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Night Train To Kathmandu

17 Jun

OK, it wasn’t a train. And it wasn’t at night. But it did (eventually) go to Kathmandu.

So, where did I leave you. It seems a long time ago….

Ah yes, Everest, in the early morning light. Looking like this…

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Just an excuse for another Everest picture, really.

 

 

 

 

 

From here our trip took us on even dodgier overland trails, testing the capabilities of our LandCruisers to the extreme. At one point, we even lost a fog lamp. Meanwhile, Everest stays in the mind and in the heart.. but also in the vision, not dominating the skyline but peering out at us from behind the hills, as if checking that we’ve really gone.

There’s a dusting of snow on the trail, but mostly it’s dust and rocks, traversing the plain between the mountains before scaling the ravine walls. This is one of the more scary moments in the trip, with our wheels never more than a foot or so from a sheer drop. The mountains remain rugged, harsh, forbidding and hostile – and yet unbelievably beautiful.

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Finally Everest and its companions recede behind us as we rejoin Friendship highway for our dash to the border. This is a recent road, but it’s fighting subsidence and flooding, with red painted rocks in the highway to show where the road has sunk. We pass bold Mt Xixibangma, seemingly isolated from the rest before we reach the final view of the Nepali Himalaya range, spread out in front of us.

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We’re at around 4500m and dive down towards the Nepali border at 2500m – it must be a shock for anyone coming the other way.

The scenery transforms, though, from dry, arid mountain to verdant green trees as we approach Nyalam township. A quick Nepali curry (absolutely brilliant, even if it did take an hour and the noodles never materialised) and we dive into a deep, deep canyon lined with green trees that cling to the rock. The road winds across the ravine, holding on impossibly to the steep edges. Every so often we see a small rockslide – an echo of what is to be revealed later. Even in the dry season, waterfalls cascade down the sides of the ravine.

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After a couple of hours of incredible beauty, we arrive in Zanghmu, a border town impossibly attached to the side of the gorge. It hangs there, seemingly defying gravity, with tiny paths climbing the edge of the cliff face in between the shops, hotels and houses.

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At which point we stop. The town has narrow streets, and we are driving into a fleet of Nepali trucks, brightly painted in contrast to the Chinese drab vehicles. The traffic has jammed in the town, and nobody is going anywhere. Certainly nobody is going to sort it out – including the police who are actually part of the traffic jam – or the local police, who merely peer out of their office on the main street, bemusedly. After an hour waiting, we get out and walk the last little bit of the way, down one of the steep little alleyways.

Unfortunately, the hotels facilities make the camp at Everest look good. No showers, filthy toilets and a hotel room that won’t lock. We beat a hasty retreat to the local youth hostel, which is actually really nice – and will be even better when they finish the plumbing.

After a nights sleep and a bit of rushing up and down the street to get some money out of the bank and some photos from up the hill (remember, this is a very steep street!)  – we’re off to the border. Quite a queue awaits us – although we’re there at 9am, we’re still last – and because Nepal is 2 1/4 hours behind Tibet, we have to wait until 10:30 before immigration opens. A brief altercation with a German tour group means that we’re definitely last – but we are treated to the entertaining sight of a little old lady trying to sneak into China – and the porters for the tour group carrying gas cylinders, bags, and more on their backs across the border bridge.

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A search of our packs, and we’re across – they are a bit confused by my passport, but what are they going to do?

There’s quite a wait over in the Nepali side of the border – apparently a landslip has delayed the bus that’s meeting us. Or, more accurately, meeting the Australians – Scott and I are hoping for a free ride – which materialises, saving us a huge amount of money or a very long and bumpy local bus ride.

The road is as bumpy (it seems) as the trails from the previous days – but without the isolation of LandCruiser suspension, we feel every jolt. Every kilometre or so there is a landslip or a pile of rock in the road, as we continuing to weave our way across the other side of the ravine – still startling in its beauty. Houses are piled onto the sheer cliffs, causing us to wonder what it’s like to pop out for groceries – and the cliffs themselves are heavily terraced to create a little bit of flat land for growing crops.

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We’re back on the left hand side of the road – which will remain true now until I get back to the UK. And the electric prayer wheels that adorn the Tibetan vehicles have been replaced by a statue of the elephant god, Ganesh. (I’m happy with an electric prayer wheel – I don’t want a driver who has one hand permanently spinning a prayer wheel)

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We climb and climb back up the ravine, past lush fields, dramatic villages, beautiful imposing hills and mountains, shrouded in mist.

More differences – Buddha has been replaced by statues of Shiva on the hilltops, while the buildings are mostly brick (as we approach Kathmandu, we find acres of bricks factories).

Finally, after we have weaved our way through the Nepal countryside, and after a brief stop in Bhaktapur (we stay outside to avoid paying the $15 entry fee for the historic town centre)

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– we find ourselves in Kathmandu, legendary nirvana. You’ll have to check the next episode to see if it lives up to its legend….

Monks & mayhem

16 Jun

Since I didn’t get to take many pictures in the Tibetan monasteries, I thought I would jot down a few impressions…

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First of all, the monasteries in Tibet seem darker and more desperate than those in Thailand – and Laos and Cambodia for that matter. The Thai Therevada Buddhism doesn’t really include the concept of a ‘God’ – although it creeps in – whereas in Tibet, the Buddhism includes gods, demons, spirits and more from the Hindu and animist elements that have been included.

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The temples are dark and lit with low lights and hundreds of sputtering yak butter candles. The faithful add their own contribution to the candles from flasks of melted butter, or from spoonfuls out of bags.

Tashilunpo Monastery (8)Kubum Monastery (31)

Everything is draped in felt drapes in muted yet colourful designs. The walls are lined with dozens of statues – of the Buddha (past, present and future), of gods, of guardians, of the Buddha’s scholars, of demons.. a pantheon of mythical and real characters line the walls and each has its devotees. The faithful bring wads of small denomination notes to be offered at each statue, each shrine, each image. The monks occasionally collect and count these – and sometimes one of the worshippers will, for some reason that I could not determine, take a bundle too.

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There is a desperation in the queues of people – gone are the Therevada offerings of incense and lotus flowers, to be replaced with money and penitence. The most extreme is the incredible 3 steps and bow procession found in many of the temples. The pilgrim raises hands above the head, then in front of the face, then in front of the heart, before kneeling and lying prostrate on the ground – leaving a small token on the floor at the extent of their reach – beads, a shell, a stone, a piece of bone. On standing, he or she will walk forward to the object, and begin again. Many wear protecting padding on knees and elbows, and hold card to protect their hands. This procession can go on for miles – many of the older people do circuits round the towns.

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Otherwise, hordes of people will process round the holy site – clockwise only – spinning prayer wheels and chanting. There is a sense of desperate supplication though – as if a blessing will only be conferred or a sin forgiven if the offender makes amends through his or her pilgrimage.

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Inside the monasteries, halls may be storerooms, assembly halls for debating, or temples for worship. Monks can be found chanting, debating, cleaning the temples, or checking on the tourists to make sure they are not taking photos where it’s not allowed. Entry to the temples is cheap – but photographic fees can be extortionate – I saw $20 charged for one room.

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There are items of incredible beauty – many of the statues are incredible, and the paintings that adorn the walls are beautifully executed. The sand mandalas on the floor in Kubum monastery are truly beautiful,

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As well as the statues of the spirit world, the tombs and icons of past heads of the monasteries – the panchan lamas and dalai lamas add to the chaos and confusion. We discover that the 6th Dalai Lama was a bit of a naughty boy, absconding with funds and bedding the members of the assembly. Behind the statues, the Buddhist scriptures and commentaries line the walls in small felt boxes – thousands of them in every monastery.

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Huge amounts of gold cover the statues – although the rumour is that the Chinese government removed the real gold and replaced it with gilt.

Outside the prayer drums spin – hundreds of prayer drums can be found at the entrances, spun in turn by the attendees as they pass, lubricated by the ever present yak fat.

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The monasteries are shadows of their former selves – where in days gone by thousands of monks could be found, the harsher Chinese regime has seen the numbers dwindle to hundreds. The life of a Tibetan monk is permanent, too – wherease in Therevada, a monk can leave the order, in Tibet it is a lifelong decision.

Race against time..

15 Jun

A couple of maps, just to show journeys in Vietnam and in China…. at least I have time to breathe in Nepal!!

Vietnam

Chau Doc – Saigon – Hoi An – Hue – Hanoi – Ha Long City – Halong Bay – Hanoi

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China

Nanning – Hong Kong – Macau – Hong Kong – Shanghai – Beijing

Tibet

Lhasa – Gyatse – Shigatse – Tingri – Everest – Zhangmu

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Man On The Silver Mountain

14 Jun

(and Tigger and Snuff, four Australians and a Canadian)

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Up early for a walk, before the sun is up. It’s cold, and wolves howl in the distance. I am surprised by a Tibetan jogger, but it’s a great time for quiet contemplation on just how wonderful my life has turned out to be. Some thoughts about the future – and a real certainty about what I have left behind me, too.

We’re on the final push to Mt Qomolangma (that’s Mt Everest to you and me). Immediately we pass the first police check for entry to the park. Everything is painstakingly written down, and there’s no sign of a computer. My passport proves troublesome, but eventually all is resolved. (To stop a recurring theme before it starts… there are three more checkpoints today, all with the same longwinded process. Exactly why there are three is unclear, as it’s impossible to get to the second checkpoint without passing the first. The second one does have a computer, but they are watching TV on it.)

Almost immediately, the metalled road disappears, and we are onto a dirt road that will take us the 120km to Everest Base Camp (I’m not sure I can type Qomolongm twice). We’re enveloped in clouds of dust from the lead vehicle as we climb twists and turns that would test an Alfa Romeo driver.

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At the top, we reach the pass, and in front of us the mountains are revealed, all of them over 8000m – Mt. Lhotse (8516m), Mt. Everest (8848m), Mt. Qowowuyag (8201m) and Mt Mayalu (8463m). It’s an incredible sight, and my eyes fill with tears at the sheer glorious beauty of the snowcapped views. I can’t believe that I have come this far, and seen this sight – a sense of wonder and awe enfolds me, and I truly feel God’s presence as I stand and let my whole being take in the sight, the feeling, and the sense of windchill in my bones. In fact, I am so much in awe of the moment that I pay a prayer flag vendor 5 Yuan just to let me have that moment to myself.

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(By the way, sometimes I wonder if I should share these thoughts with you – but these are as much part of the journey as the sights I see and the people I meet.. this is a journey of the soul, too – so forgive me the occasional insight into my heart)

It’s an incredibly precious moment – and a voice seems to whisper to me “Remember that very moment is precious – and every journey is made up of precious moments”

We drop down through little hamlets – the road unfolds beneath us like a Scalextric track designed by the Marquis de Sade as we wind through little hamlets, prayer flags waving in the breeze. Each section of the paddy fields has a little cairn or a prayer flag to bring a good harvest. The horse is king out here, with horse drawn carriage the principle mode of transport – we pass a wagon train exodus crossing the river bed. It’s a hard, arid and dry land unless it’s deliberately irrigated – little patches of cultivation are scattered across the landscape.

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And finally we end up at our destination – the Ronghpu Monastery Tents, a ramshackle collection of traditional tents, each with their own little name – we are glad not to be staying at the Holiday Inn tent though. We’re at the Happiness Hotel (formerly the Mount Everest Happiness Hotel, but for some reason the Mount Everest bit is covered with cardboard). The monastery itself is the highest monastery in the world, and the camp site has the highest post office in the world. Which is shut. The shared camp facilities are even worse than last night…don’t ask. Just. Don’t.

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But there are wonderful views of the mountain. After lunch in our cosy tent, we set off on the final leg of our adventure – Everest Base Camp. It’s a bumpy trip by bus up the path to the mountain, and another checkpoint at the end. But we can’t get to the viewpoint – apparently some American was photographed waving a Tibetan flag on it a few weeks back, and so it’s off limits to Westerners. The best shot I can manage is through the prayer flags while lying on the floor. Bob makes a brave attempt to move the ‘tourists cease step’ sign but to no avail. Sadly, it’s a bit of an anticlimax – the better views are down at the river.

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Later, the clouds clear and we all rush out for more photos – it really is a very beautiful sight, and the early evening light is gorgeous, throwing the mountain and cloud into beautiful relief.

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Back to the tent, and then I go out for a walk and a think, a little time to connect, to dream – and to let go of so much stuff from my past that I no longer need. Part of this trip has been about letting go of old things – things that are no longer serving me, letting go of failures, fears, old habits, old behaviours, disappointments and family traits… freeing me to step into something new. New life, new success, new adventures, new journeys. When I do this, I like to burn the list of what I am letting go of, and so under the massive peak of the highest mountain in the world, I take the list and burn it in the tent’s fire. It’s incredibly freeing as the old stuff drifts off into the sky.

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And so to bed. It’s really cosy in the tent, although it’s incredibly cold out there under the mountain, so it’s a brave man who ventures out at 3am to look at the stars. Everest is lit by a strange light, framed in the darkness of the mountain pass. The Milky Way arcs overhead, a billion stars creating a ribbon of sparkling light from horizon to horizon, while stars I have never seen come together to create vivid constellations. It’s a beautiful, wonderful night – the sort that dreams – and new futures – are born in.

Up early before dawn the next morning. I wander by the river, deep in thought and contemplation before sun rise touches the peak, spreading a rosy glow across the eastern face of the mountain. Again, it’s a glorious, magical sight…and by the time we leave, reluctantly, the mountain stands bright and shining in the sky, for once free of cloud… certainly a sight I will never forget.

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And so we begin the trail to Katmandu… but that, perhaps, is another story…

Another Day in Paradise . . .

13 Jun

So, time to explore the rest of  Tibet. Or, at least some of it. So, we pack ourselves into a couple of LandCruisers and set off West.

Wednesday

First stop is the giant Buddha carved in the rock – local legend has it that it appeared by magic….

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we continue through the green and fertile Nyangchu Valley… and climb… and climb…. along twisty bends that should appear in a James Bond movie. The views are stunning over the mountains in the distance, and eventually we crest the Kang Pa La pass at 4700m above sea level. At which point Scott and I stage a rebellion. They’re not going to stop so we can take pictures over the valley! We resolve this fairly quickly (simply by getting out of the car) and get our pictures of the beautiful valley stretching for miles below us, and the mountains rising into the sky behind.

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On the other side is the turquoise of the Yamdro-tso lake, shaped like a scorpion poised for attack… the lake is a beautiful deep blue.  Prayer flags are everywhere, ready for the prayers to blow off into the wind.

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And so, too, are the souvenir sellers. We particularly liked the use of this snooker table

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We climb again to the Karo-La Glacier, by now at 4960m. I can feel the lack of oxygen, but it’s not really affecting me much. I just don’t plan going jogging for a bit. The women are all looking for a few yuan for a photo, although I managed

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And then we arrive in Gyantse, a town that seems largely untouched by the Chinese upgrade programme. Since we’re pretty early arriving, Scott and I set out for a walk, reaching up to the walls of the monastery, deep red brown in colour high above the town. There are gorgeous views over the town, too, showing clearly the ‘courtyard home’ with the house built around a central courtyard. Prayer flags adorn the roofs, while ingenious solar water heaters wait to collect the sun’s rays to boil the kettle, and cows happily sit in the streets as tractors drive past.

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There are more prayer flags to be found on a rocky outcrop above the town, while the old fort dominates the skyline

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We try to walk up to the fort above the village.. at which point, as if by magic, a young woman appears to tell us that it’s closed. We actually thought that’s what we were visiting… but we were mistaken.

And then dinner with a smiling chef with pyromaniac tendencies. And a brilliant line in caramel banana.

 

Thursday

Next morning, it’s off to the monastery in town. Kubum monastery means 100,000 images in Tibetan. The 35m-high chorten (stupa) is pretty amazing.. each of the levels has a number of little chambers, 77 in total, containing statues, Buddha images, gods and more. The views over the courtyards are impressive, with the faithful still pursuing their ritual walk and devotional pilgrim’s progress. Here, I decide that it’s definitely worth while paying to take some photographs inside, for the princely sum of 20 Yuan. So forgive the extra pictures in this edition! There are some totally gorgeous sand mandalas in incredibly vibrant colours. There are monks in morning meditation and discussion in wonderful headdresses. There are walls and walls of books and commandments and commissions. There are dozens of statues of Buddha, of scholars, or gods and demons. There are stupa in memory of previous heads of the monastery. And I do also pay for pictures at the top of the stupa – it seems a shame to climb so high and not get a photo.

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After another long drive we turn up in Shigatse. If Gyantse was charmingly backward, Shigatse is a bomb site. It’s like the entire town is under construction. Lunch is at the Tashi – who completely forget to cook my chow mein. 

In the afternoon it’s time for a walk to visit the largest Monastery in west Tibet, the Tashilunpo monastery, founded in 1447 by a disciple of the first Dalai Lama. Hidden in here is the world’s largest gilded copper image (at over 26m high) of the future Buddha.

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This dude in the courtyard is playing some pretty funky tunes – to untrained ears (viz, mine) it sounds a lot like a banjo, and we’re expecting him to break into Big Bad Leroy Brown at any moment. I tip him a few spondulicks, but to my shame, I find the beggars outside and their cries of “Hello, money” and (worse) “Hello baby money” to try my patience (and perhaps tear too deeply into my soul).
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In the evening we decide that discretion is the better part of valour and choose not to risk the bomb site of Shigatse and eat in the hotel restaurant. Which is shut. The only restaurant we can find is the Tashi… who manage to cook me a meal this time.

Friday

This time we make our way to the Sakya monastery. Sakya is one of the four Buddhist sects – Sakya don’t believe in reincarnation, and the monks are allowed to marry. I’ve got to say, I am suffering from monastery overload. I sneak a couple of pictures – but in particular we are impressed by the huge array of books that line the wall behind the stupas of the previous panchan lamas (heads of the monastery)

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There’s a brief rebellion – our guide has suggested we go to Everest early since the weather might hold. Initially this sounds good, until we find that this will cut the tour short by a day, abandoning us at the border a day early. My passport will not let me leave until Monday, and the others have transport arranged. After discussion we settle for the original plan. We’re not convinced by the excuse of Everest views, and suspect the drivers and guide want to finish early.

And we’re off again on the crazy westward charge.. accompanied by Bollywood videos on the in car DVD. It’s dry season here, but when the snow melts, the water roars off the mountain, tearing chunks from the soft rock and carving deep grooves in the mountains before rushing through the valley driving everything in front of it. Man’s attempts to stem the flow seem often ineffective, and we see many signs of earthworks that have failed to withstand the mighty force of nature.

Gyatso-La Pass (9)Gyatso-La Pass (11)

And then we crest the Gyatso-La pass at 5200m above sea level – the highest mountain pass in the world -and descend (a bit) into Tingri. Tingri is growing slowly.. but the great opportunity here is to actually take a walk amongst the towering mountains. We are greeted in friendly fashion by the locals.. although the cry of ‘”Hello money” is starting to wear thin. The views are stunning though, and even a short walk reveals views over the Himalayas.Tingri (6)Tingri (9)Tingri (10)

The views are great, the room is OK – just the facilities are starting to get worse… no shower, the bathroom is an outside squat toilet over a cess pit, and water is provided in a thermos with a bowl to wash in. Oh, but the views, the views…..

Pilgrims, prayerwheels, palaces and processions

12 Jun

(which I think is a confession that I can’t find a good movie title or song with Tibet in the title. ‘Seven Years in Tibet’? – a bit TOO long, I think. Bruce Dickinson’s ‘Tibet’? Dull, dull, dull.

Anyway. Lhasa. Tibet. It’s been a dream for me for years. There is something unique about this country, even though it’s been annexed by China for over 60 years. The people are fabulous, and there’s a wonderful peacefulness about the place. Lhasa itself is set like a jewel in amongst the mountains – slowly being transformed into a modern city, but still, as yet, retaining that spiritual core.

Having been met at the station with ‘Tashai Delek’ (hello) and a traditional silk scarf, I am whisked off to the hotel. It’s an odd one, with Tibetan prayer flags in the coffee lounge (a lounge which mysteriously disappears on the second night), and Chinese graffiti on the walls. I have a Canadian roomie, but the Australian group decide they would like a better hotel. We’re just round the corner from the Potala Palace though.

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Just time for a wander round town, which seems to be one huge market, selling everything from Tibetan Prayer Wheels to turmeric. And the most incredible flaky pastry creations that are a bit like Chorley cakes but much much better. Would confessing to eating four be embarrassing? OK, I won’t confess then.

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The lack of air at this altitude (around 4500m) isn’t bothering me – until I climb the stairs. At which point I am out of breath and wheezing. Maybe take it easier next time.

Monday

Off to the Potala Palace, the residence of the Dalai Lama until he left the country after the Chinese invasion in 1950. We’re up against the gun here, as tourist groups get an hour to see everything. It’s a bit of a race round Tibetan Buddhist icons, images of Dalai Lamas from number 5 to number 13, various gods, guardians, sages, bodhisattvas – and the past, present and future Buddha.

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No cameras allowed inside either, which makes it really hard to remember everything. Darkened rooms, glorious doors, offerings of money and those silk scarves everywhere (I wonder what happens if you miss a god out when you do your rounds putting an offering on the altar for each one? There are some gods in there I wouldn’t want to mess with. Gorgeous tapestries, wonderful paintings, and the ever present sputtering yak butter candles. The tombs of the individual Dalai Lamas. The Dalai Lama’s study room, lounge, massive libraries of books in cloth packages… all beautiful.

I’m a bit disconcerted by our tour guides instructions to enter the ‘first caff’ but realise that he meant ‘cave’ after a few moments.

We pass the Mandala of Time, and the revolving prayer drums – and I can see exactly where Terry Pratchett got the idea for ‘Thief of Time’ from. I even think that I’ve spotted the statue of Wen the Eternally Surprised.

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And then it’s all over, far too fast. The richness and prosperity of the building, the decor, the statues – the sheer amount of gold in some of the tombs and the images is mind boggling.

Gorgeous views of the city lying spreadout below, though

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Lunch is spent testing some Tibetan delicacies – the menu is in English, but without any description of what it is. So while I can read it, I am no clearer as to what I am ordering.

And then off to the holiest temple in Tibet, the Johkang Temple, built in 647 A.D. Inside the temple we’re again regaled with Buddha images, prayer-wheels and murals. Again, no photos inside, but it’s even darker and smokier..

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Around the temple the pilgrims form a route called barkhor. At night, many will troop around the temple spinning their prayer wheels and clicking their prayer beads. The true devotees will walk in a routine – hands above the head in prayer, hands to the mouth, hands to the heart, then prostrate themselves on the floor. Then get back up, walk three steps and repeat. Many of them have protected their hands and knees with wood or cardboard. As well as around the temple, many can be seen making a larger circuit throughout the streets.

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And around the temple is the biggest market I have ever seen in my life. Directly in front of the temple, Barkhor Market is a tourist trap of thangkas, prayer flags, jewellery, rugs, incense and anything a devout Buddhist might dream of (and a few things he probably didn’t). Further away it becomes a local market selling vegetables, clothes, and more..

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I join the merry throng around Barkhor – it’s a huge crush with the locals making their pilgrimage. It’s a special time, too, in celebration of the Buddha’s birthday – bringing even more onto the streets.

When I eventually make my way to find somewhere for dinner, I find that Lhasa shuts up shop at 9pm. So, quick noodle purchase and I am done and ready.

Tuesday

There are some fabulous views of the Palace from the place where we get breakfast… and today we have worked out that the pickles and the rice soup are to be eaten together.

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Outside of Lhasa today, first of all Drepung monastery. founded in 1416 and once the home of 10,000 monks. This was the home of the Dalai Lama before moving to Potala Palace. It’s not as imposing a sight – but it’s a lot lighter and airier, it seems. We visit the Dalai Lama’s study, his reception room, his prayer room – and the ‘no photography’ rule is starting to get annoying. I only have 45 minutes to explore this, as I need to go and see the police to sort out my visa – which, to cut a long but tedious story short, is granted. Hooray!

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Lunch is on my own, but it gets spent in the local coffee shop putting the finishing touches to something I am going to release in the next few days. Exciting – and scary!

We spend the afternoon exploring the Sera monastery which was founded in 1419. Here we get the chance for photographs.. at 20 Yuan per room. Perhaps not.

The really interesting thing is that in the courtyard are hundreds of monks debating in little groups. The Buddha statue in the temple is actually leaning slightly toward the debate. Debate follows an interesting pattern – the speaker will make his case and then throw his prayer beads over his arm, smack his palms together, and extend his hand to his listener – who will then respond. The gesture is supposed to free the listeners mind from the illusions of the world (the illusions of the world is a key Buddhist tenet).

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It’s fascinating to watch, to see the debates move around and arguments made and lost. Some seem more serious than others, so we are not sure if it’s a debate on the future of the world or last night’s television.

In the evening I take a walk around the Palace for some more photos – I find a group of monks having fun on a pedalo, and kids playing in Zorb balls on the lake. I also find I am walking the wrong way – as the pilgrims stream towards me, I recognise that I am walking anticlockwise round the palace – the correct direction for prayer is clockwise.  There are more pilgrims in the square, a dog in a drainpipe..

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Lhasa – a crazy combination of old and new, devout and profane, commerce and tranquillity. And lots of yak butter.

Yak yak yak yak yak (thanks, Jonny)

6 Jun

(My other working title was “High Plains Drifter”)

Friday

So….sort of time to escape from China. Or at least, to aim for Tibet. Remember, I am now travelling with a temporary passport and no Chinese visa into a region that sometimes visitors can’t get into at all, for no readily apparent reason. Here goes….

So, onto the train having negotiated the massive Beijing West Train Station, which, annoyingly, is nowhere near a subway line – thus requiring a route march (along with around 10,000 others). It’s easy enough to find my platform – and my train – and my berth. Which I immediately swap with another guy, so he can be with his friends. It’s OK by me – but in way of thanks, he shares supper with me.

Beijing West Station (1)Beijing West Station (2)

It’s the same sketch as before – 6 beds to a berth, with some very uncomfortable seats (they slope sideways) if you don’t want to lie in bed for 48 hours.

When I wake, the train is ambling through parched plains with sterile rock rising from the desert scenery. The train line has cut through deserted and ruined communities but has opened up Tibet. The rooftops are lined with heat exchangers making use of the baking sun in the desert  – most of the houses are made of mud brick around here.

To Lhasa (87)To Lhasa (2)

In many places the mountains have been stripped for rock to build with.. and yet there is still a raw beauty to the landscape. Caves, presumably graves, appear in many of the mountains as we get further from the city.

We’re crossing the Gobi desert – a privilege I didn’t realise I was going to get on this trip.

We begin to climb – this is actually the only train I have been on that has an altimeter (honest – look at the picture) and they start to pump oxygen into the cab. I’m not so sure this is a good idea, as we’re going to end up at altitude and I’d like to be able to adjust – but the line runs over the top of the plateau at nearly 5000m above sea level so perhaps it’s wise… and my lung capacity is better than many. It’s made my chocolate cake wrapper expand dramatically though! The train seems very slow, too – and there are many unexpected stops, presumably to let other trains pass.

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We do make one stop – everyone leaps off to buy supplies from the vendors on the platform – a roaring trade in noodles and fruit.

So far away from people, the wildlife becomes plentiful. Muntjac deer, Chinese antelope, and more yak than you can shake a stick at. Which is what the yak herders are doing.

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There’s a real sense of peace falling over me – I catch up on some reading, add And so to bed again – the effect of heading west by well over 1000km is that it gets dark later and later – China spans 5 geographic time zones, but only uses one. It’s surprisingly restful, as the train gently clatters away.

I’m up early though – too many things to disturb me – and ready to gawp at the scenery again, which is getting increasingly dramatic and beautiful. It’s clearly desert out there – and there are intricate patterns of small stones laid out to contain the drift of sand and allow the grass to take hold again.

To Lhasa (11)To Lhasa (123)

And then we’re above the snow line.  The landscape is heart stoppingly stunning, and although the windows aren’t the cleanest, I want to get as many photos as I possibly can.

To Lhasa (47)To Lhasa (42)

Apparently, they arrange the timing on the trip to make sure that folk are awake for the best bits. We pass by the highest large freshwater lake in the world, Lake Manasarovar, as we hear stories of how the railway was constructed. The Chinese are very proud of the achievement, as they have created the highest railway in the world – at a current cost of over 4 billion. The line includes the Tanggula Pass, which, at 5,072 m  above sea level, is the world’s highest rail track.. and the 1,338 m Fenghuoshan tunnel is the highest rail tunnel in the world at 4,905 m above sea level. One of the problems they have, though, is that the permafrost is melting – which means they have had to lay cooling pipes to keep it frozen (over 500km is laid on permafrost).

To Lhasa (58)To Lhasa (54)

We pass more settlements, rivers carrying glacial water to the sea, and cheesy fake policemen strategically placed to stop maniacal Chinese drivers speeding on the long straight new highways. Speeding is actually risky – you won’t meet many other vehicles, but the chances of running into an unexpected yak are astronomical.

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I’ve paid around $120 for my ticket, which includes two nights accommodation and a tour of some of the most awe inspiring scenery in the world as well as a thousand kilometre train ride. That’s got to be good value.

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And, finally, into Lhasa after 4000km (to contrast – it’s 5555km from London to New York). With all the stops and delays, I thought we were going to be at least two hours late – but no – we are precisely on time, in a display of punctuality that would have the Germans gasping. I’m met by our tour guide (it’s been a long time since I had anyone waiting at an airport to meet me) and off to our hostel. At which point, disbelief sets in. I am actually in Lhasa. In Tibet. Just round the corner from the Potala Palace. This really IS a dream come true.

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