“You want to go where?!”
“I want to go to Tibet.”
“How old are you?”
“I am seventy years old.”
I had such conversations often before travelling to Tibet. Everyone has heard of Tibet, but few know much about this gem of a destination. A trip to Tibet requires time, effort and preparation. You do not have to be a mountaineer to tour this area fondly known as “the roof of the world”, but it does present some challenges to older tourists.
Senior travellers should first visit their family doctor. Tell him your plans, as some pre-existing conditions may determine your ability to travel to this high-altitude country. I chose to do an eight-day tour. I like to support local businesses so I booked with a Tibetan travel agency. I arrived by train to help combat altitude sickness. I also wanted the thrill of riding the highest train in the world, from Xining to Lhasa.
On our first day in Lhasa we boarded a bus for a short ride to the Potala Palace. This massive 1000 room, 13-story structure stands guard over Lhasa. Behind the palace we encountered a huge crowd of all ages, all appearing to be dancing. It was actually a morning exercise group. What fun it was to join in, and no one cared when we did not get all of the steps just right.
It takes 432 steps to reach the roof of the Potala Palace. The secret is to go slow and take lots of breaks. Each time we took a rest our guide gave us interesting facts about the palace. Until 1889 this was the tallest building in the world, and it is still the highest palace in the world. The rooms we visited were full of elaborate murals and statues.
Our next stop was Jokhang Temple, the heart of Buddhism in Tibet. Here we saw prostrating pilgrims and displays of religious fervour, as devotees with prayer wheels and beads made kora around the temple (circumambulated it clockwise). Started in the year 650, this temple is the home of the life-sized gilded and jewelled statue of Sakyamuni, the most sacred object in Tibet. Pilgrims touch their forehead to the left leg of the statue. The view from the roof was worth the short climb. This ended up being the most physically active day of our tour, and I was tired at the end. I did, however, muster the energy to walk back to see the palace lit up in the evening.
Our second day began with a visit to the Drepung Monastery. Once home to 10,000 monks, it was also full of statues. As we walked, our guide explained the Tibetan death ritual. When someone dies, a wide white chalk line is drawn in front of the house. The body is kept in the house for two days, to make sure they really are dead. In the past, some people who were thought to be dead were, in fact, not quite dead. The body is then taken to a monastery high in the mountains and a Sky Burial takes place. The monks cut the body into small pieces, which is then fed to the birds and wild animals. The clothing of the deceased is then given to a monastery and distributed to those in need.
I was anxious to see the famous debates performed by the monks at the Sera Monastery. Half of the monks were seated in the courtyard, and the other half walked around and challenged those seated, with questions on the Buddhist scriptures. It was loud and very animated, accompanied by exaggerated arm movements.
Seeing the sand mandalas was by far the most awesome sight at the Sera Monastery. These were huge, intricate designs made of many colours of sand. Hours upon hours are spent making them, and tradition declares that they be destroyed with one sweep afterwards, to demonstrate that nothing lasts forever.
Early the next morning we began our drive along the iconic Friendship Highway. Our route to Shigatse would take us over the Kamba Pass, to views of Lake Yamorok. The water of this holy lake takes the colour turquoise to a whole new level. As we drove, we learned from our guide how women in Tibet can have numerous husbands. When a woman marries, it is not unusual for her husband’s brothers to also marry her. Our guide had one mother and five fathers. Of course, we wanted to know if he knew which of the husbands was his father. He said the children often guessed, but it was always just a guess.
We were all up early the next morning, as this day would be the highlight of our tour. Today we would finally see Mount Everest. The bus climbed to the summit of Gyatso La Pass, at 5200 meters, and then Gawalu Pass. From here we could see five mountains above 8000 meters. We could also see many of the 76 switchbacks we would have to navigate on our way down.
Everest Base Camp was dry and barren, but our attention was focused on the magnificence of the mountain. Some of the tour wanted to hike the two kilometres from the guesthouse to the base camp. I rode the bus. There was a nondescript brick base with a sign saying ‘Qomolangma Base Camp’, the mountain’s name in Tibetan. I must admit I was disappointed to not be able to get my photo beside an ‘Everest Base Camp’ sign.
We stayed at the monastery guesthouse overnight. This truly was ‘basic’, with dorm-style rooms and squat toilets. There was no heat, and the inside temperature was minus 5 degrees. One room had a wood stove so we could boil water for our tea and instant noodles. Everyone had a headache but a huge smile – we were at Mount Everest!
A quick visit to the Rongbuk Monastery in the morning, and then we were on the road back to Shigatse. It was a quiet group as we all privately re-lived our Everest experience, and thought about how fortunate we were to have visited such a breathtaking place. The tour ended the next day with our return to Lhasa.
Our tour group had an interesting mix of ages and nationalities. As the oldest, I never felt my age was a problem during the tour activities. I once chose not to hike a steep path to have a closer look at a Thangka, but I was not the only one. As a senior, I faced a few minor challenges. Occasionally we had to use squat toilets. I did discover that if there was a handicap toilet available, it was Western style. The walking surfaces were often uneven, but I carried a small pocket flashlight that proved invaluable in lighting my way.
Did I go to Tibet? I did. Did I enjoy Tibet? I did.
Would I recommend other seniors visit Tibet? I definitely would.
Article by Gloria Jackson.
Top image: Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn)/Flickr
Inspired to go? Have a look at some of the trips Royal Mountain Travel offers in Tibet: