Tuesday, September 06, 2005
Tibet Travel Advisory
I know, I know, Tibet was two months ago, and we’ve already gone on another trip between then and now, but what can I say? Didn’t I confess to being a hopeless procrastinator a long time ago? Better late than never, right? Like I said before, Tibet was such an exhausting trip and what little energy I had left afterwards was drained on the post-trip photo-editing saga that took weeks. When everything was done, well, I was just too sick of Tibet to talk about it, hence the two-month lag. Many friends, however, are interested in going to Tibet (a forbidden territory until recently) and asked me all sorts of questions. And I know lots of other people are probably dying to know more about this mystic place too, so I feel obligated to shed some lights and give some advice should you decide to make the journey (plus, it’s been raining incessantly ever since I got back to Tokyo yesterday, so I’m housebound with nothing else to do).
The point I cannot emphasize enough is to do your homework before going. Keep in mind that Tibet, although opened to tourism for a number of years now, is still in a remote area where living and sanitary standards may not be what you are used to back home. If you are like me, who values a good rest after a day of sightseeing, I highly recommend booking the best hotel/guesthouse whenever you can. In big cities like Lhasa and Shigase, four-star hotels provide clean bedding and hot water showers. Once in the mountainous regions, however, things you take for granted (such as running water) is not always available. I’ve taken photos of all the hotels/guest houses we’ve stayed in Tibet for your reference (photo album attached at the end).
Another major concern is altitude sickness. Even in Lhasa, the altitude is 3500m above sea level and if you go to Lake Namtso or the base camp, it can easily get above 5000m. I highly recommend taking Diamox (acetazolamide) as a preventative before and during your visit. The side effects (numbing sensation in fingers an toes and frequent urination) can be bothersome at first but isn’t it so much better than having altitude sickness ruin your trip?
One of the things that really struck me when I was in Tibet (besides the sunny blue sky and beautiful scenery) is how the Tibetans’ lives are entirely centered around their quest to achieve Nirvana and happiness in the afterlife. People devote huge portions of their days to religious activities to the extent that anyone coming from outside of Tibet may find it incomprehensive. It helps if you at least understand a little bit of history and background of Tibet before your trip. It’s no secret that the relationship between Tibet and the central government of China is filled with turmoils over the years. If you are a foreigner, your guide will not be inclined to get into any discussion on the subject of the politics or the Dalai Lhama. You will mostly likely get the official edited version of the history so it is up to you to do the homework to complete the whole picture. Even if you are not interested in the politics, it will still serve you to learn the history and background on Songtsan Gambo and his two wives (Tang dynasty Princess Wencheng and Nepalese Princess Bhrikuti), the Dalai and Panchen Lhama, and the major branches of the Tibetan Buddhism. A large part of sightseeing in Tibet is spent on visiting various monasteries. If you do not have at least some knowledge of the background, it gets boring really fast. After all, all the monasteries look similar without the history behind them.
Other miscellaneous pointers that might be useful:
- Tibetan roads are atrocious and all but disappear once you leave the big cities. If you are prone to carsickness, bring drugs. And don’t even think about renting a car and driving it yourself.
- Tibet is dusty, especially if you travel on unpaved non-roads. Wet tissues and sanitizing gels come in handy because it’s not always easy to find running water.
- Bathrooms in Tibet are disgusting to say the least. It is far more desirable to ask your driver to stop by the road where you can find a tree to go behind.
- Climate in Tibet is extremely dry so you need to have drinking water available at all times. It is a delicate balance to stay hydrated while being able to hold it until you find acceptable bathrooms. My advice is to drink lots when you’ve checked into your hotel (with clean bathroom) for the day and only take little sips on the road.
- Bring a sleeping bag or sheets if you have to stay in a guesthouse. The one we stayed in at the base camp washes their sheets once a year.
- At the last large city before going into the wilderness, stock up on water and non-perishable food. We found it far more appealing to munch on cookies and bread on occasions than to eat what the guesthouse had to offer. Bottled water comes in handy when there’s no water to even brush your teeth with.
- Bring emergency medical supplies such as motion sickness drugs, painkillers (one of the symptoms of altitude sickness is headache) and anti-diarrhea drugs.
- Tibet is not the place to be adventurous when it comes to food. If it smells or tastes funny, don’t eat it! It is no fun to get the runs when you can’t afford to pick and choose bathrooms. Trust me!
- Last but not the least, be patient and go with the flow. We had roads close on us on several occasions for no apparent reasons and all we could do was to wait it out. It’s part of the Tibet experience!
Here are some photos and comments from our Tibet trip.