Panorama of Yamdrok-tso Lake at Kamba-la Pass
New Video - the gorgeous landscapes of Gyantse, Tibet - scroll to the bottom of the photos to view...
Today we left Lhasa and followed the course of the river up to the bridge crossing the Tsangpo River, reputed to be the highest river in the world. There we briefly stopped at a prayer flag strewn rock formation overlooking the river that is one of the many Sky Burial sites that I mentioned yesterday.
Bizarrely enough, there was a vendor there selling Tibetan trinkets and a woman trying to get money for photos of her yak. After a hairpin turned ascent up the Khampa-la pass (over 16,000 ft altitude), we made it to the summit where there is a gorgeous view of the turquoise color Yamdrok-tzo lake which you can see in the panorama shot (which hopefully looks a little better at home on our widescreen TV). The Chinese are rebuilding the road over the pass so you can only reach the summit before turning around for an alternative route to Gyantse. The top of the pass was pretty crazy with huge tour buses being literally attacked with Tibetan vendors - pretty hilarious. We walked around a bit in the cold and wind looking at the lake and trying to politely ignore the vendors but it was all to much so we hopped in the SUV and headed back down the switchbacks to the valley to continue on to Gyantse.
Tibetan vendors at Kamba-la pass
Gyantse countryside Panorama
We followed the river again eventually stopping at the equivalent of a Tibetan truck stop for a marginal lunch of oily fried rice. We met a French couple who were on our same route but eventually heading up to Shanghai where there son works. The woman, who spoke just a little English, came back from the bathroom and Cindy asked how bad it was. She grimaced and shook her hand back and forth, kind of a Tibetan “come si, come sa” thing. Cindy decided to wait.
We took another break in the middle of nowhere in the middle of an incredible panorama of stark, sandy mountains, deep blue skies with puffy white clouds and the winding river.
We pulled off the road and walked through a kind of bizarre swampy grassland filled with goats and sheep and some horses. Tenzin and Jayang sat down with a local Tibetan Sheppard for a cigarette break while we marveled at the beautiful but desolate surroundings. A bit further on down the road, we lost the pavement and moved onto the dirt on a bumpy and dusty road. Good thing we have four wheel drive! Again the scenery was awesome as you can see in the shot of the sand dune with the cloudy, blue skies. Off in the distance, we saw what we assumed was the outskirts of Gyantse which ended up being a small little village. As we slowly drove through, we looked around for any signs of a hotel or guesthouse and things looked pretty grim. Luckily, that ended up just being a village and we continued on. And on. And on. We kept thinking that off in the distance we could see Gyantse but each time it ended up being some other little place.
Sand Dunes on the way to Gyantse
Finally, we crossed a bridge and returned to a paved road - yay, no more bouncing around in a dusty car. Well that ended up being the road that goes left to Gyantse and right to Shigatse where we are off to tomorrow. After another 45 minutes, a closed bridge and a bumpy, unpaved river crossing, we pulled into Gyantse.
Tibetan with cool boots and prayer beads
The hotel was reasonably nice and fairly clean, always a plus, and we ended up going out for dinner and beers on our own. Tenzin sent us to a typical restaurant that caters to people like us who can’t read Tibetan and it was filled with foreigners including the French couple from earlier today. The food wasn’t bad and we ended up watching a movie on the laptop that night for western entertainment.
After breakfast, we headed off to see the Pelkor Chode monastery which was founded in 1418 and houses the world’s largest tiered stupa which is a very impressive building.
The shot of the man’s back and boots walking into the monastery we really like just because all over our Buddhist monastery journeys including Bhutan, Sikkim and here in Tibet, the local dress is really cool and not something you really see in the west. How they manage in the winter when it snows, we don’t know…
Tibetan Holy Books
Inside the main temple of Pelkor is a beautiful, four headed “Sakyamuni” Buddha towering over a room filled with other Buddha, Guru Rimpoche and various other statues, thankas and, most impressively, the really exotic looking books that you see in a couple of the pictures. These books are incredible, written often in Tibetan if translated or Sanskrit if original. The “books” have covers of carved wood and inside very wide and short pages that are beautifully inscribed with the exotic looking alphabets mentioned.
Often they are illustrated as well and also have gold leaf painted on top of the characters. Many of these of course were destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and various other wars and incursions, but many survive or at least the original wood-blocks that printed them do. In general, the monasteries have monks who meticulously repair and repaint the tomes and then wrap them in silk brocade and store them safely. The picture of the ones stacked in cases and covered in yellow silk with red and blue ornamentation are a very typical scene in all of the monasteries. The picture of the old prayer books gives an idea of how antique and large they are (they actually come in a variety of sizes, some small and some huge.)
Statuary in Pelkor Chode Monastery temple
After the monastery, we walked out into the courtyard to visit the massive, tiered and gold topped Kumbum Stupa.
As I mentioned before, this is supposed to be the world’s largest stupa and is really incredible. On each of the tiers, there are small temples covering all four sides of the walls, a total of seventy-seven temples in all (not all of which we visited ;-) Steep, wooden ladder steps lead up to each successively smaller level and you can actually walk all the way up on top of the circular part (not the gold top) where there are four sets of Buddha eyes staring out over the valley. If you read the Bhutan blog and saw those photos, you can see how similar the architecture of the roofs and doors are. Looking out into the valley, you can see the ruins of the old fort (dzong) in the distance which you can actually see in the shot of the small neighborhood. The one shot of the statue and paintings from inside of one of the seventy-seven temples gives an idea of what they are like inside.
Old Tibetan Holy Books
Some are really richly detailed with paintings and mandalas on the wall and others are a simple statue, all with offerings of scarves and money. A quick stroll through the neighborhood next to the monastery provided some nice views of typical Tibetan village housing. As you can see from the one picture, cow dung is one of the preferred cooking fuels and is abundantly spread on any available wall to dry into a flammable chip. When you live on the Tibetan plateau, there isn’t much in the way of wood…
Sakyamuni Buddha Statue at Pelkore Chode Monastery
On the drive to Shigatze, we stopped by a small business that makes Tsampa which is the basic staple of the Tibetan diet and consists of ground barley wheat mixed with water and usually a bit of butter, fat or something to make it a little more palatable. The picture is of a typical, non-electric mill that is driven by water running under the building.
Huge circular grindstones are spun by paddles under the building and toasted barley berries are ground into flour which covers everything in side with a fine powder (including my camera!). The proprietor, a funny little portly man, gave us toasted barley to eat (which is actually pretty good as a snack but I wouldn’t want to live on it) and, after we donated some money for our tour, he gave us a bag of Tsampa as a gift. We are not sure what we are going to do with it but Tenzin assured us that there is no better Tsampa than Tibetan Tsampa. Afterwards, the man deftly showed us how to pour some of the barley flour in a bowl, mix in a bit of water and fat and then stir (only with your index finger) before rolling the mush around the bowl (only with your thumb) and turning it into a little, round dough ball which he immediately popped into his mouth for lunch. Pretty fun!
Kumbum Chorten at Peklor Chode Monastery
Next stop, Shigatse, home of the Panchan Lama’s Monastery (he is the second “in command” if you can call it that, next to the Dalai Lama.
Inside one of the 77 temples at Kumbum Stupa