Time to explore some more of Tibet
Wed 16th September - Travel to Samye
I said that we were heading to Gyantse next, but actually we are going on a side trip to Samye.
Don't you hate it when you 'discover' something good, just as you're leaving a place? I told you about the pototo chips from a neaby vendor, but this morning we got around to trying the 'pizza' from a vendor across the road. We'd heard it was good, and wished we'd bought it earlier. Breakfast this morning was his bread which was a crispy flat bread with seasonings, kinda like a pizza but no cheese. So fresh and tasty.
Outside reception, waiting to carry us to the border of Tibet/Nepal were 4 well travelled 80 series Toyota Landcruisers, just like I own at home only these were petrol.
First stop - petrol. What the? They were there an hour early, wouldn't you fuel up first? Passengers had to get out of the car before it entered the station. When I asked "Why?", I was told it was because passengers might smoke or use their mobile phone. What! Like DRIVERS in China don't!
Finally on our way, we followed the sealed road back towards the airport and through the 2km tunnel that took 60km off the original trip to the airport. On exiting the tunnel we turned left onto a rough and dusty gravel road with the Yarlung Tsangpho River. The Yarlung Valley is wide, with the wide river breaking into deltas and snaking it's way through the middle. Big sand dunes scalloped across the landscape made it feel like a desert at times.
Four hours, with stops,after leaving Lhasa, we were in Samye and ready for lunch. We checked into the Samye Monastery Hotel, the only place to stay in this two cow town. The reception was flash, but we all know appearances can be misleading. Built only a couple of years ago, no one put showers in. Communal toilets that worked on our floor, but not on others, and no showers, not even a cold one. Top and tail from a bowl in our room was the only way to remove the dust from the journey.
We met for lunch in the monastery restaurant. As I walked in I saw a mouse run from the restaurant into the kitchen. That should have been a warning enough and there were so many flies in the restaurant, I dared not look in the kitchen. The restaurant sold beer. My kinda monastery! It was shelf temperature, but we're higher than Lhasa now, so even off the shelf is cool, just not COLD.
This afternoon we toured Samye Monastery. Founded in the 8th century it's the oldest in Tibet. It's 3 temples on top of each other, each one is Chinese Buddist, Tibetan Buddist and Nepalese Buddist respectively. Entering a small door beside the lowest monastery we entered a dark passageway. Lining the walls were 1000 year old paintings. It was eerie and tomblike and without a torch, completely dark. The paintings are on 3 sides and you pop out back at the altar on the other side.
I was given a bit of holy yak butter shortbread to try. Rank! Even water did not rid my mouth of the taste. I will stick to the Scottish style in future. With the smell of yak butter from the candles strong in the air, I was happy for daylight and some fresh air.
With the afternoon free, Amanda and I did a Kora, clockwise circuit, of the temple and four chortens, Tibetan prayer towers.
We wandered the two streets of Samye and encountered cattle, sheep and pigs wandering the street, but careful where you wander - someone forgot to replace the broken lids on the manholes. That, and the turds left by wandering livestock mean you need to watch where you tread.
Men here decorate their motorbikes elaborately, including having a fake rose sticking up from the front mudguard.
How's this for a way to get free energy. People here use a silver scoop about a 1m by .5m with a kettle sitting on steel wire above it. The dome concentrates the energy of the sun onto the kettle and it boils, not quickly, but for free and zero carbon footprint.
I tried a barley wine. Finding it in the supermarked, I thought I'd give it a go. Comes in a can, just 3% alcohol. YUCK! I consider aroma to be a good indicator and I like to smell a wine or beer before I drink it. It should smell like you want to drink it. This did not. The taste was no better. Oh! Well! You win some and lose some, but you've got to try things.
My suspicions about lunch were confirmed and it went right through me. Thank goodness we ate somewhere else for dinner because I was hungry. It was probably the only other place in town, but everyone enjoyed their food, a pleasant change from last night in Lhasa, when no one did.
Walking back was a challenge. Amanda and I hadn't brought our torches and there were no street lights. I knew from our afternoon walk that manholes and manure lay in wait for the careless. We made it back to our room and grabbed our torches, cameras and tripods as I wanted to photograph the temple entrance at night and make the most of a star-filled sky. We got some nice photos and called it a night.
Thursday - Samye to Gyantse - long travel day.
For breakfast we popped back to the same restaurant as last night. The banana pancake and banana lassi came out as apple and apple. "Yes! We have no bananas." Nice of them to tell us.
Our 8 hours travel today began by returning on the same dusty bumpy road we'd taken yesterday all the way back to and through the 2km tunnel. On exiting, instead of turning right to Lhasa, we turned left towards Shigatse. The trip yesterday was effectively a side trip and now we were back on track. (For the quality of accommodation, I don't know why they don't make it a day trip and return to Lhasa and a shower to wash away the dust.)
A new sealed road was a blessing, though it wasn't long before we hit more switchbacks and hairpin bends than anyone cared to count. Our game of cards was suspended as we climbed and climbed and climbed. Over 1000m gain in altitude and we were at the Kamba Pass at over 4700m ASL. The river we'd just come from looked SO far away at the bottom of the valley below. Dropping over the other side, the precipitous drops and bends continued until we were met with the BLUEST lake I've ever seen. I've avoided superlatives of my own on this trip, but I have to say that it was the most amazing blue lake I have ever seen anywhere. Our guide said even she'd not seen it such a vivid blue. Even the photos won't do it justice, because you will wrongly assume that I have Photoshopped them.
We stopped in a nameless town for lunch and the buffet seemed okay. By dinner I would know that it wasn't all good.
As farmers cut hay by hand with sycles on riverside farmland, snow capped mountains and glaciers soared above us to over 7000m. With such tiny terraced blocks, there's no fear of combine harvesters making harvesters redundant here.
We stopped beneath the Kharola Glacier for a photo or two, but it was all a bit touristy with vendors galore, hassling hawkers and costumed people trying to jump in front of your camera for a photo.
I arrived in Gyantse (3980m) late in the afternoon, tired from a day on the road, but elated by the scenery I'd witnessed. The hotel here had a hot shower and even though it was a trickle, I wasn't complaining.
Dust-free and wearing clean clothes, and leaving Amanda to have a nap, I went wandering around Gyantse with my camera, as I do. I found the markets, but they were indoors in a giant shed and not a patch on the lively markets in Lhasa. I walked towards the old fort (Gyantse Dzong), which soars above anything else in town and makes a good reference point. This is the old Tibetan part of town, rather than the new drab Chinese part. This town is where rural meet urban. Horses and traps share the road with Landcruisers, tractors and tricycles. Many of the shops seemed to be selling farm equipment and one even sold yokes, harnesses and bells for all your equine transport needs.
I explored a few back streets and walked as far as the entrance to the monastery before heading back to meet everyone for dinner.
What a rubbish tip this town is. Walking with an empty drink can, I didn't want to throw it on the street, despite the fact that everyone here treats everywhere as a rubbish tip, I don't want to leave a place worse than I found it. Try finding a rubbish bin in Tibet. The streets are disgusting. Sure, some sweeper lady cleans it up each morning before you wake, but is that the solution. From that point on each day, the street is their bin. I watched people sweep rubbish out of their shop across the foot path and onto the street.
Drinks at dinner tonight was a classic case of misunderstanding. The restaurant was busy, which is always a good sign. Rather than wait for table service, I went to the bar to grab 4 beers for those that wanted them. I pointed to Tibet Beer on the shelf and then to the fridge, as if to indicate "Cold please". The barman pointed to the fridge and nodded. I went back to the table and told everyone, "They have COLD beer. YAY!", at which point several more people went and ordered one. Dinner arrived and was enjoyed by all, but still no beers. On enquiring, it turned out that they had only been put in the fridge when I ordered them and he'd understood my request to be, "Can you put them in the fridge?" not, "Are they in the fridge." Tibet Beer claims to be "Beer from the top of the World". Most of us agreed that it's the most flavoursome beer we've had yet, but with Chinese beer so weak and watery, it's not saying much.
After dinner and a game or two of cards, Amanda and I repeated the walk I'd done alone earlier. Most of the shops were shut for the evening, but I did get a lovely shot of the hilltop fort just after dusk.
Friday - Gyantse to Shigatse
We grabbed some fresh buns from baker across the road and filled them with bananas to make a tasty breakfast before meeting everyone at 8:30. We walked to the fort (Gyantse Dzong) and then climbed up the steep steps to the top, arriving before it opened at 9:00. We were the only ones there and had the place to ourselves. With lots of dark rooms and passages to nowhere I was glad I'd brought my torch. 360 views from the top made me feel like a bird. You could see the whole wide flat valley from here. Disappointing to see that the river in the middle of the valley had been lined with concrete on both sides to stop it flooding the valley, yet for thousands of years it has done that and brought the valley the fertility that makes them farm it. Now instead of slowing as the floodwaters spread out, the waters rush past, taking with them the nutrients and just 'wasting' them in the ocean.
Back down to ground level, 3980 metres ASL, we walked to the Baiju Temple built in 1418. on entering the temple you are greeted by a big painting of a cock. I'm not sure why they like roosters so much. Apart from black stained walls from fires, it survived the Cultural Revolution - that decade of China's history under Mao that would be better called the Cultural Destruction. Kill or imprison anyone educated, burn and destroy your temples and any other cultural heritage and what do you have? A county that has has to reeducate itself from scratch and rebuild anything of worth. Most of the monasteries we've visited, although FOUNDED in date X have been rebuilt since the Cultural Revolution. Baiju Temple is the exception.
Today I was in a stupa. No! Not an alcoholic one, The Kumbum Stupa in Gyantse. Built in 1427 and nine stories high, it is the largest in Tibet. It's full of Buddahs and I had photographed enough, so had some fun doing some slow explosure shots and zooming the lens whilst I did it. I got some silly shots.
Amanda, Janet and I walked back along a street I'd seen from the fort. It zig-zagged through the old Tibetan part of town. WOW! What a street! Most houses had a cow or sheep tied up by the front door and cow dung mixed with straw was stacked neatly on walls ready to be used as fuel over winter. No vehicles, this cobbled street was a step back in time. Full of manure, rather than litter, it was only one street back from the main street I'd walked by last night it's funny how you can be so close, yet so far away. One street and yet so different.
We'd unanimously agreed to meet for lunch at the same restaurant as last night. Everyone enjoyed their meals and wanted to try something they'd seen others have. Last night I'd had a great Nepalese vegie curry and now I tried the yak burger with yak cheese that everyone had raved about last night and they tried the vegie curry. Everyone happy again.
It was a short drive of just over an hour on a sealed road to Shigatse.
For the first time, I had the front seat of the Landcruiser. How weird it was to not have a seatbelt. I know. Seatbelt in motor vehicles is Public Safety 101, but in China, not only are they not complusory, they are often absent, meaning you can't even wear it if you want to. I did say that China has further to go in catching up with the rest of the developed world than their progaganda media machine would have you believe. How about starting with seatbelts...and drink driving.
The drive was peaceful. We followed the wide valley, so no crazy mountains to cross. It's the end of summer in Tibet which is also the rainy season. The countryside is filled with Autumnal colours on the trees as farmers fill the fields harvesting their wheat and hay, ready for the dry season. Other groups of workers shape mud bricks with the still damp clay, so they too can dry out over winter, ready to make walls and houses before the rains return in the summer.
At 3900 m and home to 80 000 people, Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet.
having not left Gyantse until after lunch, we arrived mid arvo and after a quick time out in our rooms, we met at 5pm for an 'orientation' of Shigatse. Usually these are good, but this time Ling took us down the street passed the internet cafe, post office and then finally to the laundry to drop off washing. That was it. Time to explore Shigatse on our own. Guess we aren't intrepid for nothing.
We popped into the internet to see who'd sent us a hello email and no sooner had we logged on than they lost power and we all lost our unsent emails. Internet cafes in China are a smokey affair, with everyone provided with an ashtray and most people using it. I've leart to sit near a window for some fresh air, but this one has no windows.
Taking the hint to get out and wander, Amanda and I walked the Kora, pilgrim walk, around the Tashilhumpo Monastery. Unlike the temple in Lhasa, this one is on the side of a hill, so to walk the Kora is a hike. You walk a full circuit clockwise, keeping the temple and numerous prayer wheels to your right. The sun set whilst we were walking and it was a great hike with a nice view of Shigatse, but I feel sorry for the local Buddists who do it twice a day, spinning countless prayer wheels as they go. Some of the people we saw were quite old and decrepid.
We finally found a restaurant, but everything on the menu was, "Yak with ..." or "... with yak." Neither of us felt like much dinner, so we decided to share 'vegetable fried rice' and 'potato cheaps'. Unfortunately the rice came loaded with what looked like, and was, yak meat. The 'cheaps' chips? were shredded potato with dried chillies and Sichuan peppers. Amanda picked them out and enjoyed the potato and I ate the unplanned yak fried rice.
Saturday - A day in Shigatse.
I climbed a 4000m peak before breakfast. When in the Himalaya.....
I'd left a note in reception offering an early hike for anyone wanting to join me and 3 did. It took us 40 minutes to negotiate the maze of old Tibetan house to reach the mountain. I can't call it a trail head because there wasn't one.
Heading up without a path, it got steeper and steeper, until the other 3 piked out. I could see the top and wanted to reach it, so continued on...and now there was one. There was no path and the 'new' rocks of the Himalaya crumbled underfoot. It got so steep that at times I was rock climbing. Not too bad until your hand hold gives way and your heart jumps into your throat before you regain your balance and look again at the long drop below. Sometimes the best feeling comes after pushing your limits and knowing that you have to concentrate because failure to do so could have dire consequences. Too often we take the 'easy road', never challenging ourselves and seeing what we're capable of. I did make it, or I wouldn't be writing to you now, and the view from the top was worth the effort. You could see across the whole wide valley. As smoke settled over the waking city, I pondered that if Shigatse were the size of a Chinese city, it too would have problems with smog. Until then, I'm enjoying the blue sky. Scrambling back down, I came back to the top of the Kora hike I'd done last night and from there it was an easy walk back, or at least it should have been. I'd seen people brown-eyeing me and thought they were being rude. Turns out they were relieving themselves in public. That's right! People here use the street, alleys or anywhere actually, to have a leak or even a dump - no paper used. Walking around Shigatse is like a minefield. It's crap. I've renamed this place Shitgatse.
I made it back just in time to join the group for a tour of the Tashilhumpo Monastery. ABM mostly. Biggest this, oldest that, and highest something or other. These Buddah statues had piles of money below them. Not sure if they get more, or the monks take longer to remove it. It seems that Buddism is not immune to vanity. Each lama raids the coffers and milks the poor to make a giant Buddah, for which THEY will be remembered for having built it.
What was most interesting here is that today is an 'auspicious occassion'. The prayer leading monk is being replaced and they throw a party to celebrate. It began with a few hundred monks wearing carpet on their heads assembling in the monastic square. This afternoon will be music and dancing.
Lunch today was Tibetan Yak Curry. It came presented on a partitioned stainless steel platter and looked more at home in a prison.
In the afternoon, we joined the town crowds and watched the monks dancing carefully and choreographed to the sound of bad monastic 'music'. Slow and tuneless, it's no wonder the dancemoves were like a stick insect. It did make for some good photos and the crowd provided some great 'people photos'.
Tonight I had a great dinner and so did the others who went to the same place, another Tashi. After dinner 6 of us stayed and played cards until late.
Sunday - Leaving Shitgatse.
I awoke to a thunderstorm and rain at 1am.
When I went for a walk in the morning there was only blue skies to see and the streets were fresher.
Three truckloads of soldiers clad in riot gear unloaded in the rear of our hotel and headed straight out to patrol. At a nearby intersection a column of trucks rolled past, with the smiling faces of soldiers poking out of the rear canvas flaps. I'd not seen and overt military presence here until now, but it seems like China is not taking any chances of anyone spoiling the 60th Anniversary of the People's Republic of China celebrations.
Now its time to drive to Sakya. Heading higher and in two days I will be at Everest Base Camp.
What's with hotel room cleaners that throw out your stuff?
Things on your desk that you want, like a water bottle - gone. Plastic bag on your backpack - gone. If I want to throw it out I will put it in the bin. Spend less time going through my stuff and more time giving the room a proper clean. I shouldn't wipe the bathroom vanity and end up with a brown flannel.