7 Days in Tibet (part 1)

Trip Start Apr 27, 2010
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Trip End Apr 13, 2011


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Flag of China  , Tibet Autonomous Region,
Thursday, September 30, 2010

The past week or so has been spent travelling south towards Everest Base Camp, stopping at a vast lake and four historic monastery towns. I have really enjoyed what I have seen of Tibet – the culture (or rather, what is left of it) is fascinating, and there aren't enough superlatives to describe the landscape here.

One of the most beautiful places I have been on my travels so far is Nam-Tso lake - an immense pool of crystal clear water ringed by a ridge of snow covered peaks. Along its shore are yaks and herdsmen, who are there to give yak rides to tourists and take their photos. I decided to have a go myself. After I mounted the yak, it was led by its nose ring into the lake and the herder took a few photos. Upon inspection, the herder had taken passport style photos of my head! I had to repeat the procedure and have a passing Japanese tourists do the honours,

Nam Tso is one of the highest lakes in the world at 4,700m and a Buddhist sacred site. Alongside the lake there is a holy mountain draped in prayer flags with a monastery at the bottom. I started hiking up the mountain only to find myself gasping for breath like an old man  half way up due to the extreme altitude.

The following day we drove to Samye, home of the first Buddhist monastery built in Tibet. The town itself is tiny, with a single main street of one storey whitewashed buildings. Solar powered kettles line the centre of the street, and livestock wander around aimlessly. There are only a few hundred people living in Samye, but it still evidently warrants a Chinese military base, sternly guarded by a stormtrooper with a riot shield.

The town is dwarfed by the adjacent walled in monastery complex. This was the most sacred in Tibet, and used to house hundreds of monks before it was desecrated by the Chinese during the cultural revolution.The monastery has been partially restored and is fully functional once more, although at a much reduced capacity.

The monastery is laid out in the shape of a giant mandala, with the temple at its centre representing the mythical Mount Meru. As I was walking round the grounds I was told off by an angry toothless old monk – I couldn't work out what I had done wrong until he gestured that I was committing the cardinal sin of walking anticlockwise around the temple, which is a sign of disrespect. After correcting my course, I explored the grounds and overgrown gardens before entering the temple with the rest of my group.

The golden roof of the temple gleamed in the sun as we walked through the imposing gateway into the courtyard beyond. An exotic throng of pilgrims filed past us, spinning their hand held prayer wheels and prostrating themselves as they walked into the main temple. Pilgrims from all over Tibet come to Samye, often taking weeks to make the journey on foot from distant parts of the country. Inside the windowless temple, lit by hundreds of yak butter candles, the pilgrims chanted and made offerings of food and money in order to help buy redemption and secure themselves a cushy existence in the next life.

Samye lies at the bottom of a small mountain, which took an hour to climb up. Whilst recovering my breath at the top, I was greeted with spectacular views of the monastery, the mountainous Tibetan landscape and the nearby river running off into the distance towards towering sand dunes. It was incredibly peaceful at the top, with the only sound coming from the fluttering of the hundreds of prayers flags strung from the summit.

That evening we went to one of the town’s two restaurants where I had what ranks as the worst meal on my year out to date – a plate of inedible gristle. I was soon to learn that outside of Lhasa, due to the difficulties in transporting food and lack of fresh local produce, the food is generally grim.

We left Samye early the next morning, to drive south to the next stop on our way to Everest, the town Gyantse. We ascended a 5000m high pass, zig-zagging up the mountainside, and overtaking on almost every blind corner.  The scenery we passed was like something from a dream – brilliant turquoise lakes, a rainbow, jagged glaciers winding their way down bare mountains and a constant backdrop of snow capped peaks.

Gyantse is another monastery town, and is dominated by a huge derelict fort built on a hill in the style of the Potala Palace. There wasn’t much inside the fort aside from a display of hideous dummies depicting traditional Tibetan life. There was also a monument to Tibetan heroes who battled invading British troops here for two months back in 1904 – I had no idea the British had ever been to Tibet!

Unlike most other towns in Tibet, the poverty stricken old town has not yet been levelled by the Chinese. The roads there were no more than dirt tracks, and livestock were tethered to the walls. Grubby smiling kids ran around throwing stones at each other, and horses and carts trundled by laden with goods. The only indication that we hadn’t been transported back into medieval times was the electricity wires draped across the rooftops.

The 'road’ through the old town led to the gated entrance of Gyantse monastery. It was more of a walled in town, with a huge red wall encircling the various temples and stupas of the monastery, which had been ransacked during the cultural revolution, it’s treasures being looted or destroyed.

The main temple was much like the others we had seen to date – windowless and filled with golden statues of various Buddhas, multicoloured fabrics and the smoke of yak butter candles. Outside the temple lay the gargantuan 15th century stupa which was an incredible  sight to behold.  A seven tiered, brilliant white stepped pyramid, containing 77 chapels to various Buddhas.  Inside these tiny chapels were gaudily painted statues and 10,000 murals. More pilgrims worshipped here too, mostly the usual sultana faced old ladies spinning their prayer wheels around.

After leaving Gyantse, we drove south through farmland, with hundreds of people working in the fields in the absence of any sort of automation. Our drive was interrupted by frequent army checkpoints, where our documents were checked, further enhancing the feeling that Tibet is a giant occupation zone.  
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