Our journey started on a spring day in May when we took the plane bound for Beijing. A stopover and a couple of naps later, we were there.
Our visit started in Beijing and turned into the ultimate journey possible in this part of the world – a true Himalayan adventure of monasteries, mountains and spiritual discoveries.
The Great Wall and Forbidden City
On our first day in Beijing we visited the Great Wall at Mutianyu – 6,000 kilometers of stone and mortar that runs along the top of the mountains. This part of the wall was started in 214 BC, and has been reconstructed and enlarged on many occasions since. It was constructed to defend the Chinese empire from foreign invasions and today is known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Returning to the city we then went then to the Temple of Heaven. This complex of temples was where the Chinese emperor and his court prayed to the gods for a good harvest. From here, we continued to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, two of the most popular tourist destinations in Beijing.
Beautiful gardens, enormous courtyards and elegant buildings make up the Forbidden City. Everything in here is massive, built to show the power and the greatness of the emperors who lived in the palace before the Cultural Revolution transformed China into a republic.
Mao’s picture is painted on the main entrance to the Forbidden City overlooking Tiananmen Square. The square is surrounded by the ministries and government buildings, all in a Communist architectural style in strong contrast with the Chinese-look of the Forbidden City.
The History of Beijing
The next day and we went on our Tour of the Hutongs, a historical area of Beijing where some remains of the old traditional architecture can be seen. The Hutongs are a labyrinth of alleys and squared houses with a central patio, usually built in stone. Here is where, before the Cultural Revolution, the families close to the Emperor and the important civil servants used to live. These houses, called ‘Kajingos’ are composed of several rooms around the central courtyard, where the family used to meet during the day.
We decided to get to other parts of Beijing we’d take a bike tour – a great way to get around. During our cycle we paused to climb an ancient bell tower from where the views of the city are impressive. Following a presentation about the traditional tea ceremony and a sample of some tasty infusions, we were invited to have lunch in one of the Kajingos. Our hostess, an old lady, told us about how life has changed since the Revolution, accompanied by a wonderful smell from the kitchen…
Heading to the Himalayas
After lunch we rode back to the rental office and went to the hotel to pack and go to Beijing’s West Railway Station. This huge and modern building is the place where the T27, the train to Lhasa, departs every evening. At 20.09 hrs the train left, bound for the high peaks of the Himalayas.
Next morning, woken early by the sunrise shining through the thin curtains, a bleak moon-like landscape could be seen: a barren land, with no vegetation and sand dunes on the horizon. Occasionally, a small village appeared, with a sad and dirty look.
Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, the train pulled into a city: an enormous metropolis, with high concrete buildings, one after each other, all looking the same. This is our first stop and we used it to stretch our legs and take a look outside. Food stalls were lined along the platform and travelers got down to grab some more food.
Back on the train, we decided to take a tour of the other carriages and mingle a bit with the locals. We were accommodated in the soft sleeper compartment, with four cozy bunk beds and a little table, next to the restaurant carriage. A bit further away we found the hard sleepers compartment with six beds, and busy corridors where Chinese passengers were sharing their tea while chatting. Further to the rear of the train were the seating carriages, but these were so full many passengers had to stand.
Crossing the Tangula Pass
During the night we crossed the Tangula Pass, at 5,032 meters it’s the highest point of the railway line. The landscape was completely different and much more beautiful. No longer barren, instead we saw high green mountains from the window. We woke a little dizzy – a reminder that we were now at altitude. At this elevation it takes some time to get acclimatised, fortunately the train had its own oxygen supplies.
On to Lhasa, Tibet
At Naqu, we made one last stop before heading to Lhasa, capital of Tibet. At the station our Tibetan guide was waiting to welcome us with a beautiful white scarf, demonstrating the well-known Tibetan hospitality.
We started our stay in Tibet discovering Lhasa and its surroundings. First stop was Drepung Monastery, five kilometers west of Lhasa, one of the “great three” university monasteries of Tibet. At one time considered the largest monastery in the world, it housed sometimes as many as 10,000 monks. Today, its population is about three hundred. The monastery was founded in the 15th century and was the residence of the Dalai Lamas until the Great Fifth Dalai Lama constructed the Potala Palace.
The Norbulingka Palace and Sera MonasteryOnce inside we heard the chants of hundreds of workers repairing the roofs. These roofs are made of a mixture of clay and stones – the workers shape and harden them by beating rhythmically with enthusiastic choreographies. Inside the white walls hundreds of golden Buddhas were waiting for us, dimly illuminated by a few light bulbs and thousands of candles made with yak fat; interestingly, bills from all over the world form part of the sumptuous decoration. The stuffy atmosphere, the incense smell and the prayers and the chants of the monks filled every room, corridor and courtyard.
On our way back to Lhasa, we stopped to see the Norbulingka Palace, the famous gardens and summer palace of the Dalai Lamas. Built under the rule of the 7th Dalai Lama in the 18th century, it was used as a regular summer residence until the 14th Dalai Lama’s exile in 1959. As an official residence of the Dalai Lama no pictures or videos are allowed to be shot inside, but we took pictures of the colorful courtyards and the splendid gardens.
Our last visit of the day was to the Sera Monastery, another one of the great three university monasteries in Tibet. Sera was founded in the 15th century and nowadays houses about 300 monks. Sera is well-known for the famous debating courtyard where the monks carry out impassioned debates that are said to be unique among the monasteries in Tibet and are part of their learning process. Traditional procedure implies vigorous gestures with specific meanings which capture the attention of onlookers.
The Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace
Early in the morning we continued our exploration and started at the east end of Barkhor square, which for most Tibetans is the location of the most sacred temple in Tibet: the Jokhang Temple. Founded in the 7th century by King Songsten Gampo, Jokhang means the ‘House of the Buddha’, and it has been a Buddhist pilgrimage center for centuries.
Pilgrims walk around the temple as part of their pilgrimage. Then they get into the main hall which houses the Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha statue, perhaps the most venerated object in Tibetan Buddhism. The route around Jokhang is known as the ‘kora’, and is marked by four large stone incense burners placed at the corners of the temple complex.
Visiting this amazing temple, I was impressed by the holiness and faith of the Tibetans who pray devotedly while walking around the inside of the temple, as always, clockwise.
After visiting Jokhang temple we headed for one of the highlights of the trip − the Potala Palace. This was the chief residence of the Dalai Lamas until 1959. The first palace was built in the 7th century by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo as a present for Princess Wen Cheng. Later, the Great 5th Dalai Lama started construction of the modern Palace in 1645. The building is 400 meters long, 350 meters wide and copper was poured into the foundations to help proof it against earthquakes.
There are thirteen floors, over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and 200,000 statues on top of Marpo Ri, the ‘Red Hill’. It rises more than 300m above the valley and is without doubt, one of the most impressive places in the world.
The city centre
After visiting the Potala Palace, we walked on to the city center. Lhasa literally means ‘place of the gods’. Apart from the main temples and palaces, the old city of Lhasa, around Barkhor, is an amazing place to explore – a labyrinth of narrow streets and surprising alleys. At the end of these you sometimes find small temples and incredible places outside of the main tourist circuits; taking these routes is also the best way to interact with the local people and get a taste of their famous hospitality and easy going nature.
In the middle of this maze of narrow alleys, we called in at the Ani Tsangkung nunnery, the only one in downtown Lhasa. Suddenly, one of the nuns called us over to invite us inside one of the rooms. There, she offered us cookies, yak curd, and fantastic yak tea.
The journey continues..
Continuing our way from Lhasa, we went along impressive winding roads, with amazing panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. At the Khamba La pass, at 4,794 meters, we stopped our vehicles to take a look at the stunning Yamdrok Tso, one of Tibet’s four holy lakes – its huge, deep blue waters make a beautiful contrast with the brown mountains, the snow covered peaks and the colorful prayer flags.
We reached the highest part of our journey at the Kharo La pass (5,560 meters). From here we admired the river that makes its way down the slope – a huge glacier of unspoiled ice that extends itself smoothly from the top of the mountain to almost the edge of the road.
From here it is downhill until Gyantse. Well known for its monastery, it boasts the highest stupa in Tibet. The city itself is a modern Chinese town. Behind the new concrete buildings is the old town, which is a charming area of beautiful Tibetan houses. All painted in white, the houses have colorful decorations in the windows and on their roofs. The old area feels like a little village, with cows tied at the entrance of the houses, dusty streets and silence, in contrast to the hustle and bustle of the modern quarters.
Pelkor Chode Monastery
The following day, we visited Pelkor Chode Monastery. Dating from the 15th century, it is one of the main monasteries in Tibet and belongs to the Gelukpa order, one of the main four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The stunning stupa of seven floors offers a beautiful panoramic view of the complex, the walls and the nearby Dzong. Apart from the many painted chapels dedicated to Buddha and the other deities of Tibetan Buddhism, there’s an impressive calm and peaceful atmosphere.
Continuing our journey to Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet, we found a modern Chinese-looking city, where the whole town was being turned upside down by building work. The next day we made an early start to go to the Tashi Lumpo Monastery. A huge complex, the monastery is well known for being the home of the Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. A 36-meter-high Buddha is one of the main sights to see here.
Returning to the Friendship Highway, we set off on the last stage of our adventure in Tibet. We stopped at the tiny village of Shegar before entering the Qomolangma National Park, from where we continued to Rongphu and Everest Base Camp.Sakya
Our trip continued to Sakya, a little town with a very special monastery. The Sakya Monastery belongs to the Sakyapa School, another of the four main orders of Tibetan Buddhism. Its architecture differs from all the other monasteries with walls that are red and grey. It is very well known in Tibet for its impressive library with more than 80,000 books and texts about religion, philosophy, maths and other subjects.
Everest Base Camp
The route from Shegar to Rongphu is 98 km, along a road between high mountains that led us into the Himalayas and to Rongphu, a small hamlet with a beautiful monastery right in front of Mount Everest. Staying the night in a simple and cozy mountain lodge at 5,150 meters, we then trekked the one and a half km to Everest Base Camp. The ascent is not that hard, despite the lack of oxygen.
Crossing into Nepal
We returned from base camp and arrived in Tingri in time for lunch – the last village we stayed in before crossing the border to Nepal. It’s a small place with some guest houses and shops, but without any of the charm that we saw in the rest of Tibet.
On our last day we woke before dawn and took the long drive to the Nepalese border crossing at Zhangmu. Here, we changed our last Yuan into rupees. On the other side of the barrier, the faces of the people and the landscape were completely different: Women wearing colorful saris, green vegetation and a nice humid heat welcomed us into Nepal.
On the way down from the border, we stayed at The Last Resort. This is a hotel located on the side of a spectacular narrow gorge. To get to it we crossed the hanging bridge where some brave people were waiting to make bungee jumps and canyon swings from over 160 metres.
The Last Resort is a peaceful oasis, perfect to rest in after the adventure in Tibet. The gardens and the cottages invite relaxation – its sauna, plunge pool and massage service was a blessing after our long trip. After a short stop, we hurried down to Kathmandu in time for some last minute sightseeing in Durbar Square – one of the main monumental complexes of the city it’s listed under the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The next day, we took the chance to visit the stupas of Boudhanath and Swayambhunath, the main temples for Buddhists in Kathmandu. Swayambhunath is on the top of a hill with good views of Kathmandu city and surroundings. Continuing on, we went to the Hindu temple of Pashupatinath. This is the holiest Hindu temple in Kathmandu where hundreds of believers come to pray to the gods. This is also where cremation ceremonies are held, and you’ll probably see them when walking around the complex.
After more than two weeks of travel from Beijing to Tibet and Kathmandu our adventure was now at its end.
An incredible journey from China across the Himalayas to Nepal – the most impressive one you’ll ever take!
-Jesus Del Caso
Film Maker and Actor