Overland to Lhasa : The Dusty Road to Tibet

Features Issue 34 Aug, 2010
Text by Daniel B. Haber / Photo: Pradeep Shakya,Daniel Haber,Ashesh Rajbansh

Lhasa is about the same distance from Kathmandu as Delhi—about 700 km—as the crow flies, and the flying time is just under an hour.  But somehow—culturally, linguistically or geographically—Delhi seems much closer to Kathmandu, and Lhasa a remotely distant, exotic place. Of course the monopoly of Air China which charges a whopping US $275 for the one way ticket—almost double the fare to Delhi—also adds to the distancing of Lhasa. Perhaps, it’s the Tibet mystique too, which is after all, what Nepal markets itself as, the cliched Shangri-la of “Lost Horizons”.

But summertime when the tourist season is slack for Nepal, many budget travelers take advantage of the fixed departure overland tours offered by trekking companies in their off-season. On an amble around Thamel during the rainy season one can find many posters and advertisements—even tables right on the street (such as Eco-Trek)—offering budget overland tours starting at US $115 per person for the 5-day overland bus trip from Kathmandu to Lhasa. For a mere US $10 more you can travel in a more comfortable 4-wheel drive Land Cruiser and feel like a latter day Alexandra David-Neel sans cheval. The package includes overland transportation from Kathmandu to Lhasa, four nights in a dormitory and breakfast, only on the first morning in Dhulikhel. Other meals, sightseeing and monastery entrance fees, hotels in Lhasa and visa fees are extra.

Being a frequent visitor to Lhasa, I usually have my trip arranged by Dawa Sherpa of Basanta Adventures or Mahendra Rana at YinYang Travels. The Chinese rules and regulations for travel to Tibet often change and make it complicated. It used to be that you could get your 30-day Chinese visa anywhere, but you needed to get the special Tibet permit from the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu. Now the Embassy only issues 15-day permits with no visa stamped in the passport, only a paper. And when some Israeli backpackers had recently overstayed their alloted 15 days, the Chinese authorities had suspended issuing new permits for a few weeks, then the Maoists blockaded the road to Kodari, so my departure got postponed twice and I ended up taking the bus organized by the efficient YinYang—about 22 in our group, which also included others from the other travel agencies.

It’s a 5 am departure call from the YinYang parking lot next to Greenline and the bus slowly fills up. After the complimentary breakfast at Dhulikhel, there is always a bad stretch of road between Barabise and Kodari prone to landslides, and we waited patiently while the bulldozers cleared the so-called Highway—really just a dirt road—named after Arniko, the Nepali architect who traveled all the way to Beijing to work for Emperor Kublai Khan.

Crossing the Friendship Bridge we get zapped by a ray-gun to make sure we’re not infected with SARS, and pass hordes of Nepali day-trippers on shopping sprees for cheap Chinese goods. Zhangmu or Khasa itself is more than a few kilometers drive up, and from a distance resembles a sleepy hill station perched on a cliff.  Actually, though small, it’s been dubbed the Tijuana of Tibet reputed as a sleazy army-post border town made up of  bordellos, karaoke bars and contraband [check on this].  From there it is another few hours to Nyalam where the landscape changes from verdant, steep gorges and waterfalls with pagodas hanging on crags reminiscent of Chinese scroll landscape painting to the featureless, dry, high desert that is the Tibetan plateau.

In my six journeys to Tibet it was the first time going in a bus which I found much roomier than the 4WD—I had two seats to myself, with a window, but less comfortable in terms of shock absorption on the bumpy road—but I think safer than the smaller vehicles.

Crossing passes exceeding 5,000 meters, altitude sickness sets in and fellow passengers begin popping diamox tablets like candy, as it is said to relieve the symptoms. One Dutch lady named Corry, who had been doing volunteer work in Nepal before returning home, seemed hardest hit and she kept complaining “why me?” She had no appetite at the truck stops where we stopped for lunch, especially when she saw her name on the greasy menu as “Yak Corry.”

At the second night’s stop in a Lhatse hotel which resembles a huge caravanserai, we meet up with some other overland groups both coming and going to and from Lhasa. One group has a young (late 20s) Chinese guide whom I mistook for a tourist. His name is Weng (which he pronounced like Wang) and his English was good—I even detected a Midwestern American accent, which he said was due to having studied English in Chicago. Unlike our uncouth Tibetan guide, Weng was well-trained, cultured and smooth-spoken. He was one of a number of Chinese guides who had been hired to replace the Tibetan guides schooled in India—and whose politically incorrect loyalties to Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama made them suspect. These new Chinese guides who are replacing the Tibetans, is a sore point and judging by the ‘behind the back’ comments of some of the Tibetans in the tourism industry, bitterly resented. However, unlike our Tibetan guide, well-groomed Weng has a pleasant personality, is sophisticated, efficient, cultured and good company.

As frequent visitors to Tibet can’t help noticing, each year one returns, there are always more changes, made in the name of progress, of course. On the third night after reaching Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city, one can’t help observing that it is almost now completely sinofied, except for the Tashilumpu Monastery compound.  While the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas is a big money-spinner—tourists are charged RMB 55 (about $7.00) entrance fee, the reincarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama, now about 15 years old, remains languishing under house arrest.

The new changes about Shigatse is the area directly in front of Tashilumpo which has been cleared and turned into a large public square, a miniaturized Tiannamen Square, somewhat like what the Chinese did to the front of the Jokhang Temple or the Potala Palace (now faced by nightclubs and discos). However, someone in the Communist Party planning commission must have had a sense of humour—a rarity in Chinese bureaucracy.  In the middle of the square facing Tashilumpo, there is a cluster of three slightly larger than life bronze statuary—not Buddhist to be sure, but depicting interactions of tourists and locals.

The statues are in the middle of the stone-paved square, bereft of trees and foliage except for the periphery. There are several park benches facing the Monastery.  On one of the benches, seated along with real people, there is a bronze statue of a foreign backpacker, knapsack behind him on the bench, sitting thumbs-up facing a Tibetan boy of about eight or 10 years old, his one foot resting on a football.

Catty-cornered in front of him, there is another grouping of another foreign backpacker (unmistakably Caucasian with a big nose), baseball cap turned back seated on a bicycle, facing a Tibetan man formally dressed in a traditional chuba (robe) with a goat by his foot, which seems somewhat incongruous as shepherds would dress more rustically. The real clincher, however, is that the sculptor placed a small mobile phone in the hand of the Tibetan man with the goat—no doubt a sign of his material progress under the present regime.

The third and most popular grouping which attracts both locals and shutter-bugging tourists, is that of a scantily clad, nubile woman (who could be foreign or Chinese) with ample bosoms and derriere outlined in a revealing mini-skirt well above the knees. With her back to the monastery, she is training her video-camera at a young Tibetan mother and her daughter of about five or six years, both smiling irrepressibly in typical Socialist Realism fashion.

While the bronze statuary groupings of the tourist/local interactions is blissfully idealized as kitsch, the reality is quite different as we later found out at one of the glaciers where rude but savvy nomads place their yaks for the tourists to photograph—at five yuan per click!  When I trained my point-and-shoot Kodak at the scene with one of the French tourists astride a beribboned yak, one of the rough nomad men ran after me demanding five yuan (equivalent to about Rs.50) as I tried to retreat back to the safety of the bus.

As I hadn’t been to Tibet for two years, the changes this year were even greater. Take Gyantse, for example, long considered one of the most typically traditional Tibetan towns in an increasingly sinofied TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region). Now, this year 2004 is the centenary of the British siege of Tibet, led by Francis Younghusband which captured the garrison town and led to the installation of a British Resident. Although no Chinese were involved, Beijing is patriotically celebrating the resistance—somewhat like the Indian Mutiny. And for this, old buildings are being torn down to make way for wide Chinese style boulevards to be lined no doubt with the ubiquitous glossy white tiled structures with blue glassed windows and topped with curved brown Chinese tiles. While Gyantse is losing its traditional charm—relegated to a small area around the Kumbun stupa and monastery—much like Lhasa’s traditional structures are limited to the immediate neighborhood surrounding the Jokhang.

As we approach Lhasa on the fifth day, the wild landscape becomes urbanized with concrete and blue-glassed buildings near the Potala Palace looming on the hill and dominating the horizon. Just in front, we pass a life-size, plastic palm tree, no doubt “planted” by the Chinese authorities who seem to feel a need to add more exoticism in the drab land of snows. And with snow on the surrounding mountains, and the plastic palms in front of the Potala, I begin to feel myself inside one of those crystal paperweights which snows when you turn it upside down.

Otherwise, the legendary Potala Palace of the former Dalai Lamas, is an awesome sight, more so than Everest for me, and newly whitewashed, it dazzled in the brilliant midday sun as one huge billboard put it, “China Tibet Tourism Welcomes You to Holy Tibet”.  As we approached the looming Potala Palace, I observed another sign that had misspelled Snowland and instead read “Show Land” Welcome to Show Land!

Near the Norbulingka Summer Palace is a newly-opened Tibetan Museum—which is kind of redundant, since the Chinese have already turned the magnificent Potala Palace into a museum itself.  They are also constructing a new train station, and laying the tracks for the new railway connecting Lhasa with Golmud. But the Tibetans I spoke with are not happy about what one Tibetan businessman commented will just bring more “rubbish people” into Tibet.

Aside from the disorientation of being on Beijing time which is some two hours later than Nepal time, the most salient impression of Lhasa is that it is much cleaner than Kathmandu. The air is fresher, no pollution, there are even pollution-free electric motorcycles—and a large number of people, as in the rest of China, use bicycles. There are legions of street sweepers. With large numbers of army and police there is virtually no violent crime—or at least none is reported as there are no English-language newspapers or magazines—not even the China Daily is available in Lhasa. There is, however, one English language TV channel broadcast from Beijing.  The few bookstores that carry English language titles are carefully scrutinized titles published in China.

But there is also a lot more money in Lhasa—poured in by Beijing and the streets are lined with department stores, upscale boutiques with luxury Chinese goods. Mobile phones are ubiquitous and Lhasa has the feel of a prosperous Chinese town—even if it is prosperous mainly for the Chinese. Discos and entertainment abound although there are no cinemas—only grungy dive video parlours.

There is, however, a thriving art scene and I along with photographer Tom Kelly and art historian/collector Ian Alsop visited the recently formed Gedun Choephel Art Gallery, an artist’s cooperative whose work is also displayed at Thamel’s Lotus Gallery. We also attended a faculty art show at Tibet University which has just opened its own Art Academy.

On the same day in June, Lhasa’s newest hotel, the Tibet Gorkha opened its doors and an inaugural party was held that evening.  The hotel, run by antique and furniture dealer, Karma Nepali, is centered around the old Nepal consulate building in Lhasa, and as the authorities ironically would not allow him to tear down the old heritage building, he had to build the hotel around it and restore the old building. I say, “ironic” because many of the old Tibetan traditional structures have been torn down.

True to its name, the Gorkha employs a number of experienced Nepalis, particularly the cook whose dishes were last tasted at the Radisson’s Olive Garden and the menu is similar.  There are a small number of expatriates working for NGOs in Lhasa but since they are not allowed to rent or buy their own homes or apartments, they have to live in rented hotel rooms—and the family-run Kyichu is the favorite for long-term stays.

As I had discovered on earlier Lhasa shopping expeditions, most of the souvenirs—especially the “Yak Yak Yak Yak Tibet” t-shirts, like the prayer wheels for sale on pilgrims’ path around the Jokhang, are all brought from Nepal. A close inspection of the so-called “Tibetan” souvenirs—from cheap knick-knacks to expensive bronze Buddhas—reveals that most of them are imported from Kathmandu or India.

Furthermore, not only are most of the souvenirs from Nepal, but most of the tourist hotels around Barkhor Square are run by Nepalis/Tibetans. And the Nepali cooks bake the same pies to die for, that once made Kathmandu’s Freak Street pie shops famous.

In season (May-August) rooms are in short supply in Lhasa and many hotels are filled up. The typical tourist hotel in Lhasa has a wide range of rooms from deluxe to dormitory under the same roof.

Getting There: The easiest way to get to Lhasa is by air. From Kathmandu there are twice weekly flights to Lhasa and Chengdu. Or join one of the fixed departure overland tours leaving on Saturdays.

Visas: need a special permit for Tibet.

When to Go: Tourist season; when the weather is mildest is April-October. However, if you don’t mind the cold and snow, the best time for bargains is November-March with late March ideal. July and August could be rainy.

Places to Stay: The budget hotels and eateries are all centered round Barkhor Square in the traditional Tibetan “quarter.” Most have budget dormitories along with single and double rooms.

Altitude Sickness: All visitors to Tibet (except perhaps Nepali Sherpas) have to adjust to the thin air (less oxygen) of the high altitude (Lhasa: 3,600 meters). Symptoms include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dizziness, headaches, diarrhea and loss of appetite. Diamox (a diuretic) is said to relieve some symptoms, but causes one to urinate frequently, and there are few clean public lavatories in Lhasa. There is also a Tibetan herbal tonic (available in pharmacies) that also helps. It usually takes a few days to adjust to the altitude, so it’s a good idea not to exert yourself too much, and drink plenty of liquids. Those with health problems should consult their physicians before departure.

Recommended Travel Agents: Basanta Adventures, Yin Yang Travels, Tel. 4423358,
E-mail: yinyang@wlink.com.np