<A> Rats and smiles in the top of the word...

Written by Apr 13, 2006 08:04
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I read once, that one of the places every person must see before dying was the Potala Palace, in Tibet…
It was like a Top10 list including the Taj Mahal, the Egipt pyramids, the Tour Eiffel, etc, all amazing and unforgettable places that every one of us that loves travelling and experience new cultures would be willing to go to. And the Potala Palace, was the first in the whole list!

After half year living in Beijing, I had already discarded the idea of going to Tibet, because while by the moment the simplest, easiest and just legal way of entering Lhasa was by air, plain tickets from Beijing already exceeded my whole year travelling budget. It was so far, so difficult to get in, and so expensive, that I even dared to think about it…
But circumstances in March made me change my mind, because an unexpected trip to Sichuan province put us into the right direction!

My classmate, friend and travelling companion Caroline was wishing to see the giant pandas in the Breeding Research Base in Chengdu, and while I wasn’t really excited about the idea of a 30 hours train ride just to see them, I couldn’t say anything against it because she had always come with me to the places I wanted to visit, and this time it was my turn to do the same. I had been reading something about the Leshan Buddha and about the good food in Sichuan and it finally ended seeming a really nice idea to go there.
At first we wanted to spend ten days travelling around the province, but we were so close to Tibet, that I couldn’t stop thinking about what she said the week before leaving: “We are so close to it, we should go there”, it wasn’t meant seriously but to hear that sentence coming out of her lips made me really think about if it was so impossible at all….

Far away from joining a travel group of any of the so many travel agencies that were offering their already planned trips, we asked to our hostel staff in Chengdu to arrange all the permits and flight tickets for us.
The Mix Hostel (www.donkey-pal.com) is a really nice and young stile managed hostel, made by backpackers for backpackers and one of the cheapest places in Chengdu that arranges all kind of activities for independent travellers. They offer all kind of services from Sichuan Opera to horse trekking in the Songpan and the permits to go into Lhasa.

(To be able to buy flight tickets to go into Tibet, you must first have a permit that allows foreigners enter the region. Those permits are not legally given to individuals, you should normally need to be part of a travel agency group to be able to get one…obviously some places like the Mix Hostel, also can get it for you from a much more moderate rate, finding a “group”, that probably is going to spread just after landing.
The permit is something that you will never see and will never have, because nobody inside Tibet is going to ask you to show it, so don’t worry if they don’t give it to you, it’s not that they are trying to cheat you, it’s just that this is the way it works.)

They made a really competent job making ready everything in just one and a half day time, and while at the beginning they told us to pay 3650RMB (permits and tickets Chengdu-Lhasa and Lhasa-Chengdu), the incredible and always helpful receptionist Laura, manage to find us a deal for the return tickets, and we just ended paying 2900RMB for everything.

So, the 16th March about 10 pm four of us, Caroline, JP, Richard and I, were about to take our 30 hours slow train to Chengdu, to spend there two days, and then take a flight to our dreams, the mystical and mysterious city of Lhasa, that definitely would impress me much more than what I had ever expected.

We took a really early flight to Lhasa on Monday morning with Sichuan Airlines, and I had the best airplane meal ever!!! They served us a spicy variation of spaguetti Bolognese that I enjoyed as if I were a kid…I don’t know and maybe that’s just me, but when travelling I could eat at anytime, because I am always hungry and want to taste everything. And that’s not such a good idea, because being stuffed and sick is the worst thing can happened to you while visiting China, and that’s just what happened to me the whole first week, and I can assure you it seemed to me a really long week… I will never forget it, definitely!

In any case, our first step out from the airport was a really tiring one. After putting of our jackets, walking to pick up our rucksacks and carrying them just to the exit, we could already feel the altitude effect. We were feeling as if we would have run for a half an hour and felt a little bit dizzy at the beginning.
Caroline and JP had taken altitude pills, because they had always had some breathing problems and asthma. Richard and I didn’t, so we were both a little bit worried about the issue…but after a few hours we were feeling much better.
I mean, we and even people having the pills, were able to feel the altitude all the time we were there, we didn’t feel as fit as usually, we were really easily exhausted and without breathing and our hands were a little bit blow up…but it wasn’t anything serious to worry about.

The one hour and 25RMB bus ride to the city center of Lhasa was different as expected, especially to Richard. I guess when we all think about Tibet an image of snowed stone mountains and the Everest comes immediately to our minds, but that’s a little bit far from the reality, at least in the surroundings of Lhasa by the end of March. He was telling to me, that that kind of landscape remembered him to the central states in the USA…the mountains where really yellow and sandy, and it was more like a kind of a desert. It looked great, just something different.

We arrived to the Banak Shol Hostel, and I started to bargain as if I were in any other Chinese province, but all what I got was an angry face of the receptionist and a really loud: “Impossible! 100RMB is our definitely price for a double room with private bathroom. If you don’t like it, then go to another place!” I was a little bit shocked by her reaction, but that still was the best option for us, budget travellers, to stay in.
We got “nice” typical Tibetan style rooms, with some humidity in the walls, but a nice bathroom and a decent 24 hours hot water shower. What we didn’t know by that time was that we wouldn’t sleep alone those days...

We spent three days in Lhasa, strolling the Barkhor circuit and monastic cities in the surroundings, but the first time I saw all those pilgrims walking in circles around the Jokhang Temple in the old town I really didn’t know how to react.
Old people, adults, children and whole families were walking and prying while moving their prying wheels, all of them going in the same direction, as if they were a human river. Younger men and women were standing in front of the temple and throwing themselves to the ground and standing up again, and were doing the same movement hours by hours in the same place. Monks were walking around with their red and orange clothes and there….in the middle of that mystical and amazing place were we four, looking stunned all around and trying to remember every face, every cloth, every hair ornament that local girls were wearing on, every smile…

If I would have to say which is the nicest and kindest folk in the world I probably would say Tibetans. They all seemed to be so happy with themselves and with what they were doing, so proud of their beliefs and their religion, so relaxed and devout, that in a certain way I envy them…
They were always smiling to us, even the older people were giving us shy, but at the same time lively smiles. It is such a great feeling when you look somebody that’s looking at you, you smile them and they answer you with another big smile…you feel like understanding them and that they understand you, even though your culture, language and life are completely different to theirs.
And if they smile you, you don’t feel so bad of being there as a tourist and taking pictures of what their current lives are, because they show you that they accept the fact of you being there.

Our first contact with Tibet and its people had definitely been a success to me, and back to the hotel I felt so happy of having taken the decision to come to Lhasa, that after a hot shower I slept like a baby,… well slept as a baby until 3 o’clock…when suddenly I could hear strange noises coming from under my bed, and every second, the noises were closer to my head!!! I didn’t know what to do…I mean, it was impossible to be a cockroach, unless Tibetan cockroaches were huge, so I turned the light on and wish it stopped. Caroline couldn’t believe what I was talking about, I guess she was too asleep until the noise move from by bed to hers…jajaja It was definitely something big enough to throw the paper bin and our 1’5 litters bottle of water down, but we were so tired, that we just let the light on and continue sleeping. At 3 o’clock in the morning and with everybody sleeping, what else to do?
Next morning the guys told us, that it should be a rat, and a monk in the Potala Palace (100RMB entrance fee) confirmed it to us, explaining that Tibet has a really big problem with rats coming from China and that’s why monks always carry their cats all around.
When we came back that day, we just asked to borrow the hostel’s cat, but we realized that it was just a kiddy and probably smaller than the rats. After having it around 2 hours in our room and without having hunted anything but our bed sheets, we let him go…and just hope that sleeping with our light on would scare them from coming again.

On Wednesday, and after our usual breakfast in the Mandala Restaurant (we were every morning and every afternoon there, because the breakfast set and Indian food was just delicious and the sights of the Barkhor square were great), we visit our first monastic city, the Deprung Monastery, just 7 km away from Lhasa. We took the Bus 302 in Beijing Donglu to the downside of the monastery and then paid one more extra kuai to take a truck full with locals to go to the main entrance.
The place really impressed me! It was like a whole city made for monks, a labyrinth of white and narrow passages leading you from one chapel to another. You would cross with monks going to their daily classes, and old pilgrims giving their “jiaos” to their favourite buddha’s statues. The place was huge, and in fact, more than 600 monks are living there right now.
The entrance fee was 50 RMB, and didn’t get student discounts in any of the places we visit in Tibet, even showing them our Chinese student cards, they wouldn’t accept it.

That night, we still had animal company, even though lights were on. I still believe that they didn’t go to the boy’s room because of JP snoring.

At six o’clock on Thursday morning my mobile phone alarm woke us up because we needed to be on time to take the 5 hours bus to Shigatse. We really weren’t that interested in the Tashilumpo Monastery, Shigatse main attraction, but going there would be the connection point for visiting Gyantse, an smaller village one hour souther Shigatse.
Some other travellers had already told us that Shigatse was not a really nice place, but it was even worst than that, it was just horrible! It was a kind of modern tibetan city in the middle of no where, with wide roads plenty with old and dirty taxis and any interesting backstreet to stroll in.
With such an scene, we decided by unanimity to make as short as possible our stay in Shigatse…so that instead of sleeping two nights there, we would try to stay just one night, visiting Gyantse the next morning and going back to Lhasa the same day.

The Tashilumpo monastic city was really similar to the others, with the difference that the monks there didn’t like foreigners. They didn’t smile back, looked us with mistrust and definitely didn’t wanted us to be there…
If we sum up, that we all were feeling really tired, sick and not welcomed, you can image that we decided to leave the place after the first 20 minutes of walking around, and just rest in the Tashi restaurant having a delicious toasted sandwich with cheese and tomato (Don’t miss that restaurant if you after all decide to go to Shigatse, they are one of the best places to have Indian, Nepali, Chinese, and Western food all around the city. It’s located at the beginning of the pedestrian street that leads to Tashilumpo, and though the entrance is really small, you will see the standing blackboard at the street inviting you to go upstairs.)

The day past quickly, and we woke up early next morning, to be able to visit without rushing the small village of Gyantse and take a bus back to Lhasa around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Although there are buses connecting both cities, we took a taxi for 160 RMB (I still think we were reaped off) and in 40 minutes we were already visiting Gyantse fortress…well, I shouldn’t include myself, because while they were struggling to walk uphill to the top of it, I decided to wait them while lying and enjoying the nice and sunny day.
About one hour later, that to me seemed like 10 minutes, they came back and we all walked to the Pelkohr Chöde Monastery (40RMB admission). The place is really well known because of its superb Stupa, with more than 10.000 images. But in any case, I also think the Lonely Planet Guide should mention the dogs…yes, while in Lhasa all monasteries were plenty with cats, in this one there were more than a hundred of dogs rooming all around and sleeping in every corner. But stay aware, because they really do not like foreigners. They attacked us twice (without any other consequences than a fright and the reaction of the pilgrims telling the dogs not to bite us while laughting).

Althought this monastery was much smaller than the other ones we visited before, it was the most special to me. The chapels were really dark inside, and all the pilgrims were holding candles and transferring their already melted beeswax to the chandeliers lightening the statues, so the scene was unforgettable and remembered me Indiana Jonnes movies.
We followed an old lady throw a completely dark passage, and me and Caroline were nearly scared when finding out that we ended in a room plenty with devil masks…
That place was specially charming, because there were lots of pilgrims doing their route inside the temple, and not just in the outside area…, and that’s something that we haven’t seen before.

Yak cheese smell and not very tuned voices singing folk songs made of the ride back to Lhasa a really Tibetan experience, jajajaj! And imagine if I liked Tibet, that I was even enjoying that horrible smell, because it was an smell that I wouldn’t find in any other area around the world, and I didn’t want to miss it.

The last day in Lhasa I was feeling terribly bad with a really strong migraine, so we decided to calm down that day and take it easy while shopping and taking our last pictures, but also to say goodbye to our already friends, the hostel rats.
That night when we checked in again in the Banak Shol hostel, they gave us the corner room, and if my memory doesn’t betray me, I think it was number 205…or the by us also called "rat nest"! Because next morning we even found huge rat “shits” in one of the room’s corner and finally that made us go to complain. They changed us rooms, and gave us this time one of the middle rooms.
That night we didn’t hear even a little mouse…(So if you plan to stay in that hostel too, that apart from the rat funny history, was a nice place to stay in, be sure they don’t give you the corner rooms, ok? Unless you like sleeping with human size rats, of course)

I guess that driving back from Beijing Airport to our apartments in Fu Li Cheng, we were all already thinking about our white and clean sheets, our own showers and the daily routine that we were already missing some days ago.
But at the same time, I was already missing the transparent and nice smiles, that just Tibetan pilgrims were able to give me back…

 More Tibet Travel Reviews
1. Songkran KYLE from CA Apr 18, 2005 12:04
2. <A> Leaving Tibet: An Overland Exit PLATTC from US Mar 27, 2005 11:03
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