Tuesday, July 13, 2010

10 Days in Tibet: Kathmandu to Shigatse

So we had a great trip in Tibet. The price tag was a bit higher than I would have wished, but there is only one flight that goes between Lhasa and KTM so not a lot of competition to bring the price down. Due to Chinese restrictions on travel in Tibet (at least from Nepal) you also have to use a travel agency and be in a group (even if that group is just two people). We ended up going through Borderlands, who have their main office in Thamel, and they were very professional and handled things well. I was impressed enough that I'd use them again. On the Tibet side we had Tashi Delek tours, who I was also happy with, and our Tibettan guide "Jim" was excellent in my opinion and though his English wasn't the best he was very willing to help people out when the need would arise. That came in very handy for us at the end of the trip. 

A landslide about half an hour south of the border crossing.
This was the road we would have to drive on.

So we left Kathmandu early with transportation to the Tibetan border provided by borderlands. Kim and I were accompanied by a friend of ours Donnie, who is in Kathmandu as a research student studying the atmospheric conditions of different areas of Nepal and the effect of pollution and climate change. Anyway we stopped briefly for breakfast and then had a mostly uneventful ride up the Arnaco Highway. It's only about three to four hours to the border with Tibet at Kodari, but roads in Nepal can be unpredictable. Just south of the border crossing we came to a stop behind a long line of cars. In Nepal this can mean many things.

Sometimes it means that there is an accident, sometimes some cows in the road, but this time it was a landslide. As we get into the monsoon season some of those drastic slopes and the poorly designed areas for water run off means washed out roads. In this case about four feet of sand and rock was covering the road for about 150 yards or so. Luckily there was a bulldozer that was put to work and our 4X4 jeep was able to get over the worst of it. Not more than half a mile up the road we came to another slide, this time there was a bus that was thoroughly stuck in the mud. Luckily again our vehicle managed over the worst of it, sneaking between the ridge and the edge of the bus. 

The border crossing was interesting. The Nepali side was easy, just the usual wait for some bureaucrat to get back from a late lunch so he could stamp some paperwork that would disappear into oblivion and then stamp our passports and away we went to the Chinese side. The bridge had a line in the center, marking the bounds between the two countries, on the Nepal side a couple of soldiers sat and joked with each other one slack against the edge of the bridge, on the Chinese side, a pair of guards stood at attention straight as a board. Once we got to the interrogation border crossing area we were told by some Chinese military personnel that the person that would check us at the border was away at lunch, and since we had to wait would it be OK if these men practiced their English with you? 

The premise for stopping us was a farce, and if the guy had just asked if we would converse with the Chinese soldiers I would have been happy to do so. Kim and Donnie conversed with them a bit and they took some pictures of them talking with us. After this was over we proceeded inside to go through the screening area. Our laptops drew considerable attention and we had to go into yet another room and wait for a specialist that would look through our computers. They searched through my pictures and video, and they made me delete a video I took at the Losar Celebration in Bouddha as in the background there was a picture of the Dali Lama. Sigh. Kim had the same problem with some photos she took while at Kopan monastery. It's digital media people...you can download it or e-mail it, the great wall of the Chinese have tried to erect against digital media seems about as effective as most walls. It doesn't really work.

As a quick note to people travelling into Tibet; if you have porn on your computer get rid of it. Now luckily I have behaved myself, and I don't keep any on my laptop, ever. As they did a general search on my computer for *.JPG I was thanking myself for not doing so. Explaining explicit images to a room full of Chinese military guys, my wife, and having it be witnessed by all other travelers in the room could have been embarrassing. All I could think of was a friend I have back in the states (who will go un-named) trying to go through this checkpoint....the explanations would have been hilarious.

Chinese road, just north of Kodari.

So with the crossing into Tibet over with, we waited in our bus for the rest of the tour group to arrive. There were ten western tourists in all; 3 Americans, 3 Polish, 1 Peruvian, 1 Brazilian, 1 Australian, and 1 Greek, with our Tibetan guide Jim and our Chinese bus driver. The first thing you noticed in China was that the road was excellent. It was built through some tough as nails terrain, and despite this it appeared to have been engineered quite well, and even drainage and water flow was taken into account. To be honest, that road looked like one hell of an engineering project and I was a bit envious of the people that got to work on it (the engineers, not the manual labor). 

Yak train in the streets of Nyalam.

From the Nepal border the road climbed high up immediately. The lush greenery, steep cliffs and waterfalls gave way to a drier rolling windswept landscape dominated by Yaks and shaggy goats. Our first night was spent at the town of Nyalam. It appeared that this town was a major stop over point for Indian Pilgrims on their way to Mt. Kailash, which has some religious significance that I am unaware of. Signs in multiple places asked these guest to please not urinate on their walls. Indians have a habit of just dropping their trousers and going wherever they can go. Aside from the Yaks all over town, this town was not very memorable.

Mustard and other crops near a Tibetan village.

This first real day of driving in Tibet would be our longest of the entire trip, driving over 180 miles and reaching our highest point at the Gyatchu La pass the elevation of which was over 17,000'. The landscape was much more Mountainous than I had expected. I had always envisioned the Tibetan Plateau to be flatter. The base of the plateau seems to sit at roughly 12,000 feet or so and then there are many hills and mountains that rise from that elevation. This entire region sits in the Himalayan rain shadow, so it is very dry. The water and irrigation that is used all comes from glacial melt or the rain that does occasionally fall on the high peaks. This creates some very beautiful contrasting scenery, as the dry land gives way to irrigated fields full of mustard and potato. 

Prayer Flags, Tong La Pass

The other thing I could not get over when looking back at my photos (and while there) was the sky. It was just breathtaking. It's varying deep shades of blue always contrasted spectacularly with the brown landscapes, and puffy white clouds that looked like they had been stolen right out of a thanka painting. Tibetan skies will go down as one of my must see things in the world. 

We crossed three high passes that first day, and they like all the subsequent ones were marked with an extraordinary amount of prayer flags. The first pass was the Tong La (16,725'), the second was the Lalunga La (16,439) and as mentioned the high Gyatchu La (17,104'). It should have been possible to get a view of Everest at these passes, but clouds from the monsoons had buffetted up against it and in between, making such views impossible. Since I've seen the mountain several times, I didn't feel like I missed much, in the end Everest is kind of an ugly mountain that happens to be very high. I'll take a glance at Ama Dablam any day.

Tibetan house with ruins in the background.

Another thing that struck me as we rolled through the countryside were the number of old or ruined forts. In the above picture is not only a fine example of your standard Tibetan architecture (at least for this region) but if you look closely in the background on that raised area near the river you can see the ruins of a fort and walls. These were placed on many of the high strategic points coming into valleys or at choke points near where a river began to spread into a wider area. I have no idea if these were one time fortifications, monasteries, or just small towns, but there were tons of them.

The town of Tingling was kind of like the wild west.

We had lunch that second day in a town called Tingling, just a village that seemed to be expanding quickly on the shiny new Chinese road (which was very comfortable to ride on by the way). Tingling felt about as much like the wild west as I think I will find in this day and age, minus the gun slinging, boozin and whorin that is usually depicted in such settings. Horses were tied up outside the local restaurants, and men and woman walked around with wide brim hats. The dust blew across the road, and had tumbleweed followed I could have sworn I was in a bad 1950's movie. 

Nomads camped on the side of the road.

Another thing that was kind of intriguing was that there are still nomads in tibet that live in tents and heard their yaks, goats and sheep from one pasture to the next. Despite their Buddhist roots, Tibetans never seemed to take to Vegetarianism, as it really isn't a place where one can be easily sustained on a meat free diet. This was fine with me, as I had yak chili, yak steaks, yak burgers, plenty of mutton and some goat thrown in when I wasn't looking. Kim though was stuck to a more bland diet that mainly consisted of variations on fried rice. THe nomads know where the good eating is at, Yak when done right is quite tasty.

Cow & Tractor in the town of Lhatse.

Our second night was spent in the town of Lhatse. The place we stayed at was a guest house again, without a shower, but the rooms were nice enough. It's not like I was hiking all day sweating and stinking up my clothes, I just sat on a bus and took pictures. Anyway the town itself was the biggest one we had stopped in so far, and after a little shopping and looking around it was time for dinner. We went into a small local place that appeared to have Chinese style hot pot.

Now I've described hot pot dining in this post HERE, and it is a lot of fun. Now as our hosts didn't speak English and we didn't see hot pot stuff on the menu we pointed over to the table with some fairly inebriated Chinese folk enjoying the food we were looking for. After a lot of pointing and motioning we got what we were looking for. I still have no idea what most of the stuff I ate was, but it was extremely good, and Donnie got to try chicken feet for the first time, and most likely the last. 

Flags and fellow travelers at the Tso La pass.

Day three was a much shorter drive taking us over the Tso La (14,740') and to the city of Shigatse (Xigaxe). The landscapes here looked more like what I would expect to see in Colorado, not so much what I expected in Tibet. The temperatures were very warm in the sun, but could get quite cool if the wind was going at the high passes and you managed to find some shade. 

Prayer wheels surround the Tashihumpu Monastery.

In Shigatse itself we spent a bit of time walking around the Tashihumpu Monastery. The outer rim of this place had a path of prayer wheels longer than any place I had ever seen. Many elderly Tibetans were walking around this area and it gave me a good excuse to get to the back side and climb up the hills and cliffs for a good view of the monastery and the city.

Tashihumpu Monastery and the surrounding area of Shigatse.

Having climbed up to the cliffs above and taken my pictures we rejoined Jim and our travel companions for a tour of the monastery. It appears that during the cultural revolution a lot of these sites were destroyed, many of the tombs and pagodas sacked. The ones that were saved had been used for barley storage and thus evaded Chinese destruction. The man that seemed to be responsible for fixing a lot of this stuff in the aftermath of the cultural revolution was the 10th Pachen Lama. His tomb is in a pagoda here and was quite impressive. Also here is a pagoda that contains the remains of Pachen Lama 5 through 9, as their tombs were destroyed in the aftermath of the cultural revolution.

Puja at Tashihumpu, home of the Pachen Lama.

The current Pachen Lama is only 20 years old and though he spends most of his time studying in Beijing, his home is this monastery. While we were here in fact many Chinese security people showed up, as the Pachen Lama arrived home from his studies. Despite our efforts we missed seeing him, but we did get to sit in on a Puja. The monks seems a bit half-hearted in their chanting to be honest, though the spectacle was quite interesting to watch. The monks were brought milk tea while they chanted and overseer monks walked by the young monks to make sure they were chanting as they should. Many of the monks seemed to be more interested in throwing things at each other, whispering to each other and giggling. This was the yellow hat sect, one of the four main sects in Tibet, so called because of their very large yellow hats.

Yes, that is a bucket of rice with my Kung Pao Chicken!

As a closing note I would just like to say that the above picture does a good job of summing up the food on this trip. My food was great, in this picture it is Kung Pao chicken. You can see Donnie's sweet and sour pork, which was also very good. On the left is literally a bucket of rice, which was served with a wooden paddle, very cool. Where is Kim's food? Who knows. Kim's food , with a few rare exceptions, always seemed to come late, and was rarely all that good looking. It didn't matter if she ordered momo's or noodles, fried rice or mixed vegetables. That chicken dish was awesome, but vegetarians beware...China doesn't seem to be the place for you.

Next I'll cover the part of the trip that goes from Shigatse to Lhasa, and flying back to Kathmandu.

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