3 Days Solo Trek, Ganden to Samye Monastery

Trip Start May 01, 2007
Trip End Jun 17, 2008

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Monday, September 17, 2007

In Ganden, walking the lower kora (pilgrimage walk) behind the monastery, I ran into a Tibetan sky burial site.  This is were a specially chosen Tibetan monk takes a corpse, lays it out on a mountain top, and chops the flesh to pieces with a knife to attract vultures to eat the flesh off the corpse.  Once the body has been picked to bones, the monk crushes the bones and mixes it with meal to again attract vultures.  I've read differing accounts and talked with one American who witnessed a sky burial last month in Litang.  Though I didn't have the opportunity to witness a sky burial, just seeing the site with discarded clothing, human hair, and abandoned knives and hammers was an experience I'll never forget. 

After a day of wandering around Ganden monastery, I headed out on what I figured would be a four or five day solo trek across a couple 5000+ meter passes to Samye Monastery.  Most hire yaks, yak herders and a guide and some even hire a cook.  I didn't quite see the need for all that so I set off by myself. 

I can't even begin to describe how moved I was walking alone through glacial Himalayan valleys.  I can't say as I was really alone.  There was another foreigner with 4 yaks, a guide, and 3 other herders about 4 to 10 hours behind me and I knew there were two Belgium guys with a couple yaks and a herder a day ahead of me.  I also ran into incredibly friendly and helpful Tibetans all along the way.  With out their voluntary pointing in the correct direction I would've spent several more hours searching out footbridges or probably would've had to have forded a lot more creeks than I did.  

Nature blessed me with perfect whether everyday, as you can see in the pictures.  I almost cried at how beautiful it was. 

The first day went by easily.  I hiked about 10k in the afternoon and stopped just before the canyon narrowed, a couple hours before Shug-la (pass). 

The second day I decided I try to shorten the itinerary from 5 to 4 days by knocking out both of the passes on the trek.  I felt delighted and in good shape to make it over Shug-la at 5250 meters (17,200 feet) without any trouble and decided my plan was good.  I lunched on some sunny rocks after the pass, overlooking a glacial valley that looked so freshly cut I wanted to strain my eyes to see if I could still spot a receding glacier in the distance.  

A couple hours later I found myself skipping across Tsotup-chu (river), being watched by a group of resting herders.  As I rested and filled up on water, four more herders bringing back some pack-yaks came down the valley from the other direction.  They got themselves and their herd across the river except for two straggler yaks.  So they motioned to me with big smiles to see if I could coax the two yaks across the river.  Luckily these yaks didn't need much coaxing and I relished the opportunity to be a Tibetan herder for a minute.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking up the gradual ascent to Chitu-la (pass) at 5100 meters.  I crossed over and found a small camp site in the canyon on the backside, below two gorgeous lakes.  

The next morning I began the long 50 km descent to Samye Monastery.  After a couple hours of walking, I came to a post-card perfect confluence of two major streams where two nomadic Tibetan families lived.  Both invited me into their tents for tea where I laughed and poured through the pictures in the Lonely Planet Tibet with the kids and the mom.  I couldn't help but smile when I noticed they had an adorable gray kitten roaming around their tent.  The kitten disappeared at one point and the youngest boy knew he could amuse me by revealing that the kitten had crawled under his blanket and was snuggled up on the chilly morning next to the boy's chest.  Eventually I had to tear myself away and hit the trail...plus three cups of butter tea is about my limit.

I spent the rest of the day making great time because of the easy, downhill terrain and wide trail.  I dropped down from high-altitude alpine lakes, through narrow granite canyons, then into a scrub forest valley the slowly widened while the streams grew into a beautiful, roaring river.  

Eventually the valley widened enough that I was passing through villages and fields of wheat.  Kids played with donkeys, children laughed in stacks of hay on rooftops, and every visible adult worked together in the fields harvesting wheat. 

About 5 or 10 km after passing Yamalung Hermitage, with maybe 10 or 15 km to go, I was starting to look for my third campsite.  At this point the trail has turned into a wide, flat dirt road.  A dump truck passes me, just about disappears around a tree-lined turn, then stops.  The passenger hollers over to me in not-so-bad English, offering me a ride into Samye! I figured, what the hell, I could use an extra day in Lhasa to sort out my visa, I'm not really looking forward to camping close to villages, the scenery, though fascinating, is getting a bit repetitive, it's pretty hot out still, and I've never ridden in the back of a dump truck, especially not in China.  After a half hour of bouncing along, the dump truck stops again and I realize we've caught up with the Belgiums!  They pile in and all three of us ride into Samye via dump truck. 

After the grandeur and recent restorations at Ganden, the dusty, somewhat run-down, hot, flat Samye disappointed.  The central temple certainly impresses but I had a hard time gathering much enthusiasm.  I did enjoy a shower, though cold, and a beautiful sunset on the roof of the hotel while I sipped on a cold Roof-Of-The-World Lhasa Beer and snacked on the several pounds of food I had leftover from an over-provisioned 5 day trek that lasted only 3.

In the morning, after a cozy sleep in the fly-ridden, smelly monastery hotel, I crossed over the Yarlung Tsangpo river by ferry and felt relief when, 1, their was a bus to Lhasa waiting on the other side of the ferry; 2, that the bus immediately left despite only a handful of passengers; and 3, that the friggin PSB was no where to be found and didn't hassle or extort me or the Belgiums for not having a proper travel permit to visit Samye.
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girish on

Very jealous!
I'm very jealous, awesome pictures and post! Those pictures totally remind me of 'The Long Way Round'.

skirby210 on

3 days
I think that has to be the most interesting and inspiring part of your trip so far--at least from reading it. Sounds incredible.

Love ya,


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