We have made it to Nepal but will the earthquake still defeat our plans. We are due to spend a couple of days in Kathmandu before flying on to Tibet.
An Aftershock and an Overshoot – Kathmandu and Lhasa – 27th to 30th April 2015
Just as we are about to retire to bed on the 27th I notice the mirror start to rattle slightly and hear shouting outside. Time to get out. I am sharing a room with Eileen and we each grab belongings and make our way down to the gardens. In hindsight we realised that we should probably have alerted our travel companions – I guess they know who they can rely on now!
On reaching the garden we found most of the hotel staff and some guests assembled but really the small aftershock was over before we got down there. The experience shook us slightly though and sleep eluded us for some time.
Time to move on
Tuesday 28th dawned and we were up fairly early for the airport. We are to fly out to Lhasa in Tibet today and our flight is scheduled for 11.40am. The airport is chaotic and packed with people of all nationalities trying to get flights home following Saturday’s disaster.
And so we wait.
We sit in the stuffy airport for eight hours but there is not chance we will be complaining. Flights are delayed or cancelled due to the aid planes, from around the world, flying in. We spot teams from India, Pakistan, China, Israel, France, Turkey and the U.S. Their arrival into the country is far more important than us leaving it.
Eventually we spot our flight being called. It’s been a long day but we work out we should arrive in Lhasa by 9.30pm.
Or maybe not! Soon after our flight takes off I overhear an unsettling announcement telling us it’s two and a half hours flight time to Chengdu. Others reassure me that it’s just a mistake in the announcement but as the flight goes on our suspicions continue to rise. Eventually, when asked, a stewardess explains “No, we are going to Chengdu. You will stay in a hotel overnight and be picked up at 5am to fly to Lhasa.”
Can you imagine our delight at this unexpected diversion?!?!
Many tired, angry and confused passengers disembarked at Chengdu; my first visit to China. We are farmed out to a plush hotel for four hours sleep.
So a bonus, extra flight for she who hates flying finally delivers us to Lhasa on April 29th. It has taken around 50 hours of travel and transit time to get here.
The scenery is stark and stunning with snow capped mountains rising all around. The breathlessness which comes with walking at normal speed reminds us that we are now at an altitude of around 3650m.
It will take us all a few days to acclimatise. With our bodies exhausted from lack of sleep, it’s not long before some of start to feel the effects. All the flying has taken its toll on my ears and I frequently feel as though I am walking around a rolling ship. I join the others for a visit to Barkhor Square and then get some rest.
I know just how important it is to allow the body to acclimatise. When heading to Everest Base Camp, in Nepal 2012, I walked too fast one day of the hike. I ended up with the blinding headache which is a sign of oncoming cerebral oedema. Luckily a rest day and some diamox saw me through. I’m not prepared to take that risk again.
The trick is to walk so boringly slow that you sometimes think you have stopped, drink lots of water and (I know you won’t believe this one folks) have a couple of days off alcohol whilst acclimatising.
The advantage is, when I get back to the UK I will have a raised red blood cell count for up to two weeks, so hopefully will be able to smash it up when running and cycling!
Tibet is fascinating me already. The traditions, buildings, smells (mainly stale yak butter and incense) and friendly people are a joy to absorb. Today we have visited the Potala Palace and Norbulingka; these were the winter and summer residences of the Dalai Lamas. The Potala Palace is a stunning and vast thirteen storey castle which was built in the 7th century AD.
We haven’t forgotten the terrible devastation which we left behind in Nepal though. It is at the forefront of all of our minds and we hope that we are all spreading the word that more help is needed.
I am hoping to get more than the 3 hours of sleep I managed last night (a recipe of jet lag, altitude and cough) because I am starting to feel human again. Excellent news as we have a 5 hour hike tomorrow – bring it on!
Privileged Sights of Tibet – Fri 1st – Sun 3rd May, 2015
It’s wonderful to get up into the mountains! On Friday we drive 8km north of Lhasa to Pha Bong Kha Hermitage, a 7th century meditation site. Our walk is to start upwards from here.
To the left of Pha Bong Kha is a sky burial site. Sky burial is the most common way of dispatching a body for Tibetans – the body is released to the air. The method is to reduce the body into very small pieces before signalling to the flocks of waiting vultures to come down and consume the remains.
This is clearly very different to anything I have experienced before and at first I found it a shocking thought. However it makes perfect sense to that the circle of life continues. Sky burial is also very practical as the ground in Tibet is very hard and often frozen all winter.
As we begin our walk up the mountain and away from Pha Bong Kha we notice tens of vultures start to swirl around. From a distance we can see and hear a body being prepared for sky burial. It is a rare occurrence to have a glimpse of this ritual.
A Whole Other World
Our walk continues up into stunning scenery, much of it draped with colourful prayer flags. High in the hills we spot remote hermitage huts, used by monks for anything from 3 to 9 years of solo meditation.
Eileen has not joined the trek but Colin, Ralph, Carole, Dad and myself seem to cope well with the altitude; all moving at our own pace to keep our breath.
On arrival back to Lhasa we decide to congratulate ourselves with a Lhasa beer or two in a charming heritage bar Carole and myself had spotted previously. Spirits are high!
Luckily we find rooms down the road at Terdom Tower Hotspring Shambhala Source Hotel (rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?!). The rooms are painted in vibrant, traditional colours and my bed even has yak hair dreadlocks surrounding it!
As we are now at 4300m we spend the rest of the day relaxing and acclimatising. Carole, Eileen and Colin all attempt to immerse themselves in the hot springs but none go higher than their knees. The heat is too intense – much to the amusement of the tough locals.
There are separate hot spring baths for men and women and most of the locals bathe naked. From our balcony view we notice that one of the male hotel workers is being very diligent at keeping an eye on the ladies bathing area through a gap in the divide. He must have been concerned for their safety!
For the first time on the trip I am totally out of touch on mobile phone and internet. It is relaxing but hard when you are missing someoneToday, Sunday, we took a trip to Drigung Monastery. Startlingly set on a cliff face this is a highly important monastery in Tibet.
As we arrive vultures soar low above our heads – Drigung is also a busy sky burial site. We spend a couple of hours strolling around the vast site, watching Monks praying and playing. Eventually a snowstorm descends upon us and the many sleeping dogs (there are vast numbers of dogs everywhere in Tibet).
A Magical Monastery Experience
As we are nearing the end of the walk I mention to our guide that I need to use the facilities (you need a strong stomach!). He takes me down to them and then – as we have to wait for the others – into the site tea house. This is a magical experience for me!
We enter a large dark room, crammed with benches and tables. Cooking fires with giant kettles and pans run down the centre of the smoky room. I sit down with our guide and drivers and am offered a paper cup of hot sweet tea, poured from a giant thermos. I look around the room – there are nuns and monks in their red robes, Tibetan nomads in traditional dress and some visiting Chinese. I’m the only Western person in the room – it is an overwhelmingly lovely moment.
When the rest of the group arrive the Tibetan ladies I am sitting with share their barley cake with us all. The atmosphere is perfect.
As we leave the tea house we are quietly shown an open square where monks are performing a puja around a shrouded body before it is taken for sky burial.
Our astounding experience is topped off by chatting with friendly children in the villages on the way back.
On arrival back at the hotel Eileen and I decide to take it in turns to use the hot springs bath which Ralph and Carole have in their room. We would have used the stunning, rock covered wet room in our own room but someone seems to have forgotten to plumb a shower into it. I take full advantage of the steaming bath and take my clothes washing in with me – needs must when travelling!
Now we look forward to another relaxing evening watching the mountains as river before heading back to Lhasa tomorrow.
Move on to the next section: Nepal and Tibet: The Mount Kailash Kora