For those of you in some doubt as to where I am or what the Roof of the World refers to, it’s Tibet, or in official Chinese parlance, the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Surprising to me, Tibet is a huge province and it was at one point far larger – twice the size it is today! I did a quick back of the envelope calculation and today’s Tibet province is five times the size of NZ. I have just finished an 10 day tour and am recuperating in Kathmandu, Nepal. In short, if you ever get the chance to go to Tibet, take it.

Qinghai to Lhasa. This is soon becoming one the great train trips. Contrary to previous advice the trip (from Chengdu)  is actually 43 hours (left Chengdu 9pm and arrived in Lhasa at 4pm two days hence). It is also controversial with this stretch costing ~US$4 billion to construct over five years and having to battle three main adversaries, the high altitude affecting the workforce, the delicate environment through which the tracks thread and lastly the ground, part of which is permafrost so they need to artificially cool it to prevent the tracks from buckling. Some facts: 675 bridges, dozens of tunnels, and 1956km of track. We didn’t stop at the highest train station in the world at 5,068m, only stopping at Na Qu which is at 4,513m . For contrast, the height of Aoraki/Mt Cook is only 3,754 m! The train was great fun and the scenery was incredibly spectacular including watching the sun rise over the Tibetan plateau, the vast grasslands which in summer are free of snow, the nomadic herders with their flocks of sheep and yaks and the distant mountain ranges and nearer rolling hills with craggy old escarpments punching through the grasslands.

Altitude. This is something that I had anticipated (but not the extent!) as it affects all low landers who climb to this height. Above 3,000m the body starts to feel the effects. Lhasa is at 3,490m and some of the places we visited are far higher. I first started to feel the effects on the train as much of it traverses the Tibetan plateau which is higher than Lhasa (over 960km of the journey was at over 4,000m!). You start to feel tired, maybe a little headachy, your energy is zip and walking to and from the toilet exhausted me. Sleeping is especially difficult and the air dries you out as they pump in extra oxygen into the special carriages to assist people to acclimatise. Over the trip we were like arthritic geriatrics: no running, no jumping and nothing more vigorous than a slow walk! By the end of the trip we’d acclimatised fairly well and so long as we did not do anything too athletic, I felt ok.

The Tibetan Issue. The presence of the Chinese military in Tibet is heavy, obvious and unwanted by the ethnic Tibetans. Seriously the main street in Lhasa has over a dozen barracks and other military buildings, every street corner has CCTV cameras, many key crossroads and street corners have serious looking detachments of soldiers (usually in groups of five) in military fatigues with body armour and riot shields with armed soldiers. There are camouflaged Land Cruisers, trucks and armoured vehicles driving around town. Effectively Lhasa is one large garrison town. The Tibetans seem to deal with this by ignoring them. It is not hard to get the impression that the soldiers are not comfortable as it is strangely bizarre to contrast the martial law impression of the huge number of soldiers and police with the blase attitude Tibetans have whilst buying food and making their pilgrimages! My current thinking is that even a negotiated position such as allowing Tibetans control over their religion and language will not happen soon. Sadly, China is there to stay and will continue to attempt to replace Tibetan culture with Han culture.

Norbulingka Park and the Sho Dun Festival. I was lucky enough to be in Tibet during one of their major festivals. This is the so-called yoghurt festival where there is copious amounts of yoghurt and Tibetan opera on offer. Also Budweiser for some reason, corporate sponsor this year yay! *sob*

Potala Palace and the Johkang Temple. Spectacular! This is the former winter residence of the Dalai Lama before he fled to India in 1959. It’s stuck up on the hill above Lhasa and is massive and an ever present reminder to everyone that the Dalai Lama should really be there. Unfortunately you can’t photograph anything inside without paying a huge fee so I’ll just have to relate that the treasures in there are amazing! The funerary stupas of late Dalai Lamas are all made out of gold and covered in precious and semi-precious stones. The Fifth DL who built the Potala has one that is  covered in 3,727 kg of solid gold and studded with 18,680 pearls and other stones… It’s an amazing structure and truly a treasure of the world. Johkang Temple is the holiest temple for Tibetan Buddhist and located in the middle of Lhasa. Incredible to see the devotion shown by pilgrims. Saw one that had this massive weeping callus on his head where he had banged it so many times on the stone ground when completing a full prostration, that is lying full length on the ground. The pilgrims circle the Johkang clockwise and then go into the temple to add yak butter to the butter lamps (which are continuously emptied by monks to prevent them from overflowing) and sticking small money notes in front of various statues. Awesome!

More updates on Tibet when I get a chance. Everest Base Camp, yak butter tea, monasteries and madcap bus drivers!