Whether or not Tibet is a part of China largely depends on who you ask. China says yes, the Tibetans don’t really want to talk to you about it, and Tibet is officially known as the “Tibet Autonomous Region”. It’s just as hard for foreigners to visit; you need a special permit from the Chinese government to go, and basically it has to come from a registered tour company. Good thing ours was able to pull that for us.
Tibet is the highest “country” in the world, with an average height of 16,000 feet above sea-level. Lhasa, its capital, sits in a valley around 11,000 – which is still two miles up. Which for yours truly means – altitude sickness.
I first encountered altitude sickness in 2013 when I visited Cuzco, Peru, the ancient capital of the Incas and the launch point for Machu Picchu. 10 minutes after I got off the plane in Cuzco, my energy level dropped through the floor, I got a headache and my body became sore. This is because the air is so thin it’s difficult to get enough oxygen into your system. This affects people differently. Apparently, I’m worse than most.
So I expected shit to go sideways when we landed, and wasn’t disapointed, though being ready for it made a big difference. What I wasn’t ready for was the dryness – humidity was in single digits, which made the air even thinner. Unlike in Cuzco where I was fine within 18 hours, I’d carry the headaches and altitude sickness for all three days in Tibet.
As it turned out, that was the good news. The bad news is I also managed to grab a minor case of food poisoning from the hotel buffet our first morning. My father fared much worse with food poisoning, taking a bite out of a bad piece of yak cheese, knocking him out for an afternoon, and everyone with us found some form of altitude sickness for the entire trip. A quick shout-out to our guide Dor-Je who not only provided terrific guiding services, but managed to take care of us and adjust everything to accommodate.
None of this stopped us from heading to the Daili Lama’s summer palace right after breakfast that first day, however:
That afternoon, we visited the Potala Palace, I guess the “non-summer” home for the Daili Lama before he fled to India in 1959. Though I climbed over 500 steps to visit the ghost city of Fengdu two days before, with the altitude sickness, food poisoning and beating sun, I only made it halfway up the steps before having to turn back. My head was pounding, my entire body was near locked-up from the soreness, but most importantly, I was dizzy. The prospect of going inside with dark, steep steps and thick incense was too much. My wonderful wife went for me, and brought out a book with all kinds of pictures of the interior (taking your own pictures isn’t an option). I found a bench and lay on my back for a couple of hours, contemplating the clouds and listening to the buddhist chants nearby. It was quite comfortable.
To combat my stomach issues, I restricted myself to bottled water, white carbs and the occasional real Coke for the remainder of my time in Tibet. Though I never felt exactly good, we moved on the next morning to the Jokhang Temple, in the center of old town Lhasa. Built in the 7th century, it is a center for buddhist pilgrims who flock from all over Tibet and the rest of the world to pray and prostrate out front and throughout the temple.
Here’s a great look at old town Lhasa. The city is surrounded on all sides by huge, steep, rocky peaks. What surprises you the most is the overall lack of vegetation on the mountains, which tower 4-5,000 feet over the city.
Our final afternoon in Lhasa was spent at the Drepung Monastery, once home to over 10,000 monks.
Though the monastery only houses somewhere around 600 monks today, you can still witness the monks debating. Obviously you can’t understand what they’re saying, but they’ve developed a universal system for understanding what’s happening. One monk stands, while another sits. The sitting monk states his idea/premise/whatever. The standing monk will clap his palms together if he likes it, clap the back of his top hand on his palm if he doesn’t, and add a loud “che” of disapproval if he really thinks the sitting monk is full of shit. Multiply that by around 100, and you have an idea of the chaos that ensued the afternoon we visited. The pictures don’t really do it justice, but stay tuned: I have video, coming soon.
Finally: the infamous yaks. These things are basically big, hairy cows, but they are the center of Tibet’s livestock. They provide meat, cheese, the yak version of wool and occasionally even transportation. So much so that they’re included in the official Tibetan dances we saw our last night.
On our way to the airport, we saw some “yak boys” (like cowboys) herding some yak across a remote valley. The good news is, a couple of hours after arriving at our next stop of Xi’an, I kicked the altitude sickness for good and resumed eating regular meals.
The bad news: our Xi’an guide tried to put our group in a position that could have landed me in a Chinese prison. Back with this story on Monday.