The engine swapped into gear smoothly as it continued to ascend into the highest grasslands around the world. At 4,200 meters and rising, our trip on the Xining to Lhasa train wasn’t quite as luxurious as most Western European trains, but it would have been a long shot to say it was uncomfortable.
And with how scenic the surrounding lands were, you’d hardly even notice that the entire journey had taken about 24 hours; but it did. I sat in my hard sleeper and wondered what the trip was going to have in store for me. I expected a full on spiritual experience; after all we were traveling in Tibet.
As the train pulled up to the Lhasa Railway Station, everyone began to hastily pack their bags and disembark onto the platform. We finally arrived and the energy of all the tourist was a mixture of relief and excitement being we could finally get off the train and explore this long awaited destination.
Security was tight; two guards sat at each entrance/exit to view everyones passports, license & entry permits while military personnel patrolled the platform and surrounding areas.
Passing through the line like a breeze, I met a friendly local man who turned out to be my designated driver to the hotel that was pre-booked by Budget Tibet Tour (the tour company who would be accompanying me on my 10 day trip through Tibet). Jumping in the front seat of the van, we made our way to the hotel where I got a good nights rest and readied myself for the following days exploring Tibet and the outlining regions.
The budget Tibet tour begins
The first and second day of our tour began on the scenic train ride from Qinghai to Lhasa. It seemed more like acclimation days than anything but I did enjoy our free time walking around the city to get to know it better.
Once we all met up on Day 3, the group, 12 in total, met with our Tour Guide Tenzen in the lobby of the hotel where we paid our fees and took the private van to our first major destination: The Potala Palace.
The entire site was as clean as it was touristy. We were limited to a visit of only 1 hour due to the integrity of the structure (it could risk collapse from the weight of too many visitors) but all in all it was absolutely gorgeous. The temples were just breathtaking and I enjoyed watching the monks walking from room to room continuing their daily tasks all the while examining the hundreds of different rooms, shrines, and statues.
After taking in the Potala Palace, we were set free to enjoy Johkang Temple and the surrounding vicinity that’s known as the Backhor Streets. It was quite interesting to see the layers of culture in such a small place. Lhasa was a much larger city than I had anticipated. Shops and stalls lined every corner and were filled to the brim with Tibetan prayer beads, necklaces, singing bowls, yak blankets and many other ornaments. Tibetan & Chinese restaurants filled the streets with an almost intoxicating smell of yak meat, bread & other cultural foods.
As we continued our Lhasa city tour on day 4, we explored both the Drepung Monastery & Sera Monastery. The Drepung Monastery, which happened to be the Dalai Lama’s old winter residence (up until the 5th Dalai Lama moved it to the Potala Palace), happened to house the largest amounts of monks in Tibet. We were very lucky to arrive just as many of them were gathered for their afternoon lunch and meditation sessions. The energy that protruded from them was nothing short of intense!
Afterward, we visited the Sera Monastery.
Here we witnessed the largest scale of scripture debating I’ve ever seen. Nearly a hundred monks were gathered in a courtyard inside the monastery where they clapped their hands furiously in a motion that faced their hands to the ground to debate what was learned throughout the day. It was quite a site to see such peaceful and serene people at such an active & emotional state!
As the days rolled on, we found ourselves on tour day number 5. We started the day somewhat early (around 8:30am) and jumped into the Land Rovers where we began our journey out of the city and into the scarce backcountry.
As we continued the drive, the road was constantly rising in elevation thus changing the scenery dramatically every couple of hours. Before we knew it we had driven into four different weather patterns. It had rained, snowed and hailed for brief periods of time within a span of only a few hours. In the end, we ended up with clear blue skies and a very content 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Along the way we passed through Gangbala Pass with a quick pit stop at Yamdrok Lake where we took some very scenic pictures of turquoise blue waters that were overlooked by snow-peaked mountains. After having a typical Tibetan lunch, we made a surprise stop at one of the many humungous glaciers along the way where we found ourselves surrounded by cascading waterfalls pouring down from the cloudless skies.
In Gyantse, we stopped at the largest stupa in Tibet: Kumpa Stupa. Here we were given a mere 30 minutes to visit nearly 70+ Tibetan Buddhist shrines. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the opportunity to visit the Pelchor Monastery as we were told it was closed to tourism for renovations.
Day 6 began with a relaxing tour through Tashilump Monastery. As our guide Tenzen retrieved our Mt. Everest base-camp tickets, the group and I took our time walking around the monastery taking photos and chatting with other tourists about Tibetan culture. It was nice to have this free time to kind of explore wherever we liked without be constrained into one large group.
After we got our fill of the Monastery and filled up our memory cards with more photos of Tibetan monks/shrines, we all ate lunch at one of the local shops and met back up with Tenzen to continue our tour up to Mt. Everest base-camp.
The roads continued to rise in elevation under blue skies. With a few short scenic stops along the way, including lunch in a small local village, we finally arrived to Everest base-camp just in time to watch the sun set while the top of this colossal mountain peaked out for our viewing pleasure.
All in all, we were extremely lucky to have such cooperative weather during our trip in. We even got to see ALL 4 of the major mountain peaks along the Himalayas, something Tenzen ensured us rarely happens even for him!
The night skies at the Everest base-camp site were unlike any other. Millions of stars filled the skies on chilly nights and silence filled the air with the exception of small chatter, cooking stoves and a slight breeze howling in the distant valley. I could easily say that I had involved myself in some of the best stargazing in the world; after all, we were on top of the world. 😉
The following day we rose up early to to watch the sunrise and have a quick visit at the highest monastery in the world: Rongbuk Monastery. Afterwards, we made our way through the golden backcountry roads of Tibet towards the border city of Zhangmu where everyone crossed the border and I prepared for the next destination on my journey through Asia: Nepal.
All in all, for the price of the trip compared to other tour companies I recommend booking with Budget Tibet Tour. They do a satisfactory job working with a tight budget and I had a really good time exploring Lhasa, seeing the diverse backcountry and engulfing myself in local Tibetan culture.
Tibet Tour Itinerary Breakdown
Day 1/2: Qinghai to Lhasa Train & Acclimatization
In the morning of day 1, boarded the train from Qinghai to Lhasa to enjoy the railway scenery from the highest train in the world. Spent day 2 in Lhasa acclimating to the altitude with free time exploring Backhor Street; getting my first impression of Tibet.
Day 3: Lhasa City Tour – Potala Palace, Johkang Temple & Backhor Street
In the morning, visit the symbol or landmark of Lhasa-Potala Palace, the successive Dalai Lama’s winter residence. In the afternoon, visit the center of Tibetan Buddhism-Jorhkang Temple, where you will come across lots of devoted pilgrimages coming from every corner of Tibet. Both sites are under the list of the world cultural heritages by the UNISCO.
Day 4: Lhasa City Tour – Drepung Monastery & Sera Monastery
In the morning, we will visit Drepung Monastery which is the biggest Tibetan Buddhism College with the biggest number of monks in Tibet. The monastery used to be the winter residence of the Dalai Lama before the 5th Dalai Lama moved his residency to the Potala Palace. And in the afternoon, we will visit another influential Gelugpa Monastery’, Sera Monastery, where the largest scale of scripture debating among monks is famous all across Tibet. We will watch the debate session and you may join in too with the help your guide.
Day 5: Yamdrok Lake & Kumpa Stupa
In the morning, drive to the historic town of Gyantse via Yamdrok Lake, according to local mythology, Yamdrok Lake is the transformation of a goddess, on the Gangbala Pass, you will have a clear picture of this Tibetan holy lake in turquoise, in distance you can also see the snow capped Summit of Ninjingkangsang.
In Gyantse, you will find the largest stupa in Tibet-Kumpa Stupa (Ten-thousand stupa), just next to the Stupa is the Pelchor Monastery. Another important site in Gyantse is Dzong Castle which once was a battle field where Tibetan fought against British invasion.
**Note: We didn’t visit the Pelchor Monastery as it was under renovation & closed for tourism.
Day 6: Tashilump Monastery & Syaka Monastery
In the morning, visit Tashilumo Monastery which is the seat of Panchen Lama, the equally important religious figure in Tibet as Dalai Lama. The monastery was built by the first Dalai Lama in 1447, and inside the Monastery placed the highest statue of Buddha in Tibet which is 26.8 meters high.
Afterward, drive to Syaka Monastery which was built during the Yuan Dynasty when Syaka School dominated Tibet Buddhism. Syaka Monastery is reputed as the Second Dunhuang Grotto in China, the murals said to be the most beautiful in Tibet, and also in Syaka Monastery you can find the largest book written in gold at its Buddhism library.
**Note: We didn’t visit the Syaka Monastery as it was under renovation & closed for tourism.
Day 7: Rongbuk Monastery & Sunset over Everest Base Camp (EBC)
In the morning, drive to Mt. Everest Nature Reserve, if weather permits, on the top of the Gyalpo-la pass you can see 4 of the highest mountains over 8000 meters( Mt. Everest; Mt. Makalu; Mt. Lotse; Mt. Cho Oyu) in the world at the same time, what a great picture. Before arriving at the EBC, you will first visit the highest monastery in the world-Rongbuk Monastery, which is also a good position to watch the Everest, the sunset view is fantastic when weather is good.
Day 8: Sunrise over Everest Base Camp (EBC) & Zhangmu
Get up early in the morning to wait for the most exciting and holy moment when the first sunshine reaches the world at the peak of the Everest. The golden crown of the Everest will definitely be the killer of your camera, and then you will have a lot of time hiking at the EBC to discover the charm of the highest place you may reach through your life.
Next, after the lunch at the restaurant near the EBC, we will drive back to Tingri, overnight there.
Day 9: Zhangmu – Nepal (Border Transfer)
In the morning after breakfast, drive to border from Zhangmu; the views today are definitely different from what you see in previous days, your car will transverse along a green valley with waterfalls here and there. After arriving at border, your guide will help you go through border formality and you can You can cross the border bridge and check in Nepal side, Nepal visa is available upon arrival with 25USD, please prepare one photo of passport size to get Nepal Visa.
Next step, you need to find a car or bus towards Kathmandu, 50ms ahead from border bridge, dozens of car or bus are parking there to pick up travelers; about 3000 Nepali Rupee for a taxi rental or 50 Nepali Rupee (Appro. $1 USD) for a bus seat. Taxi will be a good choice for you.
**Note: Prices were ranging greatly from 2,700 Nepali Rupee to 11,000. Shop around through the “groups” of taxi drivers and be ruthless while haggling an agreed price. The bigger the group, the more discount you can receive.
Out of Pocket Expenses
1.) Lunches & Dinners. (RMB 30 per meal = $5 USD; Total cost for all meals: RMB 600 = $100 USD)
2.) Tips to driver & tour guide. (Total cost: RMB 450 = $75 USD)
3.) Entrance fee to all the scenic spots mentioned. (Total cost: RMB 780 = $139 USD)
Friendly local Tibetan guide.
Visited many cultural Monasteries & Temples.
A unique view of Tibet’s backcountry.
Camping at Mt. Everest Basecamp.
An unforgettable experience.
In-depth knowledge of cultural history could be improved.
I felt time was short lived at major sites.
Involvement & group assembly could be improved before talking about major sites.
Total Cost of Trip
The total cost of the 9 day trip excluding out-of-pocket expenses during my time of travel (September 2013) : RMB 4,435 = $720 USD
The Bottom Line
Although the tour did have it’s few downfalls, I’d still recommend choosing them for a budget trip through Tibet. The company itself was very organized and more than willing to assist in any situation that arose, positive or negative. All in all, the group & I had an unforgettable journey that has created stories for me to tell my friends & family members for years to come!
I want to give a special thanks to Budget Tibet Tour for such a successful trip through one of the most exotic regions of Asia. On your next holiday to China, be sure to book your trip to Tibet with Budget Tibet Tour!