Star Date: August 2006
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
'Kay-rang jelnay gapo jung' !
(Nice to meet you - Tibetan)
"These snow mountains are the
navel of the world, a place where snow lions dance.
After Milarepa (1040-1123), Encounter with Rechungma)
Everywhere from Lhasa is up. Up towards the heavens!
Most of Tibet consists of an immense plateau with an altitude of 4000-5000 meters(12,000 to 15,000 ft.), fortified by the mighty Himalayas. Passes reach over 18,000 ft and the world's highest mountain, Mt. Everest, commands respect at 29,035 ft.. Passes lined with prayer flags, 'jingfan' and hand carved 'mani' stones, or 'manidui' guide you along your route and help ensure a safe journey. Only 2.7 million people live in Tibet, with almost 4 million Tibetans living in the surrounding provinces and countries.
What compels people to spend 18 days in a jeep on back jarring, dusty roads? Did I infer roads? Actually most of the time was spent going overland across the Tibetan Plateau and crossing rivers with water rushing up to the floorboards, where real roads and bridges may someday exist. The call of remote Western Tibet, with dramatic, surreal landscapes, wide eyed nomads and ancient kingdoms had beckoned us to explore the wonders hidden within.
Leaving Lhasa with our two new traveling companions, Nick & Chris, from Boston, we caught a glimpse of Yamdrak-tso Lake through the mist. Bridges were non existent and the southern route to Gyantse was more like 4 wheeling as we crawled through rivers, dodged dynamite rock blasting, and were finally blocked in for over 3 hours by a landslide. At least the views of the large emerald green lake far below soothed our minds as we questioned, "If this is the first day out of Lhasa - what have we gotten ourselves into?"
Adrenalin rushing through our veins and the thrill of the adventure spurring us on, we got up early the next morning to explore one of the remaining gems of Tibet. First ones to arrive at the Gyantse Kumbum, it was the magical hour as the initial warm rays filtered over the mountain and lit up the golden domes of the temple. Drumming from within the temple hardly disturbed the sleeping lumps of fur posing as dogs, while pilgrims started their morning 'koras' and prostrations. The dark interior chapels were lit by yak butter lamps. The flickering lights danced on ghoulish masks and paintings of grotesque demons; portraying our self created hell on earth. Using this fear and the accompanying superstitions as control, the monks rush in to protect the flock from harm. Stupa is as stupa does.
Side stepping these 'middlemen' I began my morning walking meditation. As I wound my way up the spiraling 4 floors of the Kumbum I passed chapels full of scowling, disapproving Buddhas and 'bad hair demons with PMS' torturing the throngs of humanity hooked into this belief system. Alone and lost in meditation I noticed as one walks higher the moods of the demons and buddhas improve until rounding the corner near the top (and heaven) I was drawn into a tiny dark chapel. There I was greeted by 3 smiling 'in the know' buddhas, childishly grinning from ear to ear. I smiled back and knew that this day, like any started in prayer or meditation (even 5 minutes) would be a great day. The views from the top of this 1427AD tantric stupa, built by Nepalese artisans for a Gyantse prince, were inspiring. The largest chorten in Tibet, the eyes of Buddha keep a watchful eye on all four directions, the surrounding walls and the 14th century Dzong or fort perched on the opposite hill.
This is the scene of the 1904 'invasion' by Younghusband's British troops (1000 troops plus 10,000 servants and 4000 yaks). The nerve of those guys! What is it with white imperialists anyways? Kind of like "what if someone gave a war - and no one showed up?" The Tibetans with arrows and finally rocks, were no match for the machine guns of the British army and over 700 were slaughtered in minutes. In proper stiff-lipped fashion they carefully buried their recent Tibetan victims and were implored the following day by families and survivors to allow the casualties to be dug up and given a proper sky burial. It is natural for different cultures to clash in ideas and beliefs. For instance the Tibetans believe that the color white represents purity while to the Han Chinese it represents death. Pushing their way on to Lhasa, an agreement was signed in 1906 ending the threat of Russian influence, and the 'invasion' was over. A final glance over the splendor of the Potala Palace and Lhasa, as he prepared to leave, left Younghusband questioning military ideals and the meaning of life in general. Changed by this spiritual awakening he was never the same. He immediately retired and wrote many inspiring books. Tibet had captured and changed another visiting soul; for it is almost impossible to visit here and remain unmoved.
We had lunch in the shade of the tree lined streets outside the Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse, home of the Panchen Lama and one of the best preserved monasteries in Tibet. Conflicts between the Red Hats and the Yellow Hats, government intervention, disputes over chosen Lamas and uncertain futures, all fade away as one wanders this Buddhist labyrinth. We tried in vain to venture on to the monastery in Sakya but road construction blocked our way. Traveling in Tibet will be a whole different experience as roads are paved from Lhasa outward. Already most of the road from Lhasa to Shigatse is paved. Progress moves on as it has worldwide. Red and white vertical stripes, representing the trinity in Buddhism (and danger in the construction zones), appeared on the buildings of the Sakya prefecture and nearby Latse.
From here we followed the "Friendship Highway" a well traveled, rutted gravel trail. It was mind boggling to follow the endless miles of construction and the making of one of China's newest feats - the Great Walls of China. Miles, and miles and miles of walls were being erected to contain the upcoming road improvements. Thousands of Chinese and Tibetan workers lived in the narrow roadways, in striped tarpaulin tents, complete with hundreds of smoked dried fish flapping in the breeze on the support ropes.
Further through the grasslands dramatic peaks rise up and grab the sky while nomads outside yak hair tents guarded their flocks. Yaks, like Christmas trees, were decorated with bells and prayer flags of all colors. Nomads love their yaks and their very existence depends on them. The tinkling bells are for protection and their chime is sweet music in the vast expanse of the valleys. The bells are antique and passed on from generation to generation. People are born and die, yaks live and die. When listening to this mesmerizing sound we are hearing the same sounds that their fathers heard and their grandfathers before them. The circle is complete.
Life amongst the nomads or in these
remote villages is uncomplicated, full of simple pleasures. Although
life is tough we were always greeted with train stopping smiles by
everyone who saw us. The tibetan staple diet is 'tsampa', roasted barley meal and 'bo cha'
strong tea, salt and yak butter. Often the two are eaten mixed
together into balls. Momos are dumplings filled with potatoes,
veggies or meat; and noodles of any shape are usually available in
little shops. One yak, the main stay of this high elevation diet is
slaughtered off the town square of a village
and everyone stops by for a hunk to throw in the pot. The stew is
then cooked over a dried yak dung fire, while sitting next to their
yak hair tent, wearing a woven yak hair 'chupa'. Without the yak,
survival in this harsh, desolate climate would be impossible.
With this fact in mind we stopped at a small market or shop every
collect fruits and vegetables for the daily meals. Our visit was
during the few months of good weather and it is easy to forget how
arduous life is for 8 months of the year. A Tibetan story no
doubt told around the smoky fires in the dead of winter: Two frogs
in a bowl of yak cream. One frog tries to jump out but finds
the cream too troublesome to handle, accepts his fate and dies.
The second frog never gives up. He jumps, splashes and tries to get
out. Through his jumping the cream churns into yak butter.
He is free of the cream and he can jump out. One must keep
trying. And so the Tibetans have kept going, and will keep
going. They are survivors and will persevere. The
mind boggling fact is that they do so with a smile on their face!
Our Tibetan driver, Tenzing, who felt at home in these wide open spaces, just went with the flow of life. Smiling, whistling, and practicing "Zen and the Art of Driving" he carefully maneuvered the rough terrain past thunderous wild yaks, swooping eagles, antelopes, owls, marmots, rock rabbits, wild horses, and a hilarious battle as a wild yak chased a fox through the scrub brush. We followed the snow capped peaks along the full northern border of Nepal, then India and ending up near the border of Ladaq and Kashmir. Hours of dusty, bumpy roads produced occasional tiny villages out of nowhere, voila! We stayed in one of our favorites, Par yang (4750 m - near 15,000 ft). Side streets are dodgy but the center of town has a small mani lhakhang, a chapel with a large prayer wheel. An eclectic collection of ancient Tibetan pilgrims, "jerkied" by the harsh climate, slowly circumambulate the chapel, chanting and spinning prayer wheels. I sat for a couple of hours observing the locals and kind of blended in against the wall. After making friends and taking photos of young girls and women, I then showed them how pretty they were in the LCD viewfinder. It opened the floodgates and everyone wanted their photos taken. A couple of the older women insisted on their photo with me. A lovely relaxing afternoon in this dusty wrinkle in time. We stayed in the Yen __ ?? Hotel, run by a friendly young Chinese man, happily married to a Tibetan wife. Mud walls of the rooms were newly covered with bolts of bright cloth and bedding was carefylly folded after the last occupants. The raised long drop toilet was cleaned regularly and the well in the center of the courtyard was a beehive of community activity. We were warmly welcomed back on our return trip, only to have the quiet shattered as we were invaded by a group of pilgrims from India. It raised the question in our minds - who would win the prize for volume of noise, the Chinese or Indians? Close race. Rather than get upset we decided if you can't beat them, join 'em. After visiting with Indians from Poona to London, we were invited by the cooks and guides to join them for dinner. Many cooking tips later we enjoyed a tasty dinner (finishing at 10pm) of fried potatoes, soup, Indian curry, dhal, rice and fry bread. Who would have thought? As we drove out of town a proud villager, grinning from ear to ear, drove by on his new cherry red tractor. Like someone in the west showing off his new Maserati, he was on top of the world, as the eyes of the village were upon him.
After navigating several treacherous river crossings and a sandy stretch of road with drifting sand traps, we arrived in Hor Qu. Our first view of stunning Mt. Gurla Mandata (7728m.) and iconic Mount Kailish, greeted us outside this sleepy village in the raw. Except for the scenic little stupa at the edge of town, most people rush right past and this was our good fortune. Not jaded by jeeps full of tourists snapping photos, life was slow and good. As we checked into our guesthouse Joseph came out wide eyed, exclaiming, "You have to go have a look in that dark little room, Quick!" Two absolutely ancient women, one with a shaved head and the other with only one eye, peered at us from the dark recesses of the tea house. Immediately one old character stuck her tongue out at me - just a quick demon check. I stuck my tongue back at her and smiled. Passing through an hour later, I stuck my tongue out at her and she smiled back. Later that evening, after cooking a great dinner in their pressure cooker (meals take longer to cook up at this elevation), she offered to sell the miniature, well used silver knife hanging from her 'chupa'. She said through the helper lady that she wanted to sell it to me because I was her new friend. The price was set at 20Y and she grinned from ear to ear when the deal was completed, possibly because she had also earned money for the family that day. We strolled through town and explored the many chupa shops, hardware stores, and even the dried dung depot, before watching the sun set on Mt. Gurla Mandata.
Hindu epics describe Mt. Meru, "84,000 leagues, it's summit kissing the heavens and it's four flanks composed of gold, crystal, ruby, and lapiz lazuli." Four great rivers of the Indian subcontinent originate here. The year round snow capped peak of Mt. Kailish (6714m) is circumambulated by followers of the Buddhist and Bon religions of Tibet, the Hindu and Jain of India, and worldwide followers of the Lonely Planet cult. Not feeling the need to push our luck, by hiking over the pass at this high altitude, we spent the next 3 days exploring the area surrounding Darchen, an impromptu town thrown together to service the needs of the pilgrims doing the Mt. Kailish kora. We visited the Institute of Tibetan Medicine, roamed the streets and hillside, Joseph made friends with a chained dog and bettered his life (last we heard he was doing great) and made friends with local women up the hill who were making and selling Tibetan jewelry. One young woman was commenting that her legs were sore; she had done the Mt. Kailish kora, that usually takes 3-4 days, all in one day and was back home working in her shop at 7pm! Now that's tough.
Striking out on the road to Ali, a sudden turn up towards the mountains started an enchanting journey. Winding 80 km back down through eroded gulleys, with a rim of snow peaks, rock cairns pointed to the Sutlej Valley. Zanda or Tsanda is where you are finally thrown out and dusted off. As we slowly drove down the wide avenue a band of 100 school children and 50 military soldiers lined the street. "You shouldn't have!" (Actually they were practicing for visiting dignitaries arriving the next day to discuss plans for an airport.) A local military base supports at least 10 pink light "hair salons" (brothels), 4 booming, hilarious "night clubs", 5 grubby overpriced hotels, and several roadside cafes. There is only one reason to come all the way out here....... the spectacular natural beauty of the Guge Kingdom and surrounds.
Established in the 9th century by the son of an assassinated anti-Buddhist King in Lhasa, this remote kingdom, through its contact with India, actually ended up leading a Buddhist revival on the Tibetan Plateau. In its heyday it was a major stopping point on the trade route between India and Tibet. Open to new ideas, as with areas on the Silk Road, the king's progressive actions in the end led to the demise of the kingdom. During the 16th century Jesuit missionaries from Goa, in India, looking for this "Legendary Kingdom of the Far East", were met with tolerance and even allowed to set up a mission in 1625. The evangelical fervor of the Jesuits upset the local Buddhist lamas who enlisted the help of the neighboring Ladakhi army. It only took one month to overthrow the city. Made from dust (sandstone) and unto dust it shall return. The elements quickly consumed this once powerful kingdom and the myth of its existence wasn't confirmed until 1908.
Impressive, awe inspiring, surreal! How does one describe these remarkable ruins? The Guge Kingdom, Tsaparang, blends into the surrounding dreamlike landscape of Badlands-type canyons, broad rivers, all painted with a backdrop of snow capped peaks. The monastery at the bottom has several chapels with 15th century paintings depicting the elaborate life of the Guge Kingdom. Colorful murals, painted by Kashmiri artists, portray the joyful celebration commemorating the completion of the monastery. Visiting Kasmiris in turbans, lavishly adorned royal family members led by the King and Queen, and rows of gift bearing visitors and monks marked the procession. As we climbed past the former caves where the monks lived and up through the short tunnel and endless stairs to the top of the mountain, we came out at the Summer Palace, which afforded 360 degree views of the surrounding valleys and mountains. Sitting at the pinnacle, in the shade of the fluttering prayer flags, we surveyed our kingdom. Closing our eyes we drifted back in time...................
Once rested from the climb up we began exploring the nooks and crannies of the ruins. We happened on the tunnel leading down to the Winter Palace (near the Mandala). This dangerous, vertical 90 ft stairway, carved straight down through solid rock, is not a place to explore if you are claustrophobic or afraid of heights. Like a large termite mound in Africa or Australia, tunnels were dug and rooms built 12 meters underground for warmth. Large windows opened onto a cliff face and secret stairs and passageways provided for emergency water and escape during sieges. Maybe the Kingdom lives on, further down the mountain???
At 4560m., Lake Manasarovar or Mapham Yum-tso (Victorious Lake) is the holiest Lake in Tibet and Hindu pilgrims have been circumambulating it for over 1200 years; as recorded in Sanskrit Thal Puranas. Hindus both bath and walk around the lake. Tibetans, who aren't sold on the idea of bathing, simply walk around it, while we westerners, gladly jump in to get rid of the ever present dust (and a few sins). Hindu poet, Kalidasa wrote: "The sapphire waters of Lake Manasarovar are like pearls and to drink of them erases the sins of a hundred lifetimes." We drank of this holy water but only after it was thoroughly boiled by the pleasant owners of the lakefront guesthouse just below Chui Monastery. As there was no bathroom except for the wide open spaces,( as is often the case with basic Tibetan establishments) we preferred to simply cleanse our sin slate rather than flush out our intestinal system. We spent a relaxing evening eating and walking with Joseph, from Roma, Italy, who had taken a bus from Kashgar to Ali, then was hitchhiking to Lhasa. Because it was so remote he said he was at the mercy of the prices demanded by the truck drivers. He thought that possibly hiring a land cruiser for $22 a day/person, was cheaper than his recent bouts with extortion.
Cutting a trail from Saga, across the grasslands down to Tingri, we spent a delightful day amongst the nomads and their yaks. Inquisitive by nature these timid souls would stare in amazement at possibly their first westerner. Better than candy or cigarettes, each curious onlooker would get a handful of peanuts in the shell and happily start gnawing at their tasty prize. A group of colorfully dressed women invited us to watch them card, spin and weave, on a large loom, strips of yak hair cloth to be sewn into tents. Everywhere along the way long "braids" of goats (up to 100 at a time) were lined up and milked. You just never knew what would appear. Breathtaking scenery stood in every direction. We wondered how often they stopped, in the voiceless wind, to appreciate their surroundings? Silence being their constant companion, it is easy to see why, when they make it to Lhasa for a pilgrimage, they are bubbling over with excitement.
And so it goes.............................................Next Mt. Everest and down from the Tibetan Plateau. After an incredible 14 months in China and Tibet we head south to Laos. Until then Keep Smiling and take time to notice the amazing people and places around you. Take Care and Keep in Touch.
Love, xoxoox Nancy & Joseph
$1.00US = 8 Yuan
1 meter = 39.37 inches
Check with Sonam at the FIT office across from the Snowlands Hotel in Lhasa. Honest & good prices without the unnecessary expense of a guide. Great driver : Tenzing (We paid 13,000Y for 18 days). firstname.lastname@example.org
Take snacks and basic supplies. All guesthouses provide thermoses of boiled water. Just grab a couple upon arrival and let them cool off for your water bottle the next day. Take a full set of sheets to put over those provided in the room (usually used by several guests in succession) This and a little tea tree oil behind each ear before retiring, helps keep the sociable bugs at bay.
Gyantse: If the cheaper rooms are full at the Jian Zang
Hotel (where the drivers all stop)
walk down the street, left side, to the Tashi Sheng Di Hotel (Tashi
Internet: use : anonymouse.com, etc. ( Google search: proxy server) to gain access around government blocked sites, such as yahoo or hotmail in some countries.
For interesting reading download from Gutenberg Project (do a Google search):
Among the Tibetans - Isabella L. Bird (Mrs. Bishop) The fascinating tales of a solo European woman traveling to the far reaches of the globe in the 1870's. She also wrote Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (about Hawaii) and more.
Quotes from the book describing the
India-Tibet trade routes in the 1870's:
On altitude sickness: "This 'mountain-sickness,' called by the natives ladug, or 'pass-poison,' is supposed by them to be the result of the odour or pollen of certain plants which grow on the passes. Horses and mules are unable to carry their loads, and men suffer from vertigo, vomiting, violent headache and bleeding from the nose, mouth, and ears, as well as prostration of strength, sometimes complete, and occasionally ending fatally."
In describing the Tibetan
yak: "This magnificent animal,
gigantic, with his thick curved horns, his wild eyes glaring from
under a mass of curls, his long thick hair hanging to his fetlocks,
and his huge bushy tail. He is usually black or tawny, but the tail
is often white, and is the length of his long hair. The nose is fine
and has a look of breeding as well as power. He only flourishes at
altitudes exceeding 12,000 feet. Even after generations of
semi-domestication he is very wild, and can only be managed by being
led with a rope attached to a ring in the nostrils. He disdains the
plough, but condescends to carry burdens, and numbers of the Ladak
and Nubra people get their living by carrying goods for the traders
on his broad back over the great passes. His legs are very short,
and he has a sensible way of measuring distance with his eyes and
planting his feet, which enables him to carry loads where it might
be supposed that only a goat could climb. He picks up a living
anyhow, in that respect resembling the camel. He is like a mountain