Heavenly and earthly Tibet

We recently celebrated our first week long holiday in China. Golden Week, 1 to 9 October includes China’s National Day, October 1st, and two other statutory days. October 1st 1949 is the memorial day for the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Many Chinese employees add two more days to make up nine days so many (I mean many, many) people travel and China mainland attractions tend to be very crowded. Chengdu is the standard place from which to springboard to Tibet and we were advised that Tibet, while officially part of China, would not be quite so crowded. It was on our list of things to do while in Chengdu, so it was a natural choice for our first Golden Week.

Raymond and I do not tend to be tour group people, but it is the only way to visit Tibet. We joined three of Raymond’s colleagues, another ‘trailing spouse’, a teacher from another international school in Tibet, a Brazilian working for a multinational food company and two young women who had met while studying together in Singapore (one from Singapore and one from Fujian province in China just over the water from Taiwan). It was great. It was wonderful to have a guide to switch between Tibetan and English, organise everything, navigate through the red tape everywhere, explain what we were seeing, and not be affected by altitude sickness. I enjoyed getting to know some of Raymond’s colleagues better, and our group shared an intense once in a lifetime experience and had a lot of fun.

I gave this post the title of ‘Heavenly and earthly Tibet’ because it captures most of what struck me about the region

–          heavenly because it is the highest region in the world, has beautiful scenery, and religious devotion is obvious everywhere

–          earthly because it is reliant on subsistence farming, and there is an undercurrent of its constrained political reality.

Closest to the heavens

Tibet is the highest region on earth, with an average elevation of 4,900 metres above sea level (kiwis, for reference, Mt Aoraki/Cook is 3,724 metres). This includes Mount Everest/Qomolangma at 8, 848 metres, and four other mountains above 8,000 metres – Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu and Xixibangma. Tibetans do not bother to name any of the smaller, sub 8,000 metre, mountains in the Himalayan range.

The first effect of this height was that we both got altitude sickness. You can take a 40 hour train ride from Chengdu to Lhasa, which gives your body a better chance to acclimatise, but we only had nine days to do an eight day tour, so we took the two hour flight from Chengdu to Lhasa, the largest city in Tibet, which is at 3,490 metres.

Raymond and I both developed classical altitude sickness symptoms. The first night we didn’t sleep well, developed headaches, and felt short of breath. The next day these effects continued, with occasional light headedness and a fascinating lack of energy, particularly when climbing monastery stairs. We had decided not to take any medicine before travelling but to rely on Ibuprofen to combat symptoms. I would recommend doing this, but to take Ibuprofen on the first day and not be as stoic as we were. We do not take medicine routinely and wanted to be careful of taking too many tablets. However, now that we have lived through the whole experience, we realised that this first day will be the second worst day for everyone and it would be wise to take the medicine then. Raymond felt much better day two and I was fully back to normal on the third day. Day four we travelled a day on a bus to Shigatse at 3,836 metres. Because we had acclimatised to Lhasa and only went up 300 metres, we both felt pretty good.

Day five we drove towards Everest, still feeling quite good and rather smug about it. We slept in tent accommodation at 5,100 metres. Then, having gone up 1,200 metres in a day, major altitude sickness kicked in. This time, we took our pills. That night, I went to sleep reasonably easily, but woke after a few hours with a headache, nausea, shortness of breath, uncomfortable in my bowels and bladder, and I had my twitchy leg thing even though I was horizontal (which has fixed it 100% of the time at lower altitudes). The tent was amazingly warm given the outside temperature, and as the ‘fire machine’ died down, I was warm enough with my polypro leggings, socks, Icebreaker merino top and the thick duvet provided pulled up partly over my head. But then I had to choose between having the duvet partly over my head and feeling slightly claustrophobic given my shortness of breath, or the duvet around my neck and feeling slightly cold. Going to the toilet needed to be rationed because we were sleeping in tents marae style, so I didn’t want to disturb the others in our group, and visiting the malodourous long drop was not fun anyway, and required finding one’s shoes and jacket, and the shared torch, all in pitch black inside the tent. Raymond and I made one joint toilet trip under the starlit sky (not all the way to the long drop we must confess). When we returned, I lay awake for several hours, feeling uncomfortable from top to toe, at one point, reflecting on how ‘this was the worst night of my life – oh no, not as bad as being in labour’. Then I decided to focus on the positive –here I was higher than I had ever been, at the base of Mt Everest, special to any kiwi, and that after only four more hours at most I would be going to the Tibetan-side base camp and could sleep on the bus as we descended back to Shigatse. I did manage to go back to sleep for a couple of hours and woke with the others at 6am.

Day six, at 7am we left to walk the 4 km to Tibetan Everest base camp, and I felt much better, with only a bit of a headache and a ridiculous shortness of breath if we slightly increased the gradient or speed of walking. We started in the dark, saw the sun rise over Everest, with only a few wispy bits of cloud to make her look even more beautiful, and then, after about 90 minutes of gentle walking, we were there. It felt amazing. And my respect for Hillary and all other high altitude mountaineers has gone up a million-fold!

While I felt fine at base camp, my worst altitude sickness was yet to come. I had no appetite, ate very little for breakfast when we returned to our tents, and then felt very nauseous on the bus trip back to Shigatse, exacerbated by zig zagging roads going over the first pass and my lack of sleep. A good night’s sleep in Shigatse and I was fine. And, like labour, now that it is over, it all seems worth it.

Stunning scenery

We kiwis are used to beautiful scenery. I confess that when we first arrived I was disappointed because the mountains seemed bleak with their lack of vegetation, and dirt and stones, and the river on the way to Lhasa from the airport was stony with brown water. However, as I got used to it, I saw a different rugged beauty, supplemented by Raymond’s fascination with the special geological features. My favourite shots below. Special thanks to Nick from our group for the stunning wide angle shots.

Religious devotion

I had never been in a place where religious devotion is so obvious. Monasteries are the focus of tourism because they are synonymous with Tibetan culture. Devotees within these monasteries bow before large and small buddhas and glittering shrines where the ashes of previous llamas lie, post small yuan notes at significant points in chapels, and pour oil from their thermoses, or scrape fat from their containers, into vats with flickering candles with oil dripping into pots to later sell to devotees to repeat the process. In the streets, people walk twirling small prayer wheels, temples display large prayer wheels, people prostrate in the park as well as the temples and, during early morning visits to the palace or market one is better to choose to walk with rather than against the crowds circuambulating an odd number of times around a defined circuit. Prayer flags, painted ladders for the spirits of the dead, and purchased red tablets adorn mountain sides.

For me, who has a faith that is less sure than when it began 40 years ago, and is best described as ‘agnostic, but choosing to continue to believe and pursue the Christian view’, it was confronting. I felt uncomfortable in the monasteries because the vats of candles, chanting monks (often also busy on their cellphones), enormous golden buddhas, steady stream of devotees squeezing past in their non-stop perambulation posting money and pouring oil, and, clutter of money, scarves, vases, plastic flowers etc, did not resonate with me as being a way of worshipping. I also felt uncomfortable because we were voyeuristically interrupting the worship that was meaningful to those all around me, at the same time as helping fund the upkeep of the monasteries. I similarly find voyeurism uncomfortable when visiting churches in Europe, but there is not the throng of people, so one does not feel in the way as much, and at least the environment seems familiar and worshipful to me.

Several from our group discussed how we felt after the first monastery with one questioning the authenticity of what we had seen. As we talked, we agreed that the throng of people showed that it was authentic and that it not seeming so was more about our cultural lens and assumptions. Like many things in life, this trip was both faith inspiring and doubt inspiring. Faith inspiring, because spiritual belief seemed so normal, important and underpinning everything, and doubt inspiring, because they so fervently believe something so different to me. So, I respect the Tibetan devotion, envy their collective faith for its apparent lack of confusion and country-wide shared experience, and continue as I am – feeling that the visible world does not explain all that I see and experience.

Subsistence farming

Travelling from Lhasa through Shigatse to Everest was a fascinating study in high altitude subsistence farming. All the way there and back (except for nausea day six) Raymond and I compared and contrasted the Tibetan and New Zealand approaches. We were fascinated by the manual methods and discussed the low value of labour that means it is not yet worth purchasing machinery such as in the west.

Around Shigatse, which is the most prosperous farming region, we saw many farmers at various stages of the barley harvest. First step was cutting it with a tractor, or by hand with a scythe. Next was tying it up in charming ‘bales’. It seemed that sometimes it was left to dry in the fields, but often piled up high on a tractor and taken back to the village and spread out in rock-fenced pens. In the village we saw people extracting seeds from the barley – with a basket, or a hand spun machine using centrifugal forces to lend a helping hand.

Men and women worked equally side-by-side, which appeared egalitarian. However, our guide told us that in the rural areas, if one has more than one son, brothers share a wife which means that one house is big enough for the whole family and the farm doesn’t need to be broken up because all descendants are defined as belonging to the oldest son. That doesn’t seem so equal after all, or appeal to my western view of romance.

As the altitude increased, the farming moved from growing barley to herding sheep, cows, goats or yaks. The yaks seem amazingly hardy. A small herd was grazing by Everest base camp at 5,200m, and they could be spotted up vertical slopes among rocks, grazing on a moss like substance. I guess this is the advantage of farming local animals that have adapted for local conditions, rather than the imported animals on which New Zealand farming relies. The yakherds seemed pretty hardy too – tents pitched on stony river beds which I assume were sometimes their night’s accommodation.

Political reality

I was relatively ignorant of Tibet’s political situation. My passion for Tibet was about Everest and general enjoyment of travel, rather than concern for the Tibetan people. However, on this trip, I heard stories that are not mine to share, which were confronting and brought home how these people do not share the freedom I take for granted. Shareable examples of the political reality here were that we had to get permits to go to Tibet even though it is officially the same country as China, while in Tibet we had to travel with a tour group, and we had to get a separate permit to go up Everest. We had a policeman travel in the bus with us from Lhasa to Everest and back, and had to stop at check points near Everest, on the way there and back, to show our passports . We also had multiple checkpoints along the route to make sure that we were not travelling too fast, which was fine with me given the steep terrain, but indicative of a controlling mindset.

To conclude, Raymond and I are glad we went. I would recommend Tibet if you want to learn lots, feel stretched physically, philosophically and politically, and have fun with some fellow travellers.


8 thoughts on “Heavenly and earthly Tibet”

  1. Terry – another great blog.
    In Nepal I trecked over a pass 5416m and know who hard it is to suck in oxygen at the alitude. But we had 10 days walking to get aclimatised before racing over the pass and not spending any time there. Your pictures remind me of Nepal. Thanks for refreshing my memories.
    I like Raymond on the ox – he looked more stable on the BMW riding off to school in NZ.
    We are heading towards spring so everything is growing.
    Miss going to the movies with you guys.

    Kindest regards



  2. Loved reading your blog. All the more poignant as our son Justin had just made the same trek to Tibet and Everest base camp a few months ago. He ended up in an international clinic in Nepal (having flown there from Tibet) having IV fluids and medications for altitude sickness. What a wonderful experience for you all! Very well written too Terry.


  3. Hi to you both – what a wonderful story, and fabulous pictures! I can imaging that’s an extra trip that you will never forget. Thank you for sharing it with us 🙂


  4. Another wonderful blog Terry. It reminded me of Nepal too. And I can imagine the altitude sickness having experienced it in Peru, where we went to 5000 metres in the Andes – but we drove so had a bit more time to adjust. That was bad enough!
    I’d love to hear more about Tibet from you sometime!


  5. Wow! You are pretty amazing going the journey when not feeling so good. I remember Louise said she climbed to base camp with chronic diarhoea. Great reading your reflections on life in Tibet and it reminds me a little of Thailand devotees. We shall talk soon!! FIona


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