Sunday, July 12, 2009

Yakkedy Yak, Just Stare Back

In the last 2 months, we've spent enough time with our noses buried in Lonely Planet guides, that we figure we're pretty much 'L.P.' experts (L.P. - that's short for Lonely Planet, for those of you not down with the lingo).

Anyone who has ever travelled with the assistance of an L.P. has surely, at times, been frustrated by out-dated, incorrect or misleading information, and given that anyone following our blog has no doubt been amazed by our incredible travel writing skills, we've decided to take things into our own hands and have re-written the L.P. for Tibet. From the excerpts below, you'll find our version far superior to the original, or your money back, guaranteed.

by Amy and Claire, 2009.


At the time of writing, it was essential for all foreigners entering Tibet to obtain a Tibet Travel Permit - sounds simple... it's not! In order to obtain said permit, foreigners must pay an exorbitant amount of money to a travel agency to book a 'group tour' to Tibet.... a group can be just one person, but the price goes down the more people you book with.
Expect permits to take between 3 and 10 working days to process and for travel expenses to and from Tibet to be exclusive of tour prices.

The cheapest way of entering Tibet is on the Qinghai-Tibet railway (the highest train in the world, which reaches a dizzying 5070 meters above sea level and requires supplementary oxygen to be pumped into the pressurised cabins). From Xi'An to Lhasa, the train takes around 36 hours and the return journey to Chengdu, takes 48 hours. Although long, the scenery, that changes from rolling green hills and lakes, to endlessly flat perma-frost plateaus, to soaring snow-capped peaks, makes the lengthy journey worthwhile.

In addition to the beautiful views, it is likely that your fellow train-goers will also provide you with hours of entertainment (whether you want it or not).
Above entertainment includes;
- Speaking at you in Chinese or Tibetan even though it's been established that you understand neither.
- Finding out that you are Australian, then playing a real-life game of Chinese whispers as this information is passed along the carriages of the train.
- Attempting to read your travel journal, despite not knowing a single word of English.
- Waking you from an afternoon nap by poking you and pointing out the window to a yak/river/mountain/lake etc etc.
- Playing with your camera and ipod without asking, and;
- Generally staring at you for what feels like hours on end.

Upon arriving in Lhasa, you should be met by your friendly-yet-unenthusiastic Tibetan guide who will wear the same outfit everyday (making it easy for you to spot him in a crowd), who will often leave you alone for hours to go hang out with his friends, and who, when forced to spend time alone with you, will admit that he hates his job and constantly try to secretly chew some form of betel nut-like substance.

Sometime in the duration of your stay in Lhasa, it is likely that your guide will take you 'shopping' - note that he will be earning a healthy commission from certain shops, regardless of whether you make a purchase or not. If you are lucky, your guide will be cool and let you in on this little secret and than take you out to a weird Tibetan night club, buying beers for you all night with the 'profits' of and afternoon's 'shopping' spree.


Your guide will have an oil-stained scrap of paper which represents your itinerary of Lhasa's must-see sights. These should include the following;
- The stunning 1300 year old Jokhang Temple - the holiest temple in Tibet attracts a fascinating and constant flow of pilgrims from all over the region on a daily basis.
- The Barkor -A pilgrim circuit and market surrounding Jokhang Temple, that must be navigated in a clockwise direction for religious purposes.
- The iconic Potala Palace, built in the 1600's, was the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas and houses the tombs of Dalai Lamas #5 and #7-#13 (apparently #6 was a bit of a playboy who wasn't respected, so didn't crack a tomb in the palace).
- Norbulinka Palace - former summer residence of the current, 14th Dalai Lama. In here you can see his bedroom, his mum's room, his prayer room and even his bathroom and toilet!
- Sera Monastery and it's famous courtyard of debating monks. Red-robed monks yelling, stamping and clapping energetically during discussion is an entertaining sight.
- Nam Tso Lake - one of three sacred lakes in Tibet. At 4,500 meters above sea level, it's not just the beauty of the lake that will leave you breathless!

In addition to these main attractions, you are bound to come across some amazing sights by simply wondering through the streets and alleyways of Lhasa. For an 'authentic' experience, we suggest you follow some pilgrims (you'll know them when you see them - they're the one's spinning the prayer wheels and thumbing prayer beads), and with any luck they will lead you to the stunning pilgrim circuit hidden in the backstreets of the city. Once on the circuit, expect to find ornate carvings and paintings on rock faces and an abundance of colourful prayer flags and prayer stones that will leave you awestruck and snap-happy.


Although there is an array of delicious Indian and Nepalese food on offer in Lhasa, if you want to sample typical Tibetan cuisine, you'll need an iron stomach and a palette accustomed to repetition. Yak, yak, yak, yak, yak... it's the animal that sustains the entire Tibetan region's gastronomic requirements. Yak dumplings, Yak stir-fry, Yak noodles, Yak milk, Yak butter, Yak tea, Dried Yak (Really, Tibet could give Forrest Gump's 'Bubba' a run for his money!)Travellers, be forewarned; there is a BIG difference between Yak milk tea (delicious) and Yak butter tea (disgusting). We made this discovery when we were randomly invited into the home of a local and were politely forced to consume chunks of home-dried Yak meat and cup after vile, foul cup of the oily, yet meaty, Yak butter tea that our host had so graciously provided.

P.S. We saw a woman watering the carpet with a watering can in a restaurant. Fact. WTF?


#1- Staring
It's difficult to describe the number of stares that two foreign girls will receive in Tibet. These aren't dodgy stares or leers of any kind, they are simply the result of 100% pure curiosity. Old men, young men, old women, young women, teenagers, children, dogs and even the yaks have no qualms about staring at you for long periods of time. It doesn't matter what mundane task you may be carrying out, it is of high interest to the locals - be it surfing the net, eating in a restaurant, shopping, walking the streets or utilising the door-less toilets (more on them later), you can almost guarantee that 20 pairs of eyes will be fixed on your every move.

We found ourselves at a rooftop cafe one afternoon, enjoying a cold can of sprite, when we sensed the familiar feeling that we were being watched... a glance at the table next to us confirmed that we held a captive audience in a family of Tibetan nomads. Their stares were INTENSE. Despite having become accustomed to a lot of staring of late, we at first tried to ignore the oogling from the table next to us. When this failed to divert their attention elsewhere, we tried a new tactic of staring back - this only served to unwittingly start a staring competition that our cultural norms could not possibly allow us to win. Admitting defeat, we gulped down our Sprites and, to our audience's disappointment, hot-footed it out out of the restaurant. When we got to the end of the street, we looked back to see the entire family watching us from the restaurant balcony... we're still not sure what they found quite so fascinating.

#2 - Toilets
The trench-like toilets in Tibet make the toilets on Chinese trains feel like heaven. No doors, often no dividing walls or running water, these toilets (if you can call them that) contained some of the most horrible sights and smells we've come across thus far, and combined with the negative effects of yak meat on the digestive system, they are places you unfortunately can not avoid.

Far from Western-style toilets and even far from the usual Asian-Style squats, the toilets in Tibet require a flexibility and agility like no other. Navigating your way around these squats and averting your eyes away from the flow of waste running through the trench below you, is an unpleasant experience (often made all the more difficult by a group of 10-year-old girls who came in to take advantage of the door-less toilet situation, and watch the foreigners go to the toilet).

#3 - Police and Soldiers
Lhasa is literally crawling with them... this is something that the Chinese Government doesn't really like to advertise... but given our blog is blocked in China, we figure we can mention it here.

Every second rooftop in the city is occupied by soldiers and police carrying out surveillance of the streets below. In addition to this, there are soldiers on street corners and patrolling on foot, and as night falls, their numbers double. It's fairly obvious from the majority of people, their presence is unwanted and they do a pretty good job of making things uncomfortable on the streets... basically no one can scratch their butts without it being seen by the soldiers.

The other thing that's obvious is that these soldiers are bored... we had another awkward rooftop experience in Tibet - this time it wasn't nomads, but policemen, and they weren't staring at us from the next table, but with binoculars from the next building... we were a little worried we'd said or done something wrong, but when they ran across to our rooftop and gave us their phone numbers, that worry turned into pure embarrassment as everyone in the restaurant was glaring at us wondering why the police had come to speak to us.

#4 - Toothpicks
You may think it strange to have toothpicks in a 'Dangers and Annoyances' section, but a word to the wise- DO NOT use toothpicks in Tibet, unless you bring your own. We saw toothpicks dropped on the floor, sucked on by kids, and being used to clean out ear wax before being put back in the toothpick jars on restaurant tables. Fact. Enough said.


Aside from the sights, the experiences you can have in Tibet are second to none. Here are our picks on some simple day-to-day pleasures unique to Tibet.
- Gazing at the colourful prayer flags flapping in the wind against the stunning mountain backdrop surrounding Lhasa.
- Smelling the aromatic Tibetan incense as it wafts from temples, through the streets.
- Making friends with some awesome Tibetan guys, from who we learnt so much about the Tibetan culture and thinking... and who we just laughed a lot with.
- Watching the traditionally dressed pilgrims with their prayer wheels and bead, performing their religious rites.

** We hope you have enjoyed our guide to Tibet. Without getting all hippie-like, it has to be said that it is a truly amazing place that has, without a doubt, been the highlight of our trip so far... it's going to be hard to top Tibet!