The Flight To The Top Of The World

Disclaimer because I’m paranoid:  The “Autonomous” region of Tibet is one of the most politically sensitive disputed territories in the world. I will try to stay away from political comments, unless is absolutely necessary for the story. If you know me even a little bit you will know which side I support and which side I cannot stand. Someday I want to visit the Great Wall of China and I know that probably the all great, the flawless, your majesty the Chinese Government will be reading this, so I will keep my mouth shut. Thank you for your understanding….

We headed to the airport a little bit nervous. All the planning for Tibet has been really hard, complicated and expensive. China does not like western visitors in Tibet so they make it so difficult for you to go; they do not allow independent travelers to go there, so you HAVE to book a tour operator that will be responsible for you for your entire stay, which is expensive. To get a visa, the tour agency needs to apply on your behalf for a Chinese group visa and then process a Tibet permit that will only allow you to visit certain parts of the territory. Most is off-limits to tourists. Lhasa is the only place where tourists are allowed to walk without a guide.

Checking in at the airport was actually quick and easy and surprisingly they even had a lounge!  We felt bad that Courtney couldn’t join us in the lounge so we snuck out some food for her.The flight was on time and we requested window seats on the left hand side of the airplane. Eitan previously researched which side is better to see Everest. There are basically only 2 airlines that could take you to Lhasa, Air China and Sichuan Airlines (this one has a 50/50 chance that you die flying here). We chose Air China even though it is significantly more expensive, but we value our life.

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The flight is about an hour long and could possibly be the most beautiful flight in the entire world. Kathmandu from the air is very colorful, where most houses have either a blue or red roof:

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You can see the whole Himalayas for a good chunk of the flight, but the show starts when the captain announces that Mt Everest is now visible on the left hand side. A few things have made me smile as much as I was smiling when I saw Everest for the first time, right there next to me, almost as high as the cruising altitude of the airplane (29,000 ft), making an appearance above the cloud to welcome us to the top of the world. The captain makes a slight turn so you can have a PERFECT view of the whole scenery. It is truly inspiring and I if you are going to Nepal but not Tibet, then I recommend taking a flight around Everest and coming back to Kathmandu, totally worth it.

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The last 20 minutes you fly low on the Tibetan mountains full of turquoise rivers and snowy peaks, it is truly gorgeous and reminded me a little of New Zealand.

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After landing we needed to show our Chinese group visa a few times, but airport officials were surprisingly nice and efficient and we were out of the airport in 10 minutes. The facilities and technology used at the airport were decades ahead of what have we seen (looking at you India), for example, at the immigration desk there are individual cubicles where you enter and the door does not open until you are clear, then you can press a button to review the immigration officer efficiency and politeness. I wish I could take a photo of that but use your imagination.

Our guide was there waiting for us with a nice Tibetan white scarf as a gift. Our guide is a native Tibetan, part of why we chose this tour company as we didn’t want a Chinese dude from Beijing explaining Tibetan culture.

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When we got outside we were surprise of how not cold it was, the weather was perfect but the symptoms of altitude sickness were starting to show. Lhasa is 12,000 ft above sea level (an airplane cruising altitude is 30,000 ft). We experience some light headache, tingling in our hands, some nausea and extreme tiredness because of lack of oxygen; we slept on the drive to the Lhasa city (1 hour away).

We were welcomed with some delicious milk tea at the beautiful traditional hotel and went out to visit our neighborhood. The city is absolutely stunning, it looks straight out a fairy-tale with its well preserved old looking buildings. Most people are nice here, mostly native Tibetans, Han Chinese people here are not as friendly, they seem like they hate life.

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Most signs are in Chinese which shows the obvious influence China is trying to have here. You can barely hear the Tibetan language and generally speaking both groups do not know the other culture’s language; Chinese do not speak Tibetan and vice versa. We walked around the modern streets full of parks and nice clean sidewalks!

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Our hotel was located very close to the Drepung Monastery (we will talk about this one later). It is surrounded by this one way pedestrian street on a clockwise direction (Tibetan Buddhist believe that good luck and karma will come if you walk around monasteries and temples in a clockwise direction)

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People here are very devote and they do this crazy difficult prostration as seen here. Prostration is a gesture used in Buddhist practice to show reverence to the Triple Gem (comprising the Buddha, his teachings, and the spiritual community) and other objects of veneration. Among Buddhists prostration is believed to be beneficial for practitioners for several reasons, including:

  • an experience of giving or veneration.
  • an act to purify defilements, especially conceit.
  • a preparatory act for meditation.
  • an act that accumulates Karma.

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We sat down in a Tibetan/Chinese restaurant to enjoy our first local dishes, we tried Labrang, which is fried bread filled with Yak. We also tried Tibetan beer soup which tasted like croissant bread for some reason.

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We walked a little more around the souvenirs shops around one of the monasteries. The city at night looks stunning, but shops here close early and the souvenirs are overpriced so we headed back to the hotel to sleep.

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This city is absolutely stunning at night! it feels you are in another world.

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Bonus Pic Of The Day: The Chinese are so ridiculous that they imposed 1 time zone to all China and its other territories, the Beijing Standard Time. China is a country that is roughly similar size to the continental United States so it means that when it’s 6 o’clock in the nation’s capital, it’s 6 o’clock almost 3,000 miles further west, in Kashgar. Retarded? Indeed it is.  Thus this means that at 9pm it is still light out in Lhasa.

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