On the road again: we leave Shigatse in the morning, bound for Qomolongma (Everest) This is a fast tour. In better circumstances (less expense, fewer Chinese government restrictions), this itinerary could be stretched into two weeks or more. However, that’s what it is: an itinerary. that means being shepherded from sight to sight, ticket booth to ticket booth, paying special “tourist” prices to see monuments, and traveling a well-worn path during which we saw the same people over and over again. Call it the Tibetan conveyor belt. Not to say it detracted from the magnificence of what we were seeing, but I couldn’t help feeling that Tibet is being commodified, prettied up, and selected portions Disneyfied, with the same manufactured trinkets for sale wherever we went. But I digress. The Big Event was coming up. Qomolongma (Mount Everest), would challenge our altitude tolerance still further, as Everest Base Camp would be at 5,200 meters. By comparison, Lhasa had been 3,700 meters. The day, as usual, was cloudy, with spotty sunlight as we drove through earth-brown, rocky terrain. At length we arrived at a mountain pass bedecked with prayer flags, and a huge sign announcing that we were entering Qomolongma National Nature Preserve. Entering Qomolangma Nature Preserve Typical mountain pass decoration – snapping in the wind and carrying mantras and prayers to the four corners of the earth Then, in the distance, there they were: the snowy peaks of the highest mountain range in the world, raised to the heavens millions
Evening sky over Gyantse, Tibet – taken from Gyantse Fort
Yamdrok Lake The China-Nepal Friendship Highway (Hwy. 318) runs from Lhasa southwest through the Himalaya, to the Chinese border at Zhamgmu. After three days in Lhasa, our itinerary took us to Yamdrok Lake and then to Gyantse, where we spent one night, and then on to Shigatse, for another night’s stay. Ready for its close-up: rent-a-yak, Yamdrok Lake From my notes: Tuesday, July 13 Day 4: Hard to believe that the Tibet trip is already half over. We left Lhasa today at 8 AM – after I’d had a satisfying triple cappuccino and a slice of lucious Cheesecake at The Summit coffee house of Beijing East Rd. We stopped for a photo op at an 11-th century Buddha rock carving outside Lhasa. Our 4-WD Land Cruiser [me eternally in the front seat, a concession to advanced age and/or status] droved through some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen: rock, sand, rivers, lakes, scrubby vegetation, grazing yaks, the Gamta Pass, then to Yamdrok Lake, one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet. Lunch buffet in a nondescript nowhere town, then drove through a delicious and refreshing rain. Oh yes, we saw a glacier – I ran through the cold and wet to the restroom, then jumped back in the vehicle. Before we knew it, we had arrived in Gyantse and the gate of the Palkor Choede Monastery. We would visit one of the highlights of the tour for me, the famous Gyantse
Potala Palace, view from the roof of my hotel Day 3 – continued: Alexandra David-Neel, unflappable explorer and the first European woman to ever enter the city of Lhasa (which she also referred to as the Lamaist Rome) had this to say about her first glimpse of the Potala Palace in 1924, after 4 months of trekking through the wilds of Tibet: The weather was clear, dry, and cold, the sky luminous. In the rosy light of the rising sun, we sighted the Potala, the huge palace of the lamaist ruler, still far away, yet already majestic and impressive…. As we advanced, the Potala grew larger and larger. Now we could discern the elegant outlines of its many golden roofs. They glittered in the blue sky, sparks seeming to spring from their sharp upturned corners, as if the whole castle, the glory of Thibet, had been crowned with flames. Alexandra David-Neel, My Journey to Lhasa, p. 255. Frank Lloyd Wright admired this building, an honor he bestowed on few structures not of his own design; I believe he had a framed photo of the Potala on the wall of his Oak Park IL studio. Certainly the 17th-century building growing naturally from the hill, its sloping sides echoing the mountains around it, must have satisfied his concept of organic architecture. Built by the 5th Dalai Lama around the original fortress of King Songtsen Gampo, the hulking palace faces a large, empty square commemorating the peaceful liberation of Tibet of 1949.
The Potala Palace from the roof of Jokhang Temple I don’t think I realized that I was in Tibet until I stood in front of the Jokhang Temple inhaling the fragrant smoke from the huge incense burners. For me, the Tibetan areas of China will always mean smells: burning juniper branches, incense, the buttery aroma of Tibetan tea. I knew that I was in another world, of course, the minute the rocky, lunar landscape began to peek through the clouds as the plane descended toward Lhasa airport Saturday morning. The airport is about 65 km from Lhasa – about an hour by bus – through a valley at once rocky and watery. The spell cast by my disbelief at being on the roof of the world was briefly broken as we passed new hotels, Ford and VW dealerships, and shopping malls. Lhasa today is a modern Chinese city, with about 400,000 people in its environs. Incense, smoke, pilgrims – in front of the Jokhang Temple Then, there was Chokpori Hill, former site of the Tibetan Medicine college, and now the base for a huge TV antenna. All at once: the Potala. My jaw dropped in my altitude-addled state as the bus passed the emblem of what was once the most secret land in the world, a building that resembles both a fortress and the mountain ranges themselves. So far, the altitude sickness hasn’t been too bad. I did more walking around on my first day than I should, then adjourned