There's something strangely compelling about visiting Tibet. Call it magical or mysterious, mystical or spiritual; Tibet is a captivating and powerfully addictive place. The mountain scenery is breathtaking and staggering, the altitude is staggering, the people are wild and enchanting, the culture is intriguing and the monasteries defy description.
Siân Pritchard-Jones and Bob Gibbons, authors of the Cicerone guidebook, the Mount Kailash Trek, revisit Tibet.
The toilets are still exceedingly memorable, yet sometimes you have to wonder why on earth you are there. Each visit is uncomfortable, the food in the wild areas can be minimal and uninspiring, it gets bitterly cold at times, the altitude and barking dogs keep you awake at night and even the brilliant skies seem to burn into your soul on some tiring days— visiting Tibet is definitely a self-induced hardship.
Having visited western Tibet’s former mysterious Buddhist Guge kingdom and trekked around Mount Kailash in 2005, we were delighted to have subsequently written the Cicerone guide for that region. Now in 2011 we returned to Tibet, not to trek, but to cross its heavenly mountains and high plateau by road. Driving our ancient Land Rover from Kathmandu in Nepal, we climbed with trepidation up and over several 5000m passes, constantly wondering whether we, or the old engine, were made for this. The manmade obstacles proved more difficult than the physical barriers. China is not the easiest place for independent tourism, and untangling the bureaucratic net of overland travel proved to be an almost impossible challenge.
Travelling with our competent and informative guide in the passenger seat and one of us almost impaled on the gearstick at all times, we drove across the Himalayas to Tingri, with mesmerising views of Shishapangma, Cho Oyo and Everest. From the spectacular fortress monastery at Shegar, we climbed another pass to reach Shigatse. The Panchen Lama’s former monastery of Tashi Lhunpo here is thriving and we witnessed an amazingly atmospheric prayer festival, with hundreds of yellow-robed monks. Enchanting Gyangtse is the most Tibetan town en route, with its stunning Palkor Choide stupa, Kumbum monastery and rocky citadel fortress.
The road after Gyangtse, over the Karo La at 5560m, is formidable — a long, slow grind up to the snowy heavens. We recalled the days of the ‘Great Game’, when the Younghusband military expedition of 1903–4 fought poorly armed Tibetans on this pass. The British contingent then marched to Lhasa — ostensibly to open a trade route — sustained, of course, by caviar, champagne and Huntley and Palmer biscuits.
After driving around the beautiful turquoise Yamdrok Lake, we began the exhilarating climb up to the Kamba La. Masses of colourful prayer flags festooned the pass. At the top Chinese tourists gathered around the car, amazed to see a foreign British car but equally puzzled as to how old it looked compared to their latest models. Descending dramatically, the road snakes 1500m down to the Tsangpo River and on to Lhasa.
For so long a forbidden city, Lhasa today still resonates with charm and history. Parts are modern — meaning good Chinese food, comfortable lodgings and yes, proper toilets, but Lhasa is still an exotic, magical place. The dominant, gleaming Potala Palace is simply stunning. The temples, shrines and monasteries are inspirational, and the Tibetan Barkhor markets are thriving, lively and vibrant. Today, generally accessible, still otherworldly Lhasa does not disappoint.
For us the long journey to Europe continued from Lhasa, north across the wild, icy high plains to Dunhuang on the Silk Route and into Xinjiang. Beyond we crossed Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine — a journey of a lifetime. It was rough, cold, hot, dusty and nerve-wracking, but never dull. If we re-visit Tibet, perhaps we will be able to drive to Mount Kailash and northwest to Kashgar along the northern fringes of the Himalayas and Ladakh.
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