Asia | China | Tibet – Exploring the country side…
Coming to Lhasa, I had no idea yet how to leave, only that the ultimate goal was Yangoon in Myanmar (Burma). Allthough not plentyful, there were a few options nonetheless: fly back to Kathmandu (and then on from there) for the astonishing fare of 273 USD (260 if you drive a hard bargain) – probably the most expensive flight in the world if you count USD/km.
Fly out to Chengdu in China, then fly from there to Yangoon, not really an option either, seen that this would amount to something close to 500 USD…
Or take the adventure option and see something more of the country in the bargain by renting a landcruiser…
As Jen (female half of the couple that was on our Tibetgroup and half Dutch, half SouthAfrican), was leaning to the last option as well, our only task was to convince her husband Dave that driving the whole bloody end back on the Friendship Highway (which should rather be called the Friendship High Way, seen that it is at quite an altitude but hardly more than a dust track most of the time) was indeed a far better idea than taking a comfortable seat in an airplane…
Well, trust the argumentative powers of 2 girls against 1 guy and it’s clear how we got out of Lhasa!
To oblige Dave however we choose the luxury option and rented the Landcruiser with driver for just the 3 of us.
So off we were, back to Yamdrok Tso, ,the turquoise lake we had already visited on our way to Lhasa. This time however, the sunlight made it a truly amazing picture, with all sorts of blue and turquoise glittering off the lake.
Also, having good wheels instead of the minibus, we could now go to Gyantse (road was blocked before and the minibus couldn’t manage the road). This meant a beautiful drive around the lake this time, with the snowcapped mountains reflected in the turquoise water…
The lake changed into a small mountain stream that we followed into the mountains, only to see it change all of a sudden into a large lake again, with a tiny island in the middle topped by the ruins of on old fort! We stopped at this pass (over 4000m high) to enjoy the breath taking views.
Once around the corner however, it became clear this was an artificial lake, created by a large dam.
Continuing into the High Plateau, we drove past high, snow capped mountains, harsh plains and breathtaking glaciers, seemingly threatening to come down any minute. It’s amazing how many colours white snow and ice can have, especially as the sun is shining upon it.
We had to go on though, because we wanted to get to Gyantse that afternoon, to visit the beautiful Kumbum that was built next to the monastery. Allthough a bit of a sleepy town, with an ancient fort towering over it on one side and the monastery with the Kumbum on the other side, it does deserve the detour!
The Kumbum is several stories high and has a multitude of small chapels on every floor, with both paintings and statues of one particular deity in each. There’s one on each of the four directions North, East, South, West, supplemented by dozens of smaller ones in between. On the first floor we paid them all an enthusiastic visit, but coming to the higher ones, it all kind of blurred in and we satisfied ourselves with the main ones and merely glimpsing into the others….there were just too many of them!
Big preparations were going on for the festival that was going to be held on the next monday, for the Fulll Moon, a holy date in Buddhism.
We almost stayed an extra night, as there were rumours that the monks would do their special Chan dance on Friday already, but it turned out to be simply rehearsels, without all the masks and other ornaments. One thing we did get to admire was an enormous sand Mandala (Wheel of Life in which the 6 different parts of life are depicted), made by the monks for this holy date. A unique sight, as they very rarely go through the trouble of making them with tiny bits of coloured sand!
Off to Shigatse the next day therefore, to try to get our travel permit for Sakye (yet another monastery) and, oh exciting!, Everest Base Camp! This stretch learned us, that we definitely did not wanted to have done this in a minibus – a 4×4 was absolutely called for!
We stopped in a tiny little Tibetan village, where the children were still shy and not used to foreigners roaming the streets. Almost all villagers were busy, either collecting dung – which they dry on their houses and then use in winter as fuel – or helping out with the mixing of sand, water, mud and straw – base for the bricks they dry in the sun. The ever useful yaks stepped stubbornly through the mud, together with their owners. An amazing sight.
Once arrived in Shigatse, we had our first brush with Chinese bureaucracy: we were there slightly before 1 pm, but the office was already closed for lunch, only to be opened again at 4! Not very rejoicing, as we needed to go on to Sakye that same day, another 3 to 4 hours drive!
We took advantage of the wait and had lunch in our favorite Tibetan restaurant (discovered on our first visit) and had a look at the Tibetan market, where we had great difficulties tearing ourselves away without buying anything…
At 4 pm sharp we were back at the Chinese Travel office, only to be brushed off seriously this time: our driver, Lakpa, came back soon enough, but without our permits!
Small problem, especially as Lakpa’s english was hardly any better than our Tibetan or Chinese… puzzled as to what the reason might be and what to do next, we drove seemingly aimless through town. But it’s good to have friends: Lakpa brought us to an english speaking friend of his, who explained that we needed to go back to the office by ourselves, claiming to be travelling independantly – apparently they didn’t like that we had only a driver and not a guide with us. It took a while, but things did work out in the end, after us lying through our teeth to the office clerk.
Well, what can we say, but that we were very happy to have Lakpa as a driver: the road to Sakye was hardly a road on the parts that were not under construction, let alone the parts that were being worked on! Together with the rapidly falling darkness, my first 4×4 experience turned out to be quite an adventure.
By the time we arrived at our very basic dormitory, it was pitch dark and getting cold. In the light of the candles, we quickly put together some hot water noodles with White Rabbit sweets for dessert, before crouching under our thick Tibetan blankets for a good night sleep.
The next morning held a surprising sight for us: unlike all the other monasteries, the Sakye monastery is painted a dark gray with vertical white and orangey stripes on the walls. The same thing goes for some of the houses in the village. I must admit, this gives the place a bit a spooky feeling!
It doesn’t keep the villagers from coming to the Monastery though and it was fairly busy in the Assembly Hall, where one of the monks was making music on a hige seashell. Quite amazing!
And of course, the prayer wheel walls were more than present here as well, with an added twobig wheels next to the entrance – over a meter high each!
Despite the spookyness (or perhaps because of it), happy to have visited… gives you an other idea of how things look (to stay true to a much used and adored expression in Asia: same, same, but different!).
And now, off to Everest Base Camp, with quite some distance to go: first we have to find our way back to the main road (but luckily it’s not dark anymore!) and then into the mountains, getting over 2 passes before reaching Rongphu Monastery at 4950m where we will spend the next 2 nights…