It took me many days to put down the most relevant thoughts and info about the last part of my fabulous trip to Tibet: the three and a half days trekking with yaks on the Ganden-Samye route. My memories of that trek are the most vivid of the whole journey and reflect the disappointments and the wonders which a solo female traveler may encounter when it comes to relying totally on other people.
ORGANIZING THE TREK IN TIBET AS A SOLO TRAVELER
Trekking in the Tibetan highlands requires a permit and the company of an authorized guide, like any other sightseeing activity in Tibet. A proper travel agency will arrange the trek for you, providing a tent, sleeping bags, a mat and portable oxygen (just in case you need it – the air is very thin at those high altitudes). The guide who treks with you will bring food for everybody in the group and cook three meals a day.
Before booking my trip to Tibet, I emailed the agency who later applied for my travel permits, and let them know that, besides the tour of Lhasa and the road trip to Everest Base Camp, I wanted to do some trekking. The agent seemed surprised to hear that, perhaps because I was a solo female traveler, and overall, few travelers opt for trekking. Most of the people visiting Tibet only go for the Lhasa and the EBC tours, and therefore I was prepared to hear that it was difficult, if not impossible, to arrange for more travelers to join me. The agency explained that I’d have had more chances to find fellow trekkers if I had booked the trip much earlier (I booked with only 4 weeks of notice, which is not as much time as it may seem to be).
Still, that sounded like good news to me! It meant more freedom to do things my own way, more time and opportunities to interact with the locals, but it would be more expensive. Anyway, with such a short notice and during the high tourist season (I visited Tibet in June), the agency also had a hard time finding a guide to go with me in the mountains.
I knew I could trust this agency completely. They had great reviews, and I had spoken with them several times, liking them more and more each time. I was very stubborn about doing the trek. I thought that if I skipped that experience on that occasion, I wouldn’t have another chance to do it in the future! I was very pushy and in the end, the agency made me happy and arranged the trip with an “external guide” – that means somebody who wasn’t working for them regularly, but an expert at trekking around Lhasa and hopefully a person with a good reputation. It seemed that the most convenient solution for me was trekking on the Ganden-Samye route, a traditional walk which requires three days and goes from the Ganden Monastery (30 km from Lhasa) to the Samye Monastery. I would leave for Ganden the day after our group would be back from EBC. The agency warned me that the trekking would be physically demanding, and that the guide and I would need two yaks and a couple of porters to carry our camping gears.
LHASA – NAMTSO – GANDEN MONASTERY: WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE WE STARTED TREKKING
And so, the last part of my trip to Tibet began!
On the first of what would be 4 days together with this “external guide” who was assigned to me, I already had a sense that something was not right about him, but I thought that could be related to the fact that I had spent the previous 10 days with a different guide who was super friendly and professional and with whom everybody in the group connected easily, and maybe now I was just being too picky, so I pushed my feelings aside.
The weird sensation, unfortunately, was a warning. On the way from Lhasa to Trubshi Village (near Ganden, the point from which we would start walking towards Samye as Tibetan pilgrims have done for centuries) he talked with me as little as possible, while being chatting with the driver extensively, but in Tibetan.
The first stop-over was at the stunning Namtso Lake. The guide entered the Chinese Restaurant a couple of hundreds metres from the shore and stated that he would be watching the football match (what?!) while waiting for me to visit the lake and take pictures; I was ok with that, because he didn’t seem to be good company after all. I also had the feeling that he wanted to move on as soon as possible, and he acted as if he was doing me a big favor by just being there.
The trip from Namtso to Ganden didn’t take long. We saw the monastery, nestled in the mountains, from the bottom of the valley, its buildings side by side like teeth in a smiling mouth. I felt like there was so much to observe there, since the monks were about to sit in the hall and chant, but the guide became impatient after ten minutes and said we’d better move on because it was late.
When we arrived at the starting point of the trek, which was only a short 10-minute ride from the monastery, it was 4 PM, and we had plenty of time to pitch the tents, meet the porters, have dinner and go to sleep.
I soon discovered that the guide hadn’t brought his own tent!
He made his bed inside the kitchen tent. I thought that was just how things were ment to be and, after I’d helped him clean the pots, headed for my tent. A few minutes later, I was fast asleep, when suddenly he started calling me from the kitchen tent and complaining that it was raining and that the rain was getting inside the tent, and he asked if he could sleep in my tent.
I got up in order to make sure that what he was saying was the truth, finding out instead that the tent in which he was sleeping was dry and warm, even if it smelled like the food we had just eaten. I was concerned, and tired. Beside the fact that he was obviously lying to me, my tent was small, with room for just one person and one backpack, so I apologized to him, and went back inside.
I started getting a bit worried. I knew that for the following three days it would be only me, this guide, the porters (which I had learned only spoke Tibetan) and two yaks. I decided not to think about it, and that tomorrow would be a fine day.
I was wrong, again.
At breakfast, the guy had a grumpy expression stamped on his face, didn’t utter a word and, after we had packed everything, he started walking fast in the valleys, leaving me far behind. After a couple of hours of going uphill on my own, surrounded by beauty and wilderness, I was hungry and wanted to grab one of the snacks he had kindly offered to carry in his backpack ( of course, let’s not forget that I was financing the entire expedition, I had payed for all the food), but the guide was nowhere to be found. I knew he meant to wear me out by walking that fast, so I relaxed and enjoyed the time spent with my camera in the highlands. I could see nomad men and women, yaks, horses, and tents: I wasn’t completely isolated.
When I finally reached my grumpy guide and asked for a snack (he had got out a few apples and some chocolate bars), he replied that we didn’t have that much to eat for that day, therefore I couldn’t have one. At that moment, I realized that there was no hope of getting along with him, and that I needed to reach out to the agency. Enough is enough, but sadly, there was no cellphone network up there.
The following morning, before the second day of the trek started, I let the two porters know that we absolutely needed to head back to the village, because I had to phone the agency. They understood me immediately, and didn’t seem very surprised about my decision. They had witnessed part of the interactions between the guide and me.
I really liked the porters. They looked so happy about that opportunity to meet a foreigner and to earn some money. They knew that I’d had more than enough of that jerk from Lhasa!
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, no 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.
After we had returned to the starting point, the yak-man offered to take us to his house, where we could have tea. I called the agency and explained the situation. They couldn’t believe what had happened, and it took me quite some time to let them know I was serious. The agency manager had a very long chat with the guide, then another one with me, then another one with him, and in the end, they agreed to send another guide. In the meantime, I had tea with the yak-man’s wife and daughters and gazed at their house, which was painted with lively colors and decorated with interesting motifs in the nomadic tradition. When Tashi, the new guide, reached the village in the afternoon, we all had some rice together and the grumpy guide talked to him in Tibetan (I knew he was talking about me), and it seemed like he didn’t want to leave us but in the end, he disappeared from sight.
WILL YOU NEED OXYGEN ON YOUR TREK IN TIBET?
The new guide, Tashi, was friendly, and really sorry when he let me know that it was not anymore possible to head for Samye and complete the route we had planned, because I didn’t have enough time (my flight back was scheduled just after the end of the trek, and we had already lost one day), therefore he would take me along another trail up to a lake that is sacred to the nomads in the area.
The following morning, we set off early and headed for the lake, which we reached in 8 hours, passing through pastures, stopping by nomad tents and climbing through a riverbed covered with huge stones: it was just amazing, but very challenging.
I was astonished by the fact that, even though the route wasn’t too steep, I was walking slower and slower. Tashi said I should take it easy but without stopping; at a certain point, it was a real effort to take a single step forward. My legs felt too heavy. For the first time during the whole trip, I started sipping oxygen.
I decided to stop, sit on the grass and just enjoy being there with the grass and rocks, the yaks nearby and the sky so close.
I guess it was at that point that I started crying.
I cried because I was grateful 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. I also cried because I felt I couldn’t make it, I wasn’t used to that environment and weather, it was simply too tough for me, taken all at once and without preparation.
Tashi said he would reach the lake and come back and he would show me how close it was. I trusted him. He was kind and even only a few hours after we had first met, he was able to empathize with me.
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. I reached the lake, in the end. It was very dry. I could see on the surrounding rocks the sign the water had left when it was full. Now it looked more like a pond, a pond at the end of the world.
After having rested, we returned to the camp which the porters had set up half-way to the lake. Tashi got there an hour before me and cooked the rice for me and the porters. I didn’t use any oxygen on the way back. I stopped often to rest, have a look around, and imprint the landscape on my mind and in my camera.
A crew of four nomads, who had been looking for something on the ground on a slope not far from our tents, stopped by and had tea with us. They wanted to know about me and asked Tashi a lot of questions. They told me they were collecting caterpillar fungus on the mountains because it’s used in Chinese medicine and sells well at the markets.
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 had been. 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 yak-men 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 their 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. In the center of each tent, there is a stove fueled by yak dung. A small altar with the photo of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama and offerings is always present. We met less than 20 people in three days of trekking, but many, many yaks! If you wish to have a look at the photo album from the trek, please visit here.
WHAT SHOULD YOU BRING WITH YOU ON THE TREKKING?
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 inconvenient to bother the crew to stop and unload at any other time. Once you’ve seen how annoying it 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 most of your things at the travel agency in Lhasa, and just bring a very light backpack to carry yourself.
The next morning , we packed up everything and returned to Trubshi, where the yak-men live. We spent time some time chatting again with the yak-man’s wife and daughter at their tent near the village. Their daughter was 24 and worked in a textile factory near Lhasa. She looked very proud and strong and told me she needed to go to work in the factory to earn money like many other Tibetan women.
That was my last day in Tibet.
The following morning, I left from the Lhasa airport and returned to the Chinese city I was living in.
Those 13 days in Tibet had been intense, and the trekking was definitely my favourite part of the whole trip, even with all the initial downsides. I was very sad to leave.
Looking back, I would do it again, but arranging the trip two or three months in advance. I warmly suggest you design your dream trip to Tibet and prepare all the documents required by the Chinese Government with Gyantsen and Kalsang, the guides who were with me for 10 days in Lhasa and EBC, and who’ll be able to arrange your trek on different routes in Tibet.
If you’re a solo traveler determined to trek in Tibet and want to find a companion to lower the cost, be careful! A bad choice could ruin the trip of your life. 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 be an interpreter for you and your only connection to locals you meet on the way who do not speak English. I recommend that, to begin with, you have a chat in person with the guide who’s going to be up there with you, and see for yourself if you can rely on him/her totally for two days or more. Trekking in Tibet is definitely an experience to be arranged well in advance.
Look at all the photos from the trek and others to fall in love with Tibet here!