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Day 4: Chengdu - Lhasa

Lhasa Travel Blog

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permit for Tibet

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.

view from the plane
5 litre of water on me. Our tour leader advices not to throw away the empty water bottles yet as it is possible to refill them with drinkable water after the security check at the airport.

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.

welcome shawl
I fill my bottles anyhow. I'm pretty sure it will cool down easily if I leave it in the overhead compartment during the flight.

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.

on the road to Lhasa

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.

But we get informed that we'll stay in a different hotel than foreseen on our itinerary. We'll be staying now at the Kailash hotel. According to my travel guide, this is one of the better hotels in Tibet, so I am surely not complaining.

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.

rock painting along the road

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.

This is the about 1 km long circumambulation (aka "kora") around the Jokhang temple; the holiest temple in Lhasa. What a sight! We don't know where to start looking; so much is going on here. The entire kora is lined with little stalls full religious attributes such as prayer beads and knick knacks for the tourists. Little old ladies, monks and Tibetans in traditional dress walk the stretch, prayer wheels in hand and their faces beaming with devotion. Some light incense sticks at the several little altars all around the temple. The smoke only adds to the mysticism of the place.

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.

pilgrims on the barkhor
A good chance to stop and have a bite to eat. After all we were advised to take it easy today. Via a dark and narrow staircase we get to the roof. The terrace is pretty crowded already but we discover a few vacant seats at a large table with a few Japanese tourists. We find an English menu on the table, but the staff is not that comfortable with the language. Each time we try to order something, they run away. Eventually we succeed with a bit of sign language to order 2 cokes and 2 cheese and tomato sandwiches. In the mean while we enjoy the view on the kora and the many pilgrims.

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.

In the worst case the coke might work as an antiseptic ;-) After lunch we hang around a little longer to make some pictures from the roof top and we check the easiest way to get to the Ani Tsankhung nunnery. This looks like a great side trip for today.

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.

We go upstairs and end up at the sleeping quarters of the nuns. There is no sign saying we can't come here but it doesn't seem right to be prying here. Via another staircase we end up at the prayer hall. A large group of nuns is chanting. It appears to be some sort of ceremony. Taking pictures seems rather disrespectful to me, same as entering the hall. Instead we look silently from aside. I presume this is a sight we'll often see here in Tibet.

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.

It's very dark inside. As soon as our eyes get used to the feeble light, I see a small altar with a gilded Buddha statue. The chamber itself seems to be carved out of the rock, a bit like an artificial cave. It is lovely but it again seems disrespectful to take pictures. We thank the two friendly nuns for taking us here and go on our way. When I later on take my travel guide to read up on the nunnery, I discover that we were granted a very great honour! These 2 ladies took us to the holiest part; the meditation cave of their founder Songtsän Gampo!!! I can't believe how lucky we were!

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.

But eventually we decide to skip it and return towards the barkhor. Along the way we bump into fellow travellers Anja and Joep, who are also exploring the city.

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.

view from the rooftop restaurant
The songs make it easier to keep a steady pace.

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.

Nunnery
That way we're sure to have nice and sunny pictures already; should the weather change within the next few days.

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.

We install ourselves on a bench underneath a nice shady tree and enjoy the view. Too bad that the large 4-lane boulevard in front of the palace is spoiling the view.

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'll become my favourite drink during the Tibetan leg of the trip. Also the "altitude tea" I order after dinner is delish and tastes a bit like toffee candy.

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.

 

marg_eric says:
I loved Lhasa (and Tibet). I'm enjoying your blog very much! :)
Posted on: Aug 26, 2010
janvier02 says:
Thanks for sharing :). I got many useful infos from your trips.
Posted on: Aug 23, 2010
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permit for Tibet
permit for Tibet
view from the plane
view from the plane
welcome shawl
welcome shawl
on the road to Lhasa
on the road to Lhasa
rock painting along the road
rock painting along the road
pilgrims on the barkhor
pilgrims on the barkhor
view from the rooftop restaurant
view from the rooftop restaurant
Nunnery
Nunnery
prostrating pilgrim
prostrating pilgrim
Jokhang temple
Jokhang temple
the Potala
the Potala
Tibetans working on the roof of t…
Jokhang temple Lhasa
Fixing the roog of the Jokhang te…
Lhasa Restaurants, Cafes & Food review
So-so but with a priceless view
Makye Amye is located in a pretty yellow building at the south-east corner of the Barkhor circuit and it is said that this was once the dwelling of t… read entire review
Lhasa Sights & Attractions review
A peaceful Haven
The Tsamkhung Nunnery is a friendly and welcoming monastery for women (nuns) south east of the Jokhang temple. It is located in the same street that … read entire review
Lhasa Hotels & Accommodations review
rather basic with great location
As we were originally supposed to stay at the New Mandala hotel in Lhasa, I didn't manage to do any research beforehand on the Kailash hotel. We were … read entire review
Lhasa Restaurants, Cafes & Food review
Well worth the money
Dunya Restaurant and bar is partially owned by a Dutch couple and hence was an obligatory dinner venue for our Dutch tour group; yet we were so satisf… read entire review
Lhasa
photo by: mountaingirl