Gyantse Kumbum, Tibet, detail of arch
A general view of my travel route, Summer 2010 [click to view larger]
Chengdu to Lhasa (by plane)
Lhasa-Yamdrok Lake – Gyantse – Shigatse – Everest Base Camp – Tingri – Zhangmu (by 4WD Land Rover)
Zhangmu – Kathmandu (by car)
Kathmandu – Sunauli (by bus)
Sunauli – Gorakhpur – Varanasi (by bus)
Varanasi – Delhi (by train)
Delhi – Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj) – Manali – Chandigarh – Delhi (by bus)
Delhi – Singapore – Chengdu, China (by plane)
TRAVEL TIME: 6 weeks
WEATHER / CLIMATE: high altitude, blinding sun, heat, humidity, monsoon rains, mud, dust, pollution, clean mountain air
View of the main square, McLeod Ganj.
A Hindi version of the Theme from Shaft was playing as I walked into the store. I was definitely someplace different. I ended up buying some Tibetan incense and a white T-shirt with a stylized black Ganesh on the front. Then I continued my shopping tour of the town, which you can basically cover on foot in 5 minutes. As usual, I was killing time between meals, since I live (and travel) for food.
Dharamsala is actually two towns: Upper and Lower. The Upper part is called McLeod Ganj; during the period of British colonization it was a hill station where the ruling elite came to chill out during the summer. Today, of course, it’s a destination for tourists, backpackers, and spiritual seekers from the world over, thanks largely to one person: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Dharamsala / McLeod Ganj are the headquarters of the Tibetan Government in Exile, and a place where Tibetan culture and and religion are preserved, free of the iron fist of the Chinese central government.
Rushing waters near Bagsu Falls
Small temple in McLeod Ganj
Since it rained for most of the week that I was here, I never got to do the 2-day hike up to the snow line and back. It was just as well, because I had some sort of upper respiratory and throat ailments during my stay, and anything harder than walking up the hill for an espresso was simply too taxing in my delicate condition.
My hotel was perfect, with a balcony overlooking green cedar-covered mountains, and where I could hear the rushing river below – when the construction noise and barking dogs weren’t blocking it out.
Many of the foreigners I saw here had completely blissed-out expressions; sometimes their spiritual aura was so sickly sweet that it made my teeth hurt. De rigueur attire for the hip spiritual seeker includes drawstring pants, long flowing garments, scarves, prayer beads, and loose-fitting yoga wear. After all, you can find anything here for what ails you: meditation, yoga, reiki, chakra alignment, massage, ashrams, retreat centers, medicine (Tibetan, Indian, and Western), psychotherapy, and last but not least, food. It comes in all varieties: Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, Continental, and Israeli, among others.
My hotel room for one week
My hotel balcony
Conversation: through the coffee house window
My favorite drink in McLeod Ganj: mango-strawberry shake
After my friend Phurbu went back to his school, in the valley below Dharamsala, I started planning the next leg of my adventure: to Manali, 11 hours away by bus, and deeper into the Himalaya of the Himachal Pradesh state of India.
On a Wednesday morning, I rose at 5 am, and walked downhill to the bus station in Dharamsala. The hill was steep and my backpack was heavy, but at least it wasn’t raining. The bus left at 7 am, and I was off on another Indian bus adventure up and down narrow mountain roads.
Auspicious sign for travel: a rainbow over Dharamsala just before my departure
Waiting area, Dharamsala bus station
North from Everest, and off the beaten track: cloudy skies and vibrant colors after the rain
Heinrich Harrer, author of Seven Years in Tibet, in his sequel Return to Tibet, describes the Tibetan landscape perfectly:
We were driving to Shigatse via Gyangtse. Under a blinding sun, in a brilliant pure light, the full glory of the Tibetan plateau was spread out before us. This landscape seems to be tailor-made for the Tibetan religion. Or is it that the Tibetan form of Buddhism could only have arisen in this landscape? It is amazing how peaceful this scenery seems to the viewer, even though it contains all the elements of wildness….
Henrich Harrer, Return to Tibet, Great Britain, Phoenix, 2000, p.134
We had experienced the blinding sun; now after a night of rain at Everest, we had bypassed Rongbuk Monastery (the world’s highest) and headed out of Everest Base Camp.
Instead of following the dusty road by which we had come, now turned into a mixture of mud and rocks, the driver veered off to the left, onto a barely-visible track. We would follow this lonely trail, which shifted from rough and bumpy to smooth and sandy at a whim, for about the next two hours.
The landscape had changed overnight from dull rocky brown to green and gray due to the rain. As soon as we turned off the main road, I was amazed by the clumps of foliage and grasses which glowed with a deep and vibrant gray-green. The colors were so deep and clear in the rarified newly-washed air, that I almost couldn’t stand them. Even the dead stalks and the earth were beautiful in this crystal-clear yet dim light; it was as if the whole earth glowed.
I didn’t get a shot of this deep gray-green – the car was bouncing too much, but I got some photos when we stopped later. The terrain changed dramatically, almost with every turn. We passed lonely farms, flocks of goats, and occasional children who ran toward us waving. Apart from our convoy of two off-road vehicles, we didn’t see another vehicle, nor another tourist. I decided that this ride was the greatest adventure of this trip, our first time off the beaten tourist path (or so it seemed).
Lone sentinel: a cairn or devotional pile of stones, with prayer flags
The road less traveled, barely a track among the stones
Our convoy takes a rest stop; the second vehicle carried two Chinese women from Beijing, who had traveled all over Tibet.
Resting our weary bones at a Tibetan teahouse, after re-joining the main (paved) road. Tashi, our guide, is on the right.
We eventually rejoined the asphalt highway, in time to stop for a rest at a teahouse in a small town (it might have been Tingri, but I think our guide said a different town). We left the town to continue into the desert wastes that pile up north of the Himalaya, rising to the last high pass in Tibet as we made our way south to the descent through the Himalaya and to the border.
We stopped for lunch at a town whose name escapes me. Immediately after pulling out, the vegetation changed to lush greenery and pine trees; we must have crossed the dividing line beyond which the wet weather couldn’t reach the Tibetan plateau. We went down, down to Zhangmu, which seemed to me a typical border town – ugly, depressing, neither one culture nor the other. After a night there, and a farewell dinner, we proceeded 10 more kilometers to the twin checkpoints, China and Nepal.
Believe it or not, it was harder to leave China than it had been to enter – multiple travel permit and passport checks, baggage search, and waiting in lines. Then, the Friendship Bridge. I think “Friendship” was tongue-in-cheek; by this point I wasn’t feeling too friendly. The Nepal entry point was just ahead.
Much of Tibet is actually high desert, blocked by the Himalaya from receiving the annual monsoon rains. In the distance the road climbs up toward the final pass.
The last mountain pass before reaching the Himalaya, traveling south toward the China-Nepal border. Note the “windmill” prayer wheels – the cups catch the wind and twirl om mani padme hum into the universe.
Himalaya sunrise: view from my hotel in Zhangmu, the Chinese border town that literally clings to the mountain side. One side of the valley is China, the other is Nepal.
Dividing line: the China-Nepal Friendship Bridge. When you’re in the middle you’re nowhere, man – neither one country nor the other.
END OF TIBET ADVENTURE
Next chapter: NEPAL
Sera Monastery, Lhasa – mural in entrance porch to the assembly hall