Day 4: Chengdu - Lhasa
Lhasa Travel Blog› entry 4 of 24 › view all entries
We have a very early wake-up call this morning because of our early flight into Tibet. I am really excited about it. Tibet always had some kind of mystical attraction to me and today I will finally be able to experience the magic for real! Ils and I packed our bags already last night so it doesn't take us long to get ready.
When we get down to the lobby, there are already several sleep-drunken group members checking out our breakfast boxes. I don't expect much of it but decide to have a look anyhow. The boiled egg appears to be rotten already but I spot a little muffin type of cake and a drink. The liquid looks thick and grey but doesn't taste all that bad. I presume it's rice milk. Because we will be heading towards high altitude, we need to start drinking already to get the necessary liquids in our system, so I have an extra 1.
It's still dark when we leave for Chengdu's airport. Travelling to Tibet is subject to al kinds of rules and restrictions. It's important to check-in as a group. In order to pass customs, we need to line up in the same order our names are printed on the special permit for Tibet. We have to form a row, two by two, as in kindergarten. Afterwards there's a rather strict security check. We have to remove our shoes and get searched all over.
Some fellow travellers already found the fountain with drinking water and are raiding the machine. When it's finally our turn, there's only hot water left.
In the mean while it started raining in torrents and we have to get to the aircraft by bus. Luckily I put my umbrella in my carry-on. I expected quite a bit of delay because of the rain, but to my surprise we take off right on schedule. I even managed to get a window seat but for the time being there is zero visibility.
The flight only takes about 2 hours but even on this short leg breakfast is served. I let is pass by and stick to a drink. Sensible choice, because the actual breakfast appears to consist of a watery rice porridge and pickled vegetables. Not exactly something that would please my taste buds, but then again I am a rather difficult eater.
In the mean while the view from my window has changed and some summits stick out of the clouds. The closer we approach the Tibetan plateau, the clearer the view. Only a few shattered clouds remain and the barren land below is perfectly visible.
We land on schedule at Gongkar airport and don't even have to show our passports anymore. It's this easy to get into Tibet! Also our luggage arrives in no time and we're ready to set foot on Tibetan soil.
In the parking lot outside we meet our new guide Jimmy; a friendly Tibetan. Also this time the hold of the bus is too small to fit all of our luggage and again some bags need to travel on empty seats. t looks like us Western people travel with too much stuff :-)
The sun is shining brightly and because of the barren mountains all around and the bright blue sky, I feel like in a completely different world.
On the bus we are all welcomed with a white silk scarf; the traditional welcome here in Tibet. It's only about an hour's drive to Lhasa but because of the many litres of water we need to drink, there soon is a need for a toilet stop. The landscape along the way is magnificent: barren mountains, light green field and little rivers shivering in the sun light.
Along the way we stop by a sight with rock paintings, about 11km out of Lhasa. The blue sky and the prayer flags around give the site a mystical aura. To my surprise it is really warm out here. It looks like we are very lucky with the weather today.
It's only a short drive now towards our hotel.
It strikes me that the outskirts of Lhasa are looking very Chinese. Here and there I spot a traditional building, but authenticity is hard to find here. Our hotel is located at the busy East Beijing Road but luckily it is separated from the street by an inner courtyard. A delegation of traditional clad Tibetans is waiting for us at the lobby and again we are warmly welcomed with a white silk scarf. I am happy to discover that our room is located towards the courtyard and is relatively quiet. That's a nice plus seen the fact we'll be spending three nights here.
We have the rest of the afternoon off to acclimatise and get used to the altitude. Lhasa is located at 3.650 m so it is advisable to take things easy for a while until our body is accustomed to the altitude. Though that doesn't fit in my plans ;-) I do not want to stay in my room all afternoon, especially not with this nice weather. So after a quick instant soup in the room, Ils and I head out to discover the old Tibetan quarter.
Our hotel is located just around the corner from the Tibetan quarter. As soon as we get off East Beijing Road, we enter the maze of typical narrow and winding streets filled with pilgrims and street vendors but also a great number of Chinese soldiers. Every few hundred meters there appears to be a check point.
After a few more turns we get to the Barkhor.
We make our own little pilgrimage around the temple; clockwise, according the tradition. About halfway through the pilgrimage, we get to a little restaurant with rooftop restaurant, overlooking the barkhor.
Our sandwiches arrive but they are not toasted. Apart from the tomatoes we also get lettuce and a few more raw veggies. Since this appears to be a rather touristy place, I presume the veggies are washed in purified water and eat them anyhow.
Before we go I need the bathroom and discover that at the kitchen, right next to it, the veggies are rinsed with tap water. Oh oh, I hope that I won't be in trouble now after eating those!
In order to get to the nunnery we need to leave the barkhor traject. After a bit of going up and down the same street we finally find the entrance to the monastery; an oasis of peace and quiet in the hustle and bustle of the city. There aren't too many visitors around. A nun is reading at the porch, a few others are making wicks for the yak butter candles and yet another one is pumping water from a well.
Back down we finally find the little room where we can buy our entrance ticket. Our visit is finished but when we are heading for the exit again, two nuns from whom we bought the tickets motion us to come and follow them. There is something they'd like to show us. We follow them through a few little store rooms and then one of the nuns takes a large key to open the door of another little chamber.
We leave the nunnery via their little shop and I spot a pair of lovely earrings. They are rather pricey but after a little inner debate I decide to buy them. I probably sponsor the convent with my purchase, so it actually counts as donation :-)
We are now in the Muslim quarter of Lhasa and we could continue about a kilometre towards the mosque.
We pick up our pilgrimage where we stopped for lunch. At this stretch of the kora we encounter many prostrating pilgrims. With each step they take, they throw themselves on the ground. This must be the summon of devotion. Luckily they wear an apron to protect their clothes and knees and they hold wooden blocks to protect their hands, but yet it surely is a strenuous endeavour.
Close to the entrance of the Jokhang temple we hear singing. A group of women is on the roof singing and stamping with a big wooden stick in tune with the music. At first look this appears to be a performance but actually they are doing construction work! The roof has been covered with a new layer of soil, which needs to be flattened and firmed the traditional way with the big wooden stick.
We have gotten now to the Barkhor Square, the large square in front of the Jokhang temple. Also here we find a great number of little stalls selling prayer flags, prayer wheels etc.... In front of the temple there's also a great number of prostrating pilgrims and devotees. Quite an impressive sight! The Jokhang temple is still on our group itinerary within a few days, so we do not enter today. Instead we already take a great number of pictures now that the weather is excellent and there are not all that many tourists around.
After our photo session we cross the Barkhor Square and enjoy the many flowers. We still have a couple of hours to kill and we decide to go and take a look at the Potala already.
It's still quite a walk, alongside East Beijing Road, the Chinese part of the city. It's also the main shopping street of Lhasa with plenty of big international chains such as Vero Moda, a super market, a drug store, a pharmacy etc... In the mean while I have opened again my umbrella; not to shield from the rain this time but against the fierce high altitude sun. My arms are already nicely red despite ample sun screen. Nevertheless we're really lucky with the lovely sunny weather and I'm surely not complaining!
After quite a bit of a walk we get via a large and luxurious underpass to a large pond and sitting area in front of the Potala palace.
In the mean while it's gotten time to return to the hotel. We enrolled for the group dinner tonight and still need to shower and change clothes. With the group we end up at Dunya; a nice westerns style restaurant owned by a Dutch couple. It is said that the food's very safe and tasty. Service is very quick and friendly and the food looks delicious. I go for the yak sizzler and get a large piece of meat. Yak meat appears to be rather greasy so the large piece is an ok size after all as still a lot of fat needs to be cut off.
I also discovered a very tasty soft drink: Jin Li Bao; a sports drink tasting like fanta with honey.
It's getting dark when we leave the restaurant. Some fellow travellers head for the Tibetan quarter again, but as it will be a jam-packed day again tomorrow, Ils and stick to buying a bottle of water and we head back towards the hotel for a good night's rest.