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Published: November 6th 2015
The distance from Gyantse to Shigatse is a mere 100kms, but for reasons similar to the trip from Lhasa, it took several hours to complete. We had a reprieve from further increases in altitude, with quite an amount of relatively flat farmlands in the immediate vicinity of the highway, showing off the tail end of what had clearly been a considerable crop of high altitude barley, the only crop that will grow successfully in this soil at these altitudes and cold temperatures. While all the crops had been cut (presumably all by hand) prior to our arrival, we saw a lot of activity of family groups rounding up their product, feeding it through cutters to break it down, then transporting it to mills where it was ground into a flour. This is the staple diet for many Tibetans, who use their entrepreneurial skills to prepare tsampa, noodles and dumplings, as well as fermenting to make beer.
This product is also frequently traded with the myriad of products produced from yaks by the nomadic herdsmen. These include yoghurt, cheese, butter (used extensively in butter tea and also on offerings to butter lamps in monasteries), sour milk, whey etc all produced from
the raw milk of the yak. No component of the yak is wasted. Many yaks are slaughtered each year at the onset of winter, when they are in their best condition. The meat can be consumed fresh, smoked or air-dried, with some of the less appealing parts used for sausages. The hides are tanned to produce a leather that can be used for making boots, bags and even small boats. The wool products are used in clothing, while the long hair can be spun into yarn and used to make rope, tent fabric and rugs. Even the yak bone often gets used to make combs, buttons and handicrafts. And of course the yak dung is dried out and used for heating and cooking. Tibetans are amazingly entrepreneurial and can generally get by primarily on the products from their yaks and barley.
A further display of the creativity of the local Tibetans was on display when we stopped at a field where they were preparing mud house 'bricks'. These are prepared almost exclusively from the loam, mud and sand in the fields, where they are combined with water and a small binding agent before being poured into moulds, where the
brick is formed before being left out in the fields for several weeks to thoroughly dry out. Thus construction of houses and other dwellings can be very cheap in Tibet, given many of the raw materials come from the fields and the labour is generally supplied free by the community (refer my description of the home renovation in my last blog). It is interesting to compare the price generally placed on labour costs in the western world with that in developing countries where it is generally not considered as a cost component.
Our arrival in Shigatse was highlighted by the superb view of the elevated Shigatse Dzong and it was somewhat disappointing to hear that the fort was empty and not available for tours. Not so the Tashilhunpo Monastery, which is now the largest functioning religious institution in Tibet and houses over 600 monks. This monastery is the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most important lama in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama. This monastery contains the tombs of past Panchen Lamas, as well as a lot of photos of the 9th, 10th and 11th Panchen Lamas, each of whom have had a very chequered and controversial
history, to say the least. The kora around the monastery took about an hour to complete (clockwise of course!) and offered great views of the compound as well as being decorated with hundreds of prayer flags. In the afternoon, we took in a visit to the Old Town, which was dominated by a huge market selling all nature of Tibetan souvenirs.
From here, we head out towards the Everest Base Camp. As well as the increasing altitude, I understand the scenery changes and all types of vegetation cease to exist. I also hear that the standard of toilet facilities moves onto a downward spiral as well ...
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