From Lhasa with love


Lhasa might not be a million miles from Beijing (it’s 1500 or so according to my GPS) – but it’s certainly a world apart. Tibetan prayer flags adorn the streets, the people smile at you and are inquisitive, and the Chinese army are on every street corner.

We got here a few days ago, and have been enjoying soaking up the atmosphere while also getting used to the lack of it in a physical sense. Lhasa is at 3600m, which is high enough that you can feel the reduced oxygen – we’ve both had headaches since arriving, and Laura’s having trouble sleeping (and this time it isn’t due to all-night partying!) The advice is to drink plenty of water, rest – and to take Diamox, which aids the body’s absorption of oxygen while enough red blood cells are being created to help out. Fortunately, comfy hotel beds and a pretty chilled out traveller-friendly city makes this a nice spot to rest, although it would be slightly nicer if our hotel room overlooked the delightful courtyard garden at the back rather than the building site and car-horn-aplenty main road at the front.

I’d love to include a set of photos of the various army and police checkpoints around the city – certainly an occupying force by any conventional description. Unfortunately, we’ve been warned they don’t take kindly to this, and they have guns. So I’ll describe it instead. As you walk down the street, you come across four types of military onlookers:

The patrol – normally five soldiers, marching in unison, with white gloves, full body armour, and often riot gear. Between them they tend to carry a few rifles, a shotgun, and what appears to be a tear gas grenade launcher. Oh, and one has a shiny red fire extinguisher strapped to his back, since self-immolation is a common form of protest. Strangely though, they do give way sometimes when the street is crowded.

The box of troops – imagine a small plastic greenhouse, with all the windows shut, surrounded by hazard tape, sitting on a street corner. Now fill it with soldiers in camouflage gear. I’ve heard of guerrilla gardening, but this is something different! Given the sun is very hot here (due to the altitude), it must be like a sauna in there. Maybe there’s a hidden ice-cold plunge pool nearby.

The stage standers – I find this one particularly bizarre. Take a small stage block, say 50cmx50cm, by a mere 20cm high. Paint it bright red, and put a beer garden-style sunshades above it (we’re pretty certain the writing says some pro-Chinese slogan rather than just ‘probably the greatest beer in the world’, but could be wrong). Now stand on it, from your lofty (remember, 20cm!) vantage point and stare into the distance while standing to perfect attention. We’ve been trying to see if they’ll respond to a cheesy grin as we walk past, but so far haven’t succeeded.

The silhouettes – every now and again, against the beautiful skyline of soaring mountains and a brilliant blue sky, you see the outline of a couple of soldiers under another beer garden umbrella. Presumably they’re admiring the rooftop scenery.

Despite the very visible army presence, this place clearly does have a lot of love. Everywhere you go, there are warm smiles from the locals, and wandering the lovely street market stalls in the Barkhor area surrounding the Jokhang temple, there’s none of the pressured selling we experienced in Beijing, just friendly hellos and questions about where we’re from.

More on the sights, food and, well, yaks later – we’re off to find our first Tibetan geocache and hopefully grab a nice chocolate brownie and a cafe down the road.