Hello from Lhasa! (elev. 12,000′ / 3650m) 26 June 2009

(Did I mention that we are now grandparents?! -grins- )

tour group with buddhaI CAN’T BELIEVE that I forgot to ask for a south-side window seat on the airplane, with an Everest-view possibility, but it didn’t matter anyway, because it was socked in with clouds. Can you imagine?…it would have been nearly at window level! We did see several impressive peaks (> 7000m/23,000′) that were marked on the China Air map, and the Tibetan terrain is incredibly rugged – FAR more so than I had imagined. I think of a ‘plateau’ as flat – so wrong.

When we landed, we were all surprised to find sharp, towering, ragged ridges surrounding the airport, which is 65k from Lhasa. Achi, Konchuk – our official Tibetan tour guide, Achi’s brother Tsewang, and Konchuk’s boss Tensing and owner of the local tour company, all met us in the light rain. We piled into two vans, and stopped briefly on the way to visit a beautifully carved and painted stone Buddha (above left). The 70’+ rock wall surrounding the carving was literally covered with ‘kata’ – the white, fringed prayer scarves offered in blessing – floating in the breeze; when we asked how they got up there, it was explained that they had been wrapped around stones and thrown like slingshots onto the wall by hundreds of pilgrims.

kyichu gazebo
We were completely delighted with our lodgings, Kyichu Hotel, at the center of booming Lhasa. It is Tibetan-owned and operated, with very traditional decor in bright oranges, reds, blues and greens, and has a spacious garden with tables and umbrellas tucked way in the back and surrounded on three sides by four stories of overlooking rooms, almost totally blocking the sound of the very noisy streets. This gazebo-style building pictured here to the right is a sort of bar. We sat for several hours, the five of us with Achi et al, drinking “milk tea” (mild sweetened black tea with milk) and eating roasted ‘gyatema’ (China beans), just telling/hearing stories (Achi’s stories of his childhood and escape and young adulthood are indeed amazing) and eventually getting around to the itinerary. After a late lunch of yak chili, Tibetan beer, yak chow mien, and a Tibetan barley-and-pork-dumpling soup with spinach (‘mothug’), we headed for our rooms to take a nap.

Up to this point, none of us had really experienced any altitude sickness symptoms other than very mild light-headedness. Well, that didn’t last long! It took only 2 flights of stairs (we are on the 3rd floor, no elevator), and we were like OLD PEOPLE!! Huffing and puffing, we had to stop about every 4 steps, and on the first landing, etc! And we all found we could not sleep. We would doze fitfully, and then wake up with a start, sort of gasping for air.

DorjeDinner was a special treat, and such a great way to begin this main part of our tour: Achi’s cousin Dorje had invited us to dinner at his home for a very traditional meal. So we walked over to the apartment building, all of us now feeling every bit of the 12,000 feet – breathless, still lightheaded, and now bloated, but no serious headaches. We walked along the main streets, Achi pointing out the original Tibetan buildings and decorations. Dorje’s home was so lovely – the decor is exquisite – finely detailed and colorful crown molding with superb workmanship, carved and painted cabinets, brocade-covered walls and ceilings, and elaborate woven wool coverings on the furniture.

And the food… starting with yak butter tea, of course!! Not nearly as bad as I had expected, it is heavy, salty, and actually helped our altitude symptoms. And the rest consisted of almost yak-everything: freeze-dried yak meat, yak-cheese ‘candy’, yak and white-carrot stew, yak tongue (actually quite delicious), yak yogurt, white carrots pickled with something pink with – you guessed it – yak meat, plus a nice heavy bread, potatoes with turmeric, very tiny sweet potatoes boiled and served in yak butter, and the Tibetan staple, tsampa – a barley flour mixed with yak cheese and water which Dorje kneaded in a leather pouch (above). We all nearly rolled home, we were so stuffed.

And of course, all day long we continued to check my phone for baby photos!! 🙂