Sunday, April 19
This morning we were up at 4:30 to catch an early flight to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Matthew wanted to get us there early so we would have time to adapt to the thin air of Lhasa, which is at 12,000 feet. The two-and-a-half-hour flight offered some spectacular views of the mountains.
When we arrived, we were greeted by our Tibetan guide, Wang Dui (pronounced wong dwee). Someone asked what we should call him and he replied “Wang Dui.” Tibetans do not have family names and given names as we and the Chinese do. Rather, the names are bestowed on them, often by a lama.
At the airport, we received long white sashes that were tied around our necks. They are called khatas and are a traditional offering in Tibetan culture. We received a second khata when we arrived at the hotel.
Our group was divided in two for the one-hour trip from the airport to the hotel, 20 of us on one bus and 15 on another. We later learned that this is to protect the local officials. If there is a bus accident and more than 20 people are injured, the local officials get in trouble with the central government in Beijing. So Tibet has a rule that no more than 20 people can ride on a bus.
It was apparent at first glance that Tibet is quite different from China. The air was clear, cool, and clean. We were surrounded by mountains, many with snow on them. In China, many signs were in Chinese and English. Here signs are in Tibetan and Chinese, with very little English.
The police and military presence is also much more apparent in Tibet. In fact, a policeman rode with us from the airport into Lhasa. He was there to keep an eye on us and to make sure that our driver did not exceed the posted speed limit of 80 kph (about 50 mph). The road was a nice two-lane highway with little traffic. Americans would drive 65 or 70 on such a road, but our bus putted along at 50.
We could see other effects of the growing Chinese presence in Tibet. On the drive into town, we saw numerous high-rise condominiums, some finished and some under construction, just as we had seen in Beijing and Xi’an. Downtown Lhasa, however, had a different feel. The buildings were older and shorter and the streets were less crowded.
Our guides basically gave us the afternoon off to get used to the altitude. The effects were noticeable. It felt harder to breathe, and Robin and I both got headaches. We were grateful to able to just relax in our hotel room, which overlooked a lovely courtyard. As it turned out, some of our group were more severely affected. Three people ended up having to see a doctor and some ended up missing some of the activities.
We went to bed early, knowing that our respite from tourism would end in the morning.