Thursday, July 15, 2010

10 Days in Tibet: Shigatse to Lhasa

The second part of this trip was even a little better than the first. From Shigatse we headed for Gyangze which was the suprise location of the trip, in a good way. Gyangze is in my opinion one of the best kind of places when you are traveling, you don't expect anything, and you find things that rival some of the best tourist spots in the world.

Picturesque fields on the way to Gyangze.

Day four of our travels was our shortest day, taking us from Shigatse to Gyangze. No high passes to cross or anything else, this section was a flat wide valley. The ride was almost entirely uneventful save for our driver getting pulled over for speeding at a speed trap. Things aren't that much different in most of the world, like in my country the speed limit is set too low and the fines are set too high, it's essentially a legal way to rob people. In this case the speed limit was 30KM/H (under 20 MPH), but after an hour of talking to the cop, and a few phone calls that resulted in the cop getting a phone call (we found this all out later) our driver was allowed to go on his way. 

Kumbum Stupa, one of the most interesting monuments I have been to.

Gyangze is dominated by two monuments, the Phlkor Monastery which also includes the Kumbum Stupa and the Dzong fort that sits atop a spire of rock in the center of town. These two sites, combined with the scenery around this town made it far and away my favorite stop on the trip. Included in our tour group was a walk through the Monastery and Stupa. Now most Stupas you can walk around and maybe there are some statues and what not around it. This one was a full structure with tons of small little rooms, hidden Buddha statues that  were almost 15' or more tall, plenty of small alcoves that housed gorgeous paintings, and small passageways and ladders that allowed you to wind your way up through the base of the stupa to the top. Now different things appeal to different people but the combination of architecture, paintings, uniqueness, and setting made this a really wonderful surprise for me.  

Dzong Fort, perched above the town of Gyangze.

Now any one that knows me, knows there are two things I can't resist; ancient buildings (Kim just calls them ruins) and climbing high craggy places overlooking a new town i'm travelling through. when these two things are combined, the urge to venture over to them is almost irresistible to me. So when we rolled into Gyangze and I saw Dzong fort there was no question in my mind that I was going to visit it whether it was in our tour or not. So once we were finished at the monastery Jim told us how to get up to the fort and we left our tour group to climb up.

Mannequins re-enact a trial in Dzong fort.

The fort seemed to be in fairly good shape, but it also appeared deserted. There were plenty of areas I would have happily explored if I had a head lamp or something with me, but some areas including the forts dungeon were just too dark. We could however see a pair of poor mannequins playing the part of some people that had been tossed down into the dungeon area. Another set of mannequins re-enacted what I guess must have been some kind of sentencing or trial. Judging from the fact that the accused was on his belly, his legs tied, some dude sitting on his back and two other guys had whips, I'm guessing he was going to be found guilty. We also found an old monastery in the fort that predated the one we had just visited, I believe a sign said 14th or 15th century. It was dark, but there were some really nice mandala paintings and the atmosphere couldn't be beat. 

Phlkor Monastery as seen from Dzong fort.

The fort had many levels and a very steep set of stairs brought you up to the main citadel and what some sign told us had been cannon turrets at one time. From this height you got a great view of Phlkor and its grounds as well as the surrounding city and the wide valley and river. This fort was a great find and I'm not entirely sure why tour groups would skip it. Out of our group of ten we were the only ones that bothered climb around it, and it was one of my highlights on the trip. Anyway, if you're reading this and will be passing through Gyangze, don't miss Dzong fort, really cool place, architecturally interesting, lots of history, the monastery is quite interesting, and the views are spectacular.

For those who remember the place of Jump in Cliff from my Lost in Translation: Tibet Edition, well this is the place of the hero martyrs of jump in cliff. The Chinese have erected a large monument called Hero monument just below the fort as well. somehow Mao got involved in the depictions. Anyway, apparently some Tibetans jumped off the fort walls and into the assaulting British, maybe with explosives, I'm not really sure. Whatever they did, the main road in town is now named Hero Rd. after them and they got a couple granite monuments. 

Cook preparing my chicken and mushroom dish.

So after our adventures at the fort we walked around town a bit and had dinner. This one restaurant owner had enthusiastically invited us in earlier, and as we didn't see anything that looked better we thought we'd give him a try. His prices were definitely tourist prices, and he presented us with reviews from other guests and all the normal silly stuff at tourist traps, the pictures of flaming sauce pans did intrigue me though, and I ordered some chicken and mushrooms in a Chinese brown sauce. True to his pictures the guy produced a flaming pan, and some really decent food, at least for me. I think Kim's was sub par as usual for this trip. 

Countryside en-route to Lhasa 

Our last day of driving would be the second longest of the trip, passing two lakes, and crossing three high passes; a total of 161 miles and a max elevation of 16,454'. The terrain was quite fertile for Tibet and we followed the river up to the mountains, where it appeared to be dammed up with a hydro electric project.

Artificial Lake viewable from Simi La.

Almost immediately after taking the road east out of Gyangze you start to climb to the first pass which is the Simi La (14,174'). as this pass sat right above the artificial lake that had been created for the hydro electric project, we got some great pictures. The glacial till from glacial run off always makes the water a bright aqua color, and it really is beautiful, I never get tired of looking at glacial rivers or lakes.

Glacier and Stupa at Kharo La.

From there our bus followed the river in a north-easterly direction for quite a while before finally breaking away from the river and heading east. Here we came into a valley at the base of the Kharo La pass, which was quite scenic with Nomads, Yaks, shaggy goats and glacial peaks. As the road headed up into the pass we stopped for a minute at what appeared to be a group of tourist stands selling an assortment of junk, plenty of people holding baby goats and asking for money if you took their photos and a stupa that sat at the base of a glacial peak. As the stupa didn't charge for photos I took its picture and once back on the bus we headed up and over the Kharo La (16,454')

Yamdruk Lake

From that pass we descended to the town of Nangarze where I enjoyed a yak burger for lunch. Although yak can be a bit tough it has a great flavor, and once it is ground into burger and mixed with a few herbs it really does make for an excellent hamburger. Someone should raise these things in the states, and make burgers there with them yum. Anyway from here we continued on and soon came to Yamdruk lake, which is a sacred lake in Tibet. Apparently once a year people do full prostrations all the way around this enormous lake, apparently this takes five days to do. 

Yak all decked out at Kamba La.

It was becoming very evident as we headed up Kamba La pass (15,666') that we were getting to be within day trip distance from Lhasa. At each stop there were more and more tourist stalls, and the people were dressed up in "traditional" costumes. Even the yaks and dogs were all dressed up in order to attract attention from the tourists, who they could then ask for money for the pictures. We were even offered yak rides, but this kind of silliness deters me from participation, and as fun as a picture of a yak might have been, I couldn't encourage this kind of behavior. 

This was the last high pass of the trip, and from here we descended to where the Khasa river and the Tsangpo come together. From here we followed the Lhasa river up stream and after another hour and driving through the most fertile country we had seen yet in Tibet we arrived at the modern Chinese city of Lhasa.

The iconic Potala Palace in Lhasa.

Don't get me wrong, Lhasa had its charms, and it was one of the best stops on the trip, but much of what it was is no longer there, and that which is Tibetan is quickly on its way to becoming all a museum in this city. If you want to see Lhasa while there is some Tibet still left in it, I'd say you have five or so years to go, otherwise what you'll see will be a sanitized museum presented by the Chinese. In some ways I almost felt like that is already the case.

The hotel we stayed at was great in my opinion, it was done in the Tibetan style (bathrooms aside) and the proprietors were very kind and helpful. It was in the Tibetan section of town just south of Jokhang temple, the spiritual heart of the city. Regrettably I can't remember the name of the place to save my life, I do remember that the attached restaurant was Lhasa Namaste (EDIT: Kim found the hotel name- Trichang Labrang). Roaming around the old part of town we came upon more than a few monasteries, and tourist stalls that kept us interested. Potala palace lived up to expectations, but it didn't exceed them. It photographs spectacularly from the outside, and inside are a lot of great paintings, interesting architecture, pagodas, and other Buddhist paraphernalia to keep you interested. There is a time limit inside of one hour, so you do feel a little rushed.  

Jokhang Temple is the most interesting site in Lhasa.

Jokhang temple, which I was only vaguely aware of before the trip, is in my opinion the highlight in Lhasa. This temple was supposedly built over a lake by a Nepali princess, and it contains one of the holiest statues in Buddhism. All day Tibetans travel clockwise around the temple, and the two incense burners out front of the temple are constantly being stuffed with sandalwood and other fragrant plants. The Chinese of course also make this one of their most visable areas, and patrols of five soldiers are regularly seen here, even in the picture above. Just to be rude they walk around the temple in a counter clockwise motion.

Buddhist texts, Sera Monastery.

Around Lhasa are a number of monasteries, we visited two of them. At these two as well as many of the others  had visited, especially in Potala palace, I could not get over the volume of Buddhist texts on the walls. As the picture above shows only a small fragment of one room, you have to imagine a wall like that stretching on for over a hundred feet and being about 20' high and you start to get a sense of how many texts were stored in some of these rooms. It was really cool to see, and in one printing room they showed us how they were made, and Jim explained how very old texts had been preserved through some ancient lamanation process that included a poison to deter insects.

Monks at Sera Monastery debate.

Another interesting thing that we got to watch were the monks at Sera Monastery debating. The answering monk sits, while the one that asks the question stands over him. As he finishes the question he claps his hands and pulls his beads up his arm, as if to pull the answer out of the questioned monk. I thought this looked like a lot of fun, but my Tibetan isn't up to the job, nor is my knowledge in Buddhist philosophy. I did get me a little interested in possibly visiting Kopan in Kathmandu for such an event though. 

Kim and Mariana in front of Jokhang Temple

Another highlight for us in Lhasa was that we got to meet up with some friends from back home that we had purposefully coordinated trip dates with. Mariana and her boyfriend jay were traveling through China and got to Lhasa the day before the rest of our tour group headed to onward destinations. Kim and I planned for a couple extra days to explore the city and visit with our friends. We got to go to dinner a couple times and Jay was a bargaining master in helping us to secure some souvenirs from the trip. They are actually the first people we have seen from back home since we moved out here to Asia. It's a little odd bumping into people you know from home in a location like Lhasa, even when planned, but in a good way. was great to see them, and I was a little jealous of their itinerary, as I would love to take that train from Lhasa, and have been wanting to visit Xi'an.

Pools and temples at Norbulingka, The Dali Lama's Summer Palace

With the additional time we went to some other small monasteries and also visited the Dali Lama's summer palace at Norbulingka. This area was quite beautiful, but sections still appeared to need major restoration, and many of the buildings could not be entered. Still it was a great way to spend the day, and the copius amounts of trees and greenery kept that intense sun and heat off you, I guess that's why it was the summer palace. The one thing I will advise against here is the zoo. Now anyone who has been to Asian zoos before knows they can be sad affairs, where the animals are obese from people feeding them crackers and processed bread, combined with a lack of space for the animals. Now I am no PETA member or some animal rights nut, but this was the saddest zoo I have ever been to in my life, worse than any others I've been to in Asia. Some animals were clearly damaged from their confide conditions or as a result of undernourishment. The snow leopard, the only thing I really wanted to see, was walking around in circles shaking his head like he had brain damage. Sigh.

Flying over the Himalaya

Now before we left Jim helped arrange our transportation to the airport since we weren't with the rest of the group (thanks Jim!). Getting out of China was much easier than getting in, but our flight was delayed for about an hour an a half, I think due to the military transport that was being loaded up at the airport next to our bay. I think the Chinese had brought in lots of troops for the Dali Lama's birthday, just in case, and now they were going to keep an eye on people somewhere else, maybe Urumqi or Kashgar. The flight gave some fantastic views though, especially when crossing the High Himalaya. Everest was visible on one side, and I think this is the mountain that sits on the border of Sikkim and Nepal, the throne of the Gods or something like that. Anyway its cool to be cruising at 31,000' and look out your window and see a mountain, not just below but beside you.

Great trip over all, and glad we got to see things before they change even more than they have. Before I start posting about Nepal again though I do have one more Lost in Translation post for the stuff in Lhasa, and I think a couple of shirts take the cake as the worst English I have ever read.

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