Hear about travel to Tibet as the Amateur Traveler talks to Lee Deitesfeld & Travis Bingaman about their trip to this complicated and fascinating country.
As Americans, Lee and Travis were required by the Chinese government to visit Tibet on a guided tour. “There is everything from 2-day tours you can take of just the capital, all the way to 3-week excursions all around the country where you can see all the major sites. We did an 8-day tour. I would have loved to have stayed longer, but 8 days was a great amount of time. Some of the lengthier tours were focused on outdoor activities, so if you wanted to bike or get in some more hiking those are the longer tours.”
Lee and Travis started, as most tours do in the capital of Lhasa for 3 days. 3 days gave both time to see a number of sites there as well as time to acclimate to the altitude. Then the drove the “friendship highway” that connects Tibet and Nepal stopping at monasteries and small towns including Gyantse and Shigatse. They ended up at the Everest Base Camp on the Tibetan side.
In Lhasa, they visited the traditional Winter Palace (Portala Palace) and the Summer Palace (Norbulingka) of the Dali Llama. These were the first of many Buddhism related sites that they would visit on their trip, including the Rongbuk Monastery on the north side of Mount Everest at 16,340 ft (4,980m).
Some of the physical beauty of Tibet stood out for them such as Yamdrok Lake, Rongbuk Glacier, and Mount Everest. The first day out of Lhasa was a series of passes. Yamdrok Lake was at the first pass which Lee describes as “this pristine turquoise lake. The sky that day was absolutely clear with these big fluffy clouds like you could just reach out and touch them. Being in Summer, the hills were all green with wild mustard, so all these yellow flowers. It’s around 15,000 feet.”
Tibet has changed much over the last 50 years of the Dali Llama’s, but Lee and Travis found a place worth visiting with a people and a faith that left a profound impression on them.
Tibet Travel Guide
Tours in Tibet
Everest Base Camp
on Travel to Luxembourg – Episode 434, Ashely wrote:
On the podcast you mentioned that you like hearing when we buy/use the products or services that sponsor the show and I wanted to let you know- I’ve purchased six DK Eyewitness travel guides since listening to your show! We recently moved to Germany and have plans to travel throughout Germany, to Holland, Vienna, Provence, and Spain this next year, so I purchased all of those guides.
Additionally, we went to Luxembourg City for a weekend in July and I relied heavily on that episode to guide us since I hadn’t done a ton of planning ahead of time.
Anyway, I love the podcast and enjoy listening every week!
on Travel to the South Side of Chicago – Episode 365, Jamie wrote:
I wanted to send some thoughts from a listener’s perspective. I just finished listening to the South side of Chicago episode and was pretty surprised by how there was no real emphasis to how dangerous it is. I’ve been to Chicago 3 times and everyone recommends to avoid it. Being from LA area, I can relate as I would suggest tourists to avoid dangerous places like Compton and Watts.
I’m sure there are great things to see but your guest would just say “there are sketchy neighborhoods” – how about she name them so people don’t wander there? Also, she said real Chicago pizza is not deep dish? Other than the Chicago hot dog the deep dish is known nationwide as a Chicago signature dish. I felt she painted a very unrealistic representation of that part of the city also referred to as “Chi-raq” by how many murders happen there.
On another note, hopefully your guests can be more creative when defining their country with three words. “Diverse, Beautiful, and Friendly” are soooo worn out.
I know I shouldn’t complain about a free podcast that is one of my favorites. I just felt I had to give some feedback (or rant) as a listener. Thank you very much.
Chris: Amateur Traveler, episode 528. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about monasteries and stupas, glaciers and Everest base camp as we go to Tibet.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler, I’m your host Chris Christensen. Let’s talk about Tibet. I’d like to welcome to the show Lee Deitesfeld and Travis Bingaman who’ve come to talk to us about Tibet. Lee and Travis, welcome to the show.
Lee: Thank you.
Travis: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
Chris: You’re welcome. So we’re talking about Tibet which is, at least, as far as China is concerned, a part of China. We won’t get into the politics of it necessarily at least to start out, but why should we go to Tibet?
Travis: There’s spiritual reasons, there’s scenic reasons and I guess you could also say intellectual reasons why you would want to travel to Tibet. Lee…
Chris: And first two I think are fairly obvious, the Buddhism influence, the amazing mountains and monasteries and monks and those sorts of things. You say intellectual reasons though, and I don’t know where you’re going.
Travis: When you are in a place like Tibet, there is such a depth and gravity to Buddhism that you really can’t understand unless you’re really experiencing it firsthand. So that is the intellectual component for me on top of that too with some of my background as an appreciator of history and not to get into talking about politics of Tibet and China, there is a lot to be had, discussion-wise, while traveling through the area about the situation of Tibet and what it means for the people going forward.
Chris: What kind of itinerary would you recommend for somebody who is going to go to Tibet?
Lee: I think it varies depending on what country you’re from because China has different restrictions for different nationalities or obviously from America and being so, you have to, you are required to go on a guided tour if you’re to visit Tibet. You can’t go over there on your own unless you have sanctioned permission as a researcher or some kind of worker or something there from the Chinese government. That being said there’s everything from two days tours that you can take care of let’s say just the capital all the way to like three week excursions where you could go pretty much all around the country and see all the major sights. For us we did an eight day tour I think it was and I thought that was perfect. I mean I’d love to have stayed longer but I thought that was good amount of time.
Travis: Eight days was a great amount of time. Lee was starting to touch upon some of the lengthier tours and some of the lengthier tours were more focused on the outdoor aspect of Tibet so if you want to bike through or if you want to get in some more hiking, those are the longer tours.
Chris: Okay and you mentioned the capital of Tibet. Well, we didn’t say the name of it.
Lee: Yes that’s Lhasa, is the name of the capital.
Chris: So and what did you do in your itinerary for Tibet?
Travis: Well, we started in Lhasa.
Lee: And we were there for three days and that was partly to see, there’s a lot of sights to see there and partly to acclimate to the altitude because most people come from lower elevation and it takes about three days to really get your system to a point where you can really start going higher and travelling the rest of that area. So we started in Lhasa three days and then the next three days or so we drove, it’s called the Friendship Highway, it’s a highway that runs between Tibet and Nepal and stopped at various monasteries and small towns. One is called Qian Tse, another one is called Sheigo Se. The last day well, I guess the second to last day we ended up at Everest base camp on the Tibetan side. And then the last day we came back to Lhasa and left.
Chris: Okay well let’s do that again and more slowly in more detail. So you were three days in Lhasa and you said there were a number of sites, let’s talk about the different sites you saw.
Travis: So while in Lhasa, you need to spend some time getting acclimated to the altitude. We visited Potala Palace which is the winter palace of the Dalai Lama. We also, in Lhasa the next day, visited the summer palace for the Dalai Lama.
Chris: Not that the Dalai Lama lives in either one at this time.
Lee: And it has, been both have been the palaces of the Dalai Lamas for hundreds of years and the Potala Palace was built, I think in the fourteenth century. So all the Dalai Lamas since then…I think it’s like the fifth through the current which is the fourteenth, have lived there. And then the summer palace which is called the Norbulingka, I can’t remember when that one was built, around the same time maybe.
Travis: Yeah that one has an interesting history behind it because it had been added on several times. So when you visit it…originally I believe, and I could be wrong, it was meant more as a place of meditation.
Lee: It’s outdoors, there’s a number of gardens and wooded areas. It’s definitely a place for contemplation.
Travis: Yeah and it was expanded on throughout the changes in leadership with the Dalai Lama.
Lee: So they each have their own palace, so to speak. So you walk around and you’ll see the seventh Dalai Lama’s palace and then the ninth, and then the fifth and they all have their own flavor. For instance, gosh, I want to say it was the tenth but I could totally be getting this wrong, had a palace that was completely surrounded by, it was more impressive than a moat but it was…
Travis: Like a manmade pond of sorts or lake.
Lee: Right, and so the water element of it with the water lilies and stuff around it was unique compared to some of the other ones which are just kind of individual structures. I mean the water one just sticks in my mind because it looked a lot different than the other ones because it was seriously in the middle of water and the other ones, they were impressive but they were just buildings on their own without a moat or anything like that.
Chris: Okay. You spent the days in the three days would you say acclimating to your part of that is just being there and breathing and just waiting for your body to adjust, you’re not doing anything specific to adjust to the altitude.
Travis: Yeah, we did take medicine for altitude sickness.
Chris: Okay, preventive medicine or did you start to get altitude sickness?
Travis: That’s a great question because one thing which I wasn’t able to get a specific answer about for me was I would wake up in the middle of the night and it I felt like I had slept on my leg wrong or during a car ride, maybe I would get this really strong tingling in my hands and fingers as if I’ve been sitting on my hands. So there’s definitely times like that where you noticed that your blood flow and your oxygen is not the same as if you were sitting in Seattle.
Lee: But it was preventive. Neither of us contracted altitude sickness and then had to take the medicine.
Chris: And not prescription medicine but over the counter, I’m assuming.
Lee: It was prescription, yeah.
Travis: The name escapes me but yeah you can’t just go into any pharmacy and pick it up.
Lee: And we weren’t necessarily thinking of taking it but we did get immunizations for Typhoid and Hepatitis A from our doctors before we went and while we were at the doctor they said, “Oh, by the way, we’re also going to give you a prescription for this altitude medication.”
Chris: And I’m guessing it was Acetazolamide.
Lee: Yes, that was it.
Chris: Okay, and did you do anything else in Lhasa before you headed up?
Travis: We visited several of the markets and just walked around Old Town in Lhasa. So the original Lhasa.
Chris: And how is a Tibetan market different than a Chinese market?
Travis: And that’s a really great question.
Lee: We both love to barter.
Travis: Yeah, barter. As an American traveling, definitely the first price someone’s going to give you is going to be much higher. So if you are going to buy something from either a Tibetan or a Chinese national you have to be willing and able to negotiate the price.
Lee: And they like bartering, it’s part of the fun. They pretty much expect it so if you’re the type of person who kind of shies away from that, you’ll probably just have to pay the highest price.
Chris: And what kind of goods are you bargaining for?
Travis: I mean it can be anything from like a refrigerator magnet to a postcard…
Lee: Something extravagant.
Travis: Something extravagant. I had camera troubles with a camera, a Canon camera and I needed to buy something for the camera and obviously we’re used to a set price for goods but I was bartering over this Canon camera.
Lee: Brand new.
Travis: Brand new in an electronics store which is something I definitely would not have expected. So that’s something you should be ready for if you travel to Tibet is even if it’s something we’re used to having a set price for, nothing is, how to put it, guaranteed or final price.
Chris: Best thing to buy in a Tibetan market?
Travis: Of all things I bought for my mother, she loves horses, she used to ride horses and she’s trained her dogs to ring bells to go to the bathroom.
Travis: So I bought for my mother, a set of bells with Tibetan snow lions. And she just found them on eBay for four hundred dollars which is funny because I think I spent probably a sixth of that price after bartering. So the bells were something I did not expect to have such a high price tag back home.
Lee: If you’re the type of person who likes to go on vacation and go shopping, Tibet is not for you.
Lee: I myself, I enjoy shopping. I’m not, I wouldn’t call myself a super shopper or anything like that but I usually go, like we went to Europe last year and you’d see tons of food and beautiful goods and things and you were always tempted by that. I wasn’t really tempted in Tibet. That’s not to say that they didn’t have nice things, they had beautiful prayer beads and prayer flags and jewelry and wooden pieces. I guess for me because a lot of those had spiritual significance, I felt awkward buying some of them not truly knowing what they were for or…so I found myself not buying as much but they do have a lot of beautiful Tibetan and Tibetan Buddhist related goods.
Chris: I know in Thailand for instance, which is another Buddhist country, people buy Buddhas but there are also signs that say Buddha is a religious object not a souvenir.
Lee: Oh really?
Chris: Yeah, so there’s two different messages coming at you so.
Lee: Right, buy but don’t buy.
Travis: Yeah, that was exactly what I was going to add to Lee’s point is if you’re going to a place like Tibet you’re not actually going there to get the Tibet shot glass or the…
Lee: They don’t have it.
Travis: Or the Tibet sweat shirt.
Chris: How will I finish my shot glass collection?
Travis: Exactly, you’re not going there to buy a lot of goods you’re going there more for the experience and the sights so if you expect to buy stuff you might be a little disappointed.
Chris: Excellent. Well then let’s move off out of Lhasa then and go see the sights. Where was your next stop again?
Lee: The next stop was a series of passes between Lhasa and Gyantse and that for me was probably my favorite day.
Chris: And you’re in a bus?
Lee: Yeah, so we were in a tour with six other people and so it was kind of almost like a safari van. Well, how would you describe it?
Travis: A Ford, something above a minivan.
Lee: And we had an assigned driver and an assigned guide and the first pass, I don’t remember the name of the pass but the name of the lake at the top of the pass is Yamdrok Tso, Y-A-M-D-R-O-K T-S-O. And now that particular site was my favorite it’s this just pristine turquoise lake, the sky that day was just absolutely clear with these big fluffy clouds like you could just reach out and touch them and being in summer, because we just went beginning of August, the hillsides were just green and there’s all this natural growing mustard, so these very yellow flowers. Where you stop there’s this little building with a bunch of prayer flags hanging from it and just all the colors, it was just amazing and I think it was around fifteen thousand feet. It was really high.
Travis: I think it’s important to note, too, with Tibet you can’t travel as a foreigner freely from town to town to town. So in between these rides if we run into a different township or different area, you are expected to present your passport and your visa, your Tibetan visa, to whoever is at the checkpoint.
Lee: And your guide will literally take care of that.
Travis: Your guide will take care of a lot of that.
Lee: But it is kind of a hindrance; you’re enjoying the ride, it’s beautiful and then you have to stop at a checkpoint every hour or so. The next pass we came across after coming out of Lhasa was Karo La or something but there was a big glacier and I want to say it was about sixteen thousand feet and I had never seen a glacier before, I don’t think, up close, and it was just this stunning white monstrous thing with…and of course, since it’s Tibet, it’s these beautiful green fields below it with a bunch of yaks dotting the hillside and all dolled up with their little bells on their ears and all those things. But that was really spectacular too, to see both of those things in one day, I mean.
Travis: Yeah the countryside can change quite dramatically and the definition of what you’re looking at is pretty extreme, too.
Chris: Okay, and you just didn’t have a whole lot of time I’m guessing to get out and enjoy the scenery.
Chris: Fifteen thousand feet, you don’t really feel like a hike probably.
Travis: Exactly. Definitely just walking around you can feel it. Lee and I, we’re both healthy people and we’d both been running and working out to get ready for this trip. But really you are at the mercy of the elevation.
Lee: Yeah you wouldn’t. You’d walk up a flight of stairs and feel it in your chest.
Travis: Yeah, I remember it, just twelve thousand feet in Rocky Mountain National Park doing a one quarter mile you know nature hike and doing a lot of huffing and puffing.
Lee: Yes, we’ve been there as well. The Continental Divide.
Chris: Yeah, for those of us who live at a hundred feet.
Chris: Okay, and where next?
Lee: So after that we went to Shigatse and between Gyantse and Shigatse, in Gyantse, we went to a temple called the Kumbum Monastery. There they have what’s called a stupa. I don’t know, people who have been to India or Nepal may know what a stupa is too it’s pretty much the shape of a building that’s like the shape of the top of the Taj Mahal, that kind of rounded bottom with the point at the top. But so they have I think the largest one in Tibet there. It’s actually a physical building and you walk inside. You go almost like a layered cake. You’ll walk on one level, you’ll go all the way around in a circle, then you’ll walk up to the next level, go all the way around in a circle.
Chris: And you say you go inside. Usually a stupa you can’t go inside, it’s not hollow, or there’s not access but usually it’s almost like a large reliquary. There are, you know, bones of the Buddha or somebody else significant that you’re commemorating with that so but you’re walking, you’re climbing this, you say?
Travis: Yeah and I guess it’s a great example of how unique Tibetan culture is because you do while visiting see the influence of India. You see the influence of China and you see the influence of Nepal or Mongolia, all in this area. So, you see things that you might be like, “Hey, that looks familiar.” But it is totally their own thing.
Lee: Their own thing, they’ve adapted it.
Chris: Well even Buddhism itself, while it’s not popular in India, it did start in India.
Travis: And that was one thing that came up was the conflict between Indian Buddhism and the Chinese Buddhism.
Lee: Yeah, Tibetan Buddhism as our guide described it to us, is Buddhism proper plus kind of an animistic older primal religion that was present in Tibet when Buddhism came over.
Travis: One thing you’d say is some of the religious figures can be shared, like some of the Indian deities will also be shared within Tibet and Buddhism, some of the symbols as well. I kept noticing, while we were travelling, seashells and some of the illustrations of murals, so I had to ask, “Okay Tibet, we’re pretty far from the ocean. Why do I keep seeing these illustrations of sea shells?” And, as our guide explained, that’s part of the Indian influence in Tibetan Buddhism.
Chris: And we’re not claiming, any of the three of us, I think to be experts in Tibetan Buddhism.
Travis: No, we’re not.
Chris: We would encourage you to do some reading on your own.
Chris: What surprised you, though, when you talk about the differences between the different things, what surprised you about Tibet in general?
Travis: One thing that surprised me is how very much still the specter of the Dalai Lama is there. He is very much present in these people’s lives. However, they cannot have an image of him.
Chris: I was gonna say, “I’ll bet you didn’t see the pictures of him now.”
Travis: Yeah, there was one in the summer palace in Lhasa, there was one painting of him which was the only image, legal image of the fourteenth Dalai Lama in the entirety of Tibet. So you have this very interesting solemn kind of feeling travelling through that I wasn’t expecting to experience of once again, this person, this omnipresent figure who at the same time cannot be mentioned in a sense.
Lee: We both spent time abroad when we were in college, met some amazing people, did some amazing things, but just in our small eight days being there I walked away just really touched by the Tibetan people. They were so gracious and kind and helpful and patient. We went with a group called Tibetan Guide and the manager’s named Dhondup, and there were so many things where, for instance, I actually thought the tour was eight days and it was supposed to be nine days. And so at the last minute he realized, “Oh wait, you were supposed to be here an extra day and so and the rest of the group is here.” And he just really bent over backwards just saying, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.” And he got us alternative ways out and figured things out. I’ve never been to a culture that was so just kind. And I mean, he was our guide but these are just people on the street who were just waving and happy to see you.
Travis: They really practice what they preach.
Travis: They’re very much what we would expect a Buddhist to be if you were to open up a book or a dictionary and read the textbook definition.
Lee: And that’s what made me so sad to have to leave and to think if I wanted to go back, I’d have to go through the whole rigmarole of getting a permit and a tour and stuff again is…I’d love to see those people again but to get back is going to be extremely difficult.
Chris: Okay, where did you go next?
Lee: Before we got to Shigatse we stopped at the Sakya monastery, I believe there are three sects of Tibetan Buddhism and this was one of the sects and it’s called Sakya, Sakya Buddhism and it originally comes from Mongolia. Most of the monasteries that we saw were painted white, like you’ve probably seen in pictures, with the kind of Burgundy roofs and windows and whatnot, but this one was all grey with the burgundy too and it was very dark and almost fortress-like. And it was built in the thirteen century but I think it was partly a fortress too which is why it looks like it does.
Travis: That was the Mongolian influence so it’s a unique monastery because when you approach it, it looks like it has these giant walls to keep you out. So when you enter it you kind of feel like you’re in some sort of secret or forbidden monastery of sorts, especially with the grey and the white and red stripes going down.
Chris: Well, and if it’s the Mongolian influence then the thousand sounds too soon. I’ve just recently read a book about Genghis Khan and that whole conquest and happens is, I am doing this from the top of my head, late twelve hundreds to thirteenth century.
Lee: Yes, it’s kind of out of the way from the highway. You have to drive another maybe 30, 40 minutes outside of the Friendship Highway to get there and because you don’t see quite as many tour groups which, admittedly, for instance in the Potala Palace was just inundated with tourists, but mostly there weren’t a whole bunch, but they were there.
Chris: And when you say tour groups, Chinese tour groups, international tour groups?
Travis: Predominantly Chinese tour groups.
Chris: Okay, and by the way for those people who have been listening, don’t know that we’ve just had technical issues. While we were having those, I looked up the monastery you were talking about and it was in fact founded in the eleventh century but then became the place where Tibet was ruled from during the time of the Mongols in the thirteenth and fourteenth century.
Chris: That’s why you had two different dates in your head.
Chris: They were both correct.
Lee: But because that monastery is kind of off the beaten path, you saw more pilgrims there too and that was great because I guess during the wintertime it’s a lot of nomadic people. When we were there, I don’t think there were as many nomads but they definitely were…
Travis: They definitely have a much more authentic look, some of the locals attending the monastery versus when you’re in Lhasa you just see a ton of tourists checking this out. You really got a feel for Tibetan Buddhism as it’s happening.
Chris: Okay excellent, where to next?
Lee: So next was Everest.
Travis: Yeah it’s just higher and higher up more and more elevation then it gets Rongbuk Monastery. And it’s located at the foot of Everest. The thing about Rongbuk is, so much of it was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. They are still rebuilding parts and pieces of the monastery.
Lee: It literally just sits, not at the complete foot of Everest but you stand at the entrance of it and you can see Everest right directly in its path. It was really great. So the difference between it and say a lot of the Lhasa monasteries was, in Lhasa you had a lot of ornate very large statues of Buddha and sacred visuals. But at Rongbuk it was very subdued and just a few small Buddha sculptures. But it didn’t, that was fine because you could still tell that all these people had come through there, either Tibetans themselves or people wanting to climb Mount Everest or whatnot and just leaving tons of offerings at the monastery and that was very impressive to see just a tiny little place with obviously a lot of impact on people either coming through or who practice the religion daily.
Travis: Yeah, even our driver who was taking us from Lhasa to Everest, got out at Rongbuk and gave his alms, his donations and was reciting his prayers as we were travelling through, so obviously to someone like him it is a very important spot if he’s there to go out and visit.
Chris: You mentioned you something earlier and I forgot to follow up. You mentioned that you weren’t there in winter which is not a surprise to me but what month were you there?
Chris: Okay, and is that…you went in that time because it is recommended because of the weather?
Lee: Partly that and partly because Travis is a school teacher and so he only has so much time off during the summer and that just seemed to work best with all the other things we had going on.
Chris: And then you obviously had decent weather if you’re standing at the foot of Everest and you’re seeing Everest. I understand you wouldn’t always have that.
Travis: Yeah, we didn’t know till the moment it happened if you could, you would see Everest and that was one thing we knew going in ahead of time, is you’re not guaranteed to see it.
Lee: I guess I would say to listeners too that if you want a crystal clear view of Everest in all its glory, winter is probably the best time to go actually because there is not a whole lot of bad weather going on. The worst time to see Everest is actually when we were there in the summer time because the monsoons come up from India and the Himalayas kind of trap all those clouds and rain and then that’s how Tibet stays relatively dry in the summertime. But as a result, then sometimes you just can’t see Everest so we were going into it knowing we might not see it but we luckily did.
Travis: So, yeah, that’s a good thing to remind anyone listening. Everest is known for being the highest peak but it’s a dangerous mountain to climb for reasons. So the weather there can totally just change especially while we were there in August within a few minutes. So literally when we got the chance to see Everest we were like jumping out of the car trying to grab a picture. Just because we didn’t know if that five minute window would be the only opportunity we’d get in the next few days up there.
Chris: That’s pretty common with any tall mountain. It can make its own weather. I know I was in Tanzania for two weeks at the foot of Kilimanjaro and we saw it only flying out. That’s the only time we saw it.
Lee: And another note I would say is so we also went to Everest base camp on the Tibetan side and if you are interested in seeing it in all of its climbing glory with all the people preparing to climb, I think they mainly only do that in May and maybe a part of June. So unfortunately we didn’t get to see all the people in their tents getting ready or coming back down. But if you wanted to, that would be the time to go.
Chris: Now, did you have a lot of options in terms of what you did or did they have a certain set number of tours?
Lee: So within our tour basically you would usually meet the group at 9:00 in the morning and then you would do stuff with them until about 5:00 at night. So any time before 9:00 or 5:00 would be free time for you to do what you wanted to do and that felt sufficient to me. Even in Lhasa we walked around at night one night in Lhasa and kind of got a feel for the nightlife, it’s more or less set.
Travis: I play music, I appreciate music, I love listening to music and one thing I was very interested in, going there, was experiencing some of that, the tour group especially if I was to go to my tour guide and asked them a question about music they’d be willing to help, elaborate if they could on it or point you in the right direction. So if you’re interested in having something catered more to your interests, it can’t be total but they will be able to point you in a direction.
Chris: Okay and then since you mentioned the word “catered”, what should I try to eat while I am in Tibet?
Lee: I will say, I guess that was one of the things that did surprise me, is going into the trip we read all these things that said the food was just terrible and it’s not a highlight of this trip. Yes, be prepared to eat the worst but I didn’t think it was the best food I’d ever had but I actually was pleasantly surprised because it’s so close to India and Nepal, it was a lot of curry and tandoori and things that you would have in those countries that I find delicious, so…
Travis: Yeah, I’m actually vegetarian and I went in expecting to have to eat meat and I was prepared for that however I was actually able to go meatless I think the entire trip.
Chris: Usually in a Buddhism, Buddhist country you’d have better luck with that.
Travis: Yeah, exactly but I was being totally open to if it happened because I wouldn’t want to go hungry. But that is worth noting too like it’s not so horrendous that you would go starving one night.
Lee: We tried most of the traditional Tibetan food so since I do eat meat I tried yak which I went into it very nervously and it tastes almost just like beef. So if you were to go to Tibet and you don’t mind the taste of beef you’d be fine with yak.
Chris: Okay, so it’s not, they didn’t name it because of onomatopoeia.
Travis: Yeah and even the yak butter and the yak smell and the tea isn’t, I didn’t think it was that bad.
Lee: No it’s was just, it’s more like milk with butter and salt in it than it is like tea with tea leaves in it.
Travis: Yeah, anyone going there to eat, I would just tell them, “Live a little, try some things.”
Chris: What is one warning you would give about going to Tibet? You ought to prepare yourself for what?
Travis: One odd thing is being a white American, being asked for pictures.
Lee: Or just not non-Asian I would say the ethnicity beside Asian.
Chris: Been there done that.
Travis: Exactly so that might be a total shock to some but yeah I wasn’t necessarily expecting just being down the street heading on my way and being grabbed and asked like, “Oh a picture.”
Lee: Yeah, I’m sure you’ve heard that…
Chris: I’m six foot three.
Lee: Oh my goodness.
Chris: So I’ve had that. I’ve had that in Turkey having that Korean tour group where the guy had to have his picture taken with me and I just assumed he was just a fan of the show so.
Lee: I hope he was. I guess for me I would say I’m not Buddhist and neither is Travis but I do have a fairly deep interest in it and so going to monastery after monastery was not uncomfortable or uninteresting for me but I could see if you were mainly in Tibet for the mountains or the culture, if you had to go to monastery after monastery and see a bunch of Buddha statues, you might not be so keen on that.
Chris: I did a press trip in Thailand and they really wanted us to see every monastery and there is a point at which we really didn’t care.
Chris: And they were lovely, they really were lovely.
Travis: And at the same time too if you don’t know who the Dalai Lama is or the political situation you’re going to be very, very confused about why you’re seeing this and why you can’t see this so.
Chris: As we start to head towards wrapping this up I know from there you headed back to Lhasa, anything else we want to cover before we get to my last questions?
Chris: Staying at base camp.
Travis: It was cold.
Chris: You stayed in a tent, one would assume.
Travis: Yeah and I believe the outside of the tent was woven in yaks fur which is kind of a black, coarse fabric. But it’s still very well insulated and it wasn’t as rough as I was expecting and I think Lee would agree as well. One thing that was rough for me, both of us being from Seattle, we’re used to how to put it when we go to bed at night there’s plenty of fresh air and it is quite wet here and so sleeping there while having to burn sheep’s dung for warmth made, for me, a kind of a long night.
Travis: Just dry and the smell of dung. It was…
Chris: You decided not to bring a lot of sheep’s dung back?
Travis: Yeah I’m not bringing…didn’t bring any back for gifts but it makes sense though obviously it’s such a high elevation. It’s on exactly like there’s trees out there you can just cut down. So, if the idea of burning sheep’s dung makes you queasy I don’t know if Everest base camp will be your deal.
Lee: One other thing about base camp was, so I mentioned earlier we were in a tour with six other people and all different ages so Travis and I are in our thirties, there was as young as 18, as old as probably 60s and we really bonded during the whole trip because we were spending so much time with each other and I really liked base camp because they put all of us in one tent. And so we kind of got to have almost a sleepover and it was just one of our group mates he brought some Jägermeister with him on the trip and so after we’d gotten back from seeing Everest he poured us all a little bit and we celebrated and I thought that was really a nice way to kind of wrap up the bonding experience all of us had.
Chris: Anything else before we get to the last questions?
Travis: One of my favorite things while we were visiting in Lhasa was going to the Sera Monastery and seeing the Tibetan monks debate. And if you don’t know what that looks like or what that sounds like it could be quite shocking walking into it. Because to emphasize points they will clap and slap their hands together and the other thing that was fascinating I didn’t realize while they’re debating amongst monks they’re moving their prayer beads from their wrist up to their shoulder and I didn’t know this but I guess when it’s down to their wrist that represents the suffering and while they’re debating they’re explaining how you move from suffering to enlightenment. So when they emphasize a point and then talk about how to become enlightened they move the prayer beads from the wrist up to your shoulder.
Chris: Okay, now was the debate happening in a language that you were understanding or…
Travis: No, but it wasn’t but that was kind of the fascinating thing once you…
Lee: It’s in Tibetan.
Travis: It’s in Tibetan but once you pick up on the technique you can kind of see what’s happening and you can figure out just based on facial expression and the interactions, where they are.
Chris: Last four questions. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Tibet.”
Travis: I paid maybe a dollar, the equivalent of a U.S. dollar to ride a yak. Yeah, I think that’s really only in Tibet. Can you and I had to barter for the yak right he wanted two dollars so I had to barter him down to one dollar. It was a one dollar yak, in my opinion.
Chris: So when did you feel closest to home? “This is so familiar”, and when did you feel furthest from home?
Lee: So I’m from Colorado originally. So I’m kind of from a mountain area and I studied abroad in Chile which has some mountainous cultures there too and so I think from just the first hour we were there driving around and seeing just this stark blue sky with the big white clouds and mountains and even the people that live in that area in a mountainous area, I’d never experienced this before but it felt like there is a definite connection between and similarities between people that live in those high altitude regions of the world. That made me feel right at home.
Chris: And furthest from.
Travis: Furthest from home. Maybe it’s just the color that was one thing that really struck me was the vibrancy of the color especially in nature and in the dress, in the homes. Everything seemed very bright to me kind of an odd thing to make you feel far from home but it just really still sticks out with me is the color.
Chris: It’s like the difference between the beginning and the rest of the Wizard of Oz.
Travis: Exactly. Now we’re back in gloomy Seattle.
Lee: Yes. I would say the furthest from home for me was just the censorship, not being able to talk about the Dalai Lama and not being able to talk about the treatment of Tibetan people, all of those types of aspects definitely made me think of the freedoms that we have in the United States.
Travis: True, I guess I should back up. Being an educator and a teacher sometimes I want to be frank and ask questions to the guide to get an answer for and he would sometimes have to tell me, “I can’t answer that.” Which, that’s something I feel like I definitely take for granted is the freedom of speech in America.
Chris: Right, right. You’re standing in the prettiest spot you saw in Tibet. Where are you standing and what are you looking at?
Lee: For me it was the Yamdrok Tso Lake. Just you’re standing maybe a mile up on the hill cliff side overlooking the serene lake with not a boat, not a person, nothing in it, just totally calm.
Travis: Yamdrok Tso would probably be one for me but I’m trying to think. At Everest there was Milarepa’s Cave in Everest and it’s literally it’s like a cave right off of Everest as you’re walking down from base camp. And it’s kind of a mini monastery of sorts that, it’s off the beaten path, you can’t just find it in a book. That’s something that still sticks out in my mind that’s “Oh wow. I’m not going to see anything quite like that in the United States.”
Chris: Excellent. Finish this thought, “You really know you’re in Tibet when…” What?
Travis: You hear a prayer.
Lee: You feel surrounded by just a serene, warm, spiritual presence and I’m not a spiritual person at all, and decent good hearted people that would be me.
Chris: Okay and throw in some yak milk tea. If you had to summarize Tibet in three words what three words would you use?
Travis: It’s still there.
Chris: Okay, a little explanation.
Travis: Here we are past fifty years of the Dalai Lama’s exile and Tibet, the people there are still very much in love with their leader. No matter what the Chinese government has been trying to do, their way of life is continuing. It’s still there.
Lee: And nature is still there for now. They’ve built up parts of Tibet but not so much yet. So it’s still in more or less its pristine glory.
Chris: Excellent. Well our guests have been Lee Deitesfeld and Travis Bingaman. And thank you both for coming on the show and talking about your obvious newfound love for Tibet.
Lee: Thank you so much.
Travis: Thank you for having us. Yeah.
Chris: In News of the Community I heard this week from Ashley who said, “On the podcast you mentioned you liked hearing when we buy/use products or services that sponsor the show and I wanted to let you know, I’ve purchased six DK Eye Witness travel guides since listening to your show. We recently moved to Germany and we have plans to travel throughout Germany to Holland, Vienna, Provence and Spain next year so I purchased all those guides. Additionally we went to Luxemburg city for a weekend in July and I relied heavily on that episode to guide us since I hadn’t done a ton of planning ahead of time. Always I love the podcast and enjoy listening every week.” Thanks so much, Ashley. Yes, that does help me and I’m a little jealous. Holland, Vienna, Provence and Spain all sound like a lot of fun. Have a great trip.
A while back I heard from Jamie who said, “I wanted to send some thoughts from a listener’s perspective. I just finished listening to the South Side of Chicago episode and was pretty surprised by how there was no real emphasis on how dangerous it is. I’ve been to Chicago three times and everyone recommends to avoid it. Being from L.A. area I can relate as I would suggest tourists to avoid dangerous places like Compton and Watts. I’m sure there are great things to see but your guest would just say, ‘There are sketchy neighborhoods.’ How about she names some of them so that people don’t wander there? Also she said, ‘Real Chicago pizza is not deep dish.’ Other than Chicago hot dog at the deep dish is known nationwide as a Chicago signature dish, I felt she painted a very unrealistic representation of that part of the city, also referred to as “Chiraq” by how many murders that happened there. On another note, hopefully your guests can be more creative when defining their country with three words. Diverse, beautiful and friendly are so worn out. I know I shouldn’t complain about a free podcast that is one of my favorites. I just felt I had to give some feedback or rant as a listener. Thank you very much.”
Now I should say in terms of Los Angeles, I’ve actually been to Watts. I enjoyed going to Watts to see the Watts Towers and did feel relatively safe there. I don’t think I would go there at night. I think some of the places in Chicago would be similar. Honestly that show’s been so long ago I’d have to re-listen to it to know exactly what we said about it.
With that we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have any questions or rants feel free to send me an email to host at amateurtraveler.com or better yet leave them as a comment on the episode at www.amateurtraveler.com. You can follow me on Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram as chris2X. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.