Paul Kan’s Asia Journal #18: July 5-17, Nepal & Tibet, Part II – Nepal and Tibet

July 5-17
Nepal & Tibet, Part II

Lhasa International Airport against a rocky Tibetan landscape.

In this story:

Arrival in Lhasa

Arrival in Lhasa
The next morning I woke up early to fried eggs and an early meeting with my Peregrine guide. As I was the only one Peregrine had signed up for their Tibet trip, they matched me with two other travellers from another agency. And together with several others, we were all placed on a group travel visa into Tibet.

The flight from Kathmandu over the mountains was pretty spectacular, even if flying so high made the mighty Himalayas seem relatively moderate in size and almost tangible out the aircraft windows. Between the clouds, and from high above, there was such a contrast between the snow-covered peaks shrouded in mist, the broad rivuleted yet desiccated terrain, and the green valleys in between. Those were the landscapes we would be driving over for the next week. It was going to be a long dusty ride.

Arriving at the airport outside Lhasa was like something out of George Lucas’ Star Wars. The airport could have been a cousin to Luke Skywalker’s Mos Eisley spaceport – the barren valley that surrounded the runway, the geometrically curved forms of the airport terminal, the sandworn block look built under the shadow of a rocky ridge – except that it seemed practically deserted. As we taxied toward the terminal, a series of uniformed guards waited in a small line to greet the plane. Just a small portent of the order imposed onto a harsh environment in true Chinese style, despite the fact that many of the soldiers and guards were just kids (boys, and girls, scarcely over 17- or 18-years-old) under the sharp-looking peaks of their green military caps.

Driving from the airport into Lhasa there were more signs everywhere of a distinctly Chinese influence – the new paved road that connected the airport to the outer city limits, the standard blue Chinese highway signs, and several small dams, canals, and other infrastructure projects. In between were a few traditional walled Tibetan household compounds and a sense of the vastness of the Tibetan landscape.

Chinese police and soldiers shielded from the sun under large umbrellas.

Entering the city limits, the Chinese influence was unmistakable. Chinese soldiers stood on raised blocks in the middle of the street directing traffic, and tall modern Chinese-styled buildings seemed to rise up from nowhere with that distinctly Chinese architecture – geometric concrete block construction, blue tinted glass, and tiled facades adorned with bright colored flags, or the Chinese government symbol, or both. In front, accordion-styled steel front gates were often manned by official looking uniformed soldiers, shielded from the sun by colorful umbrellas straight from the beach. The unshielded glare of the sun was strong here, even stronger than in Kathmandu.

On arriving, I was surprised that I didn’t feel any effects of the altitude. Or so I thought. Stepping off the plane, the morning air was dry and cool. But I didn’t seem to be missing that much oxygen. So after I settled into my hotel on one side of the Johkong (a religious structure more revered than the impressive Potala Palace), I went out for an extended exploratory walk. Ten hours of walking around later it was too late – I had a dull but steady headache and a feeling of light headedness.

Previously, my conception of altitude had been a trip to Pike’s Peak outside Colorado Springs. That was 4301m and I hardly felt any adverse effects there, so I didn’t think Lhasa at 3600m would be very different. What I forgot to realize was that the drive up and down Pike’s Peak, and the little walking around that we did, probably lasted no more than two or three hours. Here, I only began to feel a headache come on after my first 10 hours of activity. And I was going to be in much higher altitudes for a week.

What I should have done instead was to slowly acclimate and not over-exert myself for the next three days. Also, I should have taken some of that altitude medicine that some of the others were taking. It probably would have saved me a lot of discomfort over the next week, where just as I acclimated to the then current altitude, we would go higher, and the headaches would return. Although I must say, the somewhat mild effects of the altitude, lightheadedness and a dull to moderately painful headache, although unpleasant, definitely gave me an appreciation and respect for where I was, which I probably wouldn’t have had if I had felt totally normal.

The Potala Palace against a beautiful Tibetan sky.

Over the next three days, exploring the streets and alleys of Lhasa, the most striking aspect to me was that although I had seen pictures of the Potala Palace before (against a backdrop of mountains), I didn’t realize that the relatively modern city of Lhasa was built right around and so close to the structure. On the main street that led to the palace were a series of commercial stores, including the Lhasa Department Store, selling everything from suits to washer dryers to TVs and DVD players. And just in front was a Chinese-styled plaza with eateries and even a disco. The disco seemed to be closed when we were there. However, there were internet cafes close by that were open and which seemed to stay open all night filled with young kids playing video games. And even behind the palace there was a lot of activity, including a series of “beauty parlors” which also seemed to stay open all night as well.

Compared to the area around the Johkang, it was a little sad that the area around the Potala seemed so commercial. The palace itself was more a museum than a functioning monastery, and was basically deserted except for groups of tourists making their way through the many dimly lit halls and rooms. In contrast, the area around the Johkang was full of life and everyday authenticity. There were two markets facing adjacent sides of the Johkang – one admittedly oriented to the tourists and the other for the locals. Pilgrims filled the streets leading up to and around it. And in front, arriving pilgrims prostrated repeatedly in the square.

When I was there (July 2001), I saw relatively little military presence around the religious areas of the Johkang, the Potala Palace, or the rest of the city. Sometimes, I think, the Chinese equivalents of what we would consider policemen wore Chinese military-type uniforms that often made them look more fierce than they were. Especially as most of the police/military presence seemed so young. At the airport, the co-ed military guards, no more than 17- or 18-years-old, were teasing and playing footsie with each other as we were clearing immigration. And elsewhere, where we did see soldiers, they often looked more like they were on their way to summer camp, rather than on any official military business. Since 9/11 however, or episodically perhaps, maybe that has changed, as a fellow BootsnAll writer seemed to see much more of a military presence when she was there this past summer (July 2002).

Pilgrims prostrating in front of the Johkang.

The second night before we left, there were fireworks in front of the Potala. Maybe they were practicing for the official celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Chinese “peaceful liberation” of Tibet. I had noticed a lot of preparation about – there was a reviewing stand in front of the central plaza, and work was being completed on a new road that ran through it – but at the time I hadn’t realized why. A week later, Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao would arrive for the official celebration.

In any case, the fireworks were so beautiful, and the face of the palace was lit up with a soft golden glow, making the Potala seem even more magical in the darkness. And in that moment, I just felt so lucky to be there, looking out from my hotel window on the fireworks, the palace, and the mountains beyond.

For tons more pictures of Paul’s time in Nepal and Tibet, and the rest of his Asia Journal, go to his web site.