Tibet: The Highlights
By Emma Garrick, Asia Regional Manager
Tibet, known as the roof of the world, is for many travellers one of the most culturally exciting and rewarding destinations. Tibet’s borders have been periodically closed to visitors over the last few years, most recently in February before the 50th anniversary of a failed rebellion against Chinese rule, but the great news is that as of 5th April 2009 the borders have been reopened.
The flight from Kathmandu into Tibet is one of the most spectacular in the world with awesome views of the Himalayas throughout the journey. Arriving at Gongkar Airport (3600mtrs) your lungs will certainly notice the thinner air, however we take it easy on the first couple of days and you will soon become acclimatized to the altitude.
In spite of an improved infrastructure Tibet still retains its traditions and culture largely intact. Hundreds of pilgrims travel huge distances to Lhasa dressed in their traditional robes, congregating at The Jokhang Temple (Mecca of Tibetan Buddhism). Every day they can be seen walking clockwise around the temple. This is a highlight for many as the aroma of butter lamps mingles with the sweet smell of burning junipers and huge prayer wheels rotate whilst the sound of the chanting pilgrims grows louder. Such magical moments are proof that in spite of the ongoing political problems Tibet still maintains its unique identity, far removed from the rest of the world.
Whilst in Lhasa we also explore the Potala Palace. The Palace is magnificent and can be seen looming high above the city. Boasting over 1000 rooms it contains relics of Tibetan history, as well as exquisitely decorated tombs of the past eight Dalai Lamas.
Leaving Lhasa we begin our passage along the Friendship Highway. In Gyantse you will feel as if you have stepped back in time as horse and carriage is still the main form of transport. Using small buses and land cruisers through the more remote areas, we embark on our spectacular journey along roads that wind through valleys, passing holy lakes, high rugged plains, surrounded by shimmering peaks in the distance. Frequently you will encounter nomads moving their cattle through this harsh but beautiful terrain. You’ll find that they will always take time to stop and greet you with “Tashidelek” meaning hello and welcome. As the journey progresses huge expanses of barren land give way to high pastures where yaks graze and farms growing barley and buckwheat (the staple food of Tibet) dot the horizon.
Our adventure takes us over the highest pass Gyatsola (5220m) and from thereon the road descends into the valley of Mt. Everest. Spectacular views of snowcapped peaks ranging from Mt Makalu in the west and Everest in the east can be seen from the pass. It’s a dusty and bumpy ride to Rongbuk but well worth it for the views. Vehicles are not allowed beyond Rongbuk so it’s a two hour walk to Everest Base Camp and the memorials of Irvine and Mallory, marked by the ever familiar prayer flags. It is here that you will get to see Everest’s famous North Face in its full glory.
The final pass takes us over the Great Himalayan Range with fantastic views of Shishapangma, the only 8,000 m. mountain totally in Tibet, and down into a dramatic gorge back to Nepal and Kathmandu. A spectacular end to an adventurous journey.