Note: The main focus of this blog is my thirteen months in Bangladesh. I am moving posts relating to travel (outside Bangladesh) to the end of the blog.
While I had long dreamt of travelling to the Himalayan region, getting to Tibet in particular was right up there at the top of my travel bucket-list. In the early 1990s I visited a wonderful exhibition, The Sacred Art of Tibet, in the Royal Academy of Arts in London. I had just returned from an extended period of backpacking through Asia, where Tibet had an almost mythical status amongst fellow travellers. People whispered reverentially and mysteriously about a mystical, harmonious spirituality flourishing in a forbidden land, despite harsh repression. Tibet’s reputation as a travel destination was as elevated as the adages used to describe it as ‘the roof of the world’ and the ‘lost Shangri-La’. And while in time, I recognised much of the biased interpretation and mythology for what it was, a tiny part of my imagination failed to let go of the ‘idea’ of Tibet.
From the proximity of Bangladesh, the opportunity to visit presented. Unfortunately, I discovered that it is not possible to travel in Tibet without being part of an official tour group, my least favourite way of travelling. Furthermore, the travel agency advised that the authorities could close the borders unexpectedly to foreigners anytime and at short notice. Despite these drawbacks, I decided to go ahead and book an overland trip from Kathmandu.
Tibet in brief
Tibet, today, is an autonomous region, demarcated in 1965 and governed by China. Many Tibetans regard Tibet’s government in exile in northern India, headed by the exiled Nobel laureate, the Dalai Lama, as their rightful government. They consider the territory, people and culture of ‘Tibet’ (in their eyes more than twice the size of the Chinese-defined autonomous region) to be occupied by China. China, in turn, says that its sovereignty over Tibet goes back for centuries, and they maintain that they in fact relieved Tibetans from an intolerable regime of feudal serfdom. They regard the Dalai Lama and the ‘government in exile’ as a separatist threat: the Tibet issue is a sensitive one in China. For a succinct overview of current and past events see the BBC profile. It includes a timeline of key events together with some interesting articles.
Present day Tibet occupies part of the remote Tibetan Plateau, the world’s highest region with an average elevation exceeding 14,800ft (4,500m). Tibet has some of the world’s tallest mountains and is a good place from which to view Mount Everest, the highest mountain on earth at 29,029ft (8,848m), located on the border with Nepal. Several major rivers have their source in the Tibetan Plateau including my old friends from Bangladesh – the Ganges (rising in the west on the Tibet/India border) and the Brahmaputra (rising in east Tibet). Almost two billion people in Asia live downstream in the watershed areas of rivers that rise in this plateau.
Tibet is 14.5 times larger than Ireland at 474,300 sq. miles. It is 8.5 times bigger than Bangladesh but has 157 million fewer people. The harsh, arid environment of the plateau in the windy, rain shadow of the Himalaya makes for inhospitable terrain. The population of Tibet is 3 million (Chinese census 2010), which means that it is amongst the least densely populated regions in the world (6 people per sq. ml.). Roughly 90% of the population are ethnic Tibetans: the remainder are mostly Han Chinese, with smaller percentages from a range of diverse ethnic groups. [Note: There are said to be a further 3 million Tibetans living in disputed ethno-cultural Tibetan areas (i.e. outside the official ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’, e.g. in Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. Furthermore, many Tibetans claim that the official numbers of Han Chinese are deliberately under-enumerated in the census figures.] Predominantly Buddhist, Tibetans’ deep faith and devotion is reflected in their richly religious architecture, art and culture.
Tibetan farmers and nomads (drokba) mostly raise livestock such as yaks, horses, goats and sheep. There is little arable land and the farming landscape is becoming increasingly inhospitable. In recent times, Chinese economic reforms have resulted in growth in the tertiary sector and it now contributes 50% to Tibetan GDP, reducing the historical role of agriculture to less than 50%. Tourism is an important source of revenue. With regard to the UN HDI (see post 30 for explanation) Tibet is in the ‘medium development group’. [Both Nepal and Bangladesh are in the ‘low development group’.]
The fragile environment of the Tibetan Plateau is particularly vulnerable to climate change. There are reports that desertification is increasing and that many lakes have dried up in the last ten years. Climate change has led to glaciers shrinking at alarming rates. Glacial ice holds the largest reservoir of fresh water on earth. Apart from the North and South Poles, Tibets’s glaciers are the principal source of frozen water on our planet. (Tibet is sometimes referred to as the ‘Third Pole’.) The glaciers of Tibet are extremely important therefore – especially for Asia. They supply the great rivers that rise in the region, that in turn provide two billion people downstream with essential water supplies. If you would like to learn more about global warming and glacial retreat in the Tibetan Plateau, you could watch these two short film clips: On Thinner Ice and The Melt. The Plateau also plays a role in the annual monsoons in Asia (see post 27), though the extent of that role is not certain.
Tales from Tibet: a road trip to Lhasa
I followed the well-worn overland route from Kathmandu in Nepal to Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet. The first phase was a 90-mile journey on the Araniko Highway from Kathmandu to the Friendship Bridge in Kodari on the border. From there to Lhasa we took the 500-mile Friendship Highway, also known as the China-Nepal Highway, or the China National Highway 318.
[A note re heights and distances: I have found a lot of conflicting information with regard to heights of towns and passes along the route. Generally, the difference between the contradictory sources is no more than 164ft (50m) or so. I have also found inconsistency for distance measurements between places.]
Kathmandu, Nepal, 1400m (4,600ft) to Nyalam (or Tsongdu), Tibet 3750m (12,303ft)
The journey north-east from Kathmandu on the Araniko Highway was stunning. The road winds its way up through beautiful, lush, green Nepalese countryside, punctuated by villages picturesquely located against the backdrop of mountains, valleys, rivers, and waterfalls. Between green, terraced slopes there are small, non-mechanised family farms. Higher up, the mountains are covered in forest and steep gorges drop dramatically to rivers below. After passing through Bhaktapur and Benepa, we stopped in Dhulikhel at a mountain resort, the Hotel Ravine Sunshine, for breakfast. A long table had been prepared on a balcony with spectacular views over the valley. It was an opportunity too to meet fellow travellers: there are around twenty-five of us in all and each of the five continents is represented. Our guide warned us that we should discard any pro-Tibet literature (including Lonely Planet guides that had a foreword by the Dalai Lama). Seemingly, possession of any such material could be considered a political crime once we cross the border.
I would love to have had time to explore some of the towns on the route. Dolalaghat, for example stands out, dramatically located at the confluence of the Sun Kosi and Irawati Rivers. From here we started climbing through the deep, forested gorge of the Sun Kosi River, a route we would be following for the rest of the day. The gorge continues up to the Tibetan Plateau, the trans-boundary Sun Kosi River becoming the Matsang Tsangpo River on the Tibetan side of the border. This road through the gorge (in both Nepal and Tibet) has claimed many lives, especially in the wet season when it is prone to landslides and rock falls. We stopped briefly in the pretty locale of Shidhupalchowk.
Buses were backed up in Kodari, the small, chaotic, confusing town at the Nepalese side of the Friendship Bridge, which marks the border. We had to leave our bus here and go through some official procedures before walking across the bridge. Trade is brisk with many crossing over and back carrying heavy loads of goods. The Friendship Bridge, built across this spectacular gorge by the Chinese in 1985, is anything but friendly. We were met by gun-toting, unsmiling, Chinese soldiers in green khaki uniforms shouting at us to put our cameras away. Welcome to China ‘friend’!
At the other side of the bridge, after being sprayed by disease-ridding mist and crawling through customs, our group boarded a convoy of waiting jeeps. I am sharing with Yuki from Japan, Elizabeth from Austria, Gary from Canada and Paula from Portugal. Our driver is Tibetan: unfortunately he doesn’t speak any English. We proceeded slowly along the Friendship Highway to the frontier town of Zhangmu, six miles away. There were more official procedures to be followed here which our guide took care of while we had lunch in the oddly named Base Camp Western Food and Coffee Bar. It was cosy and dark inside with lots of carved and colourfully decorated wood detail. Many of us discovered over lunch that we had different itineraries for this trip, and some heated exchanges with our guide ensued. Outside, the street was chock-a-block with traffic. The town is built vertically, rising with the mountain along a series of hairpin bends. As I walked around, I felt completely lost amongst the Chinese characters in the signs above the small, dark shops, all of which had flickering TVs. In a quiet side-street, a column of formidable-looking Chinese soldiers rounded a corner briskly, taking me by surprise. I dropped my map in fright.
Unfortunately, we delayed here for much too long, apparently because of ‘problems with papers’, according to our frazzled guide. The streets of Zhangmu were quiet by the time we left. North of the town, we climbed continuously and steeply through the forested gorge through which the river rushes down from the plateau above. After negotiating a series of fantastic hairpin bends, we arrived on a road that was literally cut into the mountain. It was as if we were on a ledge: to our left was a sheer, steep, drop down to the river far below, and to our right a vertical cliff-face from which waterfalls cascaded on to the road in places. The views back towards Nepal were spectacular. As dusk approached, the gorge was veiled in haze and I felt as though I was travelling through a beautiful and ancient Chinese painting. Unfortunately, because of the delays in Zhangmu, the last part of this stunning journey was in darkness. From here the road disimproved alarmingly and visibility was hampered by mist and fog. Suddenly, we were on an unpaved, wet, mucky, rock-strewn, twisting track. At one stage, we all disembarked to try to push our vehicle out of a rut. I felt slightly light-headed, acutely aware of the steep, invisible drop just inches from my left foot. Temperatures were considerably lower now than those of the warm, fertile valleys we had driven through that morning.
Finally, after a slow 22 miles we reached the edge of the Tibetan Plateau and the town of Nyalam, 4757ft (1450m) higher, once known as the Gate of Hell by Nepalese traders, because the old trail descending from here to the border was so treacherous to negotiate. I found it to be a rather grim, grey, cold town. Our ‘hotel’ – the Nga Dhon Hotel – was basic: no reception, no heating, and no hot water. At the top of bare stone stairs, leading directly from the street, there were dormitory-style rooms. A cold, communal wash-room had an L-shaped stainless steel sink, with taps at intervals, running along two walls. There was a ewer and basin on standby. Off the washroom, there were two cubicles with smelly, squat toilets and dodgy doors that didn’t close properly.
A group of us decided to walk around town in search of tea. The streets were deserted but we eventually found a place hidden upstairs behind a series of doors. It had an air of declining decadence: lovely inlaid circular tables in cosy booths covered in faded fabric. There was a lot of carved wood detail and the atmosphere was filled with smoke. It was like a set from a Chinese film. (We learnt later that it may be a brothel.) I found it difficult to breathe through all the smoke and returned to the ‘hotel’, where I joined a gathering in the men’s dormitory and met more of my fellow travellers.
Nyalam (or Tsongdu), 3750m (12,303ft) to Lhatse (or Chusur), 4050m (13,287ft)
On the second day I woke early, having slept badly and fitfully because of the cold and because of a snoring roommate. My spirits lifted though when I saw the stunning views from the washroom: white-topped, stony, grey peaks against a brilliant, blue sky. On the previous evening, the last part of our journey was in darkness and so this was my first glimpse of snow-clad mountains.
Outside, Nyalam looked cold and gloomy in the shadow of the mountains. There were women in masks and bright orange fluorescent overalls sweeping the streets with brooms made of tree twigs. A man and woman guided a herd of cows through the town. I tried my greeting: ‘Tashi delek’ (Good fortune!) and was rewarded with warm, friendly smiles and unintelligible responses.
After breakfast we continued our uphill road journey. This beautiful, bleak plateau has a cold and icy beauty under the bluest skies I have ever seen. The landscape is strange, vast and empty with stunning views of the towering peaks of the world’s highest mountains, snow-covered and brilliant white. The long, undulating hills and the stone-strewn plains of rock, shale and clay are shaded brown and grey with subtle hues of green, blue and purple. Just one day previously I had been in warm, lush Nepalese countryside, all the time wedged between mountains. The stark contrast with today’s wide, open, barren and deserted landscape was almost too much to assimilate. I had been in sublime mountain scenery before, e.g. the Alps in Europe, the Canadian Rockies, and more recently the Annapurna section of the Himalayas in Nepal, but there is something altogether otherworldly, a kind of existential solitude, to driving along this hushed, desolate section of the Tibetan Plateau in the shadow of the high Himalaya. In many respects these bleak high altitude plains offer an experience more akin to a desert encounter than a mountain one.
We continued to climb until, at the incredible altitude of 16,811ft (5124m), we reached the Himalayan mountain pass called Lalung La. (‘La’ means ‘pass’.) These passes are considered sacred by the Tibetans because of their proximity to the gods. Consequently, they are decked out in a multitude of colourful prayer flags and scattered prayer cairns. Overhead, I caught sight of a soaring bird of prey. It looked like a griffon vulture and seemed to be hovering expectantly. Drifting over such a barren landscape, high in the lap of the gods, it prompted me to think of sky (or air) burial, one of the ways that Tibetans return their dead to the earth, together with cremation and water burial. Pickings would be slim for this bird from our group (thankfully!), though at these heights, many of my travelling companions were feeling the effects of altitude. I felt groggy and mildly nauseous and every step I took felt like 50. The air seemed thin and insufficient. However, it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm or take away from the breathtaking (literally) views. (In a perverse way, it was interesting too to experience altitude sickness.)
At the other side of the pass, the magic spell was broken when a cluster of traditional Tibetan houses appeared, huddled improbably against a hillside on this barren plateau. Dispelling the emptiness, a group of friendly locals came out to greet us, many requesting baksheesh. The distinctive, white, square, stone houses, with colourful window detail and Buddhist symbols, represent part of the canon of Tibet’s interesting vernacular architecture. Near a lone house on a hill I found a prayer pole surrounded by a heap of stones and animal horns. All of the stones had religious etchings. Later, examining my photographs, I recognised the mani mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, engraved in Tibetan script on some of the stones. Tibetan Buddhists believe that saying or viewing the mantra (prayer) invokes the powerful benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion. Pieces of paper containing the written mantra are inserted into prayer wheels too and this is said to magnify the mantra’s positive effects. I had heard this mantra being sung in Boudhanath in Nepal. From what I have been reading it would seem that compassion plays a central role in the practice of Buddhism.
The people we met today, wearing many layers of clothing and their black hair in long braids, looked very different to any people I had seen before. Their severely weathered skin bears testament to the extreme physical conditions of this arid, windy plateau. Though it feels cold, there is intense, glaring sunlight and ultraviolet radiation. My face already felt sunburnt and sensitive despite the sun-protection I was wearing, which was obviously inadequate for these conditions. Even the little children’s faces were red and rough from the sun and their noses seemed to run continuously. Because of the shortage of water for washing, the dust from the wind becomes ingrained in their skin. Unfortunately, the language barrier meant that communication was not possible. I found myself wondering how they survive at this altitude in such a harsh environment and particularly with such low levels of oxygen. (I have since discovered some interesting research on that issue.)
From here on, we saw small herds of long-haired, mostly black yaks grazing on sparse tufts of brown-green vegetation springing here and there from the stony ground. There were horses and donkeys too in some of the villages along the route. We didn’t see any nomads’ tents on this trip: I suspect they travel in areas further from the Araniko Highway. Just before Tingri we got good views of the scintillating snow peaks of the Himalayas, including Mt. Everest (29,029ft, or 8848m) and Lhotse (28,136ft, or 8576m), though to be honest, I found it difficult to distinguish between the different mountains. Apart from the very top, Everest is not one single, symmetrical shape like Machhapuchhre, for example, which was easily recognisable in the Annapurnas in Nepal (see post 59). The outline of Everest is composed of a series of huge blocks. At the village of Guore we passed the turnoff for Everest Base Camp. I would like to have visited, but our itinerary was inflexible. Gary and I requested a stop to take photographs of the signpost, the closest we would get to Mount Everest on this trip.
In ancient Tibetan mythology it was believed that gods resided in the country’s many high mountains. In an article on the subject, Xie Jisheng writes about the mountain goddesses associated with the Everest region. These were the five sisters of longevity who resided in the peak of Everest, or Qomolangma as it is known in Tibet. The greatest of these was Bkra-shis-tshe-ring-ma, a goddess of renowned beauty, often depicted riding a white lion through ice and snow. (You can see a depiction below.) Seeing these incredible snow-capped peaks on my horizon today I can understand how people might have believed that gods lived there.
Before arrival at Lhatse, our second day’s destination, we had one final jaw-dropping stop at Gyatso La (Pass) (17,218ft, or 5248m), the highest point on the Friendship Highway and the highest place I’ve ever stood on earth. I was now 3.3 miles up in the air, my head in the clouds! Before this trip I’d never been higher than 9,800ft, or 3000m: I stood at 9744ft (2970m) on top of the Shilthorn Mountain in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. This was quite a step up and completely exhilarating. As we departed, a sign told us that we were now leaving Qomolangma National Nature Preserve.
In Lhatse, a linear town spread along the highway, we stayed at the quaint Lhatse Tibetan Farmers’ Hotel. The main door opened into the restaurant, the heart of the hotel in a cosy, low, woody room with painted beams. At the back there was a courtyard with basic rooms in dormitory style with bare, concrete floors. A barrel of rainwater stood in the courtyard for our ablutions in the absence of any plumbing. The ‘toilets’ – holes through which heaped previous deposits were visible and smellable – were the worst example of the infamous Chinese pit toilets that I have ever seen. Because of the shortage of water, it was not possible to ‘flush’. Michael Palin stayed at this very hotel during his travels in the Himalayas and in his documentary describes the toilets accurately as ‘foul’ and ‘almost subhuman’.
It’s hard enough to aim through a hole reduced to a slit by the calcified accretions of many previous visitors, without at the same time having to flash a torch to warn other guests and extract thin sheets of Boots travel tissue in a freezing, force 8 gale. Many years ago, encountering similarly appalling conditions …… I took Imodium to prevent me having to go to the toilet ever again. As I squat in this howling tempest three miles up in the sky, I think cyanide might be the better option.
While I can empathise with Palin, my level of despair was ameliorated by my memories of the day, the warmth of the hotel staff and an impromptu party, not far from the aforementioned toilets as it turned out. A lovely woman in the kitchen made me hot chocolate after I missed dinner with the group. I had joined them at a restaurant on Lhatse’s main street but had to leave because I felt nauseous: I was still suffering the effects of altitude. Graham (Australia) very kindly walked me back to the hotel. A few from our group were so sick that they had to be driven down to lower altitudes. As the night wore on, I began to feel a little better and chatted comfortably with Pernille (Denmark), Ryan (US) and Iñigo (Spain) in the cosy warmth of the restaurant.
Later, in a draughty, concrete-floored room in the courtyard, lit by a lone, naked light bulb, a few of us joined locals, some sitting on the floor against the walls of the room, others on chairs, drinking what looked like beer. Most of the men wore dark clothes and Tibetan Stetsons. There were only three women, dressed in traditional clothing and serving beverages from a tin kettle. They joined in the singing and dancing. All were very friendly and offered us drinks. I felt bad about refusing their hospitality but I couldn’t face alcohol at this altitude. Luckily, Ryan and Iñigo represented our group admirably and held their own in the drinking rituals, much to the delight of our hosts. It was surreal sitting there in that room: I felt as though I was in a documentary. It was a privilege to have been invited to participate.
Lhatse, 4050m (13,287ft) to Shigatse, 3900m (12,795ft)
My second night in Tibet was another uncomfortable one with only brief snatches of sleep despite tiredness: it was a very cold night and I couldn’t warm-up. Being based in Bangladesh, it has been a long time since I have experienced cold weather like this. I was glad when morning arrived. We started our day with a climb through magnificent terrain, similar to that of the previous day, until we reached Tropu La (Pass) (16,240ft, or 4950m), where we had a brief stop. As we descended from this pass there was a visible change in vegetation. At first, low bushes began to appear and then we saw our first trees in Tibet.
As we approached the town of Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest town, situated close to the confluence of the Nyang Chu and Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) rivers, we could see the impressive dzong high on a hilltop overlooking the town, dominating the skyline. The original fort, once the abode of the kings who ruled this Tsang Province, was destroyed in 1961 during the Cultural Revolution and the present structure is a similar, though smaller, restoration completed in 2007.
Shigatse is divided between a tiny old Tibetan town huddled at the foot of the fort, and a rapidly expanding modern Chinese town that has seen a huge influx of capital and Han settlers in recent years. One of the principal reasons for visiting Shigatse is the magnificent Tashilhunpo Monastery, founded in 1447 and the seat of the sizeable Panchen Lama sect, Tibetan Buddhism’s second leading religious group, after that of the Dalai Lama. (‘Panchen’ means ‘great scholar’.) Apparently, Tashilhunpo is more closely affiliated with the Chinese government than other monasteries are, though I don’t know what this means in practice.
This was my first, and consequently most memorable, visit to a monastery in Tibet. By this time too our guide had been replaced by her boyfriend, the much more affable Tenzin Gyurmay, who accompanied us to the monastery. (I hadn’t exchanged one word with the previous guide.) With an area of approximately 17 acres (70,000m2), Tashilhunpo is like a small walled village, with narrow, winding, cobbled lanes linking the beautiful traditional buildings. There is the Panchen Lama’s palace, a college, great halls, galleries, courtyards and roof chapels.
Despite Tenzin’s lengthy explanations, I can’t profess to understand the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism. I do know that Buddhism is over 2500 years old and has survived the Chinese Communist attempt to destroy it. This monastery is one of the few that survived relatively unscathed. I found it entirely intoxicating wandering through the darkened, decorated, wood interiors of the monastery, amidst the hypnotic mix of sounds and sights and the aromatic smell of incense. I mingled with devout, prayer-murmuring pilgrims in dark clothes as they lit yak-butter lamps and burned sticks of juniper at shrines in offering to their gods, all the time spinning prayer-wheels and thumbing wooden beads. Many pilgrims were throwing small denomination notes at statues: indeed some of the statues were almost buried in money. Others were making offerings of white silk scarves to their preferred deities. There were silk and brocade tapestries hanging on walls portraying often gothic-looking images of gods and enlightened beings. Gigantic golden statues of Buddhas and other deities dwarfed smaller ones. Some Buddhas sat in the lotus position with the hand in the classical position of the teacher, palm facing outward, first finger and thumb in a circle. There were bejewelled statues of Green Tara and White Tara, two of the female companions of the Goddess of Compassion. The blue, four-headed, twelve-armed fierce protector Samvara looked formidable. Wall paintings displayed thrilling folkloric depictions of gods in erotic embraces with consorts; others showed scowling deities wearing crowns of skulls. A myriad of varied Buddhas vied for space with mandalas and other geometric patterns. There were tigers and birds and other animals emerging from lush, dense vegetation amid exotic, colourful flowers. I came across scene upon scene that must make for fantastic and extraordinary mythical tales and teachings. (My photographs of the interior (see below) aren’t great: it was very dark, but you can view some great photographs here.)
I was of course unfamiliar with the complex religious iconography in most of what I saw and it would have been very difficult for Tenzin to explain all the symbolic references that are taken for granted in Buddhism by its practitioners (as there are in every religion). I recognise a few more now than I did before e.g. the Wheel of Life, a reminder of the uncertainty of the cycles of existence, and the use of mandalas in meditation. Though it was frustrating not to understand the symbolism, I enjoyed the experience on so many other levels – aesthetic, cultural and social. Of course there were aspects that made me uncomfortable too in the same way that I am uncomfortable with all religion. Here, the poverty of the general pilgrim stood in stark contrast to the wealth of the religious establishment. Yet, pilgrims felt compelled (through superstition or conditioning) to ‘donate’ what little money they had – material wealth apparently equated with religious fervour.
Of the many buildings in Tashilhunpo, some of which house the tombs of past Panchen Lamas, one of the most astonishing is the Chapel of Jampa (Maitreya), the Future Buddha. It houses an 85ft (26m) high statue of Jampa, said to be the world’s largest gilded statue. According to the Lonely Planet guide it was built in 1914 and took over 900 artisans and labourers four years to complete. To give you an idea of its size, each of Jampa’s fingers is 3 feet long. There are beautiful murals in this chapel too e.g. one wall contains thousands of little seated golden Buddhas against a red background.
In the courtyard of one of the buildings there was a group of women on a flat roof engaged in what looked like a song and dance performance. Tenzin explained that they were in fact builders doing some restoration work. I had seen something like this in Bangladesh. While singing and stomping, they were rhythmically thumping the ground, pounding the clay into place with what looked like sweeping brushes, but were in fact long bamboo sticks with stone pads attached to the base.
Outside, it was a joy to wander along the narrow cobbled lanes between buildings, some white-washed, others in shades of ochre, brown and orange. I was amongst monks in wine-coloured robes and reverential pilgrims, many of whom had travelled long distances to visit this holy place. All of the buildings had ornate and colourfully decorated, carved wood detail around balconies, doors and windows. Some had tiered, gilded roofs. A large 113ft (40m) high thangka wall overlooks the monastery. (A thangka is a religious image – painted or embroidered – mounted on fabric. Over the mounted image there is usually a layer of silk which acts as a cover. When not hung, it can be rolled up as a scroll. Thangkas depict subjects as diverse as the lives of Buddhas, Tibetan theology and astrology, and mandalas or geometric representations of the cosmos.) The huge Tashilhunpo thangka is only displayed on special festival occasions.
The sumptuously rich colours of the monastery – both inside and out – were extraordinarily vivid against the backdrop of the more muted tones of the surrounding terrain. The intensity of my first monastery experience was equally as breathtaking and otherworldly as the very different and exhilarating beauty of the plateau.
Outside the monastery walls, pilgrims perform a kora (pilgrimage) along a 3km sacred path (lingkor) around the complex. The lingkor is lined with golden prayer wheels and strewn with colourful prayer flags flapping in the wind. Michael (Canada), Simon (France), Elizabeth (Switzerland) and I decided to walk the route. As we climbed amidst white-washed stupas, there were great views of both the monastery and the town. It was interesting to watch pilgrims spinning both the public prayer wheels and their private prayer wheels as they performed the kora. Elizabeth hung a prayer flag en route. It felt good to walk too: we had barely moved in the last few days. In one of the wide streets of the old town I bought a yak bone bracelet from a souvenir stall.
Tonight we stayed at the Shigatse Qomolangma Friendship Hotel. After the previous two nights’ basic accommodation this was sheer luxury, despite the less than positive Lonely Planet review. Hot showers and flush toilets were enough to win me over. I had dinner in a local restaurant with Conor (Northern Ireland), Iñigo (Spain), Gary (Canada), Marcel and Aletta (Netherlands). Afterwards we dropped into a club near our hotel to see what it was like. It was dark, loud, almost empty and rather dull, so we went back to Gary and Iñigo’s room instead, where they had music and others joined us.
Shigatse, 3900m (12,795ft) to Gyantse, 3950m (12,959ft)
We left Shigatse after breakfast and drove through an agricultural landscape – it felt as though we had gone back in time. There were harvest scenes, herds of grazing sheep, horse-drawn carts and old tractors. Again, as in previous days, we passed some lovely villages backed by stony, snow-capped mountains. For some unknown reason we spent a disproportionate amount of time at a barley-grinding ‘shed’ where there really wasn’t much to see.
Today was our shortest journey: Gyantse is just 90km southeast of Shigatse. The approach to Gyantse was equally as spectacular as the previous day’s first sighting of Shigatse. The town is located in the Nyang Chu Valley, and the Gyantse dzong was visible from a distance. Though derelict today, the fourteenth century fort has a commanding position over the town and the valley. It was in this fort that 500 local soldiers held the British at bay for several days during the Younghusband expedition of 1904. They were eventually defeated by the British but went down in history as heroes.
Our destination, after lunch in the pleasant Gyantse Kitchen restaurant, was the town’s walled monastic complex built into the side of a hill. First we visited the Palcho Monastery (or Pelkor Chode Monastery) with its line of gleaming prayer wheels in the forecourt. The entrance hall, guarded by frescoes of fearsome protectors, had some very beautiful silk thangkas. Some of the Buddha statues inside the monastery were truly mesmerising, including one of the Sakayamuni or Buddha Guatama from Lumbini, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded. I found the atmosphere to be similar to that of Tashilhunpo, with the heady mix of exquisite fifteenth-century Buddhist artistry, reverential pilgrims, flickering yak butter lamps and aromatic juniper incense.
Next to the monastery is the magnificent, multi-tiered Gyantse Kumbum, the largest chorten (stupa) in Tibet. (‘Kumbum’ means ‘100,000 images’.) The chorten is 115ft (35m) high and has a golden dome at the top, underneath which are four pairs of seeing eyes – one pair on each side – like I had seen on the stupa in Boudhanath in Kathmandu (see post 59). There are endless chapels spread over the 6 floors. Some sources say there are 76, others 77 – I didn’t count them. As you climb upwards through the floors of chapels in the Kumbum, it is said that you are reaching higher stages in the Tantric path. Though many of the statues in these chapels were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the magnificent murals remain intact and are truly beautiful. New clay statues have replaced the older ones, but are said to lack the artistic merit of the originals. Many pack a punch though in their vividly painted colours and alternately demonic and angelic facial expressions.
One explanation for the origin of some of these terrifying deities and demons links them back to the animist Bon faith that preceded Buddhism in Tibet. The wrathful deities were assimilated into Buddhism, quite appropriately it seems to me, as protectors and defenders. Another explanation is that they represent the flawed parts of our consciousness, our masks of periodic imperfection. They show up for example in the eighth century funerary text, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, in which one of the bardos (transitional states) is the bardo of the nature of the mind. This liminal space is populated with many wrathful deities as the ‘soul’ struggles to find liberation. [Note: the Kino Lorber documentary, narrated by Leonard Cohen, is superior to the one linked to here. However, it has been removed from YouTube for copyright reasons.] When I first saw images and statues of these irate and fiendish divinities I was surprised. Such aggression didn’t fit with my rather naive, romanticised, western notion of Buddhism.
Wandering around the complex with Iñigo, we met Jesús (Spain), who pointed us in the direction of an interesting collection of traditional Tibetan houses, not far from the monastery and within the complex walls. Soon we were walking down a medieval-looking, unpaved street where there were cows and goats outside some of the houses. With two Spanish men that we met (not in our group) we were invited into a house behind an ornate door by a little boy. We followed him up some stone stairs and met his mother who was cooking in a tiny, dark, kitchen. (It reminded me a little of my kitchen in Bangladesh.) Unfortunately, the language barrier meant that any meaningful communication wasn’t possible. It was interesting to see the interior – though I don’t know how representative it is. What was clear though was that this family was living in relative poverty. Despite Tibet’s cultural wealth it still lags behind other areas in China in terms of development, particularly in relation to income, health and education. While the standard of living is rising in Tibet, as it is throughout China, so too are disparities widening.
Later, we wandered round part of the old town of Gyantse at the foot of the fort. We met a lot of lovely children throughout the day. Trying to find our hotel proved challenging. Nobody had heard of it (or they didn’t understand our pronunciation), but many still sent us on a number of wild goose chases. We met Marcel and Aletta from our group who were lost too. Eventually we found our way. The hotel was the Gyantse Chugo, a small, friendly, family-run guesthouse in a pleasant courtyard. Outside the front door there was a kettle boiling on a large silver, solar contraption that looked like a satellite dish. To get to the dining room inside, you had to go through part of the family’s living quarters. A group of us went out to dinner to a recommended local restaurant. Because there were quite a few of us we were ushered upstairs to a banquet room where our large, circular table had a revolving, glass Lazy Susan. The food was good – as it has been throughout our trip. Unfortunately, at these altitudes my usual gusto for new dishes has deserted me a little.
Gyantse, 3950m (12,959ft) to Lhasa, 3650m (11,975ft)
Today we set out on the final stretch of our journey to Lhasa. By all accounts, I missed a great party in the kitchen last night. I had decided to forego it in favour of an early night, in an effort to banish some of the deep tiredness that has been shadowing me at these high altitudes. A bad choice: my efforts were futile.
Our first stop this morning was at a rocky, cliff-rimmed, man-made lake and dam not far to the east of Gyantse. There were some scattered deserted houses – one spectacularly set on a tiny, stony island in the incredibly green-blue waters of the reservoir.
We continued climbing through magnificent scenery until we reached Karo La (Pass) at 16,437ft (5010m). This mountain pass connects Gyantse and the south of the country with central Tibet. It is also the site of the only glacier we would see on this trip on Mt. Nojin Kangtsang (23,642ft, 7206m). This impressive glacier was one of the highlights for me and I could have spent much longer here. However, our stop was very short and Jesús and I took off at speed to try to get closer. There is a small, picturesque, golden-spired stupa with prayer flags next to the road. Nearer to the glacier there were farmers tending yak and sheep in stone enclosures. Up close, the glacier glistened spectacularly and was awe-inspiring in both scale and splendour.
We stopped for an unscheduled very early lunch in Nangartse (14,606ft, or 4452m). I think the guides and the drivers were suffering from the excesses of last night and needed a break. I brought a coffee outside and sat on the steps in the sunshine with others from our group. (I would much prefer to have spent this time at the glacier!)
Shortly after leaving Nangartse we reached the meandering shoreline of dazzling Yamdrok Yumtso (Turquoise Lake) at an elevation of 14,724ft (4488m), locked in a high basin above the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra River). We made a few stops to take photographs of the lake against the backdrop of the snow-capped Himalaya. At one point, there was a lovely view of the peak of Mt. Nojin Kangtsang (see above) to the west. This coiling lake, of which we only saw a tiny proportion, is the largest single stretch of water in land-locked Tibet. It is a most beautiful shade of deep turquoise. Turquoise blue is a noble colour in Tibet: the turquoise stone has deep symbolic value. As a vibrant gem susceptible to destruction, it represents both vitality and death. It also symbolises beauty and wealth. Many legends, as well as books and stories on Tibet, contain a reference to turquoise in some shape or form e.g. Tales of the Turquoise (1998), by Corneille Jest. Yamdrok Yumtso, the Turquoise Lake, is one of four sacred lakes in Tibet and consequently a site of pilgrimage.
Leaving the lake behind, we climbed again and crossed the last mountain pass that we would cross in Tibet – the Kamba La (also called Gamba La) at 16,306ft (4970m). We didn’t stop here: Tenzin said it was a tourist ‘rip-off’ with people charging for photographs. I would like to have stopped all the same. I could see some yaks festively decorated for tourists as we sped past. From here, we started our descent towards the Yarlung Tsangpo – the Brahmaputra River. At last! I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to see the Brahmaputra. I knew that we had been close to its course at points e.g. in Lhatse and in Shigatse, but we never actually saw it. Now we would have to cross it to get to Lhasa. It was incredible to think that this was the great Brahmaputra which I know so well as the Jamuna River in Bangladesh. We descended through a series of picturesque hairpin bends until we reached an outcrop of rock near the shore, where we stopped. I sat there for a while with Yvonne (Netherlands), in awe and admiration of this great river. I was thinking of how interesting a travel journey it might be to follow and explore a great river from its source to its mouth or vice versa.
We crossed the river and continued to Chusul (Quxu), a town located near the confluence of the Brahmaputra and Lhasa (Kye Qu) rivers. We would be following the latter all the way to Lhasa. We stopped briefly in the town to use toilets which were nothing short of nauseating, so a few of us set out along the main street in search of alternatives. We walked through an atmospheric, shadowy bar full of Tibetans in Stetsons and dark clothes and were shown toilets at the back. However, I went down to the river at the rear, for a scenic and altogether more comfortable toilet experience.
We approached Lhasa along a beautiful tree-lined road and came in by the airport. We had now left the Tsang province and were in what the Tibetans call the Ü province. As we entered the city, my first impression was that Lhasa looked disappointingly ‘new’. It was more like a modern Chinese city than what I had imagined ancient Lhasa, the world’s highest capital city, to be. However, our hotel, the Trichang Labrang was in the old Tibetan quarter thankfully, which was much more atmospheric and colourful. The hotel is in keeping with the traditional Tibetan-style. Large, ornate gates open into a courtyard and garden area around which the hotel is laid out. The main building is over 300 years old. Most recent changes were made in the 1940s when it was the labrang (Lhasa residence) of Trijang Rimpoche, tutor to the present Dalai Lama. The tutor was from the highest rank of the Gelugpa order. As well as the courtyard space, it had a roof garden from where there were spectacular views. I took a cup of coffee up there and sat in a cosy hammock/swing, taking in the views and marvelling at the fact that I was in Lhasa – the ‘place of the gods’.
We had the rest of the evening to ourselves and after coffee, I wandered out of the hotel to explore my immediate surroundings. I soon found myself lost in a maze of narrow, stone lanes until quite unexpectedly I stumbled upon Barkhor Square and the Jokhang Monastery. The large square, paved in gleaming granite flagstones, spreads out in front of the magnificent Jokhang Monastery, the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. Hundreds of pilgrims were streaming through the square following the Barkhor kora (pilgrimage) circuit. This ancient route starts from two pot-bellied, stone sangkang (incense burners) in front of the temple. As pilgrims pass they toss juniper branches into the stoves. In a square patch in front of the temple entrance, yet more pilgrims were prostrating themselves over and over again in prayer, some using mats and wearing knee pads and hand mitts. It was an incredible sight in the evening light. I found myself rooted to the spot, hypnotically engaged by the scenes I was witnessing.
Later, I joined the clockwise movement of pilgrims. They were completely absorbed in prayer, some spinning prayer wheels, others thumbing beads. Many of these pilgrims may have come from far-flung places, perhaps from up to 600 miles, to pay homage at this sacred site. This is evidenced in the mixture of people: some, clutching bed rolls, had deeply weathered complexions; others wore layers of clothing and boots made from skins. Yet others, perhaps locals from Lhasa were paler-skinned and more rested looking. There was a myriad of dress styles, hair styles and hat styles. The brightly-coloured robes of monks added colour amongst patches of darker traditional clothing. All along the route there were stalls and shops selling everything from thangkas, masks and ritual objects to clothing, electrical goods and yak butter.
I had spotted a nice rooftop restaurant, called the Makye Ame, during my perambulation and after completing a circuit I retraced my steps. I climbed a rickety stairs which brought back memories of similar restaurants in Nepal. In the restaurant brochure, I read that it was in this 300-year old building that the 6th Dalai Lama met and was captivated by a girl called Makye Ame. (The said 6th Dalai Lama (1683-1706) had a reputation for drinking, love affairs and writing poetry and love songs.) There were lovely views of the Jokhang and the pilgrimage route below from the windowless, tent-like, top floor of the restaurant. There was good coffee too and a cosy, dark, wooden interior. I watched the sun set over this prayerful Tibetan quarter of Lhasa, while I tried to assimilate everything I had just been witness to. From up here, I could see some Chinese soldiers, situated strategically on rooftops nearby, guns at the ready to suppress any potential rebellion. I had seen a couple of contingents marching mechanically through the square earlier. To me, with their guns and their stern expressions, they looked quite intimidating and completely at odds with the otherwise tranquil atmosphere in the square. To the Tibetan pilgrims they must appear threatening and malevolent.
When I finally got back to the hotel it was late and dark and I was cold and hungry. I had been completely swept up in old Lhasa and had lost all track of time and place. I got to the restaurant just as they were closing, but after pleading with them shamelessly, I had a very good yak burger with chips.
Lhasa, 3650m (11,975ft)
I chatted to Mario (US) over breakfast this morning. We all met as a group at 9.30 to visit the Jokhang Monastery. There were long queues waiting at the entrance which we skipped – rather uncomfortably: Tenzin said our tour had been ‘pre-booked’. It was, however, a very rushed tour: we only had about 20 minutes to get through the interior amid the throngs of shuffling pilgrims and swarms of tourists. As the most revered monastery in Tibet, it is much-visited by both pilgrims and tourists alike. I spoke to two Chinese girls who had arrived with a large group by train from Beijing on the Qingzing Railway that opened in 2006. I was a little disappointed that after coming so far I had to rush through.
The monastery, today a UNESCO world heritage site, is said to have been founded by King Songsten Gampo between 639 and 647 for his two brides, one from China and one from Nepal, each of whom brought important Buddhist statues and images by way of dowries. During the Cultural Revolution much of the Jokhang was desecrated and destroyed, but has since been restored. After passing by the fierce-looking protective deities and the forecourt, we walked through the main assembly hall to the inner sanctum where there were 5/6 gigantic statues in the centre of the room. Encircling these was a series of chapels which we visited in a clockwise direction. As with the other monasteries I have visited in Tibet, the atmosphere was reverential and pilgrims moved devotedly between dark rooms, making offerings of notes and scarves, lighting butter lamps at shrines and praying respectfully, all the while seeming oblivious to the presence of tourists. There were wonderful friezes, beautiful thangkas, frightening deities, serene Buddhas and mesmerising statues of other gods and divinities. On the roof of the first floor there were great views and endless photo opportunities of both Barkhor Square below and the towering Potala Palace high on a hill in the distance.
There was free time after our visit to wander around Barkhor Square and it seemed to be equally as busy this morning as it had been the previous evening. I did another circuit of the Jokhang with pilgrims, browsed through souvenir stalls and wandered aimlessly through the maze of medieval, winding lanes that lead from the square. I have read that until relatively recently, Barkhor Square was a labyrinth of lanes too, until they were cleared in the 1980s by the Chinese to gain easier access and more control over the Tibetan quarter. It is sad to learn that so much of the heritage of the old town of Lhasa has disappeared. I have read that this Tibetan quarter represents just 4% of the present city of Lhasa. I saw quite a few large Chinese shopping emporiums around the square today.
In one of the lanes, I took a photograph of a column of four soldiers, three of whom became quite aggressive and tried to take my camera to delete the photograph. Eventually, I escaped, keeping my photograph. Back in the hotel, I joined Tenvir and some of our group for coffee in the courtyard. I had a slice of deliciously rich ‘butter cake’. Tenvir told us a little bit about the political situation in Tibet from the perspective of his personal experiences. It was interesting to hear a first-hand account.
In the afternoon, we set off by bus to visit Sera Monastery, 5km north of Lhasa and one of the three renowned Gelugpa university monasteries of Tibet. It was established in 1419 and has a number of associated hermitages in the hills around Lhasa. Sera Monastery was once famous for its warrior monks, the Dob-Doa. This was one of a number of monasteries that suffered much damage and destruction during the 1959 revolt. Many monks were killed and many more fled to India where they established a second Sera Monastery.
The approach to the monastery along a tree-lined lane of whitewashed buildings was very atmospheric. This monastery complex consists of a number of buildings: three of the main ones are colleges. The largest and most striking building is the Tsogchen and again there were long queues of pilgrims waiting to get in. This was another rather rushed tour of a very crowded monastery. There were a lot of beautiful wall-length thangkas and impressive murals and statues. The light this evening had a golden quality, giving a Midas touch to the poplar trees and weeping willows around the monastery. I would love to have had more time to explore and maybe follow some of the paths leading into the hills behind the monastery.
Before returning to the hotel, we visited a large local food market. Most of the fish were alive in buckets of water, but otherwise this was an organised and unremarkable experience. It was certainly a very different market to the first chaotic Chinese street markets I had visited in Hong Kong and China in the 1990s.
I had dinner with Stephanie (US) in the Lhasa Kitchen tonight.
Lhasa, 3650m (11,975ft)
Over breakfast, I chatted with Jesús (Spain) and a Namibian couple who are travelling with their daughter. Our group is large and our days full and it hasn’t been possible to get to know everybody unfortunately.
Mid-morning we set out to visit the spectacular and iconic Potala Palace (pictured above), a UNESCO world heritage site, said to be the greatest building in Tibet. This was where the present (14th) Dalai Lama lived before he fled into exile in India in 1959. (He also had a summer palace, the Norbulingka, west of Lhasa on 89 acres.) The Potala Palace is named after Mount Potalaka, the mythical abode of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion. Built into Mount Marpori, this huge edifice rises 400 feet high through 13 stories. It is a vast complex of palace halls, Buddha halls, chapels and stupas, and is said to have over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and around 200,000 statues. Funerary stupas (chortens) were added in memory of the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 13th Dalai Lamas, each within its own hall. Most of these are adorned with unseemly amounts of gold and jewels. It was the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682) who built this palace on the foundations of Songtsen Gampo’s 7th-century palace. The ‘White Palace’ was completed in 1653. The central block of upper storeys, known as the ‘Red Palace’, was completed in 1694, as a memorial to the 5th Dalai Lama. We spent about 2 hours at the Potala Palace, following a defined path through various rooms. The palace is now solely a museum and consequently its interior is a little soulless, when compared with the vibrant monasteries we have visited to date on this trip.
In the afternoon we visited Nechung Monastery, close to Drepung Monastery. (The latter was closed for restoration work.) This small monastery was once the seat of the Nechung Oracle. The oracle (also known as the State Oracle) was regularly consulted by the Dalai Lama on important matters of state. The last monk to act as mouthpiece for the oracle fled Tibet to India with the current Dalai Lama in 1959. Now the monastery has only a few caretaker monks. There’s a small shop here selling souvenirs and fuel to feed the butter lamps inside. I liked this monastery: it was a little quieter than some of the others. There were some beautifully decorated doors. Inside there seemed to be more than the usual collection of fierce deities, leering skulls and demon torturers. In one of the rooms there was a monk chanting to the accompaniment of a drum and cymbals. I think I’m running out of superlatives to describe Tibetan monasteries at this stage!
This evening after wandering around Barkhor Square for the last time, I revisited the Makye Ame restaurant with Stephanie. Afterwards, we took a rickshaw to the Potala Palace to see it lit up at night. While walking around the palace we came across some deer. Across the road in Potala Square, the view of the palace was magical. Potala Square is a strange place and altogether incongruous when juxtaposed with the historic and distinctly Tibetan Potala Palace. It’s a large, open, paved space that was created by the Chinese by demolishing a neighbourhood of old Tibetan houses. The centrepiece today is a dancing fountain with multi-coloured lights.
Lhasa 3650m (11,975ft) to Kathmandu 1400m (4,600ft)
My trip to Tibet ended with a spectacular trans-Himalayan flight from Lhasa to Kathmandu, during which there were fine views of Everest, amongst other peaks.
Although this was a brief trip along a well-worn route, it gave me some very interesting insights into Tibet, past and present, though, as always, there is still much to learn. I found the sincerity and intensity of the Tibetan people’s devotion to their religious traditions astonishing. This is all the more so astounding considering the many decades of oppression. And yet, paradoxically, this is a country that is racing towards modernity. Mobile phone coverage is ubiquitous. Tourism is on the increase, particularly since the opening of the Qingzing Railway in 2006. Chinese immigrants are bringing capital and change to Tibetan towns. Rural Tibet too is undergoing rapid change: this presentation by Melvyn Goldstein gives an overview of some of these changes. His conclusions point towards much that is positive in rural Tibet.
Notwithstanding the internationalisation of Tibet and its human rights issues, the ‘Tibet question’ remains unanswered. Unfortunately, I didn’t have many conversations with Tibetans and so have had to rely on what I have read thus far. I have failed to get my hands on any contemporary Tibetan literature in English. Traditionally, Tibetan literature was dominated by religious texts, though there was some secular material, mostly in the form of poetry. There are a lot of historical accounts, amongst them the autobiographical travel account ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ (1952), by the late Heinrich Harrer, on which the 1997 film of the same name was based. A travel literature exists and there are stories too from ‘old Tibet’, particularly from emigrants who fled from persecution at the hands of Chinese ‘invaders’. While much of this material is interesting and features on my reading list, I would love to find contemporary stories from Tibetans living in Tibet today. Putting the past and the present aside, the future of Tibet is difficult to predict and will be interesting to follow.
As a travel experience, my visit to Tibet was breathtaking (at times literally so!). It is truly a remarkable place: the stunning landscape of the plateau that induces otherworldly reverie; the splendid views of the world’s highest mountains; the magnificent monasteries; the extraordinary towns; and the unique culture and people. I had some lovely travelling companions on my tour, but if I were to return some day, I would hope to do so as an independent traveller. I would love to wander more freely amongst local people, attend one or more of the many colourful festivals, and do some (leisurely) walking off the beaten track, though I suspect I would need a good deal of time to acclimatise beforehand. For now though, it’s kha-leh phe to Tibet.
Before I sign off, I’m including some photographs from my trip. You can view them in sequence as a slideshow if you wish: click on the top left-hand photograph (which I have chosen as no. 1), hover over photograph to see caption and then navigate using the little arrows to right and left.