May 2006

Tibet is changing very fast, in fact Lhasa has become basically a Chinese city, with Tibetan being spoken only in the old part of town around the Jokhang, elsewhere it is all Chinese. We flew to Chengdu in Western China, direct from Bangkok, after buying tickets from Charlie Connection; one way was $200 although return is only slightly more. We stayed at the pleasant & cheap (between $5-$20 per night), Sims Cozy Guest House in Chengdu, where they had arranged our Tibet permits as well as the flight two days later to Lhasa -- around $250 each. You must go on a tour to Tibet, but that means basically, a guide takes you to the airport and gets you on the plane; after that we were on our own. It is worth visiting the Panda center in Chengdu, where you can get your picture taken with a panda.

In Lhasa we stayed at the fabulous Mandala Hotel (fax: 0891-6324783), a Tibetan owned hotel, around $45 per night. It is as close to the Jokhang you can get, with a great view from the window of the Barkhorand all the pilgrims making their way around the Jokhang. You have to be very careful because of the altitude, so when you arrive it is better not to run around at all, just lie down and relax for the day. Drink lots of fluids.

After a few days in Lhasa we decided to go to Tibet's first Gompa at Samye and hired a Land Cruiser with driver from the travel agent at the Kirey Hotel, $300 for three nights and four days. It is also possible to go on a bus from Lhasa and then take the ferry across the Yarlung Tsangpo river, although technically you're not supposed to do it. No one checks. Our very nice Tibetan driver took us out to the ferry, which was supposed to take one hour but actually took three, because we got stuck on a number of sandbanks and had to pole ourselves free. It also turned freezing cold, with hail and wind, but it is a great experience. When we got to the other side there were a couple of small trucks and we piled in for the 20 minute ride to Samye. There is a hotel at Samye that is decent, though they still have the old Tibet style dirt toilet, but the Gompa itself is wonderful, and there is a great hike up Hepo Ri where Padmasambhava's consort Yeshe Tsogyal defeated the demons who were obstructing Buddhism in the 8th century. We had told our driver to pick us up two days later, so the next day we hired a truck for around 6 hours, about $12, and he took us part of the way to the base of Chimpo, and we hiked up the hill to around 14,000 ft, where there are a lot of caves, and one in which Padmasambhava lived for three years. There are a number of monks & nuns living in caves there and we met one monk who told us he had just finished three years three months & three weeks meditation in his cave. He was known as "Long Hair", even although he had now had a haircut. A a very serene guy, we sat in his cave & drank butter tea.

The next day our driver picked us up & we drove across the plateau, with huge sand dunes like the Sahara desert, only with snow capped peaks in the background. We went on to the monastery of Mindroling, where the Taiwanese had donated money to build a huge Chorten(Stupa). Like everywhere in Tibet there is a massive amount of building going on. They are building a hotel, but you can stay at the Gompa for a small donation and it is worth going as they make the best incense in Tibet. It is a quiet, rarely visited place and the chanting is really great. Lhasa is about three hours from Mindroling.

We were intending flying out to Kathmandu, but the 50 minute flight was $335 each, so we rented a Land Cruiser and driver from the Yak Hotel, for $300, and drove down to the border. It takes two days and one night if you drive directly, stopping in Lhatse for the night. You could also take a few more days and stop at Gyantse and Shigatze which are right on the way -- or at Nam Tso and camp out with Nomads. There is a massive amount of building on the road and the Chinese say that by 2007 it will be mostly asphalt, but now the 17 hour journey is about 5 hours asphalt the rest dirt. Great trip though, you go past Mt. Everest, and the scenery is spectacular, especially the journey downwards after you have crossed the last pass at 17,800 ft. Within three hours you are at 6,500 ft, driving down this amazing road, with a shear drop on the gorge side of 3,000 feet, through a huge ice avalanche. We just sat there chanting "Om ah hum, badzaar Guru Padma siddhi hum" with our fingers crossed. We made it and spent the night at the border town of Zangmo, which is a town that shouldn't really be there; the buildings cling to the sides of the gorge, and thousands of Nepalese trucks line the road, there to pick up the cheap Chinese electronics, running shoes etc, to take to Kathmandu. After crossing the border, you take a taxi for 10 yuan to the Nepalese side where you get your visa,($30), and from there you can hire a taxi for around 3000rps, about $40, for the four hour ride to Kathmandu. You can also get a bus from there but it takes around six or seven hours. We always stay at the Mustang Holiday Inn in Thamel (, for around $15-$20 per night but at the weekend there is a lot of noise from a Disco nearby. Other nights it is quiet.

To read the previous update, about Drew's trip to Mt. Kailash, click here

Click on the photos above for enlargements.

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