When I heard the words “group tour” in the past, I imagined massive groups of people on huge coaches following flag-carrying leaders. These leaders, I assumed, would shout generalized information into microphones as the group was ferried from stop to stop.
I imagined group tours to be devoid of interaction with local people, customs, language, and experience.
And then I learned of Intrepid Travel last year, from some seriously cool people I met traveling solo. They encouraged me to give a small group tour a chance. Though intrigued, I wasn’t sold on the idea. However, after an exceptionally bad day at work, I found myself perusing the Intrepid website, with Tibet seeming to be the perfect opportunity, as the region can only be visited on a group tour (unless you are Chinese).
With space available on the next departure of the 14-day Tibetan Journey itinerary, I thought, “why not?” and got to work cashing in flight vouchers, tackling visa forms, and feeling relaxed that I had nothing else to plan for a change!
It didn’t take very long upon arrival in Lhasa to realize that not only is a group tour the only way to visit Tibet, but the best way by far! Our group of 12, led by the incredible local leader Pema, felt like a family. Here’s what we experienced:
Taking the train
Its 3600km from Beijing to Lhasa, and though there’s several daily flights, taking the train truly gives the sense of the distance with the bonus of incredible views of the landscape passing by. While 47 hours seems like a long time to spend on a train (and yes, it definitely is), this time provides the perfect opportunity to learn more about the group, like who is going to make sure everyone is drinking enough water and has a steady stream of downloaded documentaries to watch about the region. Okay, that was me, but no shame!
Even with long-distance train experience, I was really grateful for Pema’s guidance and the group’s company – conquering a squatty potty on a moving object is much easier with people to laugh about it with!
Though research shows that taking the train to Lhasa is slightly more helpful than flying in for altitude acclimatization, waking up at 3650m is still a shock. Pema organized our trip perfectly to help with the increasing altitude, with our first activity consisting of a morning momo-making class.
Momos (round, filled dumplings) are a staple food in Tibet and we made veggie and yak-filled varieties. While everyone was a little unsure of eating yak, this quickly changed once we tried our creations! This meal solidified our group love of ginger lemon honey tea, while we also learned who the biggest appetites were to give leftovers to – thanks, Bennett!
Walking a kora
Tibetan Journey is full of monastery and temple visits and it’s impossible to miss pilgrims making their way around the temple exterior according to Buddhist tradition, whether walking, spinning prayer wheels, or prostrating their bodies. Depending on the crowd, this can be slightly overwhelming and intimidating, but whether solo or with a group, tourists are welcome to join respectfully. While the customs are foreign to me as a non-Buddhist, it was beautiful to see the Tibetans practicing their faith.
My favorite kora was a long walk around the outside walls of the Palcho Monastery in Gyantse, where the views were stunning and I even made some new friends! One of these friends was a friendly Tibetan who knew some English and the others were baby goats!
Pema was always willing to accompany us walking, or answer questions later, and our group sure did have questions! Long bus rides through winding Tibetan roads were made entertaining by Pema sharing stories of his life in Tibet, and each person of our group had particular interests in the different facets of Buddhism, Tibetan traditions, and the tensions with Chinese rule.
Tent city nightlife
A night “camping” in the tent city at Everest Base Camp is like no other. Tent city is the last stop for tourists, as only trekkers and climbers can go further towards the mountain.
Naturally, myself and the other Americans think of s’mores as the perfect campfire (or yak-dung-burning camp stove) treat to make for a break from Tibetan cuisine. Despite some miscommunication with the group’s Aussies about what graham crackers are, we spent the evening laughing and joking over melted chocolate and marshmallow dessert masterpieces to celebrate making it to 5200m of altitude healthy and happy!
After being tucked in to our yak-hair blankets, there was only sweet dreaming of the lucky cloudless views of Everest we were welcomed by to this special place.
A favorite moment of mine was exploring the upper Rongbuk monastery, adjacent to the tent city at Everest. Tucked away in this small, largely unused complex is a beautiful little cave dedicated to Guru Rinpoche. Fortunately, our group included yogi Debbie, led a brief meditation in this cozy and humbling place. Pema bolstered this experience by sharing some Buddhist chants which echoed in the space.
During this time I was able to reflect on simply being, in one of the most remote locations on earth, in the shadow of the tallest point on the planet. I contemplated how truly fortunate I am.
Lunch with a local
Pema arranged for our group to be treated to a homemade lunch by a local woman in Sakya. This was by far my favorite dining experience of the trip and an incredible way to gain insight into the traditional foods and drinks of Tibetans.
Though she spoke no English, Pema was able to convey her words, and her actions needed no translation. We all felt so guilty that this lovely woman was constantly refilling our plates and cups and doing so with the biggest smile possible. We then learned that this is the tradition to keep guests full and content. We also learned which brave souls of our group were willing to drink everyone else’s portion of Tibetan staple, butter tea. Thanks, Meryl!
Pema was able to provide many moments like this, ones that would not have been possible travelling the region solo. When a couple of construction workers on break offered us a strange drink as we walked along the streets of Gyantse, Pema was able to translate between our group and theirs, explaining the drink was a barley wine offered to visitors and friends. We also visited a nunnery, witnessed paint and incense making, and saw local farming traditions firsthand.
Take a moment alone
Though each member of our fantastic group added a unique touch to every experience, it was important to take time to myself at each stop. As foreigners are not allowed to be without their guide in many places in Tibet, this was not always possible, but when it was it felt extremely meaningful. I met a group of adorable schoolchildren on the streets of Shigatse, who took me by the hand to show people my pink nails and blonde hair and tell them I’m “America.”
I sat in the valley of Everest, watching the colors change in the sky after our cave meditation, thinking about the beauty of our world. These moments allowed reflection on group conversations, while contemplating the many facets of Tibetan culture, religion, and politics on my own.
I could not have asked for a better experience on my first group tour, nor can I imagine exploring Tibet with any other group of people or on any other itinerary. Each day of this adventure was packed with beautiful scenery, gorgeous architecture, and opportunities to learn about this deeply religious and historical culture.
Our intrepid group of varying ages and nationalities provided the stage for challenging and engaging conversations and debates. These increased in interest and scope as we got to know each other better and would not have been possible on a solo trip.
Each awe-inspiring moment, from the first view of Everest, to approaching the Potala by night with its glittering lights, witnessing debating monks, entering the cavernous monastic library in Gyantse, was made better by the kindred souls I grew close to along the way.
This trip truly was a journey I will always be grateful for; and now, I can’t wait for the next one!
Ready to explore incredible Tibet for yourself? Make it happen with Intrepid Travel.
(All images courtesy of Maggie Hereford and taken on Intrepid’s Tibetan Journey trip.)