After traveling through SE Asia I flew from Hanoi, Vietnam into Kunming, China to get the necessary paperwork and government approvals to fly into Lhasa, Tibet. The Chinese government has been tightly regulating entry and movement within Tibet and it can be a pain to deal with so if you are planning to do this trip allow extra time (weeks). At this point I was traveling with a girl that I met through MySpace who flew out to Cambodia (see blog) to visit the Center for Children's Happiness (see blog) outside of Phnom Penh. The paperwork took a week to clear so we spent time in China working our way north toward Lhasa.
Many of the cities we went too had been completely redone to accommodate the recent influx of Chinese tourist. This means that many of the old historical sites have been littered with shops and restaurants. This included Dali City, Lijiang, Zhongdian and the Tiger Leaping Gorge area. We had a good time but were ready to move on to Tibet.
We picked up our initial paperwork in Zhongdian and flew into Lhasa. The first thing you notice is that you can no longer breathe. With an average elevation of 16,000 ft (4,900 meters), it is the highest region on Earth and is commonly referred to as the "Roof of the World." So just walking up a flight of stairs can be a challenge for the first few days. Good news is that everyone is a cheap date at this altitude. Once you get into Lhasa you need to go through another round of paperwork and approvals from the Chinese government. This takes another 5 days or so but gives you a chance to check out Lhasa. The only way to see the rest of Tibet is to organize a Landcruiser with an approved driver and guide to escort you. Most people go with the 4 day trip from Lhasa to the Nepal border. We decided to do the full blown 14 day trek all the way to Mount Kailash. It included a trip to Everest Base Camp and many of the monasteries. However it was pretty expensive and we ended up paying 13,800 yen ($1,800 US) which includes all transport costs, guide, and permits from the Chinese government.
Obviously we saw some of the most gorgeous scenery in the world. Some of the highlights were going to Mount Everest which was renamed by the Chinese to Mount Qomolangma or some shit like that (see pic below). EBC is over 17,000 feet (5,200 meters) so it was very hard to breathe and some people were getting Acute Mountain Sickness which occurs at altitudes higher than 8,000 ft. We stayed at the Everest Base Camp for a night in a tent heated by burning yak shit. Yaks are one of the few animals that can survive at higher altitudes so everything you eat has some sort of yak taste to it, which can get old after a few weeks. Also the bathroom situation is less than desirable. Let's just say that if they dug a hole for you to shit in then you're doing really good. But that's what makes it Tibet and is part of the journey.
Mount Kailash (see Wikipedia Article) was the highlight of the trip and very few travelers make it there since it is located in a particularly remote and inhospitable area of the Tibetan Himalayas. Most of the people we saw were pilgrims from Tibet, Nepal, and India. They come here because it's either the birth place or a very sacred place for four major religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Bön). Part of their pilgrimage is to walk around (or circumambulate) the base of the mountain as a holy ritual that will bring good fortune and many people wait their whole life to make this journey. We decided to take part in this ritual and did a clockwise rotation which is a Buddhist and Hindu tradition (Jains and the Bons go counterclockwise). During this trip around Kailash you see some of the most amazing things and quickly understand how many religions we born of this mountain. We packed enough stuff to spend the night half way around. It was actually one of the tougher hikes mainly due to the altitude and the elements. The hardest part was going through the Dolma Pass which hit an altitude over 20,000 ft (6,000 meters). This was the highest I had ever been without a plane, higher than any point in North America, Europe, Africa, or Australia. At the base of the pass there were people gathered around an Indian lady who was tragically didn't make it. I had talked to the group the day before and I guess it was her wish to die on the mountain. She was only in her mid 50's at the latest but somehow knew it was her time. The guide later told us that many people die on this mountain. Mount Kailash is the most significant peak in the world that has not seen any known climbing attempts.
After Kailash we headed for the Nepal border on our way to Kathmandu. The entire trip is littered with Chinese control stops. Also they're building freeways all through Tibet getting ready for the influx of tourists from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. One of the freeways takes you straight to Mount Everest Qomolomolangmama but it wasn't done yet so we had to take the original route. I guess pretty soon you won't need a Landcruiser and can take your personal rental car. I'm not going to get into the history of Tibet (see Wikipedia Article which is not accessible while you're in China because the Chinese government censors all internet material that is controversial to their mandate) and how China has changed it. Just know that it isn't what it once was and in a year it will be flooded with tourist which means shops and restaurants on every corner. But hey at least they'll have food and bathrooms – no longer the Tibet I saw.
Sorry for the hint of cynicism in this blog. After Tibet I went to India which was incredible and I have only amazing things to say about it and the Indian people.