The Himalayas range from alluvial North India, via Nepal, Bhutan until the Tibetan Plateau in China. Last year’s approach from Nepal was already very impressive, but this year (not looking for a hard core alpine adventure) the Tibetan side offered an enormous variety of nature and culture. Tibet is a Chinese Autonomous Region and currently needs for non-Chinese nationals a special permit to enter. Another special permit from the Military Authority is required to enter the region around Nyingchi, which is just a few kilometers North of the line of a disputed territory between India and China. The flight from Chengdu to Nyingchi opens a breathtaking view on the Eastern Himalaya and leads through the mountain peaks and descents into a steep landing. In our case, the landing was interrupted due to sudden low visibility, landing gear was pulled back in and the pilot pulled up steeply over the mountains to return to Chengdu, refuel and try again a few hours later. The pilot was finally proud to land safely on the small runway which only 10 pilots are licensed to approach here. Better see it late than never. The “Friendship highway” crosses Nyingchi and driving East leads to Bomi, which is mainly a garrison that played an important role in the "liberation" (invasion) of Tibet by Chinese troops in 1959, "freeing" Tibetans from a "medieval religious feudal system headed by the 14th Dalai Lama". This move is often seen critical, but also it sometimes is forgotten that the latest large scale massacre in Tibet was actually commanded by the British Lieutenant Colonel Francis Younghusband, who entered Tibet in 1904 based on the wrong intelligence information that the Russians would use Tibet as a base to move further South and threaten the Nepalese and Indian territories of the Empire. Bomi is a well located hub traveling further East, where the road becomes a small trail at the mountain side with up to 2000 metres above and 1000 below. Boulders are constantly falling even at this time of the year, which makes it not recommendable to pass during monsoon season in a passenger vehicle. If not a military truck, which was in a convoy to deliver food and equipment into the earthquake struck region in the North, would have blocked us, we would have also been hit by a land slide, which like this just came down a few tens of metres in front. It is an enormous effort to keep this section of the track open, which is a vital connection into Tibet.
East Tibet looks a bit like a very wild Switzerland in terms of landscape and vegetation. I even saw wild strawberries on the way to Midui Glacier, which access was cut off first by a land slide and a bulldozer was digging the track open. The glacier is fed from a peak elevation of 6385 metres and has impressive rings or terminal morains from different stages of development with a lake at 2900 metres. Further following the “Friendship highway” to the East leads to Rawok lake, which was unfortunately covered in snow and did not open up for a view on the scenery.
From Nyingchi, following the Friendship Highway to the West is far less dramatic in terms of driving (still the right back leaf spring broke and had to be exchanged), but offers an enormous entry into a completely different landscape. On the way to Lhasa the tree line is crossed at around 3200 metres, going through wide valleys utilized for herding jaks, horses, goats and donkeys or dry farming barley, sometimes with simple irrigation. Also on the way are thousands of pilgrims to Lhasa, which make their way logistically inefficient but perhaps spiritually enriching by measuring the way dropping their body lengths to the ground moving slowly forward. They are covered by wooden protectors and thick clothes, doing this at least 100 000 times to improve their Karma. Some of them come about 800 km away, and a few even further. Entering the small tent camps is invited and they are very friendly and warm hearted people, some of them speaking Putonghua.
Lhasa itself is impressive. Johkang temple for example is fascinating in terms of architecture, but also because it is a religious active temple. The Potala Palace is also impressive, but feels more like a museum, as it has only very limited activities.
Unfortunately, during the Cultural Revolution Tibet suffered over-proportional high from the destruction of cultural heritage, because it was so rich in it. The Cultural Revolution was a man made disaster for all of China and its people and Tibet was struck badly by the power play of Chairman Mao Zhedong. It seems one of the large dissonances of modern China, that Chairman Mao’s statues are still overlooking city squares, University campuses (which he closed) and cemeteries (which he filled so richly). But it also seems hard to abolish these memorials. Opposite the Potala Palace for example stands communist-fascist style memorial as a counterpoint to the palace itself. I guess, even the most concrete brain conservative CCP member sees how tasteless and idiotic this is, specially opposite such a beautiful palace. But tearing it down is also not easy, because this would symbolically play into the hands of the Dalai Lama and his gang and might even be misused by them to cause unrest. Since last year’s riots, the security in Lhasa seems very tight. Police and army are constantly patrolling with fire extinguishers and pump guns to protect shop owners and other citizens from attacks. They are friendly, even run out of the the line sometimes to buy an ice cream or a lottery ticket, but it is clearly not good to mess with them. As an outsider it is very hard to get a picture whether the riots where really political or simple violent attacks based on greed or other reasons. The tendency I heard goes into the direction, that it were politically camouflaged attacks by mob - not even by local Lhasa Tibetans but by Tibetans from Sichuan. But who knows?
The often criticized cultural delusion of Tibet is of course happening. But this seems normal in a country where people not fundamentally restricted in migration these days. Under the former religious leadership the “cultural purity” was preserved by insolation. But looking at the improvements in health, life expectancy, education, medical services, income and many other indicators, it is very clear that the Central Government is not doing a bad job here. But of course all religions pay their “bonus” in the afterlife. This has been the fundamental basis of suppressing people in Europe for about 2000 years. Only the “shepherd” get paid during life time. That’s the game.
From Lhasa heading to the North lies Namtso Lake - the Heavenly Lake - with an altitude of 4718 metres. It is the world’s highest salt lake and when crossing the pass at about 5100 metres which opens the view on it, the name is instantainiously understood. This lake feels closer to the Universe and above it opens a nearly endless sky. There are some small unheated container huts and tents for rent and while rushing up the mountains to catch a better view, I was reminded by a fever that the air is already quite thin. Barking dogs can hammer quite severely into your brain in this condition and temperatures drop below zero. This is a test for will power and goose down jacket and probably is booked somewhere on the Karma-Account for the afterlife. If not, it is at least a good training for the immune system. Also, the heating and cooking process in the local Restaurant improves immunity: take dried Jak dung and put it on the fire, then cover it with a kettle and take a fresh bread from the exhaust pipe and enjoy.
One of the most impressive cuts through divers landscapes, reaching from alpine snow, though deserts to green meadows is the 25 hour train ride from Lhasa to Xining. Do not forget your field glasses, because you will spot numerous Tibetan Antilopes (which I did not know, that they exist before).
The city of Xining itself is just shit. But it is bordering the further Western Provinces of China and makes you feel like ramping up gear and supplies again and go further West. But this time, the way had to return to Hong Kong via Xian and Shenzhen. Next time it will not.