our desires.  Then after we had that arranged, we had to get permission to travel to Tibet from the government, our permits were arranged through the tour operator, so it was pretty painless for us.   The permits were very necessary though.  They were checked before we got our boarding passes at the airport, again at the airport when we got off, and again at the first of dozens of police checkpoints we went through.  This one on the main highway from the airport to Lhasa.  I have to say, in all my travels, I've never seen so many police checkpoints, and security points, and ...  It was a bit intimidating.

The first day we arrived in the afternoon, and drove to Lhasa.  We checked in the hotel, and rested--getting acclimated.  We could see the Potala Palace from our window, but the most striking thing was all of the construction going on in Lhasa.  There were cranes everywhere.

Our guide Pintok arranged for us to visit the palace early in the morning--meaning we had a 9:45 entrance time.  Non Tibetan visitors are required to get an appointment to visit the palace to manage the crowd control.  So we were there at almost 3500 meters, and we had to climb hundreds of steps to get into the palace, fortunately since it was early, the sun wasn't beating down on us too hard--the skys were clear though, a nice break from the overcast cloudy/polluted air of Hangzhou.
Potala Palace  There were dozens of people climbing the stairs up at any section, most of them Chinese visitors, followed in numbers by Tibetans who often make a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the former residence of the Dali Lama.  Of course we had to go through a security check, xray scan,  metal detector, to get into the grounds.  Tibet-2403.jpg
Down below the palace, many people were walking around the palace as a form of devotion.  It took us probably an hour to an hour and a half to walk up all the stairs, and then we walked around inside.

Inside there are rooms where the Dali Lama lived, there are tombs of some of the past Dali Lamas, there are said to be 1000 rooms in the palace.  Construction started on the modern palace in 1645, and it has been updated/added to several times.  It also suffered some damage in the occupation and cultural uprising, but was protected by Zhou Enlai who recognized it as an important cultural place.


Tibet-2416.jpgWhen you are climbing up, you can see the large people's square which was built by the Chinese in front of the palace.  Pintok and Cindy at Palace. And after seeing the palace, and the many beautiful artworks there, you descend another set of steps on the back side of the palace.



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After the palace, we had lunch, and then proceeded to visit the Jokung Temple.   Smell the burning butter. Outside the temple, there was a "sunken" building where there were oil lamps lit.  These were all yak butter lamps. Everywhere we went there were yak butter lamps/candles.  People would bring in either thermos' of melted yak butter (even in the palace) or they would have bags of yak butter.  In some places they also brought barley or barley flour.Tibet-2496.jpg  Every monastery or temple we went to had these beautiful paintings.  Sometimes they were darkened with soot, or damaged by water, but mostly they were in good shape and absolutely stunning in detail and execution.  Tibet-2500.jpg  From the roof, one had a good view of the Potala Palace in the background, and the main shopping street which went around the temple.

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The second day was probably the highlight of the trip for both of us.  Cindy had seen Cham Dancing before, but I hadn't.  We went to a festival about an hour outside of the city at Tsuphu.  Tibet-D2-Tsuphu-2520 We had to park about a kilometer below the temple site in the village, and walk up.  Here we were approaching the actual temple grounds, there were probably thousands of people who came for this.  It had a real local country fair kind of atmosphere.  There were incense vendors, food (cooked and uncooked) vendors, dozens of buses which had brought people parked in the parking lot, and people milling about everywhere.

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Tibet-D2-Tsuphu-2565And Cindy, as always, made a friend:
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At first when we arrived, we had a tough time getting close enough to the festivities to really get good photos.  Here you can see the opening procession.
Opening Procession

Also some of the dancing:
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Eventually I braved the "intermission dancers/clowns" who did crowd control, and entertained people during the time between the main dances.  I got close in on the main square and took some photos up close.
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Please visit my Flickr page to see more photos of the festivities, and a couple of videos I took there.

We spent pretty much the whole day there at the festival, having a bite to eat at about 3pm in a local tent on the way back down to the car.  I had some spicy noodles, Cindy had some rice dish, I don't remember exactly what.  They were especially happy to serve us yak butter tea, the local drink.

The third day we stayed around Lhasa again.  By now we were fairly well acclimated to the altitude in Lhasa, so that didn't bother us too much.   In the morning we went to the Dali Lama's summer palace/gardens.  I don't have many pictures because although the gardens were beautiful, I suffered massively from allergies and was miserable most of the morning.  I started to feel better after we had some lunch and I got away from the blooming trees in the gardens.

In the after noon we went to the  Sera monastery.   The key interest in this monastery is the debating monks.  They do it every day.  It seems to have become a real tourist attraction, and one wonders how authentic it is any more, but it represents how the monks "debate" or more accurately question one another on scripture.  Some of them are very dramatic about it, seeming to have a lot of fun, others are more sedate or serious.  Whatever, they definitely put on a show.  They pose the question, and then clap their hands, leaving one extended towards the recipient of the question.
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We also toured the inside of the monastery here.  Again many more paintings, sculptures, etc.  Most of the monasteries we visited charged to take pictures inside.  It usually wasn't much, 2 or 3 dollars, but it added up over time, so we didn't always take photos inside.
Tibet-D3-2905  We also got to visit the kitchens, where a couple of monks were preparing something for the rest.

Our last day in and around Lhasa, we went to a monastery recommended by our guide.  He wanted to take us for a short (1/2 hour) trek around the mountain the monastery is perched on.  So we went to Ganden monastery.   First about an hour driving out of the city, and then a fairly steep windy road up the mountainside.  2/3 of the way up, we stopped for a break.
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You can make out where the actual monastery is by the red color in the mountain, and off to the right is a small hermit's residence/ chapel.  We walked by it on our way back around the mountain.
Cindy made more friends, this time the four footed kind...
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And we has some spectacular views of the monastery itself, and off the mountain down into the valleys.
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Here you can see a local person carrying flagstones up the stairs to a higher point.  Vehicles just cannot make it this far.
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We bought some prayer flags, and hung them behind the monastery.
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The sky was superb that day.  Lots of beautiful clouds blowing by.
Tibet-D4-Ganden-3242 And people tied flags, or left yak wool in the bushes for good fortune/blessings.

Here you see more prayer flags left above the spot where sky burials are performed.  The burials are off to the left down the mountain a bit.  It is a very special ceremony carried out by specific monks.
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Well that is it for the first half of our trip.  As always, there are more photos from the various sites on my flickr.

More about the 2nd half later.