The Silk Road, China

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Walking in the clouds

Before leaving Tibet I was determined to experience some of the its wilderness: Tibet makes up around a tenth of China's land mass but less than 0.5% of its population. The average altitude on the Tibetan plateau is 4500m, and it is the source of the drinking water for c40% of the world's population. In other words, it's very high and very wet.

So, after Tom and Debs had left for London, I made enquiries to see if I could join up with others looking to go on a major trek. I had set my sights on a 80km walk between two major monasteries outside of Lhasa - Ganden and Samye monasteries. It is a tough, 4-5 day trek, taking in two passes over 5000m.

Through the noticeboards at the various hostels and travel agencies, I was lucky enough to find a lovely Ukranian couple, Igor and Polena, who wanted to do the same thing at the same time. I had been wondering about doing the trek without any help, but the prospect of carrying all my sleeping and cooking gear, plus 5 days worth of food at this altitude, meant I was quickly won round to having a cook and some yaks to carry our gear.

We left immediately and headed for a Ganden monastery, itself at 4500m. A politically significant monastery, it felt almost eery wandering around what is now a shell of a thing: it once housed 2000 monks (before the number was restricted to 100) and many of the buildings were reduced to rubble by the Red Guards in the 1960s.

Nothing could diminish the views of the valley below, however, as we walked around the kora (pilgrim circuit), just behind a smiling old lady in traditional clothes (complete with the same style sunhat that all Tibetan women of her age wear) and her her two young (grand?) children, clad in jeans. Smoke from burning juniper piles filled our noses as we went, and the woman ahead of us patiently stopped at each shrine and stroked every stone of significance along the way.

We descended from the monastery, picked up our animals and walked up the valley to our first camp site. We were able to enjoy the stunning views back down the valley for a short time before - as happened every night between 6 and 7 o'clock - the heavens opened and it rained, more or less incessantly, until around 8 o'clock the following morning.

Sheltering from the rain!

The climb to the first 5200m pass was long and pretty tough. Luckily for me, my longer than expected exposure to base camp and its environs (see separate posting!) held me in good stead and I was completely spared from altitude sickness. However, walking at this altitude feels like 50 years have been added to your age; a tight chest is something you have to put up with.

Prayer flags greeted us at the top of the pass, but the best was to come on the other side. The sky had cleared and the vast, green valleys opened up below us. As we descended, we found ourselves walking in the clouds. The wind would propel the cloud along the valley floor, into the steep mountains, at which point it would soar vertically upwards. It was unlike anything I have ever seen and utterly captivating to watch.

The view from Chugla Pass

The following day we enjoyed a rather more straightforward climb to another pass of similar height. What followed was a steep descent alongside a stream which rapidly turned into a raging torrent, with incredibly lush, green hills all around us. We passed herders' camps, complete with the massive fierce dogs, thankfully on leashes, for which Tibet is infamous. (To date I have seen nothing but cuddly, but rather irritating, chiwawas in Lhasa... a little disappointing if you've invested hundreds of pounds in a series of rabies jabs).

Our trusty yaks

The more we descended, the more stable the weather seemed to become. By the time we reached Samye monastery, the sky was blue and the sun shone brightly. Mercifully, we evaded the police and their permit bureaucracy (we didn't have one as the office was closed for days and we needed to get going) and explored Tibet's first every monastery, where Buddhism challenged the incumbent Bon establishment and where The Great Debate saw to it that Tibetan Buddhism took a more Indian, as opposed to a Chinese (Zen) path. The atmosphere in the assembly hall, full of monks chanting from their prayer sheets was magical; we had to tear ourselves in order to catch the ferry over the river and head back to Lhasa.

Samye monastery


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