Old Historic Tibet with Kevin and Nate

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Sunday, July 30, 2006



A Tibetan saying says: "No king earlier than Nyatri Tsanpo, no palace earlier than Yumbu Lhakang, no village earlier than Yarlung Suokha, no buddhist scriptures earlier than Pankong Chagya"

The Yarlung Tsampo river flows from near Mt. Kailash as one of Asia's major rivers, through the heart of southern Tibet, and into India and Bangladesh, where the river is called the Brahmaputra. In the middle of Tibet, south of Lhasa the river is surrounded by some of the oldest places and events in Tibetan history.

It was here where the six ancient clans of Tibet were conceived by a compassionate monkey and a demonic ogress, the geomantic symbol of Tibet.

It was here where the first king, the first village, the first fields, and the first palace of Tibet existed, as Tibetans left their caves to live in open ground.

It was here where the oldest monastery in Tibet was constructed.

Kevin, Nate, and I arrived in Tsetang without concrete plans. After eating at Tashi's and consulting with taxi drivers, van drivers, and restaurant owners, we decided to tour the Tsetang surroundings, with its rich history and surrounded by mountains taller than any found in the continental United States.

Our first stop was the Yumbu Lagang, the oldest castle in Tibet, perched high on a cliff. Once it was the palace of the first king Nyatri Tsanpo. Now it serves as a small temple, rebuilt following the Cultural Revolution.

A multi-lingual sign in the castle reads: "Since the liberation of Tibet owing to the State's consideration over its renovation and preservation of objects, in 1962 it was listed into the Tibetan Autonomous Regional Preservation Area, and in 1984 it achieved a sizeable sum of money from the State for its preservation and administration..."

Nate enjoyed giving donations to the temple and spinning the prayer wheels. He spun them so rapidly I think he's guaranteed enlightenment, as the prayers would whirl around inside the wheels.

Beckoning us further was a steep ridge to the north, covered in prayer flags. We hiked around the ridge on sheep trails and eventually reached the top of the ridge, overlooking the fields in the valley and the castle. We continued to the other side, descending another ridge to an incense burner. Finally, we hiked through the fields of ripening wheat and barley. In the valley, fields were fertile and the climate suitable for wheat.

We finished the day saying "hello" to the friendly hotel staff and eating dumplings next door, home of the Dumpling Man, who always greeted us with a smile and patted Nate on the head. Afterwards, we couldn't help but search night town for some popsicle treat.

The next day, we visited the oldest monastery in Tibet--Samye, the Glorious Inconceivable Temple of Unchanging Spontaneous Presence. The temple was designed as a mandala replica of Mt. Sumeru (Mt. Kailash is considered the physical mountain representing Mt. Sumeru) and the cosmos.

Although we thought we were going to take a ferry, a new bridge easily took our bus across the Yarlung Tsampo. From there we bused through large sand dunes, which line the river for much of its journey through Tibet, and over a few small passes.

Once again, Nate found the inner kora; we took a couple of trips around the temple, spinning hundreds of prayer wheels. The murals around the outside were badly damaged, unfortunately, but inside were newer murals, images of Shakyamuni and many other Buddhist figures, most twice life size.

Around the central Jowokhang was a dark inner kora circuit. Using my headlamp, Nate shone light on the murals--buddhas, praying people, animals of all kinds. On the way, we found a hidden room and explored the deep recesses of the temple.

The third day, we hiked to the cave of the monkey and the ogress on Mount Zodang Gongpori. This cave was the place where a monkey emanation of the Bodhissatva of Compassion and an ogress mated to create the six original Tibetan clans. Supposedly, the monkey symbolizes the compassionate aspect of Tibetans where the ogress represents the violent and destructive aspect of the Tibetan character.

After a couple hours of hiking, we reached the cave, passing pilgrims on their way down. I lit some unburned cedar as incense before we continued to the summit of Mt. Gongpori. At the summit, we ate snacks and took a nap before heading down a slope through wildflower fields. One of the most noticable things about climbing the mountain, is that Tsetang is along the flyway to Lhasa airport. Planes flew over at regular 30 minute intervals, with twenty or so scheduled per day. Everywhere else in Tibet, I hadn't even seen a contrail. We finished the day with some well-deserved dumplings at Dumpling Man's restaurant.

On the last day, after a brief morning wrestling bout with Kevin that only good friends can have, we traveled to see some piles of dirt. The piles of dirt were probably the low point for my trip in Tibet so far. Although historic, they had the shape and form of New Jersey landfills, although much smaller. Someday, the New Jersey landfills will be historic too.

Hundreds of years ago, when the these piles of dirt were actual tombs, the place must have been much more interesting. Each king had his life's treasure buried in these tombs, which included interior temples. Unfortunately, these tombs have been plundered and the rain has melted much of their former shapes. We also visited a castle the early kings used: ruined but still interesting, with a large rock swastika in the middle of the courtyard.

Kevin and Nate had to leave for Lhasa and catch a plane the next day, so I bid them farewell at the bus station. Until next time...
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