Asia | China | Tibet – Through The Roof
The clichés of Shangri La have been all but exhausted but without a language that aptly relays what only the eyes and the soul can understand, words, as clumsy as they are, remain the only vessel to carry the tale.
Lost in the still-distant call of mantras and caught within the womb-like folds of the rippled Earth, the anxiety was overwhelming. It had taken days to organize and years to dream but we were now on the very edge of the plateau. The ochre earth and the sapphire sky were inseparable. Only a thin strip of road, and a broad band of memories, traversed the vast wilderness that sprawled before us. Somewhere out there, far across mountains and rivers, the holy city of Lhasa was waiting, resting under the weight of Chinese occupation, and riding on the incessant waves of faith that have elevated the city far above the windswept plateau. Like so many pilgrims before us, our focus was set on arrival in the once-forbidden city but our eyes were free wander across the divine landscape that was to bring us there
Sunrise, I stepped out into the crisp mountain air as the sky was wavering between silky ebony and the promising shades of lavender. The stupas rose from the top of the ridge and sweeping bands of prayer flags ran from their summits in all directions. An entangled sea of color that the wind caught, fluttered, and snapped at, like the sails of thousands of tiny ships billowing under the gales and setting a course for the sparkling glaciers of the Meilie Shan range to our west.
Wild characters appeared from the dissipating mist, wrapped in thick coats of yak hide, their braided hair adorned with weighty chunks of coral and turquiose. They followed a small path between the prayer flags and around the stupas. The muffled drones of their mantras and prayers were briskly swept up in the wind and carried through the pristine morning light. After their koras or circumabulations were complete they gathered around us touching us with their hands and playfully questioning with their eyes. There was no shame or embarrassment in their endless curiosity. They felt my sun-bleached hair, gazed through my camera and even took the liberty to make a few ill-aimed photos. The standard question that one hears constantly on the road; which country are you from?, was never asked and indeed it wasnt important. There is a place somewhere over there where these white people come from. They are usually well equipped and for some crazy reason they feel they often feel the need to stand upon the highest and coldest summits that they can find. Crazy they are but its still fun to look at them.
After the pilgrims curiosity had been duly sated they climbed atop a fully loaded truck and disappeared in a trail of song and dust leaving us again in the solitude of dawns amber glare. As if the heavens had conspired to bathe the mountains in liquid gold, the summits were alight with the days first rays. Like the ritual coronation of a rightful king, the sunlight washed down upon the peaks, honoring their majesty and praising the existence of such raw perfection. The five distinct summits were perched upon the frozen spine, chiseled out of the blue ice and granite by a divine hand, their angles and faces pointed to the sky in rejoice, or perhaps gratitude.
My eyes were helplessly drawn to the twisting vertical lines that led up to the slender, curving, pyramid of Kawagebo. The excruciatingly perfect summit is one of the three most sacred peaks in all of Tibet. How this came to be would surely make an interesting story in itself, but standing before the mountain I wasnt in need of an explanation. It was all sacred and it was a glorious morning. One of those mornings when you feel at peace with the Earth, when all that surrounds you speaks in whispered tones of creation of LIFE. Only this moment exists, this one expression of beauty, and this day, this morning, it is all yours. It is where we come from and where we are going. Genesis, journey, and destination comprised in but a single view spread out before your bewildered eyes. Heaven exists, every waking day, in and under the passive eyes of the Himalaya.
We bounced for a short while down the road and then, directly below this towering eloquence of nature, we saw the Mekong River, turquoise blue and winding through the mountain walls that it had created. As sacred as the mountains, this life-giving flow of water was now headed to the steamy plains of Southeast Asia, from where we had come. It was surreal but still I could hear it; the call of a flute under the lazy palms, fishermen drawing in their nets under the warm glow of another setting sun, children playing with scraps of wood on the banks, water buffaloes wallowing in the shallows, and narrow canoes plying the vast reddish waters- these were all songs the river would learn before its journey was complete but for now it still the carried the raw cry of the high plateau, and we carried on, hoping to understand it better.
Some 60 million years ago, in what surely constitutes the greatest traffic collision of all time, the Indian Sub-continent slammed into the Eurasian plate buckling the Earth and sending coastal Tibet towards the heavens. The great Tethys Sea, a vast expanse of salt water that had settled over present-day Tibet, was sent gushing forth from the rising plateau towards south Asia. It was a complicated journey through the most extensive labyrinth on the planet. The rising Himalaya blocked the waters path, squeezing it out through the extremities of the upheaval. The course of time has seen the Himalayas rise more than eight kilometers above the sea and the Tethys Sea has been reduced to several salt lakes scattered about the Tibetan highlands. But the channels that it left in its wake have become the valleys of the greatest rivers in Asia.
Though their sources and destinations are wildly varying, the Mekong, the Salween and the Yangzi rivers all are forced into a narrow corridor less than one hundred kilometers wide and are held separate by three parallel mountain ranges. It was here that a large part of the Tethys spilled across the tropical plains and into the ocean, and it was through this incredibly sculpted terrain that we were now traveling, following the road to the Roof of the World.
Its the longest roller-coaster-ride in the world; climbing to the sun, higher and higher, and then crashing down to the river below, following dramatic chasms and gorges until our sights were again on the sky. And we climbed and we marveled, losing ourselves in the clouds. Glaciers hung from the mountains like forbidden jewels, glistening in the sun, the brilliance of sapphire, the intensity of the sun of the wind, the colors so vivid and immortality so close, and then another bend is rounded and the scene changes completely. Forests of pine and fir congregated in the clefts and folds of the mountain wall and whitewashed villages adorned with harvested barley, intricately painted gables and windows, and the leathery brilliance of chestnut smiles filled the valley. Grain was being threshed and dried on the rooftops accompanied with song and a respect for the Earth that has long been lost in the mechanical trappings and material pursuits of the world that we call home. Although it was a day with month and number, it was as timeless a scene as the very the mountains that surrounded us. The moment wove itself between eternity and the brief span of human life, both of which had brought majesty and spirit to this remote landscape.
The road rose and fell across the Yangzi, above, along and across the Mekong, and over the Salween with a thousand-and-one high passes in between. We had climbed to well over 5000 meters surrounded by barren and desert-like plains and then dropped down to sub-tropical, virgin forests, draped in moss and exhaling mist. The concertina landscape seemed to leap from one continent to the next as if our hungry eyes had been given a sampling of the whole spectrum of earthly terrain in just a single ride. As our eyes scoured the vertical horizons the vulnerable road looked warily to the eroded flanks above and to the tumbled and wrecked vehicles below, our passing had been blessed but many before it had not.
We followed the outer rim of the great Brahmaputra Gorge, passing one of the wildest and most remote regions on Earth. This was among the very last blank spots on the map of the world and only within the last century was this spectacular region discovered. Somewhere behind the eerie bluish glow in the clouds, rose the massive bulk of Mt. Namche Barwa, a 7756 meter obstacle that forces the Brahmaputra River to make a most dramatic loop up to the north and then winding almost completely around it, before crashing through to the Indian lowlands of Assam in the south. Another masterpiece of nature, the gorge is almost 500 kilometers long, measuring over 5000 meters at its deepest, making it (arguably) the deepest gorge in the world. It was into this gorge that our original plans had wanted to take us, but with the coming of winter, waning time on our Chinese visas and the impossibility of obtaining permits, the adventure remains for another day. For now we had to suffice ourselves with the clouded view from the next pass, and the road to Lhasa continued on with a sigh.
Days and days of wonder followed until a crude kilometer-marker announced that we were now 4640 kilometers from Beijing, but standing at the gates of Lhasa the distance seemed, most unfortunately, less. Bland Chinese architecture lined the avenues and the ominous red flags topped every building. Tibet is an occupied land but nowhere is this more noticeable than in Lhasa. Nonetheless the Potala Palace stood impressively over the valley, its massive whitewashed and ochre ramparts climbing to the golden rooftop above. The very existence of this building carries the hopes and dreams of the Tibetan people, for as long as it stands, so stands the hope that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet now in exile in India, will one day return and lead his people to freedom. Sadly, this dream is highly unlikely to materialize in the next decades but, like every great dream, it offers hope and helps to soothe the pain of the past and the oppression of the present.
The journey from northern Yunnan Province through East Tibet to Lhasa had taken eight days – eight days and three lifetimes, and the journey is far from over. Again and again the mountains and the faces return forming crisp images. The road is behind us now but we have not left it. A piece of ourselves will remain in the wilds, waiting for us to return and continue where we have left off. Nowhere on Earth does color and light illuminate quite the way it does in Tibet. It is a wild land where the wind speaks of a freedom that the Chinese have never heard and will never understand. But for those who have, it is a song that they will never again be without.