My to-do list these days is a little ‘bucket’, but in the good old days, when I was keen enough to hike in the mountains (okay, walk on hills), I was working to earn enough money to trim my to-do list at every opportunity.
My bucket list: the roof of the world
I had dreamed of reaching “the roof of the world”, Tibet, since I was a little girl. I remember reading and watching everything I could find on Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer Seven years in Tibet (1952) and Alexandra David-Neel Magic and mystery in Tibet (originally published 1929) at Everest: the western ridge (1965), written by Tom Hornbein, and other titles.
By the 1980s, I had become a seasoned solo traveler and had visited countries all over the world. I was ready to accomplish my dream bucket list destination.
Today it is possible to fly to Lhasa. The nearest international airport is in Chengdu, and from there the flight to Lhasa takes about 2.5 hours. But in the winter of 1987, the “easiest” and cheapest way was to cross Nepal by land. It was the first of my nightmares.
Rocks and mudslides: the first of my obstacles
A car had taken us from Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, to the small town of Kodari on the Nepalese border. We were going to cross the border on foot to Zhangmu town in Tibet, then head to Lhasa, about 480 miles away. The roads here were often closed due to rocks and mudslides.
The day we entered Tibet, I had to walk through an expanse of boulders and boulders. I replayed this scene in my head the entire time I was in Tibet, knowing that I had to re-travel in the opposite direction. In some ways, the terror I felt lasted throughout my time in Tibet, coloring many things I experienced along the way, although thankfully not all of them.
On the bus: cerulean blue sky
We then stumbled over to an old and damaged Land Rover on the other side and negotiated with the Tibetan driver to take us to the main road, where we signaled an eastbound bus.
We stopped a few times and got out to breathe the thin air – there were no trees and certainly no bathrooms – or a lot of other things except the snow capped mountains in the distance and the brightest blue sky I have ever seen.
We visited the giant Tashilumpo Monastery in Shigatse (built in 1447). The countryside we went through was dramatic and serene: the bright, scorching sun would soon turn my hair bright orange, not on the hair dye color palette.
Lhasa looked overwhelming after Shigatse: more people, more buildings, more soldiers, with the old Potala Palace towering over the city. It seemed unreal after all the photographs I had seen of it in my childhood.
We ended up staying in an unnamed guesthouse, where unwanted guests in our room included rats. Friendly Tibetan girls chased them away from us and tried to plug the holes in the walls to prevent them from entering. We ate in street markets or basic restaurants (although I never got used to yak butter tea). My traveling companion was innocently asking for the tastes of my food, and in my state of intense sleep and lack of oxygen, I began to think she was pinching it.
As I traveled across the country, I felt that my two recent molar implants started to hurt and then deteriorate (they were then removed). That pretty much summed up my mental / dental state in Lhasa.
Leaving Lhasa, we headed for the town of Gyantse, where we visited the Palcho Monastery, built in 1418. This sacred area of Gyantse is dominated by the Kumbum, a temple that takes the form of a sort of mandala in three dimensions. In the more than 70 small rooms that surround the structure are many elaborate paintings, a number of which were created by Newari artists from Nepal, as well as Chinese and Tibetan artists.
The last hurdle: wild dogs
After crossing the road back (no rocks or mud luckily) I ended up going down the hill towards Nepal on my own because my traveling companion took the more difficult route with a group of travelers who ‘she met. I wandered the “easy” path, only to stop dead when a pack of feral dogs confronted me and started growling. I armed myself with nearby rocks, which I threw with some precision. I might have barked at them too. Either I scared them off or I didn’t look as tasty as some of the wild animals that were passing by. I cried in relief because I was OUT.
What I liked about my trip to Tibet
- People: I will never forget the smiles on the faces of the people we met. Even with the vast language gaps (I had studied Tibetan for 6 months but had a very limited vocabulary which often elicited laughter), the people were friendly and kind.
- The vivid colors of nature and art: I remember thinking about the colors created by the Tibetan people. Aside from the vivid blue of the sky and lakes, much of the country lacks vibrant colors. The colors used by Tibetans – in prayer flags, paintings, thangkas, and brightly colored jewelry and clothing – were fascinating.
What was the hardest part of my trip to Tibet
- I was surprised that the physical hardships were so deep – the altitude, the political challenges of being in Tibet in 1987, the health issues, natural disasters like landslides and the difficulty of moving from place to place. the other.
- Did I mention the rats, feral dogs, low oxygen nightmares, smoke filled buses, rotten teeth and mud / rock slides?
Tips for someone planning a bucket list route
- Find someone who can do what you can’t. I found a real hiker to help me climb hills.
- Learn some of the language – even a few words make a difference.
- Familiarize yourself with the culture: read, read and read.
- Try to get contacts at your destination.
- Write everything down: you can remember and / or laugh at your experiences.
My final tip for reaching a place on the to-do list: I might not be so in awe of a destination, but then I remember the dream being what got me there. Every time I see a photo of the Potala Palace, I remember the surge of joy and accomplishment I felt upon reaching it.
Check out these informative articles before planning a trip to Tibet: