Saturday, October 20, 2007

Arriving in Tibet and off to Tsetang

The only "direct" flight from Shanghai to Lhasa changes planes in Xian. At transit in Xian, our boarding passes were collected. Tim had the foresight to grab the baggage claim tickets from boarding passes before they were replaced with new ones - 5 seats together and 1 in another row!

Chaos then ensues when it is time to board the onward bound flight as it becomes necessary to try to find the old boarding passes to be returned. This, of course, so that errant baggage tags could be retrieved. The endless inefficiencies of China systems!

We did however manage to claim a full row, trading off the one seat we needed.

And so, another few hours later, we arrive at Gongkar airport - SE of Lhasa to be met by our erstwhile guide, Gaden, and driver for the trip. Bedecked with our white silk scarves, we head off to our first destination Tsetang, elevation 3,550m. Described by Lonely Planet as an "uninteresting modern town", we couldn't disagree. Nonetheless, moving ever so slowly up the stairs to our rooms at the Snow Pigeon, the rooms were relatively typical of a Chinese business class hotel - a bit noisy and smoky but perfectly adequate.

Gaden agreed to meet us at 7 and take us to dinner at the first of seemingly endless Tashi Restaurants. Walking (slowly) there and puffing by the time we reached the second floor restaurant, we had our first tibetan/nepalese dinner, complete with the obligatory taste of yak butter tea. Service was slow (the place was packed; presumably with every western tour group in town), but the food was good. Even to the confusing dish that was deemed to be chili chicken, but was the chili potatoes ordered by another group.

With a menu boasting of yogurt, pancakes and American breakfasts, and a hotel looking like it would serve something a bit too much like a classic Chinese hotel breakfast buffet, we asked put down money for breakfast so that the Tashi restaurant would open for us.

No smile given to a Tibetan goes unreturned. On our way to Tsetang, we stopped in a small town to pick up water. Judy and I attracted quite a bit of study from an old woman who wandered by. As we studied her, she studied us. When I gave her a big smile, a huge one-tooth smile and a thumbs-up came in return. Then again, if you are Gaden, no smile to an attractive young woman will go unreturned!

And off to our first night of sleeping at altitude. Aside from the hard beds, noise and smoky rooms, I was an immediate believer in the efficacy of the Diamox. Slept reasonably well, felt like I could breathe and didn't have a massive headache.

Just a side note, for those people who would like the assurance of having an personal oxygen canister with them, they are readily available at the airport and in Lhasa (and presumably other major tour destinations). There were NONE obviously for sale in Tsetang. So if you take this route and want some insurance, pick it up before leaving Gongkar. See Planning for Tibet for more thoughts on arranging travel and dealing with altitude.

Link to Day 2: Tsetang

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