Family Gap Year adventure – Chapter 3, Tibet

Getting there – worlds highest train ride

– Tashi Delek!

The woman is smiling, her dark face beautiful, a shower of colored braids surrounds her slender figure, a traditional dress, a baby strapped to her back.

I reply, to her, and to the line of dark faces around:

– Tashi Delek.

This means “hello” in Tibetan, and the short exchange has already let me run out of Tibetan vocabulary, the means of communication left to us being looking at each other patiently, smiling. We are in the waiting room of Xining station, the train to Lhasa has been running 1, and now 2 hours late, people are tired of moving the line back and forth, with their suitcases, sacks, cardboard boxes and precious bundles, as we are trying to follow the chinese signs announcing our train, that keep jumping to other gates.

We are waiting to ride the worlds highest train line, a feat of chinese engineering, leading up to the plateau trough a series of passes, the highest one 5200 m, tracks built directly on permafrost, leading into the holy, mythical city of Lhasa.

I am clutching a pouch with my passport, train ticket and travel permit.  Precious, magic documents.

The permit circus

Agata PermitThe paper work to obtain these was not for the fainthearted.

You need a chinese visa to go to Tibet. And a special travel permit. They will tell you NOT to mention the fact that you are going to Tibet, when you apply for a chinese visa.

You can not apply for the travel permit to Tibet without a chinese visa.

And you can not buy a train ticket to Lhasa without the travel permit.

And you can not get the travel permit, without your ticket.

(And you need to document your itinerary with tickets to obtain the visa, but thats another story).

We were still in Denmark, looking at a map of the world, planning our trip by letting fingers wander, if you turn left after Mongolia, you go to Korea and Japan, if you turn right, you go to Tibet. Seeing the improbability of traveling in big zig-zags, the decision was firm:

– Lets go to Tibet.

Despite the disadvantages, such as that free travel is not possible, we found a tibetan owned company that could provide the mandatory guide service, and started the somewhat absurd process of applying for travel permits.

We was told that it is almost there, almost ready. At least, well under the way. Only one stamp was still missing.

Weeks flew by, and we found ourselves waiting in Beijing, train tickets booked, train leaving next day, but still no permits.

– We need just one more stamp.

Then it arrived, luckily, on the day we were leaving, and we could praise our good fortune, as passengers are declined boarding the train to Lhasa without this document.


Everybody, even the dark skinned tibetan natives that have linguered longer in the lowlands, arrive in Lhasa short of breath. The plateau is at the serious altitude of 3600 m.

– Welcome to Tibet. I will show you many, many beautiful things in my country

We are greeted by our mandatory guide, given white silk scarves, and taken to one of the few hotels, that are licensed to admit foreigners.

We have arrived in Lhasa.

The first impression is soldiers, police, everywhere, on every street and corner there is a tank, or a police car, or a booth. Brought there to guarantee safety to the liberated people.

The city is beautiful, the dignified, white Potala palace, empty home of Dalai Lama , the Jhomsong temple, a place of power, sizzling with energy, surrounded by pilgrims day and night.

We are here for 2 days, to acclimatize, before we can leave for Kharta valley.

These are happy days, as on this part of our travel our family of three is joined by my sister and mum, and everybody enjoys the reunion. We get a foot massage performed by blind therapists, and have a hairdresser apply the Lhasa hair style with colorful braids to our hair. We watch the movie “Seven years in Tibet“, and marvel at actually being in Lhasa.

Old Kharta Valley Trek

We are driving trough the country side, so slo….ooooo…ooooo…wly….. The police check points on the way give time limits to tourist cars, arriving to early or to late warrants a fine, giving us an average speed of 60 km/h for several hundreds of kilometers.  After 3 days of driving, when everybody is grumpy and tired, we arrive at a river, a rather dirty camp site, and put up our tents.

Next morning we are waken up by yells, as the yaks have arrived, together with two yak boys, that can whistle and shout commands for the yaks to follow.

Accompanied by the boys whistles, and the yaks bells, we set out on an eight day trek to the high and remote Kharta Valley, in hope of catching a view of the worlds highest mountain.

We are not lucky with the weather, most of the days it is raining, at night the temperature drops below zero, we have strong wind, fog and snow, low visibility. We have and odd problem with our guide, he tends to wander of chatting with the cheerful yak-boys, leaving our group in the fog banks, unsure of directions.

Somehow it is difficult to explain to our guide, that he should prioritetize walking with us, the clients, as there is really no other reason to have a guide, that to show the way. We have some heated discussions and clashes, trying to explain this to our impatient man. After a long, and very wet day, it is easy to build up anger.I remind myself of a fundamental Aikido lesson:

– Look at your feet, before you walk.


Our family posing with a view of the East side of the snow clad beauty – Chomolungma / Mt Everest .

The clouds are gone in the morning, and we get to pose with the snowclad beauty – Chomolungma, or Mt Everest in English. From here, to get back to civilization, it is either turning around and walking back for 5 days, or continuing towards the highest point of the trek, the Lhangma La pas of 5400 m.

Our coldest camp is the highest, at 4950m. Thats when we discover that the sleeping bags are wet. The potatoes are dry, though, as they have been riding in the sole plastic bag. And we are almost out of gas.

There are small simple stone huts, serving as shelters, and we huddle around the oven, together with tibetan yak-men and a few chinese trekkers. Suddenly, the man next to me collapses, and falls face down on the stone floor. My sister is a competent doctor, and after a quick examination, that reveals a gaping hole in his head, she is outraged:

– What is the man doing here, at 4900 m, with a severe wound in his head?

– Why are his clothes wet?


Blank faces, murmurs, shrugging shoulders, thats the way it is, he was wounded, is walking back to receive medical treatment, when he hopefully arrives back to civilization in a few days. The wound is infected, the man is losing conciousness, he owes only the wet clothes he is wearing, it is below zero outside, there is no helicopter that will come to rescue up a tibetan yak-man.

The first rule of treatment being keep the patient warm and dry, she commands around, and reluctantly the other yak-men make room for him to lie down, we find blankets and dry clothes, after a cleaning and provisory dressing of the wound, and administering antibiotics from our first aid kit. It is a relief to hear the patient as he starts to joke a few hours later, when the medicine kicks in.

As we break the last camp, we discover that our crew is planning to leave two big bags full of trash, a sad contribution to an already suffering fragile ecosystem.

– We need to take our trash with us.

– No, I paid environment protection tax! Somebody else will come and clean this.

When we bumble on the road back to civilization, it is without the trash bags in the car. An unpleasant taste in my mouth.

It is a moral dillema, how much should we complain, where is the line between impoving a situation, and a man losing his job. We meet with the manager in a fast food restaurant, get a long explanation about ecology, and missing elements from guide’s education, and issues with local goverment, eco tourism being a very complicated affair. We interrupt:

– No, it is very simple. Don’t leave trash.

– Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.

The long train ride back, down from the Tibetan Plateau to Wuhan gives time to think.

We met many people in Tibet, but didn’t really make friends, there was no connection, a sad feeling.

But a few days later, I get an email from Sonam, general manager of Explore Tibet, the company that organized our trek.

– Your guide worked really hard, he realized his mistake.

Explore Tibet staff working on their community project – cleaning up a mountain, and raising awareness.

As I browse the photos, and read his story, I can feel a smile growing on my face. Explore Tibet has decided to take responsibility, and go forward in protecting the fragile eco system, and has demonstrated the commitment by organizing a clean up day, sending staff to remove bag after bag of garbage from one of the holy mountains, and sponsored signposts stating a familiar phase in 3 languages:

– Take nothing but memories – leave nothing but footprints.

This phrase, this recognition, is the missing connection. Now, I feel, that we channelled a change, we left a mark.