Managed to get up at 5am after being forced to stay up late, play pool and drink vodka at club in Kathmandu. Bus trip up to border, trip across the border in the back of a ratty old van, then 4 days in Toyota Landcruisers up to Lhasa. Surprised by lack of snow, the Tibetan plateau reminded me a bit of the Syrian desert, brown and barren, but with yaks instead of camels and rather colder. Saw the back of Everest etc. looking rather distant. First pass was 5050M, and was seriously cold with a strong wind blowing, got warmer after that (I think the plateau at about 4000M was between about -10 at night to a max of about 3-4 during the day, so not really that cold. Warm in the sun though. Tibetan houses tend to have big windows to the south, tiny windows elsewhere. They don't really do central heating in Tibet, and the toilets are invariable outside (either a Chinese style trough or a Tibetan style hole in the ground), so getting up in the middle of the night after too much beer isn't much fun. The road to Lhasa goes up and down and up and down, past wonderful turquoise lakes, the occasional snow capped peaks and some wonderful icefalls (or maybe glaciers, not sure what the difference is). All the passes have masses of prayer flags at the top, and lots of little cairns, presumably left by previous travellers (left a few behind myself).
Had New Year in Shigatse, once home to the Panchen Lama and 2nd biggest city in Tibet. We pretended 10pm was midnight, had a beer and went to bed, most people were feeling a little tired with the altitude and bouncing around on the unmadeup roads (they have tarmac around Lhasa, but the roads are not as potholed as the ones in India, though you have to drive across the occasional large patch of ice).
Visited a few monasteries and the castle (or dzong as they call them in those parts) at Gyantse, partly blown up by the British in 1904 (they hit the gunpowder store) and for some reason not destroyed by the Chinese (the road is lined with the ruins of other forts that weren't so lucky).
Got to Lhasa Wednesday, first impression was the Potala in the distance looking rather small and wide Chinese boulevards with what I gather is the classic white tiles and tinted blue glass modern Chinese style (so everywhere looks like a giant public toilet), not much traffic or people around. Stay in hotel on the edge of the Tibetan part of town, no heating either, but electric blankets, hot water and best of all, a bath (had first bath in 5 months there), and funnily enough just down the road from the main Lhasa mosque (which I failed to visit while I was there, didn't look too interesting and I don't think they let non-muslims in anyway).
Tibetan part of town quite different, crowded narrow streets, packed out with people, about half relatively normal looking folk and the rest all kinds of crazily dressed nomad types, looking like they had just ridden in to town on their yak. Sheepskin cloaks, fur hats (whole foxes wrapped around the head, often with a block of foam to keep them in place), plaited hair (many Tibetan women traditionally wear their hair in 108 plaits, and many of the men wear a long plait with red tassle tied round their head, looks strangely effeminate and extremely hard at the same time). This time of year the nomads come to town for the winter and for a bit of pilgrimage, much spinning of prayer wheels, prostrations, mantra mumbling, queuing at shrines, rubbing rocks and other holy objects, scraping butter into the lamps of the temples and generally having a good time. They are extraordinary friendly when going about all this, there were very few westerners around and you got the impression that they found us as interesting as the other way around, much staring all round.
Anyway, did the touristic thing in Lhasa, which means visiting more monasteries, temples, the Dalai Lama's summer palace and of course the Potala, which is a rather dark, gloomy and cold place. On the surface, Buddhism seems to be thriving, though its hard to tell what's going on underneath. There are certainly many monks around, some of whom at least seem to be into what they are doing, and half the people around in the old town seem to be involved in some sort of devotional activity. The temples etc. are wonderful places, crammed with statues of buddhas, boddhisattvas, deities of one sort or another, various lamas, abbots, kings etc. Everywhere there are butter lamps, piles of small value banknotes, walls of religious texts, scarves, drums, trumpets and more obscure items of ceremonial paraphenalia. They often have a nice line in scary imagery, one monastery (Nechung, ex-seat of the State Oracle), is largely decorated with pictures of flayed people and scenes of torture, and the "protective deities" are rather fun, I think they are meant to scare off undesirable elements.
Out of the "old town", things are rather more secular, mainly Chinese, lots of posh clothes shops etc. Not so interesting, though some wonderful food markets, cinemas showing Chinese films (one showing Pearl Harbour too) etc. You get the impression that may be edging the "traditional culture" out, though it's hard to tell. The more cosmopolitan looking Tibetans seemed to be just as into the mumbo jumbo stuff (which is a large component of Tibetan culture) as the wild folk from the steppes, so maybe they are heading for some sort of relatively healthy synthesis.
Anyway, 9 days in Lhasa was probably enough, spent a couple of days in bed with a nasty cough, so didn't get out of the city as I'd intended to, but there you go. Flight back was fun, delayed for 4 hours due to fog at Kathmandu, ended up sitting out on the runway in the sun (departure lounge was too cold) and eating complementary instant noodles. Once we got in the air, good views of Everest & other bits of the Himalayas, it's remarkable how small they all look, even when flying more or less straight over.