Tibet, Part Two

My last post about Tibet was a bit of a downer, wasn’t it?  As my friend Sally reminded me, “not every place is lovable”, but as with all travel, there are always positive elements, whether it be a greater understanding of a particular culture or country, or an increase in self knowledge.

We not only saw the exterior of the iconic Potala Palace, we were also able to climb to the top and visit some of the interior on our way up.  Built by the fifth Dalai Lama in the late 1600’s on the site of Songzen Gampo’s palace, it became the winter residence of successive Dalai Lamas.  Photographs are not allowed of any of the interior rooms, but they were so dark, smoky and gloomy, it would have been difficult to get a good shot anyway.

The red sections were administrative; the white sections were religious
The red sections were for religious studies; the white sections were the living quarters of the Dalai Lamas

The palace, 13 stories high, offers a great view of the city of Lhasa.

The view from the top of the Potala
The view from the top of the Potala

Here’s a different view, showing the  modern city the Chinese have built around the Potala.


It was so hard to imagine a small child being taken from his family and brought to live in this massive place, surrounded by monks who were charged with his instruction.   The current Dalai Lama was two years old when he was identified.  He spent two years in a monastery near his family’s home in Amdo, then moved to the Potala two years later.

The summer palace, the Norbulingkha (Treasure Park) has a very different feel to it.  This was built in the mid 18th century by the 7th Dalai Lama.  It is actually quite close to the winter palace. The largest horticultural park in Tibet,  it includes a private zoo, which wasn’t open when I visited.  At one time it housed an elephant that was a gift from the Maharaja of Nepal.  P1150883


Heinrich Harrer conducted lessons with the 14th (current) Dalai Lama in the summer palace.  It was from this site that the Dalai Lama departed in 1959 to escape from the Chinese.  Another fun fact:  According to Harrer in his book “Seven Years in Tibet”, women were not allowed in the Norbulingkha because it was believed that they would have defiled the gardens.  P1150890

Two famous monasteries in Lhasa are located near the palaces.  The Drepung monastery was being repaired, so we only visited the Sera Monastery.  I was disappointed because I had learned in my pre trip reading that Tibet’s creation story was told in murals at the entrance of the Drepung Monastery, and I had hoped to see it.  P1150660

What we DID see were the Sera monks interacting in an outdoor courtyard.  That yellow hats on their shoulders?  It made me smile–all I could think of was Woodstock, Snoopy’s little friend.  P1150673

The detail on the exterior of the buildings was exquisite, however it was nothing compared to the tombs of the Dalai Lamas inside the Potala.  Those looked like wedding cakes–5 to 7 tiers high, covered with carvings and encrusted with jewels and precious stones.  P1150668



We arrived in Lhasa on 5/14, which was the start of a 15 day “festival” celebrating Buddha’s birthday.  For Tibetans, a festival consisted of either walking around a sacred site, or prostrating themselves as they slowly made their way counterclockwise, praying as they went.


Leaving Lhasa, we traveled to Gyantse, where we visited the Palcho Monastery.


Here, you were allowed to take photos, as long as you paid a fee.  In the distance, you can see the red fort that dominates the landscape.

Plastic bags filled with offerings are scattered throughout the monastery.  Devotees leave food, money, grain, white scarves (called Kata), whatever they have.

This monastery was built in the 1400’s; its interior looks very much like the interiors of the other monasteries, small chapels, very dark and smoky.  I used a flash and the highest ISO possible to get these photos.

The founder of the “red hats”. Red hat monks are allowed to marry. “Yellow hats” are not. The Dalai Lama is a “yellow hat”.
I asked why this statue's face was covered. Our guide said he can only be seen by those that complete a complex list of devotional activities.
I asked why this statue’s face was covered. Our guide explained only those that complete a complex list of devotional activities are allowed to view his face.
I have no idea which color hat these monks belong to–it looks like they hedged their bets with yellow, red and black. Plus, their hats come with bangs and braids.

The other special feature of the Palcho monastery is the Kumbum Podang.  (Don’t you love the name?)  A Kumbum is a stupa that is also a  three-dimensional mandala. The first five floors of this structure are square and the remaining four are circular.

Unfortunately, this building was also being repaired so we were unable to go inside, but according to Wikipedia, it has 76 chapels and shrines and is also known as the Ten Thousand Buddha Pagodas.  Why?  Because it contains ten thousand images and murals of Buddhas.


Gyantse is also notable because in 1904, the town and monastery were attacked by the British, led by Francis Younghusband.  The Tibetans were armed with outdated weapons, but they had been assured by their religious leaders that their victory was preordained.  In addition to their weapons,  they were protected by talismans that they thought would repel bullets.  They were mowed down, and the buildings were shelled.  

In 1959, the Chinese attacked the complex and it was also damaged during the cultural revolution.

After one night in Gyantse, we traveled to Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city and the location of the Tashilhunpo Monastery.  This monastery has been the home of the Pachen Lama, the great scholar, and is where most of the prior Pachen Lamas are entombed.

This photo was taken in Gyantse--no interior photos were allowed in Tashilhunpo.  The top photo is of the 10th Pachen Lama and the bottom is of the 11th as a child.

This photo was taken in Gyantse–no interior photos were allowed in Tashilhunpo.  The top photo is of the 10th Pachen Lama and the bottom is of the current (11th) as a child.

The 10th Pachen Lama was taken to China as a child to be educated.  Although he initially supported the Chinese incursion into Tibet, after returning home and seeing the impact on his country, he began to speak out.  This resulted in his being tortured and imprisoned in China for 16 years.  After his release, he married a Han woman, had a child and returned to Tibet.  He died suddenly in 1989, at the age of 51 shortly after giving a speech critical of the Chinese government.  His resting place is an amazingly beautiful tomb, with gold carvings and jewels, similar to that of Dalai Lamas in the Potala.

The entrance to the tomb of the 10th Pachen Lama

There was considerable controversy over the selection of the 11th Pachen Lama.  The Dalai Lama’s choice disappeared after being named and the Pachen Lama chosen by the Chinese, now in his 20’s, is still being educated in China.

Entrance to the Tashilhunpo Monastery
Entrance to the Tashilhunpo Monastery
Inside the Monastery.  No photography allowed inside the buildings
Inside the Monastery. No photography allowed inside the buildings
Look who is doing the manual labor
Look who is doing the manual labor
The Mandala surrounded by two deer is seen on most buildings
The Mandala surrounded by two deer is seen on most buildings
How can you tell which shoes belong to whom?
How can you tell which shoes belong to whom?
Apparently they are able to figure it out!
Apparently they are able to figure it out!

Because we were in Shigatse for two days, we were able to wander through the city on our own.  Marilynn, my energetic buddy, and I climbed to the Shigatse fort that overlooked the city.

Shigatse Fort overlooks the city.  As with many buildings in Tibet, it is being repaired, so no entry allowed.
Shigatse Fort overlooks the city. As with many buildings in Tibet, it is being repaired, so no entry allowed.
From the fort, you can get a good view of the city.  Not sure what that bike is doing on top of the building!
From the fort, you can get a good view of the city. Not sure what that bike is doing on top of the building!
He was as interested in us as we were in him.
He was as interested in us as we were in him.

For some reason, the ride back seemed far more pleasant than the ride to the two cities.  Perhaps it was because we traveled  back along the river or maybe it was because  we knew what to expect for toilet facilities?

Impromptu bathroom stop
Impromptu bathroom stop
Scenery along the way back to Lhasa


After Shigatse, it was back to Lhasa for our return to our gorgeous hotel in Nepal, the Gokarna Forest Resort.  Great food, margaritas, beautiful surroundings, greeted by our wonderful Nepali guide Binoy– we were SO very glad to be back in Kathmandu!



Seven Days in Tibet

I’ve been home for a little more than a week.  It took almost that long to get back to normal after seven days in Tibet.

I expected to love Tibet.  I WANTED to love Tibet.  Sadly, very sadly, I didn’t.

Have I turned into an “ugly American”, critical of a country when it isn’t like home?  I certainly hope not.

It is entirely possible that I was spoiled by the fantastic guides and the wonderful experiences we had in Bhutan and Nepal, and expected more of the same.  Or maybe it was because for the first three days in Lhasa, I was fighting a cold and the Tibetan’s version of Montezuma’s revenge, adjusting to the altitude and possibly reacting to  the Diamox I’d taken for altitude sickness.  Whatever it was, I was not feeling great.  I missed two afternoons of sightseeing in Lhasa so  I could sleep my way to feeling better.

Although I had read up on Tibet and had checked the Overseas Adventure Forum before booking the trip, there were still a few surprises.  After much soul searching, I’ve uncovered what might have influenced my feelings about Tibet, AND am offering some tips so that future travelers might make their experience more enjoyable.

The China Factor
Knowing that China had taken over Tibet was not the same as experiencing the impact of that takeover.  This is the closest I’ve ever come to being in a police state.  Those two white objects on the dashboard are cameras–one pointed inward so the police could monitor what was going on in our van whenever they wanted.

Dashboard cameras

And yes, that IS a military convoy, in front of us, hauling big guns.  Although you can’t see it in the photo, in every truck,  two soldiers were pointing their weapons out the back.   I was very grateful the road wasn’t bumpy!

Although the hotel in Lhasa offered free wifi, we quickly discovered that google, yahoo, safari, the New York Times, and many email accounts were blocked by the Chinese government.

Being under constant surveillance has to have an impact on the psyche of the population, and I believe it did.  Unlike Bhutan and Nepal, the people in Tibet didn’t seem as interested in interacting with tourists.  Or maybe they were afraid.

Tip:  If it is important to stay in contact with family back home, set up a hotmail account.  For some reason, that email service wasn’t blocked.  Also, texting works.  My iPhone allowed me to send free “imessages”!

Altitude and Air
The air is very dry because of the altitude and very smoky from cigarettes and incense.  Everyone smokes everywhere–in the hotels, restaurants, on the street.  It was like being trapped in a Mad Men episode, but with different costumes.  You can request a non-smoking hotel room, but there is no guarantee that you will get anything other than a smoking room sprayed with air freshener.  P1150738
If the cigarette smoke doesn’t get you, then the incense and Yak butter candles in the temples will.

At times, inside the temples and monasteries, I found it challenging to breathe.




And if you think stepping outside to breathe in fresh air would help,  think again.  These little chimneys for burning incense are everywhere!


IMG_2582Tip: The 5th floor of the Xin Ding Hotel is the only nonsmoking floor.  The other hotels don’t have that option, but 4 of the 7 nights are spent in the Xin Ding, so it is worth it to request a room on the 5th floor.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get a wonderful view of the Potala from your room.

The hotel makes sure you can buy whatever you need without leaving the comfort of your room: toothpaste, manicure tools, condoms, mysterious things in plastic bags with Chinese writing on the front…

Long Drives in a Small Van over a Barren Landscape
Fortunately, no one in the group was very large.  At 5’8″, I was the tallest.  If my 6’3″ husband had been with us,  the  8 hour drives from and to Lhasa would have been quite uncomfortable for him.

2 rows of three seats. Not a lot of leg room for tall people!
2 rows of three seats. Not a lot of leg room for tall people!

But the size of the van wasn’t the problem.  No, the challenge was the lack of bathroom facilities along the way.  Not only that, but we quickly discovered that squat toilets were the only option.  The good news?  You never had to ask for directions.  All you had to do was follow your nose.  Another plus?  Many of them had no stalls or partitions, so you could make new friends while emptying your bladder.   Let me tell you, it was much more pleasant to look at my neighbor’s backside than to look down at what had taken place before I arrived.

It didn’t take long for me to decide that a bush, a rock or a tree was far preferable to the few roadside bathroom facilities.   Did I mention that I was drinking more water than usual because of my cold, the dry air and the altitude medication?   Those were LOOONG drives!

Tip: Tiger Balm or Vicks  applied under your nose blocks out all other smells.  Unfortunately, I had neither with me.  Women need to practice their squats before embarking on this trip!

The landscape on the drive to Gyantse was rather stark.

Yes, we did indeed drive on that winding mountain road.
Yes, we did indeed drive on that winding mountain road.

P1150711Our guide had to stop at multiple police check points along the way to show our passports and to complete paperwork, and to have our speed monitored.   I didn’t think that was a bad thing, given the narrow winding mountain roads, but Marilynn disagreed.  When our driver and guide took a cigarette break, leaving the keys in the van, she offered to take over and get us to the hotel in record time!


Here are the notable sights during our 8 hour drive to Gyantse.

Prayer flags looked very different from the ones we saw in Bhutan.
Prayer flags looked very different from the ones we saw in Bhutan.
One of the two passes.
One of the two passes.
Farmers, plowing with their yaks
Farmers, plowing with their yaks

Tip: My iPod was my salvation;  our guide and driver talked to each other in Tibetan for much of the way, so I was grateful I could plug in and listen to music instead.

Our Guide
Tibet has many wonderful myths and legends;  I was looking forward to hearing our  guide elaborate and offer the local version of the stories I’d read.  Unfortunately, he either was not allowed to relate them to us, or perhaps during the 50+ years since China invaded, the legends stopped being passed along.  He certainly couldn’t access Wikipedia to supplement his knowledge!

Mt Kalish?  I don’t think so.

For example, our guide told us this unspectacular pile of rocks is Mt. Kalish.  According to Google, Mt. Kalish is located in a very remote part of Tibet, and is visually spectacular. That “mountain” was neither.  But Tibetans do circumambulate its perimeter, and it has been the locale for “sky burials”.  (A few days after someone dies, the body is cut up, brought to the mountain top and left for the vultures to consume,  thereby completing the circle of life.)

I had hoped to learn more about the Goddess that was transformed into Yamtrok Lake, but once again, our guide wasn’t able to elaborate, so here’s what I learned from my reading.  After arguing with her husband, a goddess decided to leave him forever by turning herself into a lake.  Boats are not allowed on Yamtrok because  the vessel would slice her skin.  I also learned that Tibetans believe if the Lake ever goes dry, all Tibetans will perish.

Yamtrok Lake

After returning home, I turned to Google, where  I discovered that senior monks go to Yamtrok Lake after the Dalai Lama’s death.  They throw sacred objects into the lake, then watch for a reflection that will tell them where to find the next (reincarnated) Dalai Lama.

Tip: Learn everything you can about the culture and myths before coming to Tibet.  The information the guide imparts could be very limited.


You don’t travel to Tibet for the food.  There is a reason Tibetan restaurants aren’t popping up in major cities, still, we had hoped for great Chinese food.  Two of our group were born in Hong Kong, spoke and read fluent Mandarin.  They were not fans of the cuisine.

Be prepared for very basic meals, with no snacks in between.  There isn’t much fruit, however I discovered that you CAN buy bananas.

Tip:  I had brought granola bars, but shared them with the other travelers during our long rides in Bhutan and Nepal.  By the time we reached Tibet, my stash was gone.  Big mistake.  It’s a good idea to bring packaged snacks.

The Locals
For me, interacting with the locals, especially children, is always a high point of my trips.  Unlike in Bhutan and Nepal, opportunities to interact were limited.

While in Shigatse, I spent our two  free afternoons wandering through the city.   I was taking photos of the street when I was accosted by an old man with a walking stick in one hand and a prayer wheel in the other.

I was afraid that stick was going to be used as a weapon against me!


He was yelling at me, and for a moment I was afraid he was going to hit me.  He apparently thought I had photographed him–although the truth was I didn’t even notice him.  I was more interested in the goods on the sidewalk.  End result?  There are no photos of Tibetan people.

But I didn’t let that one unfortunate incident keep me from trying to interact with the locals.

Did you see him in the above photo?  Neither did I!
Did you see him in the above photo? Neither did I!

I had learned to say “Tra-shi-de-lay”, which is close enough to the Tibetan greeting to occasionally get a smile.

During my second afternoon purchasing bananas, I noticed a Tibetan trying to take a picture of me with her cell phone, so I posed for her.  Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a young man attempting to get into the photo, so I turned, threw my arms around his neck and put my cheek next to him.  And the crowd went wild!  Not only that, but I  got my bananas for half of what I had paid the day before.  Sorry, no photos of that exchange because I had left MY camera back in the room.  I didn’t want to take a chance of being smote with a stick!

Tip: Learn a couple of Tibetan words, smile and see if you can make a connection.

That’s all for today.  Next post will be more upbeat, I promise.  There will be photos of what made the trip special.









The Ultimate Packing Challenge

Ultimate packing challenge???  Well, at least it is for me.  I’ll be gone for a month, visiting countries that have temperatures ranging from Lhasa’s average low of 31 F  to an average high of 105 F in both Delhi, India and Chitwan National Park.  Fortunately, I “met” a new virtual friend via OAT’s Forum.  She gave me lots of helpful hints, and most importantly, clued me into the existence of laundry facilities that are plentiful and cheap.  Thanks to her advice, I am able to be safely under the airlines’ 44 pound checked luggage maximum.

In the spirit of giving back, this post is all about what I’m packing.  Maybe a future OAT traveler to Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet will find my information as helpful as I found Janet’s.

There’s nothing like a visual, right?  P1140314

Being your obsessive compulsive kind of gal, I start packing many days before departure, loading articles on the bed in our spare room.  I use a paper list and check off as I go.

One of the many nice things about OAT trips is no one cares what you look like.  No one dresses to impress–it is all about comfort and adventure, so you will notice a total absence of makeup, jewelry, fancy clothes and dress up shoes.  But then, my family would tell you that’s how I normally roll.

Checked luggage:

Toiletries:  toothbrush, paste, floss, shampoo, conditioner, brush, comb, moisturizer, deodorant, soap, face cloth.  

I’m not bothering with a hair dryer because some of the places we will be visiting won’t have electricity.   I let my hair grow just for this trip, so I can pull it back and forget about it.

Miscellaneous: binoculars, sunscreen, Insect repellant, anti itch gel, lip balm, lotion, Ibuprofen, Pepto bismol, gasex, Imodium, Hydrocortisone, Bandaids, bonine, moleskins, z-pak, granola bars, small duffel (supplied by OAT).

I’m hoping I won’t need any of the medications.  Whatever I don’t use on the trip, I’ll give to the trip leader.  Might as well have someone make use of it before the expiration dates.

Clothes:  Rain jacket, down jacket,  Sun hat, Sweater, Underwear  (14 days),
socks (10 ), long underwear (2), Pajamas (2), Shorts (2), Short sleeve tops (7), long sleeve tops (5), Long pants  (4), capris (1), Sneakers, flip flops, keens, bathing suit, buff, chill band.

For the colder parts of the trip, I figure  I can wear long underwear beneath my lightweight pants.  No need for corduroys.  I’m counting on layers to keep me warm.

My goal is to get by for at least a week, maybe two, without having to do laundry.  I may have packed more  than I need; I will report back after the trip is over, identifying anything I took that I didn’t need, and anything that I didn’t take, but wished I had.

As with other OAT trips, we will be visiting a local family, so I packed gifts.  Our guide told me that warm socks are always appreciated for the cold winter months, something I never would have thought to bring.  Of course, I had to include toys for the kids, plus an inflatable globe.


On our OAT trip to Africa, we discovered that a duffel holds more than we ever imagined  possible.  We also learned there is no need for those fancy packing cubes.  My jumbo zip lock bags work just fine, allowing me to pull out only what is needed.   Take a look.


Shoes in the bottom, along with items I expect to need at the end of the trip.    P1140320

Yep. It all fit and I even have a tiny amount of extra room.

I know you’re wondering, so yes, that white decoration on my teal LL Bean duffle was my very own creation.  Nobody is walking off with MY bag and claiming it was a mistake!

Because I have a direct flight to Delhi, I don’t need to pack a change of clothes into my carry on.  Here’s what’s going inside.

Backpack:  Money, credit card, passport, etickets, travel info,  camera, batteries, charger, iPad connector, iPad, ipod, Bose headset, sleeping aid, Wipes, hand sanitizer, Glasses  & case, water bottle, cell phone, pens, pencils, notepad, gum, cough drops, copy of passport.


 That little black bag with the white decoration?  That’s my “comfort case”, which holds the small items –cough drops, pens, gum, etc. so that I don’t have to rummage through the many pockets of my back pack.

The good news?  I did indeed score the first class upgrade I requested back in November, so I probably won’t need to be digging into that comfort case the way I would have if I were back in economy.  United, you have been forgiven.

The sad news?   Because of some late breaking events, Mike and Greg won’t be able to come on this trip.  Thank heavens for trip insurance!