Friday, February 17, 2017

We Traveled to Tibet

Our 2 year stay in Xian came to an end and we were on our way home, but not before visiting Tibet.  This is something we had talked about ever since we knew we were coming to China. We considered it a once in a lifetime opportunity and well worth it. There were so many things about Tibet that were so different from anything or place we had ever visited. 

First was the incredible altitude! Breathing was a full time job and not to be done in conjunction with any other activity. It was like constantly going up a steep, endless, flight of stairs. Tibetans were dressed in heavy native clothing, even though it was July. Their traditions are so interesting. Souvenirs can be anything from Yak skulls to beautiful woolen scarves. We enjoyed yak burgers and Nan bread and lots of imitation western food.

Tibet is often called the "Roof of the World." For good reason. It is larger than the state of Alaska, only has around 3 million residents, and has a very high average elevation of over 16,000 feet. 

We flew into Lhasa, the capital city, and largest city, with a population of around 200,000. It is at an elevation of 12,000 feet. That is high. The altitude was so high that we were cautioned to only walk the streets slowly for the first day or two. Many tourists get debilitating headaches that they never recover from until they leave the country. While we were always somewhere between short of breath to practically gasping for air, we did fine.

Our native Tibetan guide told us population was a complicated thing. The country, as he called it (the "autonomous region" as China officially calls it - and that is a whole different, interesting story), use to be populated with almost all native populations. As China has exerted more control over the area, the government has given incentives to "Han Chinese," the racial segment that makes up 95% of China's population, to migrate to Tibet. He said now most the shops and tourist activities are owned by "Han Chinese" who often only live there during the summer (and maybe then just the dad or mom who operate the shop) and move back to lower elevations and more civilized living most of the year.

Tibet is not a casual tourist destination. It is complicated to get a visa. Because of civil unrest, China may stop tourist visiting for weeks (there was such a shut down just before we went). You must almost always be with a Tibetan escort, And there is an overwhelming and obvious military presence, unlike the rest of China (where we freely traveled wherever we wanted).

We were told to stay close to the hotel but we could explore a little as long as we acknowledged the strict military presence. We were comfortable (if not a little short of air) so we spent some time shopping and just observing life in the city near our hotel.


The shopping was "different." It was so fun to look around!  We managed to buy some purses and some really nice cashmere type scarves. But left the yak skulls there.

Much of life in Lhasa centered around the main square where there were many shops and vendors. At one end of the square was the temple where much of the population came  in prayer daily.

The photo above is taken from the top of the temple. Our hotel was at the far end of the square, to the left of the group of trees in the middle. Did I say, "Our hotel." I misspoke. I guess that reflects my comfort with China. I think it was actually just an old apartment building that was reconfigured to rent rooms. It would make a Days Inn look like the Ritz, but we were too busy trying to breath to bother really noticing.

The picture below is one of the many, many Buddhist temples there. Always so impressive. Always so gold plated. Always seeming so ageless and ancient. This one was the subject of many Tibetans' and other Buddhists' pilgrimages. There were large numbers of pilgrims who had traveled there prostrating themselves every body length (how many body lengths are there to a mile? 1,000? It's hard imagine them prostrating 1,000 times per mile; how many miles did they travel?) Then the temple was endlessly circled by the hundreds (thousands) of pilgrims, always clockwise, and always doing various ritual activities. Lots and lots of Chinese tourists. Westerners? Not so much. 

An example of one of the temples we saw. Really ornate and pretty!

This is Potala Palace, the impressive Dalai Lama residence, high on a hill in Lhasa. He is the Tibetan head of Buddhism. He no longer lives there, having been exiled but we could climb (huff and puff) the many stairs and see much of what it encompassed. It is a World Heritage Site.

Here is another view of the Potala Palace.

In the evenings there was a delightful water show  in front of the palace. People played in the water and took pictures and generally enjoyed themselves.

As we traveled by van from Lhasa to Base Camp Everest, there were 3 primary things we saw/visited/photographed: the dramatic scenery, the bleak, social, prayer flag decorated markers and gathering high spots on the road (I was tempted to say highway, but in no way were the roads highways), and the Buddhist temple - the many ornate, ancient, worn, gold plated Buddhist temples.

The temples seemed to have several things in common: They are old and all felt like very dangerous fire traps. There was no overall architectural sense to them - just rooms added to rooms added to rooms. There seemed to be primary constants. Very dry wood, hanging tapestries and carpets everywhere, endless chanting red-robed monks, and beautiful gold covered statuary and Buddhas.

Most of the pilgrims to the temples were carrying a butter (or lard) offering which was burning and melting throughout the temples. Burning everywhere in the temple. Everywhere. With no ventilation whatsoever. Needless to say, the air was awful.

Sitting on the steps of a temple.

Mary at one of the "rest stops" at a high point on the road. Always lots of prayer flags.

These two photos are of the types of road we were frequently on between Lhasa and Base Camp. Not much for roads. Lots of scary moments. Fortunately we never drove at night.

Never to waste an opportunity, there were many chances to buy trinkets or, in our case, get your picture taken some of the local children or with a dog-lion. All for a price of course.

These kids were at a high place in the most middle of nowhere. Cute kids. No village in site, but a dozen or so Tibetans making a meager living from the tourists, which was apparently lucrative compared to subsistence farming.

I don't think this dog smells cologne very often.  How many fleas could that coat hold...Dog lover that he is, Paul was thrilled.

The higher we got the more remote it got. But we saw many ribbons and flags tied to rocks, and "overpasses". Its a traditional thing there.

Mt Everest itself is finally in the back ground! Mt Everest sits on the border of Nepal & Tibet. Both countries have their Base Camps, their Sherpas, and their climbing communities. Because of the unpredictability of visas into Tibet, the Nepal side is way more famous and has many more climbers.

It may look like we are enjoying the scenery but, in fact, we got a flat tire in one of the most remote places on earth! If we thought about it long enough we could have been really stressed. The women waited and the men consulted. 

While we waited we watched some children from a family that lived in the area.  I'm not sure how they managed but the kids seemed really happy and friendly and stayed by us until Mom called them home. Like everyone in Tibet, the children looked weathered from the harsh sun and the harsh climate and looked much older than their physical development suggested their chronological age was.

Soon we were on our way again. We are still in awe that we got the tire fixed so quickly. No cell phone coverage or AAA there!

We are getting closer. It was very unusual to see Mt. Everest with no clouds. Even our guide took lots of pictures. It was impressive to see how barren it all was. Just rocks and rubble.

Here we are at Base Camp! Very sunny but no air! We were at 19,000 feet. In a way it was good to get to lower ground.  Being oxygen starved is not a good thing.

This is the China side Base Camp. Pretty rustic. I'm not sure what the tickets were for but the solar energy should have been pretty strong that high. It consisted of several dozen tents like this in a U with them functioning as hotels, restaurants, clinics, supply houses, etc. All made of tarps and blankets.

This tent had perhaps 20 cots lining the walls as it was a hotel. It converted into the dining room by sitting on the cots and eating. We ate lunch. We never saw the kitchen but it was good, no one got sick, and no one really wanted to ask any questions!

We eventually got back in the van and started our descent to Nepal. The interesting thing about touring in Tibet is that you are put on a time table. You have to arrive at certain desolate, isolated military checkpoints within a narrow time window. It was a very slow schedule. That gave us plenty of time to stop and look at the scenery. 

We saw lots of yaks at every elevation. They are the backbone of their subsistence economy. They are large with so much hair. They are eaten and their coats are used and they only live in high altitudes. We saw lots of them. You could even sit on one - if you paid. We got the impression that the animals were thrilled to have us climb on.

The trip through Tibet was a once in a lifetime event and we are glad we made it. As we made our way to Nepal there were several other sights to be seen.

Just to reinforce the idea that air was precious we passed several of these shops. Also, many times your hotel room would have bottles of oxygen in them - like bottles of water and you had to pay for them.

After miles and miles of gray rocks it was surprising to see these yellow and green fields. Each field is fenced in with all the loose rocks laying around.

On our way out of Tibet we continued visiting temples. They were all beautiful and impressive.  We took a few shots of the local people who didn't seem to mind. One of the pictures is of our tour group which crowded into our little van.

These next few slides are our last night in Tibet before we crossed over into Nepal. Beautiful location - picturesque hotel on the side of  a the mountain on the edge of a river.

Exactly on time, we arrived at the border of Tibet and Nepal.  the crossing was not what we expected.  No road. You had to walk the last couple of blocks out of Tibet and the first several blocks into Nepal. Lots of odd political intrigue involved in that along with what we understand is a futile effort to stop smuggling of various things in both directions.

A small bridge, a rocky road and lots of walking.... We eventually came to a muddy river and a bridge. You walked. You entered into a Chinese border patrol building. You got processed to leave China. At that point you picked up or rolled your suitcases across a bridge and into Nepal. 

In order to find your guide, your transportation, the border patrol office, etc., you had to roll your suitcases down the street, and down and down... Since we were going home after 2 years in China, that was no small process with way too much and way too heavy of luggage - Mary got a hole in one of her cases. 

Border control in Nepal was interesting. China way very vigorous in who they would let out. Nepal really did not have a border presence. All they had was a very crowded building where you went in and registered. And if you did not register - no one seemed to care. However, I bet those who skipped the process were quite surprised at the new complication in their life when they tried to exit Nepal. This stuff all turns out pretty exacting.

Finally we hopped into another van, continued our Nepal adventure (the reason I did not say "began" is because hauling our suitcases across the border and down the streets was quite an adventure already), and headed for Kathmandu (I have always loved the mysterious, romantic sound of that city). 

We wound down a beautiful route through the mist and clouds of the rain forest. The roads were not great and the poverty was everywhere. Finally we arrived at Kathmandu for our next few days of adventure.

 Kathmandu was a busy place. There was shopping and sightseeing to do and monkeys everywhere. They were kind of creepy and very aggressive. We were told to keep our pockets empty, wear no jewelry, and be very careful with purses, cameras, and backpacks. Don't fear pickpockets - only monkeys.

We loved walking through the shrines and temples and looking at them. Who knew that so many of apartments, building, temples, and historic buildings would be destroyed in less than a year by a huge earthquake? 

(The string across the top of the door was made of some kind of intestines...)

It was an enjoyable city to visit, particularly walking through all the old historic areas. The street vendors were some of the most interesting and aggressive ones we have ever experienced. So many very short people likely reflecting the poverty and nutrition in their lives.

Flying out of the Kathmandu airport was an "interesting" experience. We looked around us and were impressed with the sense of "nowhere" that hung in the air and were quite glad to get on our way to India. It was probably the most unsettling airport experience we have ever had.

India. New Delhi. Taj Mahal. Our goal. We flew to Delhi, spent the night in a hotel. On a trip of contrasts, our brief visit to Delhi was full of them. For a big $50 we stayed in one of the most luxurious hotel in our experience. A fabulous JW Marriott.

Early the next morning we were picked up by a tour guide we had arranged (referral from Don Clark) and headed out on what we heard was the only freeway in the country. We were 3 hours out and on our way to Agra. 

We have heard that a trip to the Taj Mahal, our one objective in India, had to be a two day trip with an overnight in Agra. Our guide, however, said that if we left early and did not mind returning late, we could do it in a day and still be at a leisurely pace. Once we got to Agra, the vibe of that city left us very grateful we made the one day decision. 

The Taj Mahal was very cool. Well worth the time detouring to India.

On our way there was lots to see. Camels in the fields. People catching a ride most anywhere they can and yes, there were cows on the road, and camels on the road, and even elephants on the road. And lets not forget, people on the road. An interesting side note if you happen to keep track of gender issues and challenges in India, we saw tens of thousands of men, while only handfuls of women.

When we got out of the car and took a tuk-tuk the rest of the way we suddenly saw the Taj in the distance. The size was amazing and it was so white!

Never have we been somewhere that was as hot as that day. Unbelievable! Mary's knees sweated and I sweat all the dirt out of my watch band and onto my white t-shirt (Ann speaking).

Our guide was great! He know all the tricks for a fun picture: exactly what we wanted to shoot and where to stand for it. It made for an interesting, unique, and enjoyable photo tour. The following are some examples.

This building is also on the grounds of the Taj Mahal and is almost as impressive. All the walls are made from small pieces and put together like a mosaic.  The size and scope of the grounds and buildings are immense and so well kept up.

The following pictures are just random shots of the building and of the detail in the mosaic work.

All too soon (actually not too soon in the sweltering summer heat) it was time to fly away and continue our trip home from China. This trip home was an amazing opportunity, to say nothing of our total Chinese experience. We will always remember it. 

During our training at BYU for teaching in China, everyone was constantly struck by how dramatically different things sounded compared to America. Most differences were simple cultural ways of doing things. Often things sounded like they would benefit from our correction. Our instructors constantly emphasized how we would never change China but it would change us. How true. Serving, teaching and living in China is a life changing blessing.

Of everything we have said in our blog - and we hope you have enjoyed our photos and our observations - here is the most important take-away:

Volunteer to be part of the church's BYU Kennedy Center China Teachers' Program ! ! ! ! ! ! ! But you must do it before you are 65.

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