Before we leave Lhasa there are two things I forgot to put in the previous blog, both animal centered.
At Drepung we saw a raven chiseling with his beak a channel between two stones in the monastery wall. He was very intense about this. Mortar was flying in all directions. He would stop for a breather from time to time and then return to the task with renewed determination. We couldn’t figure out what this was about. What was buried in the mortar? While he was chiseling away at the top was there some mouse working his way, with equal diligence, further and further down between the stones in the monastery wall?
The Kiychu has a cat with three and a half legs. She is powder puff soft and comfortably round. One of her front legs is missing a little more than half way down, although she is able to get around quite well despite her limp. Whether it is because of her disability or it is just her character, she is an extremely vocal cat. She comes to sit by your chair at breakfast and delivers voluminous diatribes, which I imagine have to do with the lack of disability compensation from the communist state to small cats. A little bacon will temporarily stop the lecture but the only thing that turns it off completely is a call from the man who makes cappuccinos in the garden. She disappears after him limping rapidly into the kitchen.
We drove out of Lhasa on a freeway passing tall apartment buildings. Marching up the sides of hill-mountains were those great complexes of apartment buildings that the Chinese create. It pains me to see these in this landscape. Then we drove, on a less intrusive road, through what looked like suburbs, but with recently harvested fields of barley between the houses, passing a fenced park where, through the bars, I saw a dainty, spotted deer all by itself. The mountains closed in showing patches and streaks of mineral green and red on their apparently barren sides.
We passed the glacier that has been neatened up. No beggars at all. There used to be terrible ones here in fearsome condition coming to your car window to plead their misery. But now there are lots of tables at which people are selling fake antiques and, possibly, fake fossils. The Chinese have made it a bit park like. It was nicer wild. It is still impressive, however, but we did not see the second glacier. Is it gone? Global warming in action? Or have they changed the road so it doesn’t pass that glacier any more?
We had lunch in a town I remember that has at one end of its one street a magnificent, perfectly symmetrical, black mountain with beyond it white topped mountains. The town’s one street is ugly with paired, absolutely static, red, plastic Chinese flags on all the lampposts and the usual garish storefronts coming apart under the onslaught of Tibetan wind and weather.
The lunch was okay, chicken and peanuts with carrots and zucchini julienne, and seemed innocuous, but made me fart unmusically for the rest of the afternoon.
We passed innumerable army trucks going in both directions but they were cleaner than in years before and not filled with young men in uniforms looking woebegone in this alien environment. I may hate the presence of the Chinese army in Tibet but I find it impossible not to be sorry for the individual soldier who comes from the relatively warm, green and wet low lands of China, running with rivers. Tibet must seem like a desiccated hell to them.
I did not arrange this trip well. I tried to cram too much into too little time. Tashi had, when I arrived in Lhasa, asked to rearrange the itinerary, which was fine, until I realized that we were at a Nepali-Tibetan divide. He wanted to head quickly for Darchen and the circumambulation, or whatever part of it I could do. Satish had planned the trip so that I would do the khora at the end, when I had had as much time as possible to adjust to the altitude. This is a striking difference between Nepalis and Tibetans. A Nepali will always think of the person. Tibetans will think in terms of efficiency. I pointed out to Tashi that he was cutting down on my acclimatization time. We did not go back to Satish’s schedule but we only cut one day off of my adjustment time.
But the first victim of my overscheduling was Gyantze, one of my favorite towns. There has been the usual Chinese invasion but somehow it has stayed a Tibetan town, unlike Shigatze that seems to be completely Chinese now. However, Gyantze was very much under construction. We had to drive this way and that to finally get to the monastery. This meant missing the beautiful approach down a street edged by old Tibetan houses, their windows glowing with geraniums and dahlias with the monastery gate in front of you.
It was at this gate, from the paintings inside it, that I first learned about snow lions, a superb mythical beast. Here they romp on the wall, snowy but with green manes flying in the wind and toothy grins. It was, I think, the Fifth Dalai Lama whose mother raised him on snow lion milk.
Lack of time was the first disappointment, the second was that the upstairs of the temple was closed, and there were very few monks about. We did see the protector chapel that has a few old skeleton masks and new ones of toothy animals, which Tashi was dismissive of, however I am fond of them.
Tashi told me that the gods and the complex toranas behind them—a torana is a structure somewhere between a large halo and an arched frame—were made from clay. However, to the casual glance they look as though they were carved from wood. They are indeed ceramic, which makes their survival through the Cultural Revolution more surprising. There is one room I´ve never been reconciled to that is an imitation of limestone caves, perhaps around Guilin. I have always thought it looks tacky and this trip didn’t change my mind.
The murals in the monastery are fine, some old, but they are heavily darkened in most cases by the smoke from yak butter lamps.
We went on to the Kumbum, a uniquely Tibetan building that looks like a wedding cake, particularly since it is painted white. It is a series of terraces that you climb up to, often on shaky ladders, with small chapels all around each terrace. The number of chapels depends on whom you read. Victor Chan says 69. Wikipedia says 76 in one place and 77 in another in the same article.
I say it is a wedding cake structure but it is to a Buddhist a three dimensional mandala. Founded in 1047 it was destroyed a number of times. I believe that what we now see was built in 1427, the Fire Sheep year. However, the paintings, which combine various influences, Newari and Tibetan, are 15th century. The figures are delicately drawn, the women with small but definite bellies and neat little breasts above which they smile abstractly.
My idea of how to enjoy these chapels is to lose my guide and wander about focusing on randomly chosen figures. This visit there was no time for that, besides the upper floor had been closed. I was tired and we had Shalu monastery to get to. The curse of being 81 is how quickly you tire.
I had not been to Shalu since my first trip to Kailash in the 1990’s with nine other people of various nationalities in the back of a baby blue Chinese truck. It seemed best to cut our visit to Gyantze short and head to Shalu. On that first trip, I had no idea of the significance of Shalu and I can’t remember which of the passengers in the back of the truck urged us to go there. When we did get there the villagers were astonished by us and not entirely sure they wanted us around. The inside of the temple was so dark we could see nothing and so we left.
It was some years later that I learned that Shalu was founded in 1040 but destroyed by an earthquake two hundred years later. It was rebuilt and the present murals were painted in the 14th century. It was an important scholarly centre and also a focus for esoteric studies, such as thumo, a meditation in which you are able to raise your body temperature, a useful skill in this climate. Alexandra David Neal was adept at this, so was Milarepa who lived a hermit’s life in a cave wearing a cotton tunic.
To my surprise I recognized the approach to Shalu through barley fields. The temple is slightly less dark than it was twenty-five years ago but it has a startling new roof of green tiles of unmistakably Chinese design. This is not an error. The original roof was Chinese. The murals, many of them in terrible shape, some because of leaks, and others because of the smoke from yak butter lamps, when not damaged are magnificent. They combine the influences of Tibet, China, Mongolia and Nepal in a euphoric ebullience.
In the illumination department what worked very well was the three of us, me, Sarosh and Tashi concentrating our flashlight beams on an image. They are a bit faded but the delicacy of the paintings is blissful. The faces, the variety of their expressions is entrancing. There are delightful animals and fish with animated expressions. One section features happy, rather roly-poly monks flying among the clouds.
Upstairs there are chapels with mandalas. The monks have pushed cabinets full of new statues in front of them. This obscures them but also protects them.
Some of these paintings may be 12th century but most are 14th century and are thus earliest murals in Tibet.
With the Cultural Revolution the temple and monastery were shut down and sat empty for thirty years until the local people petitioned for it to be reopened.
We had the place pretty much to ourselves through most of our time there but toward the end I noticed a Tibetan woman, middle aged, dressed in her Western best with a husband and wife. The couple was Chinese and she was their guide. She, I’ve no idea why, cast very nasty looks at me. She may have considered this her preserve and us trespassers. The monks were very nice to us.
We drove on to Shigatze, not one of my favorite towns but, to my interest, one of Tashi’s. Tashi likes his comforts and those are available in Shigatze. The drive there, however, was superb. I find the vastness and austerity of the land in Tibet viscerally thrilling. It is an uncompromising landscape that lets you know you don’t matter. A woman in a group I guided to Kailash years ago remarked in a derogatory manner on how inhospitable the landscape is. To me that is its attraction.
We arrived in Shigatze around eight and I was desperate with exhaustion. I did not do well on the stairs to my room, of which Tashi was very proud. It was a suite. There was a living room with its own bath and then the bedroom, very large, but with lights that didn’t work and its own bath that provided only boiling hot water, no cold in the tub. I slept poorly with all kinds of wonky thinking going on. Even now I am too embarrassed to describe it.
We left the super fancy hotel after an okay buffet breakfast. Certainly it was better than the old breakfasts sternly administered by young Chinese women years ago of one boiled egg, two stone cold pieces of toast and instant coffee.
The Shigatze monastery is pretty much as always with the chorten tomb of the 10th Panchen Lama and the enormous Buddha. We went across the courtyard with a thousand Buddhas on its walls to the old temple but the Drolma chapel was closed. Walking down to the gate there were delightful flowers looking over the walls of the monks’ cells. One little court we could look into had huge heads of pink dahlias nodding in the sun.
Lunch was at a Tibetan restaurant in town up some stairs where a group of monks were having lunch with some women. Perhaps their sisters? But there was nothing improper.
I took a chance and ordered lamb ribs with fried potatoes. The latter appeared very quickly but the ribs didn’t appear despite Tashi doing a lot of talking. Finally I got some sliced lamb, tough but with good flavor with fried vegetables. I wonder if there were any lamb ribs or were they just a fantasy.
We had to wait for Palden, the driver, in the street. There were children about and when Palden arrived I dove into my pack for balloons although there were only two girls left. I was a little taken aback that when I offered them the balloons they immediately backed off, the older one more than the younger with fear in their eyes. Up to this point they had been very curious about me. I put two balloons each on a table that was there and walked away. They immediately came up to get them.
We then drove to Sakya. It was on this drive that I realized with a shock that there are surveillance cameras everywhere. In Lhasa they are in the temples and monasteries. There are checkpoints—ten between Lhasa and Darchen—but besides this there are white frames over the road. Palden would slow down as he approached one of these almost to a halt. There was a camera on top that would take a picture of us. The security system has you in its sights at all times.
I was so glad I went back to Sakya, which I had not seen since my first trip to Tibet twenty-five years ago. It was my first Tibetan temple and it completely overwhelmed me. No wonder. It is huge. The outside is massive with deep, deep walls unrelieved by windows or doors. It looks like a fortress.
There is a mammoth front gate/door followed by a court and then the assembly hall that is enormous with high ceilings. The pillars, 40 as I remember, I had read about in Victor Chan’s pilgrimage guide book are amazing not just for their height but for their girth. They are raw tree trunks, not smoothed or shaped, although they have the usual cloth wrapping around their bases. You can see where the branches were struck off centuries ago. They have all been painted red.
The one that was brought to the temple by a wild yak, or possibly a white yak, is labeled. Next to it is the pillar a tiger carried from India on his back. He died upon delivering the pillar and his skin, or at any rate a piece of tiger skin, surely not the original, is nailed to the pillar. I could not find the pillar which when felled bled black blood from the spirit that had inhabited it.
The images through out are either new or relatively new with magnificent brass toranas, halo/frames. It is impossible to take it all in.
The outside is massive, painted blue-grey with white and red stripes at irregular intervals. You can walk along the wall that surrounds the gompa’s buildings. We did this as I felt myself fading out. The houses in the surrounding villages are also blue grey with white and red stripes irregularly applied to their walls. This identifies their inhabitants as belonging to the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
As we drove on toward New Dingeri, or sometimes Tingeri, I began to formulate a plan to return and, with plenty of time, come back to see these gompas and their wall paintings, carrying a big flashlight, one day per temple. I would include two gompas outside of Lhasa with particularly interesting murals.
Some way out of Sakya we found ourselves at the end of a line of cars, some had been waiting there while the Chinese had worked on the road since eight that morning. We joined the end of the line. I started writing furiously. I was two days behind in my journal. I was making grand progress when an Indian woman whom I had met at the Kiychu with her family showed up and naturally wanted to talk.
This was fine for a while but I did want desperately to get back to my journal, plus she started talking about how today we could not build the pyramids, that they must have been constructed with magic or with God’s help, that it is 666,000 miles from Kailash to the North Pole and twice that to the South Pole and all kinds of magical stuff. I loathe this kind of talk because to me with its sticky web of manufactured “facts” it denigrates what it is mythologizing.
(In Lalibela in Ethiopia a local man asked me who I thought carved the churches out of the rock. He said, “I think it must have been angels.” I responded, “I think it was probably slave labor. You can accomplish so much with slave labor.”)
I tried to explain nicely to her that I was going to cross the road, go to the bathroom behind a wall over there and that when I came back I wanted to write because I was still one day behind on my journal.
Well, I did something wrong because she took offence and later when I waved at her husband he ignored me. I felt upset at this and resolved to apologize at the first opportunity. Her anger at me was muddying the channel between the mountain and me. I wanted that to be absolutely clear when I arrived in Darchen. It didn’t matter whether I was wrong or right. I was fairly sure that I would see her again. When people are headed to Kailash their paths intersect at point after point. They were a nice family group, she, her husband, her son and his wife, from Vancouver who all seemed to be in good enough shape do the complete circumambulation.
However, I did catch up on my journal. People in other cars had ben picnicking, taking pictures of each other and playing cards. At about 7:30 we began to move. We were a huge line. It was a long, long drive in the night on an unpredictable road. The surface would be smooth but suddenly have rectangular holes in it, cut where potholes had been and repairs were needed or it would suddenly become corrugated and dusty.
There was nothing to do but relax into the situation and hang on to the handle above the door. After a jammed checkpoint at about 9 pm we stopped outside a very garish, neon lit hotel with its name, with letters missing, blinking—Thingeri Grand Hotel. Tashi, bless him, got me into a nice clean room whose bathroom had a dribbly leak coming out of the overhead lighting fixture. I didn’t bother with dinner, just washed my face and went to bed.
The next day we passed acres and acres of solar panels. They are not very aesthetic but are certainly a good idea. So far very few windmills. There was one rather pathetic airplane propeller outside of a town. I am not sure it was functional.
This drive up to Rongbok monastery from New Dingeri is quite spectacular with views of Everest and her neighbors. Certainly you see more views and more stunning views than coming from the old terraced town of Dingeri, not the highway strip town now known as Old Dingeri. One of these views is from a pass and is a fluttering heap of prayer flags, as though it vast bird was lying there hovering with multicolored wings just above the ground.
We came up to the monastery but there were no monks at all, only a caretaker. Since we had left Lhasa there had been no monks in any of the monasteries we stopped at. They were, we were told, all in Lhasa. This undoubtedly had to do with the big party conference, which Xi Jinping was holding in Beijing.
The caretaker was a cheery old man with a pet sheep who followed him around while moving its jaws sideways in the usual ovine manner. Among the requisite gods was a self-realized image, meaning it is believed to have made itself. It is a lithe bas-relief on brown stone of a man almost dancing. I would bet he is 7th century because he reminds me of the images in the caves across from the Potala. The original temple here was, I believe, 7th century.
When we went down the steps of the monastery to the road the caretaker came partway down to wave goodbye to us while his pet sheep stood at the top waiting for his friend contemplatively chewing sideways. It was a wonderful last time to Everest and a beautiful farewell.
In Rongbok we ate in a not very good Tibetan place decorated with some excellent but odd black and white pictures on the walls obviously by a Western photographer. There was a fine close up portrait of a young Tibetan woman, a peculiar portrait of an angry looking Tibetan woman with her two children, boy and girl, naked. Everyone in the later picture looked pissed off and I would guess it has to do with the nudity probably the idea of the Western photographer.
We kept passing clumps and clusters of empty, new houses, sometimes also offices, built near existing towns. These houses are smaller than the ones Tibetans build and are constructed by the Chinese from cement blocks a material that makes horribly cold houses. The Tibetans make their houses, which are larger, of mud brick that protects against the wind. All of the Chinese houses looked exactly the same. It would be funny, if it weren’t so awful, this Chinese love of uniformity. The Chinese are forcing the Tibetans out of their old roomy, warm houses into these identical, small chilly houses they have built for them. But many of these are empty and in Lhasa there were huge empty apartment buildings. Therefore, I am not sure what is going on.
We arrived in Old Dingeri. When Tashi used this name, I mistakenly thought he meant the town which is a series of terraces up the side of a hill with a gompa at the top that I first saw when I hitch hiked in a truck from Lang La back to Lhasa leaving my 9 fellow travelers after our trip to Kailash, my first circumambulation. There had been a lot of nomads around the town living in their tents with clotheslines up from which they hung, like so many socks, strips of drying meat. This, of course, attracted a very interested population of crows and ravens.
But no, old Dingeri is the strip town on either side of the road. The hotel/guesthouse was depressing. The rooms shabby, dusty with cracks in the walls, dirty linoleum on the floor but with an interesting innovation, an electric blanket on top of the mattress which certainly does help keep you warm. The john was a particularly filthy and odiferous squat. Dinner was thukpa a noodle and vegetable soup with teensy bits of meat in it and lots of cabbage.
In the morning I had time with some Germans who really were brave. They were bicycling to Kathmandu and maybe beyond, a man and a woman together. Something indescribable in English was wrong with the gears on his bike and he could only ride in one gear. There was no bicycle mechanic in Old Dingeri. They were delightful people, both tall and skinny.
As we were sitting at breakfast there was a sudden cacophonic eruption in the street. I got up to look and saw an enormous cow jam outside the window. It went on for some time accompanied by unhappy bellowing. The cows hate the jam as much as the motorists who can’t get through it.
There was also an American, short, spare, glasses, with a grey ponytail who the first time I saw him in the restaurant completely ignored me. This is often the sign of a person who wants to pretend he is utterly alone in Tibet. I remember feeling that way.
But this morning he decided to talk. He climbed Everest in his twenties and has been coming back to the Himalaya region ever since, although not before to Tibet. This is I think his first time to Tibet. He will go on to investigate some of the neighboring areas. He lives outside of Baltimore. He’s an interesting case of the self-absorbed wandering the fringe areas of the world.
I have been worried about the relations between Sarosh and the Tibetans. There is always rivalry between the two nationalities that usually takes two forms, national rivalry and male rivalry. Sarosh who is short is at a disadvantage. Our driver, a tall, good looking Tibetan much taken with his girl friend whose picture he showed me had been the principal aggressor. This is real schoolyard stuff. He was poking Sarosh and teasing him. Sarosh sensibly moved away from him. Tashi, on the other hand tended to boss Sarosh around. There’s nothing much I could do to protect Sarosh and if I tried it would make him into a sort of Mommy’s Boy. What I could do was let Sarosh know that I was aware of what was going on. I did this asking him obliquely, “Are the Tibetans ganging up on the Nepalis?” He laughed and said, “It’s okay.” And then it was okay.
We had a bad road from time to time as we headed toward Saga through the Nature Reserve. There were superb mountain views but we did not pass through a town I remember here and since I could not remember its name I could not ask about it. There was no wild life but many, many ruins from the Gurka War. Some of these are large. The Tibetan forts, mud brick constructions, must have been massive.
We came to Saga in the early evening. I did not recognize it at first but then we turned a corner and I saw the fancy hotel I stayed at, maybe the year my English friend and I went to Kailash. We had a nice hotel with a good dinner that Tashi ordered for us of pork and cloud ears, glass noodles with vegetables, yak with French fries. The problem with the later was that yak in anything but tiny pieces is extremely tough. The pork with cloud ears was excellent. Tashi claims cloud ears are Tibetan from Tibetan marshes.
As we were eating, the Indian family came in. I immediately apologized and all was now right with the world.
The next day was one of driving, only stopping to look at mountains. It gave me an opportunity to notice the huge number of microwave towers, dishes etc. along the way as well as huge electric pylons climbing up the sides of mountains. Often these electronic marvels are cocooned in prayer flags fluttering their colors.
We kept catching up to and then dropping behind a large mainland group that stopped at every piece of water, tiny or large that we came upon. Tashi’s explanation, which I don’t think is correct, is that they had never seen clean water before. But they stopped, about eight cars of them, and tumbled out at every tiny pond, marsh or lake, cameras at the ready.
My nose, while not as bad as in previous years, had been full of blood scabs that I impolitely dug out with my finger. Some nights I had been awakened by my inability to breathe and had had to sit up and dig my way through the blood scabs.
When I first did this trip for many years, no matter what the condition of the roads, I never, ever saw a dead animal by the side of the road. This time I saw five dogs and something small smushed to unrecognizability. I think, I hope, this is the Chinese drivers. Tibetans turn themselves inside out not to hit any animal since it will effect your karma.
As we came through places I have known such as the beautiful ruin on an island, I became aware of how different a good road, not even a highway, makes your relationship to the land. How it distances you from the land, excludes you.
The Chinese Premier’s face is everywhere on billboards, yes there are billboards in Tibet, and signs. The face, not represented in as large a format as Mao’s, is a constant. This is worrying, as it seems to me that it could mean he is pushing his personality.
We saw no wild life at all in the Nature Reserve or anywhere else. Only as we approached Kailash did we see a good-sized herd of wild asses, well off the road thank heaven. No hares, no foxes, no antelope.
The other thing there is considerably less of is snow. We passed the two bridges, the new concrete one and the suspension. This old one has been repaired so that you can walk across it. From there one used to look out at the most fantastic line of white rickrack Himalayas from horizon to horizon. No longer. There are now big gaps of bare mountains between the snow peaks, like gone teeth.
There also used to be big sand dunes around these bridges but year-by-year they have moved west, burying the occasional village. The Chinese are now trying to control them by laying stones, not big ones, all over them. This seems to work.
We passed through Dongba or Tongba, which I recognized. It used to be a scruffy town of run down Tibetan houses, a truck stop. Now those houses are surrounded by white Chinese tile walls made to fake the Tibetan look. All the walls are uniform, of course, but somehow the town retains its scruffiness.
We went up to the temple but no one was there, not even a caretaker. We presumed these monks were also in Lhasa being instructed in Communism.
Late in the afternoon we climbed Maryam La, passing through Hor, where there is an enormous checkpoint. We had to wait quite a long time here. Thank heaven there was a john. I discovered it when I saw some Chinese women grinning and running together. When I went in I started to laugh and so did they. They were all in a row, like a chorus line in the squats. I took the one vacant one at the end.
After the checkpoint we had our first sight of Gurla Mandata, the mountain opposite Mount Kailash, and Lake Manasarovar. Then she, Mount Kailash, appeared on the right, her amazingly white dome crowning her black ridges.
Darchen is as foul as ever. The one street is still unpaved and everything on it looks as though it might blow away before tomorrow morning. My accommodation was a bare room with three beds and a washstand. The squat john was not far away and relatively clean. But I saw her great dome of white every time I stepped out of my room.