Arrival in Lhasa, Tibet

Chengdu to Lhasa

We left for the airport at 6 a.m., the air thick with pollution.  We suspected that the minivan driver was avoiding the toll on the new expressway by taking back streets to the airport, or they save the expressway for impressing the new arrivals.  At that hour there really wasn’t much traffic.  In front of us fresh “meat” – pork carcasses – was piled on the back of a motorcycle.  As we bumped along the dirt road between the river and the juvenile detention center I was beginning to wonder where we were really going, but we soon arrived at the airport.

Our driver, who spoke no English, hurried us through the large hall, checked us in and got us through security.  I guess that was the “tour” we paid for as a requirement to travel to Lhasa.  You can’t just buy a plane ticket; you have to pay for a “tour”.

Chengdu airport is big and modern with western style shops.  We had coffee at 55 yuan ($7) each at an upscale coffee house.

Soon after taking off you start to see the snowy peaks of the Himalayan foothills, young mountains with steep craggy peaks and deep valleys.  A very impressive plane trip.

Lhasa airport is tiny, maybe two gates.   Luggage was out fast and we were immediately greeted by a man wanting to take us into the city.  At 50 yuan per person it was quite the bargain for about a 50 mile trip.

It took six Tibetans to cram our bags into the taxi, putting two of the bags in the window behind the back seat.  The drive into Lhasa was fast on new two lane roads, quickly overtaking slower vehicles whether there was a car coming the other direction or not.  You simply use your horn.

The landscape is arid with little vegetation on the mountain sides and a wide flat river valley floor. A stark and impressive scene.

Driving in, Lhasa looks like most other Chinese cities with wide boulevards.  Soon the Potala appeared, looming like a mountain over the Chinese buildings.  The Barkhor area has a very different feel.  The stone building are white washed with inward sloping walls and flat roofs.  Windows are often decorated with metal grills.  Off the main road, Beijing Dong Lu, the streets are narrow and filled with street vendors.

Yak Hotel, Lhasa

The Yak Hotel, recommended by Sim himself, was a pleasant surprise.  Recently renovated, the rooms are clean with some character; Shiny dark wood floors and furniture; bright white walls and bed linens; with small touches – a silk strip of brown and purple cloth across the bed, a small oil painting and dinosaur-trim tile in the bathroom.  The Eastern-style bathroom has a squat toilet and a hand-held shower nozzle, i.e., the bathroom is the shower with no separate shower stall or curtain, but new and very clean.

We had lunch next door at the Dunya Restaurant, one of the expat places.  They had some Tibetan specialties but mostly western food with some interesting twists – yak enchiladas and French fries with peanut sauce.  Our most expensive meal yet, 143 yuan (under $20) for four.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped to buy water.  Being used to China we tried to bargain by offering 12 yuan for 4 bottles.  We received an emphatic “no”, upon which, we left and paid the 4 yuan per bottle asking price at the next shop.  Seems prices for bottled water are standardized in Lhasa.

We spent the afternoon lazing around the hotel room acclimating. Lhasa is at 12,000ft.  None of us felt very bad, but I could sure feel the stairs.  I also noticed Don skips a breath now and then while he is sleeping – another common occurrence at high altitudes.

At 6:30 we went next door for “drinks”.  In this case tea as we’re not drinking alcohol while acclimating.  The Dunya restaurant/bar has a nice balcony overlooking the main road.  We had dinner down the street at Naga.  It looked like some kind of ethnic place with cushions on the floor, yaks painted on the wall and Bob Marley playing, but the menu was mostly western food with a few Nepalese curries.  We started with the Naga Delight appetizer with ten different tastes of pickled vegetables, yogurt sauce and other vegetable purées.  The curry was OK, not very spicy.  Don ordered the yak Pot au feu – a plate of boiled yak meat, potatoes and carrots in a wonderful tomato purée.

We went to bed early and slept relatively well.

May 18, 2006