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+44 7855 742 633

London based professional interior and architectural photographer.

Travel Blog: Tibet

48 hours: Chengdu to Lhasa

james tarry

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To get to Tibet you can either fly from Chengdu or take the train. We chose the train and as we arrived at the station we feel every single eye turn on us, we stood out like sore thumbs. Un-com-for-table. Outside all the travellers/workers sit and wait for their train under a huge digital time display, the entrance is a push fest through security and after several checks we get through and collapse into the lounge. 

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This particular line was considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the world due to the height it ascends too and the terrain it has to travel over. It also holds the highest train station and the highest journey in the world title. Because of the altitude It is completely sealed so no windows can open and so no environmental damage can escape and at its highest point oxygen is pumped round the carriages although some still suffer from altitude sickness and direct oxygen can then be supplied. 

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The sleeper car: four beds, one closet stye space. The train smells of weird cigarettes (yep they still smoke despite Oxygen being pumped around-no health and safety here!), humans and noodles. The "dining car" (or rather the staff room), the hallway or the beds are where we shall spend the next 48 hours, food comes from dried noodles we bought before hand or rice meals and fruit bought round on a trolley. If you travel alone and you book a sleeper car you will be stuck with total randoms, thankfully there are four of us!

The train has little "comfort", no showers and the toilets are some of the worst things you can possibly imagine (or so we thought at the time) there's a Western style and an Eastern, the Eastern is a hole, the Western a normal bowl however they don't really know how to use them over here so there is foot prints all over the seat and well, everything all over everything……. "hmmm" at this point pretty pleased i bought hand wipes along!! 

There are people on this train travelling in "hard seat" areas, these are exactly as they say, I have no idea how they do it especially at night as the beds are bad enough, however it's an extremely affordable way for natives to travel back home after working away in the city. It's without doubt an incredible but uncomfortable experience.

“China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.” - Napoleon

It's clear looking out the window it has woken. The amount of construction on the China side is unbelievable, city's, huge roads, train lines, all "popping up" in rapid speed all out in the middle of nowhere, through all the dust and rocks. Industry rules, and it's clear by the hundreds of scattered empty new tower blocks a lot of money is being spent here. It is somewhat impressive and scary at the same time.

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Despite lack of sleep and food we feel incredibly fortunate (ask us again at the other end!) and have had an incredible laugh on here-a mixture of lack of oxygen and no sleep I suspect! What does amaze me I can send a text message with full signal 16,000 above sea level, with no towns or cities around yet I cannot get a decent EE signal in the Centre of London...... Clearly I have a lot of time to ponder on this train!

The Tibet side of this trip has been all about sweeping vistas of snow topped mountains, at 16,000 ft up the landscape changes from industry to barren landscapes, ice, snow and yaks. The train snakes over bridges that span icy water and whizzes past small farming villages sat in the middle of no-where. There is also an abundance of military tents along this route from the crossover from China, they follow the train lines, sleep in small tents and often are just sitting on guard in the snow looking at the tracks, the closer we get to Lhasa the more frequent we see them and they nearly almost always salute to the train as it goes past. The few stations we have stopped at we are not allowed off, a mixture of security and environmental reasons.

We cut through the landscape Into Lhasa and into the train station and step off onto a platform that makes the 20 or so carriage train look like a train set! It's a stunning enormous Communist architectural beauty (if you like communist architecture as I do!) and in true Communist architectural fashion makes you feel very small, it is here we are greeted by a policeman who checks our permits then escorts us from the train off the property to meet our guide.

It was hard to get a photo of the train station as the hustle and bustle and communist police prevented doing so.... But I sneaked a quick shot or two before we were whisked to our hotel. After 2 days and 2 nights on that cramped train with no fresh air the hotel was a welcome sight. 

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Neil finds a tiny bit of space in the hallway for some needed freedom

Neil finds a tiny bit of space in the hallway for some needed freedom

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WE SURVIVED. Clearly everyone is delighted at point! 48 hours….. too much

WE SURVIVED. Clearly everyone is delighted at point! 48 hours….. too much

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Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple

james tarry

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First day in Lhasa, an easy day as we need to get our bodies used to the altitude. Well, easy in terms that the first place we visit consists of climbing what feels like a thousands steps and at altitude on a first day it feels like three thousand steps! 

The Potala Palace fun facts: originally built in the 7th century, the palace consists of two main parts, the red and white, political and religious. It is 115.7m high with thirteen stories and 3.5m thick walls. It contains , 1000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and about 200,000 statues.

Every single time we pass this building in our time in Lhasa we all share the same reaction, it is breathtaking. Pilgrimages happen around the base of the building, all clock wise (everything is always clockwise) and often consists of people with pads on their hands and knees sliding around the perimeter.

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The climb up to the top is not easy going, the internal steps to each room is steep and we are all left gasping for air. It was once the tallest building in the world and at the top is the "Eastern Sunshine Apartment", the Dalai Lama's bedroom which overlooks Lhasa. 

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The Jokhang Temple is in the centre of old Lhasa in Barkhor. Old Lhasa is traditional architecture and The Barkor is a popular devotional circumambulation for pilgrims and locals. The walk around is about one kilometre long and encircled the entire Jokhang Temple.

Fun Facts: The Jokhang Temple's construction started in 647AD. The Temple faces West and is about 25100 metres squared. It is listed as one of the important cultural relics and is the symbolic symbolic centre of Tibetan protest since 1987. 

I must say at this point, the Tibetans are truly beautiful people, they have a kindness that shines through, they have wonderful characterful faces, they are intrigued by us Westerners but I feel they do not stare rudely (like I felt in Chengdu) and will almost always offer you a big toothy grin or "hello/your welcome" if they can in shops or even as you walk by. There is a lot of poverty and begging which is always saddening in any country, if I could help all I would, It's a gorgeous place and the people really make it so. On a sad note this is where we start to really notice the Chinese control as mentioned in the introduction to this blog, security guards patrol this area and Chinese officials sit on rooftops, I have also read that many walk amongst those making the pilgrimage to keep tabs on what is being said.

Jokhang certainly felt like a privilege, we watched hundreds of Tibetans praying to various "masters" in a room decorated with carved statutes, gold stupas and individual shines and then entered past hundreds of queuing worshippers Into the centre, there sat a shrine which had a single shard of light beaming from an open window….. It was the most beautiful room I think I have ever been in. This temple also contains the karma stone where you listened to see if you could hear what you were previously in another life, one of my friends thinks he heard an eagle, I heard only an echo sound/wind, so maybe I'm new!!? Outside Tibetans queue for entrance while spinning huge prayer wheels and kneeling and sliding on stone slabs attached to knees and hands often for hours on end until they can pray no more. A walk through Barkhor market (Lhasa's oldest market) and lunch in a traditional Tibetan diner, where we drank hot sweet yaks milk tea and ate traditional Momo dumplings with spicy dip with the locals rounded the day nicely, and it was back to hotel to rest for tomorrow. 

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