After three days in and about Lhasa, we started our road trip to Mt Kailash, some 1,230 km away from Lhasa. We piled our gear into the back of two land cruisers, myself being allocated to the back seat of the second car, and off we headed west to Shigatse, our first stopover.
My view from the car
The first high pass we drove over was Khampa Pass (4,730 m) which despite, being windswept and nearly devoid of vegetation, provided a wonderful vantage point of the snow covered peaks of the eastern part of the Himalaya mountains. On the top was an array of red, blue, white and yellow prayer flags flapping in the wind, sending blessing to the heavens.
Prayer flags on pass
Stupa at pass
On our descent, we passed by the turquoise colored waters of Yamdrok Lake, one of the holy lakes of Tibet. The lake is surrounded by majestic peaks that transform into open steppe hills that tumble into the lake and is visited by the busload by every visitor that comes to Tibet. On the western end of the lake is the Yamdrok Hydropower Station, the largest in Tibet and one that was surrounded by political and environmental controversy during its construction in the early 1990s . Hours later we arrived in Shigatse, the second largest town in Tibet, which itself was a non-descript concourse of grey concrete boxes. The hotel was clean and tidy, but seeped in Chinese decor.
The road to Kailash
Open steppe country
We first visited the Palkhor Chode Monastery in Gyantse which is noted for its highly decorated, multistory temple (chorten or Kumbum stupa) consisting of nine floors of interlocking chapels.
Kumbum Polkhor Chode Monastery
The following morning we spent a couple of hours at Ta shi lhun po Monastery, founded in 1447 and now located on a hill in the center of Shigatse. This monastery was site of the death of the tenth Panchen Lama in 1989. The selection of the 11th Panchen Lama caused all sorts of kerfuffle between the monastery and the Chinese due to the choice made by the Dalai Lama as to who would be the 11th Panchen Lama. An outcome of this controversy was the introduction of a law in 2011 whereby Tibetan Buddhist monks must seek permission on the selection of living Buddhas from the Chinese regime so that reincarnation can be managed. The mind boggles.
Ta shi liun po Monastery
Shigatse from Ta shi lhun po Monastery
Both Palkhor Chode and Ta chi lhun po Monasteries are still very much visited by monks who shed their slippers before entering the temples and pilgrims as they circumambulate the temples, turning their mobile prayer wheels and counting their beads as they walk. As an aside, one of the most kitsch, but enjoyable and cheapest souvenirs from Tibet are the entry tickets to the monasteries. The best are the 3D lenticular postcards that are supposed to give an impression of movement and depth, but don't.
It took us four days to drive to Darchen, during which we drove through the small towns of Old Tingri and Panyang, passed expansive stretches of flat and hilly steppe country, emerald green valleys contrasted with dry hills, snow covered mountains with glaciers, azure lakes, sand dunes, evidence of desertification and raging brown rivers. We followed some amazing windy, hairpin-turn roads cut into the sides of mountains, ascending passes over 5,000 m. We drove parallel to some of the highest peaks of the world: Mt Everest and Mt Shishabanga. As I was in the company of German mountaineers, any discussion of mountains, which was continual, did not involve names, but rather a number:
“That’s a 6,000.”
“No, it’s at least a 7,000.”
“No, I did a 6,500 in 1982 and I am sure this is only a 6,000, maybe 6,500.”
It finally took a dashing to my ego to ask what my fellow travelers were talking about and learned they were speculating the heights of the surrounding mountains.
We never had silence in our car. Dawah was very much a chatterbox and really liked to talk in both English and Tibetan, continuously moving his beads with his thumb as he chatted. However, too many times he was out -talked by our Tibetan driver, Tsering, who reduced Dawah to being able to only grunt a " yo yo " every so often. I am convinced that Tsering never needed to take a breath.
The nomads, scattered across the countryside, surrounded by their livestock of yaks, goats and sheep, live in dark green or brown canvas tents, unlike the felt gers in which Mongolian nomads live. We passed them carrying out their day to day activities of herding and milking, some spinning as they were walking. The countryside was generally devoid of wildlife although we were lucky to see black-breasted cranes, a black breasted stork, antelopes and a herd of wild donkeys.
Travelling across Tibet is an interesting exercise in bureaucracy as car travel is heavily controlled. On the first day alone, we passed through seven checkpoints along some of the best two lane bitumen roads I have ever been on. Sometime we had a few less checkpoints, sometimes more. Facilities at each checkpoint varied from a table under an umbrella by the side of the road to a bessa brick or cement building, with or without electricity. But at each station, the process was the same: the collection of our passports by Dawah, a quick look-see into our vehicle by the uniformed police, passports and mysterious entry papers checked and double checked. An intriguing aspect is that each car passing through a checkpoint can arrive and depart from the checkpoint at an allocated time. This explained the occasional line of cars we saw parked on the side of the road just before a checkpoint: they had gotten there too fast and would be fined if they tried to cross before their allocated time so the drivers slept or stood around smoking cigarettes, waiting for their appointed time. I never found out the purpose of this regulation: prevent people from speeding? Ensuring the checkpoint police are not overworked? Job creation? Even more total control of the passage of cars?
Despite the well built and maintained two lane road that cut across the countryside, watched over by sentry policemen and meticulously lined by low piles of barrier rocks, the poverty of Tibet became evident the further west we traveled. The towns, villages and settlements to the west of Shigatse were dusty and littered, there was no running water, toilets consisted of a hole in the ground, electricity was limited to one fluorescent bulb that gets turned on by pulling on fishing line, and there were the ubiquitous street dogs. Pool tables stood outside in the dust as a means of entertainment for young and old, and a quite ingenious solar heating mechanism which was used to boil water was commonly seen sitting on the sidewalk. The hotels we stayed in were basic with the rooms Weili and I shared consisting of two single beds and a washbowl with a colourfully painted flower flask of hot water sitting inside it. That was all the water we had for washing. The loo was shared by all and consisted of two holes cut into the cement floor and, many times, no roof. In some places, incense was burned in the loo to try and cover the smell of eau de poop, which really only resulted in a very rancid smell. Most times we only had a candle and our flashlight for light.
Solar tea pot heater
We passed small villages and settlements that really seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, almost like beads randomly strung along the asphalt ribbon: some being in better condition than others. Tibetan architecture is quite interesting in that many of the houses are built on elevated, sunny sites facing the south. They are commonly made of a mixture of whitewashed rocks, wood, cement and earth. Little fuel is available for heating or lighting, so flat roofs are built to conserve heat and are used as a place for storing wood and heating dung.
To help prepare us for the kora around Mt Kailash, at every pass we drove over, most being over 5,000 m, we would do at least a one hour trek up a hill, usually being quite pleased that we could have a good rest in the car at the end.
Sentinel of the roads