Surely a drive across the Tibetan plateaus must count for one of the world’s most epic drives. Very sparse human habitation; too high for most plant life; and with just a few hardy animals you feel utterly alone at times. The dry plateau has a unique harsh beauty of its own with the strong sunlight catching the rocks, lichens and snow capped peaks. There are unexpected surprises too, like the fields of sand dunes near Saga, it looked like we had been transported to the Sahara. You never know what the weather will turn to even in the summer months and it’s so high it literally takes your breath away. Although the roads are now virtually all good tarmac, it still is one of the most truly epic drives we have done (and in the last 4 years we have done quite a few!)
The good dirt back road between near Tingri and Saga shaved a whole day of our itinerary. With such tight restrictions in place for travelling in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), it gave us a little more wiggle room. The police checks and restrictions still chaffed but in this area they are more used to foreigners, so less paranoid about making mistakes and getting reprimanded for them as they were on our way to Lhasa. Each police area seemed to apply the restrictions in different ways and to different degrees but thankfully our guide was very experienced and knew all the quirks of each of the local constabularies. He worked hard to get them to let us sleep in the truck, we still had to park in a hotel car park and register with them (after usually registering with the police directly) but most of the time we didn’t have to take a room. He came up absolutely trumps at Lake Manosavar, when he told us there would be no problems sleeping at the campground on the holy lake’s shore. It turned out to be one of our best camping places in Asia, as we slept completely out on our own below the prayer flags. As no one else fancied camping in the occasional snow shower when there was a guesthouse nearby in the village.
That evening we were snug and warm tucked up in the truck with big mugs of tea watching the failing light play on the distant mountains. Occasionally the odd pilgrim passed twirling a prayer wheel as they continued on their 110km kora (pilgrimage circuit) of the lake. As the evening cold moved in, we could see Indian Hindu pilgrims performing a puja further along the lakeshore, all dressed in matching coats. Views were stunning as the distant snow clouds periodically parted and we could see the ring of mountains around the lake. Holy Mount Kailash peeked its way through the surrounding clouds behind us.
After a peaceful night, we went to explore the small monastery perched upon a high hill, with temples clinging to the cliff sides, like a fairytale castle in a children’s storybook. Beside the monastery, on a hilltop with a view of Mount Kailash in the distance we came across a circle of prayer wheels. Underneath them were thousand upon thousand of mani stones, each carved with a mantra. Fluttering above were streams of prayer flags blowing in the strong breeze. All sending their prayers of compassion and peace out towards Mount Kailash and the world beyond. Ingeniously recycled marble slabs from old pool tables were inscribed with longer mantras and piles of inscribed yak skulls were perched on the top.
It’s not many places in the world that are holy to more than one religion but Mount Kailash is the home of Shiva and Parvati for Hindus; the abode of Demchok and others for Tibetan Buddhists; for the followers of the ancient Bön religion it is where their founder alighted from heaven; and the Jains believe it is where their saints enter nirvana. In fact legend spiritual texts have Kailash as the location of an epic battle between Buddhist and Bön deities, Buddhism won and therefore it became the dominant religion in Tibet. Four great rivers start here including the Indus; Brahmaputra; and even the river that feeds the Ganges.
Walking the kora (pilgrimage circuit) around Kailash is one of the world’s greatest pilgrimage routes. And all Tibetans want to do it at least once in their lifetime. In fact it is said that if you complete 108 Kailash Koras that you be released from the circle of life and death and reach nirvana. The high altitude circuit is 55km, most of the path around the mountain is above 4800m but climbs high over a 5630m pass around the mountain. Most Hindus and non-Buddhists do the walk over 3 days, sleeping in tents overnight. Most Tibetans complete the circuit in a day, starting before dawn and returning in the late evening, muttering mantras and praying all the way. For many devout Buddhists it isn’t good enough just to walk the route, they fully prostrate every third step, touching their foreheads to the ground. At such high altitude the weather is never predictable and even in the early summer we experienced rain, sleet, snow and sunshine. These people’s faith is astounding especially as many journey to Kailash from far away in the same manner.
Tempting as it was for Steve and I to attempt to walk the Kora, it would be too much for the girls so we settled for doing the first bit to take in some of the views and experience a little of it. Mind you hiking 18km at 4800m is very impressive when you are 8 and 11 years old, especially if you tell stories all the way.
Most of the Tibetans had left hours before us but we stopped at mani stone piles and prayer flags on the route. In a couple of weeks there is a huge religious ceremony at Kailash call Sewa Dawa and there was a big flat area covered with chortens, chimneys for burning juniper to create holy smoke and in the centre a huge decorated pole festooned with prayer flags. Here we caught up with several groups of prostrating pilgrims dressed in leather aprons, gloves and in some cases children’s slippers on their hands to protect themselves from the sharp stony ground. Not wanting to interrupt their devout progress we crept around them but amazingly they still had energy enough for a smile and “Tashi delek”, their faces lighting up when they saw our girls. It takes about 16 days circle Kailash this way, carrying everything they need with them. Carrying the stuff ahead then returning to their original spot to slowly make their way forward.
We had been warned about the presence of ferocious dogs with a taste for human flesh. After Lucy’s run in with the dog last week, I had armed myself with the best I could find at short notice in a land of no trees, an aluminium tent pole, much to Steve’s amusement. Above the ceremonial grounds is a sky burial site, where bodies are returned to nature. The flesh is cut off and fed to the local vultures, the bones are ground up and mixed with flour for the birds. In my mind, an eminently sensible solution to body disposal given that Tibet has few trees for cremation and the ground it also frozen solid. Given Tibetans holistic view and love of animals, I guess that it gives back to nature. Unfortunately it also attracts wild dogs, thankfully the only dogs we saw all day were relaxing at nomads tents.
The people of Tibet mostly still wear their traditional dress, it’s been a real delight to see all the different outfits and at Kailash we saw lots of regional differences. The ladies long wrap dresses with multiple layers underneath to guard against the cold, married ones top this with a stripy apron. Jewellery is very important with coral, turquoise, amber and silver being worn by both men and women. We saw ladies with the most amazingly decorated huge silver belt buckles in the Tsang region. Blessed amulets and talismans are worn close to the skin. Some Tibetan women, especially those from Amdo wear their hair in 108 braids. Khama men wear their hair in a braid with a red or black tassel, which they wind around their head. A friendly lorry driver let me take a photo of his smart braid. The men wear long sleeved coats lined with sheepskin, that they wear off one shoulder when it is hot. It is closed with a belt which creates a pouch at the front in which they seem to carry all manner of things. It’s when they pull out a smart phone, that you do a double take and realise you haven’t in fact gone back centuries in time.
We didn’t really get to see the best of the wild west town of Ali, the biggest town in western Tibet. Mostly Chinese, the whole town’s roads had been dug up for pipe works and the whole place seemed to be under construction. First we got to see the scruffy light industrial outskirts looking for a gas bottle, then we got to tour the whole town looking for a police station that registered foreigners. We had already checked in with the police on the way into town and the hotel where we were being made to stay in also had to register us with the police but between the two we needed to register again. At our fourth huge; brand new; completely empty police station we were told to wait…..the police were on their lunch break – at 2.45pm. Eventually our guide took all the documents back after 8pm, as without the registration stamp we couldn’t even leave town.
Surely I’m not the only one confused by this: a statue of Chairman Mao in the entrance of the fanciest Chinese supermarket in town; wearing a prayer scarf; fronted by a Tibetan alter piece; and a can of red bull as an offering???