Highlights of the WildJunket Tibet Tour
Have you ever returned from a trip that was SO good that you wish it wouldn’t end and could just go on forever? My trip to Tibet was just like that.
This journey to Tibet was truly one of the best trips of my life — and I’m not saying it because I organised the trip. It was my first WildJunket tour, and I had no idea how it would turn out, but it was everything that I’d wished it would be, and more.
I think it’s safe to say that everyone had a blast on this trip: it was both fun and rewarding, adventurous yet laid back, and we learned so much about this remote and overlooked region from locals’ perspectives. The itinerary was brilliant, and we experienced quite a bit of Tibet within a short span of time.
The Best Group Ever
But I think what made the trip so special, was the great group of people that joined me on this journey.
I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to travel with. Some of them are my personal friends, some follow this blog. Regardless, everyone hit it off right from the start and we all felt a strong connection. Being seasoned travelers, they all have plenty of travel experience under their belt and everyone was flexible and understanding during the trip. That really took a lot of pressure off myself and our guide.
Highs (and Lows) of the Trip
Here’s a look at the highs and lows of this WildJunket Tibet tour — and what made it truly special.
When everyone made it to Tibet!
Getting everyone to Tibet was probably the biggest challenge of the trip. Because of the red tape involved, almost every foreign visitor has to get a Chinese visa AND a Tibet travel permit in order to enter Tibet. Those who fly into Lhasa need to have their original permits at hand, otherwise they won’t be allowed into Tibet.
Due to an unfortunate flight delay, Sok Peng didn’t get her original permit in advance. She still managed to board the plane though, and thankfully a representative from Tibet Vista got her across customs and into Tibet! It’s a miracle really and she must be one of the rare few who actually got into Tibet without an original permit.
That first day of the trip was probably the most stressful day for me — I only managed to start breathing when everyone finally got to Lhasa.
Getting into Potala Palace — with Brian included
Our trip officially began with a visit of the Potala Palace, an iconic landmark of Tibet and the most well-known building in the country. We could barely contain our excitement at the chance of finally visiting the fortresslike home of the past Dalai Lamas — until we realised that there was a mistake with Brian’s ticket and he might not be able to enter with us.
We all felt sorry for Brian, who seemed to have the worst luck of all, and thus the term “Poor Brian…” was coined. Thankfully, he did manage to get into Potala, after our guide Sonam convinced the guards he was one of us. Phew!
Climbing up the never-ending stairs of Drepung Monastery
The next day, we headed to the outskirts of Lhasa to explore two of the most important monasteries in Tibet. Drepung Monastery is the largest of all Tibetan monasteries and is perched on the Gambo Utse mountain. Needless to say, there were lots of slopes and stairs (which can get pretty tiresome at such high altitudes). Every time we climbed up a steep slope, our guide Sonam would say to everyone, “Just one more flight of stairs and you’ll be there!” But there were always more. Such a liar.
Watching monks debate at the Sera Monastery
In Tibetan monasteries, monks often carry out debates for better understanding of Buddhist philosophies; but these debates are usually not opened to the public, except at Sera Monastery. It was such an eye-opening experience seeing the monks in action. The debates were punctuated with vigorous gestures which made the whole ambience really lively. They made dramatic gestures such as clapping after each question and striking the left palm with the right palm.
Feasting on epic views of the Himalayas along the Friendship Highway
It took almost two days of driving (with one night in Shigatse to break the journey down) to get to Everest Base Camp — but the journey there was almost as worthwhile as our destination. We zigzagged our way up the Friendship Highway, which climbed up more than 2,000m in altitude via a series of sharp hairpin bends. Scenery along the way featured winding valleys, vast grasslands, meadows and windswept mountain views. Eventually we reached the highest mountain pass, Gyatso La (5,260m), where hundreds of prayer flags hung and a fantastic panorama of five of the world’s highest peaks awaited.
Watching Tommy puke and then get hooked on oxygen at Everest
When we finally got to Everest Base Camp, everyone was on a high (no punt intended!) — except for Tommy who was suffering terribly from altitude sickness. The poor thing looked miserable and had to stop and throw up several times on our walk, but he was such a trooper and trudged on back to camp. When we got there, our guide immediately hooked him up to the oxygen tank. The oxygen helped, maybe a little too much, and he got so addicted to the oxygen he didn’t want to let go…!
Celebrating Tamara’s birthday at Everest Base Camp
How lucky can you be to celebrate your birthday at Everest?! It was Tamara’s birthday when we got to Everest Base Camp, so I knew we had to make that evening special for her. Our guide Sonam and the owner of our tented guesthouse were so sweet to prepare a tsampa (barley) cake that had a little flag with birthday wishes written on it. It was a heartwarming evening as we talked, laughed and drank red wine with the Tibetans. I’m pretty sure Tamara had a great birthday, but she’s probably spoiled for life — I mean how will anything ever top a birthday celebration at Everest?!
Driving the scenic route to Lhasa, seeing mind-blowing sights and fighting off touts
On the long drive back to Lhasa, we took the scenic route that brought us along lime-green barley fields, pristine turquoise lakes, time-warped villages and mountains studded with ochre stupas. It was a full day of driving, but the landscapes were diverse and spectacular. We first made a stop at Mandak Lake, an artificial lake with sparkling jade green waters that flowed through the steep ravines. Our group loved walking all around the mountain pass and viewing spots that were draped with prayer flags.
Yamdrok Lake was even bigger and more spectacular but the negative impact of tourism was quite apparent to me here. I didn’t quite like seeing locals use their yaks and dogs as gimmicks, charging tourists to pose for pictures with the poor animals. Koro-La Glacier was another striking spot that reminded me of Alaska and Norway, but the aggressive touts and vendors reminded me that I was in China after all.
Hiking up to the Gyantse Fortress and trying to catch up with our guide
Most people who make a stop at Gyantse choose to visit the monastery, but our guide Sonam convinced us that the dzong (fortress) was a much cooler place to visit. He briefly mentioned that you have to climb up to the fortress, but we didn’t think too much about it. Turns out, a LOT of steep stairs were actually involved (we should have known!). Because of the thin air, we huffed and puffed our way up the steps like grannies, while Sonar pranced around like a monkey and laughed at our pitiful plight. It’s true that Tibetans are like superhuman; they have all genetically adapted to living at high altitudes and the thin air doesn’t affect them as it does to us. We didn’t know if we were amused or angry, but when we got up there, the panoramic views made the climb worthwhile.
Reviewing every disgusting toilet along the way
A large part of our daily conversation revolved around toilets. We loved talking about them so much they became an essential part of our Tibet experience. If you’ve ever been to China, you’d know how gruesome their squat toilets can be. But in Tibet, their toilets are about a million times worse. Think wet squatties, poop on the walls, toilets with no doors, human waste flowing in the trough between your feet… So it became a habit of our group to rate every toilet we went to and laugh about it afterwards.
A Word of Gratitude to Tibet Vista
Putting together this trip wasn’t easy: Months of planning, communicating and dealing with red tape were involved. But I’m grateful to have Stephanie from Tibet Vista helping me every step of the way. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without her. She worked closely with me for months to make sure we had all our permits and train tickets before the trip and it’s all thanks to her that this trip turned out to be such a success.
I’m also extremely grateful to our awesome guide Sonam Tenphel, and driver, Nyima Tsering. Both of them were extremely professional and dedicated and they did a great job in showing us the best of Tibet. Sonam often went out of his way to make sure we experienced as much as we could, and he was always happy to answer any questions we had.
All in all, I’m really glad to have Tibet Vista as a partner, and I definitely plan to run more tours with them in future.
What Did I Learn from my First WildJunket Tour?
I wanted to create a trip that felt less like a tour and more like a bunch of friends traveling together — and we nailed it, all thanks to the amazing group of people on this trip! We all came from different backgrounds, but we were all in Tibet for the same purpose, and that was to just have fun, explore and learn.
Looking back, I don’t think there’s much I would change. The trip turned out to be way better than I expected, all thanks to Tibet Vista who handled the logistics and made sure the trip ran smoothly.
The only thing I might change is the length of the trip. 8 days felt too short! None of us wanted to leave. We had so much fun that we wished we could have kept going. In terms of the itinerary, I think I would also reduce the time we spent in the cities and focus more on exploring the rural parts of Tibet for my future trips.
On this trip, I also learned a thing or two about leading a group. I knew the role of a guide was better left to a local expert who would know more about the destination than I do. And I was really glad we had the privilege of having Sonam as our guide. As a tour leader, I tried to fill in the gaps and made sure everyone was aware of what we were doing. I tried my best not to stress out too much and to just go with the flow. I definitely have quite a bit to improve on, but I’m looking forward to learning more on future trips!
Will I Do More WildJunket Tours?
YES! I’ve already launched my second tour: this trip to Iraqi Kurdistan runs from 18 to 25 October. We’ll be visiting the most stable parts of the region with a highly recommended local guide. It’ll be an even smaller group (3-9 people), and we’ll be traveling in cars. Travel to Iraq is an adventure — and it’s not for everyone. This trip is for those who are looking for an offbeat, unusual adventure, but prefer to share the experience with others.
Moving forward, I aim to do more tours that are similar in style to my Tibet trip. WildJunket Tours will be small-group adventure tours that are fun yet experiential, where like-minded travelers get together and embark on a transformational journey together. We want to go beneath the skin of the destination, debunk the myths surrounding it and learn about it from locals’ perspective. That’s why we will travel with a local guide/expert who has plenty of experience and who can show us the real story behind the headlines.
In the pipeline are more tours to Tibet (our group wants round 2!), and possibly Bhutan, Nagaland, Tajikistan, and Madagascar. If you’re interested in hearing more about these trips, feel free to sign up for my mailing list!
Source: Wild Junket