The Friendship Highway connects Kathmandu to Lhasa. It climbs through mountain passes, impossibly wraps around the sides of mountains and continues along valley floors for 1000 km. It is the road trip of a lifetime.
Having climbed up through the mountains on the Nepali side of the Himalayas - steep roads, zig zagged with switch backs and scarred by the aftermath of fatal landslides- the road settles down to a relatively smooth passage along the Tibetan Plateau. The Highway from the Nepali border to Lhasa was completely paved in 2008, so it is no longer the bumpy dirt track of yore. This might have taken some of the ruggedness out of the journey, but it takes nothing away from the views.
In the days before we embarked on our road trip, the pass from the Nepali border was snowed in. It was touch and go as to whether our trip could go ahead, then at 6pm the night before, we got the all clear. The road had been ploughed, it was no longer snowing and we could go. Our guide and driver (who had picked us up at Chinese immigration) were very concerned about the snow closing in again and so covered two days driving in one to get through the danger zone while it was still clear. On that first day we traveled from Kathmandu at 1300 metres all the way to Tingri at 4900 metres, the highest point we were to sleep at. The air was thin, the light was crisply brilliant and, in December, it was absolutely freezing. The entire time we were keenly aware that we were on top of the world. It was exhilarating.
For most of the drive from the border we saw very few signs of human habitation, we looked out at a winter-barren landscape, stunning in its emptiness. Then at a carefully demarcated point the sudden appearance of ultra-modern, solar powered street lights indicated the start of a village. A paved footpath appeared and for some 500 metres houses lined either side of the road in uniform regularity. Just as suddenly the village ended and the wilderness moved back in.
The uniformity of the villages against the wild Himalayas was surreal. Despite some modern trappings - the footpath, streetlights and the occasional kids' playground- the villages were unlike any other we'd seen. Tibet has a unique architectural style developed in response to the climate, locally available materials and the aesthetics of Tibetan Buddhism. The whole house and a yard are enclosed by a thick stone wall, often with patties of yaks' dung stuck to the outside to dry in the sun and provide fuel for fires.
Lhasa was the end point of our great road trip. After five days of nothing but Himalayan peaks and sporadic villages dotted across the broad plateau, we drove into Lhasa. Like the villages, the capital appears suddenly, with very little urban sprawl to announce it. We found ourselves driving along a wide boulevard. The buildings either side of the road were clearly new, several stories high but with many of the Tibetan architectural flourishes we had seen in the villages. The boulevard was pristine with not so much as a stray chocolate wrapper to mar it - a stark contrast from the litter strewn villages. There was something about all of this modern cleanliness that rang artificial.
In Old Lhasa it seems that all streets funnel into the human tide, which is the constant procession around the Jokhang Temple. Let yourself get swept along as you marvel at the strangness of your surroundings.
At the time we travelled (December 2014) the Chinese government required all foreign tourists to hire a guide and driver. It was necessary to get permits for entry into Lhasa and separate permits for everywhere we went outside of Lhasa (as well as a visa for China). You must arrange all travel permits before you arrive. The rules change constantly, so do your own research before heading out. Given all these requirements Follow Me East opted to arrange the trip through an agent in Nepal. Thamel is full of such agencies. Our main requirement was that the guide, the driver and the company they worked for were Tibetan. Anecdotally this is easier to ensure if you are booking from Nepal rather than from within China.
Our journey took us from Kathmandu to Lhasa, along the Friendship Highway stopping at Tingri, Shigatse and Gyantse. Unless you're racing the snow clouds, I would recommend spending your first night in Nyalam to acclimatise. If you are doing this trip in the warmer months, there are some good short walks here too.
Final consensus on Tibet? It was hard work to get there, it was very expensive and it was worth every penny. Go in with your eyes wide open, the human rights of Tibetan people are seriously curtailed by the Chinse government and we are very glad we got to see this fast disappearing culture.