Firstly, I’ve just been checking out the news from home (in a rare moment here in Tibet, both the Guardian and Independent websites are accessible), and spotted this article (which might annoy the Chinese government censors, haha). A work of genius from Messrs Parker and Stone, which I can’t wait to see.
For the last few days, we’ve been in more remote places, therefore deprived of even electric and hot water at times, let alone t’internet. So a whistlestop tour of the last 5 days.
DAY 19: the last day in Lhasa, was again spectacular. The highlight was a trip to the Sera monastery to see the novice monks debating what they’ve learned.
Fascinating, lively and vibrant. The video clip shows just a little of the religious fervour, passion and intensity of debate, also the friendships and respect between the monks. We stayed for almost an hour, but I could have stayed much longer to watch and listen.
DAY 20: we headed north-west towards Nam-Tso (heavenly) lake, stopping to get acquainted with the locals during one of their rest breaks from ploughing the fields (yes it looks like mud and dirt, but the soil is ploughed and prepared in advance of the rainy season so they can make the most of their rare opportunities to grow things).
We also stopped to cross wobbly footbridges (there and back again, purely for the sake of it), for food at the ‘big plate of chicken’ restaurant in Damxung, and take photos of our first Tibetan snow-capped mountains. After a prolonged red-tape break at a checkpoint, we drove up the winding 5,100m Lachen-la mountain pass, our highest altitude yet.
Nam-tso lake itself is around 4,700m above sea level (so c. 1,000m higher than Lhasa), and it was easy to spot the difference in altitude. Despite having ascended and descended, I got very sick, dizzy and headachey from the altitude, and spent a restless night shivering and hyperventilating next to a yak-dung-burning stove in a hut with the Tibetan guides. But the fantastic scenery and stunning sunset made it all worthwhile.
DAY 21: was a bus day. We travelled back to Lhasa, then turned east towards the holy (and incredibly beautiful, even a the sandstorm came in) Brahmaputra river.
We had to put all of our faith in our slightly precarious-looking flat-bottomed “ferry” ‘s ability to reach the other side in safety (hey, we had lifejackets, though!).
We spent a night in a guesthouse at Samye, an 8th century monastery claimed to be the first and oldest monastery in Tibet. It’s a huge monastery complex laid out in the shape of a mandala, but there are many more monasteries on this trip, Instead I’m going to focus on the the fact that it had the oddest souvenirs I’ve seen so far: rotating prayer wheels with flashing lights that played chanting music! If only I had space in my rucksack….
DAY 22. The morning was spent exploring Samye monastery, before heading back across the Brahmaputra on the trusty ferry, and back onto our bus (with the dodgy driver who has never heard of the concept of progressive braking).
Driving towards Gyantse (which took 8 hours, to add some perspective), we travelled up a mountain pass road which put the Stelvio Pass (Top Gear’s ‘Best Driving Road In Europe’) totally into the shade. It was hard to get a good photo of a road spanning several valleys from a moving bus, but what I would have given for the keys to an Aston Martin…
The entire drive was spectacular. From the top of the Gampa-la (also Khamba-la) Pass, the road dropped down towards the fabulously blue Yamdrok-tso lake, shining in the afternoon sun.
I’ll gloss over the bit where we were mugged by camp motorbike bandits (they pulled a small knife on our driver when we and our guide were off the bus taking photos, and made off with about £1.27, bless ’em!), we then passed a beautiful glacier plus several amazing mountains and rock formations on our way to overnight in Gyantse.
DAY 23. This morning we explored Gyantse, which may be known to some as the place where the Chinese journalist Sun Shuyun spent, and wrote about, her ‘Year In Tibet’ (it was also made into a BBC documentary, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00949bt , which I know has been shown outside of the UK).
The most interesting part was the monastery. Its stupa which was beautiful and ornately decorated outside, but stupifyingly dull inside (most of the chambers were closed, the artefacts having been, ahem, lost at some stage…).
After a good-natured haggle with the monks and souvenir vendors (and a CD of monks’ chanting, some finger cymbals and a bracelet added to my rucksack), we took a wander through the old town, chatting in pidgin English to the locals and being lucky enough to be invited into a couple of their homes for a short while.
It was then upwards to the fortress, scene of a bloody battle during the 1904 British invasion of Tibet led by Sir Francis Younghusband, and subsequent occupation (you can read Wikipedia yourselves, but this New York Times article may be more interesting?). Climbing the rocky slope in the midday sun (300m upwards makes a difference when you are already c. 4,200m above sea level) was a little taxing, shall we say.
Following a late lunch (more yak!), we took a short drive across to Shigatze, where I’m writing this in a dilapidated internet cafe.
Tomorrow we head into another unbelievably holy site, the Tashilhunpo Monastery (home of the Panchen Lama), which I can see out of my bedroom window in our guesthouse.