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Published: September 5th 2005
The highest, and one of the most beautiful lakes in the world
If you were discouraged about the state of Tibetan culture in Lhasa while reading my last Postcard, I am happy to report that rural Tibet remains distinctly Tibetan, for now.
To see rural Tibet, in fact to just leave the two largest cities Lhasa or Shigatse, requires an Alien Travel Permit (in addition to the Alien Entry Permit required to come to Lhasa) and a way to get around since public transport is often non-existent. Most people get together into groups of 4 or 5, chose an itinerary and rent a 4x4 with Tibetan driver. Four-wheel drive is an absolute necessity. I was joined by Martijn from Belgium and a Chinese couple who also spoke English. This worked out well since our driver spoke Tibetan and Chinese but no English.
Our 6-day itinerary took us from Lhasa North to Namtso Lake, Southwest to Shigatse, Southwest and up up up to Rongphu Monastery and Everest Base Camp, Northeast to Gyantse, then finally back to Lhasa via Yamdoktso Lake. Our 4x4 was a mid-80's Toyota Landcruiser, a model that must make up 80% of the vehicles in rural Tibet. One of the doors and two of the windows did not open
and the screws holding the carburettor together were stripped and required regular tightening with pliers to control the gas fumes entering the passenger compartment. But most importantly, it had good tires, brakes and suspension, making it much safer than many others I saw. Sky Lake
The highest major lake in the world at 4627m elevation (800m higher than Titicaca), Namtso or Sky Lake in Tibetan is 75 km by 30 km of sky-blue contrasting a background of snow-covered mountains. After a short hike, I had my first and only bout of altitude sickness and spent the afternoon horizontally acclimatizing to the 1000m of elevation gained since Lhasa. My "hotel" room was an uninsulated and unheated tin shed with plenty of blankets to throw on top of my sleeping bag. My thermometer read 3 degrees when I woke to see the sunrise over the lake.
This area of Tibet is dotted with dark-brown tents belonging to nomadic yak herders, even in the harshness of mountain passes above 5000m. We brought a watermelon from Lhasa to Namtso and instantly made local friends with it, including two teens willing to sing and play traditional Tibetan guitar in exchange for a wedge
of melon. What Good is a Yak?
It's impossible to over-stress the importance of yaks to the Tibetan way of life. It's a strong and docile beast of burden that thrives at extremely high elevations and in the harshest of climates. It provides abundant meat, milk, cheese and butter, not only to eat and drink (e.g. the ubiquitous yak-butter tea) but also to fuel yak-butter lamps. How do Tibetans heat and cook without electricity when there is no wood above the tree line? Each home has its stack of dried yak-dung instead of firewood. And these are only a few of the uses that I happened to notice. Panchen Lama, which Panchen Lama?
Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet and traditional seat of the second holiest leader in Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama. As I mentioned in my China/Tibet Postcard 3 - Lhasa, Tibet
it was the 11 year-old 10th Panchen Lama's message to Mao Zedong in 1950 that served as China's excuse for invading Tibet. After the Dali Lama fled to India, the Chinese government tried to use the Panchen Lama to control the Tibetan people. When, in the early 1960's, he presented a petition to the Chinese government demanding
better conditions in Tibet and refusing to denounce the Dalai Lama, he was imprisoned in Beijing until 1981. He died in 1989 of a reported heart attack at the age of 51 and, the very next day, Beijing announced their plan to find the next Panchen without "interference" from the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy. The monks had another idea, applied their centuries-old testing process to discover the reincarnated Panchen Lama and announced their choice, approved by the Dali Lama, in 1995. The Chinese government disagreed and chose their own Panchen Lama. They then abducted the boy chosen by the monks; neither he nor his family has been seen since. The Chinese-chosen Panchen Lama now spends most of his time in Beijing.
Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse is the traditional palace of the Panchen Lama much like Potala Palace in Lhasa was to the Dali Lama. Several large guilded and jewelled stupas contain the remains of past Panchen Lamas. The most impressive is the most recent-, thanks to generous contributions from the Chinese government. The sign reads "Stupa of the Great 10th Panchen Lama", great for the role that he is said to have played in " liberating" Tibet from the Tibetans. Qomolangma: Goddess, Mother of the Earth
Everest, or Qomolangma in Tibetan, proved to be harder to get to, and harder to see than I ever expected. The problems started with steady rain the morning we headed out. Dirt roads mixed with rain to produce slippery mud. Very little of the road is straight, or wide enough, or guard-railed. Much of it barely resembles a road at all. The driver honked to advise oncoming vehicles as we skidded around blind hairpin turns, on the edge of a cliff and on the edge of control.
I wondered to myself if an oncoming truck travelling at the same speed would be able to stop in time even if it heard the toots. I soon got my answer: almost. While the drivers got out to inspect the minor damage to our fender, I began to worry about a third vehicle coming around the corner and bumping us both into the river below. As soon as I heard a beep-beep, I reached over the empty driver's seat and leaned on the horn. This truck easily stopped but I was now officially nervous.
In places, the road was clay. This made the greasiest
mud imaginable, clearly more than the drivers were used to. We could see other trucks sliding all over the road and it would soon be our turn. As our truck fishtailed, the rear wheel went of the edge of the road but the pendulum had started to swing back and momentum carried us back onto the road with no harm done save the expletives. The driver lost control again a few minutes later and we plowed harmlessly into a pile of dirt. He drove marginally slower after that, too slow, it seems, to make it up a muddy hill. An entire village came to dig and push us out of the mud. We met another group whose Landcruiser steering broke, each front wheel freely pivoting in opposite directions. Had both wheels swung the same way, they might have veered off a cliff. Their driver repaired it with a coat-hanger and continued to drive just as fast as before.
The rainy weather not only made our progress slow and dangerous, it also ruined what should have been spectacular views of the Himalayas. The last high pass before Everest boasts a panorama that includes 4 of the world's 6 tallest peaks:
Music for Melon
A local young man plays traditional guitar hoping to be rewarded with watermelon - he was.
Cho Oyu (8201m), Malaku (8463m), Lhotse (8516m) and Qomolangma. Everyone knows that Everest at 8841m is the highest in the world but I also think it is the shyest; so rarely does the Goddess pull back her veil of cloud to let us see her North face, especially at this time of year.
Rongphu Monastery, like so many things in Tibet, is the highest in the world at 5000m, only 8 km down a glacial valley from the North Base Camp of Everest. Ostensibly to control pollution, visitors must pay 80 RMB ($12 CAD) to be driven the last 30 km in government supplied 15-passenger Dodge vans. Ours looked at least as old as the Landcruiser we arrived in and had a disconcerting "Service Brakes" light illuminated on the dash. Part way on the climbing road, we stopped to assist a similar broken down van, its driver pouring water into a geysering radiator. That fixed, our van now refused to start and were loaded into the other van to continue our climb. Below the severely cracked windshield was an illuminated "Add Oil" light and the engine was making the worst grinding sound. We only made it a few hundred
The watermelon that we brought to Namtso from Lhasa proved to be a huge hit with locals
meters when the radiator blew its steam again. The driver reassured us via our Chinese companions that it was normal for the engine to overheat because there was no oil in it. We continued to refill the radiator with ever-increasing frequency, the driver running off to find a stream to refill his jug. The van eventually limped, squealed and puffed into the monastery just after sunset, probably to become its final resting place.
The monk-run guest house at Rongphu had an interesting mix of Chinese and foreign guests. More interesting still were the Tibetan guides with traditional clothes under a layer of North Face Gore-Tex and the Himalayas etched deeply on their dark faces. We were served a simple but welcome supper of rice and tea.
Everest cautiously and ever so briefly peaked out of the clouds just before sunrise, almost too briefly for my groggy camera fumbling. Perhaps Base Camp will provide a second chance.
There are two ways to get to Base Camp, by hiring a horse-carriage or freely on foot. Only Martijn and I chose to hike, to thumbs-up of encouragement from some of the Tibetans and looks of bewilderment from the other travellers.
The 16 km round-trip is not difficult but 5200m elevation does take some of the spring out of your step and with temperatures hovering just above freezing and a stiff wind, I was more than glad to have lugged my warm clothes through the sweltering parts of China.
Everest was watching, and rewarded our effort with a short but magnificent and almost full view during our hike back. Her timing was perfect because all the carriage riders appropriately had their backs turned. Those few seconds instantly made the whole ordeal worthwhile. My unimpressive photos of a white mountain on a white cloud background do not even come close to capturing the gasping feeling when Everest looms out of the mist. But maybe she wanted it that way.
Lest you think the return trip was uneventful, the government van (our third) went skidding off the narrow road when one of the front suspension struts suddenly broke and the wheel-well fell onto the tire. We had just passed the steepest and most dangerous part of the decent from Rongphu. We waited 2 hours for our 4th van to arrive and take us to our much more reliable 20-year old Toyota.
Nomad's Tent All Creatures Great and Small...
These dark brown tents dot the highest terrain in the world where nomads herd Yak, sheep and goats
Like many Tibetan men, our driver seemed like the rugged fearless type. But given the Tibetan temperament and beliefs, I probably should not have been surprised when he would brake the truck suddenly to let a mouse cross the road, honk the horn at birds to give them plenty of time to fly clear, or gently guide a fly out the window without harming it. All of these lives have value and any might be his reincarnated grandmother. All Good Things...
As I prepare to leave Tibet for Yunnan province, I already know that my time here will be the most memorable of this trip, perhaps of any trip. The extreme landscape of the highest land on earth is part of it, but it is the Tibetan people that stick in my mind, their rich faces and their gentle, ancient culture, on its last legs due to inevitable internal and external forces.
Yunnan promises beautiful landscapes too like Tiger Leaping Gorge on the upper Yangze River where I will go trekking, and some fun cities like Zhongdian, Dali and Kunming. Watch for it in a few days, time and internet cafes permitting.
We met this boy and his mother having a picnic on a high mountain pass above 5000m.
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