There are two things to do in Tibet – spend a day wandering around Lhasa looking at the holy sites and then get in car and head out of town. Now I suppose I could have dug a bit deeper into some of the places locally – Ani Nunnery, Grand Mosque – and places other than the Potala and Jokhang but it’s not my style of traveling. I like angling off the surfaces of things. Get the sense, take some pictures, soak up some atmosphere and then find something else to do. Besides, I had spent part of my first full day running down various temples in the guidebooks that of course were not where they were supposed to be, and enough of that was enough. And while there are several well known monasteries close to the city, I’m going to admit that slowly but surely I’m getting jaded. Seeing one is quickly turning into seeing them all.
As part of booking this trip I had thrown out many ideas to my travel arranger, Lydia, and she had pretty much shot most of them down, explaining that travel in Tibet was slow and arduous and one could not expect to take a grand tour within the timeframe of the few days I had to spare. So being completely ignorant and being used to jumping in the car and driving 450 miles to Tucson while the sun was still up, I took her advice grudgingly and let her plan the excursion.
There were two objectives for Sunday and the first was Yamdrok, one of the four divine lakes of the Buddhist high country. We’ve all seen pictures of this one – obscenely turquoise and nestled in the space between ranges of russet hued nude desert mountains. I had to see that color in person figuring that having experienced the orange skies of a Beijing dust storm, this might be a nice, natural counterpart. A visual palate cleanser if you will. The second was Karola Glacier and I reasoned that since I was already in the neighborhood I might as well capitalize on the opportunity to see at least one glacier before they’re all gone. I’ve read that the people who live at this high altitude aren’t all that troubled by the slow disappearance of their snow pack because suddenly their winters are far more mild. And mild winters when you live at 15,000’ means a better life for your animals, your crops and in turn your family. It’s an ironic turn on a sad state of affairs and hard I’m sure for those of us from the more civilized climes to fully appreciate. Not unlike the woman in the little fishing village I spoke with on a hike last winter. Her home and her livelihood were being taken away to make room for a giant Japanese golf resort. I thought that was sad, she thought it was great. She was trading a hard scrabble life in an unheated cement block building with no plumbing at the end of a 5 mile dirt road for a nice warm apartment with satellite TV in a block in town. With a supermarket just down the street. We tend to see things through our National Geographic eyes and they see it through the harsher lens of actually living the life.
On this morning I was feeling quite a bit better. My headache was down to a manageable throb and the rest of my discomfort had been washed away by a good night’s sleep. Tse Tan and Mr. Sung showed up promptly at 8:30 with another man in tow. Tse Tan explained that Mr. Nimen worked in a restaurant with Tse Tan’s brother in the town of Nangatse, halfway between Yamdrok and Karola. He politely asked if it would be okay for us to ferry him there and in doing so stop at their restaurant for lunch. “The more the merrier” as far as I was concerned. He climbed in the back seat of the minibus, pulled out his beads and began praying, chanting and advancing one bead at a time between his fingers. I wondered why.
We headed out of town on the same road we took on the way in from the airport. Mr. Sung took a shortcut through Lhasa’s Kai Fa Qu. Every city seems to have a Kai Fa Qu, something I find a bit funny every time I end up driving through one. I live in Dalian’s Kai Fa Qu and my favorite hotel in Xi’an is in its Kai Fa Qu. In short, Kai Fa Qu’s are a city’s tech development centers, the place where the government throws incentive money to bring in businesses to provide jobs for the locals. Lhasa’s version was nothing more than empty, weedy fields with a few car dealerships and a couple of small factories. The roads were broad, well paved and empty which is why I’m sure Mr. Sung used this route. As we exited, making a left at a t-intersection parting oncoming traffic (we being on the wrong side of the road in pure Chinese style) and back onto the main road, I looked out the window and was surprised to see a bus about to broadside us. In violation of the most basic Chinese Rule of the Road, we were trying to occupy the space owned by another vehicle. The bus pulled hard right and in a glancing blow, sideswiped the minibus and tore the mirror off the passenger side. Mr. Sung responded to that affront by pulling alongside the bus, blowing his horn wildly and trying his best to get the bus to stop. The bus driver made the fatal mistake in this game of derring-do of turning right onto a secondary road which allowed Mr. Sung to get in front of him and cut across his path, driving him off the road and to a complete stop.
The driver and all the male passengers piled out of the bus, Tse Tan and Mr. Sung piled out of our minibus. The negotiations began with a lot of name calling and arguing. The bus driver was a rough looking character wearing a sinister leather Tibetan cowboy hat and a black leather jacket. He was none too pleased and he didn’t seem ready to yield. His chief ally was an equally rough looking man, a member of one of the Tibetan rural minorities who wear their hair in a long braid that’s wrapped around their head. He had a giant rock of unpolished turquoise hanging from his left ear lobe. As the discussion was going on other people from the bus discovered that I was in the back seat of the minibus. Mr. Nimen sat silently praying and I suspect this might have been why he started in the first place. A couple of people came up to the window where I was sitting and cupping their hands around their eyes, pressed their faces to my window to get a look at me. I did the same from my side and they jumped back, startled. One man carried his infant son around to the front of the car to peer in the windshield, no doubt figuring that the kid should have a good look since it might be his only opportunity. Outside there was a lot of cursing and turning around and walking away going on. Mr. Sung kept lifting up the mirror – hanging on only by the control cables – and letting it drop. The bus driver shouted something and got back in the bus. The tough guy with the earring stood by talking to other passengers. The bus driver came out and seemed now ready to yield to the fact that his bus was going nowhere and his passengers were getting restless. He spit out some words, took a handful of cash and threw it on the ground. Mr. Sung stood there glaring. A young Chinese man bent over and picked up the cash, smoothing out the crumpled bills and with smile offered it to Mr. Sung who grudgingly accepted it. My guys returned to the car, we made a u-turn and we were once again on our way. It turned out that the argument was about 150 kuai - $22. Mr. Sung was demanding 250 and the bus driver was offering 100. In the end we got our way.
We continued on our way along the airport road until we came to the turn-off to the new tunnel. In the olden days (at least reflected by my newly printed Rough Guide to China), the airport was about 60 miles from Lhasa. The tunnel which opened in 2008 (apparently too late for the printing of said guide) cut a full 25 miles off the route. What used to take 2 ½ hours was now down to 1. We stopped at some sort of security checkpoint which took only a few minutes to clear. I stepped out of the car and wandered up and down the queue, checking out the Landrovers filled with foreigners that were doing the same thing I was. Up on a nearby mountain a single strand of prayer flags was gently blowing in the wind, strung between the highest point and a secondary peak.
We stopped in a town to grab some water and Mr. Sung went to work on the dangling mirror. Hanging there it would eventually make the overall problem worse by wearing a hole in the paint. He was intently going at it using a screwdriver to remove the unit. But since it was (now) a horribly cracked single cast unit, he wasn’t getting anywhere. I told him to get a knife and to cut the wires – they were useless and would be included with the new assembly. He stared at the thing for another minute, went to his toolbox and came back with a razor knife. He asked me where and I pointed to a spot. He chopped it off and handed it to me; I threw it in the back seat where Mr. Nimen continued to pray.
The road now followed another braided tributary of the main river. We passed through one village after another, gray flat roofed homes with prayer flags on the roof and bright posters decorating the courtyard gate. I started to see cow patties plastering every south facing wall and stacked in beehive shaped piles. It looked as though someone would pick up the patty while it was still fresh and fling it against the stone walls creating a sort of brown and gray polka dot tableau. They must fall off when dry and then they get piled up or stacked on the roofs of the houses. I guess nothing that serves as fuel or food gets wasted up here. As we continued on I began to see families out working in the fields. Farmers were using pairs of Yaks to plow and the women were planting or pulling weeds along the borders. We turned left and began the climb to Kampala Pass.
The road was about 1 ½ lanes wide with red and white concrete blocks to prevent you from driving off the side. The grade was steep and we reversed direction about every 100 yards – a nauseating series of 180 degree hairpin turns. Up and up we went, Mr. Sung taking every opportunity to advance our position by passing slower vehicles. The road was climbing up the east side of a deep valley and down below I could see the ruins of abandoned villages – perhaps ancient or perhaps modern, there was no way of knowing. The sides of the ravine were terraced at some point in the past but now the artificially created farmland was abandoned to dry dirt and weeds. Clearly no one had worked these fields in a very long time and it made me wonder if the water supply had simply disappeared. Occasionally there would be a tall stone tower, mostly reduced to a pile of rocks but still standing sentinel to warn of the approach of some ghost army. It was midday but still a bit eerie. Near the top I saw two perfect circles of stone, far below; Yak enclosures I suspect. We were nearing to top of the pass and crossing over the 16,000’ point. I could still see the river far to the north and below where our path bent to the left and along a wall covered with flags.
Like just about everything else in this country there was a fee for parking which Tse Tan paid. I got out and had my first long look at Yamdrok and the 24,000’ snow clad Norin Kang Mountain behind it. The color of the lake was more remarkable than I thought it would be, no doubt enhanced by the contrasting hue of the mountains. The color comes from “glacial flour”, rock ground to powder and carried to the basin with the spring runoff, and the brightness of it changed as clouds moved across the sun from bright turquoise to deep navy blue. It was hard to believe that it was actually there, the color was just so strange and bright.
Leaving the car I took a walk up to the bus parking lot. There was a lot happening between tourists taking pictures and others being shaken down by locals to sit on their Yaks. Small groups of pale brown Buntings darted here and there packing at something on the ground. I stopped and talked to two young women who wanted me to pay them to have their picture taken with their dogs – big black and brown Tibetan Mastiffs sporting red clown collars along the line of something you might have better expected to see on Ronald McDonald. We negotiated the price to 5 kuai, they posed, I shot and then it turned out to be 5 kuai per person. I got a good laugh out of that, as did they. Seeing me throwing all that money around a girl came over with a Yak and offered to do the same. I had four 1 kuai notes balled up in my pocket and so I gave her a “take it or leave it” deal which she accepted.
Heading down the other side of the pass was a bit quicker and straighter. As we passed the farms along this road I noticed that the plowing was now being done by horses – there was nary a Yak in sight. Interesting that the higher we went, horses starting taking over as the chief farm animal. I asked Tse Tan about this and he told me that his village was about 2 hours beyond where we were and that it was known for its horse breeders. Racing is a common activity and the best animals can win valuable prizes such as tractors and motorbikes.
As we came to the narrow end of the lake we took a left turn onto a road that was fashioned out of nothing more than dried lake bed plowed up to form a berm. Judging from the shoreline, Yamdrok is shrinking and this shortcut was taking advantage of that fact to cut an hour off of the drive around it. We hit the pavement on the other side, drove a couple of more miles and pulled to a stop in the village of Nangatse at the promised restaurant. Mr. Nimen got out and disappeared.
Tse Tan showed me inside and I chose a table by the window. His brother appeared and told me that they did not yet have a menu but that the buffet would be available in a few minutes. It would take a bit for the steam table to heat up. I ordered a Coke and sat back, the only person in the place. Mr. Sung and Tse Tan disappeared. A man brought a rice cooker out from the back and set it by the food which Tse Tan’s brother informed me was now ready to be served. From the moment he began lifting the lids, I knew I was in trouble – chicken curry that was pretty much a chicken that had met its demise at the end of a blunt cleaver, “ratatouille” consisting of pickled vegetables in catsup and mayonnaise, tempura vegetables (of all things) and Yak stew, the most interesting choice of the lot. The onions had black spots, the unidentifiable vegetable mass in the center was not about to be broken up and the gristly pieces of Yak were somewhere submerged at the bottom of an oily broth. I was the guest of honor and I had no choice so I ladled a bit of everything onto the yellow divided plastic camp plate that I’d been given and started my stopwatch – 3 hours being the magic number for food poisoning in my experience.
A Chinese family came in with Thermos’s and got a refill of that wildly popular Tibetan Yak butter tea. They were surprised to hear me speak Chinese and gave me big smiles when they discovered that I was a paisano. A short time later three Brits came in with their driver and ordered tea. They wisely refused the buffet. A couple and what must have been the Mum-in-law; he had a pair of bright yellow retro sunglasses that he kept on top of his head. The Chinese family left and waved at me as they went out the door. I asked about the washroom and the brother told me that they had a squat but no sink to wash up. This got me wondering about the cook.
I finished up and was I was heading out the owner presented me with a Khata, the white scarf of welcome that is given to all visitors. This was my second, the first presented at the airport. Cheap stringy polyester but loaded with genuine symbolism. I wrapped it around my neck and went outside.
Now we were in the genuine high country surrounded by 20,000’ peaks capped with glaciers that shined in the sun, from gray to white to deepwater blue. It was not a long way to the Karola and only a short climb up to 18,200’. We rounded the last bend and pulled to a stop – no parking fee here. As I got out of the car I was immediately set upon by the scruffiest looking men trying to sell me rocks. One guy kept tipping a gray striated geode from side to side to show me that it contained trapped water, still moving around in the matrix of the rock. Another guy kept pointing to the peak and pointing to the crystals in his hand, trying to convince me that his wares had come from up top. It didn’t seem that I could say “no” enough, they followed me across the street and kept tapping me on the arm as I stood there taking pictures. Three little goats, two white and one black were running and bucking down below. There were a few really rude houses built along the side of the road, one completely made out of dried dung. And old woman sat by one doorway spinning sheep’s wool on a stick.
I stood there for a long time soaking in the snow and ice; it was quite remarkable - jagged chunks hanging off the face and the main body of it heading back up to the saddle of the mountain like a giant blob of Cool Whip. Running down off of the face were countless white streams like spilled milk. It was very big and majestic and hard to take in. Tse Tan told me that in his lifetime it had already retreated more than 70 feet – climate change according to him.
In the midst of all this physical beauty, the regular retail scam was still running full force. The old woman who had been sitting off to the side finally caught sight of me and wandered over. I chatted with her in Chinese for a couple of minutes, asking if she lived there. I had a feel of her ball of sheep’s wool – as soft and white as any yarn I’ve ever felt. And then she cut to the chase – give me some money. Nothing offered for sale and no pictures involved. I gave her a few kuai which she rolled into a tube and slipped into her cleavage. As I headed back to the car I snapped a photo of some children playing by the side of the road. Their father, working on a house across the road yelled at them upon seeing me. They came over and demanded money. I told them I had none and got in the car.
The ride back down to town was pretty much as the ride up only far more sickening. I thought with fondness of the women in my life and how if I’d brought them on this trip would be it be the last time they ever let me take them anywhere. I caught sight of a couple of what I suspect were Pallas’ Fish Eagles standing on the shore of the lake as we made our way back to Kampala. No pictures possible, because just like Ireland the road lacks anywhere to pull off should something interesting come into view.
By the time I got into town it was clear that dinner was not going to be on my agenda for the evening. The buffet food and the sloshing action of all those high speed hairpins on the way down the mountain had left me feeling like the last thing on earth I wanted was more food. Fresh air though seemed like a good idea so I went out for one last walk around the Barkhor figuring if my internal organs found their way back to the correct spots I would at least be close to somewhere to eat. I wound my way through the alleys closest to the hotel, went across the square and past the Jokhang where the pilgrims were still walking around and around. Exiting on the far side of the ancient enclave and doubling back on the main streets I took a left turn back towards the Jokhang and the route back home. As I passed a line of shops I ran into my friends from the day before on their way to dinner. We stopped and talked and they once again graciously offered to join them. I explained my physical condition, regaled them with the tales of the day and bid them “goodbye” promising that this would truly be the last time I’d be saying it.