The Daily Explorer

February 8, 2009

Seven Days in Tibet

Lhasa, Tibet: January 2009

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MOZZIE BYTE (Editor): A warm welcome back to all our Daily Explorer readers and greetings to those of you who are joining us for the first time. To our regulars, many thanks for viewing our online publication and for giving us your feedback.  Around 7,500 visitors came to see our site in 2008 and get the latest information from Ray as he explores different parts of the world. If you are new to this site and would like to know more about what’s in our archives, check out some of our Previous Issues. We aim to maintain our high standards of journalism and presentation at The Daily Explorer, so please keep sending us your ideas to help us improve future issues. You can use the comments box online, or email ‘Mozzie’ or any of our correspondents at thedailyexplorer@gmail.com

This is our second issue of 2009 and it has been compiled for us by our new guest correspondent, Dolly Lama (above). She is one of the most experienced online journalists of her generation and joined our team for a few days to follow Ray as he explored the remote wilderness of Tibet, seeing in the New Year in the country known as the ‘Roof of the World’. We are delighted to have her on board!

In our last issue, Seymour Peaks followed our global nomad during his seven day Annapurna Base Camp trek, returning to Pokhara afterwards where Ray visited the World Peace Pagoda and helped to organise a picnic for a group of orphaned children. Ray then returned to Kathmandu to further explore the ancient districts of Pashupatinath, Boudha and Patan. If you missed it, you can read it now at: From Pokara to Patan

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Above: The breathtaking mountains of Nepal (left) have been attracting visitors to the region for years. You can read all about Ray’s seven day trek to the Annapurna Base Camp and his exploration of Pokhara and the oldest parts of Kathmandu, in From Pokara to Patan

Editors Note: As we were compiling this issue, we received some very sad news. Jelly Blount, a friend and former colleague of Ray’s, recently died from cancer. “When I visit London, I usually stay at my brother’s house in Southfields, which is just around the corner from her home and we would normally spend a couple of hours together catching up” said Ray. “She was a very warm, gentle, generous, loving and an extremely creative person and I will miss her, as I am sure will a great many people. I would like to dedicate this issue of The Daily Explorer to her”.

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Above: Jelly Blount, who died on 28th January, pictured here with Ray at her home in October 2007 – “About 18 months ago, she invited me round for supper” said Ray. “We first met over 25 years ago at work, but moved in completely different circles. A couple of years ago, we bumped into each other by chance at a dinner party thrown by a mutual friend, which kick started our friendship –  I was enjoying getting to know her. She was a really lovely human being and her departure is a huge loss for all of us”

As a first time visitor to Tibet, I was curious to know what had inspired Ray to enter this mysterious Buddhist kingdom. “Well Dolly, it’s quite hard to pin it down to just one thing” said Ray, “but I think that as I have understood more about the Dalai Lama, who he is and what has happened to the Tibetan race, it has made me want to find out first hand what the country is all about. I heard him speak in Australia in 2007 and knew I would come here at some point. If you then throw in some great landscapes, over 1,700 functioning monasteries and the chance to get a view of Mount Everest, the mix just seemed irresistable” added our traveller.

For hundreds of years, Tibet has exercised a unique hold on the imagination of the West. Ray confirmed this when I met him as he crossed the border. “I talked to an American couple on the Annapurna circuit who had just been to Tibet and when they were telling me about it, I was captivated. Realising just how close Nepal was, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss and I started to consider the possibility of coming here. I discovered that the only way I could enter Tibet from Nepal was to join a group with a tour guide (registered with the Chinese authorities) – they simply do not permit independent travellers to enter the country” he told me, somewhat astonished! “I think it is because the country has only been open to tourists since the mid 1980’s and the Chinese are cautious about people entering who are pro Tibetan in any way, shape or form” observed Ray. “I didn’t know if or when I would get another chance to come back to the region, so I signed up for a seven day tour with a group and just prayed that I would end up with some good people to make the trip with” recalled our adventurous traveller.

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Above: The map shows the location of Tibet within greater China and its proximity to Nepal. The distance from Kathmandu to Lhasa by road is around 900 kilometres. About 2.8 million people live in the Tibet Autonomous Region and there are around 5.5 million Tibetans globally

Below: The crossing point between Nepal and Tibet is the ‘Friendship’ Bridge at Kodari – “As soon as we reached the border, we got the chance to experience the rather oppressive Chinese stanp of authority when we were told that photographs of the bridge or any of the official government buildings were not permitted” recalled Ray, who still managed to get a shot of the gateway into the ‘roof of the world’ (left).  Once across the border, Ray’s party of nine were met by Tenzin Gyurmay (right), their guide throughout their journey to Lhasa – “He was a lovely chap” said Ray. “Very friendly, and a great sense of humour. For some reason I cannot fathom, he was convinced I was a dead ringer for Barack Obama and even got his driver to take pictures of us together so he could show them to his friends” laughed Ray. “He would tease me by calling me ‘Obama’, to which I would reply “It’s Mr. President to you!”

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When the doors to Tibet were finally flung open in the mid-1980s, it lay in ruins. Between 1950 and 1970, the Chinese wrested control of the plateau, drove the Tibetans’ spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and some 100, 000 of Tibet’s finest into exile and systematically dismantled most of the Tibetan cultural and historical heritage, all in the name of revolution. For a while, images of the Buddha were replaced by icons of Chairman Mao. “We knew that we were too late to see the country as it was all those years ago before the revolution, which was of course, slightly disappointing – I had watched the movie ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ with Brad Pitt before leaving Nepal, which was set in the 1940’s and it gave me an idea of what the country, and Lhasa in particular, might have been like then. If you missed the movie, I highly recommend it as both a great story and a revealing insight into both the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama himself” said Ray.

Anyone who is interested in the movie can watch the two minute trailer for the film (below):

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Above: Ray’s party of nine were transported through Tibet in two four wheel drive Jeeps – “Unfortunately, the heating system in one of them was not working properly so we had to take it in turns to sit in the freezing cold one!” Ray told me. “The Friendship Highway between the Tibetan border and Lhatse, which was our stop on the second day, is an appalling road – very steep, no tarmac surface and lots of rain. Consequently, the only way you could contemplate travelling along it is in a four wheel drive vehicle” he told me

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Above: Map showing the 900 kilometre route (in red) from Kathmandu to Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region and the traditional home of the Dalai Lama (Note: He no longer lives there, but is in exile in Dharamsala, India). The route took our traveller close to Mount Everest, through Lhatse, Shigatse and Gyantse and on to Lhasa, where Ray returned to Kathmandu by air

Below: After an overnight stay in Zangmu on the border on their first day, Ray’s group made a very early start as they departed for Lhatse some 285 kilometres away – “We were in darkness for the first couple of hours, and as the sun started to rise, we saw just how desolate the terrain was” said our global nomad. “By now, we were getting quite excited about seeing Mt. Everest for the first time” added Ray

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For most Tibetan’s, a four wheel drive Jeep is a luxury that would be way beyond their means. “Most of the people we saw were using vehicles that you would be more likely to find in a ‘Mad Max’ movie than on the road” said Ray. “Looking like a horse and cart, but with the horse being replaced by a motor on two wheels, with an iron bar for steering, these strange looking vehicles are how most people get around between the few small, isolated towns that exist in central Tibet outside Lhasa” explained Ray.

Ray and the members of his group were very keen to engage with some of the local people. “Our guide explained to us that the common greeting we should use was “Tashi Delek”, which is a Tibetan greeting word, to say “hello”. Traditionally in Tibet, it was used only to say “Happy New Year!”, and there was no uniform formal word for hello. Later Tibetan refugees in India, constantly asked how to say Hello in Tibetan by tourists, thought they should have a unified greeting word and started using Tashi Delek. Within the last 25 years, after it became a popular Tibetan greeting word in India, the usage has travelled back to Tibet, where it has been embraced by both local Tibetans and officials. Today even officials from Beijing use it at the beginning of their public addresses in Tibet. So, when you meet Tibetans, you say “Tashi Delek” explained our well informed traveller. “However, it has a deeper meaning both spiritually and culturally than a “hello”. The word Tashi means wish, good luck, success and so on. And Delek means health, prosperity, and goodness” added Ray. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said when you say the words Tashi Delek, your mind should be pure and you should say it with a good motivation, as the greeting came from sacred words. “When you say it, you should remember the meanings, and focusing on the person you say it to, you must mean it” added Ray.

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Above: These very basic, odd looking, motorised ‘horse and carts’ are widely used by Tibetans and are the second most popular means of transport, after horses themselves!

After leaving the border town of Zangmu, the road quickly and steeply ascends until you reach the Nyalam Tongla Pass, at a height of around 5,200 metres. “The pass marks the start of the Tibetan Plateau” Ray told me. “For some of the people in my group, this was a serious problem as they did not really have an opportunity to acclimatise properly and a few of them were suffering from severe headaches and/or fatigue. Luckily for me, I had been doing plenty of Himalayan trekking before coming to Tibet and this had prepared me well for the sudden increase in altitude” explained Ray.

The Nyalam Tongla Pass is what is known in Tibet as a Sky Burial site. “Apparently, sky burial, or ritual dissection, was once a common funerary practice in Tibet wherein a human corpse is cut into small pieces and placed on a mountaintop, exposing it to the elements or the mahabhuta and animals – especially to birds of prey” said Ray. “In Tibetan, the practice is known as jhator, which literally means, “giving alms to the birds.” The majority of Tibetans adhere to Buddhism, which teaches reincarnation. There is no need to preserve the body, as it is now an empty vessel. Birds may eat it, or nature may let it decompose. So the function of the sky burial is simply the disposal of the remains” explained our traveller. “In much of Tibet, the ground is too hard and rocky to dig a grave, and with fuel and timber scarce, a sky burial is often more practical than cremation” he told me. “When we first arrived at the site, all I could see were loads of clothes – trousers, jackets, hats, scarves etc. just strewn all over the place and I wondered why they had been left there” said Ray. “I soon discovered that these were the garments of all of the people who had been ‘buried’ here, as it is custom to leave these things behind as a gift to the Gods. It was quite a weird sight to see” he told me.

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Above: “The sky burial site at Nyalam Tongla Pass (elevation 5,200 metres) is an eerie place” said Ray

Below: Travelling east from the pass on the Tibetan Plateau, Ray and his group hit the small town of Tingri (elevation 4,390 metres) – “By the time we had reached Tingri on Day Two, the gravel road had become a tarmac ‘highway’. This picture gives you a strong sense of the wilderness that is most of Tibet, with very small towns dotted along the highway and miles of space in between, with nothing but mountains and a few frozen lakes” he told me

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Above: In Tingri, Ray was fascinated with the local people – “Their faces are a beautiful bronze colour and they are always smiling” observed our traveller. They have a very easy going manner and are extraordinarily friendly, but hardly any of them understand English” he told me

Below: Temperatures are generally below zero in Tibet in December and January – “I think I picked the coldest time of the year to come, which was a bit unfortunate. But having been trekking in Nepal, I had plenty of thermal underwear, fleece lined under-trousers and gloves etc. so I didn’t mind too much. Most of it stayed on at night!” admitted Ray. “These kids did not seem to mind at all – in fact, they really were having a great deal of fun on this frozen lake on their home-made sleds”

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Above: This young Tibetan boy watches Ray and his group with great curiosity and interest as they come down to see what the kids are up to on the lake. Just to the right of the boys face is Mount Everest (the triangular peak with the snow blowing around it) – “Unfortunately, this was the closest we were going to get to it on the ground” Ray told me. “The Tibetan Base Camp is still another 3-4 days trek from here and it is not on our itinerary”. The mountain is accessible to trekkers from both Nepal and Tibet, with ‘base camps’ in either country giving visitors a choice of venue – “I definitely intend to trek to Everest Base Camp soon, so if there are any readers out there who would like to come with me, make sure you let me know!” said our adventurer

Below: One of the most amazing things any traveller will come across in Tibet are the people, who seem to belong to an age long gone by – “They are the most friendly, charming and soulful people I think I have come across on my travels” said Ray

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After an overnight stop in Lhatse, Ray and his group continued east along the Friendship Highway towards Shigatse (see map above). Tibet’s second largest town, Shigatse (elevation 3,900 metres) is the hub of the road network between Lhasa, Nepal and western Tibet and it is expected that the (world’s highest) Qinghai-Tibet railway will be extended to Shigatse by 2010. “This place was on our itinerary because it contains the huge Tashilhunpo Monastery, founded in 1447 by Gendun Drup, the First Dalai Lama” said our budding Tibetan historian. “It is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lamas, who until the Chinese arrived in the 1950’s, had temporal power over three small districts, though not over the town of Shigatse itself, which was administered by a dzongpön (general) appointed from Lhasa. In the 2nd week of the 5th lunar month (around June/July), Tashilhunpo Monastery is the scene of a 3-day festival and a huge thangka is displayed” Ray told me.

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Above: The road to Shigatse passes through some beautiful mountain landscapes as it clmbs over 1,000 metres before reaching the Gyatso-la (Ocean Pass) …..

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Above: ….. Our global traveller stands under the hundreds of prayer flags at the pass before starting the gradual descent into Shigatse at around 3,900 metres

Below: Ray sits on a bench at this bus stop and observes the comings and goings in smalltown Tibet as his group stop for a short break on the way (Photo: Bilwander)

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Above: “On our arrival in Shigatse, Tenzin (our guide) pointed out there was an excellent restaurant right beside our hotel” recalled Ray. “You can probably imagine what we were thinking when we spotted a chair with several parts of a freshly dissected pig (left) hanging off it, outside the front door of the place” laughed Ray, who decided to give the head a close up inspection (right) before going inside and ordering his lunch

Below: If pig is not your thing, then how about some Yak? This Tibetan farmer proudly shows Ray the head of a freshly slaughtered beast (left). Yak is very popular in the region and Yak butter is widely available (inset, right). It is used to make the traditional drink of Yak Butter Tea – “It’s disgusting” said our slightly squeamish traveller

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Above: The impressive Buddhist monastery of Tashilhunpo is like a little walled city within the city of Shigatse and entering is like stepping back in time to another world. It is one of the few monasteries in Tibet that weathered the stormy seas of the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed

Below: Tibetans come here constantly to pray, which for most of them means repeating hundreds (even thousands) of prostrations to the Buddha (left). This involves a physical body movement from standing upright to lying down flat on the ground – “We had a couple of hours but could have spent a couple of days here” said Ray. “There were many little alleys and temples within the complex and it really did feel like we had time warped to another era (right)” said our traveller

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Located on a hill in the centre of Shigatse is Tashilhunpo Monsatery; the full name in Tibetan means: “All fortune and happiness gathered here” or “heap of glory”. Pilgrims circumambulate the monastery on the Lingkor (sacred path) outside the walls. Fortunately, although two-thirds of the buildings were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, they were mainly the residences for the 4,000 monks and the monastery itself was not as extensively damaged as most other monasteries in Tibet, for it was the seat of the Panchen Lama who remained in Chinese-controlled territory. “The Chapel of Jampa is probably the most impressive of Tashilhunpo’s sights – an entire building houses the world’s largest gilded statue – a 26 metre high image of Jampa (Maitreya), the Future Buddha” Ray told me. “It was built in 1914 under the auspices of the ninth Panchen Lama and took some 900 artisans and labourers four years to complete” added Ray.

The impressive, finely crafted and serene looking statue looms high over the viewer. “Each of Jampa’s fingers is more than one metre long and in excess of 300 kilogrammes of gold went into his coating, much of which is also studded with precious stones. On the walls surrounding the image there are a thousand more gold paintings of Jampa set against a red background” Ray told me.

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Above: The Chapel of Jampa houses the world’s largest gilded statue – a 26 metre high image of Jampa (Maitreya), the Futrure Buddha

Below: A Buddhist monk sits and watches the world go by. In 1972, under the patronage of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tashilhunpo Monastery was re-established in the Southern Indian state of Karnataka. The monastery has monks coming from Tibet and the Himalayan regions of Spithi, Khunu, Ladakh and Arunachal. Occupying a central position in the Tibetan settlement of Bylakuppe, there are over 300 monks including many Tulkus (reincarnate lamas) studying and performing various religious practices. Many monks escape Tibet because of the difficulties (imprisonment or death) they face trying to practice Buddhism inside the country

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Above: The tomb of the Fifth to the Ninth Panchen Lamas (left) was built to replace an earlier structure destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese invasion of Tibet has impacted the culture in many ways, not least of which is the rather drab, boring architecture you can see in the modern parts of Shigatse (right)

About two hours drive and 90 kilometres away from Sygatse is the smaller city of Gyantse. It is the fourth largest town in Tibet, with a population of about 8,000 people. It is 3,977 metres above sea level, and is located 254 km southwest of Lhasa in the fertile plain of the Nyang Chu valley. Gyantse is often referred to as the “Hero City” because during the British Younghusband expedition of 1904, the 500 soldiers of the Gyantse dzong held the fort for several days before they were overcome by the British. “The main reason that this place is on our itinerary is the magnificent tiered Kumbum of the Palcho Monastery, the largest chörten in Tibet” said Ray. “The Kumbum was commissioned by a Gyantse prince in 1427 and was an important centre of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. This religious structure contains 77 chapels in its six floors, and is illustrated with over 10,000 murals, many showing a strong Nepali influence which have survived pretty well intact. They are the last of this type in Tibet. Many of the restored clay statues are of less artistry than the destroyed originals – but they are still spectacular” added our global explorer.

The town was nearly destroyed in 1954 and was largely emptied of people by the Chinese in 1959. During the Cultural Revolution the fort, the monastery and Kumbum were ransacked or destroyed. The main building of the Pelkor Chode or Palcho Monastery and the Kumbum have been largely restored but the dzong or fort is still largely in ruins. “We discovered that there is an “Anti-British Imperialist Museum” there which gives the (ludicrous) Chinese version of the 1904 British invasion, although we did not have time to see it” Ray informed me.

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Above: Buddhist monks from Pelkor Chode walk through one of the streets in Gyantse (left). Ray and his group make friends with some of the local children (right) – “I stopped to buy a bag of sweets and had a brilliant time handing them out to the young kids I met as we wandered around” said Ray

Below: The prayer wheels that line the entrance to the Pelkor Chode Monastery. The site was once a complex of 15 monasteries that brought together three different orders of Tibetan Buddhism in the one compound – a rare instance of multi-denominational tolerance

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Above: “Asuk , my son: You are here to learn about how our minds create craving, attachment and suffering and more importantly, how to live without being controlled by your ego. But first, cheer up and face the camera – then we might get our picture in the Daily Explorer, which would be pretty good, huh!?”

Below: Ray pays his respects to Buddha inside one of the chapels at the Pelkor Chode Monastery

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Above: Some of the Buddha figures inside the monastery are simply mesmerising …..

Below: …. and the multi-tiered Kumbum is one of the most unusual ancient structures to be found anywhere in Tibet. It is packed with some exquisite Tibetan mural paintings and rises 35 metres over four floors surmounted by a gold dome. The dome rises crown like over four sets of eyes that gaze serenely out in the directions of the cardinal points. As you climb upwards through the chapels of the Kumbum, you are drawn through progressively higher levels on the Tantric path

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Above: It’s a long way down! Ray waves to our photographer who is at the top

Below: The Gyantse Dzong is a fourteenth century fort offering amazing views over the town and the surrounding Nyang-chu valley, although the fort itself is in quite a derelict state

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Above: The view from the Kumbum overlooking Gyantse, taking in the Gyantse Dzong on the top of the hill (left), and how it might have looked a few hundred years ago (right)

Below: The Tibetans have some wonderful headgear to keep themselves warm, as this local man (left) demonstrates, whilst fellow Swedish traveller Janis Karlsson (right) decides to try one on for himself – “I was very lucky to end up with eight travellers on my tour who were all fantastic to get along with” said Ray. “Three Swedes, a German, a Greek, two from Australia and one from Japan. Janis, who works in Thailand, and I have become good friends and I hope to see him again when I return to Chiangmai in a couple of months” he told me 

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Day Five saw Ray and his group travelling over 250 kilometres from Gyantse to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and the final stop on their tour of the central region. “The drive to Lhasa was really beautiful” recalled Ray. “One area we passed through early on was the picturesque Simi Pass (elevation 4,330 metres) – a huge man made lake created by the construction of the Simi Dam, used to generate electricity” recalled Ray. After a brief stop, we continued on the Friendship Highway, to the Karo-La Pass, which at 5,045 metres is adjacent to one of the highest mountain peaks in Central Tibet – Mt. Nojin Kangstang (7,191 metres)” said our traveller.

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Above: The huge man made lake created by the Simi Dam, viewed from the top of the pass

Below: Ray stops and moves in for a closer look

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Above: As Ray and his group approached the Karo-La pass, they encountered the awe inspiring Mt. Nojin Kangstang, towering over the landscape and the Friendship Highway – “It is an incredible experience to be able to get this close to some of the world’s tallest mountains” said Ray

Below: With about 125 kilometres to go to reach Lhasa, Ray and his group take about an hour to drive around the edge of the huge Yamdrok Tso (“Turquoise Lake”) – “The lake is glaring blue and it radiates a near mystical charm” said Ray. “It is about 240 kilometres in circumference and is more like an Island sea. There are Yak herders around and the shores and the lake itself supports a population of scale-less fish in its non-saline waters. Yamdrok Tso is one of Tibet’s holiest lakes and an important centre for pilgrimage. Yet what devout Tibetan Buddhists perceive as a sacred body of water, pragmatic Chinese engineers view as a natural resource just waiting to be utilised for the development of the country. Because it is a dead lake, with no perennial source, any water drained from it can never be replenished naturally. Chinese scientists claim that excess power will pump river water back up into the lake, but water levels appear to be dropping, creating great concern for environmentalists” said our well informed traveller

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Above: The Good Samaritan! Ray (centre) helps a young shepherd boy (right) who seems to have lost control of some members of his herd – “Whilst we made our first stop at the shore of Yamdrok Tso, Janis and I saw a young kid of about 12 or 13 trying to catch a small group of renegade Yaks who were refusing to vacate a grassy patch by the side of the highway” he recalled. “No matter what he did, there was always one that would elude him and we watched this going on for about ten minutes, by which time the boy was virtually in tears! So we walked over to lend a hand and I got my first experience of herding cattle – which was quite scary as these Yaks were pretty hefty creatures! Five minutes later and the boy was happy again, with all of the animals down by the lake with the rest of the herd” said our helpful visitor

Below: Yamdrok Tso, viewed from the Kamba La Pass (4,794 metres)

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Ray and his group reached Lhasa on the afternoon of Day Five, just in time to celebrate the New Year. “It was fantastic that we arrived in the capital on 31st December, as it meant we would have a very special New Years Eve” he told me. Our guide (Tenzin) gave us some ideas about what we could do together that would create a memorable evening and after a bit of deliberation, we decided we would all eat together and go on to a Karaoke Club to sing our way into the New Year in style” said our global nomad. “Compared to the other cities we had visited, Lhasa was much bigger, cleaner and more modern than anything we had seen in Tibet and we were really not expecting it” recalled Ray. “We were also fortunate to be staying in a lovely little hotel, which had previously been a rather large, traditional Tibetan house. The owner told us that the Dalai Lama used to come to the house for sessions with one of his teachers (many years ago) and hearing this made us feel that we were staying somewhere quite special. And on top of that, the hotel had fitted electric blankets on all the beds! Given it was -10 degrees in Lhasa, this was a huge benefit and meant we could sleep in a proper bed with sheets, without all of our clothes on, for the first time since we arrived in the country!” he laughed.

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Above: One of the many large modern hotels in Lhasa (left) and the beautiful, traditional building that was renovated recently to create a small, friendly place in the centre of town in which Ray and his group could stay (right) – “I love the way they have retained the original look and feel of the place, with the original prayer wheels still lining the hallways”

Below: The hotel’s central courtyard – “The Dalai Lama (inset) came here for sessions with one of his teachers” said Ray

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Above: It’s New Years Eve, and the Karaoke party is in full swing with less than an hour to go to midnight. The Swedish contingent of Janis, Johanna and blonde haired Camilla (left) belt out an Abba number, and then Ray takes the floor with Johanna for a duet (right). Ray did submit recordings of his songs for this publication but let’s just say we decided that they were ‘not suitable’ for our readers, who we felt should be spared the agony of listening to them!

Below: Ray struts his stuff as he takes centre stage and sings one of his favourite numbers (left) and then it’s 2009! The board in the lobby of the hotel (right) displays the date and time which confirms that Ray and his friends have just begun their new year, although the hotel staff were not so accurate with the temperature forecast!

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Lhasa literally means “place of the gods”, although ancient Tibetan documents and inscriptions demonstrate that the place was called Rasa, which means “goat’s place”, until the early 7th century. In the first half of the twentieth century, several Western explorers made celebrated journeys to the city, including Francis Younghusband, Alexandra David-Néel, and Heinrich Harrer. “The latter was the Austrian explorer whose story was encapsulated in the movie “Seven Years in Tibet”, which is highly recommended viewing for anyone interested in what has happened here in the last 50 years or so” said Ray.

Many years ago, Lhasa was the centre of Tibetan Buddhism, and nearly half of its population were monks. The population of Lhasa in 1951 was estimated at 25,000, excluding some 15,000 monks in the area’s monasteries, although with the invasion of China, many people fled from the city including the living Dalai Lama who fled from his residence in the Potala Palace into exile in India in 1959 after the Lhasa uprising.

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Above: Tibetans walk through the Barkhor outside the 1,300 year old Jokhang Temple, which is the spiritual centre of Tibet

While the Potala Palace dominates the skyline, the Jokhang, some two kilometres to the east, is the real spiritual heart of the city. An otherworldly mix of flickering butter lamps, wafting incense and prostrating pilgrims, the Jokhang is the most sacred and alive of Tibet’s temples. The temple houses a pure gold statue of the Buddha Sakyamuni brought to Tibet by the princess, along with extraordinary Tibetan religious art treasures (though some are duplicates). It is here and the encircling Barkhor pilgrim circuit that most visitors first fall in love with Tibet. The old Tibetan quarter makes up a small area of Lhasa these days. “The modern city is a Chinese boom town, where a new train line has fuelled massive growth in tourism, alongside new hotels, shops and supermarkets. The face of Lhasa is changing daily, with buildings rising and falling like the Shanghai stock market” observed Ray.

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Above: The waves of awestruck pilgrims prostrating themselves outside the Jokhang temple are a feauture of everyday life here

For all its modernisation, Lhasa remains a fantastic cultural hybrid, its streets bustling with a diverse mix of people. Traditionally, the city is the seat of the Dalai Lama and the capital of Tibet, and is the highest capital in the world. Both the Potala and Norbulingka palaces are included in a World Heritage Site. The city is home to about 275,000 people. Between 1987-1989, Lhasa had major demonstrations against the Chinese occupation led by monks and nuns. As a result the Chinese imposed restrictions and political re-education programs in the monasteries. Many had to go through these re-education sessions to align themselves with the Communist views and denounce the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independence. Many monks who refused were sent to prison, while others left the monasteries and many escaped into India to carry on with their studies. Today, Lhasa is the remote abode of the Dalai Lamas, object of devout pilgrimage and heart and soul of Tibet, and is still a city of wonders, despite the large-scale encroachments of modern Chinese influence.

Taking pictures of any soliders in Lhasa is strictly forbidden and anyone caught doing so faces imprisonment or deportation. “Whilst I knew we were banned from taking any pictures of soldiers, I was determined to capture a few so that people who have never been here can get a sense of the oppression these Tibetan people face every day. Two of my party were stopped and their cameras searched by plain clothes police outside the Jokhang Temple, simply because they took shots of the building and had inadvertently got one or two soldiers in the shots. They were lucky enough to be ordered to just delete the offending pictures and be allowed to walk away. Witnessing this made me feel very nervous indeed as I had quite consciously and deliberately been taking pictures in secret and had captured several images for publication in The Daily Explorer” recalled our courageous traveller. “At the first opportunity, I rushed back to our hotel, emptied my memory card of the images that could get me into deep trouble and breathed a huge sigh of relief” he told me.

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Above: The Barkhor Square, seen from the roof of the Jokhang Palace with the visually stunning, vast white and ochre Potala Palace in the background. Look closely in the red circle in the bottom left hand corner and you will see four heavily armed Chinese soldiers patrolling the area – “The square has become a focus for political protest and has been the scene of pitched battles between Chinese and Tibetans on several occasions, most noticeably in 1998 when several Tibetans were killed and a Dutch tourist was shot in the shoulder” said Ray. “The Chinese authorities are almost paranoid about allowing any freedom of thought, conversation or images of the Dalai Lama – even at the border when I entered Tibet, guards carefully examined every single page of my Lonely Planet guide book to make sure I was not smuggling any pictures or information about him into the country” he told me

Below: More soldiers in the Barkhor Square area (left) constantly remind everyone of their ominous presence – “To me, it felt like ordinary Tibetans are made to feel like virtual prisoners in their own home, with soldiers on virtually every street corner and every rooftop (right), round the clock, to suppress any potential rebellion” said Ray. “Some of the locals were quite uncomfortable about talking in public about recent uprisings and I can understand why – there are still 6,000 Tibetans missing from the riots of March last year” said our disturbed visitor

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The Potala Palace was the chief residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th (current) Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala, India after an invasion and failed uprising in 1959. It was named after Mount Potala. Today, the Palace has been converted into a museum by the Chinese. The building measures 400 metres east-west and 350 metres north-south, with sloping stone walls averaging 3 metres thick, and 5 metres (more than 16 feet) thick at the base. It has copper poured into the foundations to help proof it against earthquakes.Thirteen stories of buildings – containing over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and about 200,000 statues – soar 117 metres (384 feet) on top of Marpo Ri, the “Red Hill”, rising more than 300 metres in total above the valley floor.

From May 2003, daily visitorship to the palace was restricted to 1,600 a day, with opening hours reduced to six hours daily to avoid over-crowding. The palace was receiving an average of 1,500 people a day prior to the introduction of the quota, sometimes peaking to over 5,000 in one day. Visits to the structure’s roof was banned after restoration works were completed in 2006 to avoid further structural damage. Visitorship quotas were raised in 2006 to 2,300 daily to accommodate a 30% increase in visitorship since the opening of the Qingzang railway into Lhasa, but the quota is often reached by mid-morning. Opening hours were extended during the peak period in the months of July to September, where over 6,000 visitors would descend on the site. “It seems such a tragedy to me that a building this profound and magnificent cannot be used for the purpose for which it was intended – for Tibetans to worship” said Ray.

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Above and Below: Day or night, the Potala Palace is an unforgettable sight – “It is one of the most amazing buildings I have visited in my three years as a traveller” Ray told me

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Above: It’s quite a long, steep walk to get inside the parts of the Palace that are open to visitors (left). One of these is the Potrang Karpo or ‘White Palace’ (right) – “It is the part of the Potala Palace that makes up the living quarters of the Dalai Lama” said Ray. “The first White Palace was built during the lifetime of the Fifth Dalai Lama and he and his government moved into it in 1649. It was extended in the early twentieth century by the thirteenth Dalai Lama” added Ray

Below: The city of Lhasa, seen from the Potala palace. It resides in a huge valley surrounded by mountains – “The water you see in the picture was frozen solid” said Ray

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Above: Another view over Lhasa from the Potala (left) and looking back at the iconic building from the Sera Monastery (right)

Below: “In Lhasa, something which you really notice is how colourful, charming and friendly the people are” observed Ray

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Above: Not many airports in the world have a backdrop like the one in Lhasa (left) – “It is actually about 80 kilometres away from the city and is accessible via a five kilometre tunnel that has been built through the mountains surrounding the valley in which Lhasa sits” said Ray, who had his first opportunity to fly with Air China (right)

Below: The peak in the centre of the picture, with the top obscured by clouds, is Mount Everest – “We were very lucky as we flew back to Kathmandu, because the weather was good enough for us to get some unforgettable views of the mountains. As I was considering taking a one hour pleasure flight from Kathmandu just to see Everest, this was a double bonus because I saved myself some money too. The sighting has made a firm imprint in my mind and I am determined to return and make the trek to Everest Base Camp soon” said our traveller

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Editors Note: Our thanks to Dolly Lama for this outstanding issue of The Daily Explorer, which has taken slightly longer than usual to appear online. “It’s my fault, Mozzie” said Ray, “and it would be great if you could let our readers know. I decided to visit the UK shortly after leaving Tibet and did not have time to select the best photographs from the trip until recently, despite a number of reminders!” he acknowledged. After his departure from Lhasa, Ray did manage to spend a few more days in Nepal and visit the birth place of the Buddha in Lumbini before flying to England. In our next issue, which will be online in a few days, we will have the full story and all of his pictures for you.

As you know, we aim to maintain our high standards of journalism and presentation at The Daily Explorer, so please keep sending us your feedback to help us improve future issues. You can use the comments box online, or email ‘Mozzie’ or any of our correspondents at thedailyexplorer@gmail.com 

Trekking in the Himalayas in 2009

For readers who may be interested in experiencing Himalayan trekking for themselves, Ray is organising an expedition there later this year. I spoke with him as we published this issue of The Daily Explorer, to find out more about his thoughts at this stage.

“Trekking in the Himalayas has probably been the most outstanding experience I have had since I started travelling in 2005” he told me. “Having now completed two treks, I would like to share this experience with readers who feel inspired to have a go. I have discussed this possibility with my Nepalese guide and we are prepared to organise a trek in 2009 if enough people want it” said Ray. “We can organise everything – anyone who might be interested would just have to get themselves to Kathmandu – everything else would be taken care of making it very easy and convenient, especially for people with limited time” explained Ray.

We will go between the end of September and the middle of November, mainly determined by the weather in Nepal and when people are free to come. The Annapurna circuit takes around 18 days to complete and if you add on a couple of days either end for preparation and sightseeing, it would mean that anyone who is interested in doing the circuit would have to be available for about three and a half weeks in total. If there are readers who are interested in doing an alpine trek in the Himalayas but do not have this much time available, there are two other options: The Everest Base Camp trek and The Annapurna Base Camp Trek. The former is a 14 day trek, requiring three weeks in total and the latter is a 12 day trek requiring two and half weeks in total (see above).

I asked Ray if there were any physical criteria that interested readers should bear in mind? “Yes there are Mozzie. I think you need to be physically fit and free from any injury that might cause problems for you. Mountain trekking is popular with both men and women and some children, although I think that it is really only suitable for those that are 14 years of age or older, although there may be someone who is an exception”.

And what about the likely costs? “It is impossible to say at this stage without knowing how many people may be interested or how much the currency values may change over the next couple of months. But I can refer to my own recent experience to give readers an idea.  The Annapurna Base Camp is likely to cost somewhere between £700-800 per person, whilst Everest Base Camp or the slightly longer Annapurna Circuit would be somewhere between £800-£900 per person.

So if there is anyone who is interested in the possibility of trekking in the Himalayas with Ray in 2009, please send an email to thedailyexplorer@gmail.com, letting us know your thoughts, or stating any questions you may have. To our readers in the UK, Ray will be in London until 22nd February and is happy to contact you personally to give you further information if you would like it.

MOZZIE BYTE

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Above: The Everlasting Flame, in the extensive gardens at Lumbini, Nepal – the brithplace of the Buddha. You can read all about Ray’s visit there in our next issue, which will be online in a couple of weeks

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9 Comments »

  1. I really enjoyed this, Ray… what outstanding scenery… quite breathtaking! I wish I was strong enough to sign up for a trek next year… oh! How I wish! I almost “felt” I was there reading about your recent experiences and by the way where did you find Dolly Lama? It’s another world out there… thanks for sharing your experiences and stunning photographs!!! I really enjoyed this! Look forward to reading more about your amazing journey through “life” as it unfolds… goodness!
    Biggest HUG! X

    Comment by Susie Moberly — February 9, 2009 @ 2:15 am

  2. Finally! I’ve been waiting to read about the famous “Seven Days in Tibet”. And it truly was pretty amazing! Good days, happy days!
    Take care. Big Hug
    Johanna from Sweden

    Comment by Johanna Finnström — February 9, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

  3. Wow! What a blog. I have always wanted to go to Tibet… totally mesmerized by this. Many thanks, Howard

    Comment by howard — February 9, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  4. Thanks for letting us in on your insights into the world. The planet, and my mind with it, always opens up when I read about your travels. Especially moved by the story of Tibet. Wonderful contribution from you. xxx

    Comment by Charlie — February 9, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

  5. Beautiful and breathtaking pictures…… Whenever I take a glance through your blog, I find out many interesting facts about the wonderful world we live in. It beats my recent trip to Dubai! …yuk.. of all places… anyway, going back to Cortijo Romero v v soon… to get grounded again! Take care and enjoy!

    Comment by Shanaz — February 9, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

  6. Hi Ray! Glad to read and enjoy the journal of your “Seven Days in Tibet”; it’s linked already on my photoreport page from the trip http://bilwander-bilwander.blogspot.com/2009/01/seven-days-in-tibet-260-pics-5.html

    Sorry about the loss of your friend. All the best and more happy travelling!

    Bilwander (Bill)

    Comment by bilwander — February 9, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

  7. Brother,

    I really enjoyed reading about the adventures; it’s like I was there myself… Hang on, I *was* there myself!! Anyways, still an extremely good read. I do wonder though when you had time to hook up with that incredible field reporter of yours, when I was asleep?

    Hope to see you here in Thailand soon, take care!

    Comment by Janis — February 10, 2009 @ 10:38 am

  8. Amazing! Loved and enjoyed reading the blog very much. Right now, the Chinese government have been raiding homes and hotels in Lhasa and had arrested thousands of Tibetans under their “strike hard” policy. Lhasa and its surrounding towns are more like prisons at the moment. People are scared to pick up their phones even. It is such a pity.

    Hope China will open up Tibet for world media and travellers soon!!!

    Comment by Vajra — February 10, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

  9. Came home a month ago from Tibet and just spent some lovely time reading your log & looking at your photos. It brought back many wonderful memories of my trip & of the Tibetan people.

    Comment by Suzina — November 17, 2011 @ 3:30 am


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