(Click on any of the photos for enlargements.)
We've been back from our trip for almost 2 months now -- what with the shipment arriving, and it being summer and the garden needing work, it's taken a while to digest what seemed like a trip through time -- from west to east: Mt. Kailash and 10th century Tsaparang to a Lhasa that changes almost daily, to a monk's hopeful vision of a Tibetan library and teaching center still being built. I started with the pilgrimage to Kailash that Drew did 6 years ago (same Swiss guy, Roger, organized it for pretty much the same price; info on Drew's trip is here). First you acclimatize for 3 days at Nyalam, a steep climb to 12,000ft. from the border with Nepal -- a truck stop of a town where you can stock up on chocolate, fruit, flashlights and everything that you forgot to bring from Kathmandu. There's no bank (change all your money for the trip at the border -- you'll need a couple of hundred dollars) but there is internet access, a couple of hot showers, and a brothel. You can trek to a famous Milarepa cave that is in the process of being done up for tourists and a gorgeous mountain lake through fields of primroses, rocks and yaks.
Then it's 3 days by jeep to Kailash through nomad territory; except when you pass through towns it really does feel as though nothing has changed for 1,000 years. We saw wild asses and cranes, wild sheep and fabulous sky and mountains and almost always, somewhere in the distance, a herd of yaks or sheep and a lone nomad tent. There are tents and trucks stops along the road where you can get noodle soup and tea, orange soda or Lhasa beer (and tsampa and dried leg of yak) so if youíve brought your chocolate itís an okay diet.
Our group was one of the first of the pilgrimage year to arrive at Kailash -- no permits are issued by the Gov't before April 1st -- and if I did it again I would go later, after Saga Dawa, when the Tibetan pilgrims come. But the upside of going so early was the solitude, the crispy snow and dramatic weather, and there was room to stay -- and eat (noodle soup) -- in the monasteries which otherwise might have been full of pilgrims (or people who walk faster than me and got there first.) A lot of pilgrims do the circuit in one day -- we walked for one, rested for one beautiful day at the north face of the mountain, then up over the Drolma pass (5636 meters) and down to another monastery housing another Milarepa cave and footprint, scene of Milarepa miracles as well as the footprint of the horse of Gesar of Ling. Like the other monasteries that have been rebuilt around Kailash though Ė and in much of the countryside -- there are only a couple of monks and nothing much going on.
Then to the ancient kingdom of Guge, 8 hours to the west, near the Ladakh border. Itís an eroded, dry landscape and the 2 capitols of Tsaparang and Tholing have astounding 10th century temples and paintings. Itís a place you could spend days among caves and secret tunnels and temples but we were bound by the terms of our permit (2 days in Guge) and the need to have a guide with us all the time. So at Tsaparang we climbed up the mountain to the Kingís winter palace, then visited the temples at Tholing and walked up and down the wide, completely traffic-less main street wondering who on earth was eating in all those little restaurants, shopping in those shops. Obviously thereís big plans for the place -- plans that include a large golden statue of an elephant by someone whoís obviously never seen one and some very weird street lights.
3 long days of driving later and we were in Lhasa. Just last year this would have been 4 days but there is a massive road building project in Tibet. Last year we spent 2 nights on the road from Lhasa to Kathmandu Ė this year a friend was in Kathmandu from Lhasa at the end of one very long day. Lhasa is a building site as well Ė new houses, shops and roads for the thousands of immigrants from the rest of China and new hotels for the tourists. In China now Tibet is very much the flavor of the month and with all the groups of camera carrying tourists, the area outside the Jokhang can have the depressing feel of a Tibetan theme park. (There actually is a Tibet theme park outside Lhasa but that's another story.) Iím always a little upset by Lhasa because I spent all those years learning Tibetan and no one speaks it there outside the small area of the old town. Still there are some wonderful places (go to the nunnery near the Moslem area) and, although thereís not as much thatís interesting to buy in the marketplace as there used to be, I was able to go to a few private houses, drink tea and buy things there. And, looking at the bright side of the changes, you can get a good espresso at the coffee shop behind the Pentoc Hotel, there are some nice new restaurants (although my favorite, upstairs at the Banak Shol, has been there forever in a different form), the bar at the Yak Hotel is fun and rooms at the Mandala hotel that overlook the Barkhor are the best.
I flew back to Kathmandu ($352 for a 55 minute flight) and met Drew who then went to East Tibet (now Sichuan Province) to visit Khempo.
I (Drew) flew from Bangkok to Chengdu around $400 round trip, & after a few nights at Sims Cozy Guest House met up with Khempo, & we joined a Land cruiser for the trip to Khempos village, which is really Kham but has technically been part of Szechuan province since 1949. There are cars that leave from the Tibetan area to Luoho for 200Y per person, but we were eight people squeezed into the car, two in front, four in the middle & a Chinese girl & me in what was basically the luggage space. It was not really what one would call a deluxe tour. After about six hours we arrived at Kanjing, in the photo you can see this boom town squeezed between the mountains, with lots of construction going on & brand new reconstructed Tibetan Gompas. From Kanjing west, the villages, landscape, & animals are totally Tibetan, & for the next nine hours you rarely see anyone Chinese, except where there is a town, then there are Chinese restaurateurs, merchants, & occasional soldiers. This is a pretty prosperous area, very fine Tibetan houses, rebuilt Gompas, & posters of the Dalai Lama which are banned in Tibet proper. People are very friendly, jovial & are allowed to decorate their homes in the old Tibetan style, with painted windows, & shrine rooms, & rebuilt Gompas. This area is much more Tibetan than Lhasa which is now a large Chinese city.
To read about Drew's 2000 trip to Mt. Kailash, click here. Last year in Lhasa and at Samye Gompa, click here.
Click on the photos above for enlargements.
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