An early start saw us heading to the airport at 7am and going through the most stringent security checks I have ever encountered at ANY other airport. Each person was scanned 4 times, given a pat down search 3 times, the contents of your checked luggage scanned twice and the entire contents of your carry on luggage emptied out and inspected with a fine tooth comb twice. I realised why we had to get there so early before our 11am flight, it was very tedious! The other bonus of getting there early was that my tour leader Gelu, managed to get me a left hand window seat so that I had prime viewing position as we flew over Everest about half way through our 1 hour flight to Lhasa.
It was up there with the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen as the Everest ranges came into view, breaking through the cloud cover it an almost ethereal way. Simply stunning and I was so excited I was nearly jumping out of my seat. Of course then I had to take all the photos for the rest of our group as I was the only one with the window seat!
Flying into Tibet was in itself uneventful until we were handed health cards whilst still seated that asked us where we had been in the last 2 weeks (I cheated, my list was longer than the tiny line they gave me to write on) and our health symptoms. The best question though was ‘have you had any intimate contact with a pig in the last week?’. That had me in a fit of the giggles for some time :P There was also a box asking what your temperature was and then suddenly two men with face masks appeared and took the temperature of every person on the plane with a type of thermometer gun (?) that was aimed at the forehead but held about 20cm away and recorded your temperature. I was a reassuring 36C so all clear there.
Once we went in through immigration again we each had to have our temperature taken and this time it was by a standing metal device that you looked into and it recorded your temperature by scanning your eyes, it was very 007.
From there we drove towards the main city of Lhasa, about an hour away and stopped off at the ‘Natural Buddha’ on the way which is anything but natural as you can see in the photo. What looks like rubbish thrown up on the rock face next to the garish Buddha carving are prayer shawls thrown by local people who believe if they throw the shawl onto the rock face and it sticks there first time it will bring them good luck.
The accommodation in Lhasa is pretty basic but at least it has a window, unlike my room in Kathmandu. And it has free laundry service! Lhasa is much more modern and clean than I had anticipated, and the roads even seem to have rules as well as maintained surfaces. Our group all went out for dinner together, as we can’t go anywhere without Gelu, and after a lovely yak sizzler headed back to the hotel to get an early night as the altitude here zaps your energy in the beginning.
After a morning spent unsuccessfully trying to buy a local Sim card for my phone with the help of Sirub, my local Tibetan guide, we headed over to the Potala, via Potala Square.
The Potala is Lhasas cardinal landmark and is considered one of the greatest wonders of world architechture. The Potala has been home to each of the Dalai Lama's since the 5th Dalai Lama began its construction back in 1645. Ironically the Potala lies dormant like a huge museum and the lifelessness of the highly symbolic building is a constant reminde that the 14th Dalai Lama was forced to take his government into exile.
Entry to the Potala complex is strictly regimanted and you have to attend the gate the day before your intended visit and produce your passport to get a slip with an allocated visiting time for the following day. Upon arrival at your allocated timeslot, ours being midday, there is a 100Yuen fee to pay, then be scanned twice, have your passport checked 3 times and then you are in! Photography of the interior is forbidden and there are CCTV cameras everywhere to be sure of strict compliance, not to mention the umpteen guards.
The stairs to the top ansure you get a good workout and its amazing how much quicker your breathing rate accelerates at this altitude. Although it had started off as a chilly morning it fast became a sweltering day and I was boiling under my winter woolies as I climbed up the many stairs. Its 115m high with 13 stories encompassing living quarters, temples, funeral stupas/tombs and monk's dormitories. The tombs of the previous Dalai Lamas within are each covered with up to 5500 kilograms of gold as well as a stunning array of precious stones, and allegedly the tomb of the 5th Dalai Lama also has 'a pearl found in the brain of an elephant'.
A few random observations about Tibet:
The currency is the Chinese Yuan and $AUD = 5 Yuan, one litre of water costs 4 Yuan.
The altitude here is 3595m above sea level so altitude sickness is a very real issue and it takes a few days to acclimatise, particularly if you don’t have any anti-altitude sickness tablets.
As plumbing is a recent innovation, Tibetans only wash every 6 months.
As Tibet is a Buddhist country and cows are sacred, yak is the meat of choice.
Virtually no one speaks English and foreigners are not permitted to walk around without their tour guide with them.
There are soldiers and police everywhere and it is forbidden too photograph them (very difficult to abide by when you are virtually stumbling over a few on every corner and they are standing at every place of interest).
The sun doesn't go down until about 9pm and rises at 7.30am.