So we have just descended from the cold, arid altitude of the Tibetan plateau to the warm, humid lowlands of Nepal and I will follow up with a post about the whole border crossing from Zhang Mu into Nepal, but I wanted to just post a couple parting thoughts on the Tibetan leg of our journey.
– Altitude: Even though we were taking Diamox and ascending slowly to acclimatize there is no getting around the fact that you are approaching the highest altitudes on Earth. We didn’t suffer too badly, no cerebral or pulmonary edema, the headaches passed pretty quickly, and unlike some of our fellow travelers we were able to sleep relatively well. But getting up a flight of stairs or trying to reach the top of the Potala Palace is quite a challenge. It was amazing to see people hauling huge loads and running around completely adapted to the environment.
– Sunlight: Tibet is an exceedingly bright place. With the air so thin sun shines through a lot. We had 70 sunblock and sunglasses on everyday, but you look around and see the local sunburned rosy cheeks, and then learn that 15% of Tibetan children go blind from unprotected exposure to the sun. There are lots of schools for massage (“seeing hands” all over the place) and other trades so this large blind population has a trained skill. We would drive through 5000m passes with the sun blazing through the windows, getting really hot, then open the window or get out to see the top of a pass and it is freezing cold out.
– Weather: All of the above aside, we were very lucky and had really good weather. It was clear every day (we kept being told due to the Chinese holiday which meant less pollution) and we always saw excellent views of the mountains.
– Honking: While we’ve noticed there is a lot of honking in Nepal too, in Tibet there is a lot more, and we’re guessing it’s a side effect of the blindness mentioned above. Most of the honks are “here I am” honks, not angry horns like at home, but it’s omnipresent. And of all the Land Cruiser drivers our group agreed that our driver honked the most.
– China: The “Tibet Autonomous Region” is a funny label, the Chinese government and military presence is always looming. Our Tibetan guide couldn’t answer many questions until out of earshot of the monasteries we visited because many of the monks are aligned with the government and will report any dissent. Many of these monasteries prohibited pictures unless you paid, but the money paid, we were told, pretty much went to the government and not so much to the monastery.
– Dogs and Kids: They are EVERYWHERE. In Beijing we didn’t really notice many kids and didn’t give it a thought until we noticed in hindsight the overwhelming amount of smiling children in Tibet. Tibetans (and Mongolians and other minority groups) are not subject to China’s one child policy so they have many kids to propagate the culture, work on the farm, beg for money, etc. And we also saw a lot of dogs… maybe also for farm work, but most of them seemed to be lazily laying around all day, members of the community cared for by all. At the monastery in Gyantse we heard a rumor that some of the monks thought that the dogs were monks in a past life and took care of them.
– Technology: Whether it is Chinese influence or just a fact of growth with a limited existing infrastructure, Tibet is rapidly entering the 21st century as it grows. We saw monks with cell phones and digital cameras. There were monasteries with solar panels and satellite dishes. There was (albeit slow and sometimes not working) internet in almost every town. Many Tibetans leave to go to school, some have to lie and illegally gain their engineering degrees in India, but they are educated and tech savvy.
– Our G.A.P group: We haven’t mentioned too much about it on the blog yet but we were traveling with a great group of people. Most of our previous traveling has been independently planned but when we went to Mexico we used a company called G.A.P. Adventures to organize the trip. We originally thought it would be a trouble free way to have our transportation planned out but we ended up having a really great time with that group and the leader was excellent… it was like meeting a new group of friends and having one of them be really experienced in the place you are traveling, and didn’t feel so much like an organized tour. So we gave them another shot with this Tibet trip since you need to travel with a group on your Tibet permit anyway, and again we had a great time. There were the Americans, Tim from Fairbanks and his mom Ginger from Ohio, Dana from New Jersey (and proud of it) and her boyfriend Efraim from New York, and Carol from D.C. Then there were the Austrians, Mario and Karin; the Canadians, Diane from Vancouver and Kelly from Toronto, Louise and Norman from Montreal; and Armin, our lone German by way of the U.K. We were all lead by our able guide Sam (Belgian but I swear his accent was Scottish, he blamed that on his South African nanny) who was not only knowledgeable and well traveled but had a passion for the Tibetan people that added to our trip immensely. We had our final farewell dinner with them all tonight at Kilroy’s in Thamel and even though we have only been traveling for two weeks together it was a little hard to say goodbye to our little family that had gone through so much in that short time. Tired and having to leave early tomorrow though, we did have to say our goodbye’s and begin the Nepal portion of our trip. We wished everyone else safe travels home and may we someday welcome them to Seattle if they ever find their way there.