We started early in the morning, with the same guide and team mates. It would be a long and tiring full day journey from Lhasa to Shigatse (read my previous blog on Lhasa here).
Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet and situated at 3900 mtrs which is slightly higher altitude than Lhasa at 3656 mtrs, the capital and largest city in Tibet. We would pass through the mighty Yarlung Tsangpo river, Yamdrok Lake, Karola glacier and Gyantse monastery on our journey to Shigatse.
Mount Nyenchen Khangsar, 7191mts. View from outskirts of Lhasa
We started sharp at 8:30 in the morning in our cozy tempo traveler.
The American gentleman was very jovial and he started discussing religion. Then the discussion went up to world politics – Trump Vs Clinton 🙂 then when it started moving towards China’s policies and its stand on Tibet, things went very open. He got a mild punch on his stomach by his Chinese wife who was from China’s Xian province. In Tibet, discussing politics is not permitted. If caught the govt can cancel the whole trip and the permit of the guide and the travel agency could be confiscated. Not just in Tibet, I have observed Chinese people are in general probably afraid of discussing govt policies, even in Hong Kong which is a so called democratic special administrative region. They pretend to be not seeing or listening to the social issues caused by certain govt policies whereas in India and the western world the scene is completely different. People are very much active in discussing politics in open. In fact in certain places in India it is a favorite pass time for people, topped up with a cup of masala tea. Anyway the American fellow kept his lips zipped since he got the punch :).
Soon we were out of Lhasa city and driving past the green farm lands on the bank of Yarlong Tsangpo or Brhmaputra as we call it in India. Dhargeyal, our guide, told that the more we go towards western Tibet more we would see farm lands and the eastern Tibet is more dependent on nomadic lifestyle.
After some time we left back the Lhasa valley and started climbing. The valley behind us was looking like dotted settlements surrounded by dry mountains. Unfortunately I couldn’t take any photo from the van as I was sitting in the middle ! When finally I asked the driver to halt for a while so that I could take some photos, clouds came in and engulfed the view of the valley down. Well, I was not too unlucky as I met some Khampa locals there who agreed to pose for me for as low as 10 RMB. The main interest were their pet puppies. Our guide acted as an interpreter and told that the puppy I shot was just 9 months old. Man ! it looked like a full grown lion !
We left behind the Khampas and reached a mountain pass at 4280 mtrs- the name Khampa-la Pass. We would descend from there onward. Down below was the mesmerizing view of Yumdrok lake.
We saw some travelers had put up their camps there. By the time we had our lungs filled with some fresh air, though very thin, by the lake, the clouds which I saw from top started rushing towards us. The driver looked at the sky and shouted to get in the van. The moment the van started moving the snowfall started. Well, it was a good experience enjoying the beauty of Tibetan landscapes in snowfall but at the same time we were doubtful whether we would be able to have a clear view of the Karola glacier which was our next destination. It was already noon and before driving towards Karola glacier we had to had our lunch finished or else we would starve till late afternoon until we reach Gyantse. We made a short halt at a village. I should have written down the name in my diary but forgot. A splash of rain or better say snow created a white blanket over the top of a roof which we could see from the 2nd floor of the village restaurant. Anyway, by the time we quickly gulped a bowl of egg-tomato soup noddle the snowfall stopped for a while and we went back to our seats in the van.
When we reached Korola glacier the the snow fall started again. It was too cold and a chilling wind was penetrating deep inside our bones through 3 layers of warmth plus some fatty tissues on our skin. We managed to take a few photos and jumped inside the van. The summit was almost impossible to see, it was all white and bleak and heavily snowing up there.
The snow flakes were visible in the colorful background of the Buddhist prayer flags
Surprisingly when we moved past the area of Korola glacier there was no sign of any snow fall or rain. The landscape changed totally. Now we were seeing volcanic rocks with layers of colorful bands, mostly faded maroon. It was a beautiful view. It was like someone has painted the mountains and created some color band although faded. My wife studied geology in the university and she mentioned that those could probably be the minerals deposited in layers.
The govt had set up a hydro power station nearby and created a beautiful lake. The water is of the color turquoise. As I mentioned earlier, surprisingly here we got sunny blue sky and had to shred off two layers of warmth.
Prayer wheels at Manak Dam lake near Simila Pass
Soon we started descending again passing through an abandoned village.
We stopped again near a check-post and Dhargeyal, our guide, went to show our identities and travel passes to the officials. He mentioned that the place had heightened security as Indian border was just 180 km away. Later I found out in the map that indeed we were just within 200Kms from the Indian state of Sikkim which is eventually just a 5 to 6 hours drive from my native place, felt almost like home huh ! 🙂
Sikkim, India is just beyond those mountains. This was the place from where the British forces from Sikkim invaded Tibet in 1903-1904
After finishing the formalities, Dhargeyal wanted us to show something and he asked the driver to stop just after a hundred mtrs from the check-post. It was a kind of road side snack store but too basic. They were selling Tibetan artifacts, some precious stones and roasted barley which looked somewhat like pop-corn but much more smaller in size. Umm, it was tasty ! Dhargeyal insisted to go inside the small store. There was an entrance at the side. We saw a mill, in fact 3 to 4 mills running on water power.
Down below those mills there are rotor wheels which are forced to run by the water coming through the canals. Barley is poured into those hopper like sacks which goes down through the small opening and gets crushed by the rotating stones
Very basic engineering and nothing fancy. They have dug out a narrow canal probably from a nearby source of water. They have channelized the flow just behind the mills. There were rotors which were revolving with the force of the cascading water and those rotors were moving the heavy weights of the mills. No electricity, it was just a basic mechanical arrangement which was working perfectly fine for the purpose !
Another great example of using the natural resources without disturbing any balance is their way of boiling water. This was even more basic but perfectly working fine for the specific purpose.
The dish from the satellite antenna was used as a reflector of the sunlight. The focal point of the parabolic dish held a mechanical arrangement which supported a water kettle. The heat from the sun rays would concentrate at the point where the kettle was kept after getting bounced from the reflector. Dhargeyal explained this works perfectly good as Tibet boasts of having more than 300 days of sun shine in a year.
After visiting the mills and munching on the popped-barley we hit the road again and within 30 mins of driving we could see Gyantse fort. The Tibetans refer Gyantse as the “Hero City” because of their resistance against the British force which was far more advanced and equipped with modern warfare of that time. In 1903 and 1904 the British force invaded Tibet from Sikkim (now in India) with Maxim Machine Guns and 10 pound Canons which massacred the Tibetans who fought the bloody war with just antiquated matchlock guns.
Dhargeyal arranged for the tickets and we entered the fortified Pelkor monastery. We did a ‘Kora’ around the main temple with some other pilgrims.
Inside the monastery it was more or less same like the other ones like stupas or tombs of the Buddhist monks, temple, library, living quarters etc but it was much smaller, more primitive and darker than the other wealthy monasteries in Lhasa.
A monk lighting the butter lamps. Cans of butter are offered to the Buddhist Gods by the devotees. Almost every other Tibetan carries a flask of Yak butter which would be offered to the Gods
A monk, on the roof top of his living quarter, washing his clarinet like musical instrument
Monk studying ‘sutras’ or Buddhist scripts
We left Gyantse after the visit to the monastery and reached Shigatse within one and half hours at around 6:30 pm but the sun was still shinning high probably because Tibet follows the same timezone as Beijing which is situated far east of Tibet.
We were tired after the full day’s travel and when we found that our hotel, although a nice, clean, shinny and 3 star rated, didn’t have a lift we felt a bit down as nobody wanted to climb those stairs up to 3rd floor and that too at an altitude of 3900 mtrs. But the hotel boy charged us up. He carried all our heavy luggage all through the stairs to our rooms. And we felt ashamed of ourselves for complaining for little discomforts! Soon we washed and went out for dinner. Dhargeyal took us to a Nepalese restaurant which was serving Indian food. The mixed vegetable pakoras were awesome !
We had a very sound sleep in the night. Apart from the lift issue, the hotel was really nice. They actually gave us a suite with a sitting room, 2 bedrooms , two baths and all the possible luxuries ! I must mention here all the hotel bookings were included in the tour package so we actually didn’t have any idea that we were going to stay in a suite.
The next morning was planned for Tashi Lhunpo Monastery which is another important monastery in Tibetan history. Our guide explained that there were 4 major colleges within the monastery premises. We were present there in the morning when the lamas were cleaning the classrooms, rushing to their lecture halls, making arrangements for the butter lamps for the whole day. A bit of life inside the monastery could be imagined from the snapshots below.
We finished visiting the monastery by noon and by that time Dhargeyal had already arranged for the Mt Everest base camp passes for our group. After lunch we headed towards the base camp.
The road was nice at least much more better than we actually expected. By the time we reached the base camp it was almost dark. There was a very little light remaining and the sky was covered in clouds. Nothing was visible at the distance i.e. no peaks were visible and there was a little snow fall going on. Dhargeyal said that he could not arrange for a room in the Rongbu monastery guest house, the highest monastery in the world where both the Nuns and Monks live at the same premises.
Therefore we had to retire in the tents which had warm electric blankets. One tent for all the male travelers in the group and one for all the female. That was awkward but one can’t complain about such things at such an altitude. The weather outside was dreadful and we were at almost 5200 mtrs. The main concern for us was whether we would be able to see Mt. Everest the next morning.
The next morning it was what we feared ! Disappointment at its peak and really we couldn’t see anything leave aside the highest peak. It was all bleak and cloudy. But normally it should not rain during that time of the year and that is why we planned for this time.
Everest is hiding behind that thick cloud
We wanted to wait for few more hours but Dhargeyal didn’t want to as he had fixed schedule. Ultimately we had to return to Shigatse where the sun was surprisingly shinning bright. It was a kind of insult by the weather God ! By late noon we reached Shigatse. The lunch we finished at the same Nepalese restaurant where we had our dinner the first evening. The arrangement for returning to Lhasa was made on train. We enjoyed some amazing landscapes – sand dunes, small white dot like settlements and the mighty Brahmaputra with turquoise green water.
Brahamaputra captured on iPhone
Brahmaputra from train window
As we were approaching Lhasa, one interesting thing I noticed that when the train was passing certain areas personnel in uniform from nowhere appeared amidst the green fields of barley and saluted the train. This happened at least 10 times. The guide explained that those are the personnel from the railway guard forces. But I was thinking what the hell they were doing in the midst of the barley field ! I would have understood the logic if they had appeared near some check posts or rail stations or even railway level crossing ! Well, its China and they could place their guards anywhere they wished !
It was already 10 pm when we reached our Hotel. Needed a good sleep as the next day would be again strenuous- a full day drive to Namtso lake at 4800 mtrs.
Stay tuned for Namtso. Till then good bye !