BootsnAll Travel Network

Up, Up, and Away

Ivone and I caught a taxi to the Xining train staion around 9:00 pm. I would have thought that the train station would be a little less crowded at this time of night, but I thought incorrectly. We got in the “line” for the metal detector and proceeded to be pushed, knocked, and corraled toward the metal detector. Once there, we placed our bags on the x-ray conveyor and went through the metal detector. One of my bags appeared to not make it through. Understandably concerned, I peeked into the x-ray machine. I couldn’t see my bag. I walked around the metal detector and found that the string on my bag was caught. Ignoring a policeman telling me something (he probably didn’t like me on his side of the detector), I undid my bag. We then proceeded into the waiting room. We sat down. On my side was an older Tibetan couple and next to Ivone was a Tibetan family consisting of two sisters, a child, and the grandfather. Ivone spoke with them with the help of a monk who spoke some English. I entertained the older couple on my side with my digital camera. This soon turned into a mini daycare session as someone brought over a screaming infant in the hopes that my camera photos would help calm the baby. It apparently worked. Other participants soon joined my slide show. It soon came time to board the train. Ivone and I were traveling hard seat (third class) as no other tickets were available.

At our car the usual melee began to try to board the train. I actually had to push myself this time as I was almost pushed under the train. It appeared that many people boarding the train didn’t realize that they had assigned seats. They just tried to board any car. This finally resulted in a frustrated train conductor blocking off the car and screaming right after I got on board. The problem was Ivone was on the other side. We finally managed to convince the conductor that Ivone belonged in this car. After this excitement, we found our seats. Hard seat on this train is much better than on older trains. There are rows of seats that face each other over a central table. One side of the car has three seats in a row and the other has two. We were on the two seat side. We sat across from a Tibetan man, his wife, and son. Children on the trains don’t have a seat and pile in with the adults. There isn’t a lot of space between the facing seats. Soon after being seated, the foot wars between me and the person sitting across from me began. As I was the only foreigner besides one other girl (Christy – an American) in the car (Ivone doesn’t attract so much attention as she looks Han), I got lots of intense stares and some pictures. This included the man sitting across from me who stared at me for about an hour. I did the only thing I could and whipped out my camera and snapped back. Despite what it sounds like, it wasn’t intimidating. The Tibetans were all smiles (except for the little boy that was foot wrestling me).

I attempted to see if any upgrades to a sleeper car were available with the help of a note in Mandarin from the travel agent. During this time I met Christy who thought she had bought a hard sleeper and ended up with a hard seat. She wanted to try to upgrade with us. After about two hours, the conductor indicated that some beds were available. The Tibetans seated near us appeared to be very happy to now have an empty row of seats to stretch out on. Ivone (and her humongous duffel bag), Christy, and I made our way to the hard sleeper car. On our way we encountered a locked door. It was like something out of Titanic with gates keeping the steerage passengers in their proper place. We encounterd a lady banging on the door trying to get through. Finally an attendant arrived and unlocked the door. She let us through as we had tickets but not the banging lady. This didn’t make her happy. I heard another shouting match commence as we continued on. Also about this time, the Tibetan man who apparently found me so fascinating came running up and gave me my water bottle which I had left at my old seat.

We found the hard sleeper car okay. The only problem was my supposedly free bed was already occupied. The man in the bed either was in the wrong bed or snuck in. Either way, he was ejected by the train attendant who woke the whole compartment in the process. I felt rather guilty about the whole affair as it was after midnight. I climbed as quietly as possible into the partially used bed (the pillow was hot for those who know what I am talking about).

The next morning I woke up around sunrise which takes place around 7:00 am in this part of China. China is on one time zone (the east coast time zone). The further west you go the screwier the sunset and sunrise times get. I walked to the next compartment to find Ivone sitting amongst a group of old Tibetan ladies. They were having a breakfast of tsampa. Tsampa is made by rolling roasted barley flour in yak butter and tea to make a paste. As soon as I stuck my head around the corner, a mass of tsampa was shoved into my hand. It wasn’t bad but probably won’t become a breakfast staple for me. Toward the end of the meal, one of the ladies (the one wearing my sunglasses in the picture) started sniffing some powder from a compact. I am not sure what it is but I have seen this on several occasions since I have been in Lhasa. At this time Christy appeared. When she showed a bit of interest in the lady’s powder, the lady shoved some up her nose. Christy said she couldn’t detect anything. We spent the whole day visiting various people on the train. I met up with various monks, Tibetans, and tourists. Many of the “conversations” were conducted by hand signals, helpful translators, and shared pictures. The group of elder Tibetan ladies were very friendly (even though I couldn’t understand a word) and fun. The train reached a height of 5072 meters (16700 feet) . Oxygen was continuously pumped into the train. To get to the dining car, I had to go through the hard seat compartments again. My passage through was always accompanied by stares and camera flashes. I felt like using the movie star (beauty pageant, royalty) wave as I walked through. Christy got the same treatment. She told me one story where on one train she was waken up by the staff so that they could take her picture. Before they took the picture, they kept motioning for her to brush her hair which I guess was in sleep mode. The staff said that the picture was going to go in some tourism brochure. At one point one of the cars was feasting on mounds of roasted meat. It appeared that someone had packed a whole yak in their suitcase and had decided to share it with everyone in the car.

We arrived in Lhasa (12200 feet) at around 10:30 at night. Christy, Ivone, and I made our way to the taxi stand. Christy had decided to come to our hotel (Barkor Namchen Guesthouse) as she hadn’t booked anything yet. We found a taxi (we went to the one that wasn’t accosting us every step of the way). He dropped us off at Barkor Square . With the help of some staff from a bar, we found our guesthouse. We all checked into the same three bed dorm. The next morning, we went for breakfast on the top floor of the guesthouse. This was my first real view of Lhasa. The city sits in a high valley surrounded by large mountains. The mountain cover varied between snow, grass, and rock. The grass covered mountains were a beatiful jade color. The pollution that obscures the views in the rest of China are absent here. I could also see the imposing Potala Palace in the distance. This was the home of the Dalai Lamas who ruled Tibet before the Chinese takeover in the 1950’s. The current Dalai Lama is in exile in India.

We all had different things that we needed or wanted to do that day so we split up after breakfast. I spent the morning walking around Lhasa. I did a circuit around the Potala Palace. I didn’t go in as you have to stand in line for hours and buy tickets the day before. It is surrounded by prayer wheels. Pilgrims walk around the palace in a clockwise direction spinning the wheels. I then walked around some more of the city. The city can be divided into the new Chinese section and the old winding alleyways of the old city (where I was staying). The spiritual center of the city now that the Dalai Lama is gone is the Jokhur Temple. Pilgrims circumabulate around the temple. Some make the circuit on their stomachs. They do this by repeatedly standing and then sliding to the ground on their stomachs. After taking in all these sights, I went to meet Ivone. We spent the evening looking at various hostel bulletin boards to try to find two more people for the trip to the Nepal border. We also put up signs ourselves.

On Saturday, the three of us caught a 6:30 am bus to the Ganden monastery. The buses are mainly used to tranport pilgrims to the monastery and we were the only foreigners on board. Sitting on a bucket near me was a Khumba man. They are a tribe in Tibet. They are recognized by the large mass of red yarn that they wear wrapped around their head. They all had mullahs. Mullahs serve a similar function in Buddhism that a Rosary does in Catholicism. They are beads upon which the worshipper keeps prayer counts. They are usually used to keep track of the number of mantras (oh ma ney pad may umm) one has recited. This mantra is supposed to help keep one focused. The monastery is at 14000 feet or so. It is situated on top of a mountain above a village. It is reached via a winding road that switchbacks up the mountain past yaks, donkeys, and sheperds. Once off the bus, everyone set off on the kora around the monastery. A kora is a track around a monastery full of points where one stops to pray or perform a ceremony. The kora began under a mass of prayer flags – flags covered with prayers. (The belief is that the prayers are set aloft everytime the wind blows). For the next hour and a half, we walked the kora with the pilgrims. The kora was high on the mountain overlooking a river far below. This was the first time that I could feel the altitude a little. One of the main stopping points on the kora was a cave in which one tried to squeeze through. I believe that one could only fit through if your karma was strong enough. I didn’t even try as the little old people were struggling to fit through. I did lie down on the vision rock though. One is supposed to slide down this rock and then their gaze is directed to the appropriate spot. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be looking for and searched the rock face in front of me in vain. I later found out that you are supposed to have a vision of some sort. The walk was a lot of fun. It appeared to be a big party more than a religious walk as many people were laughing and taking photos. After exploring the monastery, we ate lunch with two young monks that Ivone and Christy had met. I then spent the last hour at the monastery taking a nap on the mountainside as I waited for the bus. That evening Ivone and I met up with a French couple who had responded to our ad. It didn’t appear that our timing was going to match up though for the Nepal trip. During our meeting, a monk that Ivone had met on the train showed up at the hotel with a Tibetan/English phrase book for Ivone. We all (Ivone, Christy, and I) ended up going back to his hotel room and visiting with him, his friend, and another Tibetan lady that Ivone had also met on the train. They were all from a village in Qinghia province and were on a pilgrimage to Lhasa. We left with an invitation to go visit his monastery if we are ever in the area. We are also supposed to all meet up again on Wednesday night for dinner. The evening was finished off with a late night meeting with an American couple who had also responded to our ad. Their names are Greg and Kerri. Greg is a former air force pilot and Kerri is a freelance journalist. They are traveling around for a few months after Greg got out of the Air Force. After meeting each other, we agreed to do the Nepal border trip together.

On Sunday, Ivone and I checked a few travel agencies to see who had the cheapest price for the eight day trip that we wanted to do. We settled on the Snowland Hotel Travel Center. They quoted us 8500 yuan for the vehicle, driver, and guide. We met up with Greg and Kerri for lunch and then we all went to the travel agency to pay the deposits for the trip. The four of us then spent the evening at the Serya Monastery. There are supposed to be debates between monks from 3:30 to 5:00 pm everyday. It was supposed to be interesting even though I wouldn’t understand a word. After we had paid to get in, we discovered that the debates weren’t going to happen that day. We did do a walk on the mountain behind the monastery. We then went to meet a Canadian lady working in Lhasa. Kerri had met her before and had discovered that the lady had access to large numbers of books. She was supposed to bring some for Kerri to look at. I couldn’t resist taking a few myself even though they would weigh my bag down. Good reading material is hard to come by in China. Following this meeting, Greg, Kerri, and I booked a horse riding trip for Wednesday. I had discovered this trip after inquiring at a shop advertising white water rafting trips. Although the rafting season is ending in Tibet, they were offering horse riding trips. It should be interesting as the horses in the picture look teeny. I hope my legs don’t drag the ground as I ride. Greg has never been on a horse. Ivone and I capped off the evening at a bar/restaurant with Christy who was leaving on Monday.

Monday morning saw Ivone and I standing in line at the Nepalese embassy trying to get visas for Nepal. Even though we arrived 15 minutes early, the line was extremely long. After a 1.5 hour wait, we gave up and decided to get the visas at the border. The line was moving extremely slowly, and we realized that we would never get in before they shut the doors at noon sending all the unlucky people home. Ivone went off to explore a monastery with another guy that we had met on the train and saw again in the visa line. I was monasteried out by this point. They all start to look the same to me after a while. I explored the Muslim Quarter of the city for a little while. I then went in search of a hat to buy as the sun here is intense. I bought it from a stand manned by a young Tibetan woman who spoke some English and her friend. They wanted me to come back and visit them later. They secured this by telling me I had nice eyes and of course flattery will get you everywhere with me. I left and went back to the hotel for a nap. It appears that my sinus infection has gone and has been replaced by altitude mountain sickness. This is caused by ascending too rapidly and can be brought on by a prior sinus illness (which I had). I was feeling light headed and had a headache. I woke up feeling better. I went to a coffee shop to read for a while. I then went back to the hat stand for a visit. She told me that she was studying English and her family lived in Lhasa. We spent a while talking about her family and my trip. While we were visiting, her friends came over and were apparently fascinated by my arm hair and took turns rubbing it. They showed me their arms which were hair free. They even went so far as to pull up the sleeve of a nearby policeman to show me his hairless arm. After this interesting encounter and agreeing to come back before I left Lhasa so that she could give me her email address (I had taken a picture of all of us that I wanted to email her), I left to meet Greg and Kerri for supper. We had agreed to meet outside of the whitewater rafting shop. I arrived early. While waiting for them, I spoke with a Nepali whitewater rafting guide who was inside. He told me about a trip that his friend is putting together for November 27. It will go down the Brahmaputra River in far east India for 15 days. I am going to meet up with him in Kathmandu to discuss it some more as it has piqued my interest. Greg also appeared interested as he is a former whitewater rafting guide.

I spent today at Namtso Lake with Ivone. My altitude symptoms have abated somewhat. This is a good thing as the four hour drive to the lake topped out at around 17,000 feet. We stopped at this point to take pictures. I decided to do a small climb to get a better view. This mild exertion left me very short of breath. We had two hours at the lake. The lake is considered holy by Tibetan Buddhists. It is the world’s highest saline lake at 15,500 feet. The water is a wonderful blue color and it is surrounded by snow capped mountains. I did a four hundred foot climb so that I did get better pictures of the lake. From this vantage point, I could see the surrounding arid plain as well as the turquoise lake. One point on the lakeshore was full of Tibetans selling items and offering yak rides. I eventually went over there but first hiked to an isolated part of the lakeshore just so that I could experience the remoteness of the area.

As I said earlier I am going horse back riding tomorrow in Denchen with Kerri and Greg. Ivone is going back to watch the Buddhist monks debate. We will all meet our guide and driver for our Nepal trip tomorrow evening before having dinner with the Tibetans that I mentioned earlier. On Thursday we pack up and head for Nepal. We will stop at various points including Mount Everest on the way. It may be a while before I can update the blog again. I have uploaded more pictures to keep you entertained until then.


1. The Tibetan people are very friendly. I have never seen a people (except maybe the Fijians) who are so open and full of smiles. You may have noticed that I have not mentioned the names of any of them whom I have interacted with in this blog. This is due to the fact that they can sometimes get into trouble with the Chinese government for interacting too closely with foreigners.

2. As I sit here and type this blog there is a mother apparently very mad at her son at a computer near mine. She is currently slapping his head and pulling him out of the cafe.

3. This blog entry is probably full of errors as I am typing it late at night. Bear with me until it can be corrected.

4. My symptoms appear to be going away. Let’s hope it stays that way. I doubled the antibiotic dose that I was taking, and it appears to have helped.

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One Response to “Up, Up, and Away”

  1. Kellie Says:

    Great pictures! I laughed at your “hot pillow” comment.

  2. Posted from United States United States
  3. Preeti Says:

    Playing footsie with little boys and getting your arm hair petted by Tibetan women. No wonder you didn’t get good karmic visions on the rock face or feel confident enough to try climbing through the hole.

    The folks I know in India who have climbed into similar caves apparently all had enough faith to make it through gaps that looked impossible. I think you and I are too skeptical for such things.

  4. Posted from United States United States

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