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Trip Report rkkwan's 3-week adventure in Tibet 6/10

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Why and How

My friend M had wanted to go to Tibet for years, and finally had time for a real trip. Not 5-6 days in Lhasa, but three weeks - enough to visit both Nyingtri (林芝, Linzhi) to the east and Ngari (阿里, Ali) to the west. I had never visited Tibet before and couldn't pass over this opportunity, even though Tibet wasn't on top of the list of places I'd like to go this year.

[First, about the name of places. I will generally use the common English translation of the Tibetan name, followed in parentheses the name in simplified Chinese and the pinyin in Chinese; except when noted. Will also include elevation in meters and feet.]

Besides myself, M had also recruited our friend D, as well as M's friend K. To travel outside Lhasa, 4 is the magic number as that's how many can fit in a Toyota Landcruiser along with a driver, a guide and luggage. It is also how many that will fit in a soft-sleeper cabin on a Chinese train.

Unfortunately for my three companions from Hong Kong, I do not carry the "Home Return Permit" issued by the Chinese government to HK citizens. Consequently, for me to enter Tibet, I need to obtain the Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit through a travel agent, and have to use their guide and service while in Tibet. It adds a little bit to the cost, plus the time and hassle to obtain the actual permit before boarding the plane to Tibet.

M did all the research on the tour companies and decided on one called Find China (发现中国) that is run by a Cantonese person named Wu in Lhasa, and which caters mostly to Taiwanese tourists to Tibet (who also require TTB permits). We find that Wu responds to inquiries quickly and clearly, and he can be reached way into the night by email and MSN. We were corresponding with him in Chinese, but his English is supposed to be good enough for foreigners to use him. findchina@126.com & findchina@msn.com

Our original, general itinerary was this:
6/5 Fly into Lhasa from Guangzhou
6/6-8 Lhasa
6/9-6/11 Lhasa - Ngingtri - Lhasa
6/12-6/24 Lhasa - Shigatse - Mt Everest - Mt Kailash - Guge - Ngari - Nam-Tso - Lhasa
6/25-6/26 Train to Xining
6/27 Fly out from Xining back to Shenzhen and transfer to Hong Kong

Find China would charge us 22,000RMB total, which include:
- Tibetan tour guide and driver, a Toyota Landcruiser, gasoline and tolls for the two trips out of Lhasa 6/9-6/11 and 6/12-6/24;
- All travel permits, including courier fees;
- Pickup at Lhasa airport on 6/5 and drop off at train station on 6/25.

We didn't have to pay for accommodation or meals for the driver and guide, but in most cases we invited them to join us for meals anyways and we paid for them. Explicitly NOT included are the entrance fees to the parks and scenic areas - which can really add up. For example, park fees at the Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon is 270RMB/person; and at Mt Everest it is 150RMB per person + 400RMB/vehicle. That's over 2,000RMB for the 4 of us already at those two.

After chatting with other travelers, we found that it was a very reasonable price. It wouldn't have been much cheaper even if I didn't need to get the TTB permit.

So, M deposited 50% of the cost to Find China's bank account (30% to be paid after we'd arrived in Lhasa, and remaining 20% at the end of trip), and I scanned my passport and Chinese visa to them. M booked our plane tickets for 6/5 from Guangzhou to Lhasa on China Southern (1,840RMB each), and we started preparing for things we would need there. I bought the Lonely Planet guide and started to read a bit on Tibetan Buddhism.

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    Fly or Train? Or by road?

    Here's a common question for those planning to travel to Lhasa. How to get in and how to get out. We were not interested in going to Nepal on this trip, so we never considered the road to/from Kathmandu option. But we did consider all the other options - train, fly or by road into and out of Tibet.

    The Qinghai-Tibet Railway (青藏铁路) opened in 2006, and is the highest railway in the world. It is a trip and adventure by itself, with some of the most amazing scenery one can see by train anywhere in the world, so we would definitely want to try it if feasible. But there are a few problems when trying to ride the train into Tibet:

    1. Tickets are hard to come by for the summer peak period. The ticket office in Xining, Qinghai is notoriously corrupt and I have heard of fees (read: bribe) up to 1,000RMB to get a ticket from there to Lhasa. We could have started elsewhere, like Guangzhou (near Hong Kong), but that'd mean 54 hours (2 nights) on the train, which can be tiring.

    2. There are about 4-5 daily trains from Xining to Lhasa, but three of them start from somewhere else. One from Beijing, one from either Chengdu or Chongqing, and one from either Guangzhou or Shanghai. By the time the train gets to Xining, the beddings have been used by someone the night before, and the cleanliness of the bathrooms highly suspect.

    3. Despite some hypotheses that riding the train into Tibet helps with altitude sickness when compared to flying in, I have heard plenty of reports of mild to moderate discomforts from those who had rode the train in. Not hard to figure out why - after passing Golmud, the railway rises very quickly to about 4,500m/14,700ft and stayed there for many hours, peaking out at the Tanggula Pass (唐古拉山口) at 5,072m/16,640ft. Which is a good 1,500m or 5,000ft above Lhasa. Why would one want to pay a good fee to some agent to secure a ticket and then possibly suffer through it?

    Because of these concerns, we decided early on that we would not try to train in. But if possible, we'd like to train out from Lhasa.

    Now, going in by road via Sichuan or Yunnan is also possible, and popular. In particular, traveling the G318 from Chengdu up to Lhasa had always been a dream for me. But there were also two problems with it:

    1. Time. It'd be quite a rush to get from Chengdu to Lhasa in a week, and we'd also want to stop for various sights. That means we wouldn't have enough time for Ngari.

    2. Permits. The G318 passed through many "sensitive" areas in western Sichuan and eastern Tibets, with tonnes of checkpoints. It'd take quite a bit of effort to secure all the required permits for me the foreigner, and also if we got into any trouble at one of the checkpoints, that'd mean our whole trip would be in vain.

    Consequently, we decided to fly in, and leave the options open for the way out. If we could get the tickets, we'd train out; if not, we would fly out. We just need to get back to Hong Kong by 6/27. And I told M, D and K to bring their passports too, just in case the only way out of Tibet would be through Nepal.

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    I've been looking forward to your report, Ray. We've been doing a lot of reading and viewing of movies and documentaries on Tibetan Buddhism in preparation for our upcoming Sikkim trip.

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    Glad to see this get started! Thanks very much for explaining the reasoning behind your route choices. I've read that the overland route by road from Kunming is very trying even without checkpoints - would Chengdu be less stressful aside from the bureaucracy?

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    Altitude Sickness

    Naturally, the number one concern for any visitor to Tibet is altitude sickness. It can be dangerous, and can easily ruin our trip if one or more of us have moderate to severe issues. My parents and my uncle and aunt visited Lhasa 20 years ago for 5 days, and all of them suffered various degrees of altitude sickness. [Their group leader and a tour member even ended up in the hospital.] We certainly would take the issue seriously.

    Earlier this year M and K went to Hailuogou Glacier Park (海螺沟冰川公园) in Sichuan. I don't know how high they actually went, but the base of the glacier is at around 3,000m/10,000ft and where they overnighted should be lower. Still, K reported some mild discomfort like headache up there. So, she knew she had to be extra careful. M was mostly okay with that trip.

    Meanwhile 2 years ago, D went to Yunnan and visited the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山), where the cable car went up to over 4,500m/14,650ft. She did not report problem there, but she also didn't stay there for long. But during that same trip, they went over a mountain pass to view the Meili Snow Mountain (梅里雪山). While the elevation was lower, they were caught in some snow storm, and she did have some headaches and other symptoms.

    My previous "high point" in life was Mauna Kea in Hawai'i (4,207m/13,804ft) which I drove to top in a Ford Explorer last October. I didn't have any problem at all, but I also didn't stay there for long. Nor during my trip to Colorado also last October where I found eight 10,000 passes to cross, plus Pike's Peak (though I couldn't get to the top due to high winds).

    As precaution, M went to see her doctor in Hong Kong and got a prescription for Diamox (acetazolamide) 250mg as a precaution for her and myself. She used the prescription twice (things are lax in HK) to get 60 pills (HK$2 or $3 per; or US$0.25 or $0.4). K, on the other hand, started to take extracts of rhodiola rosea (Roseroot, 红景天), the most common Chinese remedy for altitude sickness, about a week before the trip.

    We understood that each individual's response would be different, and we were not going to take any chances. We were going to remind each other not to hurry or get excited for the first couple of days there, and we did not plan any itinerary. No shower, no hair-washing, no alcohol, plenty of fluids are a must during that time.

    But most importantly, we understood the danger, and that we were willing to abandon or alter part or all of the trip if necessary. If we had to go to a clinic or hospital, fine. If we had to fly out, so be it. It's not the end of the world. Visitors get into trouble (or even lose their lives) when they refuse to get help because they think they are healthy or can bear; and/or when they are not flexible with their itinerary.

    For our trip, we would first stay in Lhasa (3,500m/11,500ft) for a few days. After that, we would head east to Nyingtri, which is lower at around 3,000m/9,800ft where we'd spend two nights. Then back to Lhasa before deciding if we could go to the west, where it is significantly higher. First overnight at Shigatse is about 3,850m/12,600ft, and then to the Mt. Everest Base Camp, overnighting in a tent at about 5,100m/16,700ft. After that, it's a whole week at 4,500m/14,700ft or above - and days of travel from a hospital in Lhasa.

    I'd save the results in the main trip report below, but to summarize, M, D and I had zero to a little problem, while K had to go to a clinic once and then the People's Hospital in Lhasa another time from mild to moderate altitude sickness. Apparently, the rhodiola rosea extract didn't work for her. But she was cleared by the doctor for the rest of the trip and completed the journey mostly fine. I brought all my Diamox home, and we didn't use or even buy any bottled oxygen.

    Let me emphasis again to those planning travel to Tibet. Your experience in Colorado or the Swiss Alps or Mauna Kea have little relevance for Tibet, because most likely you didn't stay at over 3,000m/10,000ft for hours. The symptoms for altitude sickness usually do not start until 4-6 hours after staying up at those altitudes. That is also why and how some visitors get into trouble in Tibet. They feel fine after flying into Lhasa, and think it's okay to roam around immediately. Then they start to have problems that night...

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    thursdaysd - G318 from Chengdu may be just as trying, as coming up from Yunnan, and also known for its scenery. Can't say for sure, as I've not done either.

    Anyways, it is 714km from Dali, Yunnan to get to Markam where G214 and G318 meet. Chengdu to Markam on G318 is actually longer, at 924km. Either way, it is another 1,220km to get to Lhasa on G318.

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    Stuff we brought

    All 4 of us have traveled in China before, including rural areas with primitive facility, so we were quite prepared. Perhaps a bit too well. And even I brought some stuff that I usually won't.

    - Diamox (acetazolamide) 250mg, as already described above

    - Sunblock. The sun is incredibly strong up in the high altitude. I used a SPF 50+ one bought in Hong Kong and applied it several times a day. No sunburn, but I definitely got a lot darker.

    - Pillow case and sheets. A better alternative would be a very light sleeping bag, which M brought for herself. Quite necessary at some of the places we stayed overnight - the tents at Everest Base Camp and Nam-Tso, as well as a couple of "hostels" in Ngari.

    - Glucose powder and vitamin-C tablets. Glucose helped with altitude sickness for some of us, and I drop a Redoxon vitamin-C tablet in my water bottle everyday. There are oranges, but very expensive.

    - Water bottle and my own chopsticks. While one can buy bottled water everywhere, it is very nice to have a big Nalgene bottle. I used it for my Redoxon everyday. A cup or a big bottle cap would also be nice as there are no cups or glasses provided at many of the "hostels". And I brought my own chopsticks - while it wasn't really necessary, it was better for the environment than using the disposable ones at restaurants. Of course, if you prefer to use a knife, fork and spoon, you have to bring your own!

    - Hand sanitizer. No need to explain. I have never put so much alcohol on my hands before.

    - Dry shampoo. My friends brought a couple of cans, and they seem to work quite well. The remaining got confiscated by by security at the Lhasa train station as it's flammable substance. I shaved my head so I didn't have to worry about cleaning my hair.

    - Dried prunes. Now, this is something I wish I didn't bring. Some people who had gone to Ngari commented that there was few fresh vegetables and fruits out there, which was why I bought two big bags of prunes. Turned out that information was old, as we could find Sichuan restaurants serving vegetables even in the tiniest village (along the main highway, that is). And with the condition of some of the bathrooms out there, prunes are the last thing I would want to eat anyways.

    My friends also brought quite a bit of snacks, but basically one can buy anything and everything in Lhasa, unless you have to get specific brands of stuff. All kinds of snacks and drinks, even good hiking equipment. It is really not an issue. Scarves are nice to have, and also widely available in Lhasa - to wrap around the head or face against the elements; or face masks. And along the way, name-brand cup noodles can be purchased everywhere, so there is no worry about being hungry.

    All four of us are keen photographers, and since Tibet is not a place I would visit very often, I brought most of my photo equipment. In fact, I bought an used Canon 5D just before this trip as a 2nd and backup camera. Since all 4 of us use Canon dSLR, we were also able to swap lenses, etc.

    Me: 5D, 7D; 17-55/2.8IS, 35/1.4L & 70-200/4L IS, Sigma 8-16.
    M: 550D (T2i), Tokina 11-16, Sigma 18-200OS.
    D: 40D, 15-85, 50/1.4
    K: 300D, 18-55

    Turned out it was very fortunate we had an extra body, as D's 40D broke early in the trip. She ended up using the 5D with the 35/1.4L mostly, while K used her 15-85 for most of the trip. D also brought a tripod - which we shot some moon and star photos at night.

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    Oh, I almost forgot. I also bought a few other things in Hong Kong for this trip:

    - Protective filters for my lenses. I usually don't use filters on my lenses except for the "vacuum cleaner" 17-55; but I was warned that not only is it dusty in Tibet, but everything is also covered in a layer of yak butter - chairs, tables, people, everything. Well, turned out that was an exaggeration, and I think I would be fine w/o the filters.

    - An Imation 500GB portable hard disk. The hard drive on my Dell netbook was filling up quickly, so I added some storage.

    - A no-name cheapo GPS from some guy on Yahoo's HK auction site. My Nokia 5800 phone already has GPS, but the database for China is in pinyin. Got that GPS for just over HK$300 (US$40) with maps of China, Taiwan, Macau and HK. I didn't find it particularly useful, and I ended up using my phone to record location more.

    Day 0: 6/4/10

    All three friends of mine had to work that day, so I crossed into China first and met them at the Shenzhen train station. Immigration line was okay at Lowu. Our flight to Lhasa would leave Guangzhou (CAN) the next morning, and we needed to overnight in Guangzhou. Unfortunately, we missed the last direct train to the main Guangzhou train station, and could only get to Guangzhou East by the fairly fast CRH train (these are highspeed train set, but limited to 200km/h or 124MPH on this route) and then transfer by subway. It was a huge hassle.

    At the Guangzhou station, we met the agent (or perhaps a relative) of Find China's Mr Wu, to pick up my Tibet Tourism Bureau (TTB) permit. M and I had been worrying about it for a whole week, but they did get it issued in time in Tibet, and they couriered it down to Guangzhou for me. It was two pieces of paper. One is the permit itself, rubber-stamped; and a page that list the names of persons in the group - which would just be me.

    We stayed at the V8 Hotel (微八) next to the Guangzhou station. It is extremely crappy. Don't ever stay there. But at least the A/C work (more or less), and there's free ethernet. Main reason we stay there is because the airport bus departs right in front of the V8 at the China Southern Pearl Hotel owned by that airline. Very convenient. We had a late supper at Mr. Lee California Beef Noodle King (李先生加州牛肉面大王) next door. It's a chain with like 380 stores across China.

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    Day 1: 6/5/10

    Adapted from my flight report posted earlier in the airline forum:

    CZ3463 CAN-CKG-LXA A319 B-6209

    We took the 6:45a bus (16RMB) and arrived CAN at 7:15a. First time I used the new Baiyuan Airport in Guangzhou. Flew out of the old one many times in the 80's, but never since. New airport is modern and its layout makes sense. One of the nicer airports in China I've been to. We had breakfast at the Oak Tree Cafe 风雅老树 there.

    Predictably, our flight to Tibet got special treatment through security, with its own separate lane. Much more thorough than the regular checkpoints, and they needed to jot down info and make photocopies of my passport and Tibet permit. Some of K's creams and our cans of sardines were confiscated.

    But what's stupid is that after that "special" security, we were dropped back at the regular gate areas. No one ever checked ID again; and same thing at Chongqing during our layover. So, what's the point? If the Dalai Lama (or a terrorist) wants to get into Tibet, all he needs to do is buy a separate plane ticket from Guangzhou (or Chongqing) that day, and then switch the boarding pass with me after getting through security. [Well, the Dalai Lama has to sneak into China first.] The whole separate check is basically pointless.

    Our flight made a stop in Chongqing. Another new airport for me. Flew out of the old airport in 1986 following a trip to the 3 Gorges. Also, back then Chongqing was part of Sichuan. Now it is an independent municipality.

    Well, Lhasa Gonggar Airport (LXA, 拉萨贡嘎机场) is one of the highest civilian airports in the world, at 11,710ft/3,570m. I was checking the barometer on my Casio watch through the flight, and found that cabin pressure was normal through most of the flight, at around 7,000ft equivalent. Then , starting around 20 minutes from touchdown, instead of increasing cabin pressure in normal flights, cabin pressure was decreased in several steps, until it matched the outside pressure at touchdown.

    I noticed that the airlines that serve LXA - Air China and China Southern - basically just turn the plane around with the same crew. With such short layovers, the crew won't have altitude problem, and they don't need to be acclimatized.

    Located in the Yarlung Tsangpo (雅鲁藏布江) Valley south of Lhasa, LXA was about 100km from Lhasa until 3 years ago. Since 2 new bridges and a new tunnel were completed, the distance was cut to about 60km. About the same as Lanzhou, which I visited just 2 weeks prior. Those were two of the Chinese airports furthest from city centers.

    Anyways, outside the terminal, a Tibetan held a sign with my English name on it. I think that was the very first time in my life I was picked up at an airport this way. :D

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    Thanks for this great report Ray - we'd love to visit Tibet too & this is great information & love the detail (having travelled all around China many times & Having done our 3 mth tour from Harbin to Sanya - not too much detail wanted on toilets though please!).

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    thursdaysd - That Dreamsack looks like something I can absolutely recommend for a trip like mine.

    janev - I will definitely describe the toilets in detail, just for you! :p Seriously, that is pretty important information, in my opinion. To many travelers, that is the #2 concern (after altitude sickness), and comes before the cleanliness of the bedding.

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    LXA to Lhasa

    The driver who picked us up at the airport is a Tibetan named Danba Ciren (单巴次仁). Very good and experienced driver. In fact, for those who can visit Tibet without requiring a TTB permit and guide, they can simply hire him to drive outside Lhasa. M remembers reading recommendations on him and seeing his picture on some travel blogs or forums.

    The vehicle is a Toyota Landcruiser, of course. That is the official 4-wheeler in Tibet. Once outside Lhasa or Shigatse, you don't see many other types of cars, except for a few Mitsubishi Pajeros. And you don't want to travel outside Lhasa with any other type of cars, as mechanics know to fix Landcruisers and there are parts available. Not so with other vehicles.

    While the drive from the airport was only about 60km now, with the new bridges (over the Yarlung Tsangpo and Lhasa rivers) and tunnel; we stopped twice for rests - first next to a beautiful field of Canola in bloom, and second time for pictures of a big buddha carved into the rocks next to the highway. The driver was in no hurry, and neither were we.

    The highway (G318) enters Lhasa from the west, as a wide boulevard through the new town, and goes underneath the new railway. Not unlike the hundreds of cities in China these days. One difference is that there are a number of military barracks on that main road, and each has two Chinese soldier standing in front, encased in bulletproof glass on all sides. Like dolls on display in a store. I wonder with that very strong sun, what's the temperature inside... And if there's actually riots, can he shoot through the glass with his gun?

    Kyi Shol Hotel (吉雪宾馆, Jixue Binguan)

    We would stay at this place 3 times for a total of 7 nights. It is a small 3-storey so-called Tibetan-style guest house inside the old city with about 20 rooms total around a small courtyard. Very popular with independent travelers from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Our rooms on the ground floor (no elevators) are small, but clean with private bathrooms (shower and seated toilet), satellite TV, and free wi-fi. Breakfast is self-served on the 3rd floor (2 flights of stairs to get there!) with porridge, buns and hard-boiled eggs. There's also a semi-automatic washer (free), but no dryer. With the low humidity, our clothes dried quickly when we hanged them out in the courtyard.

    Its location is fairly central, on Linguo East Road (林郭东路), which is on the eastern edge of the old city. Linguo is the Chinese pinyin for Lingkhor, the outer pilgrimage circuit around the old city. [The inner one is the famous Barkhor Circuit.] It is about 650yards (or meters) through some major alleys to get to the SE corner of the Barkhor, or about 1000yards (1km) to the Jokhang Temple. And taxis are everywhere in Lhasa - 10RMB per ride inside city center.

    It is also very economical. While the usual June rate was 130RMB for a room with private baths, they gave us a discount, for only 100RMB. Hotels and guesthouses are quite plentiful in Lhasa, so the rates are very reasonable (compared to some parts of Tibet). But of course, it is still just a budget guesthouse that has thin walls and no oxygen supply (not an issue for us). The towels and beddings are very clean, but they don't change it for you each day.

    [Our travel agent, Find China, has its office at the Jiangsu Ecological Garden Hotel (江苏生态园大酒店), a 4* property on an island on the Lhasa River. They told us they could get us a room there for just about 150RMB/night. We declined because of its location. But it shows you how cheap accommodations can be in Lhasa.]

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    Great reading, Ray. I am one of those who won't likely make it to Tibet given altitude-related problems, so thanks for the opportunity to visit through your report and photos.

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    Days 1-2: 6/5/10 to 6/6/10 Lhasa & Altitude Sickness

    We were all super tired by the time we got to our hotel around 4:30p. Not so much because of the lack of oxygen, but more likely because of the lack of sleep the previous night and dragging the luggage from HK across Shenzhen and across Guangzhou the day before. So tired that there was no reaction from our first sight of the Potala Palace when entering town.

    After chatting for a while with Find China and fellow travelers in the hotel, we all took a long nap, only to cross the street late at night to the 24-hour Fenghualou (风华楼) for some beef noodles. While a bowl of noodles cost 3.5RMB in Lanzhou, it is 10RMB in Lhasa, though there's a bit more beef in it. I noticed that most cooking are done with pressure cooker. Makes sense, as at Lhasa's altitude, water boils at only 88C.

    Next morning, we got up at around 9a as breakfast is served from 7:30a to 9:30a, and we don't want to miss it. D had no issues with altitude at all, but both M and K threw up in the middle of the night, and still didn't have much apetite. I just felt tired and wanted to get some more sleep. Consequently, we all went back to sleep some more, until middle of the afternoon.

    By that time M already felt fine, but K wasn't - headache and no appetite. But we were hungry, so decided to all go find some food and get some fresh air. Right around the corner, we found Lanzhou Ma's Beef Noodles (兰州马记牛肉面) and ate there. The southwest part of the old city where our hotel is located is the muslim area. The main mosque is there, and so are many beef and mutton shops. [Ma (马) is a common last name for muslims in China. Same character for horse.]

    Well, a few steps out of the noodle shop, K threw up all she'd just eaten. It's been 24 hours since we arrived in Lhasa and we started to get worried as K hadn't had any real food intake. So while we started to walk around the old city, we also called Mr Wu of Find China. They would come pick us up to go to the altitude clinic next to their office at the 4* Jiangsu Ecological Garden Hotel.

    One thing Chinese clinics and hospitals always give you is IV. No idea what they put in it, but they always keep you for a few bags of fluids. So, while K got her treatment (final cost: 480RMB, also with assorted nameless medicine for the next 1.5 days), we wandered outside to the bank of the Lhasa River. [That hotel is located on Xianzudao (仙足岛), an island on the river]. Some girls were catching tiny fishes, and it was very quiet and serene out there.

    The treatment worked and K was feeling immediately much better. Find China dropped us back at Luwo Restaurant (驴窝餐厅) on Beijing East Road for some Cantonese food. Yes, just 30 hours after arriving in Tibet, we were already having Cantonese food. :D It is also a popular place for independent travelers to Tibet. We would eat there again, and got take-out from them yet another time.

    After dropping K off at the hotel, D, M and I went out again in search for some yak butter tea (酥油茶). We found our place - a very dark tea house with a bunch of Tibetans sipping tea and watching TV - Nima Teahouse (尼玛茶馆) on Beijing East Road and went in. 8RMB for a large thermos. First time I had yak butter tea, and I think it most resembles Campbell's Cream of Mushrooms. Without the mushroom, and add more water.

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    The yak butter tea I had in Inner Mogolia had a strong gamey flavor to it, it really didn't taste like anything I had ever tasted. The color did resamble Campell's soup.

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    mohan - All the tea houses also offer Sweet Tea (甜茶), and I prefer that to yak butter tea. Sweet tea is pretty similar to the milk tea people drink in Hong Kong.

    Day 3: 6/7/10 Finally some sightseeing (and shopping) in Lhasa

    We chatted with a young couple from Hong Kong during breakfast at the hotel. They've been in Tibet for about 3 weeks and were returning to HK the next day. They were going to visit some wholesale stores inside the old city that sells the same souvenir stuff as on the Barkhor, just a lot cheaper, so we followed them. For those interested, they are actually about 4-5 stores side-by-side directly across from the main entrance to the big Tromsikhang Market (冲赛康市场). As an example of how much cheaper things are there, a silver bracelet may sell for 8RMB; but a stall on the Barkhor will ask for 35RMB before you start bargaining. We would go back to the same stores at least 3 more times.

    Not realizing that we would have having Sichuan food for the next 3 weeks, we found lunch at the small Kouweixiang Sichuan Cuisine 口味香川菜 on Beijing East Road. Then M shopped for a nice pair of hiking shoes from Toread (Chinese equivalent to Timberland; and their prices are similar too). Then we stopped for a long time at the main Post Office - I have no idea what my friends got, as I took a nap there.

    Finally, 48 hours after arriving at Lhasa, we got a good look at Potala Palace, and took tonnes of pictures in front. We then went to the ticket office at the southwest corner of that block to reserve our time for the visit next day. During the summer period, you have to get that reservation a day in advance.

    We were approached by an agent of a tour company right then, and we made our biggest mistake in our whole trip in Tibet. We agreed to join their tour the next day for 200RMB/ea, which include guided tour of the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple, lunch, as well as transportation to/from our hotel. Sounds like a good deal at that time, as entrance fees to those two are 100RMB and 85RMB respectively already. But we'd find out how bad that decision was the next day.

    With a couple hours left before dinner time, we took a taxi (35RMB, as we forgot to bargain with the driver) to Drepung Monastery (哲蚌寺, admissions: 50RMB), one of the six most important monasteries of the Gelugpa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, and one of three inside Tibet. Because it was late in the day, and there was quite a bit of construction going on, the temple was very quiet with only a handful of visitors. It seems like we had the whole complex for ourselves - which was simply magical. There is quite a bit of stairs and grade climbing at Drepung, so only go there after you feel fine with the altitude. Inside the main hall, I paid the 20RMB photography fee, and the young monk who took my money was very happy to show us everything.

    There was no public transportation to/from Drepung, so we started walking down towards the main road. We waved down a minivan, and the Tibetan driver was happy to drive us back to Deji Lu (德吉路) near Potala Place for 25RMB. We had dinner at Xiongjiya (熊记鸭), a restaurant famous for its smoked duck.

    We went back to the Nima Teahouse again, mainly to drop off some pictures we printed for the kid there. This time we had sweet tea (甜茶), which I prefer to the yak butter tea. A small thermos of it only costs 4RMB.

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    Day 4: 6/8/10 Potala Palace and our Big Mistake

    Instead having to get up super early for the included transportation from our hotel to the Potala Palace (布达拉宫), we decided to just take a taxi (again, 10RMB) there before 10am. We knew something's not right soon after we checked-in, as the tour guide there simply told us to "hang around" and go "take some pictures". Turned out they were still trying to sell a few more tickets and kept delaying us - and we ended up waiting for an hour before allowing to go in.

    The guides these "operations" use are young Han Chinese girls. They were okay, and described all the things they were supposed to tell us, but not much more. But one problem is that there's this unwritten rule for these tours that they have to rush the groups through the main palace sights in an hour (not including the time to climb up and down). There are about 10 rooms in the White Palace and 30 rooms in the Red Palace with stuff to see, so you do the maths. It is really better off to go on your own, or just hire your own outside Tibetan guide to visit the Potala, as there are also clear descriptions and signs in Chinese and English about what's in each room.

    The Potala is really an amazing place to visit. To me, it really showed who and what the Dala Lamai is. What's disturbing is that there is armed Chinese guard (not sure if police or military) in basically every room. No place else in Lhasa does is it more apparent that Tibet is an occupied territory - like the West Bank - if you ask me.

    After being rushed through the Potala, it was already lunch time; but we were then forced into the souvenir store to look at the "Three Treasures of Tibet". We knew that's part of any tour in China, but what really pissed us was that we were really hungry, so would like to get some yogurt before going into the store. But a handler (not our guide) and demanded that we went in. We fought with him, and got really really upset.

    During lunch, we found out that they'd bring us to some more shopping before taking us to the Jokhang. We'd had enough and just took off after lunch, forfeiting the rest of the tour. We simply couldn't take it. Lesson learned.

    After resting for a few minutes at our hotel, we walked through the old city to the Spinn Cafe 風轉咖啡館, in an alley just off Beijing East Road. I have its Chinese name in traditional character, as the owner, Kong, is from Hong Kong, and that's how he writes it. Very popular with independent travelers and cyclists, especially those from Hong Kong. He's even published a book in HK about his adventure, and their website has plenty of information on independent traveling in Tibet: http://www.cafespinn.com/ We ordered our coffee and then found out Kong was in. He came over to chat with us for like 2 hours about himself, about our coming trip outside Lhasa and everything else. A really nice and fun guy.

    By the time we were done with Kong, the touring time for the Johkang was over, so instead we wandered to the Ramoche Temple 小昭寺, the smaller sister temple to the Jokhang. The visiting hours was over as well, but we could go inside its compound and circle the building (lined with dozens of prayer wheels) with the Tibetan worshippers. No admissions required. And we also climbed up to the roof for pictures.

    Worth mentioning is that Xiaozhaosi Lu (Ramoche Rd) that leads to the temple is quite lively, with lots of eateries and shopping places for locals. And there is some of the best French Fries I've ever had - along with those I had in Belgium. Definitely worth trying.

    For dinner, we went back to Luwo for Cantonese food. Wouldn't have any Cantonese for the next 2+ weeks, as we would depart Lhasa the next morning.

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    Just want to add one observation. There's heavy Chinese police presence inside the old city. At all the roadway or alleyway entrance, there are at least 4 or more armed guards. Along the Barkhor circuit and in front of the Jokhang, you'll see 10-12 guards matching around every few minutes - counter-clockwise against the pilgrim's direction. They are also armed with fire extinguishers, besides guns.

    Finally, at junctions of the major alleys, you'll find one or two scouts on top of one of the buildings - under a beach umbrella. And there are also uniformed "special police" who will walk around the old city individually.

    The Chinese are also very sensitive about the major bridges. You'll find armed guards on each end, and we were told by our guides not to shoot photos on or near the bridges.

    And of course, it'd be foolish to take pictures of any police or military personnel in Tibet, period.

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    Day 5: 6/9/10 Lhasa to Nyingtri

    Our Tibetan guide Bianba Ciren (边巴 次仁) and the driver came to our hotel early to pick us up and started our 3-day excursion east to Nyingtri (林芝, Linzhi). From what he told us, another guide was supposed to take us, but had some family emergency so he came instead, despite just having come back from a trip to Ngari. Bianba has a been a guide for 20 years and is highly experienced. He speaks very good Putonghua, but no English. M remembers reading about him on various travel blogs and forums, and we would hear more about him. In short, we were extremely fortunate to have him as our guide - and he would also accompany us for our longer trip to Ngari after we'd return to Lhasa in a few days.

    He also brought along a big folder with all the travel permits that I'd need. The two page permit I brought up from Guangzhou now becomes like 10 pages in his folder, from various agencies and the Chinese military. And I also got a paper permit to put inside my passport. Over the next 2.5 weeks, we would have to show those papers at least 6-7 times, and Bianba had to go to the police stations at Nyingtri, Shigatse and Ngari to notify them of my visit, and have stamps chopped onto the papers.

    Our driver is also Tibetan, and only speaks broken Chinese. He drives safe and very very smooth - on both pavement and on gravel. And he would need to do some minor repairs a few times on the car - cleaning the fuel filter - with no problem. The vehicle was a previous generation Toyota Land Cruiser with the 4.5L inline-6 that is ubiquitous in Tibet (built between 1993-97). When fully loaded with 6 persons and luggage, it could still be a bit slow on the steep grades, but in general quite comfortable and very reliable. I would sit in the front passenger seat, D, M and K in the middle row, while Bianba would sit in one of the 3rd row jump seat in general (except for a day or two where I switched with Bianba when it was necessary for him to be in front).

    We would take G318 east out of Lhasa. G318 is the major national highway or guodao (国道) between Shanghai and the Nepalese border. Initially we followed the Lhasa River Valley, but then it climbed over the 5,013m/16,450ft Mi-la Pass (also known as Pa-la Pass, 米拉山口). ["La" in Tibetan is Pass.] That'd be the first of our many 5,000m crossings, and easily the highest point any 4 of us had been in our lives. We were feeling fine, and walked around and took numerous pictures. At the top of most mountain passes in Tibet are lots of prayer flags, and no exception here.

    Not far beyond Mi-la Pass, we'd stop at a "lunch village", still at over 4,200m/13,800ft. About 2 dozens of restaurants (mostly Sichuanese, remaining Muslim) line both sides of G318 cater to travelers and truckers. We ate at one called Chuanweixiang 川味香菜馆. Things are not cheap, and we ordered some wild mushrooms that cost 60RMB! [They also have some specialty Tibetan chicken and pork that costs up to 300RMB a dish!] We would stop at the same place on our way back from Nyingtri for dinner two days later.

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    Ray, I find your observations of the Chinese presence chilling. The guards walking counter-clockwise reminds be of the repeated deliberate desecrations of Buddhist monasteries, temples, etc in the years since the Chinese take-over of Tibet. I wondered if things were getting any better - apparently not.

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    Kathie - While I was reporting what I saw on the street, I tried to look a little deeper to see what is the underlying problem or problems. What I find is less about politics or religion or the Dalai Lama, but more a social-economic problem.

    First, I don't think most Tibetans want or care about seceding from China. It is a practical impossibility, and most are not willing to raise an army to fight a war for independence - and with the low population density, how can they fight off subsequent influence from the Indians and other peoples from Central and South Asia?

    Second, from my 3 weeks in Tibet, with some contacts with Tibetans - including our tour guide who was jailed for a year following the Tibetan uprising in the Spring of 1989 (before Tiananmen a few months later) - the influence of the Dalai Lama is pretty slim these days in Tibet. For one thing, which I realize after my visit to the Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama is basically a king, or like the Holy Roman Emperor. It is a political position, not really a religious one (which is more the "job" of the Panchen). With Tibet now part of China, there is zero chance China will let him visit. And the people realize it.

    And the Dalai Lama position and title is only established in the 13th Century, and only after the Gelugpa Branch became dominant in Tibet, under the rule of the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th Century that it became so powerful over the whole Tibet. Now, after 1959, there's a new lord over the place, and gradually people has accepted it.

    Tibetans are not 2nd class citizens like Palestinians in Israel. They are full Chinese - they can travel all over Tibet and any parts of China just like anybody else. In fact, there are benefits to be a "minority" in China - I know some Han who claim to be a minority group for that reason.

    Now, here's the real problem. Beijing thinks that by bringing great great economical development to Tibet, Tibetans will be happy and embrace Beijing rule. Part of that may be true, but that development also brought huge number of Han and other Chinese to Tibet to live, work and make money. That is what the Tibetans see - people who don't look like them, people who don't believe in their religion, people who don't speak their language - took over their capital Lhasa. The Lhasa today is probably 10 times the size what it was in 1959, with that 9 new parts all ethnic Han or other non-Tibetans.

    While some Tibetans (mostly younger ones in Lhasa) learned to take advantage and move up economical with that - like our guide or driver, or others who open up Tibetan guest houses and restaurants - most haven't. They enjoyed their lives herding sheep, circling the Potala and Jokhang, and drinking yak butter tea all day, why out of the sudden they have to work their butts off to compete with these foreigners who have come to overtake their land?

    Besides motivation or habits, they probably also lack the skills and business networks to compete. One of the most profitable exports from Tibet these days is Cordyceps Sinensis, or caterpillar fungus, or 冬虫夏草 in Chinese; which I find them selling for up to 12,000RMB for 60grams retail. Now, on Dongzisu Lu (东孜苏路) inside the old city, just around the block from our hotel, are at least 30 wholesale stores in brand new buildings. Each day we saw people bringing the fungus there, and people would sit around choosing and grading them. But these stores are entirely owned and run by the Muslim Hui (回族) people, not Tibetans. You know where most of the profit of this trade goes.

    As a result, the Tibetans in Tibet remain in the bottom of the economical layer, and getting worse. And whatever benefits or welfare the Chinese and foreigners give to the Tibetans only make them more reliable to handouts - and often literally. Each day walking around the old city, we were asked by Tibetans for food or money, old and young and even capable working-age men. At many scenic spots across Tibet, young kids were taught to harass tourists by forcing crappy souvenirs on them or asking for money for photos. Other kids learned to stand in front of public bathrooms and demand 1RMB for each visit. In turn, the Hans see the Tibetans as lazy and inferior to themselves.

    ---

    That's the situation there, and it is not pretty. I don't know what is the right solution. Only telling what I saw and what I think.

    BTW, I'll try to keep this thread to my trip report - what I saw and what I thought. For deep political debate, please start your own thread in the Lounge, and put a link here to that thread. :) Thanks.

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    Ray, thanks for your observations. I don't want to get into a political debate, but wanted more information on what Tibet is like now to a visitor. In preparation for our November trip to Sikkim, I've been viewing a lot of documentaries on Tibet, as there are Tibetan monasteries in Sikkim, established as monks fled the Chinese.

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    Kathie - Let me add that all four of us are Han Chinese, and we were treated very nicely and warmly by basically all Tibetans we've met. I don't like people following me for money, but they never get aggressive or violent (which has happened to me before in other parts of the world).

    And we just ignored the armed police and military people, which is what the local Tibetans do as well.

    Never saw any conflict.

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    Getting back to the trip, let me first mention that once we crossed the 5,013m/16,450ft Mila Pass, we left the municipality of Lhasa and entered the Nyingtri Prefecture (林芝地区, Linzhi Diqu). Nyingtri looks very different from Lhasa and the western part of Lhasa. It gets a lot more of the monsoon, so the flora is vastly different. Instead of deserts (think Utah) of Lhasa, Nyingtri is like the Alps, full of tall pines and meadows. In the valleys are lots of canola, and they are all in bloom at this time of the year. Very beautiful.

    The houses are also totally different. Instead of the whitewashed flat-roof buildings, here they have slanted roofs, as there's significant snowfall in the winter. But here's what's get weird. In the past, the roofs are made of wooden planks, held down by pieces of stones. But the Chinese government are either giving away or selling them "environmentally-friendly" metal roofs to preserve the trees there. These roofs come in only a few colors - pink, purple, blue or red. All of them very bright and none matches the environment. Also interesting is that while some villages go with same color in all the houses, others are random. Makes for very interesting pictures.

    Religion is different in this part of Tibet as well. The Gelugpa Branch is not as dominant here, with many practice the Nyingmapa and Kagyupa branches of Tibetan Buddhism or Bön. We saw a lot of the single-colored prayer flag on poles, rather than the multi-colored ones tied to ropes.

    On the roadway, we'd often see pigs in this region, as the elevation is lower and warm enough. No pigs in Lhasa or west of it. We'd also see pilgrims walking along G318 towards Lhasa. They would walk a few steps and then prostate themselves - full body on the ground - common sight in Lhasa. Usually a few members will represent their village, with a donkey cart following them. It could take years for them to reach Lhasa, and again years back.

    We'd follow the Nyang River (尼洋河), one of the main tributaries of the Yarlung Tsangpo, from its source all the way down to Bayi, the largest town of Nyingtri where we would stay the night. Along the way, we saw a lot of new and rebuilt villages, built with support from the coastal Fujian and Guangdong provinces. And there were lots of new high-voltage transmission lines all over the region. Bianba said most villages started to receive electricity in the early 90's in that region. Overall, it is one of the more affluent part of Tibet.

    We stopped a few times in the afternoon. First to view a huge stone "pillar" in the middle of the rapids on the Nyang (中流砥柱). Then we stopped at one of those newly rebuilt villages with funds from Fujian - Apei (阿沛), which is just east of the Gongbo'gyamda county seat (工布江达县). We went to what's basically a Tibetan B&B to see their traditional furniture, clothings, and had yak butter tea there; for 5RMB per person. We were told that the building costs about 400K RMB to build. [Remember, our guide Bianba had only met us earlier that day, so he was taking us to all these standard tourist stops. Later in the trip, we would stop at more authentic places.]

    Finally, we would stop at a little suspension bridge on the Nyang and cross it on foot. On the other side is a one of the few remaining village building dated to the Tufan (吐蕃) period in the 7th to 9th Century. Unfortunately, there were lots of dogs there, so we could only take pictures of it over a stone wall.

    At around 8pm (or 10 hours since we left Lhasa), we arrived in Bayi (八一, 2,994m/9,826ft), the modern booming town which name means "August 1st", the founding date of the People's Liberation Army in 1927. Its main roads are named after places in Guangdong and Fujian Provinces. Even has a Xianggang Lu (Hong Kong Road). It is located in a beautiful valley with mountains on all sides. We stayed at the very new Basongcuo Hotel (巴松错宾馆), named after the Pagsum-Tso, a lake we would visit 2 days later. Not cheap at over 200RMB per standard double room, and no free internet. For dinner, we walked around the corner to a noodle place for something simple. Bianba took my travel permit papers to the local police station to get it stamped.

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    Day 6: 6/10/20 Bayi to Paizhen, Nyingtri

    After a simple breakfast at the hotel, we checked out and continued east on G318. First stop was the Serkyem-La, (色季拉山口), the high pass at 4,560m/14,960ft that if one's lucky, can get a good look at the very prominent Namcha Barwa (南迦巴瓦峰) across the Yarlung Tsangpo at 7,782m/25,531ft, which was only summited once by a Chinese/Japanese expedition in 1992 and not since. The summit is rarely visible due to cloud cover, and no difference on this day.

    On the eastern side of the pass is our next stop, the Lunang Forest (鲁朗林海). It's a primitive forest of spruce and pine on both sides of a valley going from around 12,000ft in the bottom to the snow line near the top at over 15,000ft. There is an observation tower there but is not worth its 40RMB admissions, so we simply strolled down G318 leisurely. Further down the hill, we stopped again for views of the valley before having lunch at the bottom of the valley. Another "lunch town" with about a dozen restaurants catered to travelers, all with the specialty stone pot chicken. We went to one called Liao's (廖记). The chicken soup is awesome.

    After lunch, we'd backtrack on G318 to Bayi and then turned south onto S306 and followed the Nyang again to its confluence with the Yarlung Tsangpo. The only bridge to cross the Yarlung Tsangpo is at the Nyingtri Airport at Milin (米林). It is a new airport with commercial service, but we didn't see a single aircraft. Then we turned onto a smaller road and went east along the south bank of the Yarlung Tsangpo (with a couple of picture stops) to reach Paizhen (派镇, ~2,935m/9,630ft). It is the entrance to the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon (雅鲁藏布大峡谷), now a park run privately. Entrance fee is 270RMB, including 150 for admissions, 90 for the bus tour, and 30 for mandatory lunch.

    We stayed at the Brothers Hostel (兄弟旅舍, Xiongdi Lushe), a new and clean place. They were not that busy that night, so they gave us two rooms - I stayed in a double room, and my three friends stayed in a quad. I was charged 40RMB and 30/each for them. There are public sinks with running water, and individual shared toilets with seats. They even has a couple of shared showers though none of us used. I would highly recommend this place if not for the lounge right below our rooms. There is no insulation in the building - just wooden boards for the walls and floors/ceiling. But I was tired enough to fall asleep soon after dinner, despite the incredible noise.

    The owner of the place is a nice lady from either Sichuan or Hunan, which I forget. She's also the cook for the hostel restaurant where we ate, and she has a a couple of nice dogs, one of them a beautiful golden retriever! They seem to have quite a few foreign visitors, including trekkers who would start their multi-day hike across the mountain to Medog or Metok (墨脱), an almost mythical place deep inside the Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon and is the only county in China not reachable by roads. (Construction started last year).

    At under 2,950m/9,700ft, Paizhen is the "lowest point" of our entire 3-week stay in Tibet. And to celebrate that, we had Lhasa Beer - first alcoholic drinks since arriving in Tibet 5 days prior.

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    Day 7: 6/11/10 Nyingtri to Lhasa

    After breakfast at the hostel, we boarded the 8:30a tour bus into the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon. We (the four of us plus another single traveler from Shanghai) were put in a minibus just ahead of several bigger groups, which I believe departed from Bayi early in the morning. That was crucial, as each scenic spot would be quiet and empty when we got there and became a market when we departed for the next one.

    The tour was not bad, with our guide a young girl from Chongqing. We stopped at like 5-6 spots for pictures, with the last one right next to the river, about 20km from Paizhen, and is also the eastern-most point in our journey in Tibet. We get clear views of the 7,294m/23,930ft Gayla Peri (加拉白垒峰) on the northern shore of the river, but again the summit of Namcha Barwa was mostly covered except for a few seconds.

    After our mandatory 30RMB lunch back in Paizhen, we started our long trip back to Lhasa. We tried the famous Nyingtri watermelon from one of the stalls on G318. These watermelons are slightly larger than the "personal-sized" PureHeart from California - very juicy, but not the sweetest. Then we visited the beautiful Pagsum-Tso (巴松错), an alpine lake at 3,460m/11,400ft. Again, we would need to ride their own bus (admission: 100RMB/each) up to the lake. We would cross a floating bridge on foot to a little island with a small temple belonging to the old Nyingmapa (宁玛派 or 红教) branch of Tibetan Buddhism. On the far side of the lake is a spot where water burial is still done today.

    We had dinner back at Chuanweixiang 川味香菜馆, just east of Mi-la Pass, and got back to the Kyi Shol Hotel in Lhasa at around midnight.

    K was not feeling the best once again, and with our next part of the journey reaching even higher altitude, she decided it's better to see a doctor again. Instead of going back to that clinic, Bianba took her (and M) to the big and modern Lhasa People's Hospital (拉萨市人民医院), just a few minutes' walk from our hotel. Again, they gave her IV, and the doctor said she should be fine for the rest of the trip. Cost: 160RMB, which is 1/3 of that clinic.

    Bianba also confirmed that he would indeed be our guide for our trip to Ngari starting late next morning.

    ---

    This concludes the first part of our trip. This page is starting to load slowly, so I'll continue in a new thread.

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    Ray, good job with this report. As you know I am waiting for the next installment so I can incorporate your info into my Sept. trip to Lhasa. Enjoyed the pictures but, I have seen you face to face, let me see the three ladies you traveled with.

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    Very thoughtful travelogue , enjoyed it a lot. Re the train vs. fly in issue : your comments would be accurate for a bus journey , but not for the train. The left out factor here is the onboard oxygen : everyone gets extra oxygen ( http://korta.nu/3e3c ) after Golmud , so the effective altitude is nowhere near 4500 - or even higher than Lhasa. The best way to do this is to spend one or two nights in Xining , and then take the train in -I´d be extremely surprised if you´d find anyone vomiting in Lhasa on that route.

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    vistet - Is that your blog and did you see the panel on the oxygen concentrator saying the oxygen level is 24-25% on the trip INTO Tibet? Because on our way out, the display only reads 21.4%. Maybe they run it higher for the trip in?

    And for anybody going to stay in Tibet for more than a few days, it is bad idea to use the vents for even more oxygen via the valves in the picture you see. Your body needs to get acclimatized, and using very high level of oxygen is not the way to go.

    About people feeling uncomfortable on the train in, I don't have 1st hand experience, but that's what I have heard from some who did. While I was in Lhasa, and also a couple of years ago when the railway just started. But I'd agree with you about spending a little time in Xining first.

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    My blog , but borrowed experience : the measurements came from John B. West , a specialist on altitude sickness , writing in the High Altitude Medicine & Biology journal. He was carrying his own O2-meter , not just passively writing down what the panels say.

    You´re right in that using oxygen delays acclimatization - my suggestion would be not to use the extra oxygen as long as there are no symtoms , and not hesitate to use it at first signs of headache.

    Interesting that they use a different concentration on the outbound train , I´ve been wondering about that.

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