42-Hour Bus Ride from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp: Tibet Adventure

During our week in Tibet we spent over 46 hours on a bus. The long best rides were from Lhasa to Shigatse (12 hours), Shigatse to Everest (12 hours), Everest to Shigatse (12 hours) and a highway from Shigatse to Lhasa (6 hours). Four days in a row on a bus isn’t ideal, but Tibet Vista managed to make it bearable!

During our week in Tibet we spent over 46 hours on a bus. The long best rides were from Lhasa to Shigatse (12 hours), Shigatse to Everest (12 hours), Everest to Shigatse (12 hours) and a highway from Shigatse to Lhasa (6 hours). Four days in a row on a bus isn’t ideal, but Tibet Vista managed to make it bearable!

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Tibet Adventures: Chapter 3 – Potala Palace

We’re climbing the steps at Potala Palace, and indeed they are a challenge. Olena and I are panting as we ascent ever more slowly, and my dad is just a few steps behind. Considering he had another restless night, he’s doing very well. Even with a full night’s sleep and plenty of food, each of these 360-something steps feels like ten.

While we climb, I’ll fill you in on a bit about this place. The Potala Palace was built in 1645 under the 5 th Dalai Lama. After its completion it was traditionally the residence of the Dalai Lama for generations, until the current 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet to live in India in 1959. Since then, it’s basically become a museum for tourists, though some monks
do work and worship here.

Now we’ve reached the top of the steps, and our fatigue is for the moment forgotten. The view from up here in incredible. I’ve been to many mountainous areas of the world, but there is something unique about Lhasa’s landscape as it mingles with the city. None of the buildings is very tall, so it’s the mountains that dominate the scene. It’s as if someone has painted a beautiful brown-gold mountain scene and added a small city as an afterthought. It’s remarkable that this city has been around for so long because it seems to have only expanded outwards and not upwards.

Entering the Palace, we come upon yet more stairs. Every time we round a corner it seems like there is another set of stairs. “It’s like at Disney World” my dad says from behind me, “They torture you by making you think you’ve made it, but there’s always still more hiding around the corner!” I agree, and suggest we make a stop to rest. The others go on ahead of us, and I figure we can catch up…

We’re waiting on the steps going down the other side. It turned out, we couldn’t catch up. At the top of the palace there was a fork in the road, and the group went one way and my dad and I went the other. In an attempt to catch up, we snaked our way through the palace, passing by other tour groups speaking at least three different languages.

I curse myself for losing the group and I’m a bit sour at Olena for not waiting for us, but to be honest we have already seen a few places like this. I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but once you’ve been to a monastery in Tibet, others are remarkably similar. I’m of course not saying that they’re not each unique and wonderful in their own way, but you end up a bit jaded when you’re travelling through them so quickly. Our guide is impressively well-informed and tells us about many of the statues – this one of the female aspect of the Compassion Buddha, this one of the 6 th Dalai Lama – but it all starts to blend together. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to absorb all of this in a week-long trip. Yesterday I started writing down little facts at Drepung Monastery, but I’ve since given up. I’d rather just enjoy the sights and move on, rather than feeling like I’m in school.

Ah, here they are. After twenty minutes of waiting and a dozen attempts at contacting our guide on WeChat, we spot our group coming down. Reunited, we head down the stairs with our group.

Ah yes, our group. Let’s take a look at them, shall we? We have representation from all over the world – USA, Ukraine, China, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, England, Wales, and Ireland. It’s quite a mixed bag but we get along pretty well. The middle-aged couple from England like to go off on their own during tours, and the Australian guy is around our age. Olena and I usually sit next to the Chinese-English 20-something couple on the bus, and we they’re very nice too. There’s even one other vegan on the trip from the USA, so we can commiserate about the lack of food options sometimes!

Now we have a few hours off before going to the Welcome Dinner. It’s a bit late in the trip for a Welcome Dinner in my opinion, but I understand that it’s only because the itinerary got switched around. This was actually supposed to happen yesterday, but the plans changed. Time to go back and rest for a bit!

We’re in a taxi with our new vegan friend, on the way back from the Welcome Dinner. We left early, because we felt absolutely terrible. Olena and I had thought it was a fantastic idea to split a rum and coke earlier today, and that was a terrible decision. If you visit Tibet, just avoid alcohol altogether.

The dinner was ok, but anything that was vegan was doused in oil. This didn’t help the way our stomachs felt, and overall, we were just dead tired. After the steps of the Palace, time on the bus and all the other walking we have done today, we just had to call it quits and leave early. There was apparently some kind of show, but we can hear about it from the others. No point forcing it if we’re feeling this badly. Let’s just go back and get some sleep… Tomorrow we finally head in the direction of Everest! Stay tuned!

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Tibet Adventures: Chapter 2 – Lhasa Monasteries

We’re eating again, this time the next day at a buffet with our tour group. We are seated outside, and I’m currently devouring a stack of deep-fried vegetables. There are actually quite a few vegan options here! A dog circles around our feet. “Can we get it some chicken?” Olena suggests, “He looks hungry!” I agree and go get some, and the little guy is quite pleased with his afternoon snack.

Whew, it’s been a busy day already! How are we doing you ask? You’ve heard about our first night at 3700 meters, so let’s go back to when we got up and boarded the bus to Drepung Monastery.

Drepung Monastery is the biggest Monastery in Tibet. It’s not as old as some other monasteries we visited (built in 1416) but it’s huge. It held the position of largest monastery in the world for a while, and because of the altitude, it was quite a feat to explore. With our guide, Kunchok, leading us, we snaked our way up and down stairways, in and out of prayer rooms, passing countless statures of every aspect of the Buddha and every Dalai Lama you can imagine. Until the 5th Dalai Lama had the Potala Palace constructed, it was the home of the 2nd -4th Dalai Lama.

One thing I would never get used to on this trip was the smell of yak butter. They use it for everything, including candles throughout the monasteries. When you think of Buddhist temples it usually conjures up olfactory images of fragrant incense, but here it really smelled like we were inside a dairy factory… on fire. I can’t imagine how these monks deal with it! Is there a Butter Lung disease similar to the Black Lung that coal miners get?

Speaking of the monks, there are about 400 of them living in this place now, which is nothing compared to the thousands who used to inhabit it. In its prime, we were told there were 10,000 monks living here. There are several orders of Monks, some holier and more revered than others. I found it quite confusing that we saw some monks walking around in fancy shoes while tapping away on iPhones. It was explained to me finally that the lower orders of monks don’t need to abide so strictly by the rule of no possessions. This isn’t Zen Buddhism, where one should renounce all possessions, so I guess they have slightly different rules. Anyway, I will never get used to the idea of a robed monk sitting in a chamber full of statues of the Buddha, smoking a cigarette and chatting away on WeChat.

What’s that on my leg? Oh, it’s that dog again. Looks like that bit of chicken wasn’t enough for him. I’ll go get some more…

We’re in bed again, trying to sleep. Actually, Olena is asleep next to me, but I’m having a bit of trouble and I can tell by my dad’s sighing that he’s as frustrated as I am. Like last night, my body and mind are completely exhausted, but it’s difficult to fight the feeling that I’m not getting enough air. My head hurts, probably from a combination of real physical symptoms and hypochondria-induced fear that I’m dying… Eventually, I fall asleep…

And wake up feeling pretty ok. The breakfast helps a lot; there are a lot of options for Olena and me. We stuff our faces, and prepare for the day’s agenda: exploring the Potala Palace. If you look at the back of a 50 RMB note, that’s where we are going. Notice the steps? Yeah, there’s a lot of them. We saw this building from a distance in the bus, and those steps are going to be a challenge….

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Tibet Adventures: Chapter 1 – Lhasa

I’m in bed at our hotel, trying to sleep. We’ve read so much about the fabled “Altitude Sickness,” and now it’s finally happening. Olena, by some miracle, is sleeping peacefully to my right. She had a headache and some carsickness on the bus ride to the hotel, but aside from that she’s been fine. I was also feeling generally ok, albeit a little tired from
travelling, until I tried to sleep. I just can’t seem to get enough air, and every time I almost drift off, I snap awake, gasping.

On the bed to my right, it sounds like my Dad is going through the same thing. Every few seconds he utters a big sigh, and tosses one way and turns the other. Look like it’ll be a long night! It’s only 7:30 PM and my alarm is set to wake us up at the same time AM. My mind tries to relax, and takes stock of the day’s events…

2

After the plane landed, we were told not to take ANY pictures at the airport because it’s a military airport, and God forbid some Western tourist posts a picture of a Chinese tank on WeChat. As we descended the staircase to the bus, I was reminded that we are still in China by the six or seven people shamelessly clicking away right next to the plane,  heedless of the guards standing just two meters away. “Hey, no fair!” said Olena “I want to film!” After I’d seen that the guards weren’t reacting in the slightest to the obstreperous behaviour of the other passengers, I took out my own phone and started snapping too. “Go ahead and film” I said, grinning. “What are they gonna do, throw us in
jail?”

This joke began to feel a bit too real as we passed the armored guards with AK-47s. It looked like they do take security pretty seriously here! We managed to get by them unscathed, and no arrests were made.

While we were waiting for our bags, I started to feel a bit lightheaded. Was it Altitude Sickness (I had decided it deserved the proper noun status) or just the expectation of it? Either way, it wasn’t bad enough to tempt me to buy the bottles of oxygen they were selling right next to me, or the alleged “Miracle Drink” that promised to erase your
symptoms. When our bags arrived, we stepped out into the Lhasa sunshine.

And man was it BRIGHT! My phone claimed it was only 16 degrees Celsius, but we all immediately discarded our extra layers. In the shade, 16 felt about right, but in the sun it could be as much as 25. No wonder everyone recommended bringing sun screen!

3

We’re at a family kitchen restaurant in Tibet. We are eating yummy, well-deserved Tibetan food for incredible prices. We have ordered two traditional Tibetan classics: bobi and momos. For Bobi, they gave us a large tray with lots of ingredients to make our own little burritos. We went for the vegetarian kind, and it was delicious! Same with the momos, which are a bit like deep-fried dumplings. My dad, of course, is sitting next to us devouring a large yak steak. To each his own!

This first day is already taking its toll on us. After we arrived at the airport and were welcomed by our guide, we boarded a bus to head to the center of Lhasa. It took about an hour, and along the way Olena got quite car sick. She does get car sick from time to time, so we wondered: was this normal, or Altitude Sickness striking already?

It turned out that the latter was much more likely. We arrived at our hotel and immediately plopped down on the beds. We were faced with a dilemma: stay in or go out to eat? We were very hungry, and we had heard about this amazing family kitchen nearby. According to Trip Advisor, it was the highest-rated restaurant in Lhasa. Was it worth the effort? We eventually decided yes, and we set out on the streets of Lhasa. My dad was even more tired than us, but he trudged on nonetheless!

For now, we skipped shopping at the many trinket shops along the main street of Lhasa. It was quite reminiscent of China, and Olena and I thought, not for the first time, that the culture here isn’t much different, at least these days. There’s a Tibetan layer of culture in the air for sure, but it’s a bit hidden under the newer Chinese façade. This struck me as a bit sad, and my heart went out to those who were still trying to hold on to their ethnic roots.

Anyway, how did we get to this restaurant? Well, it’s a long story so… Short answer: don’t trust Google Maps in China. We followed its directions to “Tibetan Family Kitchen” by Didi (China’s version of Uber) and ended up in the middle of nowhere. Finally, we took another Didi back to where we started, and were so hungry that we just went with the first place with the words “Family Kitchen” posted outside it. It’s not the one from Trip Advisor, but it is quite good! We would eventually visit the real one the next day, but to be honest, this one was actually better!

 

To be continued…

 

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A Song of Ice and Tired – An Unforgettable Week in Tibet

Our plane is descending towards Gonggar Airport in Lhasa, Tibet. Looking over my father’s lap and out the window, I see more mountains than this New Englander could ever expect to see back home. The clouds circle around the mountain peaks like the fog from dry ice, and presently a larger one passes under our plane, momentarily obstructing the view.

“Pickle! Where’s the snow?” my wife Olena asks, “I was promised snowy mountains on this trip!”

She’s right, actually. When the clouds clear again, as far as I can see there are only dusty, brown mountains, like so many peaks of chocolate mousse in a bowl below us. “Don’t worry,” I assure her, “These are just hills. The real mountains come later!”

The plane’s PA announces that we’ll be landing in 20 minutes, giving me some time to reflect on how this whole journey started. How is it that we are on a plane to Lhasa, Tibet, with the plan of visiting Mount Everest Base Camp in just a few days?

Prologue – How Did We Get Here?

It started back in May, when we were still living in Huaqiao, Jiangsu. Before we moved to Shanghai. As she is often wont to do, Olena was searching for deals to random locations using Skyscanner.com. The idea had previously come up to visit Tibet, but it was kind of a pipe dream because of the price tag and the complicated visa process. A normal Chinese visa is far from enough to be allowed to visit Tibet. We thought we could possibly save up the money, but it would cost as much as three smaller trips to closer places in China or nearby.

I brought up the idea in passing on the phone with my dad, David. To my surprise, he said on the spot he would love to go with us and that he would pay for the whole thing! I was stunned, and didn’t know how to properly express my gratitude. To be sure he was serious, I explained to him just how much it would be, but if you’ve ever met David
Roosa, you know that “Generosity” would be a much better middle name than Ebertson.” So, we began to plan the trip.

Instead of boring you with twelve paragraphs about the visa provess, I’ll just run through what was necessary:

1. Contact TibetTravel.org and tell them the dates we want to go
2. Pay a deposit for the trip
3. Book flights, including my Dad’s to Shanghai
4. Write an invitation letter for my dad so he could get a Chinese visa
5. Use TravelVisaPro to apply for my dad’s China visa
6. Send copies of all our passports and visas to TibetTravelVisa
7. Finally get Tibet Travel Permits in the mail

This last step happened two days before our flight left. That’s right, we got our permits just two days before leaving for Tibet. The Travel Gods were apparently with us. My Dad flew to Shanghai, stayed at a hotel near us for a few days to get over the jetlag, and we hopped on a plane at 6:45 AM from Pudong Airport.

Now I can hear the captain announcing that we are landing, and all electronics should be switched off. Here we go!
See you in Lhasa!

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