There is no way we can get to Gyantse today – even four-wheel drive vehicles are having trouble getting through the mountains. It’s not worth the risk, and we would rather spend two days in Shigatse instead of one. So we piled in the truck to head back the way we came yesterday. I should mention that we haven’t showered in 3 days. This is no surprise to us – Kath is very good at managing our expectations. But we’re excited to get to Tibet’s second largest city because we know there will be running water!
Again we drove along the holy lake Yamdrok-Tso and climbed the mountain to get to Kamba-la Pass at 4794 meters. There aren’t many trees in this part of Tibet, so the views from the road are of rolling hills, mountains, and VERTICAL DROPS down from the road we’re on. You really haven’t driven until you’ve had to drive on these windy cliff-side roads up to 4700 meters. The roads are completely gravel and rock, very bumpy, and of course have no side rails. And when another vehicle comes from the opposite direction, HANG ON! But wow – the views were so incredible we quickly forgot any safety concerns.
The Group at Kamba-la Pass
From L to R: Kath, Lhasa, Mark, Laura, Sid, Heidi, Ken, John, Alex, Gabrielle, Lisa, Susan and Jon
Jon had bought some prayer cards in Lhasa a few days ago, which are hundreds of little pieces of rice paper with Tibetan prayers and drawings on them. They’re about 4 square inches and are made to be disposed of. So we took this opportunity to observe tradition and we threw them up in the air and watched them floating in the wind. They were four different colors: white, blue, yellow, and pink, and it was lovely to see our little mantras carried away by the breeze. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t offend our Catholic upbringing at all to do this – we need all the help we can get!
The drive today was quite long – about 7 hours. I finished my book Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer on the drive yesterday. So I entertained myself by alternating between reading a book we had on the bus called Buddha: A Beginner’s Guide and watching the stunning scenery. (Note to my UVA classmates: remember the book we had to painfully read before our First Year? Siddhartha? Well, that was the story of Buddha. I wonder how I forgot that. Probably blocked it out.)
Anyway, the Himalayas are so beautiful! Everywhere you look there’s another photo opportunity waiting to happen, and we often stopped the bus to get photos and stretch our legs.
On many of the smaller mountaintops, religious Tibetans have strung prayer flags of various colors and mantras from one peak to the other. Most of us have wondered, “I wonder how they get the other end on the other peak?” but we aren’t really concerned with it. It’s lovely to look and is a constant reminder of the peoples’ faith in their religion. There are also prayer flags on trees, on stupas, and also on trees on the roofs of houses. I don’t know how the trees grow on the roofs, but it’s still pretty to see.
Tibetan Sky Burial
At one point, we passed a very holy mountain for Tibetan sky burials. On the top of the ridge we could see many prayer flags and stupas. A sky burial is an ancient Tibetan tradition in which they dispose of the bodies of the dead. In Buddhism, the body has no significance since your “soul” moves onto another life. So when a body dies, the tradition is to cut the body up into pieces and to leave it on a mountaintop for the vultures and animals to feed on. It sounds a bit barbaric, but it actually serves a secondary purpose: to provide for the animals’ well-being is good karma. After all, one of the vultures could have been your Dad in a previous life. (No offense, Dad) And good karma follows you into your next life. Anyway, the Chinese government HATES this tradition, as do modern Tibetans. But it still happens and is considered very holy.
We got to Shigatse at around 6:30. Shigatse is at 3900 meters and is the second largest town in Tibet. It is also the seat of the Panchen Lama, who is traditionally based in Tashilhunpo Monastery. (The current Panchen Lama is quite a controversial subject now, because the Chinese government has named its own Panchen Lama rather than honoring the ancient Buddhist traditions of selection.)
We checked into our hotel – which I don’t know the name of – and SURPRISE!!! PRIVATE BATHROOMS! We were expecting to be in a guest house with shared baths, but this hotel is western-style. Such a nice treat after not having showered in 3 days.
We went to dinner in the Tibetan quarter of town (which is very small) and had dinner at a lovely Tibetan restaurant. Kath, our guide, is very big on avoiding the Chinese establishments and supporting the Tibetan-run places. This is great, because the Tibetan feel of this country is becoming less and less every year.
The Art of FAFFING
After dinner, I went back and SHOWERED!!! Jon went to the Internet Cafe so I had plenty of time to soak under the hot, hot water and “faff” (as Mark and Laura call it). Faffing, it seems, involves moving around aimlessly and doing things that really aren’t necessary to survival but are pleasant to the faffer. Faffing, for me, involves all sorts of silly bathroom things, and also re-arranging the backpack. I had a lovely time, and also got to update some of the travel journals which have suffered over the past week. Jon strolled in at 11:30 from the Internet Cafe, after I had all sorts of visions of him lost in Shigaste. But he was fine and faffed a bit himself before we turned in for the night.