Tibet: A Journey of Enlightenment
"Tholing is crumbling. A result of isolation, years of plundering by raids from both Tibetan and Ladakhi tribes, and harsh weather."
It is six o’clock in the morning outside of the historic Banak Shöl Hotel in Lhasa, and my baggage and camera equipment are stowed away in our battered Toyota 4x4. Govinda Yospel starts the engine; for three weeks he has been my driver, translator and constant companion. “Kang Rinpoche,” he says, beaming. “Ngatsho Kang Rinpoche la drogi yö,” I reply: “Yes, we are going to Mount Kailash!” Slowly our Land Cruiser moves through the streets of Lhasa, which fill with life as the first rays of sun rise over the imposing ramparts of the Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama.
We pass a huge new Chinese department store, and observe the staff assembling in rank and then filing at the main entrance hall, like a military unit awaiting the morning roll-call inspection. Half shouting, half singing, the excited manager tries to introduce his crew to the art of self-motivation, followed by a joint two-kilometre (1.25 mile) run through the streets of Lhasa – in full sales associate uniform.
Our destination for today is Samye, Tibet’s first and oldest monastery at the banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo. Carrying a lot of sand, the river has formed a onekilometre wide riverbed. Suddenly we see a yak-hide boat on the water. We stop and wait at the riverside. The ferryman carries it ashore on his back and lays it down to dry. “It seems to be my vocation to ferry people over the river,” he says in a silent voice that sounds content.
In recent years the ways of nomadic Tibetan people have been curbed by China, but many of them still cling to a lifestyle which makes it difficult for them to maintain their ancient traditions. Seeing this old man in an increasingly troubled world was a sobering reminder of what the 14th Dalai Lama would so often say: “Peace in the world comes from peace in the individual. If you are at ease in a natural way and in peace with yourself, then you will be frank and open toward your fellow human beings. And this is exactly the foundation of world peace.” I treated this as a good omen, a sign of promise in one of the last bastions of civilisation we enjoyed before we ventured far west on to the vast Tibetan Plateau.
Tibet is separated into seven administrative regions or prefectures: Lhasa, Xigatse, Ngari, Qamdo, Nagqu, Nyingchi and Shannan, the lowest of which lies at around 2,700 metres (9,000 ft). At its highest, the southern border of the country is crowned by Mount Everest.
Once completely cut off from the outside world, modern-day Tibet has become both a lot more accessible and probably the most controversial stirrer of emotions and debate of any territory in the world. Travel in this remote region of what is now part of China involves stamina, drive and an ability to work out the complex system of permits that are granted each year to groups wishing to visit the country.
For the most part tourism in Tibet is restricted to the relatively well travelled route between Lhasa and Kathmandu, a long stretch of main road that features the turquoise lake of Yamdrok Tso, the plateau towns of Gyantse, Shigatse and Lao Tingri, before its ascends to the Tibetan Everest Base Camp at 5,180 metres (17,000 ft) and then drops abruptly into Nepal via the remote border town of Zhangmu at 2,775 metres (9,100 ft).
Each year a small number of permits are granted to travellers wishing to explore regions of Tibet that fall outside this main tourist route and in August 2017, after almost two years of planning and paperwork, I was granted permission to lead a small expedition to Tibet’s highest and least visited prefecture, Ngari.
The flight that delivered our group from Kathmandu crossed over some of the world’s most iconic mountains. Smiling hostesses pointed out what peaks we were passing. “That’s Dhaulagiri, the Annapurnas and Machhapuchhre over in the west. In the east there is Ama Dablam, Makalu, Lhotse, K2, Everest and Cho Oyu.” Everest, or Chomolungma as the Tibetan people call it, was tantalising close to our plane. In less than a month my group would be sitting on a small hill staring at the north face of Everest at the tail end of our expedition.
Lhasa is the ever-changing face of modern China merging with ancient Tibet. Wandering the streets of the city north of the Potala Palace you find yourself surrounded by concrete apartments and then suddenly in a cobblestoned alleyway. Tibetan monks walking the ‘kora’ or prayer circuit around the oldest and most profoundly beautiful temple of Lhasa, the Jokhang, can be seen spinning a prayer wheel in one hand while texting on their mobiles with the other. Even here, space has become constricted. There has been heavy building activity all over the centre of the capital for years. The majority of the Tibetan houses have been demolished and replaced by functional concrete buildings.
Since the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century, Beijing has invested several hundred million dollars, year by year, to rob the town of its historical and cultural identity. More than 400 of the 600 historical buildings that remained have been torn down since China’s newly established communist government sent troops to invade Tibet in 1949-50. Among them is the Tromsikhang Palace, which had been constructed by the 6th Dalai Lama north of the Jokhang in the early 18th century. Although the fabric of the palace was still very good and it had even been classified as highly worthy of protection by UNESCO, it nonetheless fell victim to the bulldozers.
Clashes of culture are everywhere. On the road leading up to the Sera Monastery, neon-lights and bars function day and night, while at the end of the street, monks debate philosophical topics such as “does a dead tree have life?”, much as they have done for centuries. Cars and bicycles dominate the picture; the house-fronts in the background proclaim the world of globalisation: Toyota, Mitsubishi and VW brand names shine their neon-lights; China’s economic power immediately comes to mind. Two overdimensional golden yaks are reminiscent of Tibet, a monument of high symbolic value: in Lhasa all that is Tibetan is rendered museumlike in appearance.
We left Tibet’s bustling capital in two fourwheel drives at dawn. A short time was spent visiting towns on the main tourist trail in order to savour our last creature comforts before we drove into the sparsely populated, high altitude desert of the Tibetan Plateau. Passing through these towns allowed us to rest, shop for provisions and prepare our vehicles, fill them with fuel and do some last minute mechanical checks. Once we were on our way proper, we couldn’t be entirely sure what would be available if anything went wrong. We knew about other towns, but the distances between them and the treacherous roads were great. If something bad happened, we weren’t quite on our own, but we were bloody close.
After we crossed over the Tsangpo, blustery showers, clouds and a 30-knot wind propelled us down to the shores of Lake Manasarovar, a very popular pilgrimage spot for Hindus and thought by many Buddhists to be the place where Maya conceived Buddha. The weather had completely obscured nearby Mount Kailash, Tibet’s most iconic mountain, so we decided to overnight in a tiny, very basic, colourful guest house to sit the conditions out. Nearby a small group of Tibetans followed our lead and pitched their tents in the lee of our buildings.
By late afternoon the winds had softened and a filtered sun had washed over the lake. Behind us the deserted Chiu Gompa Monastery, seemingly carved out of the rocks overlooking the lake, glowed in the remaining light while Mount Kailash peeked at us from behind a curtain of clouds. From a distance came the low, rhythmic, chanting songs of the nomads and it soon became clear why Mahatma Gandhi chose this surreal, beautiful place as one of the resting places for his ashes.
The next morning, Mount Kailash finally showed its sacred face to us through a veil of diminishing clouds. With its snow dome appearance, Kailash is probably one of the most fabled and instantly recognisable mountains in the world. The Tibetans sometimes call it ‘Titsé’, meaning “water peak” or “river peak” for its lower flanks are the source of four of Asia’s mightiest rivers, the Brahmaputra, Sutlej, Karnali and the Indus. It is also one of the holiest sites in the world for Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and the followers of Bön, a religion often claimed (though equally as often refuted) to have pre-dated Buddhism in Tibet.
Embarking on our traverse westwards towards the ancient city of Guge, within kilometres the landscape began to change. For a short time the route followed the rushing headwaters of the Brahmaputra, and passed the ruins of two monastic buildings. Black-lipped Pikas, tiny rodents that thrive on the plateau’s barren landscapes, whistled a warning of our arrival but then quickly disappeared when an Upland Buzzard suddenly appeared in the skies above.
Venturing further west revealed greater numbers of Bearded Vultures, or ‘Lammergeier’, Himalayan Griffon Vultures, wild yaks, blue sheep, Black-necked cranes, and immense herds of kyangs, or Tibetan asses, which were everywhere, and form the food of many Tibetans, especially those who live on the barren steppe. The increase in wildlife seemed to be directly proportionate to the landscape, which morphed from sand dunes, to wetlands, to plains, to snow-capped peaks and, finally, to the aptly named ‘Clay Forests of Tsada’. The tortured topography of these eroded landscapes in the far western part of Ngari Prefecture are very rarely seen by western people.
Entering Tsada involves navigating your way through rows of serrated cliffs that have been carved out of the plateau by ferocious winds and snow. Heavily eroded and porous, the cliffs of Tsada hide one of the most mysterious historical complexes in Asia, the ancient ruins of the Kingdom of Guge which was founded in the 10th century.
In a hewn quadrant of sandstone lies the dusty, yet well laid out town of Zanda, the name given by the Chinese to Tholing, the ancient capital of Ngari. Alarmingly devoid of character, modern-day Zanda functions mostly as a military outpost in a region of strategic importance to China in the west. A surly woman checked us in to the only guest house we could find, a set of rooms built from plateau mud attached to the local monastery on the outskirts of the town.
From the windows of our rooms we could see the near-ruined monastery of Tholing and the remains of its buildings, dating back to 996AD. Tholing is crumbling. A result of isolation, years of plundering by raids from both Tibetan and Ladakhi tribes, and harsh weather. Only a small group of four monks now reside there permanently and they are struggling to keep it maintained. Elderly and suffering from a distinct shortage of funding, they take donations and sell paintings from a small museum there.
Centuries ago, Tholing was the head monastery of Guge, the crowning glory of western Tibet. Hidden in the eroded hills and sitting atop a pillar of chalk-like stone, Guge is accessed by a steep climb through a narrow tunnel that has been carved into the cliffs, very similar to the ancient Nabataean city of Petra in Jordan. The trek up is precipitous and not a journey for the acrophobic or unfit.
Once controlling the trade in gold, silk and spices between India and China, Guge was a kingdom of fabulous wealth and great religious significance – the cradle of Himalayan Buddhism. Yet this spiritual and commercial hub vanished without a trace in 1630 and to date, no one has ever worked out its demise.
Extraordinary altitude, hostile terrain, isolation and political upheavals have prevented all but a select few from making any serious study in this remote part of western Tibet. Even so, visiting a small transect of caves that pockmark the landscape of Guge, we noticed a few had been tagged and numbered as part of a recent archaeological survey.
A vast complex of unexplored caves still remains in the kingdom, many of which are reputed to hold skeletal remains, petroglyphs and artworks that could provide modern archaeologists with some clue as to why the reign of Guge fell – but access to these is strictly controlled by China.
Leaving Guge we spent the night in the tiny village of Tirthapuri at the headwaters of the mighty Sutlej river. Straddling an active geothermal area, Tirthapuri is best known for its mineral hot springs that are visited by pilgrims after completing the prayer circuit around the base of Mount Kailash. We decided to use it as a base for exploring the remote villages of Kyunlung, a valley that had been carved out of the eroded stone by the steady flow of the Sutlej.
Outside Tirthapuri, the road quickly deteriorates as it descends into a narrow gorge lined by the river on one side and vertical cliffs on the other. When the valley widens, Bön Buddhist buildings etched into the hillsides begin to emerge into view. The tracks finally end at a terraced limestone formation that looks similar to Pamukkale in Turkey and, for a brief moment, it’s akin to being transported to another part of Asia – until the long line of ‘mani’ stones radiating outwards from the terraces appear and the geography reverts. Investigating each of these stones, they seemed to represent many different calligraphic forms but their message was mostly the same – “Om mani padme hum”, the six-syllabled mantra of Avalokiteshvara.
From Tirthapuri we drove the most direct route possible to the Tibetan side of Mount Everest, stopping only to view the holy peak of Shishapangma, the 14th highest mountain in the world which we observed from the shores of Lake Pelkhu Tso, an immense cobalt blue salt lake.
Rongbuk, the monastery of Chomolungma or Mount Everest, sits at a breathtaking altitude of 4,980 metres, or around 16,000 feet, at the foot of Tibet. We arrived here after deciding to take the back country route in from southern Tibet’s trading outpost at Lao Tingri and it turned out to be one of the toughest drives of the expedition, across large boulder-strewn riverbeds until reaching the main route in to Everest.
Eventually, upon rounding a corner, there it was, the north face of Everest glistening in the afternoon sun. Trekking to a small hillock in a biting wind chill of -10°C, we sat in awe of the world’s highest mountain, its summit licked by a swirling plume of lenticular cloud.
It was the penultimate day of the expedition and a fitting end to an exploratory journey of ancient prayer circuits, the ruins of forgotten palaces, washing our faces in the holy water of Lake Manasarovar and drinking yak butter tea with the nomadic tribal peoples of the world’s highest plateau.
Tibet changes all but the most resolute of souls. Travelling in the mind-blowing altitudes of the high plateau, you sometimes feel like life is passing by in a blur, but it’s not until you leave that oxygen breathes new life back into your brain and you can start to reflect on your journey with a sense of greater clarity and enlightenment.
How to get there
Where to stay
Given the remoteness of Himalaya, Tibet does not have very favourable accommodation options, but the lodging conditions in the country have been greatly improved in recent years due to the rapidly expanding tourism industry. As a consequence, a number of leading international hotel chains are now opening properties there, particularly in Lhasa, including InterContinental, Sheraton and Starwood.
Specialist Tour Operators
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