Words escape me, as I try my best to put on paper our experience in Tibet. It wasn’t just the majestic landscapes that changed from green fields, to desolate plateaus and rocky mountain peaks. Nor was it the interiors of the revered Buddhist temples, with rich wooden rooms, so ornate with colorful accents and the unforgettable smell of butter candles permeating throughout. Rather, it was the whole package. All of these things, including the sound of monks chanting in the distance and the sight of worshipers displaying such life-devotion to their religion, leave me with strong feelings and a deeper insight into life and a culture I’ve never before experienced.
Our memories of our time in Tibet could never be reduced to a simple journey entry, but I’ll do my best (warning…this is a LONG post). It was life changing for us, in more ways than one. And while most of it was good, there were moments that will stick with us for other reasons. But we will forever hold our experience in Tibet dear to our hearts because it was truly the trip of a lifetime.
(Let us be clear up front that this is not a political piece, and we do NOT wish to spur that debate. We all know the issues, but that is not our focus here.)
Choosing to Visit Tibet & Mount Everest Base Camp
Both Josh and I had always dreamed of visiting this place, which relatively few get to see. We also share the same fascination with the world’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest, and always wanted to see it in person. Luckily for us, these dreams came true.
During this trip around the world, we had hoped to explore China mainland and then make our way into Tibet and eventually down into Nepal and India. But our plans have always been quite flexible, leaving room for spontaneous adventures – such as our last minute trip to Laos or our completely unexpected jaunt in New Zealand.
Unfortunately due to the tragic Earthquake a little over a year ago that wreaked havoc on Nepal and nearby areas (including Everest), the road between Tibet and Nepal is still closed. So as of summer 2016, the only way to get between the countries is flying or taking a different route altogether.
After much discussion, we decided to forgo Nepal and India for now and just focus on exploring China and Tibet. But we were disappointed to skip Nepal because the two of us really wanted to find a way to get ourselves to Mount Everest – and possibly even hike up to base camp. This has been a dream of ours, and one that we were disappointed to miss.
However after loads of research, we discovered that it was actually possible to visit Mount Everest from the Tibet side! And with that, our plans changed yet again. So we weighed our options, and decided to explore the southern Yunnan region of China and make our way up to Sichuan.
Afterwards, we flew from Chengdu to Lhasa — setting out on one of the greatest travel experiences of our lives.
Considerations for Visiting Tibet
You are Required to Take a Tour
Before we get into the details of our trip, let’s first talk about some major considerations for people visiting Tibet. First and foremost, it is impossible for foreigners to visit Tibet without booking a tour. It is required that you be escorted by an official tour guide, especially because there is a LOT of paperwork and additional permits just to get into Tibet — and even more if you want to leave the city of Lhasa to explore the countryside.
There are two options for tours: Group tour or private tour. Depending on your budget, you can actually hire a private tour guide where you will have the flexibility to design some parts of your trip and even make some customization based on your preferences. A private tour guide wasn’t in our budget, and we’ve been traveling on our own so long that we actually liked the idea of sharing the experience with other travelers! So we preferred to go on a group tour of Tibet.
There are a number of reputable travel agencies out there who offer group tours. We were pleasantly surprised at the variety and different price points that we found and many of them offer similar itineraries. In the end, were ecstatic with our choice and couldn’t have been happier with our small group tour of Tibet!
The Altitude is No Joke!
Another important consideration for visitors to Tibet is the altitude…it is no joke! Lhasa sits at almost 12,000 feet in elevation, and there are some areas during the trip to Base Camp where you will actually be at over 17,000 feet above sea level! The mile high city of Denver, Colorado at roughly 5,300 feet has got NOTHING on Tibet!
And you really feel it!
We prepared for this by spending some time at high elevations in Yunnan, such as Shangri-La, and even doing some hiking at these higher elevations (not easy to do!). And because altitude sickness is a real concern for visitors in Tibet, we also got some altitude sickness pills at an international health clinic in Bangkok prior to our trip. It’s important to take these pills as instructed, beginning a few days before your trip, as well as drinking LOTS of water.
You should also be sure to take it easy and not do much physical activity, especially during the first few days. But even going up a flight of stairs isn’t easy in Tibet, with your legs burning and heavy breathing due to the lack of oxygen in the air. Nothing makes you feel out of shape quicker (how do they climb Everest…really?!?!)!
Lhasa – Much More Than The Potala Palace
Arriving in Lhasa, we just couldn’t believe it. Although, we couldn’t see the city because the airport is more than 1 hour away and on the other side of a mountain range! So we had our first experience of driving through the countryside before even arriving in town. Immediately, we could feel the lighter air pressure and the intensity of the sun (UV index 10+)! Sun block is a must here, and hats are even better (since the sun burns the top of your head).
On the first day we just went to our hotel to rest, and we walked to the old center of town to explore. Upon entering the main square Josh and I noticed all the people seemed to be walking in the same direction (clockwise). We were initially going to turn right and walk “upstream” but I suggested we follow all these people to see where they were going. Then Josh said “wait – I think they are walking around something…because they always go clockwise.”
And sure enough, we joined the seemingly endless stream of people realizing that they were walking around Jokhang Temple — a religious heart of Lhasa that sits in the center of the old town area. We would later learn that this procession goes on basically everyday…and all day! Joining this procession in the evening and walking with the worshipers was an experience we will never forget.
Being surrounded by these devout and peace-loving people who were chanting & praying continuously, we felt as though we entered a whole different world.
One thing to know about Tibetan Buddhists is their intense devotion to their religion. We knew this before our visit, but it really struck us upon seeing it for the first time. As we learned from our tour guide the next day, Tibetans don’t really believe in leisure much because they feel like if you are not busy working then you should be worshiping and praying. They spend their days building their karma and accumulating merit for the next life.
While some of these people we saw at Jokhang were locals, many of them were likely pilgrims who traveled thousands of miles (even on foot) through these harsh landscapes to worship at this temple. We saw them holding their prayer beads and spinning their hand-held prayer wheels (clockwise, always) as they walked in circles around this beautiful old temple.
“How many times do they go around?” we wondered. Well, our guide later told us “for however much time they have!”
We also saw people doing a full body prayer (prostrating) where they go fully down to the ground, and lay them selves out face down, then come back up. Over and over again, they do this as a way to show humility and adoration.
Watching it for ourselves, I couldn’t help but think about doing a similar exercise in my sports practice as a teenager — and I remember how difficult it was on my body. Yet these people did them over and over again…possibly hundreds of times! Some stayed in one place while others actually moved their way all around the temple making these full body prostrations.
Our guide later made a joke, saying that Tibetans have some of the best abs – like a six pack! We laughed…although, it’s probably true.
On this first night in Tibet, Josh and I immediately knew this trip was going to be a lot different. The feeling that overcame us while walking with the worshipers, stopping to spin the larger prayer wheels, and listening to the chanting monks in the background…our reality was immediately different
Visiting the Potala Palace, Monasteries and Temples in Lhasa
After meeting our tour guide and group the next morning, we set out on a couple days of exploring Lhasa. Of course, we went to the famous Potala Palace — the former home of the Dalai Lama. A surreal and super exciting experience for Josh and I.
A photo posted by Peanuts or Pretzels (@peanutsorpretzels) on
We couldn’t believe we were there, walking the very steps (out of breath) and stepping into the spiritual rooms throughout the palace. We couldn’t take pictures inside, but I can tell you that the energy was overwhelmingly peaceful and spiritual! But it wasn’t just this famous icon, we also spent many hours over these two days exploring other monasteries and temples around this holy city.
Our guide, Dhargye, was absolutely incredible! Not only was he friendly and wore a wide smile that Tibetans are known for, but he was amazingly knowledgeable. He really is like a historian, and he told us all about the intense schooling and testing that tour guides in Tibet go through. And we are so glad they do, because the insight he provided to us during the trip was truly amazing — and it made a huge difference in our experience.
** NOTE: Dhargye does both group tours and private tours. We can honestly say he made our trip WONDERFUL!!! We highly recommend him and if you want to personally reach out to him, he gave us his WeChat and email address – so contact us if you want to ask him for a private tour!
While we typically don’t go on guided tours, we have done some in select places. And I must say, having a tour guide in Tibet really made the experience! We learned so much, at times we were almost overwhelmed. Our brains were SO full of knowledge, it was more than we could have ever asked for.
And for two history buffs who just LOVE learning about cultures and places during our travels, it was perfect for us!
While visiting Drepung Monastery, which was once the largest in all of Tibet, we entered a room full of monks chanting together as they worked diligently. They were hand imprinting scriptures with wooden blocks as stamps, then cutting them, and rolling them carefully into little round rolls. To get them even and tightly rolled, they would pound them with wooden blocks and continue to work them tighter and tighter. Then they would decorate them and seal them to be used for prayers.
Walking into this room, it smelled of butter candles and wood…but we could feel the camaraderie of the monks. They had a type of assembly line going on, and they were not only chanting, but laughing and joking with each other. They looked comfy, sitting cross-legged on padded cushions on the floor with their big burgundy robes wrapped around them. At one point, a monk looked up and smiled at Josh then started chatting with him jovially. It was wonderful to have this interaction, and be able to learn about what they were doing in an intimate setting.
Another experience that we will never forget was at the Sera Monastery. In the morning, monks will be in classes — learning all about Buddhism and philosophy, because the religion really is more like a philosophy. But in the afternoon, they go out to this courtyard for debate. And the lively debating atmosphere is really what this monastery is known for.
Debating here isn’t about winning, it’s more of a way to test your knowledge and push your thinking even further. It’s also a way to put some pressure on monks to recall their learning, and improve their ability to articulate their point.
The format is that one monk will sit on the ground, while another one stands over them and poses a question. They then smack their hand (not angrily), as a signal to “go” and the monk on the ground gives their best answer. The monk standing may choose to rebuff their answer, and the monk on the ground can also give a rebuttal.
Teacher: “Are the leaves blue? Go!” (hand slap)
Student: “Yes they are, because green is not a primary color – green is made up of yellow and blue. So technically, yes leaves are blue.”
Teacher: “Ah yes, but blue is just a part of the leaf – it is not the whole. Would you say you are an atom or would you say you are a human? Ultimately, aren’t we the sum of our parts?”
Student: “Yes, I can see your rationale; however, just because I am human doesn’t mean I am not an atom too. Would you say that a mountain is no longer a rock, or a car is not steel. The elements which make us do not diminish just because we become something bigger than them individually.”
While philosophy can get pretty deep, especially when you are talking about Buddhism and the whole concept of enlightenment in general, the overall atmosphere watching the debates at the monastery was serious…yet exciting! And it was surprising to us to see such enthusiasm and banter among monks, who we usually see as so quiet and meditative. Be sure to check out the video (above) of the debating — it was just fascinating to see the passion and determination to make their point!
Departing Lhasa for Shigatse
In order to give us more time at Everest, our guide changed up our itinerary just a bit. On this day we had a long drive out to Shigatse, but we made time for stops to see the fantastic landscapes and take some photos. We also had a chance to taste some delicious Tibetan food. While some would say the food is a bit bland in comparison to the flavorful dishes of Thailand or spicy dishes of Sichuan China, we found the food to be delicious. Meals are hearty and filling, as you can imagine in this harsh climate, but delicious.
After a late lunch here and making a stop to register our permits at the police station (one of many check points with our additional permits), we made our way to the temple in town — Tashilumpo.
Famous for it’s gigantic statue of the Future Buddha, it is adorned with pearls and precious stones. This evening, we headed back to the hotel for a much needed rest. But not before heading out to a tiny local restaurant for a group dinner. It wasn’t an official group dinner, but we had one of the BEST tour groups that we could possibly ask for!
Our Awesome Tour Mates!
Speaking of our fellow travelers on our tour, we really couldn’t have gotten any luckier. There were only 10 of us total, which the perfect size really. It was just enough for us to get a wide variety of people from different countries, and different personalities. But it was still small enough for us to move through places efficiently.
Our group included 3 of us from the States, one person from the UK (living in Singapore), one from Vietnam, two from Thailand, one from Brazil (with German heritage but living in London), and two from Singapore (but one living in Beijing). This well-traveled crew not only had open minds with their worldly experiences and fun stories, but we all seemed to share a passion for exploring and learning. Everyone had such different backgrounds and even jobs.
From ESL teaching, to public relations, a scientist to a recently published NatGeo photographer! A newly accepted MBA student, a conservationist, and even a doctor! Yes — we were lucky enough to have a doctor in our group, which was comforting to us as whenever we were feeling the affects of the altitude!
From our group dinners, playing games on the bus, and our massive (and rowdy) Base Camp trivia competition that even included people from multiple other tour groups. We will truly never forget the fun times we had with these great people while exploring Tibet. And we will miss these peeps so much and really hope to stay in contact and perhaps run into them again on the road!
Our Journey to Mount Everest Base Camp!
After Shigatse, we set out for Mount Everest Base Camp. It was a long driving day, but again — the scenery made up for it. We passed fields of crops and small towns, as well as making our way through canyons with rushing rivers, and high mountain valleys with yurt villages and Yaks grazing.
We even crossed a high mountain pass that sits higher than Mount Everest Base camp at over 17,000 feet. Taking a break here to look out at the famous Himalaya range, the highest in the world, was an amazing sight. And using the highest official “public restroom” was an interesting experience.
Check out the video below — it’s funny looking back at this video. It’s easy for me to notice how out of breath I sound, and what a difficult time I’m having finding words to speak. It’s the altitude – it gets to you for sure!
At one point, we finally turned off the main highway that continues toward Nepal and entered the National Park area. In Chinese, Mount Everest is actually called Mount Qomolangma, so that’s why the signs throughout the park have a different name. But I assure you, it’s the same mountain!
After entering the park, we followed a new road for a few hours. This stretch of highway is quite new, really less than a year or two old. Previously, the journey was quite long and rough on a bumpy dirt road. I can’t imagine how brutal it would have been. Even on this new road, we seemed to travel along never-ending switchbacks up and over one of the mountains. But at the top, we were rewarded with an incredible view!
While it should have been our first glimpse of Everest, we were disappointed because of cloud cover. Although, we could see many other peaks out there. In fact, the Himalayas are home to some of the highest peaks in the world, over 100 of which are more than 23,000 feet! It was quite a site to behold, even with the cloud cover.
Continuing down into the valley, we passed tiny remote villages. We can only imagine how their lives have changed now that the road is here and mass tourism is beginning. We even learned that they are building a larger bus station and tourist center about a 1/2 an hour or so outside of the main Base Camp area. No doubt, more tourists will be coming here in the future. While we appreciated the ease of our journey, we couldn’t help but worry about the future of the people here — and the diminishing solitude along with negative impacts on the environment here.
Catching Our Only Glimpse of Mount Everest
We visited Tibet in June, which is technically rainy season. April and May is the peak climbing season, and had we have come during these months, we likely would have had a guarantee of seeing this majestic mountain. However during rainy season, we were nervous about the possibility of cloud cover. And sure enough, that’s what we were experiencing.
We were disappointed at view points along the way to Everest, where we should have been able to see the mountain. And as we approached Base Camp, we were even more nervous because the clouds were so thick around us. Then suddenly, we rounded a corner and our guide shouted “there it is!” Immediately, our driver pulled over so we could get out and take photos.
We couldn’t believe what was in front of our eyes. We were within only a mile of Base Camp, and right in front of us the clouds had parted — almost in an eerie way — to reveal the summit of the world’s tallest mountain. As you can see by the picture above (and video below), we were lucky to be able to see all the way to the top!
The thrill of seeing this mountain first hand is something we will never forget. You would have thought we had actually made it to the summit with the way we felt, and the electricity pulsing through our bodies. It was a moment in our lives that we will never, ever forget.
We spent the next few minutes taking pictures and enjoying it…and as quickly as it revealed itself, it was covered again. Unfortunately, never to be seen again during our journey.
Mount Everest Base Camp
We spent the night up near Base Camp, in Rongbuk. Rongbuk isn’t really a town or a village. It is home to the highest monastery in the world, Rongbuk Monastery, and a few buildings and locals. There is also a sort of guest house right across the street from the Monastery. This is where we spent the night. Although, no one really slept much. Between the altitude, the excitement of Everest, and for me…the dripping of rain water on my bed all night!
A very rural setting, our guest house was made from mud bricks in the traditional Tibetan style. It also had wooden beams and a kind of thatched roof mixed with mud and other materials — which weren’t necessarily sealed well from the elements, including the rain that poured all night (as I found out with the leak above my bed).
There was limited electricity in the rooms, just a light and a couple outlets luckily. There was no heating here, even though temperatures outside were freezing. Our beds had 3-4 thick comforters and woolen blankets, which definitely worked! For heat and entertainment in the evening, we all hung out in the guest house restaurant, which was really like a common room. It was quite large and covered with typical Tibetan tapestries over the doors, windows, and around the room.
We loved the common room. It really made us feel like we were in a remote place. Coming in from the blistery weather outside, we huddled here to eat, drink, chat and play games with our friends. There were a few other tour groups here on this night, and some of them joined our tight-knit group for a rowdy game of musical trivia. A special thanks to Gretchen in our group for supplying the blue-tooth speakers, and to Marty for being our trivia host and for taking the time to come up with all of the questions!
In the center of the room was a giant iron stove for heat — but since there isn’t much wood outside in this barren landscape, dried Yak dunk is the primary fuel. This distinct smell filled the room, and really the whole country as you could smell it in the air on occasion.
We’ll never forget our experience hanging out high up here in the Himalayas with these great people. Truly an experience of a lifetime.
Now About Those Bathrooms…
Also, there was only 1 shared bathroom here…if you could call it a bathroom. There is NO running water up here, just a freezing glacier creek not far from the village.
We had to walk outside to get to the bathroom “house” (making sure to bring our headlamp at night for light) and as if an outhouse pit-toilet isn’t bad enough, try having an Asian squat style pit-toilet! It was an experience, to say the least. And the hole in the floor is actually large! Be careful not to fall in it — especially in the middle of the night if you are half asleep (of if your headlamp batteries die!).
But what can you expect at the foot of the world’s tallest mountain? We aren’t picky and certainly didn’t expect the Hilton. Plus, it was only for 1 night. And what it lacked in modern comforts, it more than made up for it in charm.
Base Camp & One of the World’s Highest Geocache!
Rongbuk technically isn’t Base Camp, even though it’s close. It’s actually just a few kilometers away. There is a trail that you can hike to get to Base Camp, and we had originally wanted to hike it. However, it was pouring rain the next morning. So we opted to take a van to Base Camp early in the morning, and wait to see if the clouds would clear for us to see the Mountain.
We spent more than 4 hours roaming around the Base Camp area, taking pictures and climbing around on some rocks. We admired the prayer flags and the ever-changing scenery around as the clouds shifted. Different peaks would appear, then disappear again. We all stood around hoping, and praying that we would see the mountain. Some locals even burned juniper and said some Buddhist prayers in hopes of revealing the mountain.
Unfortunately, the clouds were too thick and the winds were not strong enough. So we didn’t get to see it.
It was time for us to head back because we had a long drive back to Shigatse today. But luckily the rain stopped, so our group decided to take the trail and hike back. It was a wonderful walk, along the raging glacier river and stepping up and over boulders.
Rocks that likely came from Everest. We stumbled across more Yaks, and even some cute marmots! We also picked up a few unique rocks for our future mantle — which we will stack like a pile of prayer rocks and always remember our experience up here on the roof of the world!
But we were also able to mark something off Josh’s bucket list — finding one of the world’s highest Geocaches! Yes, there is one hidden up here! For more, be sure to read our complete story about finding the Roof of the World Geocache!
From Shigatse to Gyantse, Karola Glacier and Yamdrok Lake
We arrived late in Shigatse from our long return from Base Camp, but the next day we made our way to Gyantse and visited Palkor Monastery. Nearby this monastery, there is a town fortress and giant wall that goes all around. I think this sight might be what we remember most from here, because it just looked like something straight out of an old movie!
But we could also see locals up working on the wall — and hear them. As we discovered elsewhere in Tibet, when the people are working together on a project, they all sing! Here in Gyantse, we could hear their voices echoing off the mountains high above as they worked on the wall. And while in Lhasa, we actually saw and heard something similar — at the Potala Palace people were repairing a roof. I initially thought they were practicing some kind of song / dance routine. But as it turns out, they were pounding the floor!
From here, we went high into the mountains again — and into some clouds and rain, to visit Karola Glacier. We could look up and see the giant glacier just in front of us, as well as the stream of melting water. We continued to drive through beautiful high valleys, full of lush greenery from the wet weather and large boulders carried down from the glacier over the years. And of course, lots of Yaks!
Eventually, we made it to Yamdrok Lake — one of the 3 of the most famous holy lakes in Tibet. On a typical day, the water is a bright turquoise blue that is surreal looking! Unfortunately for us, the clouds and rain took the lighting away and so we could only see a little blue in the edges of the lake near us. We made a stop at a few lookouts, but the scenery wasn’t good so we just kept moving on. It was sad again, to have the weather ruin the view. Unfortunately, that’s been a common theme during our trip around Yunnan and Tibet this time of year. Note to self — come here in May or April for sure!
After crossing a very high and steep mountain pass, with winding roads and amazing views, we eventually made our way back to Lhasa.
A Final Night Out – at the Tibetan Family Kitchen!
After arriving back in Lhasa for our final night of the trip, our tour group said goodbye to our fabulous tour guide and skillful driver. But we didn’t yet want to say goodbye to each other. So we all set out for dinner at the Tibetan Kitchen. Highly recommended by the Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor, this tiny restaurant really is in a family home.
They invite you inside and have turned their living room and bedroom into dining areas. This friendly family cooks for you some of the best dishes we had while in Tibet. It’s not easy to find. Be sure to follow the signs and believe it when they say to go inside the apartment block and up into a second floor apartment — that’s really where it is located!
On our final night in Tibet, we told more stories and laughed together, while reminiscing about this surreal experience we had together. It was a truly great way to end our journey. We will no doubt miss everyone in this group!
Tibet — Thank You!
Our visit to Tibet was incredible, to say the least. Our senses were overloaded, our brains filled, and our spirits made whole. It was enlightening, and inspiring; yet, we felt deep ache at the same time for the local people. Overall, we left Tibet with a totally different perspective on the world, and this life. This world is so much bigger than our reality, and so much bigger than our physical being. Nothing will remind us of that more than standing at the foot of the world’s tallest mountain.