Monasteries and villages where time has stood still
Tibet has so many monasteries that many visitors suffer from monastery exhaustion. Between impressive mountains with altitudes over 8,000 m lie villages where time seems to have stood still. Harvesting is still manual labor. Everest National Park is reached via mountain passes with views of glaciers and sacred lakes.
Travelogue & photos: Geja Rijsman
Lhasa Airport sits at an altitude of 3,700 m between the mountains. Fortunately, the thin air doesn't sweep us off our feet. During the two-hour drive to Lhasa, we pass through villages where cattle walks in the streets. We stop for a minute at a holy site, a cave with frescoes.
We see Lhasa from afar, in a huge cloud of smog. Our bus gets stuck in Lhasa's busy traffic frequently. The streets are narrow and one-way streets are an unknown phenomenon here. So one of two vehicles has to back up to allow the other to pass. Everyone hopes the other guy will.
Yak-butter tea tastes like candle grease
In our hotel in the old town center on the Barkhor circuit, we find instructions that tell us what tourists can't do: participate in demonstrations, hitch rides on tractors, etc.
The Barkhor Circuit is an 800 meters long pilgrims route around Jokhang, the spiritual center of Lhasa. Barkhor Square looks medieval, with women in dark red dresses with colorful aprons and monks in red gowns.
Pelgrims walk around the monastery clockwise. In front of Jokhang's main entrance, incense is kept burning all day long. Sometimes a pilgrim takes three steps forward, lifts his hands in the air, then holds them in front of his chest and stretches them forward, drops on the ground and lifts his arms again. Then he gets up and the ritual starts all over again.
Everywhere on the circuit are stalls that sell all kinds of stuff, both to Tibetans and tourists: souvenirs of dubious quality, but also hats, thankas (embroidered pictures), carpets, kathaks (prayer shawls), prayer flags and clothes. As the Lonely Planet predicted, we immediately fall in love with Tibet.
One of the restaurants on Barkhor Square has a roof terrace. As a welcome, we get yak-butter tea and that is the last time we'll drink it. It tastes like candle grease.
The Jokhang Temple was built between 638 and 647 and commissioned by Queen Bhrikuti, King Songtsen Gampo's Nepalese wife. The main entrance is hidden behind large drapes. The monks are conducting a service in the central hall. They bang a drum and mumble prayers.
At the other side of the hall hundreds of candles are burning in copper candleholders which are filled with yak butter by the pilgrims. People are constantly busy taking away empty canleholders and re-arranging the remaining ones.
When we are on the second floor, a large group of pilgrims in the hall makes its way to the water pump, where they push and shove for a bit of water. They wash their hair and drink a little.
The roof is a maze of stairs and terraces and also has the living quarters of the monks. It is wonderfully decorated and has a great view of the mountains, the Potala and Barkhor Square.
For an appropriate conclusion of our visit to Jokhang, we walk to Nangkhor Kora, a gallery with prayer wheels. Each one carries the words "om mani padme hum", which is what the pilgrims mumble when they are turning their own prayer wheels.
In the evening we have our first experience of Tibetan service in a restaurant. It's no problem to serve the main course before the soup, or rather: it seems to be customary. Or one person has already three dishes and the other still doesn't have anything.
On this first day, we fortunately still don't have problems with the altitude. We'll take it easy during the next couple of days and drink lots of water: a liter a day for every 1,000 meters.
In its heyday, almost 10,000 monks lived here
We rent bikes to visit the monastery of Drepung, eight kilometers west of Lhasa. We pass the gold yak statue, which was revealed on May 26, 1991, to commemorate the "liberation" of Tibet. The last leg is a 500 meters climb, which feels much longer.
In its heyday, almost 10,000 monks lived in Drepung monastery, a series of white buildings on the slopes of Mount Gyengbuwudze. Looking up from below, it looks more like a town than a monastery. There are all kinds of stairs, chapels and corridors.
Drepung was founded in 1416 and at some point was the largest and richest monastery in the world. Drepung was politically influential as well for a long time. Our fun is spoiled when we want to take pictures: in every individual temple we have to pay to take photos, between 10 and 50 yuan. And this when we already payed an entrance fee.
We climb as high as we can and eventually are at 3,930 meters, a record for me. We visit the monastery's kitchen and see the humongous pots in which food is cooked for the monks.
The butcher has a large bag filled with live snakes
We take a rikshaw to the Potala Temple. The Dalai Lama's winter residence has thirteen floors and is over 117 meters high. The compound has a white and a red palace and a small yellow building in between. The white palace houses the living quarters, the offices, the seminary and a printshop. The red palace houses countless temples and the gold tombs of the Dalai Lamas. The yellow building houses the enormous thankas, banners embroidered with sacred symbols, which were displayed on the south side of the palace during New Year's festivities.
We have to walk a lot of stairs before we arrive on the roof of the palace. The view is somewhat disappointing, we see apartment buildings mostly. It's remarkable that the old Tibetan part of the city nowadays only covers 4 per cent of its surface.
Our tour guide proposes we have our picture taken in tradional garb. After we dress up, some Chinese take our pictures with our cameras.
We don't take pictures inside the chapels, because they ask 150 Yuan for every photo! One of the chapels houses beautiful Buddha statues. The doors of the chapels are wonderfully decorated. They are usually painted red with gold-leaf decorations around them.
Shöl, the village at the foot of Potala, is almost completely gone. In front of Potala a public square in the style of Tiananmen Square has been created instead.
During the fifty years of Chinese occupation, hundreds of thousands of Chinese families have settled - forced or voluntarily - in Tibet. Lhasa expanded from a town with a population of some tens of thousands to 150,000. The road from the old city to the summer palace is completely built up in a new style you will encounter everywhere in Tibet: concrete buildings covered with white bathroom tiles and blue tinted windows. The ground floor spaces have roll-down shutters and usually house stores or restaurants.
On the way to Norbulinka, the Dalai Lama's summer palace, which used to be only a few miles outside the city, we pass a butcher shop where fish jump out of the containers they are kept in. When we approach, it turns out they also have live snakes in a big bag.
Hundreds of prayer flags fly on the mountain top
The Ganden Monastery sits on a hilltop 63 km from Lhasa. The mini-van driver has to pay close attention to the road, as animals roam free and tend to cross the road unexpectedly. After one and a half hours we stop in a village where the people are about to thresh wheat, mostly by hand.
The Ganden Monastery, founded by Zongkaba in 1409, is the cradle of the Gelugpa cult. The building was almost completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but most of it has been restored by now. Tibetan prayerbooks are hand-printed here. The interior is not very interesting.
We walk the high kora. At first the path is level, but then, all of a sudden, it's steep. When we take a short break, we realise we missed an exit and have to climb still higher.
We decide to take a shortcut over the mountain to the other path. It isn't easy at all, walking on an incline along rocks without a path. At the top, hundreds of prayer flags fly, most of them discolored by the sun.
We have climbed from 4,300 meters to 4,575 meters and enjoy the view of the Kyichu Valley and a beautiful, snow-covered mountain in the distance. Later we find out that this mountain is a hundred kilometers away and 7,115 meters high.
The path down is worn out by the many pilgrims - in some places over half a meter lower than the surroundings - and every now and then we slip on loose rocks.
We're getting tired of monasteries
We bicycle on long, paved roads through mainly Chinese neighborhoods to the Sera Monastery, three kilometers north of Lhasa, at the foot of the Tatipu hill. Sera used to be famous for its tantric education.
We can't find out if the kora is within or outside the monastery walls. Because we don't feel like walking back, we stay within the walls. We see an unusual bird, the hoopoe. Every now and then we take a look inside, but we don't feel like seeing everything: we are getting tired of monasteries.
The frescoes are wonderful, though, and we take a walk outside the walls to admire all of them. One of the paintings along the main road in the monastery turns out to be the cover illustration of the Lonely Planet guidebook.
There even is a yak in one of the boats full of monks
We leave Lhasa in three jeeps. Our driver soon begins to hawk up, great. After one and a half hours we arrive at the Jarlung Tsampo river, which is shallow at this point, but very wide. Very flat boats with a kind of tractor engines in the back are waiting for us. Another boat is just arriving, full of monks and pilgrims. There even is a yak on board, standing between all those people.
We board one of the boats. We go for a while, but the enigine doesn't really work and we hardly move against the stream. We transfer to another boat. There are already some people in this one and a another busload of people arrive.
From the river we see that the other side looks like a desert. Upon arrival we find out our impression was correct. When we dock somewhere upstream, a bus is waiting. A huge number of people board the bus and an old woman has to sit on the gearbox with a small child in her arms. She keeps talking to the driver. The road isn't much more than a cart track through the desert. We pass sand dunes.
In front of one of those sand dunes lies the Samye monastery, founded in 779 by Tritsong Detsen, the Second Religious King, helped by two Buddhist teachers from India: Shantaraksita and Padmasambhava.
The monastery, a building with five floors, has a large stupa at each of the four points of the compass. The Red Army damaged the building severely during the Cultural Revolution. The largest part had to be rebuilt.
The ground floor houses the actual temple and the community hall of the monks. A dark stairway takes us to the second floor: a temple, sparsely illuminated, filled with statues of gods. Just like on the first floor, there is a cloister around the temple with hundreds of frescoes on both sides.
Over mountain passes with views of glaciers and sacred lakes
Early next morning the bus takes us back to the river. The way back is a little faster, but we still spend quite some time on the boat. We see a beautiful sunrise.
The first 100 km we travel on known terrain. But at the Lhasa exit we stay on the road. We leave the asphalt behind us and begin our climb to the first pass. On the Kamba-la pass (4,755 m) we have a great view of the azure-blue Yamdrok Tso lake, hundreds of meters below us, and of Mt. Nojin Kangtsang (7,191 m).
After our descent we follow the banks of the huge Yamdrok Tso for a while. It is one of the sacred lakes of Tibet. It is also used to generate electricity, since 1997. 10 meters beneath its surface a six kilometers long tube transports the water to Yarlung Tsangpo lake, which lies 846 meters lower. Because Yamdrok Tso is a dead lake, which has no natural supply, physicists are afraid that it will be dry within 20 years. But Chinese scientists claim that energy surpluses will be used to pump river water back into the lake.
On the next pass, the Karo-La at 5,045 meters, we have a wonderful view of the Nojin Kangtsang glacier. Here also are pilgrims with yaks. For a few Yuan you can take a ride.
Birds of prey fly over our jeeps. We drive along the Nyang Chu river for a long time and on the other side we see the remains of the old road, which has been completely destroyed in some places.
At the pass, we climb a hill. The chasms here are incredibly steep. Below us is a reservoir. Its construction and the energy plant that came with it, were a Chinese state secret. The village we pass, is mainly inhabited by soldiers and is not on the map. There is a gate at the entrance of the village and the driver has to show his papers before we can continue. It's an enormous mess: prosperity has clearly hit and plastic clutters the streets.
At the end of the afternoon we arrive in Gyantse, at an altitude of 3,950 meters in the Nyang Chu Valley, 254 kilometers southwest of Lhasa. It's one of the cities in Tibet which has been least influenced by the Chinese.
There are animals everywhere in Gyantse. You feel like you're transported back in time a few centuries when a horse-drawn cart is the oncoming traffic in the main street.
Fort Gyantse Dzong lies just outside Gyantse. On the way there you have a wonderful view of the Pelkor Chöde Monastery and the Gyantse Kumbum, both located within the city walls.
The ruins only give a faint impression of its former glory
Around noon we drive through an agricultural area. According to one of the drivers, most of the harvest was lost because of floods. But it looks wonderful, all those people harvesting barley.
We visit the Shalu Monastery, which has a green, Chinese-looking roof. The monastery is renowned for its Mongolian-style frescoes and in old times for its "flying monks". The interior is hardly worth the visit. We leave soon and take a walk in the village.
At the end of one of the main streets we suddenly find ourselves between harvesting families. In this village the children are fanatic beggars. They love our plastic water bottles and at some point they even try to pry the bottle from my hand.
Shigatze lies at an altitude of 3,900 meters, near the spot where the Yarlong Zangbo and the Nyang Chu rivers merge. It's the second city of Tibet and the traditional capital of Tsang. The Tsang kings ruled from the once impressive heights of the Shigatse Dzong - but the ruins only give a faint impression of its former glory. Later the fortress became the residence of the governor of Tsang.
Ever since the Mongols started sponsoring the Gelugpa order, Shigatse has been the seat of the Panchen Lama. His home base traditionally is the Tashilhunpo Monastery, founded in 1447 by Zongkapa's cousin and disciple Gedundrub, who also was the first Dalai Lama.
Eventually Tashihunpo became the seat of the Panchen Lama. The monastery houses a 26 meters high statue of the Maitreya Buddha, covered with 300 kilograms of gold.
Like most modern Tibetan cities, Shigatse has a Tibetan and a Chinese part. The Chinese part of town has wide, dusty avenues with square buildings as favored by marxist city planners. The Tibetan part, the largest part of which lies between the Tashilhunpo Monastery and the ruins of Shigatse Dzong, is a beautiful traditional neighborhood.
At Tashilhunpo we walk part of the kora above the monastery. Again the Lonely Planet has it wrong: the dogs aren't agressive at all, there are just many. Between a row of prayer wheels, a cute little mouse looks at us.
The beds are so bad that we roll out our mats on the floor
On the way to Lathse we cross another high mountain pass, Yulung-la (4,950 m). Then we take the exit to Sakya. When we stop at the side of the road, children come running from all directions. They are very shy, but also curious.
Sakya is a beautiful farmers village at 4,280 m, where everyone is busy with the harvest. We follow the river into the village. During the summer this river causes all kinds of inconveniences, sometimes completely blocking the road. On the other side of the river sit a few stupas.
A walled-in structure, which at first sight looks like a fortress, towers over the plain: the Sakya Monastery. This monastery of the formerly powerful Sakyapa cult was spared from the destruction of the 1960s-70s, as indicated by its unique library and auhentic frescoes.
The beds in the guesthouse in Lathse are so bad that we roll out our mats on the floor. The toilet is filthy and stinks, like everywhere. When we are having dinner at night in the restaurant, people are constantly begging, so we give them our leftovers. When we are still in the restaurant, the lights go out everywhere in the city. Apparently power is cut after a certain hour. The lights come back on when the emergency aggregate is turned on.
Everest National Park
At this altitude, you shouldn't run
We leave Lathse, pass by the exit to West Tibet and climb a 1,000 meters in 20 km. It's ice-cold on the Gyatso-la mountain pass (5,225 m). When we drive next to a river, some pilgrims with a herd of yaks approach from the other side. Every yak carries some baskets with luggage.
After a few hours we have an incredible view of Mount Everest. A little later we see a huge eagle by the roadside. It's sitting on its prey and doesn't let itself be scared away by us.
In the village of Chay (4,300 m) we pay an entrance fee for the Everest area (Qomolangma National Nature Preserve). We get a ticket, a map of the surroundings and an English translation of the rules. We have never seen so many mistakes in so few sentences!
It's a five-hour, bumpy ride to the Ronghpu Monastery. Part of it leads through a huge field of rocks upward. On the Pang-la pass we have a view of the Makalu, Lhotse, Everest, Gyachung Kang and Cho Oyu, all over 8,000 meters high.
The path then descends along villages and ruins, into the Dzakar valley and the village of Tashi Dzom. In one of the next villages, Chö Dzom, the drivers know some ladies and we make a long stop just outside the village. The road is bumpy and winding all the time.
When we have just arrived in the Ronghpu Monastery, Michael sees the sun go down behind Mt. Everest. That deserves a picture. It takes a lot of energy, because at this altitude you really shouldn't run to get your camera.
The Ronghpu Monastery (4,900 m) is Spartan. Our room is a dusty den. It has five beds (read: planks), but two are broken. There's no light, no water, the toilet is outside in full view with turds everywhere and the restaurant is packed while we haven't eaten in hours.
We didn't get much sleep, but that is part of the deal. At 8 AM we leave again. Initially the view of Everest is obscured by clouds, but then we see the sun rise behind it.
The most wonderful part of the hike is when we see some deer herds, at an altitude over 5,000 meters without any vegetation. We are accompanied by two cute monastery dogs during the whole hike.
It takes us two and a half hours to reach the base camp. There is only one tent. While we wait for the jeeps, we walk a little further toward Mt. Everest. When the wind rises, we return to the base camp.
We drive the jeeps back to the Ronghpu Monastery and around 3 PM we leave for Tingri (4,390 m), a four-hour drive. In Tingri we enjoy the view of Mt. Everest and Mt. Cho Oyu for about a minute, then it's dark already.
The guesthouse is primitive, but the beds are fine. We have a good meal in the restaurant, but getting the check is a different story. The "manager" (his lenses keep falling out of their spectacle frame) makes at least four attempt to total the amount, which takes 45 minutes!
On a bumpy road through no man's land
The next morning we are supposed to leave at 7 AM. We get up early, but the heater in the restaurant is off and the drivers are still asleep. There are numerous cans of booze on the table in the restaurant...
It's ice-cold in the jeep and it doesn't get warmer for now. On the way we see lots of hares on the side of the road. We drive on a beautiful plain with countless ruins and hardly notice that we cross the Lung-la pass.
The next pass is Tong-la at 5,120 meters and we have a great view there. A pilgrim approaches the pass in a horse-drawn cart and we see a flight of grouse.
We take a shortcut over a steep incline and after a long drive we finally get breakfast in Nyalam around 11 AM. What looks like a pancake, turns out to be bread and again calculus is not a strength: they try to charge us ten times for one egg.
When we are on the road again, we all of a sudden descend into a different landscape. It's green and there's a lot of water. The road is bad, we see a truck upside down in the river. When we arrive in the border village of Zhangmu (2,300 m), we are caught in a traffic jam for at least half an hour. Nobody seems to want to back up and it's impossible to go forward.
Lots of people ask us if we want to change money. Our standard response is "no". Because some people are afraid to get counterfeit money, we wait for a long time to change money in the bank. We get a good laugh out of it when the bank employee doesn't have enough money and goes out in the street to change!
After nine kilometers in a truck on a bumpy road through no man's land, we have to get out. We cross the Friendship Bridge into Nepal on foot.