This trip began with a 3-day stay in the city of Xining, Qinghai Province, where we were taken by a local buddhist guide and driver to the Tibetan Medicine/Culture Museum, Qinghai Provincial Museum, Kumbum Monastery, and Qinghai Lake. All were worth visiting and are recommended. Qinghai Lake is enormous is size, and there are plenty of Chinese tourists there to share the experience with you!
The overnight train trip from Xining to Lhasa was late on departure due to rain downpours elsewhere before arrival. Thus, we were not able to make any stops along the route, but the views out the window along the Tibetan Plateau were ever changing and fascinating, with snow-capped peaks, meandering streams, grasslands, and occasional wildlife. I saw Tibetan antelope, wild donkeys, picas, marmots, and even a Himalayan bear crossing a river and a Tibetan fox hunting for picas! In order to see the wildlife, I had to make a determined effort to watch closely out the windows with camera ready. I didn't suffer any altitude sickness on the train, as oxygen was piped in on demand. Hot food was sold off carts at reasonable prices that are wheeled past the compartments. The "soft sleeper" seemed like the best way to travel on the train, as four people share a compartment - one lower bed and one upper bed on each side, and the beds were not too hard to sleep on. Restrooms were adequate, but with no Western toilets.
On the 5-day Ganden Monastery to Samye Monastery trek east of Lhasa, our Tibetan guide, Pempa, was very good, as he spoke English and cared very much about our safety and how much we enjoyed the trip.
The same can be said about our drivers and trekking crew, as they wanted us to have a good time and learn about Tibetan culture. The food prepared by the camp cook and kitchen helper was surprisingly good and more than enough!
Along the trek, we were invited into a nomad tent for delicious butter tea and ate fresh yogurt from a tent at another location!
The trek took us over two passes that had elevations of 17,300', not real easy to cross for this 69-year-old, but manageable if I took my time and walked slow. I couldn't have done it without my trekking poles! I am glad we took 5 days instead of 4 to do the trek, 9-10 miles per day is more enjoyable than 12-13 miles!
The evenings occasionally dipped below freezing with snowflakes at times, and the wind chill factor drove us into our tents early to stay warm on one occasion. Mornings are cold and calm. We normally had breakfast at 8:30 AM and started trekking between 9-9:30 AM. The alpine scenery and meadow streams were quite beautiful, with lots of wild flowers and grazing yak herds.The atmosphere at camp and at stops along the way was very relaxing and conducive to mind wandering.
I had read earlier that this trek was the most popular in Tibet, but we did not encounter any other trekking groups during out 5 days on the trail, so we had it pretty much to ourselves and an occasional yak herder or two. I heard that tourism was down due to the earthquake in Nepal and the shutdown of the Lhasa to Kathmandu highway at the border.
This was my second trip to Tibet, as I went in 2013 to Lhasa and western Tibet (Mt. Kailash and Everest Base Camp) and had a similar experience with Pempa as our guide. Although the Mt. Kailash kora was only only three days in length, the pass with higher at 18,700 feet with sleet coming down on us along the way. However, the views of Mt. Kailash were spectacular! We had to cross a slippery snowfield on the other side of the pass and cross some streams without bridges. Be careful, as I tripped and fell into a small glacial stream once! There were many pilgrims from India going the same direction (clockwise) on that trek and Tibetan Bon people trekking counter-clockwise. All were very friendly. We stayed overnight at a monastery on the way up and a guest tent on the way down.
I highly recommend both trips for people who are willing to get in shape beforehand, acclimatize gradually, and don't mind roughing it, for the rewards are worth it in the end!