After laptop hunting in Shenzhen (horrible!), visiting Shanghai Disneyland and walking the longest glass suspension bridge in the world, travelling across China and climbing on one of the most beautiful mountains in the country, we needed some serious enlightenment. And what better a place than Tibet?
Travelling to Tibet has been made somewhat difficult for foreigners, but by no means impossible. Booking your trip via a travel agency is compulsory, and you’ll need to have a permit. Trave agencies will do it all for you, and charge accordingly, of course. We used Tibet Highland Tours, mainly for its great 5/5 review on Tripadvisor.
Options vary from a 4-day trip to Lhasa (which we took) to several days longer trips, which include permits to other cities, and for example to Everest base camp. Although popular and worthwhile, the longer trips are not cheap, and in our case didn’t fit our budget (or schedule).
Transporation options to Lhasa include train and plane. As tempting and easy as flying is, we wanted to experience the 2-night long train ride to Tibet, just you know so that we could say we’ve done it 😉 But before we start talking about Tibet, let’s talk about pandas:
Our train trip took off from Chengdu, where we managed to squeeze in a full morning of some insane cuteness. We visited Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (成都大熊貓繁育研究基地), which is a research and breeding centre for giant and red pandas in Sichuan Province. The tickets cost 58 RMB per person, and you could get them at the gate. We went there as soon as they opened in the morning, but even then the place was soon filled with other tourists.
♥Check out the Instagram link above for some incredible panda photos ♥
The animals were well kept, and as a place, where the aim is to release them back into the wild, the pandas could hang out, play, eat and sleep in a natural environment, and were really well taken care of. There were no signs of unnatural behaviour, and even the tourists were mostly behaving well (Chinese are notorious for behaving terribly in zoos and on planes), and only twice did I have to tell someone to not tap on the glass or shout at the animals.
On the same day, we got on the train to Lhasa, Tibet. Luckily, luckily we were aware of the difference between hard and soft sleeper tickets; the former one gets you tickets on a three storey bunk bed with no doors in the cabins, whereas the latter gets you at least some privacy with a door, and only two beds on top each other.
The train departed from Chengdu, and as it turns out, the next day, about halfway our 36-hour ride, we had to switch trains. The train stopped in Xining, everyone started packing their bags, and our cabin mate told me there’s another train waiting. That was one of the most panicky 5 minutes we’ve spent. After all, we thought we’d be on the same train until next morning, and had all our stuff spread around. After a quick survey, we weren’t the only ones. Also, as we later learned, it is pretty random whether you’ll need to change or not.
After a superhero speed run with our luggage to the second train (our cabin mate helped us and that’s just awesome), we got onboard the second train, with pressurised cabins and oxygen supplies and slightly nicer beds. But no power in our car. The sockets were dead, so we’d have to get creative.
The food on both trains was quite plain, but there were some vegetarian options available. Hot water was also available, as well as snacks, such as noodles, soda and potato chips. All this sounds lovely, but realistically, you need to pack some food and water with you. Personal hygiene could get questionable, as there were areas for washing your face and hands, but no clean water. Also, the toilets got really nasty super fast. Like, peeing can be difficult and challenging, but maybe try to aim a bit better than a 4-year old?
The best part of the train ride was the view. Snow topped mountains and incredibly beautiful mountain lakes, which the staff came to tell us about so we wouldn’t miss them.
After 36 hours, we finally arrived in Lhasa. The capital of Tibet, an autonomous region in China and a topic of very heated political, ethical and historical debate. In Lhasa, we were escorted to immigration, where our licenses were checked quite carefully. After that, we were picked up by two guys hired by the travel agency. As it turned out later, all the tourist transportation has to be organised by official transportation companies. According to our guide, there are only a few of them in Lhasa, none of which are owned by locals, but rather by Han Chinese.
Driving through Lhasa, you could see the mountains around it. Streets looked very Beijing-y, and Chinese flags were everywhere. However, you could easily tell we had just entered a totally different reality. People looked beautifully different from the rest of China, and their clothes were so incredibly colourful that our grey, black and white wardrobe started looking like something for a funeral.
The weather was surprisingly warm, and according to our local guide, it really never gets super cold. In the winter it gets around zero degrees, but daytime it’s still warm. So, I had been carrying my warm clothes pretty much for nothing for 3 weeks 😦 Note: had we been heading to the Mount Everest base camp, warm clothes would have been absolutely necessary.
Speaking of our local guide, one is required in order to go around in Tibet. However, ours did not seem like the most enthusiastic one. He did his job, but mostly when going around the temples and the city, he really didn’t chat much with us (nice, if you’re a Finn, tiring if you’re an American), nor did he offer any extra information on the things we saw. It kinda made us jealous hearing how other guides told stories, used microphones and headsets with their groups, and answered all sorts of questions. We were mostly told to “go see that and take your time”, rather than introducing us the stories behind the hundreds or thousands of religious statues, pictures and relics we saw. Nice guy, but seemed more interested in texting and chatting with his friends than being our guide. Also, his English was a bit questionable, and a lot of times he either steered away from our questions, gave a very generic answer or just simply answered a totally different question. Language barrier or politics, who knows?
A word on altitude sickness (sometimes called mountain sickness): we were warned about it, and although the symptoms are often mild, it can be really dangerous. Some advice on treating it are most likely just useless and make no sense (like not showering on the day of arrival), but it really helps to rest until the symptoms are gone. We had a headache (boohoo, but paracetamol helped), muscle ache and fatigue, which lasted the first 24 hours or so. Also, religiously wearing my Fitbit, I noticed an about 15 beats’ raise in my resting heart rate, and occasionally we both clocked a resting heartbeat around 100 BPM. Luckily, we had downloaded a ton of MCU movies, so Thor, Spiderman and Captain America (not to mention Black Widow and The Twins) got us through the first days.
However, altitude sickness should be taken seriously. In the most severe case, it can be lethal due to pulmonary oedema or even cerebral oedema (check out this WebMD’s article for more information, and please, take it seriously). Luckily, in Lhasa, the hotels provide their guests with oxygen tanks, if needed. That is also why the train there had the outlets for each passenger. We were too lazy to go to the lobby to get the tanks, so we just suffered it through.
Eating and getting around in Lhasa was very simple: we couldn’t really go anywhere by ourselves, and the food offered was anything yak or Chinese. Some vegetarian restaurants were around, and on our first day, one really nice restaurant owner made us a local momo dish without (yak) meat. For a vegan, I’d suggest staying away from tea, as it seemed to be made with yak milk like every time.
Knowing Chinese proved once again very useful, as we could look for vegetarian restaurants and dishes in Chinese, as lots of times menus and signs offered more information in Chinese than in English. This one time, when we were looking for a place to eat at, we spotted a sign advertising a vegetarian restaurant in Chinese. We followed the signs, and ended in some small back alley, with no lights or people around, just another sign. We followed it and ended up in a small restaurant, which also doubled as a family’s living room, with their kids doing their homework there. The kids we moved to another room, menus brought out and we got food 🙂
In Lhasa, the biggest tourist attractions are the old city, Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Sera Monastery. For two days, we were guided through these places. Although beautiful, there is only so many Buddha statues one can handle before getting bored. However, the colours, the view and the people turned out to be 100% worth going.
Our time in Lhasa was short but magical. On top of the world, you could see the sun and clouds almost close enough to touch. Being so close to the sky once again showed us how small we are, how humble Mother Nature can be in all her glory and might, and how much we have to protect, and how much we have to lose, personally and globally. If you ever get the chance, go to Tibet and feel it yourself. You will not regret it.
PS: We’re now Thailand, drinking cheap beer, swimming, learning Thai and going on adventures.
PPS: Check out our Instagram for more and more and more awesome photos and stories!