A Journey to the Roof of the World

May 30th, 2008

Day 1 While waiting for the flight to Chengdu, Walter and I met our fellow travelers at the airport – 10 Americans and 16 Germans. We were the only two Swiss. Our tour leader’s a young Chinese, called Ma, which means Pony in English.

We exchanged amusing anecdotes on how we obtained “Diamox”. Discovered that each of us paid a different price for the same medicine – used to stimulate oxygen intake and forestall mountain sickness.

Finally, arrived at Chengdu, and checked into hotel.

Day 2

No sooner did our heads touch the pillow than the wake-up call sounded at 4.15 a.m. Had breakfast and wait for the guide to take us to the airport. Plane was packed with local passengers flying into Lhasa.

At Lhasa airport we were met by Dawa, a 22-year old Tibetan guide. Breathed in the cool fresh air. Sun was shining, sky a vivid blue. Temperature 15 degree C, but pleasantly warm as the air was dry. Surrounded by mountains that look brown and bare without trees or snow.

Dawa says his name means “Moon and Monday”. In keeping with Tibetan traditional welcome, Dawa hung a long white silk scarf or “kadak” around our neck. “Kadaks” are seen everywhere in all the temples and monasteries.

Our bus was a normal 20-seater without four-wheel drive and driven by a diesel engine. Double-seats obviously designed for smaller people!

On our way to Tsedang – about two hours’drive from Gonggar Airport. Road narrow, but paved. Passed through several small villages with cluster of Tibetan farmers’houses made from clay.

These farmers earn their livelihood by farming and rearing cattle, sheep, chicken and other livestock. All houses are facing south, presumably to get as much sunlight as possible as there is no heating of any kind.

Every house has a mirror as well as yeks’horns on the rooftops to ward off evil spirits.

“Prayer flags” in five colors – blue, white, red, yellow and green, which symbolize the five natural elements – are seen everywhere. Blue for sky, white for cloud, red for fire, yellow for earth and green for water. An inscription of “Hail the Jewel in the Lotus” in Tibetan is printed on the flags, which are replaced by new ones occasionally, especially on the New Year’s Day. The Tibetan writing, like the Thai script, is derived from Sanskrit and the similarity between the two is astounding.

The bus travels along the Yarlong Tsangpo River, 3,600 km. long. At an average height of 4,500 m., the highest altitude of any river in the world. Fields of barley, wheat, peas, potatoes and rapeseeds on both sides of the road. As we approached Tsedang, many groves of willows, poplars, and orchards of pears and apples.

Two hours later, we arrived at the Tsedang Hotel. Oxygen pillows and cylinders provided in case of emergency. Flight of stairs up to the second floor rooms seemed interminable – gasping for breath. Discovered that putting on the shoes in the morning was quite a struggle too.

Left the hotel for Yumbu Lakang Palace, about 12 km south of Tsedang.

Began drizzling and the temperature dropped.

Tsedang in Tibetan language means ‘the playground” – so called because of the Tibetan myth concerning their origin which they believed was the result of an intermarriage between the Monkey and the Ogress. Tibetans are the offsprings of these two creatures, which used this area as their playground.

The Yumbu Lakang Palace can be seen from a distance, perching majestically on a pinnacle above the Yarlong Valley. Built in 127 B.C. for the first of the heavenly kings who, according to legend, descended from the sky, the Palace is adorned with glazed tiles and bricks of white, deep red and golden yellow.

The thin air coupled with fine rain made the climb up the 100m steep slope to the castle’s base even more of a struggle.

Effort worth it! Rewarded with a panoramic view of the green and beautiful view down below, freshly awashed by the rain. Feasted our eyes on the fields traversed by numerous footpaths, crisscrossing rivers, streams and quaint farmhouses. A lone shepherd was riding a donkey carrying a bundle on its back. Local children in ragged clothes sang “Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, Dormez Vous, Dormez Vous”. Marion Godfrey taught them the English equivalent.

The echos of the song lingered over the vast pleateau. Julia Montesi produced some sweets from her bag and distributed them to the children. Immediately, their eyes lit up with instant happiness and gratitude.

From the base we climbed another flight of stairs and passed a darkened room – above the door hung a faded “thangka” which is a scroll banner. I peered into the room and saw a small kitchen containing a primitive stove and some cooking utensils, presumably used by the monks living in the monastery. A few steps further led us to a terrace and into a richly decorated chanting hall. The day of our visit coincided with the birthday of the Lord Buddha, and the hall was full of monks in their vermillion robes chanting prayers, the books of scriptures open before them. They prayed in unison and the sound of their chanting was melancholy and yet melodious at the same time. The burning of incense mingled with the smell of barley flour or “tsampa” – overpowering – exuding the air everywhere we went. The whole scene really overwhelming – it was indeed another world!

“Tsampa” is the staple food in Tibet and is also an offering made to Buddha. Cooking isn’t required as the barley has already been washed and roasted. Ground into flour in a mill into which water is added, the mixture is made into a kind of dough and ready to be served.

Since “Tsampa” is eaten everywhere, I feared that its smell seeped into every pore of my skin, hair, clothes and even the hotel towels. It was to haunt me throughout the entire trip.

On the main altar in the hall are images of Buddha, one of which is Skayamuni, the Present Buddha. The Tibetans would have it that Buddha had three forms, the Present, Future and Past. An old and faded “thangka” is framed behind glass. Besides a number of murals depicting the earliest events of Tibetan history, there is a collection of small, old bronzes housed in a case in the corner by the altar.

We were asked to pay ten Renminbis per person to take photographs of the monks performing their religious ceremony. It was worth it and we considered ourselves lucky to be here on this particular day. If we had been a few days later, we would have missed all of this. The piety and the solemnity of the occasion left us with a deep impression.

Coming out of the monastery, we saw men and women in their traditional costumes coming up the stairs to burn incense and make their offerings. Outside Dawa pointed to a mountain and told us that it was a place for “sky burial”.

When a Tibetan dies his body is carried up a mountain. The body is then cut into pieces and fed to birds and vultures. If a child aged between one and four dies, his body will also be cut up after which the pieces are scattered into water. This is called “water burial”. On the other hand the body of a high ranking lama will be enshrined in a designated tomb while the body of a lesser lama will be cremated and his ashes put in a stupa.

On our way back, we stopped at the Trandruk Temple. By now, the rain had stopped and the late afternoon sun was peeking through. The village where the temple stand was very lively and thronged with people of all ages wearing colorful costumes and headgears.

Trandruk was one of the first temples built in Tibet in the 7th century. As we entered the main gate, we saw a small room containing a large prayer wheel. Murals are along the wall. On the left side of the courtyard a chapel houses beautiful pieces of “thangkas” of Sakayamuni, the Present Buddha and his sixteen Arhats or disciples.

The courtyard was filled with people, men and women, young and old, all praying. Their hands were never still as they kept rotating their prayer wheels. Their lips moved up and down murmuring their prayers. An old man sitting on his makeshift bed was saying a prayer. Some prostrated themselves on the grimy floor in front of a Buddha statue. Religion seems almost everything to the Tibetans. Many of them live for the next life, rather than for the present.

They accumulate deeds of virtue and pray for the final liberation, which is enlightenment.

Day 3

Left by bus again for Samye Monastery, located north of the Yarlong Tsangpo – 40 minutes to the ferry mooring – a flat-bottomed ferry propelled by a modified walking-tractor engine was our transport across the river. It was already full of local people on pilgrimage. Eventually, the ferry ran aground on one of the river’s many shifting sandbanks – we transferred to another passing ferry, packed with passengers. No room to breathe, let alone to move! However, compensated by a lovely light along the river and a broad sweeping view of the valley flanked by barren mountains.

On the other side of the river, we climbed aboard a blue open truck – which I think must have been designed for transporting cattle across a desert! No seats! We stood with out hands clinging to an iron rail, for dear life, and bounced across the rough sandy desert through a village into Samye.

Finally, the main gate of Samye! Desperate to relieve ourselves! Local toilets worse than anything we have ever seen. Decided then and there that I would not complain about toilets in China ever again – it is that bad!

Samye is located at the foot of one of Tibet’s four holy mountains. The surrounding landscape consists of barren mountains and sand dunes, with the monastery and village occupying a small fertile patch of land. It was the first monastery ever built in Tibet during the eighth century under the patronage of King Trisong Detsan. The work was directed by two Indian masters whom the king had invited to Tibet to help consolidate the Buddhist faith. The monastery had been repeatedly damaged by fire and then restored. The original buildings were burnt down and were later rebuilt. At the entrance to the main temple, Dawa pointed out an ancient stone tablet which records an edict made by King Trisong Detsan, officially proclaiming Buddhism to be the State religion of Tibet.

Two old ladies in their colorful embroidered costumes were at the entrance of the main temple. Their smiling faces were brown and weather-beaten. They said that they were a hundred and two years old!

Return journey to the other side of the river was downstream and only took us an hour to get across. This time we had enough room to sit down and enjoyed the view. Young Tibetans shared the ferry. Pleasant and often laughing, they sang the entire way. Although we were tired, their cheerfulness was contagious and we couldn’t help but felt happy too.

Today was the writer’s birthday. During dinner we shared two bottles of French wine – courtesy of John and Bill. It was really special to be able to celebrate my birthday in Tibet!

Day 4

Said goodbye to Tsedang and began our exciting journey to Gyantse, a distance of 320 km and a nine-hour drive. An hour later, we arrived at a junction on the paved road. On the right is Chushur Bridge, which leads into Lhasa, the other way leads into Lhoka.

Before the bridge was built in 1964, ferries were used as a means of transport across the Kyichu River, one of the major tributaries of the Tsangpo.

The landscape between Chushur Bridge and Gyantse is quite beautiful. As the road climbs, the agricultural land replaced by stony mountains and sand dunes, with occasional trees and irrigated fields of wheat and barley.

Eventually, the terrain resembles a desert. The steep, continually zigzagging climb over Kampala Pass starts from 3,500m in altitude to 4,600m at the summit. As we crossed the summit, a breathtaking view suddenly appeared! The famous Yamdok Lake lies serene below. In the distance a chain of snow-capped peaks looms before our eyes. The sky was a vivid blue!

Another 70km drive took us to Karola Pass, 5,100m high. A herd of yaks and sheep were grazing. Here we stopped and rode yaks! Descending the summit we passed through small villages, where naked children swam in the clear streams while women washed their clothes.

At Longmar Village, our bus broke down…a bad fuel filter. Bus started, we continued the journey for 10 minutes…it broke down again. The driver struggled to get the bus started, but eventually gave up. Road deserted and mobile phones useless. We were in high spirits, though, and even surprised that the bus had gotten this far…with no four-wheel drive and very low profile tires! At last, as a tractor passed by, we asked the driver to drive to the hotel in Gyantse to get help. Later, Stephan and Bertram inspected the engine and encouraged the driver to try again. The bus started, and we even passed the tractor on the way to the hotel. Our luggage was beyond recognition, as it was totally covered with dust….

Pauline will continue describing her experiences in “The Roof of the World” in next month’s issue.

Day 5

Today, we visited the Palcho Monastery in Gyantse. In the courtyard, several villagers were busy sweeping the ground in preparation for a religious ceremony the next day.

The Kumbum Pagoda is Palcho Monastery’s centerpiece and the pride of Gyantse. The pagoda is a real work of art and is considered by many to be one of the most magnificent buildings in Tibet. It consists of four tiers of interlocking, multifaceted chapels.

We climbed up a series of dark, uneven staircases to the fourth floor for a bird’s eye view of Gyantse. The town is divided into two parts by a high rocky ridge, topped by a ruined fortress. Gyantse is an interesting town with beautiful surroundings.

An unscheduled stop at Benak Village – the border between Gyantse and Shigatse – the village is interesting and unspoiled. Yaks’dung was spread out on the walls to dry for fuel. A village woman, in her colorful robe, came out of her house, carrying a small barrel of homemade barley beer on her back…she was on her way to a village feast. The fields were full of purple flowers looking like lavender. After lunch we went on to the Tashilhunpo Monastery, the seat of the panchen lamas.

It was founded in 1447 by the main organizer of the Yellow Hat sect and was enlarged under the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth panchen lamas after the Yellow Hat sect had been firmly established as Tibet’s official religion. It housed 3,800 monks and was organized like Lhasa’s great monasteries. However, the Monastery was disbanded by the Chinese army in 1960 while the Tenth Panchen Lama was absent. Only a handful of caretaker monks was allowed to remain. Today there are about 800 monks.

To reach the monastery, we walked up a number of steps, the hot afternoon sun beating down on our backs…huffed and puffed until we reached the flagstoned courtyard, where several pilgrims were rotating the big prayer wheels. It was startling to see such opulence amidst the poverty, dirt and grime of the surroundings. However, a visit to this place is a must.

There is so much to see…the most remarkable sights were the huge Maitreya Chapel, the Panchen Lama’s Palace containing the stupa tomb of the Fourth Panchen Lama, and a room housing the relics of the Tenth Panchen Lama who died in 1989. His body has been preserved by a salting process and he gazes out of a glass box, face and hands gilded. Some hand-carved wooden blocks used for printing the Buddha scriptures are stored in the Sutra Hall situated behind the chapels that house hundreds of tiny Buddha statues.

Since entering the Monastery, we noticed a monk in a vermillion-colored robe following behind us. His appearance was even more remarkable because of the pair of dark sunglasses and red baseball cap he was wearing. Encouraged by his smiling face and friendliness, we asked about him. He told Dawa that he came from another town. It had taken him ten days to reach Shigatse, stopping for shelter and food at the monasteries and temples along the way. He received the baseball cap from a tourist and had been wearing it ever since.

On to the Free Market for some souvenir shopping. The vendors rather aggressive and very persistent!

Our group had another birthday girl today!

Day 6

Left for Lhasa. Surrounded by beautiful scenery. Dawa pointed out the only Boen Temple in Tibet, tucked away on a mountain. We came across a long trail of caravans, pulled by donkeys and carrying rocks. The countryside is surrounded by a high mountain range which is part of the Himalayas. The Everest is only about 300km away.

The road is surrounded by rocks, some lying so precariously, I was afraid they would tumble down any minute.

Stopped at another beautiful spot on the river bank for lunch. In front of us looms the 6,400m high, snow-capped Mount Chopu Chomo…the Holy Mountain of Tibet. Must admit that I enjoyed the breathtaking view much more than the lunch itself!

Continued our journey on the paved, treacherous road. Quite a sensation to be travelling on a road built so high over a river. On one side of the river, a vast expanse of farmland with barley growing. Like a desert in early spring, scraggy scrubs and the forever present purple flowers dotted the landscape. Arrived at Lhasa in the late afternoon.

Day 7

Departed for Drehpung Monastery. It is the largest in Tibet, consisting of four colleges. The main relics of Drehpung are the Maitreya or the Future Buddha’s chapel, the White Conch Shell and the funeral stupas of the second, third and fourth Dalai Lamas. The Maitreya is said to be compassionate that seeing his statue would release one’s sufferings. The White Conch Shell is said to have been dug out from under the earth by Tsongkhapa at its construction site. We visited the monks’kitchen where we saw huge pots and pans and butter churns…the making of yak butter was in full swing.

After lunch, we visited famous Barkhor Square situated in the heart of the old part of the city.

Barkhor Street is the liveliest and best preserved section of the traditional aspect of Lhasa. Pilgrims made their way round the Jokhang, lips moving in prayer. This ring-like street is also congested with shops of handicraft articles such as prayer wheels, daggers, rings, bangles of Tibetan make, or national costumes like lambskin gowns, embroidered shoes, colorful striped aprons etc.

Later, Dawa took us to the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred in Tibet. Pilgrims were seen at the main entrance prostrating and paying homage to the Sakayamuni, or the Present Buddha image, and asking for blessings.

Legend has it that King Tsongstan Gampo threw his ring into the air and the spot where the ring was to land was to be chosen as the site for Jokhang. The ring, however, landed into a marshy pond and struck a rock where a white stupa miraculously appeared. Workmen filled in the pond with stones and the Jokhang Temple was built over it. Even today, a pool exists under the Jokhang’s main courtyard.

There are three circumambulation paths for the pilgrims, the outer one is the old township, the middle one is the Barkhor Street and the inner path goes round the Jokhang. The center of the inner path is fixed with numerous prayer wheels to provide convenience for pilgrims to turn the wheels while making circumambulations.

Buddha statues are everywhere, and murals cover the wall. However, Jokhang Temple is so dark inside, that we could hardly see its beauty. When the Dalai Lama comes to Lhasa, he stays at Jokhang, which is his living quarters.

Day 8

Today, Potala Palace…

It was built at the time of Tsongstan Gampo in the 7th century. In the 17th century, the 5th Dalai Lama extended the palace to its present size. The main building is divided into two sections, the Red and White Palaces which consist of thirteen floors. They include living quarters, temples, funeral stupas and monks’ dormitories. The countless cultural relics existing here are priceless. These magnificent Tibetan arts have been classified as national treasures to be protected. We were also taken to see the Dalai Lama’s living quarters.

Dawa was going to take us to visit a Tibetan family. We drove along a bumpy road until we came to a residential area. Dawa rang the bell of one house. Immediately, the front gate was opened, and we were greeted warmly by a smiling and pleasant middle-aged lady, the owner of the house. She introduced us to her husband and granddaughter. Their courtyard was full of roses in full bloom. The lady of the house gave us a tour of the house. They seem quite well to do, and even have their private chapel and prayer rooms in the compound (another sign of Tibetan wealth).

When I asked to see their restroom, the lady pointed to a small and rundown cement shack covered with cobweb outside the gate. Ah, well…

This evening, after dinner, we reviewed the events of the past eight days. Despite some discomfort and setbacks, we agreed the trip was definitely worth it. We had a marvelous time, with a great team of travelers. If you have the opportunity, this trip is not to be missed!