Transsiberian, Day 18: On top of the world (in the high altitudes of Lhasa, Tibet)

Friday, January 13th, 2017

At 5:15am we wake up and have only a short bit before we rush out of our Xi’an hostel to the airport to head to Tibet.

The security this time around was way more lax compared to leaving Beijing. Hand warmers are safe once again, and no one gets anything taken away. The only odd part of security in my opinion was that upon entry into the airport (after xrays and metal detectors, of course) we are corralled in a little roped area, and once it fills with about twenty people, they lift the rope and let us enter the general part of the airport. What?

Calvin is rushing per usual, and when we finish security and head to the gate he breaks into a straight up jog. Shanika is behind me and we’re both walking, and she wonders aloud why he’s hurrying. I look at my phone and then I look at the ticket…boarding began fifteen minutes ago. Oh. We are all running now.

The rows behind me on the plane are empty, so we all spread out. I sleep through the entire flight, but Mihaela was awake and said there was some bad turbulence without warning at some point. “They had the announcement dings, and then there was a really long pause...all the passengers were on the edge of their seats like, 'What is happening?!’ Then, they speak loudly in Mandarin, then barely whisper the English translation, 'Don’t worry, there is some light turbulence ahead.’”

We arrive in Lhasa, Tibet, and we all feel some slight altitude sickness. I have a light headache, but nothing too bad. I also feel winded and tired, which is to be expected. The tingling from the medication continues in my hands, but I also start feeling it in my feet.

The few drink stands in the baggage claim area sell various drinks promising to be “the cure for altitude sickness.” Oh, does aloe juice reduce brain swelling all of a sudden? We get some waters and exit the airport. There’s a security check at the exit, wherein Calvin must show our permit to enter Tibet (yes, you need a special permit to enter Tibet). Just like that, we’re here!

We wait outside and apply sunscreen as we’re so high up. Mihaela uses a sunscreen stick, essentially painting her face three shades whiter than it already is. While we wait for our guide, we people-watch. We see men toting rolling suitcases and wearing brocaded hats lined with fur, knee-length fur-lined suede tunics and knee-high flat black leather boots beside men wearing Columbia puffer coats and jeans.

Our guide waves us down from the other end of the parking lot and we walk with him to the van. He introduces himself as Kelsang and he helps us with our luggage before draping each of us with a white Tibetan prayer scarf, welcoming us to Tibet. I was glowing.

We drove off towards the downtown area, and once we entered city limits, we had to go through drive-through security check, almost like a border crossing. We all hand our passports to the driver. At this crossing there were loads of Chinese signage and flags on all the street lamps. JC translated that the signs repeated essentially the same things: that this is China, Tibet is China, Tibet is a part of China.

We get to our accommodations for these few nights, the Lhasa Yak Hotel, which is right in the center of bustling downtown Lhasa. In the lobby is a brochure display about AIDS in Tibetan. Calvin said it’s an issue anywhere that there is little education. I take a pamphlet as a souvenir. On it, there is a cartoon condom wearing a traditional Tibetan robe. There’s even a box of condoms right next to all the pamphlets. The lobby itself is charming, with traditional Tibetan furniture and a carved wooden moulding just below the ceiling.

Mihaela and I share a room. Our room isn’t made up yet, but the housekeeper insists we enter. Instead, we hang out in Calvin’s room until another housekeeper knocks on the door to vacuum his room (while we are currently in it). They clean rooms while you're in them, apparently.

Finally we're able to enter our room, and it’s a dingy little place, but the room is decorated beautifully with pretty Tibetan murals on the walls. Between the beds is a series of knobs and switches on the bedside table, which we discover are for the lights around the room (and not a 70s-style motorized bed as we'd guessed based on the lobby literature). The bathroom is filled with toiletries and amenities imprinted with Lhasa Yak Hotel, which you know I took home as souvenirs. In the bedroom are two sealed disposable bath towels that read, "For staying away from AIDS and all kinds of germs, to promote the Chinese spirit of Low-Carbon, Environmentally-Friendly and  Healthy, please feel free to use it! [all of that...sic]." Interesting...

We walk over to Barkhor Square nearby and we get lunch at Lhasa Kitchen, where we order a handful of items to share. We get sliced radishes, rice with raisins, lemon honey ginger tea (with fresh slices of ginger). But the most exciting thing we order? Yak meat. We get yak meat mixed with vegetables, a fried meat pie filled with yak, and yak momo (dumplings).

While we are dining on our lovely meal, we get a bit of the celebrity treatment via a local at the table across the room taking selfies with us clearly in the background. Oh hi there!

We finish eating and walk over to the Jokhang Temple, the oldest temple in Tibet. Kelsang informs us that it is over one thousand years old, but the statues and figures inside are only two or three hundred. Just a mere two or three hundred. A mere age-of-the-United-States. Give or take a hundred.

Outside, there are two large metal urn-looking things that are burning loads of incense. These are about eight feet tall, so they hold a LOT of incense. Just behind them is a steady flow of pedestrian traffic, which Kelsang informs us are pilgrims walking around the temple in prayer. They circle it clockwise to pray, or they will kneel and pray before the building. Behind this stream of people are others doing just that, with mats set out as they stand with their hands clasped together above their head, touching their mouth, their chest, and then they kneel and slide completely horizontal to lay flat. They get up again and repeat. They do this for hours on end and I am sure they get a good workout.

We enter the temple, and pictures are forbidden near most of the religious statues. However, you can go ahead and check out rule-breaking Calvin’s blog for some photography. We walk through and Mihaela notes that it smells slightly of cheese. Is she the only one smelling that? Without even hearing the comment, Kelsang tells us that the giant flat candles we see are actually just metal stands filled with butter and wicks. That cheesy smell? The sweet smell of burning yak butter. Again, seemingly on cue, a few men walk by carrying large sacks filled with butter. To the butter warehouse, boys!

We go to the rooftop and get a spectacular view of the square, and a birds-eye view of the pilgrims praying out front. The buildings in the city are shorter than ten stories, in general, making the mountain range in the distance that much more prevalent below the blue sky.

We walk around as a group and haggle at some shops, and Calvin's technique is more tuned. He informs us if anyone is interested in something that they should barely look at it and move on. He'll do the verbal negotiations in Mandarin. I don't know if it beats my negotiation technique of staring down the store owner until he stops laughing and gives into your demands.

I enjoy using my trusty Point-It book and some heavy gesturing to try to find sunscreen for Calvin or contact lens solution for myself, successfully finding both. The group wanders into a few shops and I lure them towards sugar (donut bakeries, candy stores) and we get some really unhealthy snacks before returning to the hostel around 5pm.

It's still light outside because (fun fact!) China doesn't believe in time zones for its huge land mass. That means here, it's 5pm, but the sun won't set for another couple hours!

We hang out in the hostel and lay low for a while before growing hungry around 8:30pm, so we all head out to the restaurant next door which had excellent reviews. Our one and only plan is to go to this place, as it's a major tourist attraction and has dinner and a show (the reviews say "no spoilers, but, look out for the yak!" whatever that means). So we bundle up for the 30*F (-1*C) temperature outside to find the restaurant is randomly closed! NOW WHAT!?

We are still obviously hungry, so wander just a half block before encountering a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It's hard to categorize this place because I think most restaurants are like this here in Tibet. While we consider it a dive based on the tiny tables and limited seating under the glow of unflattering fluorescent lights, I think this is just how restaurants are here, because we passed a ton of them today while walking around.

Thus, we enter this tiny place and JC and Calvin use the pictures on the walls and their Mandarin skills to order us some food. First up: a big ole' plate of yak meat. Just plain meat, no seasoning. We use the table vinegar and spices to create a sort of sauce and it's delightful. Lean, red meat without gaminess. We are the ultimate in diva westerners at this restaurant, asking for hot water refills(regular water isn't drinkable unless it's you often just get plain hot water served in China/Tibet), napkins, spoons, more vinegar, etc.

Next up we get some noodles, both spicy and plain. Both of these have yak meat in the broth, of course. Noodles are difficult to share, especially when all the utensils provided are chopsticks. We find ourselves pressing the sides of the chopsticks on the bowls to cut the noodles, leaving behind a splattered, broth-y mess. But hey, at least we each got our fair share of noodles. We also get our fair share of yak momo dumplings, which Calvin orders the half order of TWENTY FOUR dumplings. As in, the whole order held 48.

So we got our plate of meat, our noodles, our dumplings, and a tray of vegetables all for $20USD, to be split among the six of us. Not bad at all.

We return to the hostel, hang out a bit, and then head to sleep around midnight.