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Sitting on Top of the World Tibet

[hr]Yandrok Tso? Probably doesn’t mean much to most travellers but once seen, it’s never forgotten, writes Greg Clayton. [hr]



Travel, particularly to we over 50s, is all about experiences, the doing and the seeing and accomplishing. So, I found myself on the rooftop of the world in Tibet, overlooking one of the country’s most sacred lakes Yandrok Tso, with it’s spellbinding image of turquoise water glistening below me.

Let’s go back a few days and cover this amazing journey to one of the world’s more enigmatic destinations, seeped in religious doctrine and cultural diversity amidst some of the globe’s highest peaks. Tibet is an amazing destination but my journey starts in China – in the city of Xining.


Most people tend to fly direct into Lhasa, the ancient capital of Tibet but I wanted to experience it another way and what a special way it is! The Lhasa Express, or more correctly the Qinghai-Tibet Railroad, runs from Beijing, through Xining and over the awesome Qinghai Tibet Plateau – and is considered to be one of modern China’s greatest successes and in fact is one of the world’s most amazing engineering feats.

[pullQuote]“Stay and take in the crisp but invigorating air, marvel at the solitude and beauty of the place and Yandrok Tso will stay with you forever.”[/pullQuote]

Xining is the capital city of Qinghai Province and after boarding my atmosphere controlled train, I settled down for the 1956 km journey over some of the world’s highest and most isolated countryside. The train is a true multi-cultural experience – a blending of local Chinese, excited tourists, new age back packers and nationalities from across the planet.

The 24-hour journey is filled with scenic wonder and delights from the primitive life and habitations seen beside the tracks to the grandeur of the tundra and high mountain peaks. The railroad is the highest in the world and an experience in its own right. The highest point reached, the railway station at Tanggula, is 5068 metres – definitely the rooftop of the world! Arrival into Lhasa is like stepping back in time albeit time that is rapidly changing under the Han Chinese development regime. This most ancient of cities is steeped in exotic mystery – even the name Lhasa means Land of the Gods.


It is easy to forget that you are at high altitudes so any physical activity should be avoided for the first day or so, although arriving by rail negates much of the fear of altitude sickness. Once acclimatised, you will find Lhasa an easy and enjoyable city to explore, and travelling by foot allows Lhasa’s history to unfold before you. Walking is a pivotal part of life for every Tibetan. Join them and hundreds of pilgrims at Jokhang Temple in Bharkor Square – the scene of most of the local protest movements in recent years. While there, make sure you travel clockwise around this fascinating monument to the Buddhist faith – it’s called perambulation as the pilgrims prostrate themselves repeatedly in an excruciatingly tiresome dedication to their faith.

Of course no visit to Lhasa should go without experiencing the splendour of the Potala Palace, the former home of the Dalai Lama. Soaring 13 stories high with over 1,000 rooms perched atop a great hill overlooking Lhasa, this building is one of the world’s greatest and a ‘must-see’. Under Chinese management, tours are restricted and very tightly controlled. You have a certain time to be at the entry gate and then only 60 minutes to tour the sprawling complex. It’s all worth it, even the testing climb to the entrance, but take it easy as the altitude is high and the air is thin.

I was determined to witness the famous ‘debating monks’ at Sera Monastery, just a short drive on the outskirts of Lhasa and although definitely adapted for tourist consumption, this is still a great experience. The sight of novice monks debating with their elders in a crowded courtyard, animated and loud, is something to remember, even if the sight of a brand new pair of Nikes or mobile phone spilling from a pocket tends to bring you back to reality!

Certainly Lhasa is the primary reason to visit Tibet but so much more awaits you outside the city boundaries.



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I departed via coach and travelled beside the legendary Brahmaputra River (called Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet), deep into the Tibetan countryside. The river valley runs through the country with high peaks either side with the Brahmaputra being the life blood of the community.


Turning off the highway, we climbed and we climbed via a circuitous road, delivering us eventually to an altitude of some 4,794 metres and the summit of the Kamba La Pass. A stop is madeat the crest overlooking what is one of nature’s richest rewards – the stunning view looking down upon Yandrok Tso, one of Tibet’s three sacred lakes with the vast peaks of the Himalayas on the horizon. Stay and take in the crisp but invigorating air, marvel at the solitude and beauty of the place and Yandrok Tso will stay with you forever. Smaller regional towns such as Shigatse and Tsetang are worth a visit for both the range of monasteries and even colonial British history in the fort at Gyantse.

Another special experience includes boarding a slightly rickety looking barge-style craft and motoring across the vast expanse of the Brahmaputra River enroute to Samye Monastery. The oldest monastery in all of Tibetan Buddhism, the journey is almost worth doing in its own right without exploring this remote and ancient series of buildings. It is the distance from the western world and the isolation that strikes here. Miles from civilization as we know it, Samye Monastery was and remains a truly pivotal part of the Buddhist religion.

And, no trip to Tibet is complete without a visit to the stunning Yungbulakang Palace, found in the Yarlung Valley, 9 km south of the regional centre of Tsetang. According to legend Yungbulakang is the oldest building in Tibet and stands sentinel atop a hillside, overlooking the Yarlung Valley.

Riding to the Palace on the back of a camel or even a traditional Tibetan yak is an encounter to savour. Once at the top, the view over the valley is indeed breathtaking but I suggest you take the time to climb even higher behind the complex, past the thousands of prayer flags and stop, turn around and gaze along the valley floor. Truly, you are on the rooftop of the world and looking down on one of our most ancient of civilizations.


Greg ClaytongregClayton

Greg Clayton has for 40+ years managed retail travel outlets, established a wholesale tour operation in Hawaii, escorted tours to exotic locations, writes travel journalism and even co-hosts his own Cruise & Travel Show on the Gold Coast.

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