travel to tibet
Special to The Daily Reflector
February 27, 2000
to beginning our trip we didn't know what to expect. Our destination
was Tibet for a three-week overland trek. Randolph Chitwood and I had
never been in a communist country.
To get to Tibet we flew from the west coast to Hong Kong, then
to Chengdu and on to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
thoughts of a communist country came from the Cold War era, the
invasion of Tibet by China in 1959 and the Tinnamin massacre. We
expected a police state, but Chengdu and Tibet took us by surprise.
After staying in Chengdu for one night, we boarded our plane for Lhasa
the next morning. As we
took our seats on a new Air Bus 300 operated by the People's Republic
of China, we were surprised to hear a Stevie
Wonder song over the intercom.
Altitude is a factor in all of Tibet from Lhasa to Mount Everest
at 29,400. Since our trip would take us from Lhasa to the base of Mt.
Everest at 18,000', the most formidable part of our trip was breathing
air that only had 68% of the oxygen content to which we were
accustomed. We acclimatized slowly, spending three beautiful days in
Lhasa - short outings filled with picture taking, visits to the a
local market, the Jokhang temple, Bhuddist temples and shrines and
Lhasa, known as the
"Forbidden City," has been the religious, cultural and
economic and cultural center of Tibet since the 7th
century. Lhasa is
situated on the highest plateau in the world and is the location of
the Portala Place, The Portala is Lhasa's cardinal landmark, a
structure of massive proportions which dominates the skyline, and the
official living quarters of the Dalai Lama until he fled the country
during the Communist takeover in 1959 The Portala contains over 1000
rooms consisting of living quarters, apartments for regents,
government officials and religious figures, hundreds of chapels and
thousands of treasures collected over centuries. Portions of the
palace date from the 7th century while more recent
renovations 300 years ago by the 5th Dalai Lama created the
incredible 13-story complex
Our first day in Lhasa was spent at the Barkhor market starting
with lunch at the Internet Café.
I bravely dined on yak curry, a dish made from the local beast
which does everything in Tibet from plowing fields to transporting
trekers up Mt. Everest. After
we ordered our meals, Ranny
and I immediately ran over to the three computers in the restaurant to
send email. The technology revolution has touched everyone - even the
Tibetans. It was hard to believe that this country only opened to
tourists in 1984 after having been closed by the Chinese communists in
lunch we discovered extensive picture opportunities at the local
market. From a photographer's perspective the Barkhor market offered a
wonderful chance to photograph Tibetans making religious pilgrimages
to Lhasa. Their dress varied from scarlet
red robes of monks to the
colorful costumes of ordinary
The Barkhor surrounds the Jokang Temple, Tibet's most holy
temple dating from the 7th century
The temple has an incredible view from its roof of the city of
Lhasa. A steady stream of pilgrims, visiting this shrine, prostrate
themselves in front of the temple and throng inside to encounter the
precious "Jowo" the statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha brought
from China 1,300 years ago.
As we entered the temple, we stood in a chanting line of hundreds of
Tibetans, draped in our kathaks (ka-tas - ceremonial scarfs worn
around the neck) snaking our way through the darkened shrine, lit in
candlelight, to an inner chamber containing a central altar with a
golden Buddha. I remarked to Ranny that this experience felt like
something out of the movies "Kundun and "Seven Years in
The next few days of our trek took us to the Tsurphu Monastery which is about 60 miles from Lhasa, but a half a days drive at speeds averaging 15 miles an hour. Tsurpu is situated in a beautiful valley, at 13,500', wedged between snow-capped mountains. Hermit stone dwellings, where monks may live in isolation for months or even years, are situated 500 feet above the monas- tery.
Monastery, founded in 1189, is the home of the Seventeenth Karmapa,
the head of the Karma Kagyu order. At one time early Karmapas rivaled
the early Dalai Lamas. Tibetans
believe in reincarnation and that this monastic leader, a "Living
Buddha" has reappeared each
generation since the 10th century. The current Karmapa, who
is18 years old, became head of the monastery at Tsurphu ten years ago
at the tender age of eight.
As we climbed the mountains above the monastery we enjoyed
incredible views of the valley below, at times through prayer flags
attached to rock cairns known as chortans.
At this altitude above the Tsurphu Monastery our pace slows to a crawl
but we are entertained Buddhist monks and nuns performing their three-
altitude at the Tsurphu monastery, 14,000 feet, was the cause of some
in our group of 15 to experience symptoms of altitude sickness.
Fortunately, five of our trekers were physicians. However, Warren,
a 33 year-old radiologist, who easily ran seven miles daily,
was the first to get ill.
sickness is unpredictable. One may be unaffected by symptoms on one
high altitude trek while succumbing on the next trip. The best
approach to treating altitude sickness is for one go a lower altitude.
However, in Tibet, this is not easy to do since roads are unimproved
and lower altitudes are days away.
Fortunately, medical science has come up with a technological
innovation called the Gamoff bag. This bag is comfortable enough to
accommodate one person, can be sealed and then pressurized to simulate
a reduction in altitude. After three trips into the Gamoff bag,
Warren's symptoms continued to worsen and he had to be taken back to
leaving Tsurpu we stopped at the Drigung monastery that had been
rebuilt after its destruction during the Communist Chinese Cultural
Revolution and located about 20 miles away down the valley from
Tsurphu. The leader of this monastery, a six year-old boy known as the
Rinpoche, became the religious leader of monastery at the age of four.
The Rinpoche was not without at the attraction of child's playthings.
During our audience with this child, we noticed that he had a Mickey
Mouse hat on a table next to him and also observed several toys and a
The following days were spent traversing 17,000' foot passes and
camping at Reting Nunnery and Lake Namtso.
At Reting we climbed to about 15,000' and visited with Buddhist
nuns who housed in a nunnery at the base of an 18,000' mountain. The
nuns invited us to climb with them on a four-hour kora walk
(pilgrimage circuit) on the mountain above the nunnery. At this time I
felt a real sense of accomplishment since I climbed up to 16,500'.
At the end of our walk we were invited inside the nunnery for
picture taking and a horn demonstration. My partner, Dr. Chitwood, was
able to take stunning photos of one of the nuns standing in light
filtered from one of the nunnery's windows.
Namtso, the second largest salt lake in Tibet, is the sanctuary for
thousands of migratory birds making their long journeys across Asia.
The lake area was once inhabited by Bhuddist monks living in caves
along the lakeshore. All are gone now with the exception of Galu, a 77
has inhabited one of the caves for 17 years with his pet sheep, Lu.
The old monk has renovated his cave to include an impressive Buddhist
shrine, serving to attract tourists. I was impressed with Galu's sense
of business acumen,
although he can speak no English . We were treated to a guided tour by
Galu and Lu of local caves containing altars and wall paintings.
the close of two weeks, Ranny Chitwood and part of our group had to
return to the States because of other obligations. I ventured on with
seven others across the rugged Tibetan terrain to Mt. Everest.
there is not as easy as it appears on the map. Although Mt. Everest is
a days' drive from the main highway between Lhasa and Katmandu, Nepal,
its takes a journey of three days just to transverse the main highway.
This main artery of commercial traffic is two lanes at times, but
mostly one lane, and unpaved. It is under constant repair due to wear
and tear and adverse conditions, such as to rock slides, mud slides
and washouts. Just riding over this road for days-on-end
(speculating how your vehicle will make it through the trip) is a
Mt. Everest straddles the Nepal-Tibet border. It is easily
reached by four-wheel drive vehicle on the Tibet side of the mountain,
and approximately a one and one half day trip from the main one-lane,
unpaved Tibetan thoroughfare. My definition of "easily
reached" means driving, rather than hiking for days. However, the
drive is not for the faint of heart, since one is traveling on the
smallest of roads (more of a path) hugging cliffs with drops of 1000'
A small Buddhist monastery, by the name of Rombuk, is situated about 20 miles from the base of Mt. Everest. From this monastery, one has a gorgeous view of the mountain, which is a splendor to behold. Prior to our arrival on a crystal clear afternoon, Mt. Everest, rising to an altitude of over 29,000', had not been seen in weeks because of poor weather conditions.
Base Camp #1 on the Tibetan is short hike of five miles from the
monastery. However, considering the altitude of 17,500', the hike can
be a struggle for the unseasoned, unacclimatized traveler. One can
continue to hike another 15 miles to the base that is graced with a
stunning glacier. We managed to get within five miles of this glacier
at an altitude of 18,500'. Because of overcast conditions, although we
were standing next to the mountain, we were unable to see it.
The Tibetan side of the mountain affords unique viewing
opportunities that are quite different from the Nepal side. From the
Nepal side it takes at least four days of hiking to get to Base Camp
#1 on the south side of the mountain at 17,000'. From that vantage
point a view of Mt. Everest is quite obscured.
After spending two days at Rombuk, we traveled to Katmandu,
Nepal that took us over the Himalayas. This part of the trip is not
designed for people who have weak stomachs or bad backs. The road hugs
precipitous cliffs for 80 miles and declines in elevation by
In spite of fears about altitude, drinking water and stray dogs,
our expedition turned out to be the most incredible journey Ranny
Chitwood and I have experienced.
After I returned home, I was asked about wanting to climb to the
top of Mt. Everest. Considering that one out of every four people die,
who attempt to climb to the top of Everest,
I would rather spend my later years at 66' above sea level in
Photography by Dr. RandolphChitwood & David Duffus
Dr. Randolph Chitwood is the current Chairman of the Department of Cardio-Thoracic Surgery at East Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville, North Carolina. Dr. Chitwood is a pioneer in the use of robotics in cardiac surgery.
Mr. Duffus is an attorney in Greenville, North Carolina who specializes in pharmaceutical litigation.