Travelling onwards and upwards to Gyantse

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October 16th 2015
Published: November 4th 2015
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While our drive from Lhasa to Gyantse was a mere 260kms, it took most of the day for a number of reasons – namely a number of photo stops, a diversion or two, some winding roads, a lunch stop, and the crazy speed restrictions for tourist minibuses on the Friendship Highway, something about which I shall comment more in my final blog.

Our first stop was indeed one of the highlights for all the keen photographers. Soon after a significant climb of over 1,000 metres to the 4,700m Khamba Pass, we got a great view of Yamdrok Lake, one of the four main holy lakes in Tibetan Buddhism. The lake is shaped like a coiling scorpion, doubling back on itself so that it appears to have a huge island in the middle, but this area is in fact attached to the west side of the lake. In clear weather, which we were lucky enough to encounter, the lake has a brilliant turquoise colour, which contrasted superbly against the 7,200m glaciated Mt Nojin Kangtsang, which forms its backdrop. Devout Tibetan pilgrims circumambulate the lake (clockwise of course!) in around seven days. Apart from the fantastic views, the entrepreneurial locals were out there in mass with their dressed up yaks and Tibetan Mastiffs (which bear a remarkable resemblance to lions) for touristy photos, as well as local jewellery for sale, each designed to relieve tourists of their hard-earned. In many ways, this was reminiscent of the scenery and the dressed-up llamas in the Andes.

From there, it was a short drive into Nangartse for a Tibetan buffet lunch at the appropriately named Lhasa Restaurant. On the way then into Gyantse, we checked out the glaciers of Mt Nojin Kangtsang and by passing through the Karo Pass, we had our first taste of reaching an altitude of 5,000 metres. Along the way, we passed through a number of small Tibetan villages, for which a great number of the houses were flying Chinese flags, and it’s hard not to believe that the majority of these are not flown voluntarily.

Gyantse is a small, but modern, Tibetan town that lies at just over 4,000m. The main attraction in the town is the Gyantse Kumbum, the highest stupa (Buddhist pagoda) in Tibet at 30m high, with its white layers trimmed with decorative stripes and a golden dome on top. However as our luck would have it, this was under renovation and covered in scaffolding and cloth, but this did not prevent us from climbing up inside it to get a great view of the 600 year old Pelkor Chode Monastery, in whose grounds it stands. The Monastery itself lies within a walled complex in the Old Town, and the short, but exhausting, hike to the top of the wall gave us an excellent panorama view of the monastery, the town and the high plateau in the distance.

After lunch, we took in a visit to the Old Town and encountered what for me was one of the absolute highlights of the whole trip, as it was totally unplanned and spontaneous. As we passed one of the houses, we could hear some chanting and singing, and just as we were about to pass by, three locals stuck their heads out of the top floor and invited us in, and the scene that took place was almost beyond description. The inside of the home was being renovated, and the chores were being shared by over 100 locals (free labour!), all working in unison while chanting and singing together. While we were there, a few of them were applying a type of aggregated clay to the top of the balconies, and up to 20 of them were then banging down on these with paddles to get a firm smooth surface. A similar process was occurring with the floors, where two teams working in turns were using handheld tamping tools to get a solid and smooth clay floor. While I have shown some photos below, the video, which also has the sound effects, is really needed to tell the full story.

Apart from the quaint architecture of the houses in the Old Town, the other point of interest was the huge number of cows and yaks lying around the streets, just eating and shitting, with the latter being the source of the dung which is collected, dried out, and then burned extensively for cooking and heating. Almost everywhere you looked were piles of dung, obviously being stockpiled and left to thoroughly dry out.

So from here, it will just be a short ride (although no trip in Tibet is quick) through to the second-biggest city, Shigatse.

Additional photos below
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