20 May 2015

Tibet - April/May 2015

'The greater the challenge, the greater the merit'

And so we set off for Tibet. Within an hour, a call from our airline, Etihad, suggested we abort our itinerary due to the 25 April earthquake in Nepal, the epicentre just west of our first port of call, Kathmandu.
But we persisted, our passage through Kathmandu critical as this was key to obtaining the all-important entry visa into Tibet. Flying via Abu Dhabi, the omens seemed against us once more as we were held in a stack south east of Kathmandu due to a major thunderstorm. Eventually landed, swiftly through immigration, we then endured a one and a half hour wait to collect baggage, the issue almost certainly shortage of staff due to the earthquake. Exiting into a chaotic Arrivals hall, we were soon to discover that our transfer agent wasn't there for us, Etihad having cancelled our scheduled flight from Abu Dhabi and having put us on a slightly later one.
Our group, facing the prospect of a damp, cold night in the frenetic entrance lobby seemed remarkably stoic, an attribute that was to be called upon many more times in this increasingly challenging adventure. But then, after many attempts, we were able to secure hotel accommodation for the night, the Shangri La, in Lazimpal, just north of the city centre. The next challenge was to find a couple of taxis, only achieved by grim determination and lots of US dollars in the face of stiff competition.
The taxi journey was swift, two tiny cabs careering through deserted streets, swerving around potholes created by the 7.8 level earthquake hours earlier, and we were witness to large numbers of people sleeping under awnings in front of their homes. At the Shangri La we all opted to sleep in our rooms, despite a large number of guests electing to sleep under cover in the hotel garden.

Tented cities spring up in Kathmandu as people continue to endure aftershocks
Damage following the first big earthquake

5* sleepover at the Shangri La, Kathmandu
So, what a start!
The next day we hooked up with our apologetic agent, toured a little of the northern outskirts of the city, pulling in quick visits to Boudhanath, Swayambunath and the hybrid Buddhist/Hindu temple of Budhanilkantha, all deserted of the usual tourist throng, and locals having shut up business for the next few days. More noticeable were the many encampments springing up everywhere, people fearful of returning to their homes.
Our entry visa duly issued, we readied ourselves for an early flight to Lhasa the next morning, although news later emerged that this flight was probably going to be cancelled and our only option then was to transit via Chengdu. Yet another challenge.
Predictably, Kathmandu departures was a melee of visitors anxious to get out of Nepal, notably Chinese citizens in the Chengdu queue next to ours, tempers rising to a noisy crescendo. Surprisingly, we were checked in for Lhasa, but then the real wait began, some eight hours or so, as all commercial traffic was, quite rightly, rescheduled to accommodate huge military transports from China, USA, Israel and other nations bringing in much needed aid.

The Superpowers bring aid to Kathmandu
Doubts increased during the afternoon as to whether we'd ever get to Lhasa, when suddenly, late afternoon, we were boarded on our Air China flight.
But we never got to Lhasa.
Another challenge. We were going to Chengdu, a three hour flight, and would be accommodated in a hotel for a few hours before taking an early morning flight to Lhasa. This unscheduled excursion did end in success, however.
Emerging into the early morning air of Gongkar airport, an hour south of Lhasa, having enjoyed the spectacle of the mountain terrain west of Chengdu, we were now in the hands of our Tibetan agents, and our adventure could begin in earnest.
Or so we thought. It quickly became apparent that the Nepalese earthquake had affected the Everest and Shishapangma regions of south-west Tibet, and that our itinerary was going to have to change.
Now, from this point onwards, this account is going to differ from my usual format. Because, this blog is about challenges. And if you have romantic notions about travelling through this vast area I might as well spell them all out at the beginning.
Tibet, as you may well know, was invaded by the Chinese between 1950 and 1959, and the hapless citizens were then exposed to the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, leading many to go into exile, and for everyone across both China and Tibet, untold suffering. Tibet, of course, was always going to be vulnerable to the expansionist policies of its closest neighbour, and the theocracy that had ruled the country for centuries had isolated itself from the international arena and the modernisation that had inevitably followed the Industrial Revolution. Tibetans lived a mediaeval existence, primarily engaged in the production of barley, the staple diet for centuries, and the raising of yak, sheep and goats for milk, curd, cheese, meat and skins. Infrastructure was rudimentary and the key activity of the common people was to support the monasteries and the aristocracy who ruled the country.
So Mao had an easy target, and the legacy of the Chinese invasion is all too plain to see right up to the present day.
Of course, there are positives. Given the high altitude terrain and the persistence of snow on the highlands for much of the year, Tibet now has an impressive road network, world beating telecommunications and internet access (where else in the world can you get 3G on a remote 5000m pass?), standardised education and health care. But there's a cost.
China does not like regional autonomy. It hates the West's continued cry for human rights in Tibet. It abhors the so-called 'splittist' activity of the Dalai Lama (a gentle soul loved throughout the international arena, and himself accepting that there is no going back to an independent Tibet). As a result the people of Tibet are amongst the most rigidly controlled groups in the world. That's the price they have to pay for modernisation. A deeply spiritual people, most seem to accept it with the resignation that you would expect of a devout Buddhist - all things are impermanent, live as good a life as you can in this one, and karma will transport you to a better existence in the next life. But the control pervades every aspect of their existence - freedom of movement between areas needing permits in many cases, little freedom to travel abroad, the education system enforcing Chinese as the first language, controls on the number of monks occupying monasteries, CCTV monitoring in the major towns, and strong military presence almost everywhere.

Tibetans remain deeply religious people who live under the cloud of constant surveillance by the Chinese authorities

And, as a visitor, you will get to feel how it is to be a local. Don't dare bring a picture of the Dalai Lama into the country, or a Tibetan flag. Don't even think of venturing to Tibet unaccompanied, as it is mandatory to have a guide, and don't expect to wander at will. Our itinerary, which included the western regions of Tibet, with a pilgrimage around Mount Kailas and an exploration of the ancient Kingdom of Guge, required a standard visitors permit for Lhasa, an 'alien's permit' for travel beyond Lhasa, and military clearance to visit the western regions.
We were warned that in the towns, we could expect to be shadowed by Chinese security services, to check we did not do or say anything that was in contravention of their policy, not least don't dare talk about the Dalai Lama. And when you get out on the road, don't expect to get anywhere fast. Heading west from Lhasa to Shigatse, and then further west to the Ngari region, a distance of some 1500km to our final destination of Tsaparang, a speed limit of 40 kph is rigidly enforced. Regular police checkpoints require the driver to produce his license, and a time of arrival is stamped on a permit, the elapsed time at the next checkpoint then used to assess the average speed driven. Stiff fines and penalty points are levied for contravention. 40kph. Absolutely ridiculous. These are some of the emptiest roads on the planet.

West of Shigatse the roads empty, yet a speed limit of 40 kph is rigidly enforced
Sorry to sound cynical, but I rather suspect that this is just another technique to dissuade visitors from venturing too far from the suspicious eyes of the Chinese security services. And, of course, at other key checkpoints we were required to present our (now invaluable) entry/exit permit and passports, together with the relevant permit to travel, a process usually left to our indomitable guide, but sometimes requiring us to be inspected by an army officer. Happily, they were usually pleasant, but what a palaver. And, when in the more sensitive areas, our presence was then recorded and monitored by the PSB, the Public Security Bureau. We were even required to sign a disclaimer when entering Darchen, at the base of Mount Kailas, ensuring that we did not hold the authorities responsible if we were to succumb to some unfortunate event whilst circumambulating Mount Kailas.

One of some twenty or so checkpoints we had to stop at on the 1500km journey from Lhasa to Guge in western Tibet
Of course, don't let any of that put you off. A good local agent and guide will see to most of this nonsense, but there's a few other things that you might want to be aware of before you pack your bags. Tibetans have never been known for their cleanliness. And local 'long drop' toilet facilities are de rigeure, ubiquitous outside the main towns, and guesthouses will usually have no internal facilities, residents having to rely on visits to an outside block. I should also mention that these blocks have no private cubicles. Instead a low wall separates one from your fellow human being, the required position being to squat low and do one's business. If joined by a local, expect an inquiring look/stare and clouds of cigarette smoke. Oh, and that's for the ladies as well as the gents.
The facilities are rarely, if ever cleaned, and we found tons of litter in some, snow drifts in another, and of course, previous deposits from fellow humans with a poor aim. Lovely.

One of the better 'long-drop' toilets, this one with a fine view (at Tsaparang)
I should also mention accommodation. Our hotels in Lhasa, Gyantse and Shigatse were fine, although a consistent theme is one of dodgy plumbing. Showers rarely work in the way they're intended, availability of hot water variable, and flushes may not work effectively. There seems to be a singular lack of plumbing skills in this region. But these places will seem like the height of luxury once you've ventured further out and experienced the delights of the Tibetan guesthouse. Some are fine, with genial hosts who rush to supply you with a thermos of hot water on arrival and provide cold water for flushing interior toilets. Well, I can think of one like that.
Most guest houses are far more basic. External toilets, usually filthy and full of litter, are the norm, one memorable location in Tholing using the adjacent public toilet. This meant that during the night you had the pleasure of running the gauntlet of local dogs and random drunks emptying from the music venue conveniently located nearby. And in the Kailas region the guest house owners have cleverly exploited the recent ban on camping on the kora around the mountain by charging for all of the beds in any one room, typically four or five, even if it's occupied by just one person. So, be warned. Even in the hotels beds rarely have much padding. Basically, it's like sleeping on a brick. So, pack a Thermarest or equivalent mattress, and a silk liner with sleeping bag are invaluable as there is no heating in guest houses (and hotels are not much better).

Sensible use of a skip (!), seen on the final day of our kora around Kailas returning towards Darchen
Guesthouse room in Tholing, one CCTV channel in English and mattress like a brick. That's OK, but the sanitation relied on the adjacent public toilet... The hosts were really nice though.
Food is generally safe, and the best choice usually comes from the Chinese community, our guide pointing to those previously used, and presumably offering him a good incentive. But, there's an overall monotony once you venture further afield. I suppose it says it all when most of the population drink butter tea, 3% beer (Lhasa Beer or watered down Budweiser the most commonly available) and enjoy a paste of roasted barley flour called tsampa. You will initially enjoy momos, steamed or fried, noodles of various persuasions, and egg fried rice. After a week you'll be dreaming of roast beef, Yorkshire Puddings and real ale. Veggies, make up your own fantasy list.
And one last thing, if you've read this far. They're noisy buggers. Every settlement, however small, has its own pack of dogs. Benign and vaguely cuddly during the day, the packs assemble and roam at night, seeing who can produce the most irritating bark for longest, whilst simultaneously contesting leadership of the pack. Expect at least three circuits of your accommodation per night. And then there's the local populace. They like to party. Late. Almost every night of our journey, some inconsiderate jerk would talk loudly outside our rooms, unless they were on a motorbike with a portable stereo blaring away, or singing at the top of their tuneless voice in the local karaoke bar. Yes, bring good earplugs. More important than your walking boots!
OK, I've vented my spleen. After three weeks of bureaucratic frustration and uncertainty, nausea at the sight of another momo, and another disturbed night, it's inevitable. But the rewards are HUGE.
Firstly, the people. Your first experience is likely to be the elderly citizens who walk clockwise around the Barkhor, the circumambulation of the revered Jokhang Temple in the old city of Lhasa. Their skin, heavily wrinkled and darkened by years of exposure to the acutely high UV levels at this altitude (Lhasa at 3650m being one of the lowest points of the Tibetan plateau), their dress of heavy fabrics, ladies adorned with jewellery handed down through the generations, prayer beads or prayer wheels in hand, with the pervasive murmur of Om Mani Pad Me Hum, the mantra which repeated many thousands of times seems sure to give the practitioner hope of a better future life. A simple smile or the standard Tibetan greeting 'Tashi Dalek' (pronounced "tashi daley") will usually elicit a warm response, even more so now as Western tourists are significantly outnumbered by Chinese, many of whom now travel to Lhasa on the pressurised train from Beijing.

Friendly ladies at the teahouse adjacent to Drikung Thil
Then there's the many monasteries and temples belonging to the various sects of Tibetan Buddhism, each with different lineages and a bewildering array of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, meditational deities (called yidams) and fearsome 'Protectors.' The artwork on the walls of the various temples, some dating to the 11th century in the case of Tholing, is complex and difficult to interpret to the non-practitioner but never ceases to interest and amaze even the most indifferent of observer. Usually dimly lit with random electric light bulbs and the ubiquitous butter lamps, the potentially austere atmosphere is lifted by colourful silk banners, golden statutes of the main deities, and torma offerings, sculpted coloured butter on a clay or tsampa base. On several occasions we were able to witness monks in prayer sessions and, in one, memorable, visit to Ganden, the principal monastery of the Gelukpa order, we were able to observe their celebration of the auspicious fifteenth of the lunar month. Chanting, led by the distinctive deep-throat chant of the chief lama, was accompanied by the presentation of gifts of the white silk scarves called khata, and other ritual offerings.

Monks celebrating an auspicious day in the Tibetan calendar, Ganden Monastery
'Yellow Hat' monks of the Gelugpa order, Ganden
Two of the 'Worldly Protectors' - Kumbum, Gyantse
Wrathful deity, Kumbum, Gyantse
And then there's the landscape. Tibet is a huge country, occupying about one third of modern China's footprint. Most of it lies above 5000m, so acclimatisation in lower areas like Lhasa (at about 3650m) is essential before one ventures far from the city. To give an example, travelling from Saga to Guge, you will never be below 4500m, and on several passes you will experience the thin air of 5000m+. We visited during May, so the main passes were clear of snow, although on the highest ones there was a great deal of snow banked up following the passage of snow ploughs. We experienced light snow showers on a number of occasions, and when walking the three day kora around Mount Kailas we spent most of day two carefully traversing slopes of hard packed snow, great in the morning when it was firm, but requiring much greater care in the afternoon as the intense heat of the sun caused the snow to melt, some of our number sinking groin deep at times on the descent from the 5650m pass of Dromla La. Our guide said that the snow at this level would normally have completely disappeared by July. But the snow gave the landscapes we passed through an extra character, especially as much of Tibet's landscape tends to have a ubiquitous brown hue.    

On the approach to Drolma La, already over 5000m. Kailas' northern eastern face in the background
Entering Zanda, from the road into Guge, western Tibet
View to the Garhwal Himalaya of India, across the Sutlej canyon lands - from the road to Tholing (Tada) 
Travelling from Shigatse west to Kailas and Guge, a distance greater than the latitudinal spread of Nepal, the sights are glorious, with the bounding peaks of Sikkim and the Nepalese Himalaya filling the southern skyline on many stretches, the most impressive that of the Gorakh Himal on the section of high road from Drongpa to Lake Manasarovar. The distinctive snow dome of Nanda Devi 7816m emerges on the horizon as you transit south from Montser. Even further west, taking the new road from Bauer to Tholing in Guge, the peaks of the Garhwal Himalaya reveal themselves above the spectacular rock formations of the canyons formed by the Sutlej river as it winds its way down from its source near Lake Manasarovar to eventually enter the mighty Indus River and eventually the Arabian Sea.
Gurla Mandhata, 6694m, to the south of the sacred Lake Manasarovar
Most of the time, the roads use wide river valleys to make progress, bounded by endless hills and mountains of weatherbeaten brown rock and soil, sometimes punctuated by patches of shrub, crystal clear pools and small nomad encampments, usually with a herd of yak or sheep nearby. This is an isolated life, fundamentally unchanged in centuries, their small huts providing a year round base and yak skin tents their mobile home to exploit summer pasture at higher levels. Some wildlife is also occasionally seen on this barren plateau, not a tree in sight to provide cover.
On our visit we observed fox, wolf, blue sheep, marmot type creatures known as mountain rats by the locals, small deer and wild ass.

Nonchalence from a wolf spotted en route from Saga to Darchen
And vultures. On one of our acclimatisation walks we were in the rare position to observe a sky burial. Whilst taking a few hours to walk from Pabonka monastery to Chu Tsang nunnery we passed above Lhasa's main sky burial site at a time when the body of a  deceased person was being crushed and cut up ready for the vultures to devour. Still the predominant form of burial for Tibetans, this was a rare and very humbling sight.

On the pilgrim's circuit from Pa Bong Kha monastery to Chu Tsang nunnery, having just witnessed a sky burial
So what of our itinerary? In a break from the usual format of my travel blogs, I'm not going to go into a day by day detailed account, given that a trip of over three weeks would be tedious to write, and too long for you to read.
Our early days in Tibet, initially a team of six, were spent acclimatising around Lhasa, taking in the classic sights of the huge Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple and walking the Barkhor around it, watching the monks in open debate at Sera Monastery and enjoying the palaces of the Norbulingka summer palace park. We also made time to visit the Ramoche temple, just north of the Barkhor.
As noted above we trekked the Pha Bong Kha (Pabonka) circuit, 8km north of the city, before venturing 120km north-east to base ourselves at the hot springs just below Terdrum Nunnery for a couple of days. From here we explored the large complex of Drikung Thil, the mother monastery of the Drikung Kagyu order. It was here that we encountered the preliminaries of another sky burial, the deceased in a white shroud in the middle of the main courtyard surrounded by a senior lama leading other monks in prayer.

Lhasa and acclimatisation around Drikung Thil 
Monks debating at Sera Monastery, near Lhasa
Drikung Thil, the principal monastery of the Drikung Kagyu order, about 120 km NE of Lhasa
On the kora around Ganden monastery
From the time of our arrival in Tibet there had been uncertainty about our ability to proceed westwards from Lhasa due to earthquake damage in the area of New Tingri down to the Nepalese border at Zhangmu, and the significant aid efforts by the Chinese military in the region. It was clear that our plan to visit Everest Base Camp from Rongphu and then to trek to the base camp of Shishapangma, the only 8000m peak wholly in Tibet, would not be possible. One, for safety reasons, and, two, because the authorities do not want foreigners seeing their internal problems, even though the resettlement camps we observed in the vicinity of Lhartse were impressively organised. Our guide told us that people relocated here from the earthquake affected area immediately to the south had been told that they may be there for up to two years whilst roads were reconstructed and homes rebuilt. 
Resettlement camp for evacuees from the earthquake affected areas of Zhangmu and Nyalam
Upon our return to Lhasa we were delighted to find that we could advance a little further west, at least as far as Shigatse. We travelled there via one of Tibet's most sacred lakes, the beautiful turquoise Yamdrok Tso at an elevation of 4408m (the same height as Mont Blanc) and then on to Gyantse, home of the famous dzong which was attacked by the British in 1904, and the 15th century temple complex of Pelkor Chode and the adjacent Kumbum, noted for its many chapels over nine storeys, together containing ten thousand Buddha images. Onwards to Shigatse at 3869m, for the best hotel yet and a visit to Tashilhumpo, a huge monastery complex once home to the Panchen Lamas. This was a rather depressing visit, the temples closed to visitors until late afternoon, and now devoid of its once large monk population following government controls.

West from Lhasa
Yamdrok Tso 
Hoping that the yak doesn't go into reverse...
Looking west across Yamdrok Tso to Noching Kansang, 7138m
Nothing is safe from the prayer flag hangers!
The Kumbum, Gyantse
Gyantse Dzong, scene of a 'successful' British attack in 1904
The old city of Gyantse, the Kumbum and Pelkor Chode monastery beneath the fortified walls
But we had good news on our return to the hotel. Given that we had applied for our permits to travel to the west of Tibet months earlier, we were being allowed to proceed to Kailas and Gugé. Big smiles all round, and this was the point when two of our number were scheduled to return home, leaving four of us to be one of only three groups to head to western Tibet so far this season, no further new permits being issued until further notice.

Kailas - Guge 
Beyond Shigatse, the roads emptied and we entered the mountainous void that lies beyond central Tibet. Many passes were crossed, most well over 4500m, passing remote communities, range upon range of mountains, many still snow-capped, until, after two days, we caught our first sight of Gurla Mandhata, a 7728m peak close to the border at Hilsa in northwest Nepal. This is a magnificent looking mountain, dominating the southern end of the sacred lake Manasarovar, the 'Lake Conceived from the Mind of God,' at an altitude of 4572m and one of the world's largest bodies of pure water.

View to the Nepalese Himalaya, on the road west from Drongpa Tradun (Zhongba)
Remnants of winter snow on many of the high passes crossed en route to the Kailas region
Lake Manasarovar, still partially covered in ice, from Chiu monastery

Our first sighting of Kailas was a little more elusive, dark storm clouds banked over it in stark contrast to the bright sunshine of late afternoon that was bathing the lake, still largely covered in ice, and the glaciers of Gurla Mandhata. We ended up in the scruffy little town of Darchen for the night, having first driven up a ridge bordering the west side of the lake to check out accommodation near Chiu monastery. This was subsequently rejected, and it was four very tired travellers who eventually checked into the basic guest house at the bottom of the town, now at an elevation of 4575m.

Pilgrims prostrating in respect to Mount Kailas, the abode of the buddha Demchok (Cakrasamvara)
Snow showers, early evening over Kailas
We decided to do the kora the following morning as the weather dawned bright. The prospect of a good walk after many days of travelling in the van was very inviting, so we headed off on the 52km clockwise circuit of the mountain. This is an important pilgrimage for both Hindus and Buddhists, and for followers of the ancient Bön religion, who do the kora in the opposite direction. Walking the circuit is considered very meritorious by followers of these religions, the merit greater with repeated circumambulations and enhanced if completed in one day or, in the case of Buddhists, with multiple prostrations on the way around. Whether the four of us yielded any merit remains to be seen, but apart from a dozen or so Tibetans, we had the trail to ourselves, a real privilege.
The first day is a relatively easy 22.5km walk up the valley bounding the west face of the mountain, first passing Tarboche, the site of the annual Saga Dawa festival when a large pole festooned with prayers flags is raised. It's verticality is said to determine the conditions for Tibet in the coming year - if it is raised at a perfect perpendicular to the ground, then conditions will be favourable. Beyond this the valley narrows, the tiny monastery of Choku Gompa on the west side and the rock buttresses either side of the valley dominating the view. Later, on the approach for the first stopover, the monastery guesthouse of Driraphuk at 4950m, the trail winds its way through a valley that trends eastwards, and it was here that snow banks and frozen streams heralded different walking conditions for the following day.

Up bright and early to walk the sacred kora around Mount Kailas, from our guest house in Darchen

Our two girl porters
Looking back to Gurla Mandhata across the Barkha plain 
Into the canyon of Lha Chu, day one of the kora
Tarboche, site of the annual Saga Dawa festival 
A deserted kora - we only saw a dozen Tibetans all day
Frozen waterfalls on the western flanks of the Kailas massif - we assume the braiding was caused by strong winds.
Any other theories?
Splendid isolation
The western buttresses of Kailas
Pilgrims on the final walk-in to Driraphuk monastery

Chortens at Driraphuk, the Karma Kagyu monastery built around the 'cave of the female yak horns,' used by the sage Gotsangpo in the early 13th century for meditation
Day two of the kora greeted us with superb views to the north face of Kailas, a 1500m cliff face, and took us up slopes of hardened snow, making for good progress over what would otherwise be uneven ground, although we were now performing above 5000m, so a slow steady pace was essential. Our big challenge today was to successfully cross the pass of Drolma La at 5660m, the final approach up a steeper snow slope, and where we were overtaken by two or three groups of young Tibetans who had a somewhat faster pace than us! The whole team managed the pass, a 760m climb from our start point, a great atmosphere prevailing there as elated youngsters fixed new prayer flags to kick off the new pilgrimage season.

North face of Kailas from Driraphuk
Team member Cadi on the final ascent
Up, up and up in the thin air above 5000m...the elusive Drolma La still out of sight
Ralph and Carole reach the Drolma La at 5660m
Drolma La - one happy team!
Young Tibetans refreshing prayer flags

The only way is down...and quick about it before the snow softens too much
But it was not a place to linger, one for the debilitating effect of altitude, and two, because the sun was already softening the snow, making the descent quite tricky in places, and in one spot, a slope of blue water ice needed some concentration, and a little assistance from our two girl porters. Working our way down a final rocky bluff, 400m lost in an hour and a half, we then faced a very long valley plod to our guesthouse at the tiny monastery of Dzultrulpuk which encloses a cave used by the famous Buddhist mystic, Milarepa. This was a welcoming spot after a total distance walked of 22.9km, the host family cheerful and friendly, and with the rooms constructed from thin sheet metal, it was a chilled place to celebrate our crossing of the Drolma La, both physically and metaphorically.

Descent from the Drolma La
Care required on the blue ice below!
Steep descent in places before reaching the wide valley of the Lham Chu
The welcoming owners of the guest house at Zutrulphuk monastery - their living
accommodation and teahouse for passing pilgrims during the day

Zutrulphuk moanstery, site of Milarepa's contest with the Bon deity Naro Boncheng
The third day of the kora is a straightforward downhill valley walk of 11.3km, a few rises just to test your mettle, but easily despatched in a morning, a little entertainment provided by a shepherdess controlling her flock with a slingshot and a passing herd of yak.

Mind that yak! Day three on the kora, back to Darchen
From Darchen, four happy adventurers headed across the wide plain west of the lake of Rakas Tal, the objective to reach the ancient kingdom of Gugé, established in the 10th century as one of three western kingdoms (the others Ladakh and Purang), founded by Buddhists fleeing persecution from king Langdarma who turned against Buddhism. With the influence of two great Buddhist masters, the translator Rinchen Zangpo, and the scholar Atisha, Guge was the focal point for the second diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet, creating a more disciplined and scholarly approach to enlightenment, and seeding the rise of the 'New Translation' schools, starting with the Kadampa.
The legacies of this era are the 10th century temples of Tholing, and the 15th century fortress/temple complex of Tsaparang. But first we had to get to them. Turning left at Bauer, a marvellous road, rising to 5200m at one point, took us through canyons of red, blue and orange rock, before revealing views to the Garhwal Himalaya of Uttaranchal, northern India, snow capped peaks lining the horizon as far as the eye can see. But there was another surprise to come - the vast canyon lands of the Sutlej river system, which unfolded before us as we descended to the town of Tholing, the first capital of Gugé.
The monastery complex here was undergoing a massive restoration project at the time of our visit,  but we did get to view a couple of the key temples, noted for a very particular form of Buddhist art derived from both Kashmiri and Bengali influences and featuring wonderful decoration on the ceilings.

Every turn a spectacle, the road from Bauer to Tholing is one of the most scenic roads I have ever travelled on

Roads generally over 5000m on this stretch...
...and not always in the best of condition!

The start of the Sutlej canyon lands
Magnificent views to the Indian Himalaya
Descending through the canyons to reach Tholing
The highlight, though, was Tsaparang. Apart from an early morning posse of army personnel wandering around as sightseers, we had the place to ourselves (in fact we'd only seen two other western visitors in the preceding six days). Situated on the side of a steep sandstone canyon above the Sutlej river, there is a monastery complex of four temples on the lower elevations, and a cleverly created walkway takes you up to the citadel fortress, 170m above the entranceway, passing caves variously used for accommodating the lower classes, meditation cells for monks, kitchens and a prison. The views from here, in bright sunshine, were, quite simply, unequalled.
Gugé was really the pinnacle of the trip for me, a place so distant, and so rarely visited by non-Chinese.

Tsaparang, the capital of Guge established in the 15th century. A monastic complex of four temples on the lower elevations and the King's citadel 170m higher up. Following a siege and subsequent slaughter of the occupants, the site laid untouched from the 1680s to the early 20th century. 
Views to the Sutlej valley and the Loteng Monastery on the other side of the ravine

The citadel, accessed via a secret tunnel, and now accessible to the visitor

The small temple known as the Demchok Mandala

Big smiles all round...fabulous vistas and the place all to ourselves

Steep steps to the Winter Palace 

Facing a three day road journey back to Lhasa we made a short diversion to visit the hot springs at Tirthapuri at 4330m, the site of a cave used by Padmasambhava and his consort Yeshe Tsogyal to meditate in the 8th century.

Mani stones at Tirthapuri
Temple at Tirthapuri, constructed around the Vajravarahi Cave where Padmasambhava and
his consort Yeshe Tsogyel meditated in the 8th century
Hot springs at Tirthapuri
But then, we had to head relentlessly eastwards. More checkpoints, more stupid speed limits (and a convoy of Army trucks bringing earthquake victims to resettlement camps), a nice guesthouse in Saga followed by a more luxurious hotel in Shigatse, giving us all the opportunity for the first hot shower in eight days. Bliss.
Our final couple of days were spent soaking up the cosmopolitan delights of Lhasa, a huge contrast to the emptiness of the west. Drepung monastery, a huge monastic complex with four colleges just northwest of Lhasa, was a particular gem to visit, much refurbished and rebuilt since my last visit five years ago, apparently funded by Tibetans and the fees demanded of foreigners for photography in each of the main temples.

Dropping back down to Bauer from Guge 
Farewell to Gurla Mandhata, a magnificent looking mountain just north of the Nepalese border
Tracking the Yarlung Tsampo en route to Lhasa from Shigatse. This eventually becomes the mighty Brahmaputra.
Drepung monastery, just north west of Lhasa, much restored since my last visit five years ago
The iconic Potala Palace, Lhasa

Final reflections

I leave Tibet with a tinge of regret. I'm unlikely to return again, this my second visit, and feel that the continued modernisation of this huge region will swamp what is left of the ancient ways. The Chinese have made amazing improvements to the infrastructure and clearly there is a great deal of wealth being generated in the urban areas, designer clothes shops and BMW dealerships in Lhasa a testament to that. But one does not have to venture far from Lhasa to see the other side of the coin - an agrarian, subsistence economy where the traditional Tibetan population continue to toil in the fields, using their own labour to dig irrigation ditches and sow crops of barley, still using horse or yak drawn ploughs, and returning to small houses enclosed by walls covered in yak dung drying in the sun for future fuel needs.

Some monasteries still appear to have some life left in them, but it was particularly noticeable that most of the people either circumambulating them or queuing to give offerings of butter were in the older age group, and that not once did we see young novice monks. Of course, the monasteries are becoming a new money-spinner for the authorities and old thangkas are now fashionable in the auction rooms of Beijing and Shanghai, fetching ludicrously high prices, rather like the interest that persists in artefacts of the Ming Dynasty.
Living in Tibet as a Tibetan must be galling. Chinese is now the only language used in schools, there are tight restrictions on movement, and various aspects of behaviour (for example, our driver had to register his details every time petrol was purchased following the high incidence of immolations by monks in the recent past). The speed limits outside the cities are frustrating and the requirement to continually show travel permits a major limitation on personal freedom and privacy. Tibetans know that they are constantly monitored by undercover authorities and the ubiquitous CCTV in urban areas.
The control on personal movement in the country is a major challenge for all visitors to Tibet, and we were very lucky to have achieved what we did, many fellow visitors stuck in the immediate environs of Lhasa as the authorities over-reacted to continuing earth tremors in Nepal. As our guide said, the rulings on permits change as often as the weather.
And the Tibetans themselves do not make it easy for westerners either. Hotels are adequate, but guesthouses, whilst often characterful, are, for the most part, lacking in hygienic toilet facilities, with plumbing rudimentary or completely absent in places. Littering is a national disgrace, even on the sacred circuit around Kailas, and public toilets demand a strong stomach. Food is generally fine, albeit rather monotonous if one just sticks to Tibetan restaurants, and none of our group suffered from any notable stomach upsets.
But, this is still a country that is compelling to many, and justifiably so. The traditional Tibetans are amongst the most devout and spiritual people on the planet, and the institutions of Tibetan Buddhism are a marvel of artistic and metaphysical complexity, the colours and sounds unique to this part of the world, with a history going back to the 7th century when the Tibetan Kings were first exposed to Buddhism from Nepal and China.
The landscapes of mountains, canyons and vast tracts of high altitude desert are stupendous in scale and are majestic in their barrenness and remoteness, criss-crossed by some still pursuing a nomadic existence, herding yaks and sheep.
So, take your choice. Prepare for some considerable challenges - the control by the authorities, the privations of basic accommodation and quality of sanitation in remoter parts, and the long distances involved. But also be prepared to have one of the most unique experiences of your life - a glimpse into a mediaeval world of subsistence living and devotion, gaining an introductory  insight into one of the most complex metaphysical systems on Earth, and taking in the vast empty landscapes punctuated by some of the highest mountains in the world, ultimately the source of four great Asian rivers.
Like so many other regions of the world, the relentless modernisation of society, with enviable telecommunications, audacious infrastructure projects and the rise of western materialism in the younger echelons of society, will swamp traditional ways of life, the spiritual aspects becoming a curio and the increasing polarisation of the people into the urban rich and rural poor. But, haven't we seen this all before...?

Finally, my thanks to a fine bunch of travelling companions, who endured constant uncertainty, occasional discomfort, cold, long distances and poor sanitation at almost every stop (thank goodness for storm drains, ladies!). But suitably fortified by endless quantities of momos, noodles, egg fried rice and Lhasa beer, these minor inconveniences were set aside, and all cheerfully completed the tour.
Memory cards full, wallets only half-emptied, and with stories to tell for a lifetime.

Thank you Cadi, Ralph, Carole, Eileen and Chris for your patience, flexibility, good humour, and for your lack of complaints!


Having been associated with Exodus Travels between 2005 and 2010, I can wholeheartedly recommend them as a first class trekking company and I can attest to their genuine efforts to help the people of Nepal recover from the awful earthquakes that occurred in April and May of 2015.

If you've enjoyed reading this blog, please consider a donation, however small, to their charitable appeal.

And, better, consider going to Nepal this Autumn when the trekking season starts again. A good selection of adventures can be found here.

If you're in any doubt about the tumultuous impact of the earthquakes, have a look at the US Geological Survey.



David Allan said...

Thanks so much for your blog, Colin, written as a true professional. It was a great read and I was able to feel in some small part the highs and the lows, the uncertainty and the triumph that you and the others must have felt in doing what you did. I feel that I was able to closely relate to some of your experiences from having shared the Humla - Limi experience with you three years ago, and I remain so grateful for having been able to do that, albeit often from the back of the horse.
Congratulations to you and all on achieving what you have, and I am certain it will remain a most memorable experience for you all in years to come.


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