An unexpected shorter trip to Tibet

In January 2020 my annual visit to Tibet was on the program. And I looked very much forward to it. I think at the beginning of January I read on the internet a first message of a mysterious virus that had come up in the city of Wuhan in China. A few people got a flu like illness in that city. At that moment I didn’t think it would have repercussions for my travel. I was wrong about that.

I boarded a KLM airplane from Amsterdam to Chengdu on January 12th and arrived at Chengdu on January 13th. Because the next day I had a very early flight (at 06.15 hours) from Chengdu to Lhasa, I left my hostel in Chengdu already at 03.30 hours. I had a fine flight to Lhasa although mostly in the dark. But at the end of the flight the sun rose and I had a great view on the white mountains below me in the first daylight. My Tibetan friends were at the airport and we first went to a little, local restaurant near the airport to have breakfast: my first noodle soup and sweet tea. And then on to Lhasa. My Tibet trip could begin!

 

Well, looking back I was very lucky. I could do most of the itinerary of my trip. But at the end the news about the Wuhan virus became more and more serious with China almost completely shutting down. And also near the end of my trip “Tibet” shut down. The hotels all closed near the end of my trip. That meant that everyone who didn’t live in Tibet had to get out. And all sites in Tibet, like the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple, the Barkhor, all monasteries like Drepung, Sera, Ganden, Samye, Tsurphu and so on closed. This had a great impact because Lhasa was full of pilgrims of all parts of the Tibetan cultural areas (so also from Amdo and Kham) and they all had to go. Also shops, tea houses and restaurants closed.

The hotel closure came two days before I was supposed to fly back to Chengdu. So I had to leave Lhasa two days early. The Tibetan organizer of my trip changed my flight from Lhasa to Chengdu. And while in Lhasa I changed my KLM flight from Saturday February 1th to Thursday January 30th. I was very happy to be able to do that.

But daily life at Chengdu had also come to a stand still. Already about five days before the end of my Tibet trip, my regular hostel in Chengdu had sent a message on WeChat that they were closing. And that the had to cancel my reservation. Luckily my Tibetan friend found a hotel near the airport of Chengdu, that was still in business. So after arriving at the airport of Chengdu, I went by taxi to that hotel. So I didn’t went to the center of Chengdu and I can’t give a full report on the situation in Chengdu, but what I saw was a more or less ghost town. Chengdu is always busy with lots of traffic and people. But now, no.

I spent my time in my very comfortable hotel room waiting for the KLM flight back to Amsterdam the next day. In the beginning of the evening I read the first news items about British Airways canceling all flights to China immediately. And the KLM was in a meeting how to react to the virus. But the news was, that the KLM would keep on flying on to China. So I was reassured and went to sleep. But in the night I woke up and looked for news on my smartphone. And the news was that KLM would stop flying on some of their destinations in China immediately, among which Chengdu. But the last flight from Amsterdam to Chengdu was already on it’s way and of course had to return to Amsterdam. So I was very, very fortunate. I had the last KLM flight out of Chengdu, China to Amsterdam.

So far this adventurous part of my trip. I hope and wish that all my friends in Tibet and China will be alright, safe and healthy. And that I see them next time and we will have again a great time together. And now I will tell you more about my travel in Tibet in January 2020.

Lhasa

As I already wrote, I was greeted at Gongkar Lhasa Airport by my Tibetan friends. After a breakfast it went to Lhasa, which is about one hour driving from the airport. We drove to the Yak Hotel, where I always stay at Lhasa. After putting my things in my room, we went to a nice tea house where we had (of course) tea, a nice lunch and arranged money things. Later that afternoon I walked my first round at the Barkhor around the Jokhang Temple. I always look forward to this because for me this is really were Tibet stands for. So many pilgrims from all parts of the Tibetan cultural regions visiting the holy places. I enjoy this so much. That evening I had my welcome dinner, a great hotpot meal. We had great fun!

Like every trip to Tibet I started with some days at Lhasa. As I wrote before, this is really necessary because you have to let your body get used to the high altitude. And secondly, there is so much to see in and around Lhasa.

In the first days I (re)visited the well known sites like the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple and the monasteries Drepung, Netchung and Sera on the outskirts of Lhasa. We walked the kora around Sera, something I hadn’t don before.

I also made a day trip to the Drak Yerpa Meditation Caves, some 30 km east of Lhasa. It’s an ancient site dating back to the 7th century when Tibetan king Songsten Gampo meditated here for a longer time in a cave. Also famous Tibetan Buddhist master, among them Padhmasambhava, Dromtönpa and Atisha, meditated here. It’s a beautiful and serene place. There were a lot of pilgrims. You have to climb up to the caves. I took my time and took rests because the highest cave is at an altitude of about 4,500m. And I did this on my 4th day in Tibet.Near Drak Yerpa is the meditation cave of Bherotsana. We also visited this cave. On the foot of the hill pilgrims filled bottles with holy water.

The weather was great in Lhasa. It was not only blue skies and sun. But at daytime it was really warm. I thought my down jacket was way to warm for me those days. But I surely needed it later on the trip.

Starting my round trip in the Yarlung Tsangpo River Valley

On the fifth day after arriving at Lhasa, I started my round trip. This round trip first took me to the Yarlung Tsangpo River valley. The Yarlung Tsangpo river becomes in India the well known Brahmaputra river. Our trip that day went to the city of Tsedang, where we visited the bureau of the PSB (public security bureau) because my guide had to get there another permit for my trip.

In the valley behind Tsedang the Tibetan civilization started long ago. In the valley we first had a nice lunch outside in the warm sun. And after lunch we first visited the thumbs of the ancient Tibetan kings. The thumb of King Songtsan Gampo has a little temple on it. I visited the thumbs once before in the year 2013 and really wanted to see them again. After visiting the thumbs we drove to the first Palace in Tibet, the Yumbulakhang. Here you also find the first agricultural field, from which you have a beautiful view on the Palace above. Of course we climbed up to the Palace. And on the way back to Tsedang we visited the Tandruk Temple, the first temple in Tibet.

My Tibetan companions had also something completely different for me in mind. That evening we went to a nightclub. I must say that I’m not really a person for that kind of things but I enjoyed it immensely. It was a very modern nightclub with great sound and lightning. And it was full of Tibetans who came to enjoy themselves that evening. And they drank lots of beer. The performing artists were great and really Tibetan. Really Tibetan in the sense that the sang more traditi0nal Tibetan songs but also very modern songs (even a bit metal). I especially enjoyed the side kick who performed with different artists.

After a heavy but fun night at the nightclub at Tsedang, a long sleep in the next morning, it went to Samye, where we stayed two nights. Samye Monastery was the first monastery in Tibet. It was founded in 775 by King Trisong Detsen and build with the help of the great Master Padhmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche). In the afternoon we visited Samye Monastery. Near Samye there is the Chimpuk Hermitage. We visited Chimpuk the next day. Chimpuk Hermitage consists of a nunnery – the yellow building on the photo is the assembly hall – and many meditation caves. The caves are still in use. The white chapel high on the mountain is the historically most important one. So we were on our way hiking up to this cave. But for me that day was no good hiking day. So after about 1/3 of the hike I turned back. But I enjoyed the nunnery, where the nuns held a prayer service.

The next day it went back from Samye to Lhasa with a visit on the way to Dorje Drak Monastery. Here I was very lucky. The monks were chanting. And it was no problem to make pics in this monastery. So I took my chance.

Third part of my travel west of Lhasa

After the first days at Lhasa (the first part of my trip) and the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley (the second part of my trip south of Lhasa), one night at Lhasa, I started the third part of my travel that went west of Lhasa. It would bring me to Gyantse, Shigatse and Sakya. Everybody who has been to Tibet knows the route from Lhasa to Gyantse with the Kamba La pass with the view on Yamdrok Tso Lake and the Karo La pass with the view on the Nojin Kangsang glacier. I don’t have to say a lot about it here. The pictures say it all.

What most of the travelers don’t do is visit Ralung Monastery. After coming down of the Karo La pass into a valley you almost immediately turn left onto a small dirt road to go to Ralung Monastery. Ralung Monastery is the most important monastery of the Drukpa Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery consists of on old building and a brand new assembly hall. This new hall was finished in summer 2018. Next to the monastery you can still see the ruins of the original monastery and stupa, that were destroyed in the cultural revolution. There are strong ties between Ralung Monastery and Bhutan. It’s of Ralung that the religious leader Nawang Namgyel fled Tibet for Bhutan in the year 1616 and reshaped that country and became the it’s top religious leader, the Zhabdrung. In fact he became the founder of the Bhutanese state. After visiting Ralung Monastery it went on to Gyantse, where we stayed the night.

From Gyantse it’s only a short drive to Shigatse. Before reaching Shigatse you can turn of the road for a visit to Shalu Monastery. Shalu Monastery is located only 22 kilometers south of Shigatse. Although the main hall of this monastery may look Chinese from the outside it’s very much Tibetan. The Monastery dates back to the 11th century. Shalu is the only monastery in Tibet that combines Tibetan and Chinese styles in its design. Much of the original structure of the Monastery was destroyed by an earthquake in the 14th century and, as this was a time of Mongol patronage, many Han artisans were employed in the reconstruction. The green-tiled Chinese-style roof, clearly visible as you approach, is one of the monastery’s most easily recognizably features. Shalu Monastery is of great artistic importance. It’s worth a visit for its fine murals. If you enjoy looking at murals, Shalu has some fine ones from the 14th century that fuse Chinese, Mongol and Newari styles. But most of them are very old and dark so you need a torch to see them.

We had a nice, quiet afternoon at Shigatse and because two days later it would be Shigatse New Year there were a lot of beautiful fireworks that evening, I watched the fireworks form my hotel room.

The next day it went on to Sakya. Of course we had beautiful landscapes on the way.

When we arrived at Sakya it was clear the place was very crowded with pilgrims. The pilgrims were buying all kind of things for the coming farmers New Year. Also the monastery was crowded with pilgrims who went there for a blessing. At Sakya you find the the main monastery of the Sakya sect in Tibetan Buddhism. The main assembly hall of the monastery is so beautiful. And right behind the main assembly hall is the enormously big library of the monastery. The last times I visited Sakya, it wasn’t allowed to make pics inside the monastery. But this time, after paying I must say a lot of money, I was allowed to take photo’s. And so I really took my chances and made a lot of pics. And I considered the money I paid as a contribution to the monastery. So I also did a good deed.

From Sakya it went back to Shigatse but with a turn of the road to Phuntsoling Monastery.

Very few travelers visit this monastery. Phuntsoling is so beautifully located against a big dune. Above the monastery you can see the ruins of the old monastery. Phuntsoling Monastery belongs to the Kagyu Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Unfortunately it was not allowed to make pics inside. In the afternoon we visited Tashilhunpo monastery at Shigatse. Shigatse and it’s monastery were so quiet because it was Shigatse New Year today and most people were celebrating this at their homes with their families

The next morning it went back to Lhasa but on the way we visited the village and the family home of my guide. They were celebrating the New Year and my male Tibetan companions (with the exception of my driver) were invited to drink the strong, self brewed barley beer on the New Year. I, who don’t like beer at all, drank lots of sweet tea. It was such a nice visit. At the end of the afternoon we reached Lhasa. On the way back to Lhasa we had two check points were they also checked our temperature.

Tsurphu Monastery

From Lhasa I made a day trip to Tsurphu Monastery. Nowadays it’s now only a few hours driving from Lhasa because of the roads getting better and better. Tsurphu is an important monastery of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The present head of this sect is the 17th Karmapa.

Last day at Lhasa / goodbye Tibet

The next day in Lhasa it became clear that the next day all hotels in Lhasa would get closed at 14.00 hours. It also became clear that all sites as the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple, the Barkhor, all monasteries like Drepung, Sera, Ganden, Samye, Tsurphu had already been closed. Also most restaurants and tea houses had closed. As I wrote in the beginning of this blog, my Tibetan contact already arranged for my a flight out of Lhasa to Chengdu the next day and a hotel, that still was open, near the airport at Chengdu. That afternoon we had a farewell lunch in one of the few tea houses, that was still open. The next day very early I was driven to the airport of Lhasa. It was still very early and dark when I left Lhasa (about 03.30 hours). It was strange to leave like this. But I’m very grateful to my Tibetan friends to arrange my travel and my departure so well! And see you next year again under normal circumstances. Like I already wrote in this blog the next day I had the last KLM flight out of Chengdu to Amsterdam. So I was very lucky!

Tibet, see you next year again!!!

This was the itinerary of my trip to Tibet in January 2020

Day 1

Flying from Amsterdam to Chengdu

Day 2

Arriving in Chengdu and staying the night at a hostel in the Wuhou District. Picking up the Tibet permit at my hostel.

Day 3

Flying very early from Chengdu to Lhasa. At Lhasa having lunch at a nice tea house an exchanging money. Walking my first kora around the Jokhang Temple. In the evening having a welcome dinner.

Day 4

Lhasa: visiting the Potala Palace en the Jokhang Temple

Day 5

Lhasa: visiting Drepung, Netchung and Sera Monastery

Day 6

Lhasa: day trip to Drak Yerpa Monastery & Meditation caves

Day 7

From Lhasa to Tsetang, visit to the Valley of the Kings, the Yumbulakhang Place and Tandruk Monastery

Day 8

From Tsetang to Samye: visit to Samye klooster

Day 9

Samye: visit to Chimpuk Nunnery & Hermitage caves

Day 10

From Samye to Lhasa with a visit on the way to Dorje Drak Monastery

Day 11

From Lhasa to Gyantse with a visit on the way to Ralung Monastery

Day 12

From Gyantse to Shigatse with first in the morning a visit to the Pelkor Chöde Monastery at Gyantse and on the way a visit to the Shalu Monastery

Day 13

From Shigatse to Sakya: visit to the Sakya Monastery

Day 14

From Sakya back to Shigatse with a turn of to Phuntsoling Monastery

Day 15

From Shigatse to Lhasa with a visit to the village of my guide

Day 16

Lhasa: daytrip to Tsurphu Monastery

Day 17

Lhasa: daytrip to Ganden monastery unexpected last day with a goodbye lunch

Day 18

From Lhasa to Drigung Til Monastery and Tidrum Nunnery Flying from Lhasa to Chengdu. Staying in a hotel near the airport.

Day 19

From Tidrum to Lhasa Flying from Chengdu to Amsterdam (last KLM flight due to the Wuhan virus): arriving home on the same day.

Day 20

Flying from Lhasa to Chengdu

Day 21

Flying from Chengdu to Amsterdam.

Share