Mystical Tibet

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By Hoh Yu Li & Chua Wei Zhen

Tashi Delek! ("Good Day!")

This was the first Tibetan word we learnt from our Tibetan guide. Contrary to popular beliefs, travelling to this forbidden land is not difficult but it is not your usual independent backpacking trip either. At a minimum, a permit and a guide is required, and if you travel out of Lhasa, a car and a driver too. All these must be arranged via a local tour agency beforehand.

The highest train ride in the world, literally

Spanning across 1,956 metres with half of the journey above 4,000 metres, the 26-hour train ride from Xining captivated us the whole time.

Coming from a nation where the highest point is only 166 metres, we were fascinated by the perpetual increase in altitude as the train whizzed up high mountain passes.

After a night's sleep, we woke up to a breath-taking sunrise as the train reaches Golmud station at 5.30am. From then on, there is no lack of views of vast grasslands, snow-capped mountain peaks of the Kunlun and Tanggula ranges filled with yaks and goats. At one point, the train's altimeter read 5,072 metres above sea level!  

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Changing times

Lhasa is fast becoming a modern Chinese city with the influx of both domestic and foreign tourists. New commercial hotels and restaurants sprout throughout the once culturally-distinctive city, along with the dilution of the Tibetan culture.

Although significant Tibetan landmarks such as the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Norbulingka Palace have become major revenue-generating tourist destinations, the devotion of the Tibetan people remains undaunted.

Devout buddhists can be seen doing their daily prayers and performing the kora – circumambulating around the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple, just to name a few. The mani wheels (prayer wheels) were held firmly in each and every devotee's hand, as they spin and chant the mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum", in a clockwise direction, to bring compassion and good to all beings. We even spotted a few prostrating pilgrims on the streets of Lhasa.

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Our walk around barkor square saw us straddling through rows of stall peddling Tibetan crafts and ornaments. Perhaps, the most apt souvenir we bought was the small mani wheel (prayer wheel) – which represents the values and beliefs that are deeply rooted in the Tibetan culture.

In the inner lanes, we shuffled through the local market lined with shops selling daily household essentials, and staples like yak butter, cheese, vegetables and other dried goods. Modern Tibetan-Chinese songs blaring from different directions resonated in our ears as we strolled along in the cool summer air.

Namtso Lake

After a five-hour ride from Lhasa, we arrived at the highest saltwater lake in China, Namtso Lake. Strolling along the lake and enjoying the afternoon sun, however, at an altitude of 4,718 metres, it is important to catch your breath every few seconds. We were treated to a fiery sunset on the top of the hill, but had to head back to camp before pitch dark as the cold set in.

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Everest Base Camp – The tent-city

As we journeyed on towards the Friendship Highway to Nepal, we set off to Chinese Everest Base Camp, stopping by major cities such Gyantse and Shigatse and a small one-street town, Shegar.

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The journey on the road is long, bumpy and winding. However, it definitely rewards one with the most unparalleled views – the peaceful blue of Yamdrok Lake, massive glaciers and snow-capped mountains all around.

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We spent our night at the Tourist Base Camp, which is basically a "tent city". The tents are managed by local families and there are Tibetan style sofa-type beds and plenty of blankets to keep warm.  

There is a misconception that it is the base camp where climbers launch off their expedition. The base camp for mountaineers is about 4km away and is accessible by a minibus for a small fee. We chose to walk the 4km and at 5,200 metres above sea level, it was the most lung-bursting 4km walk of my life!

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What is a must-try in Tibet?

Tasting the yak butter tea takes a little courage. A daily staple coupled with the Tsampa, roasted barley flour, this smooth, rich, saltish, and creamy drink is an acquired taste which many may find hard to get used to. One thing we learned is never to let the yak butter tea turn cold!

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