Journey to the West
A Yenching Academy scholar from the UK shares the experience in Tibet
By Natasha Lock  ·  2020-02-21  ·   Source: NO.9 FEBRUARY 27, 2020
Tea time and debates in the afternoon at the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Xigaze, Tibet Autonomous Region in southwest China, in July 2019 (NATASHA LOCK)

For as long as I can remember, my dad had talked of the jewel in China's western territory, Tibet Autonomous Region.

As a student of international relations and Chinese, I have been living in China for the past three years. Tibet was a region I was desperate to see but its remoteness and my inability to find the right time to go delayed my journey. After a few e-mails back and forth with my dad, who is based in the UK, we decided to take a pause in our lives for a few weeks in July 2019 to embark on an incredible adventure. We opted for the most comprehensive tour of Tibet, given our time availability. We went to Lhasa-Gyantse-Xigaze-the Qomolangma base camp and back to Lhasa.

We started our journey on a Saturday morning at the Guangzhou train station in south China. It was a good thing we had secured a couple of soft sleeper berths as we were about to embark on a 57-hour journey through south, central and finally west China. What a journey it was! We started the first leg of the journey admiring the mysterious mountains of south China. The next day it changed quite suddenly to the dry, arid landscape of central-west China as we passed through Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. That evening we arrived at Xining, Qinghai Province, where we hopped onto the Xining-Lhasa train.

We were greeted on the train with Tibetan yogurt. The train signs were also written in Tibetan, our first glimpse into the beautiful script matching its environment and people. The following afternoon we had arrived in Lhasa. The trip certainly took a while; however, we were rewarded with the most beautiful views and made friends along the way, all at a lower cost than flying.

Lhasa, one of the highest-altitude cities in the world, is a gem hidden on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. We started our tour of Lhasa watching pilgrims circle the Potala Palace doing their morning prayers, comprehensively exploring the palace and watching local Tibetans dance in a park.

We had an incredible lunch at one of the best restaurants in Lhasa, which had a beautiful view overlooking the Jokhang Temple. It's a stunning golden temple in the middle of old Lhasa, which we visited next before wandering in the old quarters and Barkhor Street in the evening. You can see many pilgrims prostrating in front of the Jokhang Temple and it is the ideal place to try local cuisine and buy trinkets.

The following day, we went to the Drepung Monastery in the hills surrounding Lhasa and in the afternoon headed to the Sera Monastery. This was a real highlight of the trip, the 3-p.m. monks' debate. All the monks gather in one of the courtyards to debate Tibetan works and Buddhist philosophy. It is a fascinating insight into monastic life and a memorable experience.

We started our journey to the Qomolangma base camp by road from Lhasa. Along the way we stopped to admire the beautiful Yamdrok Lake, a huge freshwater lake that is one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet. Yaks in blankets and bells at the lake made for a picturesque snapshot of quintessential countryside Tibet.

About a week later, the highlight came the afternoon we arrived at the Qomolangma base camp. We were staying in a guesthouse just next to the base camp and after dropping off our rucksacks, headed straight outside to see the magnificent Mt Qomolangma. There it was! The tip of the mountain peeking through the clouds, astonishing us with its unbelievable height. The clouds parted and we watched the sunset over the peak.

Afterward, we went to an evening tea ceremony at the Rongbuk Monastery, the highest monastery in the world. We were invited inside by the monks and nuns to their evening chanting ceremony, which was an incredibly special and memorable experience.

The author is a Yenching Academy scholar at Peking University from the UK

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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