Tibet is a remarkable place that is rich in culture, legends and history. It is the birthplace of the doctrine of Tibetan Buddhism. Having traveled to many areas which base their beliefs on Tibetan Buddhism we were excited to finally visit the area for ourselves.
Tibet is located on a high plateau in southwestern China with an average elevation of 4,500 m. It is in the rain shadow of the Himalayas and is therefore very arid. We began our trip at the border town of Kerung and drove toward Everest Base Camp (EBC). The landscape in this area is very dry and barren with brown hills in shallow valleys with rocky ground that is difficult to farm. We passed small towns, many still had buildings in the traditional compressed-mud Tibetan style but were surrounded by newly built homes, Chinese high rise condos and strip malls with Chinese shops. The new homes were constructed in the spirit of traditional Tibetan homes but were clearly pre-built developments as the houses were all exactly the same. Chinese progress took away a lot of the character of these villages.
As we drove further, the hills became mountains and we drove higher in elevation. We were climbing up to Gyatch La (5220 m) when it started to snow, a sign of the start of the monsoon season. It is a winding road of switchbacks all the way up to the top of the pass and the same down the other side. We were hoping for views of Everest, Cho Oyu and other 80000 m peaks from the pass, but unfortunately, we could not see any mountains because of the snow and thick clouds.
Just before the turn off to Everest Base Camp is an old Buddhist Monastery, Rongbuk Gompa, the highest monastery in the world. Early Everest expeditions stopped at this monastery before attempting an ascent of the mountain. We stopped to view it from the outside but weren’t allowed to enter. The Chinese government is very strict with entry to this part of China. In order to visit Tibet, you have to join a guided tour. The tour agencies are required to adhere very closely to the approved itinerary. Police and Army check points are located at the entrance to all tourist and important sites. As well, there are regular check points along the highways. Rongbruk Gompa and other sites we were interested in were not on our itinerary, so we were not allowed to enter.
The summit of Everest is on the border of China (Tibet) and Nepal. Climbers can begin their ascent of the mountain from either country. Everest Base Camp (EBC) is almost accessible by car. The road ends at a tourist camp which is only a couple of kilometers from the climbers’ base camp. At 4900 m, tourist camp set up with sultan style tents with yak-dung burning stoves and attached basic kitchens. We should have seen Everest from this camp, but by the time we arrived it was snowing and blowing so hard there was no visibility. We couldn’t even see the end of the camp. After a restless sleep at nearly 5000m we woke with the anticipation of seeing Everest, but when we stepped out of the tent into 5 cm of fresh snow, our hopes were decreasing. Looking toward Everest, was a huge disappointment. All we could see were thick, low monsoon clouds. There would be no north Everest view for us this trip.
We spent the next 3 days driving toward the capital city of Lhasa and stopped at a few interesting towns on the way. In the town of Shigatse is the monastery, Tashi Lhunpo Gompa, built by the 1st Dalai Lama. It is a massive complex with 3 very large shrines; one for Future Buddha, a second for the 4th – 9th Panchen Lama and one for the 10th Panchen Lama. Panchen Lama is second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama. There were many Tibetans at the monastery on pilgrimages. They walked in a Kora around a group of chortens, with prayer beads and prayer wheels, many chanting Buddhist mantras. A Kora is the clockwise circling around a Buddhist structure, for example: a mani stone, chorten, monastery complex or even a mountain or lake.
We did a Kora of the gompa. There were many Tibetans doing the same, dressed in their traditional daily dress. It was interesting to be a part of their customs.
During the drive we saw many fields being plowed with Yaks. Near the Tso La Pass, the scene was a bit unusual. Many of the yaks and goats were decorated with colourful scarves and ribbons.
On the outskirts of the town of Gyantse, perched high up on a hill, are the ruins of Gyantse Dzong (Fortress). It was an important fortress that protected the valley which leads to the capital of Lhasa.
Gyantse is also home to the 600-year-old Phalkor Monastery (1418). The monastery is unusual because it is now used by the 3 different sects of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelugpa, Sakyapa, and Butonpa) each with their own college. We were able to climb on to the roof of this monastery for views of Gyantse and its Dzong.
Beside the monastery is a large 5 story chorten, Kumbum, built in 1427. Each floor has a number of small shrines with statues and paintings. It’s a beautifully designed and maintained structure.
Our drive continued east passing the glacier covered mountain of Karola and the Karola Pass. We stopped to look at the gorgeous Manla Reservoir below Simila Pass with a ruin on an island in the middle. Closer to Lhasa is the very large lake Yamdrok Tso. From this lake, the terrain became flatter and greener with fields growing rice, wheat, corn and other crops. We could see the soil was better for sustaining crops. When we reached the important Brahmaputra River we knew we were close to Lhasa and experiencing the mystery that surrounds it.
Coming up next: Part 2, Lhasa’s incredible Potala Palace
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