Our first stop was Yangpanchen Gompa (which is Tibetan for monastery). Its the historical seat of the Sharmapa. Perhaps you have heard of the Karmapa, who is the Black Hat lama of the Kagyupa Order and escaped over the mountains in 1999 when he was 14 to India? Well the Shamapa is the Red Hat lama and he too has escaped Tibet but for Nepal
. The gompa is Kagyupa so noticeably different from the Gelugpa gompas I have been visitng around Lhasa. I met lama Vongjay there who was overseeing some of the rebuilding and he told me the high peak overlooking the gompa is Dridzi Kangri. He wrote it in Tibetan and I had to get Ulle to translate it. I also sat with some young monks practising English and drinking lots of yak butter tea. Some people hate this tea but I don't mind it as long as there isn't too much salt added.
After Yangpachen we headed over the Largen-La pass at 5190m the highest I have ever been on land. We passed some massive prayer flag poles and I threw some windhorses, which are like little wish-granting prayer flags made out of paper. Lake Nam-Tso is in a stunning setting. The water is at 4718m and its a remnant of the ancient Tethys Sea. Its a cold, windswept place, the beginning of the forbidding ChangTang Plateau. The Nyenchen Tangla range overlooks the lake, with a peak of over 7000m. It gives the lake scenery like nowhere else on earth. I stayed in a tent, which was chilly, but I still slept well.
I got some great sunset photos and the next day we did a kora around a big rock to visit hermitages. We visited a Nyingmapa Order hermitage and met a yogi that lived there, then visited Tashi Dor gompa, both places are built into caves in the rock
. Great scenery but ther wind was fierce. Beautiful place to relax and reflect without the wind. Also saw some other interesting sites like rocks that look like the Namaste greeting and a sky-burial site for children, which is a bit sad.
Our next destination, after hours of battering driving in our Landcruiser, was Reting Gompa. The gompa is located in one of the most beautiful, serene and inspiring landscapes I have ever seen or visited. The monastery is over 4000m and yet is surrounded by a rare juniper forest. Its on a mountain-side, looking down two river valleys and traditional Tibetan villages, watched by numerous snow-topped mountains. Our first full day there, I began the day by drinking coffee while basking in the bright sunshine, listening to Buddha Bar onmy discman. Then I got firmly escorted out of the Main Assembly Hall of Reting as I had arrived during meditation time. Reting is a famous gompa because two of abbots were chosen as Regents of Tibet during the time the Dalai Lama was too young to rule or had not yet been discovered. The Reting lama is trulku, meaning he is reincarnated as well, making him an important spiritual leader.
I decided to do the kora of Reting and found the most pleasant meadows to sit in. I found a place to let my mind both rest peacefully and be inspired
. All around me were grazing yaks, singing birds, the tinkling of chorten bells and even a bunny. I then decided to try the walk to Samtenling Nunnery. I found the sky-burial site that the path is supposed to lead from but started too low on the hillside. I was wandering on tiny yak paths, when up above I saw fluttering prayer flags, just barely visible. I knew I had found the path and after a warm walk, directed by strings of prayer flags, arrived at the nunnery. The big Tibetan mastiffs gave me a less the warm welcome but I soon found three amicable nuns who I spent a fun hour with. They ranged in age from 30 to perhaps, oh, 105. The oldest showed me their assembly hall and even took me into the 500 yr old meditation cave of Tsongkapa, founder of the Gelupa Order that their hall is built around. Then I pulled out all my books and pictures and they were delighted when I showed them the Lonely Planet pic of the Dalai Lama. They tapped the book on the top of their heads in blessing. The nuns also got excited when I showed them pics in the book 'The way to Shambala' of the hidden valley of Khembalung. They clearly knew the legend well. I shared dried fruit with them and they gave me tsampa porridge, which is basically a terrible tasting mixture of barley flour, a different type of flour, perhaps corn, and hot water. I added raisins to make it edible and they all laughed. It was a very nice exchange.
I returned to Reting, had lunch, and got a tour of the monastery from some young monks
. They showed me all the rooms, including a massive shrine of Jampa, the future Buddha, the LP apparently didn't know about when the book went to print. They also have a rare portrait of the current Dalai Lama the monks quietly showed me. Then I returned to the sunny meadow of the morning to sit and appreciate this wonderful place. Just as I was coming out of the forest, I ran into Ulle and Hans who invited me to come for an audience with the Seventh Reting lama down in the valley, where he is under constant guard by the Public Security Bureau. See the current Reting lama is only about 8 yrs old and his incarnation is disputed by the Dalai Lama. The PSB is worried he will be kidnapped and spirited off to India. We were signed in by a PSB guard wearing a sidearm. Oddly, though I was only going to see an 8 yr old kid I felt a bit nervous, like I was meeting a high political leader. The lama was sitting, wrapped in robes. I had on a white hada scarf and I bent down in front of him, whereupon he bopped me on the head with a Buddhist text in blessing. Interesting experience.
The next day we visited the sad and lonely monastery of Talung. This place was heavily damaged by dynamite-addicted Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. We were there to try and find a rare biography for Ulle's research but it turned out not to exist or at least they didn't have it. Then it was over another very high pass and three hours of very bumpy roads back to Lhasa. We had dropped off Hans and Ulle for some hiking so Tashi our driver picked up lots of journeying nuns and other Tibetans along the rough track.
I made it back by 3pm only to find that permit delays meant I am leaving for Kailash a day later. This is fine as I can get some laundry done buy some more supplies, and spend hours and hours typing. I have posted some new photos too. I'm in a much better dorm in Lhasa right now, with such wonders as real toilets and hot water. Its called the Pentoc and is 30 yuan per night. Tasty meals and a new Economist every week!
Yesterday I returned from an absolutely excellent tour of the U region of Tibet. It was a 4WD drive tour that encompassed the holy Lake Nam-Tso and many important monasteries. I was extremely lucky in my travel companions on the trip. Ulle and Hans are a German couple in their mid-late 50s and Ulle is a professer of classical Tibetan. She speaks Tibetan, translates classical texts on enlightenment and made my trip far richer by telling me lots about the monasteries, holy places and items of Tibetan Buddhism. She has a binder she calls her secret Lonely Planet that tells about places and hike and such that most travellers never see.