The Roof of the World....
Journey through the clouds
After the manic arrangements of the earlier few days, it felt rewarding to jump onto the T24 Lhasa bound train (Hard sleeper, top-bunk 524 yuan). Although a little put-off by the unchanged sheets in the hard sleepers on this Beijing originating train and not being in the same compartments, we each clambered up to our top bunks and tucked away our goody bags consisting of "pao-pao mien" (instant noodles), oodles of fresh fruit and titbits to sustain us on the train ride of a lifetime, a ride that would take us across cloud touching ranges, glorious plains that had seen their fair share of bloodshed yet fight on to retain their spirit. A ride which defied construction difficulties to cross over the highest pass at 5072m, yet further scars an already fragile terrain, represents a whole new bloodline feeding the continued assault on Tibetan culture and traditions. Cocooned in the newish modern train, we are oblivious to the steadily dropping temperatures outside, intent on just getting comfortable and already eager for the next day's sun to rise, carrying the odd thought that we were leaving the rightful China behind.
To get up as the light is
breaking over the horizon is as rewarding as one expects. The terrain and sky grow rich in colour as the train climbs higher and higher. From dull shadowy grey tinged surfaces, the rich greens, reds and browns are drawn out as the sky turned a stark deep glassy blue. A bold reminder that we were entering an ancient kingdom that today teeters on the edge of becoming a Tibetland: please buys your tickets here and your ride is 15mins long with the frowning Lama mascot. Along the way, with eyes plastered onto the moving and ever changing plains, we sped our way towards Lhasa. Lai Har and Richy spotted deer, the occasional fox and the ubiquitous yak(s). Some of the time, we wiled away with our fantastic Travel Scrabble and when the train doctors got on at Qinghai to check the B.P. of the staff - we got a free check up too. Trust the girls to grin broadly when we were told we are healthier than Richy 😊
At the enormous train station, dusk was falling quickly and unlike train stations in China, Lhasa station, being built some way out of town did not suffer from
on the Quinhai-Lhasa railway....
the usual crush of bodies and noise. It is also ridiculously larger than perhaps what was needed. Future planning or another Chinese grandiose gesture? Xiao Wang, a hardworking energy bursting Sichuanese, came forward to us to start selling the rooms belonging to the place that he worked. With the Mid-autumn festival full moon making its way up the sky, we were eager to get settled and gave into his persuasions. With this quick decision, we avoided the touristy area and ended up in the Tibetan Quarter (near Zhang YiYuan Lu) where the rooms are not only cheaper, but we were in a position to make full use of the local transportation to scrutinise and be scrutinised as we took the 10min daily bus ride into Beijing Dong Lu (1Yuan). Strolling is a mere 30min. Being the Mid-Autumn festival yet finding no sign of celebration, we somehow ended up in the karaoke bar next door and fell into being entertained by the youthful younger sister of the owner acting as drinks hostess. Hampered by language, she ended up 'doing her thing' with San with standard phrases like
Facing San, "Wah, Big Sister, you are so pretty! Why don't you have some
The Jokang Temple at night....
Pilgrims are still prostrating themselves in worship! These guys are so dedicated....
more beer?" (The lighting was either too dark or she was suffering a serious case of short-sightedness)
Turning to Lai Har, "Ah-yi, why are you not drinking?"
To Richy, (Translation aided) "I would like to learn English. Please drink more beer. Do you want another one?"
Surely there must be an underground International Karaoke Hostess Training School admitting students regardless of race, language or religion and delivering in a consistent fashion, how close to sit, what conversation topics to start off with, sales skills for all forms of liquor and for those who aim to be karaoke joint owners in the future, how to decorate the place with dark lighting and fake flowers. The Karaoke lounge
is probably one of the worst things that the Chinese could have introduced to the country. If this and flashy neon lights is Mainland China's idea of modernising Tibet, a country which the commandeeing mother ship continues to view as backward, it should seriously rethink its plans and start having open discussions with the Dalai Lama for Tibet's future. Thankfully there was the morning to look forward to.
By the time we dragged ourselves a little bleary eyed to Jokhang Temple
, it was
This young recuit was taking the bus home with her friends....
already throbbing with people, colourfully adorned, one hand twirling their personal prayer wheels, the other caressing in silent count of the 111 prayer beads (unlike the 108 used in Chinese Buddhism) of each prayer cycle - one hundred mantras with 11 extra beads for mistakes. A little indication as to how religion is hard-wired into a Tibetan¡¯s genes. All around the site, smothering juniper smoke billows from the burners and spreads undiscerning around the faithful and the faithless lending to the surreal picturesque air - great for the photographs and footage, terrible for one's eyes and lungs. The pungent sweet smell though is gentle and comforting. It lingered warmly on our clothes and hair. One of the most peaceful times to visit the area is when night falls. Some faithful are still prostrating under the shadows cast by the yellow glow from streetlamps, a peek through the doors gives a glimmer of flickering yak-butter lamps, making it a contemplative end to a long day. Potala Palace
is in contrast to this. A few years back the requirement for tickets to be bought the day prior was introduced. For those of you happily toting and using the directions of the
Big feet at the Sera
In comes winter and out comes the lovely soles perfect for the season. And Red is the in colour now, sashay, sashay!
recently issued version of the LP China, you will also unhappily be heading to the ticket office when it's already closed. Rather than 5pm as advised, go early in the morning at about 6am to join the queue. Although the backpacking, budget watching couple were about to give this 'highlight' a miss, we were put straight with a 'How can you come to Lhasa and not visit the Potala Palace? Sacrilege!' from Lai Har, part time Hard Travel Warrior. Ironically,'sacrilegious' was about to become a hot topic involving this weekend travel warrior friend herself. It is an amazing construction, seeped in 1500years of history and spirituality, many floors are not open to the public however those that are give an insight to the home of the Tibetan government and spiritual leaders. A village, home and office that should have, could have continued to exist. If one finds a quiet corner amidst the gold, bejewelled stupas and fiercely staring protector gods and listens hard enough, one will hear the quiet whispers from the walls through the former 'corridors of power'; gently singing of how it misses the community it was built to house.
A great pit stop is the nearby milk
Big grins at the Sera
Eh, who is that crazy ang moh talking to us ah? Nevermind lah, he is quite a funny guy
bar at the exit which one can get a sanitised cuppa of the famous Yak Butter tea along with a Ham and Cheese Sandwich. Another interesting food place overlooks the Jokhang from the Northeast of the square, dinner can be had on the roof as the sun sets. The stewed Mutton with 'Tibetan bread' consisted of melt in your mouth succulent mutton drenched in a sauce that could be soaked up with the crisp on the outside, soft on the inside bread. Another must-try is the Yak tongue - don¡'t let the name put you off - even Richy liked it after first turning his nose up at it! For a good overall, try the Potala Atmosphere Restaurant on Beijing DongLu.
Out of the monasteries that we visited in our whole trip, Sera contains some of the friendliest Lama¡'s. With numerous alleyways and leading to living quarters, kitchens and schools, it was a joy to explore. As we noticed lamas decked out in their semi-formal gear (much like Oxford students in their academic gear), we tagged along and were led to a chapel getting ready for their afternoon meeting. In a room glowing from soft sunlight streaming in through
the skylights, the congregation took their places and began running through their sutras. Kindly invited to sit in, we tried to be as unobtrusive as possible in our little dark corner, as each of us were drawn in differently by the alto vibrations of group chanting. By steep contrast, the daily debating undertaken by the junior lamas as part of their further exams, is a loud and confusing affair. Resembling a human zoo, group tourists gather round the open air courtyard boardered by an impenetrable wall and some intrusive photographers even walk through the debating groups to take close ups. Not one of the trip's highlights because of this unfortunately - but then we are a member of this ever increasing tourist throng - a dilemma indeed.
Friendship Highway from Lhasa to Kathmandu
We were fortunate enough to have the time to see more than just Lhasa. We couldn't wait to begin the journey towards Nepal crossing the friendship Highway. Transport and guide was arranged through the Foreign & Independent Travellers (FIT) in Banak Shol Hotel. Service was adequate and to the point. This 5 day route covered Yamdrok Tso Lake, Gyanste, Shigatse, Sakya, Tingri and Everest Base
Camp (EBC). Like excited bunny rabbits, we jumped out of bed bright and early and headed off when Nima picked us up at 6am. With a pleasant demeanour and a wealth of knowledge, he covered for the canyon-like gaps in the inexperienced school-going young guide-in-training which was "required" by the Chinese Government to be there for the whole trip (peak season, no other available guides so they pulled the poor trembling youngster out of school to practice her training on us).
Sooner than expected we experienced first-hand the ugly side of the bullying that the Tibetans are subject to. A bullying that is well hidden but poised to strike at any moment should any Tibetan subject be seen to "disrespect" Chinese authority. All bridges in the area are manned by military personnel and the first one we drove over was as the sun rose over the horizon, golden light rays slowly burning off the mist floating on the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Nima slowed to give us a chance to take pictures and by the time we reached the other side of the bridge, The 2 officers henceforth named
">The Brain and his faithful but stupid side-kick Pinky stopped our happy troop. Pinky proceeded to explain some trumped
up charge of either driving too slowly or illegally overtaking on a bridge. As Nima didn't grovel in apology, we were hauled over to the side with the ensuing side-show: Pinky:
"Gee Brain, this Nima Tibetan guy didn't lick our shoes in apology? What shall we do?" The Brain:
"The same thing we do every day in this wonderful dead-end job of standing in our cosy pondok protecting this bridge, Pinky try to show the Tibetans who's boss." Pinky:
"You! Where's your license? Do you know what you did wrong?" (actually, no, since the rules change so randomly. Perhaps the army issue scarf is constricting blood flow to your brain? ) The Brain:
"This man is obviously not getting the point. This calls for a forfeit!" Pinky
: "I think so Brain, but we left the dog in camp."
During the course of this interchange, The Brain suddenly screamed, "NO PICTURES ALLOWED! HOW DARE YOU TAKE PICTURES ON THIS MILITARY SITE!" Spittle flying in terrific directions by the time he completed his little attempt of muscle power. This tirade was directed at non-mandarin understanding Richy who was trying to capture a moment on the riverbank replete with autumn flowers
in the foreground. *sigh* This show of who's the boss was not going very effectively. Despite the threats and despite holding onto Nima's car license for about an hour and a half, they had to eventually let this little troupe go. The reality of this daily intimidation is real and this incident exhibits how far the propaganda of peaceful co-existence is from the truth.
Even the views at Kamba La Pass (4794m), the first high point in a series of passes we will pass along the way, could not remove the metallic bitter taste in our mouths brought on by the earlier incident. As China's political relations with Japan continue to be hampered by Japan not apologising about WWII atrocities, she acts like an Imelda Marcos looking at her shoe collection, China is not willing nor has the ability to understand why the Tibetans harbour such anger towards the authoritarian rulers. Arriving at the beautiful Yamdrok lake
only reinforced the point of bullying and exploitation as it is both a symbol of sacred religious significance to the Tibetans as well as the water source of Tibet's controversial Hydro-electric plant
. With no in flowing river the lake level is already in decline and
at some point in the future will be a sacred shadow of its former self. I guess respect has different means in different minds....
was our main stop for the day. JianZang Hotel, a lovely place with a range of dorm and hotel style rooms run by an English speaking Tibetan doctor, a pleasant man to chat with. After what we witnessed, we made the simple request to Nima that we will only use Tibetan establishments for the trip. It is pleasant to visit the Dzong Fortress standing in the Southern part of the city in the morning when it is quiet. Taking the route through the deserted park, we climbed the crumbling route up and looked out into the town waking up, still shrouded by the morning mist that was slowly being burned off by the warmth from the sun. Heading down on the tarmac road used by cars ferrying tourists too lazy to climb by foot, we were led into the village where the patter of the morning was in its full swing. Children accompanied mothers to the water taps to collect their daily water needs; cows and calves were still tethered to the doorways,
not yet led to the fields; men stood around getting ready for the day, brushing their teeth at doorways and drinking their first cuppa of Yak tea; cow pats smacked onto walls waiting for the sun to dry them out for stove fuel. Caught up with having a laugh with the kids trying out our equipment, peering into the dark confines of lenses and giggling at their pictures, it took us a while to get to Kumbum temple complex. One can climb up the 9 storied chorten
(Tibetan Stupa) through internal stairs, passing by numerous vividly painted murals and praying pilgrims.
was the next place we headed to after leaving Gyanste. Tenzin Hotel, facing the market in the old part of town and a short walk from the Tashilhunpo monastic complex was our base for the night. An amazingly large complex, it only houses about 600 lamas now compared to 4000 in its heyday. This and the fact that the chosen Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, is held under Chinese "protective custody" are reminders of the unyielding control of the Chinese government. The lamas there exude none of the friendliness of those in Sera monastery and understandably
so and one cannot but feel the incredible sadness and anger that sometimes show through from their current situation. The renovations of the Shigatse Fortress are now complete but being nothing but a pretty shell housing empty rooms and corridors is not open to the public.
Leaving Shigatse, we climb up from 3900m to 4500m at the Tso La pass
and have a short stop over to visit the Sakya Monastery
seat of the Sakyapa School of Tibetan Buddhism. The monstary and town was influential for it's teachings in literature, and on history, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics and art other than Buddhism. It is also the seat of Sakya, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism with its leadership lineage based on a hereditary system. With its Mongolian architecture, the buildings are distinct from those to be found in the other areas we had visited and from afar, one can already see the grey, red and white vertical stripes on the buildings which represent not only the trinity of Bodhisattvas (The 3 family protectors of Vajrapani, Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri) but include the Rigsum Gonpo and Sakya government authority. As we were there during harvest time, tractors trundle along
Caught this quick snap as they drove past....
the dusty lanes of the town carrying hay which is also occasionally ferried by a donkey led cart. From the roofs of the monastery one can see the leathery sun burnt individuals out in the fields, working, covered in hay dust being churned up by the wind and children playing by the side if they were not helping with hauling small armfuls of dry hay. There we got Nima to show us what was a traditional lunch, consisting of soup, bread and some vegetables in season and we enjoyed it together with them.
Before driving to Everest Base Camp (EBC), we overnighted in Shegar
(4300m), a non-descript town parked along the highway, also known as the New Tingri, a base to obtain the permit for the Qomolangma
(Tibet's name for Everest) National park fee, a whopping RMB400 for the car and RMB180 per pax. Whilst there, we headed to the hills for a walk and there is where we discovered Lai Har's serious addition to the Blackberry. Convincing us that she was to tired to climb further up, she stopped at a rock, later to be christened Lai Har's Thinking Rock
, and when we were too far to
discern what she was doing, she discreetly whipped out her trusty company issued tool of bondage. From afar, it looked as if she was meditating or at least taking in the breathtaking scenery of snow capped peaks, unending grass plains, cut through by a fast flowing river. Suspecting something amiss as we descended to collect our friend from her Thinking Rock, we closed in with the video camera to capture this sacrilegious act. Astounded at us pouncing on her, she nearly fell off her rock mute in shame and guilt-tinged laughter. It is just a matter of time we circulate the footage to public to raise awareness on the dangers of using the Blackberry! You will be hooked before you know it!
By afternoon on the 4th day, we were at the entrance to EBC
after passing over Pang La (5150m) pass. On the top of the pass you get your first glimpse of this enormous Himalyan master, Everest, and its companions. Pictures are unable to capture the granduer of the mountains that stand there regally in front of you through a full 150 degrees. Silently they look on, with their tops and sides covered by ice and
snow. Knowing it was going to be cold, we scrambled through our luggage to drag out whatever warm clothing we had but still we underestimated the strength of the wind and the wind chill factor it brought. We made a pass at the services of the highest post office in the world (To get your passport stamped, it costs RMB500! I wouldn't even lick the ink that the stamp holds for that money) - another Chinese rip-off. Walking there and back took us about 3.5 hours and for most part, we avoided the road and took a path on its left marked by travellers stones. At the highest point of the trail which sits about 200m above the official base camp, the wind whips the prayer flags up to a frenzy and with splitting headaches from the height and cold, we scrambled down the precarious slopes. Lai Har is born to go down any slope of any height - fast and on her bum. Before you could count to 10, she was zipping down a most dangerous scree filled route as we struggled to get grip to get down. She greeted us with the biggest grin that could be read
along the lines of 'You wimps!', a far cry from the glum face as she was trudging up earlier.
Overnighting in EBC was a highlight for the trip. As the cheaper guesthouse was full, we rented a room in Rongpu Monastry which we shared with Nimo and our guide. All of us were tired but still decided to start a fire to warm the room up. Not knowing the working of the Tibetan fire stove and the first time using dried cow dung as fuel, we ended smoking out the ghosts rather than warming up the room. The trick here being, keeping the air flap closed once the fire got going but as good primary school science students, we thought, more air = more fire and left the flap open creating voluminous amounts of smoke *cough*, *sputter*, *gasp*. Being the only one without a sleeping bag, and situated in one far end of the room, Lai Har endured a sleepless night which she consoled herself as not being as bad as the night she camped in the Annapurna Range when it came down with about 1 foot of snow. A piece of advice when travelling in the Chinese holiday season
is to get to the guesthouse EARLY and check in before heading to EBC. However, we wouldn't have passed on sleeping on the brick blocks covered by carpet as the Tibetans traditionally do, building our own cow dung fire and having a chat with the nuns in the adjacent kitchen. Perhaps Lai Har would disagree😊.
Before heading on to Zhangmu
, we stopped by at Tingri
for lunch and had the most amazing Yak and Mooli soup. Each dropped slurped up to the end. If one happens to have spare clothes or items to give away, get them ready for this town as there were people coming to ask for things. A T and pyjama set put the biggest smile on a young boy's face. The new stretch to Zhangmu is still being built along the walls of the steepest gorge we have been in, making the route treacherous at times with waterfalls gushing off to the side and narrow bits that provided one with a spectacular view of the river below as well as a reminder of how far it was down with the slightest slip. As we headed down and down and down, the surroundings transformed into a
lush green splattered with autumnal reds dusted with yellow from the setting sun streaming through the trees. What a stunning eyeful to the already amazing journey right at the end. A journey of insight, of beauty, of cruelness and a reminder of the sharp edges of humanity.
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