Theres aren't too many ways to get into Tibet from China. China added an exciting option last year by completing construction of a rail link between Xining in Western China and Lhasa in Tibet. The train goes over a 17,000ft snow covered pass making it the highest train in the world. At 11,000ft, Lhasa is also the highest train station in the world. One of the great wonders of the train is this section built on unstable permafrost. There are actually ingenious cooling rods stuck into the ground to keep it frozen so the rails don't move around! The views from the ride are spectacular and surprising. We passed through snowy peaks, verdant plains and even rocky desert. The only downside was the acute mountain sickness that both Mary and John suffered from thanks to the ultra quick jump up to 17,000ft. Not even the oxygen masks got them back on their feet.
Lhasa and the area around is one of the parts of Tibet you can travel freely without a guide or additional permits. We ended up spending a few extra days here as Mary and John recovered from AMS. I liked Lhasa. It's growing very quickly due to Chinese immigration, but it is still a small town. The most famous view of Tibet, the giant Potala Palace dominates the landscape here. There are many more monasteries in the area, including Sera, where monks gather in a courtyard and the elders grill the youths in animated displays of theological debate. I trekked the pilgrimage circle (kora), and explored the woodcarving library at Ganden monastery in the hills outside of the city. Right in the middle of the capital is the most holy monastery of the Jokhang, surrounded, of course, on all sides by souvenir stalls and shops. On top of the monastery, we ran into a chorus of women resurfacing the clay roof. One woman spread wet clay and 20 others tamped it down while singing. It was like a Tibetan chain gang.
Our first day on the 4x4 tour started with a stop at one of the highest lakes in the world, Yamdrok Tso. The lake is so beautiful that we almost didn't notice the hundreds of Chinese tourists paying to dress up in traditional Tibetan costumes to take photos on a yak. The drive from the lake to Gyantze provided our next big surprise as we passed through a full on desert. Where'd this come from?
At Gyantze, we were able to see yet another monastery and then explore a really cool hilltop fortress. We're still on the tour bus circuit here, so the monastery was filled with more tourists than monks. The fort requires a bit of walking uphill, though, so we were the only people inside. Lucky us, the fort had a dungeon with rickety ladders and we had a flashlight. Spooky spooky. We were supposed to spend the night in Gyantze, but couldn't find an available (and halfway clean) room! Instead we drove late into the night to our next stop of Xigatze.
Xigatze is a larger town with a fair amount to see. We ran through the monastery and then did the pilgrim walking route around the top for great views of the city, monastery and a palace right behind our hotel. We stopped for lunch at a Tibetan restaurant and were lucky enough to have a couple monks come in for tea at the table next to us. One even got up and filled our tea when we got dangerously low!
Next we were off to a stop at remote Sakya monastery and then on to the town of Shegar, the portal to Mt. Quomolongma (Everest, to you and I) national park. On the road, we stopped for photos and were attacked by a few curious kids. Sakya was quite different from the other monasteries we saw. It didn't get the tour buses, so it was much quieter and the monks weren't as aggressive. Best, it had plenty of secrets to explore. Most exciting of all was the mysterious doorway to one closed building that was covered in whimsically morbid characters and protected by hay stuffed coyotes!
In Tibet, you can drive a 4x4 almost right to the base of Everest. A couple hour hike from the permanent tent village called 'Base Camp' takes you to the edge of an ice field that separates day trekkers from hikers and climbers. In spite of dizzying heights and the return of AMS for Mary and John, we did the hike to the ranger station and climber 'base camp'. Here we had an exciting encounter where our 'guide' intercepted us at the ranger station and nearly got us kicked out of Tibet. As far as we can tell, neither she nor the rangers she set on us actually understood the permit process for tourists in Tibet. The ranger finally decided that we needed to leave Tibet immediately. Of course, he won't step 10ft out of his assigned area to make that happen, so all ended ok and we made our way back to the tourist base camp for dinner and a blanket in our dung-heated tent hotel. We had amazing clear views of the mountain for sunset and sunrise the next day. Too cold to do more than take a photo and run back inside, though! It took two more days of mostly driving to get from here to the border. Lucky us, much of the road to the border is actually closed during the day for repairs (I'd actually call it 'construction'). So we left our last stop before sunrise to get onto the road before they blocked us out. Wow, this was scary. First we had to contend with the horrible condition of the road with all kinds of construction debris and equipment lurking in the darkness. Then there were the sheep herders moving their flocks up and down the road. Just about daybreak, we came across the a trailer truck that was stuck dangerously in a landslide over a 1000' drop. Fortunately, all the road construction meant there was a bulldozer and backhoe nearby. The choreography of these two pulling the truck to safety was the highlight of the day.