We went to Tibet for the second trip of the exchange. It was almost the opposite of the first one, which was along the east coast of China. The first one marked a beginning, but this one marked an end. We leave China in exactly two weeks. The trip was a wonderful way to celebrate the past months we spent here. I am inclined to say I enjoyed this trip more than the first one, but they were so different it feels unfair to compare them. Tibet was unlike any other place I have been to in China. Its language, culture, and landscapes make for an incredible place to visit.
We spent the first and last two days in a slow-moving overnight train. It might seem silly to miss four days of a 9-day trip due to traveling, but it is necessary when traveling to Tibet. You see, Lhasa, Tibet is located in the Himalaya Mountains! According to my host parents, Lhasa's altitude is somewhere in the 3,600m. If we had taken a plane, our bodies would have had no time to adjust to the altitude, and even taking the train, we could all feel the effects. The lack of oxygen makes it near impossible to breathe. Just walking down the hotel corridor left us out of breath. One of the other bounders actually fainted on the train! So, taking the train there was a necessity, thought I will admit taking the train back might not have been the best idea.
The trains were crowded, China style. The first time we took it, the entire group was spread in different carts and rooms. The rooms were tiny, two beds on each side, then two beds on top of each of those. Luckily, I got the bottom bunk on both rides, but that also came with its own disadvantages. When we weren't sleeping, which was almost always due to the impossibly hard and narrow beds, the people from the top bunks found my bed to be a nice-enough couch. We survived those days on ramen, card games, and our electronics. I even re-read Dreamland, by Sarah Dessen, which only made me cry my eyeballs out and feel stupid for complaining about any of these things. It actually kind of started to grow on me after a while. Well, until I dropped a bit of burning-hot water on myself, but I survived even that.
Lhasa was amazingly beautiful. I think the first thing we all noticed was the clean air. It really was a welcome change after the last few months in Beijing. We were all gathering by the train, tired but happy. I feel like singing and dancing, and I think maybe I am doing a little bit of both, but then we notice that the train was leaving the station and one of our teachers still hadn't come out. We tried telling the workers, but they refused to do anything about it (they claimed they couldn't do anything, but we didn't believe them). Eventually, even the police came to see what the commotion was about. They kept asking for our passports and visas, but our remaining teacher refused to give them away. It was quite funny, really, especially when it came to the conversations. People speak little English in Tibet and even less Chinese. Somehow, we managed to leave the station and meet with our tour guide. It turned out our teacher had only been taken somewhere a few minutes away and not back to Beijing. Finally, he came strolling along and got in the bus. He bought us water bottles to make up for what happened, and we were all dehydrated, so we didn't complain much.
Our tour guide's English was really hard to understand, and I was tired from the restless nights spent in the train, so I tuned him out and closed my eyes. At one point, however, I did catch what he was saying. He was pointing to a palace we were driving by and saying we would be going there tomorrow. I almost died. Remember what I said about barely being able to breath, especially when we exercised? Well, the Potala Palace (which I kept thinking people were calling Potato Palace, but that's another story) had about a million steps and we would be climbing all of them the day after our arrival. Talk about terrible planning.
All of our meals on the following days were near identical. Every place we went to offered the same food at the same prices in the same environment. It always took them hours to cook the dishes, and we never understood what the servers were saying or vise versa. Sometimes I really had no idea what language the natives were speaking. The most noteworthy characteristic of all these restaurants, however, was the extent to which they used yak in their dishes. In fact, I think all but two of my dishes (both of which were fried rice), used yak as their main ingredient. I was not a fan of the yak burger, which tasted dry and stale to me, but I loved the yak momo. I really couldn't tell much of a difference between yak and beef, but I think that was just me.
Our visit to the Potala Palace was as expected: extremely difficult and incredibly beautiful. We slowly made our way to the top, pausing every now and then to take group pictures as well as pictures of the landscapes. After lunch, we went to a temple and walked around. The street life in Tibet is fascinating. The traffic seemed to me to be even worse than in Beijing, but my friends claimed it only seemed like that when crossing the street. The streets went on and on forever between stoplights, so we had to jaywalk our way across. It was crazy scary, but I did not fall like I did in Shanghai. We walked along little roads where the traffic consisted mainly of pedestrians and a few bikes. They were lined by shops, people selling clothes and accessories, jewelry and decorations, daring us to go in and come out without buying anything. We spent the last day of the trip walking down these streets and shopping for souvenirs.
We went to a lake on our second day in Lhasa. Somehow I missed the memo telling us the lake would be about three hours away, but the destination made it worthwhile. It was beyond beautiful, and, for once, our breathlessness had nothing to do with the altitude. The locals walked around and tricked us into paying for pictures with their animals, which were terribly hard to resist. We went to a monastery after that, then headed back to the hotel. We had to rest and prepare ourselves for the long trip ahead of us.
The next day we went to another, even more famous lake that is five hours away from Lhasa. I spent the ride there listening to music, reading, and looking out the window. The landscape never failed to amaze me. This lake was even higher than Lhasa, so it was colder and harder to breath. The lake was frozen, but the view was beautiful. I never planned on going in, anyway, so I didn't mind it much, but the tour guide mentioned it is even more beautiful in the summer. I had to use our oxygen can once, but it was the trip was totally worth it.
We did not spend much time in Tibet, nor did we tour that many places, but it was still a great trip. Sometimes going to too many places can be overwhelming, which I believe is what happened on the last trip we took, so I was glad to see that improvement. We all had a genuinely great time, and made memories that will never leave us. It makes me wonder why Tibet is not more of a tourist attraction, but that is part of its charm, so I am not complaining.