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Altitude with Attitude

A winter visit to the roof of the world might have been extra chilly, but when the views are of herds of yaks not tourists, it makes for a cool time

By Michael Jones Updated Jun.1

View of Mount Qomolangma (Everest) about three hours away from Base Camp, December 2021

View of the Potala Palace, Lhasa, December 2021

Christmas can be a difficult time for international workers, unable to travel home, uncertain how to celebrate. I attempted to go to the tropical south, instead I found myself in the early hours of Christmas Eve fully clothed in bed in a small unheated room. Outside, thanks to bracing winds, the temperature feel was -30°C, although it was only -20°C. The facilities were basic at best. At over 5,000 meters the air was extremely thin, slowing the pace of all activities. My skin felt sore and dry. Yet I was never happier to be anywhere my entire life. 

Plateau Odyssey 
My two-week trip in Tibet included Lhasa and other locations in the Himalayan foothills. By Christmas Eve we had arrived at Mount Qomolangma (Everest) Base Camp, where I saw the sunset over the world’s tallest peak, followed by the rich tapestry of stars which burst into life. 

Arriving at base camp requires private vehicles to park some distance away, with an hour transfer by ecobus. The terminal featured an astonishing number of shuttle busses, implying enormous demand in warmer months. However, in the depths of winter only one bus seemed operational, and our small party of eight (six tourists, a guide and driver) were the only visitors at the Base Camp Monastery accommodation. The intimate sense of splendid isolation, under a clear winter sky, offered an experience that would have simply been impossible had we been surrounded by tourist hordes. Each of us became intimately aware of our incredible privilege, as we wandered in silence, spread apart, across the pebbled valley as the day drew to an end.  

Tibet is a fascinating and surprisingly varied place. Capital city Lhasa is steeped in historical mystery and stunning architecture at every corner, and yet with easy access to modern goods and services. It was surprisingly mild and dry in December, regularly reaching over 10 C in the day, making it a thoroughly enjoyable place to wander the streets. The highlight is unsurprisingly the Potala Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which dominates the skyline and the reverse of the 50 yuan (US$7.9) note. Visiting the palace, our party was once again delighted to have chosen a winter vacation, and we were able to explore the magnificent palace chambers with no one other than the odd monk or two.  

Tibet’s variety only becomes clear when you leave central Lhasa and explore the vast natural landscapes which remain largely unspoiled, particularly its lakes. Yamdrok Lake did not disappoint. Such exceptional natural beauty would, in almost any other global context, host a thriving, bustling, and painfully annoying tourist industry. Instead, in such a remote location, you can easily find a vantage point from which to bask in the lake’s splendor in peaceful solitude. Aside from the lakes and mountains, the steaming hot springs in snowy locations offer the visitor a chance for natural warmth. I should stress that the hot spring I visited in Damxung was distinctly less luxurious than those I’ve visited in Beijing. However, it was owned by local monks, and what it lacked in glamor, it made up for in unique charm. 

Herd Behavior 
Perhaps the most iconic of Tibetan landscapes comes in the form of the vast grassy plains, where giant herds of yak and sheep roam with relative freedom. The herders live a traditional lifestyle largely unchanged over many centuries, and the yak remains central to much of Tibetan life. The Yak Museum of Lhasa is well worth a visit, although yak milk tea and yak cheese dumplings are rather acquired tastes.  

While herds of nomadic Yak provided a stunning sight, they did rather conform to my preconceptions about Tibet. The same could not be said for the Himalayan sand dune desert between Lhasa and Samye. Even in a land so full of surprises, the sight of Sahara-style rolling sand dunes seemed like a veritable contradiction, and yet there they stand in all their barren brilliance.  

Indeed, Tibet provided endless magical moments. From observing the group debate of monks in Sera Monastery, to witnessing the chants of nuns in Chimbu Hermitage (and watching one of the nuns share her breakfast with stray cats), to watching majestic vultures guarding their feast, much of Tibet felt like a time warp. Many less-frequented sites, such as Drak Yerpa Monastery, Ganden Monastery, and Samye Monastery felt even more impressive than the magnificent Jokhang Temple in the center of Lhasa.  

Particularly important is the need to always walk clockwise around any building with a religious purpose, such as the Potala Palace, or any nunnery, monastery or hermitage. This includes walking clockwise in streets adjacent to such buildings. Walking anti-clockwise is disrespectful and guards or locals may intervene. This is especially important when walking past a public toilet, as you cannot simply turn back at a later stage – you need to complete a full circle, known as a Kora.  

When it comes to the practicalities, there are a few important things that should be said. The first is about altitude sickness. We were informed that altitude sickness is extremely common, however none of our group (of varied ages and fitness levels) suffered any symptoms at all. The only time we felt the altitude was when moving too fast. Another feature of Tibet for foreigners is the legal requirement to have a guide and multiple visas to enter different areas (as well as Covid tests in these times). Thankfully our guide, from Experience Tibet, organized everything with exceptional efficiency, and we lost very little time to mouth swabs, and police paperchecks. For non-meat eaters, Tibet is not as restrictive as I had feared. Restaurants offer Indian and Nepalese curries, as well as pizza and other Western foods, especially in Lhasa, but also in such diverse locations as The Roof of The World restaurant, the last stop before Mount Qomolangma. Curiously, handmade potato chips and the crisp variety seem a universal street food across Tibet, where vendors slice, dice, and deep fry them at a moment’s notice.  

Alas, with the sun proudly risen above Mount Qomolangma my heart sank a little to leave the world’s highest peak. Yet, as Christmas Day arrived in the city of Xigaze I found myself in yet another place of wonder. Sure, I could have lived without the three dead rats in the hotel dining room. Nevertheless, as I wandered through the narrow streets of Xigaze Monastery, a veritable town of its own, with its white-washed medieval architecture, and assorted holy shrines, immaculately preserved over hundreds of years, we once again found ourselves silent, reverent, and in awe of this magnificent corner of the world.