A Brief Encounter With The Winter In Tibet

五座海拔高于8000米的山峰合照

I’ve always been longing to visit Tibet—a heaven on earth, the locked away Shangri-la in the world’s roof at the Himalaya and the holy homeland for Buddhists.

The plateau snakes from the world’s highest mountains at Mount Everest to its deepest valley at the Yarlung Tsangpo River Valley. With these huge geographical changes in altitude, a travel to Tibet offers dynamic natural scenery from one day to the next.

“Those who haven’t been to Tibet, might believe that one day they will stand in front of the Potala Palace. Those who leave Tibet would be convinced that one day they will be back.”

Under the blue sky, white clouds and snowy glaciers, devout pilgrims knelt piously as they passed time-honored castles, monasteries, temples, meditation caves and stupas. Sacred mountains and lakes encircle the holy structures in utter harmony. The locals’ and travelers’ pure and relentless dedication to meditation and cultural preservation are a mind-boggling contrast to our own often minimal soul-searching processes. Tibet is not only for seeing beauty, but also for self-exploration.

Getting Started
IMG_2155Last December, I finally made the move to embark on a 9-day journey. It was poetic, vast and stunning in a cooperative sense that can perhaps not be felt anywhere else on Earth. Winter travel to Tibet offers certain advantages in the face of cold weather like fewer people at heritage sites, lower food and drink prices and brilliantly clear skies that are perfect to appreciate the region’s unique beauty.

Some might say that the plateau region can be freezing during this season, but it’s not completely true. With full days of steady sunshine, the average temperature in many areas can reach from around 10 to 18 degrees centigrade, which is actually warmer than many regions in China during the same period. Of course, nighttime temperatures will often dip below zero, so don’t forget your arctic gear.

Yamdrok Lake, one of Tibet’s three holy lakes.

Since visiting Tibet itself requires plenty of time, I passed on the much revered 4,980 km, 50-hour train ride from Guangzhou to Lhasa (about 800 RMB). Instead, I opted for the much shorter (about six hours)—but slightly costlier—air transit. Booking through places like Qunar, Ctrip and the like is easy and the cost during off seasons, like winter, can be much cheaper.

Tibet is a shadowy destination in part because its volatile political circumstances. Occasionally, foreigners planning to visit Tibet may have their visas suddenly revoked or the border may be closed in response to local demonstrations.

Before arriving to Tibet, one very important thing to consider is altitude sickness caused by 40% less oxygen. Travelers are normally recommended to take anti-sickness pills at least ten days before leaving to prepare for the drastic transition. It’s also for this reason that many people choose to travel by train. Besides, the stunning vistas seen while traversing mountains, deserts and plains, your body will have more time to adjust to moderately increasing altitudes. If you are lucky, you’ll also see the famous Tibetan yaks and other animals while climbing.

Tibet is a mysterious destination in part because of its isolated context, but also because of volatile political circumstances. Occasionally, foreigners planning to visit Tibet may have their visas suddenly revoked or the border may be closed in response to local demonstrations. This year, the border will be closed from February 25th until April 1st.

pilgrims in Jokhang Monastery,

Pilgrims praying in front of Jokhang Monastery

The best way to guarantee success in applying, successfully receiving and holding the Tibetan visa is to work with a Chinese travel agency. Even though I am Chinese and not required to hold a visa (only Taiwanese, overseas Chinese and passport holding foreigners need to apply), this made the entire process easier and more relaxing. Expect to pay close to 1000 USD for a week hitting a few key sights like Lhasa and Everest base camp. Like always, you pay for what you get.

In the next few pages, you’ll read about my travels starting in Lhasa, where I spent two days exploring the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Yamdrok Lake. I later went on to revel in the sights at Mount Everest, then briefly returning to Lhasa to transfer. I concluded my trip in Nyingchi, the wettest and greenest city and region in Tibet.

My flight from Nyingchi to Guangzhou put even the most awe-inspiring views to shame, beautifully ending my 2016.

Immersed in the Sunlit City

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Lhasa never lacks for sunshine

The first detail you might notice about Lhasa is its friendly tourist environment, which appeared quite similar to the usual depiction. Public security was absolute and locals were generally hospitable. The nighttime air was always freezing, though daytime temperatures weren’t too much warmer. I stayed at a youth hotel named Yujian, which attracts dynamic youth with one purpose: to indulge in a time before the noisy world.

the tibetan pilgrims

Praying Tibetans in the morning

Though not really knowing each other, we played games such as Truth or Dare. There was an overall sense of openness and calm among the lodgers. Low living costs, parties and seeking out companions for the next day’s tour bolstered an environment where trust broke down walls of doubt and fear.

The time in Lhasa is two hours later than what I experience at home and when the sun lit up the city, everything was activated. The general setting was splashed with grey because all vegetation had withered during the colder season.

Behind Potala Palace

Behind Potala Palace

In Potala Palace, which is named after Mount Potalaka (the mythical abode of Avalokitesvara), crowds circle clockwise around the structure to practice morning prayer. The site was first founded in the 7th century AD by King Songtsen Gampo, who introduced Tibetans to Buddhism. Since the modern building’s construction in the 1600s, the palace has served as the clear spiritual symbol for Tibetan Buddhism and the government of Tibet. It is simply magnificent.

Another famous counterpart to Jokhang is Ramoche Temple. Legend has it that the terrain of Tibet appears exactly like a lying witch. To combat any ill energies, Jokhang and Ramoche were built to suppress the unruly sorceress.

The red part of the palace is devoted to religious study and prayer, while the white side was traditionally the living quarters of the spiritual leaders. The white walls were said to be furnished by fresh milk and fervent believers would annually donate their supply to rejuvenate the glow.

Winter withered trees in Lhasa

Winter withered trees in Lhasa

Inside the structure waits numerous treasures and antiques to behold. The most precious of them all is a Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) statue made of sandalwood, which is worshipped at the peak at the red structure. Pictures weren’t allowed, but my memory serves me well.

I later left Potala to visit Jokhang Monastery—historically considered to be the most sacred and important temple in Tibet—at Barkhor Square. Roughly 1300 years ago, King Gampo built the incredible home for his two brides: Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. From all of the priceless treasure brought by his wives, one of the most revered was the Sakyamuni statue that’s still on display today.

While visiting the monastery, I was lucky enough to witness the Fairy Festival. Outside, countless pilgrims had lined up more than three kilometers, just for a chance to enter and pray. They also presented money, oil and hadas (a Tibetan scarf) to honor the Buddha. Like many other temples in the region, the architecture of Jokhang is a labyrinth of the Tibetan folk art. Even the smallest of ornaments likely holds a rich history.

Yaowang Mountain, the best place to see Potala

Yaowang Mountain, the best place to see Potala

Another famous counterpart to Jokhang is Ramoche Temple. Legend has it that the terrain of Tibet appears exactly like a lying witch. To combat any ill energies, Jokhang and Ramoche were built to suppress the unruly sorceress.

Continuing on, I found myself traveling down Barkhor Street, Lhasa’s busiest passageway. Though not as active during the winter months, any random stroll will bear witness to countless shops, restaurants, tea houses and street vendors. We saw plenty of Tibetan craftworks, such as the famously colorful prayer flags.

potala

Two days spent visiting the metropolis was short, but fortunately Lhasa is not so big. Taking moderately priced taxis will enable you to reach most of the famous sites with ease. Interestingly, coins are not accepted in Tibet for the reason that they lack any Tibetan characters.

Don’t worry about getting lost, either. Wherever you venture, the holy Potala is almost always watching you.

Finding Our Way to Sagarmatha

Rongbuk Monastery, the highest temple in the world

Rongbuk Monastery, the highest temple in the world

Before casting off on the next leg of my adventure, I asked many people to join me to visit Mt. Everest. Most shrugged it off, too afraid of the cold. In the end, I found plenty of brave souls along the way.

To book the expedition, I paid 1,100 RMB to a local touring company for a 3-day group trip. Venturing to Everest (actually pronounced “eve-rest”) requires a frontier pass permit and it’s important that agents take care of everything to avoid any issues. Though companies make the trip easier, the downside of group traveling is the tighter schedule. You might go to only one place and perhaps stay there for a limited amount of time.

The stretch from Lhasa to Zhangmu is called the Friendship Highway, where it later connects with the 115 km-long Araniko Highway to Kathmandu by way of the Friendship Bridge. No word if these were of the best variety or simply standard acquaintances.

Unlike winter, the summer journey usually runs four days, which enables a 1-night stay at base camp. Some said that the starry lights during a night in the mountains are astounding. I would have to merely imagine them this time around.

Mount Everest Base Camp

Mount Everest Base Camp

Our gang of 11 explorers started out in the early, frigid morning. We took China’s most famous road—National Highway 318 (G318)—to reach our first stop: Shigatse. In the six hours it took to arrive, we cruised up and down in the mountains, winding among valleys, cliffs and numerous natural wonders along the way.

The exceptional G318 is the longest highway in China at 5,476 km and routes from Shanghai to Zhangmu, at the Chinese-Nepalese border. It is often hailed as the most beautiful road in China and is now seen as a major tourist attraction in itself. The stretch from Lhasa to Zhangmu is called Friendship Highway, where it later connects with the 115 km-long Araniko Highway to Kathmandu, by way of the Friendship Bridge. No word if these were of the best variety or simply standard acquaintances.

Wang Xiaoguang, Wang Guanyi and I shed our coats Everest Base Camp

Wang Xiaoguang, Wang Guanyi and I shed our coats Everest Base Camp

The trip grew even more interesting after I began conversing with a local Han-Tibetan named Wang Xiaoguang. Wang explained that despite the fact many Tibetans spend much of their lives praying, they are given adequate government welfare. In some places, the state will offer money or goods in an effort to entice parents to send their kids to school. University entrances are also less strict for Tibetans, according to Wang, who mentioned that if he were ethnically Tibetan, he could more easily be admitted into China’s top schools.

Embracing the Longest Climb

Monks debating at Tashilunpo Monastery

Monks debating at Tashilunpo Monastery

After Lhasa, the second most important city in Tibet is Shigatse. Known as the “Gateway to Everest,” the urban area is packed with plenty of architectural beauties. It’s also famous for being the abode of Panchen Lama, who is arguably as important as the Buddhist leader.

We took a look inside Panchen’s residence in the Tashihunpo Monastery and were amazed by the unbelievable designs. The most splendid place in the compound was the Maitreya Chapel. There, we saw monks dressed in gold, debating scripture. The main hall honors Buddha with a luxuriously decorated statue that’s covered in gold, diamonds and pearls. Endless murals and paintings line the walls.

In the blackened, pre-dawn sky, the moon modestly lit our way as sparkling stars accented its glow. The air left us shaking, slowly freezing to death, but once sunlight concluded the night, we could thaw in its gaze.

Kids at Tashilunpo Monastery

Kids at Tashilunpo Monastery

Finally, on the second day at four in the morning, we cast off for the formidable Mount Everest. In the blackened, pre-dawn sky, the moon modestly lit our way as sparkling stars accented its glow. The air left us shaking, slowly freezing to death, but once sunlight concluded the night, we could thaw in its gaze.

The road that stretches high into the Himalaya range brought us to an altitude of 4,000–5,000 m above sea level. After passing 5,000 m, some of the tourists on our trip began feeling sick. Vomiting, dizziness and other uncomfortable symptoms are commonly seen at this height due to altitude sickness.

Lamas at Tashihunpo Monastery

Lamas at Tashihunpo Monastery

Since we were merely casual sightseers, we could not climb to the summit of 8,848 m. Instead, the highest place we traveled was base camp at around 5,200 m. Here, we were also very close to the Nepalese border and could see soldiers guarding its entry.

Everest, itself, was incomprehensible. The wind tore across our bodies and left colorful prayer flags fluttering like hundreds of butterflies. My friend, Wang Guanyi, and I tested our limits by shedding our shirts for some memorable photos. With the bitter cold cutting into our skin, 30 seconds of exposure was beyond enough.

The Green Nyingchi

the balsam lake is picturesque

The next day, I joined a tourist group and left for Nyingchi, Tibet’s greenest region. The more we descended from up on the plateau, the more lush the environment became. It was so different from the harsh setting in Lhasa, which was greatly appreciated.

It is said that Nyinchi hosts diverse wildlife, including leopards, bears, goats, deer and snow lions, but we saw none of these. We did see, however, plenty of abandoned dogs that were hungry and sick. We gave them food whenever we found them begging.

At one side of the river stands the Namcha Barwa Peak, which is hailed as one of the most beautiful mountain in the world and reaches 7,600 m. Until today, no one has been able to mount its summit. Looking like a sleeping goddess, she waited, charming and peaceful.

Chinese media has written that these dogs pose a threat to local animals, so shelters—built jointly by the local government and monasteries—now house thousands of dogs. The recent popularity of the Tibetan Mastiff spurred a surplus of breeders trying to take advantage of the market demand. As always, when the trend faded, countless puppies intended for sale suddenly had nowhere to go—except the streets.

the lush environment is like fairytaleThe group’s mood later picked up when we stopped off at Bamsam Lake. Located at the delightfully picturesque Kawarthas, Balsam Lake is a year-round wonder. There, set in the middle of crystal clear water is an island that holds a temple belonging to Red Nyingma School.

One of my fellow travelers, a recent retiree named Wen Shaolei, helped me take pictures of the splendor. She struck me for her courage, as she was traveling alone to discover more about life. Her words impressed and encouraged me to look harder at my own existence.

The following morning, we continued on to explore the Yarlung Tsangpo River Valley. It marks Tibet’s longest river and is often regarded as the cradle of Tibetan culture. The river later forms the world’s largest and deepest valley: Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Valley.

A memorable pose with Wen Shaolei

A memorable pose with Wen Shaolei

At one side of the river stands the Namcha Barwa Peak, which is hailed as one of the most beautiful mountain in the world and reaches 7,600 m. Until today, no one has been able to mount its summit. Looking like a sleeping goddess, she waited, charming and peaceful.

Stopping briefly at a local Tibetan’s home, we enjoyed a lunch and tried the famous su you cha (yak butter tea) and qing ke jiu (highland barley wine). Their tastes were salty, but profound.

The show must go on
On my final day, I reminisced over the short trip spent traveling across the vast region, packed with numerous attractions and an enigmatic culture.

If you plan to travel and time is limited, try visiting Tibet in winter. This will allow you to access many more sites because finding tickets and hotels are a lot easier with the smaller crowds. Still, any time spent in Tibet is not wasted—as long as you always remember to look around.

Now, I must return to my life in Dongguan, but I am not sad. I know that I will be back one day.

Photos by: Wang Xiaoguang, Ye Huitao, Wen Shaolei and Chen Zhiyuan

Category Cover Stories