Trials and Tibetulations: An invitation to Tibet - 3600km by train - the Forbidden City - 1200km by jeep - Everest - Buddha - the roof of the World. Make yourself a cuppa and sit tight - this is 7 Steps in Tibet and it's a long one!
Step 1 'Little pig, little pig, let me in' - First things first. Its leading spiritual figure and for many true political leader, the Dalai Lama, isn't even allowed into Tibet, so what chance have foreigners got?
To protect its historic 'independence', culture and religions, Tibet has always been nervous about letting strangers in. Admittedly, we didn't have to go through what Harrer and Aufschnaiter did in the 1930s (read Seven Years In Tibet) but it is now the Chinese government's turn to protect Tibet's privacy. Where once the governing monks feared that Westerners would undermine their authority and bring in new teachings to the people that the monasteries couldn't understand, now the Chinese don't want Jonny Foreigner to witness the continuing unrest and backlash from the Tibetans. Indeed, the Chinese insisted that Seven Years In Tibet was actually filmed in the Andes...
This air of mystery is precisely what draws explorers to its borders and why the Tibetan Autonomous Regions featured on our itinerary. But also why it shouldn't have been too much of a surprise when the Chinese government suddenly announced that Tibet was closed for the whole of July due to the anniversary of the Chinese 'liberation' (read invasion). They feared more monks burning themselves in the streets.
A bit of a w*** for us, as that's when we wanted to go and the only way we could keep to our commitment of travelling overland from Phnom Penh to Goa.
So our approach was two-fold: a) to be in regular email contact with more than 60 guesthouses and travel agents across Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan so we would know the minute the travel ban was lifted; and b) to swap a trip to Hong Kong and Beijing for a tour of SW China, so we'd be much closer to hop over the border but also visit the Tibetan villages on the China side just in case the doors remained closed.
James' dogged determination and new route paid off as - at the end of July -the restrictions on foreign travel were very quietly lifted.
Our man in Kunming Mr Chen (think Mr Chow from The Hangover but wearing even camper brown, pointy-toed mocassins), could arrange our permits and travel tickets in ten days. Unlike the other 59 agents, he even fancied his chances of getting a train ticket on the black market at a time when rather a lot of Chinese were going on their summer hols. Hurrah.
But here comes the final bit of gristle on what looked like a nice Roast Lamb dinner from afar. You can only venture into, around and out of Tibet with a guide as part of an official tour group. The words 'tour group' make us shiver but there was no way around it. It's also hideously expensive - in English terms not just Asian terms - and you even have to be accompanied by a guide to walk around the capital in case you turn out to be a photographer or journalist wanting to capture recriminating moments.
But some things are worth the price and we convinced them that our tour group could just be two people, so we said "Yes please Mr Chen" for our departure for the Land of Snow on 12th August.
Step 2 'Train Time' - Mr Chen's tickets were real and our Tibetan Tourist Permit, Chinese Visa, British Passport and Blockbuster Membership Card were deemed acceptable by the train guard. We were onboard.
This is one of the world's great train journeys and an engineering marvel so permit James to deal with the geeky stuff first. 3600km from Chengdu to Lhasa in a perfectly respectable 43 hours. After 24 hours, the fun really starts with the Qinghai-Tibet line - 86% is above 4000m, there are 160km of bridges, seven tunnels (obviously including the world's highest) and 24 hyberbaric chambers to deal with altitude sick workers (although this suggest that they have some way to travel to reach one!). Because half the track lies on permafrost, a cooling system of pipes are driven into the ground to keep it frozen and avoid those buckled tracks that the British are so fond of in the summer months. Completed in 2007, it took a mere 100,000 workers to build at a cost of $4.1bn (which is more than Beijing has spent on hospitals and schools in Tibet over the last 50 years combined - more Chinese bashing to follow!).
Having inspected the loco, boggies and gauge we settled into our six man sleeping cabin. There were five westerners on board, showing just how hard Mr Chen had to work in his underworld, and an estimated 1245 Chinese (43 hours is enough time to make such interesting calculations). The Beard was the biggest tourist attraction since the Great Wall and we were forced to tell the barman that he was serving fake bottles of genuine Budweiser, a fact that seemed to spread like the smell of the bogs through the dining car and, rather surprisingly, increase sales ten-fold amongst the lightweight Chinese drinkers. The cuisine was a little limited, with the highlight probably the breakfast on day 2 of tinned spam sandwiches as we gazed at the snow-covered Tanga-La pass at 5072 meters. At this dizzying height, oxygen is pumped into the carriages to keep the fake-bud drinking Chinese conscious and every passenger can pass the hours sucking on their own personal supply.
Apart from that, we can confirm that the train journey was indeed 43 hours, which is a long time!!
Step 3 'Entering the Forbidden City' - "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Lhasa. On your left, you'll see our cardinal landmark, the Potala Palace, built by the fifth Dalai Lama on the top of Red Hill. Nestled at the base of the Lhasa Valley is the Shol area that houses the heart of our Tibetan culture, the bustling capital and Mr Lama's summer residence. Lhasa may only be but a few small streets but it's a wonderful display of original Tibetan architecture, handicrafts, foodstuffs and clothes."
... Oh no, hang on, that was for a pre-1950s tour group. Lhasa is now yet another massive Chinese city. And this is not just modernisation; this is Chinese modernisation. As part of the invasion from the East, the Chinese burnt down 90% of original Tibetan buildings. Re-built, Lhasa is now a sprawling city with smatterings of Dico's fried chicken, Red Dragonfly jeans and, yep, karaoke joints built into its blueprint. And the streets are crawling with armed forces; six officers stationed at every street corner day and night on the hunt for subterfuge, strikes or just the odd rogue picture of the Dalai Lama. We weren't even allowed on a morning hike into the surrounding hills as the military now 'own' them.
True, investment and modernisation are flooding in, the GDP is rising faster than the train tracks, and Han immigration has done wonders for the city's restaurant scene. But the modernisation is coming on China's terms. Once the remote preserve of the hardy backpacker, China's current wave of tourists has been dubbed by the Lonely Planet as the 'second invasion'. It is now the local Chinese tourists who dominate the queues for the Jokhang and Potala. Chinese residents now outnumber Tibetans 2:1. The capital city is a whole lot of Chinese and just a little bit of Tibet.
But when you find that 'little bit' in the Old Quarter, walk on a kora of the Barkhor shoulder-to-shoulder (well, shoulder-to-head as they are little fellas) with 80-year old men in traditional dress, see the 50-year old woman prostrating herself with every step around the temple, watch the monks hotly debating the Lama's teachings in the courtyard at the Sera Monastery, and witness the 70-year-old German tourist struggling on his 7th step up the 130m hill to the Potala at 3,500m altitude, you remember. You're not just in any capital city. You're in the Roof of the World's capital city.
And it's just about hanging on to its uniqueness, good sense of humour and determination. Indeed, the death of the fifth Dalai Lama wasn't announced for 12 years so they could finish the Potala Palace instigated by him, with no foreign interruptions. Spending a day white-water-rafting down the Grade 3s just outside Lhasa with the locals showed a humorous but still 'just about surviving' character to its people.* Though the Tibetans now live in just 4% of the city, we really hope they do survive. And we hope more of the Tibetan way of life has survived outside of the city.
* Clearly the military don't have nor need boats in Tibet so couldn't stop us rafting, especially as we'd been told by our driver to "get our heads down" as our mini-van passed through the Chinese military checkpoint.
Step 4 'Roadtrip' - "Mr Gonzin, I understand that you don't have a car in Lhasa which I find most unacceptable. As agreed with your associate Mr Chen, we will leave at 9am tomorrow morning in your car. It is your job to find us a car and we will sit in your office and drink your jasmine tea until you do so. 1 suitable car. 9 tomorrow morning. You understand? I know that little Chinese men like you are very good at business. Get to work!"
Our first proper argument and oh what fun. At 9am on the day of departure, we greeted our Chinese driver, loaded up our Toyota Landcruiser (a far superior motor than we had paid for) and chuckled at the mess we had left for Mr Chen, Mr Gonzin and the chain of Chinese agents and sub-agents. Our Tibetan guide couldn't have been happier to get one over on his Chinese "money-money" boss, who he clearly despised. 1-0 to the English.
The route from Lhasa (Tibet) to Kathmandu (Nepal) is another 1200km overland classic. It crosses the Tibetan Plateau which, at nearly the size of Western Europe, is one of the most isolated regions in the world. Bound to the south by the 2500km-long Himalaya, it's a harsh and uncompromising landscape, best described as a high-altitude bumpy desert. The route itself rarely dips below 4000m and a succession of cliff-hanging and winding roads cross snow-covered 5000m+ passes which close the route for much of the year.
While stuck for four days in a Japanese Landcruiser with a bickering Tibetan Guide and a Chinese Driver, and between visits to yet more monasteries and a side trip to a big hill, the roadtrip gave us yet more opportunities to get up close to our Tibetan friends.
It turns out that old country folk stick out their tongues when they meet you. This very traditional form of respect is done to prove that the person is not the devil, as the devil obviously has a green tongue. We learnt the hard way that apple sherbets are not a good choice of Tibetan roadtrip sweet!
When not sticking out their tongues, the nomads are drinking an average of 40 cups of yak-butter tea a day. As we know from our night in the Tagong Grasslands, this concoction tastes like a mix of old socks and vegetable oil, so 40 cups feels like rather a lot.
Apart from that, we can confirm that the road trip was indeed 4 days and 1200km on mostly unpaved roads, which is a long time!!
Step 5 'Everest Base Camp (North)' - In 1934 Edmund Wilson, an eccentric ex-British army captain, hatched a plan to fly himself from Hendon direct to the Himalaya, crash land his Gypsy Moth halfway up Everest and then climb solo to the summit. He had no previous mountaineering experience and pretty marginal flying expertise. Needless to say he failed spectacularly. His body and diaries were found some years later at a feeble 6400m.
In May 2011, James and Nicola made what some may consider a less audacious expedition from Kennington to Everest. On Friday 19th August at 1600 hours the expedition party turned south off Tibet's Friendship Highway and headed for the mighty North Face.
With the screech of Landcruiser wheels, the rumble of Spice Girls on Driver's sound system and the howl of Guide's Tibetan tenor, we pushed on across the harsh conditions of the ... road. Yes - this is Tibet, sponsored by China, and the idiots have even built a blo0dy road (of sorts) to EBC so that Mr and Mrs Chop Suey can make it up here in their Pradar jackets and North Fake shoes.
Did it ruin the experience? Not wholly. Did a sleepless night gasping for air in a nomad tent at 5100 meters with the sweet smell of burning yak dung help bring back some of the authenticity? Yes. Did being the only people to walk the last 4km at sunrise, to the complete astonishment of the bus load of Chinese, make us feel like real British explorers? Kinda. Did the very unseasonal parting of the grey clouds, the blinding sun, the blue sky and the most stupendous view of a peak still 3.5km above us make it worthwhile? Definitely. Are we looking forward to Everest Base Camp (South) where the friendly Nepalese can resist the temptation to build roads and cable cars, so forcing explorers to, shock-horror, use their legs? Absolutely.
Step 6 'Buddha Up' - Travelling through a mixture of monotheist and polytheist nations in the last four months, we've done a fair bit of reading on world religions, their differences and - more often than not - their similarities. Although our understanding of Tibetan Buddhism has improved at a purely superficial level, the grandeur of the temples, worship of images and fierce protective deities at entrances seem at odds with the basic tenets of a faith that focuses on renouncing the self and following a path of moderation.
Of course, strictly speaking, Buddhism isn't a religion... it doesn't centre around a god but a system of philosophy and code of morality. Nonetheless, whether you remember the Noble Eightfold Path from school RE lessons or simply watched Keanu Reeves in Little Buddha, you'll know that life is a cycle of innumerable re-births for Buddhists. This means every life is precious and that your beloved grandmother may have been reborn as a worm. As such, any construction or demolition project proceeds at a (definitely-not-stepped-upon) snail's pace, as every spade of soil has to be searched for insects which are then re-housed elsewhere. (DJ, heard that excuse from your tardy engineers before?) Whilst we respect and admire this desire to accumulate good karma, please can you just finish the damn road at some point?
If Catholicism has the Pope, Judaism has the Rabbi and Adam Sandler, and the footballer's wife has Victoria Beckham, then Buddhism has The Monk. Whilst the Dalai Lama is still at the heart of religious development, it's the burgundy-clad, shaven-headed, Nike-trainer-wearing monks that provide the daily picture of Buddhism. Pre-Chinese, each family dedicated one son to the holy order, meaning 30% of the Tibetan male population were monks on the eve of the 1950 invasion. Now there are far fewer, but are still divided into those that meditate, translate, preach and debate. Perhaps less recognisably, Steven Seagal of pony-tailed, kickboxing movie star fame, was discovered to be a reincarnated 'trulku' (incarnate lama) of the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism. Clearly there's something for everyone here.
However, there is another form of Buddhism vying to be popularised. The Bon religion has been surpressed for centuries as an underworld form of Buddhism. Many guides and drivers won't even take you near a Bon monastery for fear of repercussions on their own beliefs. Interestingly, one Mr Adolf Hilter thought the Tibetan ancestors held a secret for his Aryan race and he modelled his swastika on the Bon's symbol for 'good luck'. So following a Bon pilgrim's circuit around a monastery means staring at thousands of swastikas as you try to concetrate on their positive meditative qualities and lose the engrained European connotations.
Overall it's true to say that in the Tibetan monks' eyes, they are 'tsampa eaters' whilst the Chinese are 'rice eaters', but their Buddhist hearts belong in India with Big D.L. How can that be anything other than a recipe for a messed-up future of this nation? Best get Seagal on the case to beat a few people up.
Step 7 'The Roof of the World' - In the period between the two world wars, a British officer expressed the opinion that, although the invention of aircraft had finally opened up the globe, one last mystery remained: a vast country on the roof of the world.
Although monks may no longer part their souls from their bodies to hover in the air and science/common sense means oracles no longer determine the course of events, Tibet is still the land surrounded by the highest mountains on earth. A forbidden country, whose capital is closely guarded by monks (and now the Chinese rozzers as well).
In a country where blue poppies flower secretly in the mountains, its people didn't deserve to have their thousand year culture destroyed. Much to the annoyance of the Chinese, the Tibetan desire for freedom (autonomy, not nationhood) has grown. Through the exiled Dalai Lama and books from explorers and mountaineers, far more is known about the people of Tibet, their culture and values.
And the people are so open of heart. A jolly crowd and - apart from the outrageous prices for the compulsory guides - a generous nation. Almost everyone comes away with an affection and admiration for the Tibetan people. This is in spite of devout Tibetans washing just three times in life (birth, marriage, death) - you don't want to go into the hot springs after them. And they seemed to have an affection for us, especially as we jogged in running shorts and iPods around Lhasa, a city where (at 3,595m altitude) no-one has ever even run a bath.
For some visitors, their highlight is of a spiritual nature thanks to magnificent monasteries, remote retreats and pilgrim paths.
For us, though, it was the aspiring and raw high-altitude valleys, lakes and mountains of this unique plateau. Walking to Everest Base Camp at sunrise and watching the 'Goddess Of The Sky' reveal herself was one of the most amazing moments of the trip. That and the cheap necklaces, of course.
Unfortunately, with every passing month, Tibet looks less and less like itself. If you want a place that's likely to change the way you see life and feel (literally) on top of the world, book your trip to Tibet now.
Just check it's open first, eh.