People had warned me that Tibet has changed drastically in the past decade, so I arrived in Lhasa with mixed feelings of excitement and trepidation. Ultimately though, being in a place that remains a mystery to many, that has such a colourful culture and rich history was a privilege. It made me giddy.
Tibet is also, of course, a place that's higher than most. Lhasa, the capital, stands 3,650 metres above sea level. Like most travellers, I hunkered down in my hotel on arrival, determined not to succumb to altitude sickness.
In and Around Lhasa
My guide, Tashi, greeted me with a welcoming smile the following day, ready to show me the sights. First stop, jaw-dropping Potala Palace. Founded in 637, it was reconstructed in 1645, and now towers over 100 metres.
It's best viewed in sections, as there's a lot to see. In the White Palace, you can view the 14th Dalai Lama's former residential quarters. The Red Palace is completely devoted to religious study and Buddhist prayer. And then there are the chapels, stupas, fortifications and glorious gardens.
The Potala Palace complex is now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Packed with people chanting, ladling yak butter into lamps, and spinning prayer wheels, the religious enthusiasm in the chapels is intense. The interiors are dark; my impressions a blur of silk brocades, billowing smoke and elaborate frescoes.
That afternoon, we visited Jokhang Temple, adjacent to the Potala Palace. Built in 642 by King Songsten Gampo, who is credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet, many see it as the country's most sacred and important temple. Pilgrims pray inside and out, queuing patiently for hours just to touch their foreheads to the image of the Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha, the single most venerated object in Tibetan Buddhism.
Inspired by the all-pervasive spirituality, I also experienced sensory overload. The sound of chanting monks; the wafting smell of yak-butter candles and incense so intense you can almost taste it; and the sight of colourful draperies, gold Buddha statues and rainbow-hued prayer flags.
I wanted to stay longer but my guide hurried me out to Barkhor, the heart of the old town. Here, pilgrims prostrate themselves in prayer as they approach the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple. Their devotional circumambulation is marked by four large incense burners. With its old Tibetan buildings, Barkhor is beautiful but there's no denying that New Lhasa encroaches.
I spent three full days in Lhasa, and this gave me the chance to visit its 'great three' university monasteries: Ganden, Sera and Drepung. My favourite turned out to be the largest, 1416-built Drepung. Built on the slopes of Mount Gambo Utse, 5 kilometres out of town, it's incredibly picturesque, and you can view the colleges, residential compounds and chapels. The monks with their high-boned, sunburnt features reminded me of Incas.
On leaving Lhasa, I embarked on the ride of a lifetime; we drove for hours but I didn't get bored. After crossing the mighty Brahmaputra River, which originates in the Angsi Glacier, on the northern side of the Himalayas, we began the steep, gradual climb to Kamba-La Pass (elevation 4,700 metres). Here I got my first sight of breath-taking, fan-shaped Yamdrok Lake. While taking photos, I had to keep reminding myself that I was photographing an actual place and not a painting.
I can still picture the blue sky (peppered with soft white clouds), the turquoise waters and verdant greenery... not a hint of pollution or smog.
On the other side of Kamba-La Pass, I saw a group of Tibetans tying prayer flags to a pole. I watched them arrange the colourful flags, while silently saying prayers. The scene was utterly transfixing.
An hour or so later, we arrived at Karo-La Pass (elevation 5,010 metres) for more spectacular views of snow-capped mountains. I took in Mount Nojin Kangsang, which stands 7,206 metres above sea level, and the glacier that drips from its south face. Strange as it may seem, right there in the Himalayas, I was reminded of the Scottish Highlands.
The drive was long, and after a while, I dozed off, only to awake in Gyantse, an incredibly appealing and seemingly 'untouched' frontier town. Situated on the trade route to Bhutan and India, it remains a bustling centre of commerce and pilgrimage. I was greeted by shy Tibetans, market-trading Muslims, and store/ restaurant-owning Han Chinese.
Gyantse Dzong fortress, built in the 1450s, which perches high above the settlement on a huge rock spur, is a must see, as is 1497-built Gyantse Kumbum, an awesome, 34-metre-high, octagonal stupa.
Mount Everest Base Camp
We reached Pang-La Pass (elevation 5,150 metres) on the morning of day seven. When we got there, dark clouds covered my eagerly anticipated view. My first glimpse of Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth, (its peak is 8,848 metres above sea level), would have to wait.
Tent Village, just off Friendship Highway near Shelkar, is the nearest private cars can get to Mount Everest (North) Base Camp. So at mid-day, we set out on foot. Within an hour, (half way through the hike) I was totally exhausted, out of breath and dehydrated. Fortunately, a tourist bus appeared out of nowhere, and we were able to hitch a lift.
At base camp, Mount Everest (Tibetan name: Chomolungma) was still covered by clouds, and it stayed that way. But back at Tent Village, hours later, the skies cleared up and I got what I had come for. In spades.
Heading back to Lhasa the next day, we stopped at Shigatse (the second largest city in Tibet) to check out Tashilhunpo Monastery. 'Templed out' as I was, I still found this 1447-built, sublimely peaceful monastery beautiful. I gravitated toward the prayer wheels, and started turning them as I walked.