Tibet: Roof of The World

Confession: I am not a mountaineer myself and have no desire to “summit any peak.” In fact, in spite of my adventurous spirit, people who know me well might even categorize me as a “bit of a wimp,” but bizarrely, I am drawn to the accounts and stories of those who do feel this magnetic draw. I am also, unabashedly spellbound by the Himalayas and the people who dwell there, a process spread over the course of several trips that includes many pinpoints on the map: Dera Dun, Kashmir and Ladakh, Darjeeling, Lijiang, Mustang, Bhutan and Nepal. The names of the Himalayan peaks I’ve seen and revered are like old friends (most of them among the highest peaks of the world): Lhotse, Makalu, Kanchenjunga, the Annapurnas, Jomolhari, and of course, the granddaddy of them all, Mt. Everest.

Tibet was an obvious piece of the Himalayan puzzle I was missing and it had captured my imagination in the biggest possible way. I’d been fascinated by the trials and tribulations of the 1904 British expedition led by Colonel Francis Younghusband, a strategic move as part of The Great Game, to quell Tibetan border insurgencies. More recently, I was inspired by Heinrich Harrer’s texts in his “Seven Years In Tibet,” a landmark account, published in the 1950’s of one of the first westerners to live and dwell amongst Tibetan people before the Chinese takeover. His quote below speaks equally to the geographic isolation of Tibet and to the profound spirituality, which permeates every aspect of Tibetan daily life – this is the stuff travel dreams are made of:

“In the time between the two wars, a British colonial officer said that with the invention of the airplane the world has no secrets left. However, he said, there is one last mystery. There is a large country on the Roof of the World, where strange things happen. There are monks who have the ability to separate mind from body, shamans and oracles who make government decisions, and a God-King who lives in a skyscraper-like palace in the Forbidden City of Lhasa.”

Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet

So, I share all of this with you as the genesis of my journey. I was lucky enough to travel to Nepal in March 2015, just a few short weeks before the devastating earthquake occurred. We were a very compatible small group of savvy travelers – mind you this was no one’s first rodeo! We allowed ourselves to fantasize while overnighting in Namche Bazaar, a fabled village on the Nepalese trail to Everest, that we might one day visit Tibet to see the “other side” of the Himalayas. A skeleton itinerary was sketched out on a dinner napkin… a brief mention of helicopter transport (always a favorite of mine) and the lure of visiting Everest Base Camp (without the arduous 2 – 3 week trek) the bottom line is – we were all “in” and signed on when the opportunity became a reality this year.

I’d been cautioned by people I knew and respected in the industry that with the irrepressible Chinese influence, “Tibet had changed” or that “I was too late” or that the only places left to see “true Tibetan culture” were certainly not in Tibet itself, but in Bhutan, Ladakh and the far reaches of Mustang. I was uneasy with this information, but still curiously hungry to see it and judge for myself. It is not an easy place to get to from outside China – only one international flight to Lhasa (from Kathmandu) – nor do the Chinese encourage foreign tourism by making the special permits required for Tibet difficult to obtain (they are especially hard to get in USA) in addition to the visa. Our group launched from Kathmandu and we gathered 3 days ahead of time to allow time for the Chinese visas and permits to be issued. Air China flies the short 1 hour, 35 minute flight in comfortable airbus A-319 equipment. Note: Any overweight luggage over the 20 kg limit on Air China must be paid in cash (no credit cards accepted – USD okay out of Kathmandu but only Yuan accepted out of Lhasa) and there is a 2 hour, 15 minute time change (all of China is on “China Time” which is 12 hours ahead of EST time).

Girded on by a good sighting of the mountains from the left side of the plane, we landed in Lhasa and were met inside customs by our local rep and passed through all formalities without delay. A small band complete with humans in yak costumes gave us a festive welcome and we set off for the St. Regis Hotel which would be home for the next three nights – a drive of about an hour.

The smooth paved roads, tunnels, modern bridges and power lines as far as the eye could see gave us our first glimpse into Chinese infrastructure imposed in this distant outpost (partly impressive and partly depressing). As we approached the city itself, it was the skyline of a late 20th century city – a civil engineer’s utopia – what one of my travel companions described as “de-humanizing architecture.” I’m not sure what I’d expected Lhasa to look like – probably all along the lines of the seventh century Potala Palace which could not be further from the truth; I was awestruck by how new it all was.

We crossed the Brahmaputra River, which was broad and swift with several braids and little islands with slender trees sporting fall foliage. Interestingly, we learned that many of Asia’s major rivers have their source in Tibet: the Nyang, the Salween, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers. Lhasa is one of the world’s highest cities at 12,000 feet and has a population of 250,000. It is surrounded by peaks – although nothing super high— and the air here contains 32% less oxygen than at sea level. Traditionally, the home of the Dalai Lama, this city has long drawn hoards of pilgrims and travelers who brave the thin air to see its beautiful Buddhist temples set among a backdrop of stunning mountain landscapes. The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has a population of 3 million people, is roughly the size of the EU, and the average elevation is 15,000 ft! Much of the region is a high-elevation desert and falls into the “rain shadow” effect so weather is cold, clear and dry with strong sunshine.

The St. Regis Hotel appears to take up an entire city block, but has just 162 rooms. The room product itself is great – super spacious, wonderful bathrooms with generous counter space. The rooms, however, are spread over six “blocks” and it is definitely preferable to be in the main blocks attached to the lobby (#1, 2 and 3) —otherwise some long walks, often outside are required. Also, as they mainly cater to Chinese visitors, non-smoking rooms are in short supply and should be insisted upon well in advance. Be sure to request a room with a view of the Potala Palace – very few seem to have this – but our room #1535 did and it was awesome (in spite of dirty windows)– the same view from the hotel lobby and roof top bar. There were a few oddities about the hotel though that one would not normally attribute to a St. Regis hotel – a humidifier in the room full of water next to the bed which did not work (would have been useful given the dry, thin air!), the metal hardware on my bedside lamp fixtures gave you an electric shock every time you touched it, some housekeeping oversights and a distinct lack of English spoken or comprehended – made it quite different to anyplace else in China that I’ve visited. Simple room service, communication with or in the spa, and any front desk exchange was nearly impossible to navigate without a guide present. Ironically, the best English speaker on the staff was a Russian fellow, Leonid, who hailed from Kamchatka.

We got settled into the hotel and had our first of many “Lazy Susan” dinners with many interesting Chinese entrée options on offer – all served family style in bowls and spun around the table. An interesting room “minibar-purchase option” was canisters of O2 with plastic inhaler for a “burst” that looked like cans of hair spray! Suggestions for coping with the elevation and avoiding Acute Mountain Sickness (ACM) include:

  • Drink lots of water – more than you can imagine!
  • Eat high-carb diet (rice is your friend in this part of the world.)
  • Abstain or reduce consumption of alcohol (this was hard for me!)
  • Don’t overdo on first day – take it easy and allow your body to acclimate.
  • Talk to your doctor about “Diamox” a prescription drug which helps you acclimate; I always take this at high elevations and believe it helps in spite of weird side effects like tingling extremities.
  • Be familiar with your own medical vital signs before you leave home – blood pressure, pulse, and normal oxygen levels in the blood, so you have a baseline. I suggest you purchase a battery operated oximeter to bring with you – this tiny device gives you good readings of how much oxygen you are receiving and it is wise to take readings as you move through various elevations and know when to back off physical activity or seek medical advice.
  • Speak up if you are having difficulty, shortness of breath, nausea or other symptoms. Remarkably, most hotels, even in remote areas, have continuous oxygen available, if needed, which usually relieves immediate AMS symptoms. Our local onsite suppliers also normally carry it in vehicles.
  • AMS can affect anyone, even the young and most fit, so take it easy and listen to your body. Even the smallest things like bending over to unzip your duffle bag can leave you gasping for air.

We retired early with great anticipation for our visit to the Potala Palace tomorrow morning (and with some trepidation in light of the steep 400+ steps we would be climbing to get there!)

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