Jenny Hewett visits Everest and finds enlightenment on an epic 14-day overland tour from Tibet to Kathmandu.
Travel, at its true heart, is not meant to be easy. There are few places left in the world that feel as undiscovered as Tibet. As the highest region on earth, with an average elevation exceeding 4,500m, it takes a thrill-seeker to risk altitude sickness, which in severe cases can potentially be fatal. It’s the one irony accompanying Tibet’s otherwise inviting landscape and spiritual prowess. But there are also few places that are as unattainable, with tourism to the country strictly controlled by the Chinese government. In both respects, Tibet’s inaccessibility means that even today, those who set foot in the Buddhist kingdom feel as though they’re being let in on an incredible secret.
We experience its elusiveness first-hand when we depart for the 3,650m-high capital, Lhasa, early in the morning from Kathmandu. Since arriving two days earlier, we’ve been under the supervision of international adventuring company World Expeditions and have been well-briefed on the itinerary for our ‘High Road to Lhasa’ trip. What’s to come next is an epic 14-day overland voyage that will see the six of us explore the top sights, including Potala Palace, Everest’s north face Base Camp, with stays at basic hotels and guesthouses. Now consistently ingesting altitude sickness prevention medication Diamox, as strictly instructed, we’re ready to hit the road. That is if we can ever get there. Our softly-spoken head guide, Sunjay, seems to have everything under control. But this morning he doesn’t appear to be on good terms with the weather boss.
There are two ways to enter Tibet, via China or Nepal, and the hour-and-a-half plane ride via Kathmandu is the easiest route from Dubai. Already three hours late, our flight to Lhasa is diverted due to bad weather and another hour later we’re being unceremoniously spewed into the passenger arrival terminal in the western Sichuan city of Chengdu. In a temptingly cruel twist of fate, we now find ourselves in the Chinese epicentre of shoe trade and panda research. Tibet is proving even more difficult to get to than first thought. When we finally arrive in Lhasa the next morning, the relief is almost as dizzying as the altitude, but we’re firmly on Tibetan soil and the sun is shining bright. Everything seems a little crisper and clearer this high up.
Unlike its backpacker-friendly neighbouring countries, tourists to Tibet are on a tight leash. Independent travel is forbidden and those entering can only do so on a registered tour. With two vehicles, two drivers and two guides for our small group of six, we stop just short of an entourage. We discover Tibet’s history, though fascinating, is shrouded in mystery and its future alarmingly uncertain under Chinese control. The exile and elaborate escape of the current 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, to India during the Cultural Revolution of the ’50s is a particularly sensitive topic. His departure and Tibet’s past now nothing but a Chinese whisper, re-told over and over again in varying degrees of accuracy from one tour guide to the next.
Lonely Planet guides, historical literature and photos of the current Dalai Lama (who Buddhists believe to be the reincarnation of the 13 previous Dalai Lamas before him) are forbidden, as is discussion of him or politics of any sort in public. Tibetans are under the watchful eye of the Chinese government and this is just one of the ways that Big Brother controls information in the region. Now, with the introduction of Chinese government-sponsored lower-level lamas to the faith, a darkening cloud hangs over the spiritual plight of the Tibetan people as they face the probability that the cornerstone of their religion will never be the same again.
But, remarkably, Tibet’s tortured history hasn’t bled the people of their warmth and humility. Many facets of Tibetan culture are still prevalent, including Lhasa’s old town and the jewel in its crown, Potala Palace. It’s the country’s most iconic landmark and as the former winter palace of the Dalai Lama, one of the most spectacular relics of their faith. Once you’ve taken in the sights and have caught your breath (stairs and high altitude don’t mix), head to Barkhor Square in the old town to watch Tibetan pilgrims prostrating, check out Cloud Art for cool Tibetan-inspired contemporary artworks and shop for souvenirs including on-trend yak skulls and prayer wheels. You’ll also notice the scope of Chinese control here, with soldiers sitting in watch under canopies on top of low-rise buildings, armed with binoculars and filming the public’s every move.
Afterwards, take the edge off with Tibetan dishes at Austrian-run Dunya Restaurant (+86 891 633 3374), where you’ll find everything from yak momos (Tibetan dumplings), to French onion soup, pizza and even nasi goreng. This is the closest you’ll get to exploring Tibet unsupervised, so make the most of it.
Lhasa is also home to the country’s largest and most important monasteries, including Drepung and Sera. The former was established in 1416 and once housed more than 7,000 monks, but its occupants have since dwindled to around only 300. The ongoing repression means that it’s increasingly difficult for Tibetans to commit to the faith, with monkhood now requiring Chinese government approval. Even so the space radiates good vibes, warm faces shuffle around in robes lighting butter lamps and keeping the place spic and span. The medieval-like communal kitchen is particularly impressive, with giant-sized Game of Thrones-esque pots and pans hanging on the walls. Sera Monastery is less architecturally wowing, but nevertheless the place to check out the fine Tibetan art of philosophical debate.
Early the next day we hit the road for the cities of Gyantse and then Shigatse, ascending the Khamba La Pass at 4,900m as we approach Yamdrok or Turquoise Lake, one of Tibet’s holiest and most breath-taking bodies of water, before crossing the Karo La pass at 5,200m. We come to observe quickly that Tibet is a place of contrasts; tumbleweed-style rugged landscapes with yak grazing in the distance one moment and harsh mountain faces and blizzard-like snow storms the next. It’s eerie and magical all at once. The further we ascend, the more the altitude begins to play havoc on our sleeping patterns and we endure wacky vivid dreams, dizzyness and shortness of breath some nights.
As for the food, hearty, home-cooked-style Tibetan meals are served at basic, hole-in-the-walls stops along the road, and frequented by the consistent convoy of small tour groups. We manage to avoid any stomach-related illness, a strong testament to the standard of quality introduced by World Expeditions. Offbeat menu interpretations such as ‘Fry the duck’ keep us giggling for days, but the noodle soups and momos prove most popular among our crew, as are the extensive selection of teas, including masala and lemon and ginger, which immediately aid in defrosting chilly faces and fingers.
But it’s no longer the chill in the air that’s bothering us. The weather has been overcast for days and though we are getting closer to Everest, we are yet to catch sight of the world’s highest mountain, natively known as Qomolangma and a whopping 8,848m. Only days earlier Everest suffered its worst tragedy in history and the mood among our guides is sombre, with many of them friends or acquaintances of the sherpas lost in the avalanche. We now find ourselves teetering on the edge of disappointment and anticipation, faced with the possibility that the only Everest we’ll see is in the paintings and posters decorating our hotel room wall.
But, miraculously, she makes her entrance just in the nick of time. As we meander our way up the dirt road to Rongphu Monastery our guide, Tashi, shouts out from the front. Everest’s Rockbiter-like face stares back at us, partially obscured by cloud, with a menacing presence that is both frightening and beautiful. We arrive at the guesthouse, which, at an altitude of 5,150m, is the most basic yet, with shared bathrooms and mice for bedroom companions. The communal area on the top level is a hive of heat and relaxed activity and we join others to ogle Everest’s changing forms through the windows, playing cards until the sun sets. It’s a humbling experience and the next morning we set off to Everest Base Camp, with the skies bluer than ever and our feet stiffening with the cold.
With the trip highlight tucked firmly under our belt, we can now relax. The next day is impossibly clear and we stop to admire the world’s first, second, sixth, eighth and fourth highest mountains in succession on the horizon, as if there to bid us farewell. The hair-raising drive down the Friendship Highway’s sharp winding cliffs takes us to the suspiciously fraught truck stop town of Zhangmu, where we send off our last night with a bang. It is compulsory to cross the border back into Nepal on foot and the next morning we teeter over the Friendship Bridge, like pilgrims, leaving that world far behind us.
And just like that Tibet is once again out of our reach.
Need to know
Flydubai flies to Kathmandu from Dhs1,819 return.
Where to stay
Dhs11,536. High Road to Lhasa tour with World Expeditions, includes all accommodation, sleeping bags and down jacket, flight to Lhasa and meals in Tibet.