Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Tibet Adventure 2 - The beautiful lakes, highway adventures and the city of Llhasa.

Note:  If you didn't read my first post about Tibet, you might want to start there and then come back to this one.

The first of many beautiful lakes.

In one of those tests to see how quickly we’re adjusting to the altitude, we stop at a beautiful green lake, ringed by mountains.  There are stairs from the parking lot down to the lake and of course, once down, you must come back up.   A false sense of security is created by going down the stairs to get to the lake and the walkway out to the island where a monastery is located.  The monastery/temple provides many opportunities for beautiful pictures.   But of course, when you come back, all those stairs are awaiting you.   Lest anyone think they’ve done a quick acclimation, these stairs provide proof that we’re at best, still in the process of acclimating.   Some of us, more than others.

HIGHway adventures...

We’re back on the road, heading for a mountain pass at 17k ft. on the way to Lhasa. I find it a bit disconcerting that driver keeps sticking his head out the side window of the van.  I'm seriously hoping it’s not so he can stay awake.   On the other hand, I note with a bit of disbelief, that in the midst of all these huge mountains the cell phone signal is strong.  Maybe some North American cell phone companies could send some people over here to learn a few things.  I mean I can’t get a cell phone signal in my house on the edge of town!  (AT&T – are you listening?!) ??

As we’re climbing towards the pass, our guide and hosts tell us the recent story about how a semi pulled out to pass a tour bus up here, didn't time it quite right and pulled back over too early, forcing the tour bus with seven passengers over edge.  The edge, as you might note in the picture above, is poised over a lot of air.   Everyone in that tour bus died.  They tell us there is a lovely white cross marking the location and we’ll be passing it, but I'm still mulling over WHY they're telling us this story as we head for a 17k ft pass???   It isn’t inspiring trust or calm on my part, especially with the driver hanging his head out the window!

Working our way up the mountain, we pass a group of bicyclists on this incredibly narrow, steep road.  Now I'm all for fitness, but this is, in my mind, taking extreme sports to a level that can't be healthy.   While I’m sure they trained for the lack of oxygen, I don’t know how they could possibly train to avoid getting run off the road or simply run over.  I’ve watched our driver, who seems quite capable, nearly run over two groups in the last few minutes alone. Little did I know at this point in the trip, that the son of one couple on the bus has just completed this ride with his friends and is in fact, on the bus with us!   More about him, and his friends, later.

Unfortunately, accidents DO happen on this road.  We come across a bus that apparently swerved hard to the right to avoid something (perhaps a semi pulling over too soon?).  The only problem with doing that on these roads is that the drainage curb, isn’t a curb, but a ditch, a rock channel that is both quite deep and quite wide enough to swallow a bus tire.  Which has happened to this bus – both the front and rear tires on one side. 

The bus is leaning over quite precariously.  However, the good news is that the passengers appear to have disembarked without injury and all are now standing and staring at their bus.  I think they realize, like us, this bus isn't going anywhere anytime soon.  It will take some trucks, lifts, boards and a little creative engineering to get this vehicle back on the road.   Not so lucky are those people who were in the Jeep passenger/truck vehicle, which apparently swerved around the bus and then the driver must have lost control on the rain-slicked surface.  It appears s/he shot off into the river rapids, which are filled with sizable boulders.  The vehicle must have rolled over as the top is crushed, the windshield smashed and yet it is sitting upright in the river.  It is now obviously empty.  We're not sure if the occupants survived, but we’re certainly hoping they had their seat belts on, otherwise, I fear a subsequent tour is going to be looking at yet another white cross on this road.

Llhasa has its own set of rules

We finally arrive in Llhasa at 8:30 in the evening.  Our guide tells us there are several things we must note and observe in Llhasa.  First there is to be NO discussion of politics here.  If asked a political question, he tells us not to respond.  It seems undercover agents are everywhere, listening.  He warns us to not even talk between friends on the tour, as you might be overheard.  Also he warns us to never give money to beggars as you will quickly have 20 following you and they will follow you all the way to your hotel.  He tells us for most beggars, this is a second job.  He also warns us against buying things from hawkers who approach us, as most of what they are selling is not even made in Tibet (hmm, let me guess, it IS made in China though?!).  He warns us to check with him before making any purchases.  (He’ll later warn us not to say anything in front of the hawkers themselves.  It seems, more than a few guides, who made any kind of disparaging remarks about a hawker, their products or prices, has turned up badly beaten or sometimes dead.  He wants us to know, he’d like to continue living.)

Next, he warns us that we should not take photos of any uniformed person or of a native Tibetans.  Uniformed officer photos are flat forbidden.  If you want to take a picture with a Tibetan, ask them first, and if they agree you can take the picture, but expect to pay them for the privilege. It goes like this: they hold out their palms and say: “money, money, money”!

Arriving at our hotel we find we've been booked in the finest hotel in Llhasa; The Llhasa Hotel.   When visiting Chinese dignitaries come here, they use this facility.  It is a lovely, humongous hotel and is very easy to get lost in, especially after a long day in a tour van.  We are accorded the highest reception.  A greeting party is standing in front of the hotel and ties white scarves around our neck and then ask us to dip our fingers in the holy water they’re holding, three times.  In between each time, we’re to flick the water into the air.  Then we're allowed to enter the hotel. 

Mt. Everest from our plane
That sighting of Mt Everest from the plane?  Thatll be the only one well get.

Dinner begins at 9:30 pm.  Courses of food are presented but I'm so tired and it is so late that I have very little appetite.  I nibble and do the obligatory toasts by taking sips or simply letting the wine touch my lips, but not pass my lips.  It is during dinner we learn that the Nepalese have not approved our trip to Mt Everest.  In order to go there are a total of 3 approvals needed.  Without all three, you can't go.  Apparently because we're foreigners we are not going to be permitted to enter Nepal and to in order get to where we need to go, we’ve got to cross over their land.  So, that’s disappointing news and it now appears the view we had of Mt. Everest from the airplane, while flying into Tibet, may be the only view we'll get.  Still, not many people have had that view.  I console myself by thinking that I have seen Mt Everest with my own eyes.  And it is certainly a massive mountain.

A ripe situation could develop

One thing that is truly odd here is their warnings about NOT taking showers.  Starting with the flight attendants on the plane and on through to the travel guides, we’re warned not to take showers.  I can't do this. Being diabetic, I remember that the problem with showers is that if you take a hot one, it opens your blood vessels at the skin level and thus diverts blood from other places it is needed (like your brain, heart and vital things like that).  So I decide to ignore their advice and take a shower, but with cool, at best body temp, water.  It’s just part of my daily routine and helps me get ready to face the day.  While the night before everyone was repeating the warning to each other, I find over breakfast, that almost everyone has ignored the advice.   I suppose if we collapse, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.  At least we’ll smell good (you know it’s kind of like when your mother told you to make sure you had on clean underwear.  You want to smell good when they’re peeling back your shirt and trying to restart your oxygen deprived heart.)

Next, some of the sacred places in Llhasa including the Potala Palace and JokhangTemple.  

If you want to see more pictures from the trip, you'll find them on my FLICKR site