Saturday, June 22, 2013


Like when entering a chicken farm, Fred and I felt slightly amused when we boarded our Lhasa bound train in Chengdu. All the passengers had a ticket with a designated place and bed and the train was only about to leave in some 45 minutes – still, loud and intense arguments arouse all around us (as if there were fewer places than passengers or a free seating with only one window-seat). Anyhow, we found our coach and our beds, made ourselves comfortable and kept watching the chickens with great amusement.

The World is Flat - tss..!

Oxygen outlet

Noodles? Rice? 

The Qinghai Express left on time, we were about to spend two nights on it, travelling from west-central China towards its western province Tibet (in my Blog I will refer to Tibet as a province of China, more about this topic later in this post). The time on the train was not too hard to kill, some sleep here, some noodles there, a breathtaking look outside the window or a few pages of a book made the time pass easily. Ironically I am currently reading Thomas Friedmans 'The World is Flat' – while climbing up to 5072 meters.

As scheduled, we arrived in Lhasa on the 12. of June (exactly one month left for my Asia-Trip). With only little acclimatization problems, it felt good to finally be in the famous capital and biggest town of Tibet. Although we were recommended to stay in the hotel for the rest of the first day on 3650 meters, we could not stop ourselves and started exploring the town by feet. Our goal was clear; we needed to see the Potala Palace!

We found it – like hundreds of Chinese tourists. For some, I was the greater attraction, like in other countries in Asia, they were very surprised by the tall, white and long-nosed fellow. In extreme cases, they dropped everything and ran straight to me, just to get a picture. Feeling like a star, I fulfilled all the wishes and continued replying 'no' to the question whether I knew Yao Ming – the Chinese basketball superstar.

Hello, my name is George and I DO NOT play basketball!

We spent three days in Lhasa, exploring the surrounding sights, including not only the Potala Palace, but also various monasteries and temples. Our very competent and friendly guide Sonam helped us to understand the meaning and importance of all the places. He also brought us closer to the Tibetan Buddhism, a religion very different to the other types of Buddhism which I encountered so far.

Debating Monks and Lamas

Is the hand a hand - or something else?

As a little desert, we decided to go for a boat trip in Lhasa. The day before we left towards western Tibet we rode a speed boat on 3650 meters – an experience for its own. Then we (group of 8 individuals, as travelling alone is prohibited) drove to Shigatse and kept on exploring monasteries, high mountain passes and unique landscapes on the way. As there were plenty of all the mentioned, I will not even try to upload a justifying amount of pictures, otherwise Nepal might suffer a total breakdown of  all their internet connections.

Then our tour guide Sonam had the brilliant idea to leave one day earlier for the Everest Base Camp (EBC), since weather forecasts promised a higher chance to actually see the mountain one day earlier. So we jumped in our Landcruisers and drove up to 5000 meters, to the ETC (Everest Tourist Camp). The real base camp is not accessible without an 'Expedition Permit' which is issued only in exchange to a vast amount of money. The ETC welcomed us with oxygen supply and a cozy Yak tent. We both had little issues with the altitude and kept wandering around for some shots. As the moon came out, also the clouds disappeared, and we could spot the great Everest for a first time.

Yak tent

If you look like this, take some oxygen...

Yak + Everest + Light Art Tibet

What do you mean - ''the tallest''?

Not all the group members adapted this well to the altitude. Two girls from Malaysia suffered badly; one could not get rid of horrible headaches, the other had to vomit overnight. Also I did not feel too well the day after, as we climbed even higher, towards the real base camp. On 5250 meters I encountered a pulsating pain in the back of my head, it did not get any better for the rest of the day. Only a ginger tea in the lower Tingri helped. The tea helped this much that Fred and I spontaneously decided to climb a nearby mountain for some sunset shots. While climbing from 4500 meters to 4900 meters, we realized what the thin air meant under sportive exertion. First you don't even realize the difference, but once your heart rate is on running mode, your lungs have difficulties to keep up with the pace. Also simple things like having a sip of water from your bottle will lead to a shortage of air right after. Still, we reached the mountain top and took some good shots. Equipped with plentiful prayer flags and a stone pile used for sky burials, the setting was perfect for some intense moments.

You know the song from the 'Becks Experience' commercials?

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
 Further bumpy hours in our hyper reliable Toyotas (I am not sponsored, its just a fact) brought us to the Nepali boarder in Kodari. The day we left Tibet, we encountered one of the most strict exit controls I have ever seen. As mentioned on several internet pages, my Lonely Planet guide for Tibet was indeed confiscated. The over motivated Chinese official took my entire backpack apart, happily removed the guide book, stuffed all in the bag again, smiled at me and mentioned that I look alike with Gerard Pique. I smiled back and told him the book was a special present for him (As I was leaving Tibet, I did not really need it anymore and was not too upset about the situation).

Leaving Tibet means leaving China - according to the situation as of today. However, I did feel like leaving China already when I boarded the Qinghai Express in Chengdu. The provinces of Sichuan and Tibet are immensely different, be it for its culture, its geography or its people. The Chinese conquered Tibet in 1950 and are investing in the province intensely ever since. They did build a train and an international airport, paved hundreds of kilometers of roads and support local families and farmers with money. They also built many schools for the local children. This may sound very positive, nevertheless, it has its downsides too; the schools teach only in Mandarin (no Tibetan language), the roads lead to the spots which are now exploited by Chinese enterprises, lots of the local culture are getting lost between the intense police and military presence. The Tibetans are not even allowed anymore to hoist their original flag or to have a picture of the Dalai Lama in their houses. Controls and spot checks in homes can lead to 2-3 years in jail, should they find any picture of flag. A real punch in the face of any Tibetan is the huge Chinese flag on top of the Potala Palace... All these measurements lead to the fact that some young Tibetans don't even know anymore who his holiness the Dalai Lama is. 
As we traveled through Tibet, I had the chance to talk to many Tibetans, Chines and tourists. The Tibet question definitely remains unanswered and is not that easy to close. A 'free Tibet' with an individual nation would probably lead to chain reactions in entire China. There are minorities of Uighurs and Muslims in many corner of China - all of them would raise their voices should Tibet be freed. What might be a good solution is the one which is asked for by the current, 14. Dalai Lama (living in exile in India, not even allowed to be buried in Tibet). He is asking for a free Tibet in a cultural sense, that Tibetans would be allowed to climb mountains when ever they want, that they could live out their cultural habits as they did in the past, and that they would be granted a passport just as a normal Chinese citizen. Then, he and also all the Tibetans I spoke to, would not even mind the fact of belonging to China. To all the demonstrators with 'free Tibet' flags I must reply: go and visit this beautiful place, talk to the people and learn. The situation is not as easy as you think. Also a glimpse in history books reveals that even in the past, the situation was never really clear. Also Great Britain and the CIA played some unexpected roles...

Enough about this political situation. We are now in Pokhara, Nepal. Tomorrow we embark for a 8 days trekking to the Annapurna Base Camp and back. We hope that the current weather situation will not destroy our plans...

Until then, try to stand as still and motionless as this Chinese solider - vis a vis the Potala in Lhasa.


'Oh, that tall guy, I would love to get a picture of him - but I  cannot. Might he know Yao Ming?'

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