When Dad announced that he wanted us to join him on a family road trip at the end of the year, my brothers and I thought he must want to drive from the west to east coast of Australia across the Nullarbor Plain. Surprisingly though, he had a much more adventurous idea… flash forward 12 months and we were touching down in Lhasa, Tibet to begin our 800km road trip on the Friendship Highway to the border with Nepal.
The Friendship Highway is one of the highest roads in the world, with sections of the route peaking at over 5000 metres above sea level. Starting in Lhasa, the road winds west through Tibet before hitting the Himalayas and the Nepali border. At 3656 metres above sea level, and with subzero temperatures in the middle of winter, Lhasa is one of the highest cities in the world. It is the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region in China and was home to the Dalai Lama until he was forced to flee in the late 1950s following the Chinese takeover of Tibet.
Central Square outside the Potala Palace, Lhasa. Photo: Jessica Watts
Lhasa is so wildly different to any other city that I’ve been to: built on a plateau, with rugged mountains circling the entire capital. Although angular residential and commercial buildings are built in a grid formation across the city, they feature the most intricate colours and woodwork designs on the exteriors. You’ll be hard pressed to find a point in the city where you can’t spot an ornate gold design of a monasteries standing boldly among other buildings. Two to three days can be spent well in Lhasa. The Potala Palace is one of the most sacred sites in Tibet, being the former residence of the Dalai Lama. When we visited, it was surrounded by a sea of moving bodies, rotating in a clockwise direction around the building, prostrating. It has excellent views over the city from inside, and on the walk up to the entrance. You’ll see people spinning Buddhist prayer wheels (or mani wheels as they are known locally) as they make the ascent to the palace.
A lady spins a Tibetan pray wheel on the walls of the Potala Palace, the home of the Dalai Lama until 1956. Photo: Jessica Watts
A visit to the Jokhang Monastery in central Lhasa is a must. It is one of the most important and oldest temples in Tibet - the oldest part of the temple was build more than 1300 years ago.
Prostrators in Barkhor Square, in downtown Lhasa, outside the Jokhong Monastery. Photo: Jessica Watts
Lhasa’s food scene deserves a mention, or for those with less adventurous stomachs, perhaps more of a warning. Tibetan food is mountain fare - hearty meaty dishes and soups. Venturing into local restaurants is not for those with queasy stomachs, or vegetarians. Some of the carnivorous delicacies we came across (and I promise these are literal translations from the menus) included yak trotter, sheep’s head, cold black fungus, fried mutton lungs, medicine with goats heart and steamed yaks tongue.
After 48 hours visiting Lhasa’s monasteries, maintaining a strictly vegetarian diet and equipped with a thorough understanding of recent Tibetan history from a fantastic local guide, we jumped in our rented minivan and began our road trip.
The winding road to Everest Base camp, skirting Lake Yamdrok. Photo: Jessica Watts.
Scenic leg stretch: taking in the views as we approach Lake Yamdrok. Photo: Jessica Watts.
Along the route, there are a number of fantastic places to visit to break up the driving including very old and traditional Tibetan mountain villages, arguably some of the most remote Buddhist settlements in the world. Here you are guaranteed to be the only tourists, affording you the privilege of watching monks going about their daily life.
Two monks go about their business in a remote mountainous monastery community in rural Tibet. Photo: Jessica Watts.
In addition to getting a very authentic insight to the Tibetan Buddhist culture in the monastery villages, typical roadside activities along the way include riding a yak or a playing a round of open air pool with the locals. It’s safe to say you’re unlikely to get bored on these long, open stretches of road!
A yak ride is a recommended way to stretch out car cramps. Photo: Jessica Watts
Open air pool anyone? An impromptu game of pool on the roadside was a highlight. Photo: Jessica Watts
For those keen to venture the full length of the Friendship Highway, it continues to the Chinese/Nepali border town of Zangmu, passing Everest Base Camp enroute. Once at the border, the highway gives way to a Nepali freeway connecting you all the way through to Kathmandu. Unfortunately for us, an avalanche meant we weren’t able to connect all the way through to Nepal as originally planned. Although disappointed initially, it meant we were able to spend more time exploring Tibet, and in hindsight we are so glad we did. It is a corner of the world we all feel very privileged to have enjoyed for our very off the beaten track family adventure.
- Very warm clothes essential for those travelling in Tibetan winter, as well as altitude medication for those who suffer from sickness;
- A good playlist or car games are recommended, the journey is hours and hours of open road stretches where we didn't see another soul; and,
- Getting ‘snowed out’ was an obvious downside of visiting Tibet in the winter. Advance weather planning for those considering visiting between November - February would be wise, as these are months where there is heavier snowfall/greater avalanche risk on the higher mountain passes.