ORGANIZING THE TREK
Trekking in the Tibetan highlands requires a permit and the company of an authorized guide, like other sightseeing activities in Tibet. A proper travel agency will provide you with a quality private tent, sleeping bag, a mat and enough oxygen (just in case you need it). The guide who treks with you will also get the necessary food and cook three meals a day.
Before booking the trip to Tibet, I emailed the agent who applied for my travel permits, and I informed him that, besides the tour of Lhasa and the trip to Everest Base Camp I wanted to do some trekking. He seemed surprised to hear that, perhaps because I was a solo female traveler, and overall, few travelers opt for that.
Most of the people visiting Tibet only go for the Lhasa and the EBC tours, and therefore I wasn’t surprised when the agent informed me that he couldn’t find anybody to join me. He added, that I’d had more chances to find to join other travelers if I had booked the trip earlier.
That was still good news to me! It meant more time and opportunities to interact with the locals.
If you want to find companions to lower the costs of the guide and porters, you need to plan things well in advance and find them for yourself through travel forums or Facebook groups, because trekking is not a common choice for travelers in Tibet, and the agency might not be able to help you with that. I did the trek in June, which is high tourist season, on the Ganden-Samye route, and didn’t meet another traveler!
If you are determined to find a traveling companion and spend time with someone you don’t know at all, keep in mind that this could ruin the trip of your life if it turns out that this person was just a bad choice! Up on those mountains, and without a phone signal, you’ll just want to be around people that make you feel okay! That’s also true for the guide, who will also be an interpreter for you and your connection to Tibetan locals which you meet on the way and who do not speak English. I recommend that you have a chat in person with the guide, to begin with, and see for yourself if you can rely on him totally for two days or more.
The agency warned me that the trekking would be physically demanding, and that, besides a guide, I’d need a yak-man and two yaks to carry our camping equipment and bags.
I was in, of course.
It seemed that the most convenient solution for me was trekking around Ganden Monastery, which is 30 km from Lhasa. The traditional walk, which requires three days, goes from Ganden Monastery to Samye Monastery, but I didn’t have enough time for that, and they suggested another, shorter route, starting from a village near Ganden Monastery.
WHAT YOU NEED
I woke up early and started getting ready for the trek.
I thought I’d need waterproof trousers, so that same day while our crew was arriving from Everest Base Camp, I took a stroll through the commercial streets of Lhasa, where many sport shops are located, and got a pair with padding which seemed warm enough (Tibetan nights at 4700 meters are cold in a tent, even in summer).
In the end, those thick trousers were too much for walking by day, but they were super okay after sunset and in the early morning.
I visited Tibet in June, and the weather was dry. I used good quality non-slip sneakers and did not regret not having trekking shoes. I guess that a pair of sandal plus socks would have done a good job, too.
I brought a hat with me, which turned out to be unnecessary, but one of the local women liked it, and it felt good to have something to give away.
Overall, I suggest you bring as few things as possible. Even if it’s true that the yaks are carrying all your stuff, they only get unloaded once a day, before pitching tents in the evening, and it would be super unconvenient to bother the crew to stop and unload at any other time. Once you’ve seen how annoying is to remove the load from those animals and to put it back on again, you won’t feel at ease about asking for your bag. You can leave your thing at the travel agency in Lhasa, and just bring a very light backpack to carry yourself.
We left Lhasa and went to see Namtso Lake first, and right after lunch, we drove to Ganden. The trip didn’t take long. We saw the monastery, nestled in the mountain, from the bottom of the valley, its buildings side by side like teeth in a smiling mouth.
I entered the monastery while the monks were chanting in the hall. The depth and intensity of the monks’ voices made me shake. The guide and I were the only visitors.
Next stop was Trubshi Village, where we met the yak-men and yaks who would walk with us. The forty-ish Tibetan owner of the yaks looked a bit older than his age. He was thin, with red-brown skin, long hair arranged in a ponytail, and had a loud, contagious laugh.
He made me think of Peruvian Indians. We connected easily, even if he didn’t speak much English, and also his Chinese was poor (however, not worse than my Tibetan…). The yak-man’s helper was a shy 17-year-old guy, with a baseball hat and the same red brown skin.
In my imagination, I thought we would ride the yaks. After I had spent the first day near these two creatures, I realized how far off my imagination was.
If you wish to have a look at the photo album from the trek, please go here.
Yaks are fast and agile, and very free. They move easily on grass and rocks and spend the day grazing quietly all by themselves, but it’s not an easy task to gather them in the morning after they have spent the night away from the camp. They behave a bit like bulls, so it’s better to stay at a safe distance, as you can see below, in the very amateur video I took, in which the young yak-man brought them back and prepared them for the trail.
We walked along a river and past several nomad tents. We visited a few of them and had a little conversation with the women, who welcomed us inside.
I got to know how everything in these people’s lives come from yaks: the material from which snow-proof tents are made, the thick, resistant blankets fit for the Tibetan winters, and yak cheese and meat. Everything is sold at the markets and represent the major income for the nomads who raise these animals. At the center of each tent, there is a stove fueled by yak manure. A small altar with the photo of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama and offerings is always present.
We only met about ten people, but many yaks.
WILL YOU NEED OXYGEN?
Hard to say!
The second day was tough for me. We went up, and it wasn’t too steep, but I realized that my walking performance was getting worse when the guide, who was walking ahead of me, started leaving me behind. He said I should take it easy; we would just keep following the river bed until we got to the sacred lake of the Green Tara.
Soon, I had lost sight of him. My legs were heavy, and for the first time on the whole trip, I started sipping oxygen. I was too slow, and for some reason, each step required way too much energy.
I decided to quit, sit on the grass and just enjoy being there with the grass and rocks, yaks all around me, and the sky so close.
I guess that at that point I started crying.
Was I crying for joy, for being up there in the clouds and the pure air (not too much air btw), and because I had finally made it to visit that place of my dreams? Or, was it an emotional release, assisted by the altitude?
I was still in that condition when Tashi, the guide, came back to see why I was taking so long. He was excited because he’d reached the lake already. He said it was close, and that I could make it, and helped get me back on my feet.
I trusted him. That’s his land, after all, and he was so happy to be there that I didn’t want to disappoint him by saying dull things like “I can’t move my legs anymore…”
I felt like we had entered another dimension that day. We didn’t see another human being for hours, and we couldn’t even hear any sounds around us.
After getting more rest at the lake, we returned to the camp. Tashi got there an hour before me and started making rice for dinner. I didn’t need oxygen on the way back but needed to stop now and then to look at the landscape and imprint it on my mind.
A crew of four people who were apparently looking for something on the ground on a slope not far from our tent, stopped by and had tea with us. They wanted to know about me and asked a lot of questions in English. They told me they were collecting caterpillar fungus on the mountains because it’s used in Chinese medicine, and sells well at the markets.
The next morning , we packed everything and returned to Trubshi, where the yak-men lived. We spent time chatting with the yak-man’s wife and daughter at a tent near the village, where they were taking care of a few animals, and later had dinner at their house, which was decorated with traditional themes.
Their daughter is 24 and works in a textile factory near Lhasa.
That was my last day in Tibet. The following morning, I left from Lhasa airport and returned to Xiamen.
Those 13 days had been intense, and definitely the trek was my favourite part of the whole trip.
Look at all the photos from the trek here!