You’re Going To Miss…The Trans-Mongolian & Tibet

You’re Going To Miss…The Trans-Mongolian & Tibet

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“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin

You’re going to miss the trepidation of landing in a foreign country, for which visas you’ve worked so hard to get now finally proving their worth, then searching for foreign cab drivers without knowing where to even begin looking for them (if they were even there in the first place) before walking across Palace Square for the very first time and coming upon the immense splendor of the Hermitage staircase as your first introduction to Saint Petersburg.

 

 

You’re going to miss the jet-lagged introductions to one another at the hostel, the impromptu cat-naps and alcohol runs right before dinner, then shoving to get through nonsensical security just to hear Putin speak before the clock struck midnight.

 

 

You’re going to miss dancing with fireworks among the thousands sprawled out into the night, popping open champagne on the streets while walking arm-in-arm an entire city along Nevsky Prospekt, before finding the only hookah bar open as you celebrate the beginning of a New Year and a new trip with complete strangers and new friends.

 

 

You’re going to miss the quiet snowy morning of having a world-class city still hungover from the night before all to yourself, the 15 miles of gallivanting in a single day to explore every corner and every house of worship, witnessing countless gilded mosaics of times past.

 

 

You’re going to miss making new friends at the eleventh hour just so you can say goodbye to them when walking together along a snowy wonderland of the Palace Square before embarking upon the beginning of your Trans-Siberian journey.

 

 

You’re going to miss making your beds in your new home on the train, ordering breakfast blinis and beer with the help of a good-looking local and his unapologetically intoxicated, inappropriate family, and playing Monopoly Deal to throwbacks from the 90s before waking up at the crack of dawn in a new city.

 

 

You’re going to miss hailing Ubers on an unfamiliar street and recovering in a new hostel on comfy couches for an hour while meeting a herd of faceless, local men on Tinder who would quickly invite us, unsurprisingly, all to their beds (you might not miss that).

 

 

You’re going to miss the 3 days of freedom among the dazzling lights of Moscow both above and underground, the odd pony on the street, the taste of cheap Soviet hot chocolate and gelato, the mummified corpse of Lenin, the grandeur of Red Square, double facing toilets, the views from Cathedral of Christ The Savior, the overabundance of powdery snow crunching beneath our boots, and saying goodbye to 3 friends on our last night together at the world’s 18th best restaurant, before running into 3 Swedes who we took out on the town as if the town was our very own.

 

 

You’re going to miss ignoring screaming babies on your overnight flight to Irkutsk, occupying an entire airport café, slowly waking up to your first Siberian winter morning and driving out into the wilderness to leave 6 days of urban jungles behind.

 

 

You’re going to miss sliding down makeshift ice luges, wandering a science museum dedicated to an entire lake, savagely devouring your first omul, hiking up the summit of a random ski resort, and taking in the majesty of the world’s 2nd deepest freshwater lake before your very eyes at sunset.

 

 

You’re going to miss spending a Russian Christmas Eve in a frontier Siberian town with splendid ice palaces and churches too immersed in worship to notice your presence, while you can’t help but notice the occasional odd reindeer that pass you by.

 

 

You’re going to miss figuring out which supplies to horde even though you order too much food anyway at another Chinese restaurant, before getting up too early in a hazy twilight to board your first 24 hours on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

 

 

You’re going to miss catching up on sleep on your new mobile home on rails, making new friends with your attendants and bunkmates while avoiding the crazy ones, but nevertheless being the crazy one yourself when you jumped off the train in a clutch 45-minute time frame to see the world’s largest Lenin Head and making it back in time.

 

 

You’re going to miss the late night conversations during the border crossing between Russia and Mongolia and waking up too early in a different country.

 

 

You’re going to miss being picked up by your local guides to take you to a much needed coffee and tune-up, while leaving you to be as you hike up 250+ steps in -22ºC weather to see otherworldly views of the world’s coldest capital city.

 

 

You’re going to miss driving out into Terelj National Park to spot ancient dinosaurs roaming the steppe, climbing over locked gates to get closer looks, riding Mongolian horses on your own into the horizon, finding common ground with a new friend who had also visited the DPRK, streaking together with new said friend from ger to ger, squatting over the world’s largest pile of frozen poo with nonchalance, starting impromptu massage trains, staying awake to your driver’s snoring nightmares, and learning how to keep a fire going in your stove in order to survive the night.

 

 

You’re going to miss waking up to a laughter that shakes the world, introducing our new addition to the group with a visit to a statue of immense proportions in the middle of nowhere before driving around the polluted, congested and yet fascinating streets of Ulaanbaatar.

 

 

You’re going to miss restocking on supplies, not missing the alcohol, meeting friends of friends showing you around their native city and sharing their dreams of starting anew, drinking underappreciated beer at the local North Korean restaurant, before boarding your next overnight train for a night of excessive drinking games and embarrassing revelations.

 

 

You’re going to miss waking up in a new country at a remote border town between Mongolia and China, watching the bogies being replaced for new tracks before you wander off only to get lost and be led in 10 different directions until a Good Samaritan lets you back onboard.

 

 

You’re going to miss the awkward conversations about Donald Trump and giant mushroom clouds with your non English-speaking, Korean-speaking Mongolian smuggler bunkmate, giving and receiving hilarious basic Chinese lessons, and experiencing Chinese bureaucracy, kindness, and curiosity all at the same time while switching trains at the capital of Inner Mongolia.

 

 

You’re going to miss celebrating when your fellow monsooner gets accepted into Cambridge’s PhD program right before boarding your next train, then waking up hungover (again) in an ancient capital to mark the end of your Trans-Mongolian journey, storing bags away as you walk miles upon miles to see the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City before saying our next round of goodbyes to the 2nd round of monsooners to head back home.

 

 

You’re going to miss showing off your skills eating live scorpions (again) as appetizers before dining at the original Peking Duck House, and then leisurely making your way back to the train station just to have leisure make turn to panic when you discover you’re at the wrong one. And even though some of us make it to the correct train station on time, the others don’t quite get there as fast and we all ditch the train just so the group stays together and our newest addition gets a proper monsoon welcome, while leading us to temporary physical (and spiritual) shelter.

 

 

You many not miss the hurried bookings of hostels, flights, and car services to get to your destination in time, while doing your best to ignore the unhelpful backseat driver, but as they always say: when there’s a will, there’s a way. And when things begin to fall back into place, you’re definitely going to miss the exhilaration of your first real shower in days as the consolation prize, and the 4-5 hours of precious sleep in a real bed before getting on an early morning flight that takes you back to where you want to be, continuing the itinerary as before with no love lost among your group.

 

 

You’re going to miss setting eyes upon new friends of friends picking you up from the airport, the relief of getting back on track and in good hands before setting those same eyes on the Terracotta Army for the very first (or second) time.

 

 

You’re going to miss that perfect plate of cold noodles for lunch, the grandeur of the South Wall as you checked into your hostel, beholding the magnificence of both Drum and Bell Towers in the middle of a modernized city, and your giddiness levels rising to fever pitch while walking through the joyous madness that is the Muslim Quarter.

 

 

You’re going to miss bar hopping along the South Wall, playing foosball, darts and pool that would lead to another underslept night before having to catch your second early morning flight, this time to an elusive kingdom on the roof of the world.

 

John McGovern...for being another rockstar in the YPT family, taking us out on Xi'an and organizing our Tibet itinerary. 01/12/17.

 

While you’re never going to miss the awful hangovers of altitude sickness, you will miss the initial landscapes upon driving into Lhasa — as if you’ve stumbled upon a new world — the majesty of its location in a valley 3500m high, and the next 2 days acclimating the home of the exiled Dalai Lama in the world’s most politically guarded region on its highest plateau.

 

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You’ll definitely miss yak meat.

 

 

Tons of yak meat.

 

 

You’re going to miss sending off our beloved group storyteller with sensual oatmeal, naps, and Andrea Bocelli’s “Time To Say Goodbye” before heading out on “the other most beautiful drive in the world” from Lhasa to Shigatse, making a 9 hour drive feel like minutes when you stop to witness landscapes you couldn’t have imagined even in dreams.

 

 

While you’re neither going to miss lack of heating in your hotel room, nor the bundling up before bed, you will miss waking up to the golden honeycomb dawn of the “gateway to Everest”, immersing yourself amongst the throngs of pilgrims to visit the tombs of the Pachen lamas before returning to Lhasa.

 

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You’re going to miss the last night of the trip walking along the streets of Lhasa with your new travel family, bidding last goodbyes among conversations that would bear one another’s souls on this nude beach of honesty and self-love, and the subsequent surreal early pre-dawn drive among the mountains when an inevitable realization emerged that a life-changing odyssey was about to end.

 

 

And you’re going to miss all this long after when we had embraced goodbye . . . that moment when you finally realize that nobody else for the rest of your life will ever fully understand the 18 unforgettable days you had spent with 10 other strangers and new lifelong friends.

 

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Therefore you’re going to miss most of all, each other; the company of diverse personalities united by a perfect marriage of camaraderie and wanderlust, the way we’ll all look back one day and ask yourself: “did we really do all that?”

 

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“Yeah we did.”

 

 

Having each overcome enormous physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual investments to get to this point, the 11 of us begin to appreciate how our shared experience on this 7000 km, 3400 mile endeavor would also represent a culmination of 11 different souls coming together – if only for a brief moment – in the belief in that we were really completing personal journeys long overdue . . .

 

 

. . . and yet if so they remain so premature, as 11 strangers and now travel family all know . . .

 

 

. . . that we still have many more miles to go.

 

 

Photo credits: Calvin Sun, JC Chan, Mihaela K, Shanika Jayakody, Ihita Kabir

“The Other Most Beautiful Drive In The World”: From Lhasa To Shigatse

“The Other Most Beautiful Drive In The World”: From Lhasa To Shigatse

 

 

The highest elevation on the road from Lhasa to Shigatse just got served, taken by Taylan Stulting

 

I’ve been on many beautiful drives before, most notably from Argentina to Chile, and the drive from Srinagar to Leh but today’s from Lhasa to Shigatse is now climbing the charts, and we’re still on the road.

We set out from Lhasa this morning at 9am, stopping by at the following vistas within the first few hours:

 

Wow. 

Wow. 

Wow. 

 

I can keep going.

 

Don’t stop there.

 

Hnnnngggg….

 

 

Eventually after a couple of twist and turns, we reached an elevation of 4500m:

 

 

At around 1pm we stopped by for lunch at this ghost town of a city, where it was very evident someone wanted to remind everyone what country they’re in:

 

 

After lunch we headed out to see gorgeous Lake Yamzho Yumca/Yamdrok Lake, 1 of the 3 largest sacred lakes in Tibet:

 

 

What I thought of the views:

 

 

But seriously, being here has been pretty awe-inspiring:

 

 

After an hour’s more along the drive, you’re reach the highest elevated point at 5000m (16,404 feet) above sea level:

 

 

At around 4pm we stopped by Pekor Chode, built in 1418 as a non-sectarian Buddhist center:

 

 

Inside the center:

 

 

Standing at 32.4m high, the Great Stupa Kubum holds 108 altars where 100,000+ Buddhist images are enshrined as statues and murals:

 

 

Climb up the 5 flights for great views at the top:

 

 

After about 10 hours on the road from Lhasa, we finally arrived in Tibet’s 2nd largest city of Shigatse at around 7pm.

 

 

- At time of posting in Lake Yamzho Yumco, it was -14 °C - Humidity: 22% | Wind Speed: 22km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Paradise Lhasa

Paradise Lhasa

 

Waking up to the roof of the world:

 

 

Despite getting my first 8+ hour night of sleep in probably over a week, I nevertheless woke up with symptoms of acute mountain sickness (a slight fever, headache, dry mouth, not unlike a hangover). So I doubled up on my Diamox from 125mg to 250mg twice a day accompanied by 600mg of Ibuprofen. Along with a little bit of breakfast, this started to get me feeling better in 30 minutes.

Then we climbed up to the top of our hotel for an 8:30am breakfast and accompanying views over Lhasa at sunrise and moonfall.

 

Photo Credit: Shanika Jayakody

 

 

Our first stop of the morning was the top site in Lhasa: Potala Palace.

Originally built in the 7th century AD by King Songtsen Gyalpo for his 2 foreign wives, it was destroyed by lightning many years later before being rebuilt by the 5th Dalai Lama in 3 years, with subsequent extensions leading up to the 13th Dalai Lama to transform the palace into what it is now. It remains officially the winter residence for the Dalai Lamas (and their tombs), with the palace in Norbulinka as their summer residence.

And just 4 years ago I was at the current residence of the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala, India (and it was his birthday too!).

Over 300 steps and 14 stories tall, there are a lot of stairs to climb — Don’t be stupid like me and make sure you are fully acclimated to the altitude before taking this on!

 

 

I’ve been wanting to come here for years, so I milk my time here.

 

 

The Chinese make sure you remember which country you’re in:

 

 

We begin our climb:

 

 

Once you reach the floor of the White Palace, photography from here on out is forbidden.

 

 

The “14th floor” marks the official residence of the Dalai Lama:

 

 

We tried our best to give an idea of what it looks like inside given that the no-photography rule is strictly enforced, but this is the best we could come up with:

 

Photo Credit: Shanika Jayakody

 

After spending an hour touring the dizzying array of prayer rooms, residences, meeting halls and tomb chambers of the past Dalai Lamas, we headed back down on the backside of the palace.

 

 

We then drove onwards to Norbulingka Summer Palace: the official summer residence of the Dalai Lama with the most recent complex being that of the present and 14th Dalai Lama who fled in exile in 1956.

 

 

Photography is also not allowed inside, but enforcement was much more lax here than at Potala Palace:

 

Photo Credit: Shanika Jayakody

 

Near the exit stands the official (and yet unused) throne of the current and 14th Dalai Lama:

 

 

And if you look closely on the left wall (if facing the throne) is the only photograph of the 14th Dalai Lama allowed to be posted in Tibet:

 

 

We recharged with lunch consisting of yak steak, momos, Schezuan noodles at Lhasa Steakhouse:

 

 

Our last stop of the day was Sera Monastery, famous for its tantric teachings and the public display of monks who debate with one another in public.

 

 

Inside are the mandalas composed of the famously elaborate Tibetan sandpainting:

 

 

By the main Sera Monastery is a public park where standing student monks debate intensely over their teachers sitting on the ground, both challenging each other on different ways of thinking and seeing the world:

 

 

Then there is the monastery itself, where about 800 monks train and meditate:

 

Photo Credit: Shanika Jayakody

 

Afterwards, Melissa and Shanika headed out to a local supermarket next door to hunt for postcards and came back with some great photos. All of the following are Shanika’s:

 

 

Tonight is Melissa’s last night as we recuperate in our hotel rooms and reflect on our trip in the past 2 weeks. We’re going to miss you Melissa!

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Lhasa, China, it was -3 °C - Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

The Journey To Tibet

The Journey To Tibet

 

Struggling with 3 consecutive nights of 5 hours of sleep each night, we all got up again at a ridiculous 5:15am to catch a 5:30am car service to take us to the airport for a 7:40am direct flight from Xi’an to Lhasa. The Xi’an airport was unexpectedly crowded, so I would advise arriving an hour or two earlier as we all almost missed our flight.

While at check-in, security, and just when you arrive, you’ll be asked to produce your Tibet permit. Ours is pictured below.

 

 

You can easily get a Tibet permit if you sign up for an official tour with a guide, which is what we did. The reality we got instead in Tibet was a lot of free movement without our guide constantly watching us.

I once again passed out on my flight, waking up 3 hours later when we landed at Lhasa at 10:50am. I was so happy to have finally arrived here after a rough past 48 hours, that this then happened:

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Enjoy the scenery of what seems like stepping into another world:

 

 

After showing our permit again to finally exit the airport proper, we were picked up by our guide Kendan before taking the one hour drive to Lhasa from the airport.

 

 

Lhasa is a bustling, congested mass of humanity set against a gorgeous valley backdrop on an elevation of 11,995 feet, for which we’ve been popping acetazolamide (Diamox) 125mg every 12 hours since yesterday as a prophylaxis for altitude sickness. 

The regimen for altitude sickness prophylaxis with Diamox is to start taking it twice a day before ascent and for 3 more days afterwards. Besides the occasional increased urge to pee as one of the side effects of this carbonic anhydrase inhibitor and diuretic, so far we’ve been doing okay — some headaches, bouts of nausea and dizziness but it was nowhere as bad as how we felt when we arrived in La Paz 4 years ago.

 

 

We first settled in our digs at Yak Hotel, located in the eastern part of Lhasa where more ethnic Tibetans live as opposed to the predominantly Han Chinese of western Lhasa:

 

 

We then walked towards Barkhor Square, the beginning of Lhasa’s oldest street (Barkhor Street), where we had lunch at Lhasa Kitchen:

 

 

Yak meat, momos, garlic ginger tea, it’s all here!

 

Photo Credit: Shanika Jayakody

 

After lunch, we crossed through a round of security checks to get to Jokhang Temple, arguably the most important temple in Lhasa — The king Songsten Gampo built Jokhang Temple during the era of the Tang Dynasty to welcome his Chinese wife, Princess Wencheng, allowing for the the union of Tang China to Tubo Tibet.

 

 

We passed by the hundreds of worshippers in front of the temple:

 

 

Once you enter it’s a quiet haven of calmness remarkably different from the outside.

 

 

Photography is forbidden inside, but enforcement of such rules was pretty lax:

 

Photo Credit: Shanika Jayakody

 

Climb to the top of the temple to get your first look at Potala Palace in the distance:

 

 

…and the square below:

 

 

Afterwards we decided to take it easy for the rest of the day, walking around Barkhor Street for some haggling (genuine Tibetan goods that cannot be found anywhere else in the world are sold here) and people watching:

 

 

Now having dinner with yak meat at a hole in the wall tonight before we turn in and allow for our first night (hopefully of many) of full, restful sleep:

  

Photo Credit: Shanika Jayakody

 

 

- At time of posting in Lhasa, China, it was -1 °C - Humidity: 18% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy