We went to sleep and woke up the following morning (the day we were arriving in Lhasa) with actually any special feeling because of the altitude. Later we found out that we had already been in the highest train station of the world (5100m) and that most of the oxygen outlets of the train were on, so that's probably why we didn't feel much the altitude.
We went for a walk to the other carriages of the train and there we started to see the real Tibet: plenty of Tibetans cramped on the seats, some of them breathing oxygen from the outlets and they looked like taken from out of a movie, with their dark skins, traditional clothes, smells... quite a view.
The train trip was an experience in itself, and it is a masterpiece of engineering, as it runs over permafrost and they had to build special "bridges" not to melt the permafrost. the views you have are really stunning and prepare you to what you will see once you get off. On the way we were also asked for our Tibetan permits, mandatory for all foreigners visiting the country.
When we got off the train, the first thing was going to a police office by the station to register ourselves, and from there out of the station, where we met for the first time our guide. We saw a tiny girl holding a paper with my name and a guy next to her who welcomed us to Tibet. Oh, he must be our guide. But no, the guide was the tiny girl who didn't even say hello and just told us to go to the jeep to be transferred to the hostel we had previously booked. Well, not a really nice first impression of the guide (later that bad impression would be more than confirmed).
Once in the jeep, the driver welcomed us and even gave us a traditional white Tibetan scarf. On the way by jeep to the hostel we could have the first impression of Lhasa new town, which was quite disappointing, as it looked exactly as any other Chinese city. The only thing that broke the monotony of the landscape was the first sight of the Potala Palace. And wow, even if it was from the car, the view was really impressive.
We finally reached the hostel and had a talk with our guide, just to confirm that that Tibetan girl was everything but a guide. She didn't know anything about the plan, she wasn't able tot tell us the best places to see in Lhasa... anything. So we just told her to come back the following morning at 8 to go and visit some temples and monasteries, as it is forbidden to go on your own. The best news were that we could explore Lhasa on our own, we only needed the guide to enter the temples, monasteries and the Potala Palace.
We joined the kora, went all around the temple and it was like being inside a movie, a theme park or a videogame. Everything was surreal, like out of this world, you see this somewhere else and it is something for tourists, but in Lhasa everything is authentic, so authentic that it looks fake.
After exploring in the evening the center of Lhasa and having the first try of Tibetan food (yak momos or dumplings, yak butter tea and a Lhasa beer) we went back to the hostel still impressed by the first sight of the Tibetan capital.
So, fresh and shiny we woke up early morning to meet our guide at 8 in the reception. And guess what... she showed up half an hour later! Yes, that girl was whatever but a guide... but nothing to do, we must be accompanied to visit the sights so nothing to do about her. Anyway, the first thing we did was going to Jokhang Temple, the one we visited the previous day from outside and located in the main square of Lhasa.
The first sight when we arrived there it was even more impressive than the one the day before: hundreds of people prostrating in front of the temple and also waiting to enter it. We, as foreigners, were able to skip the queue and get inside immediately. The temple was full of people but it was really nice and impressive. There was a smell of the butter lamps all around and we were entering the small chapels inside the main room. The "guide" just was with us and explained us about the different Buddhas (that's all she did every day, repeating the names of the Buddhas).
From there, we went up the temple to enjoy sublime views of the square and even Potala Palace and then we were free to continue exploring the streets of Lhasa until 3, when we were meeting the guide again to go to Sera Monastery.
At 3 we met the girl again and this time we headed to Sera Monastery, one of the most important ones in Tibet. We went there by taxi and again, immediately after entering the monastery it feels you are somewhere hundreds and hundreds of years ago, totally untouched. The monastery is like a small town itself, with only a bunch of tourists, empty narrow streets with only monks walking, prayer wheels and a few small temples. The best of the visit, though, was the monks' debate. Every day in the afternoon the monks gather in a courtyard and they debate about religious affairs. They are in couples and there's one standing and another one sitting. One raises a question and the other one has to answer it. Then they change roles. We stayed there for an hour or so and then went on to explore the rest of the monastery before heading back to Lhasa and going with our companion (not guide anymore) to have some tea at a really nice teahouse right off the Barkhor Kora. Then a Lhasa beer, some Tibetan food in one of those authentic small restaurants and back to the hostel to have some sleep.
Inside the palace, what we saw were basically different rooms (each one devoted to a different activity of the Dalai Lama), small temples and the tombs of the past Dalai Lamas (big golden stupas). Even if the visit was really interesting, the Palace lacks a bit of life. As the Dalai Lama is not there anymore, now the palace is a museum, so compared with the monasteries or temples, which are full of activity and life, is a bit dead, like more impressive from the outside than from the inside.
From Potala, we took a taxi and went to Drepung Monastery, another of the most important Tibetan monasteries. This time it was possible to visit all the temples in it, and despite of not having a monks' debate, the Monastery was similar to Sera, like a small town and a feeling of being centuries ago. Beautiful. With all the sights of Lhasa done, we headed back to the Old Town, said goodbye to the companion till next day, went for some food, then back to Potala to do the Kora, take some night pictures (even a more impressive sight at night) and to bed.
So the only option was to wait for the weather to get better. The companion told us as soon as she had any news she would call the hostel to tell us. And the worst news were confirmed: it was still snowing, the roads were closed and it would be impossible to go to Gyantse and Yamdrok Lake. Shit. Ok, so what we did was going again to explore Lhasa, this time a totally white Lhasa. And that amount of snow really was an unusual thing, as people were playing with the snow everywhere, there were plenty of funny snowmen all over the city... and snow, snow and more snow everywhere. Still, people were doing the Kora and praying, although not prostrating this time, it would have probably been a bit too much.
Finally it stopped snowing and we went back to the hostel to find out that the companion and the jeep driver were there waiting for us with some good news: finally the roads were open and we could leave Lhasa! The bad news were that we had to drive straight to Shigatse and skip Gyantse and Yamdrok Lake, as to get there there is a high pass and it was closed.
Somehow we made it to Shigatse quite tired and with only time to have some food and to go to sleep. Tired because of the trip but also for the first time because of the altitude. Even if Shigatse is at "only" 3800 m, that night we felt a quite strong headache.
We woke up the following morning luckily with no headache anymore and ready to visit the monastery in town and afterwards to go to the Everest Base Camp. It was going to be a quite long day, although right now we were not expecting it was going to be a really longer day than planned. We went to the monastery on our own (the companion and the driver went to arrange the permit for the EBC) and, as Sera and Drepung, this one was also impressive. A massive monastery, full of temples, rooms, stupas, people praying, butter lamps... as all the places we visited in Tibet, it was an experience in itself, unforgettable. The pity was that we didn't have enough time to fully explore it, as at 11 we had to start going to the Everest, otherwise we would get there after sunset.
It took us some 4 hours driving on the main slow road with a stopover for lunch in a really authentic restaurant of a small town on the way before we took a turn left into a gravel road. We were entering the Everest National Park!
From that moment on , the landscape changed dramatically and we went from a paved road with no special sights to an unpaved one surrounded by mountains. And the best of it all came when, after and hour and a half or so of climbing a mountain pass we reached the top of it at 5200m and we stopped there.
After admiring the landscape and taking a few pictures, we went back to the jeep and continued driving for about one more hour until we had the first close-up view of the Everest. It was like being in another world, a desert landscape, a gravel road and the top of the world in front of you. Finally we arrived at the base camp before sunset, so we got off to admire the Everest and to take a few pictures. despite being really cold it was quite a thing to have the highest mountain of the world just a couple of hundred meters in front of you, and even if it was a bit cloudy and we were not able to see the summit, the whole thing was impressive.
Back to the car and now it was time to drive to the town where we were supposed to stay overnight, so we took a gravel road different from the one before. And here it was when things started to get a bit complicated.
We started driving and the road was getting worse and worse. At some points it was half blocked because of the snow, but luckily the driver could manage to avoid it. Until somewhere. We got to a point where the road was totally blocked because of a snowslide not many days ago. It was already dark, the road was really narrow so, after looking around with the headtorches and trying to find an alternative road the driver decided to go back. It took us quite a long time to be able to reverse but we finally made it. Now it was either going back all the way or finding another road. And the driver opted for the second option, which was also the most stupid one.
After one hour trying to get out from there, finally the driver could take the car from the rocks and it was a miracle nothing got broken. The situation was really tense and even the driver (with his hands bleeding because of the rocks) was nervous and sweating, so when everything finally ended he could breathe relieved. It was by far the most unpleasant situation of the entire trip and once back on the road we decided to go to sleep to the nearest village. It was impossible to continue the plan and we were tired like hell it was almost midnight, so the only option was going to a tiny little village to have a rest in a guesthouse. And this was another experience in itself.
Anyway, before 6 in the morning we were back in the Nissan (I must admit that I was really impressed with the previous day performance of a Nissan Patrol from the 90s) driving on the same gravel road and again asking for directions to get to the main road, which we took after a couple of hours. Finally, it seemed that all problems were over. We took the road and ahead of us we had some 5 hours until reaching Zhangmu, the last Tibetan village before Nepal.
After a couple of hours we started the dramatic descent to Nepal, along a twisting road downhill following the course of the river and passing by some small villages until we started seeing the first Nepalese trucks parked and queuing on one side of the road. Nepal must be close! And it was, indeed. A few more kilometers of bends and we got down to the gorge, to the river. That was Zhangmu. We got off the car, took our stuff, exchanged some yuans into Nepalese rupees, said bye to the companion and the driver and went to the border to clear the Chinese customs. We were saying goodbye to Tibet (and China) and we were about to cross the Friendship Bridge into Nepal.
If you have the minimum chance of visiting Tibet, don't hesitate, go for it no matter what and if you can afford it, spend as many days as possible, just don't book your tour through Mix Mix Hostel in Chengdu! You won't regret!
Don't forget to check the complete Travel Guide of Tibet and all the pictures from the Tibet trip!