travel to tibet

Special to The Daily Reflector
by David Duffus

February 27, 2000

Prior 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.  

Our 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 restaurants.

  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 1951.  

After 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 people.

 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 Tibet."  

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.

Tsurphu 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- year retreats.  

The 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.  

Altitude 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 Lhasa.  

After 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 child's bicycle.

 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.  

Lake 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 year-old monk.  

Galu 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.  

At 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.  

Getting 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 memorable experience.

 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' or more.  

 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 approximately 7000'.

 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 Greenville.

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.