Tibet 2000: Lhasa to Kathmandu

Hotel Manaslu, Kathmandu
Hotel Manaslu, Kathmandu

(This is the final episode – find the rest by selecting the Tibet Category.)

We were happy to have made it back to Lhasa, but desperate to arrange the next stage of our journey. Incredibly, even though the advice the company had given us the evening before (to continue to Shigatse) had been so plainly wrong, W’s manager was still trying to insist that it was possible to get overland to the Nepalese border (in fact later that day the whole road was officially closed by the government.) However, they would get us flights if possible and W would meet us at 8 o’clock that evening to let us know the result.

After the manager had gone, W told us that the German party had priority and would get out before us – they were a bigger and more profitable group. However, he himself “knew somebody” at the airport and would try by his own methods to get us flights because he liked and trusted us. I have mentioned before how much we valued W, but it is true that this worked both ways. Several times, W had commented on what “nice” or “strong” people we were, by which I think he meant that we accepted adversity with good humour, no-one complained (well, we all did a little bit) and certainly no-one got angry or pointed the finger of blame at him. We knew he was doing his best for us under difficult circumstances, but a different set of people could have given him a really hard time.

At this point, we parted with our drivers. W gave us guidelines on what to tip them, and we did so at the lower end of the scale. Afterwards we felt a bit guilty because they had driven well through horrendous conditions, but overall we had got quite annoyed with them. The Landcruisers themselves were dodgy – apart from the axle incident, I’ve lost count of the number of times they had to be started by lifting the bonnet: not good in the back of beyond. Also, the two drivers did not seem to like each other very much and were very competitive, always wanting to be in front. Sometimes we didn’t know where the other vehicle was which was particularly worrying for us because W usually travelled with the other group leaving us vulnerable if something went wrong. We couldn’t decide whether our own driver was just trying to be friendly, or whether his interest in C was getting unhealthy – she sat in the front the first day, but after that we thought it safer to put John there. He didn’t mind – the front seat was much better sprung! Finally, we made the mistake of applauding our driver when he negotiated a couple of particularly difficult bits of road and this seemed to go to his head because his driving got very aggressive after that and we suffered the consequences.

That afternoon, we tried phoning various agencies we thought might help with tickets and got a gloomy response from all. It seemed the next two or three flights might be problematic, and John and I started planning what we could do for the next few days if stuck in Lhasa and we also considered if there were any alternative routes out, for example through Hong Kong. However, it all proved unnecessary. When we met W at 8pm, he said his manager was “more powerful” than he was and had secured us a 90% chance of tickets. It all depended on air temperature. Apparently, 20-30 seats were usually kept free, because with the air being so thin at that altitude, there might not be enough lift for a full plane to take off if it was over 10° C. If the temperature was right, we could have some of those seats. We told C not to feel too lucky; we could do without her sort of luck!

At 9.30pm, W summoned us again to say that his own negotiations had now borne fruit and we could definitely have the tickets if we gave his friend at the airport “a good present”. This amounted to $50 apiece – we paid, and kept our fingers crossed about the air temperature. The next morning, we got away.

Arriving in Kathmandu felt like coming home. The people there, as before, were friendly, colourful and, above all, clean. The horrors of the previous three days faded away and didn’t seem so bad after all. This was Saturday – the Fs invited us to a lovely farewell dinner at their hotel, C left on the Sunday and we left on Monday feeling that we had had a good holiday after all.

So what did I learn? That as I expected, I am a tourist not a traveller, but when things go wrong I can still cope. I don’t panic, and I keep calm and cheerful. The value of comradeship was also brought home to me – the experience was so much better for being surrounded by sympathetic people. I also saw at first hand the dirt-poor lives that people in some countries live and know I have so much to be thankful for.

As I said at the beginning of the series, I wrote this account at the time of our trip – in fact, I started as soon as we got back to Kathmandu and continued to write during the flight home on any scrap of paper I could find. I originally ended with some political thoughts, but I want to steer clear of that here. We won’t be going back to Tibet, but I’ll certainly never forget it.

If this has whetted your interest in Tibet, you might like to look at Travelling Rockhopper’s blog. Each month, she chooses a country and posts one photo a day with a little information about it. In April she covered Tibet – here is the first post, so take it from there!

Tibet 2000: the road to Gyantse

Lhasa - Gyantse road
Lhasa – Gyantse road

(This is Part Three of a seven-part tale. If you want to catch up, Part One is the Introduction and Part Two is about Lhasa.)

Soon, the day for our overland trip arrived. The day before, we had each been asked to pay an extra $87 to hire two Toyota Landcruisers because, according to W our guide, the roads were “very bad, very bad” and the bus wouldn’t make it. Well, we weren’t surprised about the bus and we’d seen some pretty smart-looking Landcruisers about town, so this seemed ok. And if the roads were bad – well, we hadn’t expected a holiday camp either. However, the Landcruisers were old, beaten-up and rattled more than the bus. Still, things weren’t too bad for the first 90 minutes, until we left the main road and swung off up a mountain pass on a winding, un-metalled track. We all began to wonder what we had let ourselves in for. This was supposed to be a 10-12 hour drive and already we felt we’d never survive. The scenery was spectacular, but we felt too awful to appreciate it.

After four hours, we reached a “restaurant” (hut in the middle of nowhere) where we had lunch. This was our big chance to try yak butter tea, the local speciality. John, who is notorious for trying anything revolting, quite liked it – it reminded him of Stilton soup. I smelled it and heaved, asking for jasmine instead. I’m sure this came in the same bowl, which hadn’t been rinsed out, but at least it was drinkable. After lunch, the ladies tentatively asked about the facilities. W advised us that there was a toilet, but that we’d be better going behind a wall outside. Hmm….

A word about Tibetan toilets. The hotels we stayed in had normal Western sanitation, but outside a toilet (usually announced by its smell) consisted of a communal room with two planks over a noxious pit. No running water, no privacy. When sightseeing, we had all managed to avoid this because we always went back to the hotel at lunchtime. (Except for John of course, who with his usual disgusting curiosity went into each one just to look, even if he didn’t need to go.) On the road, it was different. The men, as usual, had no bother. The women developed a system of standing guard for each other (no bushes or big rocks available), and certainly our modesty decreased as the week wore on. The first time was a bit of a disaster – C got through alright, but what we hadn’t reckoned with was that, although we were well hidden from our own Landcruisers, we were on a hair-pin bend and there was a convoy of Germans on the way up. I heard their vehicles in mid-flow but had been holding on so long I couldn’t get done in time. We kept meeting those Germans all week. I hope they didn’t recognise me.

Enough about toilets, and back on the road. The first day turned out to be only nine hours. Perhaps, we thought, W was the type to exaggerate how bad things would be so that we felt good when they were better. We arrived at the Gyantse Hotel for one night – it looked like a toilet block from the outside, but was quite smart and comfortable inside. Our brochure described the next day as a pleasant two-hour drive to Shigatse with a visit to a monastery in the afternoon – and if W was saying the roads were now “very, very bad”, well, we knew he exaggerated didn’t we?

Come back on Monday to find out what happened next….

Tibet 2000: Lhasa

Gallery 1: Potala Palace

(This is the second instalment of this tale. Part One is Tibet 2000: introduction).

We arrived in Tibet full of optimism. There were six of us: myself and John, C, a young Italian/American woman and the F family from Austria: mother, father and 17-year old son. The programme was that we flew up to Lhasa (at an altitude of 3650 m, about 12,000 ft), spent a couple of days sightseeing and then returned overland to the border with Nepal. This would be a 5-day drive, with the possibility of a 5-mile walk at the very end where the road into Nepal was often impassable. It would be downhill and there would be porters to carry our bags so it didn’t sound too bad. The best laid plans…..

Gallery 2: Barkhor Square and the Jokhang

We were met at the airport by W, our Chinese guide, and driven into Lhasa (one and a half hours away) in a very rickety bus which we were dismayed to learn was our transport for the week – we were expecting the roads in Tibet to be a bit rough and it didn’t seem up to it. Still, the Hotel Lhasa was very plush and we were to have three nights there, so things didn’t look too bad especially as our first evening was a success. C, John and I went out to find a restaurant and, as we had followed our guide’s directions wrongly, we missed the tourist ones and ended up on a street where all the restaurants were aimed at Chinese locals. However, we found one that had its name in English as well as Chinese and we took the fact that it was busy as a good sign. When we went in, we caused total consternation amongst both staff and customers. Such an invasion of foreigners had obviously never happened before. Eventually, a diner with some rudimentary English was found, we were ushered into a separate room and he helped us to order some food. It was excellent, and cost less than a fiver for all three of us. As we ate, we congratulated ourselves on how well we were feeling – slightly headachey perhaps, but no real symptoms of altitude sickness. Little did we know.

Gallery 4: Drepung Monastery

The year before, John and I visited Quito* (9,000 ft) and felt a little dizzy the first night, but otherwise were fine. The extra 3,000 ft made a huge difference. At two o’clock that morning, we both woke up with the most incredible headaches. I have never felt anything like it. John said it resembled a very bad hangover, but either he has experienced hangovers of a spectacular quality I have never attained, or he was not suffering anything like as much as I was. I thought my head would explode. I thought it would fall off. When I got up the next morning, I could only move in slow motion. All week, this headache stayed with me, usually at a fairly low level, but it could be aggravated by various things such as the sun or the motion of the vehicle and it was always more painful at night so I slept quite badly. To make matters worse, another symptom of altitude sickness is loss of appetite and I suffered from this too. Most people will find that hard to believe of me, but it’s true. Typically, I acclimatised on the day before we left Tibet when I began to feel quite human again.

Gallery 4: Sera Monastery

We were joined for our two days’ sightseeing by V, a large Russian, who entertained us all at top volume to his views on the Russian military and the shortcomings of Tibetan food (it wasn’t Western enough) in perfect, if pedantic, English. We could tell W didn’t like him, especially when he called him Comrade. We were supposed to meet up again a couple of days down the road, but this never happened. Our last, incongruous, sight of him was when he was despatched in a tiny rickshaw back to his hotel on the second day. We did ask about him later in the week, but apparently he had disappeared and we never heard what happened to him. We saw the Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama, and three monasteries. All contained gloomy rooms, glorious golden Buddhas and many red-robed monks. However, my strongest memory is of the smell of yak butter candles which permeated everywhere and didn’t help with my queasiness.

Find out what happens when we set out on the road in Thursday’s instalment.

*See Q is for Quito from 2014’s A to Z Challenge.

Tibet 2000: introduction

Potala Palace
Potala Palace, Lhasa

After our visit to Galapagos in 1999, which I blogged about earlier this year, we had a problem. Friends now regarded us as intrepid travellers and kept asking “Where on earth will you go next?” We felt we had to live up to our reputation, so the following year we chose Tibet. No-one we knew had been there….hmmm, I wonder why not? We were to find out. I know some people question whether it is ethical to visit Tibet at all (and it does make me uneasy) but, having decided to go, our big mistake was the timing.

Paintings on the road from the airport to Lhasa
Paintings on the road from the airport to Lhasa

In 2000, for work reasons, we had to take our holidays in September which is the beginning of the rainy season. The first company we booked with cancelled because there weren’t enough people to make a viable group. Should’ve taken the hint then. We found another company who would take us, but we discovered when we arrived for the start of the tour in Kathmandu* that we were their only clients. We were added to another company’s group, and when we arrived in Tibet we were delegated yet again to a Chinese company. This made it very difficult to know who to complain to if things went wrong – and go wrong they did.

Tibet bookWhat follows in the next few posts is a lightly edited version of an account I wrote at the time. This was long before I was a blogger, but a lot of friends and colleagues read it, and years later when I was leaving work one of them contacted John without me knowing to get some photographs and she made me a book as a retirement gift. Thanks Cheryl!

So – come back on Monday for the start of our adventures in Tibet.

* See K is for Kathmandu from 2014’s A to Z Challenge.