Memories of visits to Tibet

Memories of visits to Tibet always fill my heart with longing. For many years I hoped to visit the east face of Everest where the Kangshung glacier reaches out beneath a sheer five thousand metre wall. I also carry with me the joy and respect for my hosts gained whilst living amongst Tibetan pilgrims who travel across the length and breadth of their country, keenly visiting various Buddhist shrines before they travel into the next life. I found the process of getting into the country quite an ordeal and subsequently realised that this experience was quite common amongst non-Chinese visitors. Firstly it is not an easy place to get to geographically or geopolitically. I last visited just prior to the completion of the train line that runs north and south from Golmud to Lhasa. Prior to this overland link the only option was to fly or go by road, either from Nepal to the south past Everest or from the east via provinces such as Yunnan or Sichuan. Ten years ago it was already clear that the majority of Chinese visitors were there as part of a vacation, expecting a version of Tibet easy to digest and providing suitable opportunities for recreation: sightseeing and shopping. I too had similar hopes, as you will see from the photos below, but first I had to get there! Getting an air ticket was not difficult. I initially stayed at a hotel in the Chinese city of Chengdu, in Sichuan, from where a tour operator booked me on to a non-existent scheduled trip as part of a group. I paid a ‘fee’ for this service, which took a couple of days to arrange, but once I got off the plane near Lhasa I was never asked where either my tour group or guide was during my entire stay in the country. Bear in mind that I was a resident in China, not a tourist, so my experience of gaining access to Tibet could have been different from other foreigners.

Since reading the cartoon novel ‘Tintin in Tibet’, as a child, I had long harboured a dream of following in Tintin’s footsteps. Looking out from the plane at the perfect icing-sugar white mountain ranges spreading as far as the horizon I could hardly believe that my dream was being fulfilled. Reality soon bit hard when, having caught an airport bus into Lhasa, I tried to retrieve my belongings only to find that my body could barely bear my own weight never mind my bulky luggage! The altitude, roughly 3650 metres or almost 12000 feet, hit me like a train and I barely made it to a Tibetan-run hostel where it took me 3 days to recover. (Talking of trains, the train that has been running to Lhasa for almost ten years now has created the world’s highest train station:

Once I had begun to recover somewhat I foolishly made my way, via a Tibetan pilgrim bus, to Ganden monastery, or joyful Victorious temple, where the Dalai Lama’s Yellow hat sits waiting for him to return, see below:

At 4300m this outpost soon produced another bout of dizziness and I began to feel this. Having taken a cursory look around I saw that the monastery was still recovering from cruel Chinese treatment since the Dalai Lama had fled half a century before. Although the buildings had been reconstructed, since wholesale destruction since the Chinese invasion, there were few monks now in evidence when there had at one time been many. I had the choice of staying overnight at a basic hostel catering for visiting Tibetan pilgrims or heading off for a snowy pass high above the buildings leading to the village of Hepu in an adjacent valley. As I made my way past a high cairn of stones marking the pass, and crowned with an imposingly large horned yak skull, three things happened: my dizziness increased, I stumbled on the track and then nearly fell over a thousand feet down a near vertical slope into the valley below. As an eagle had swooped swooped overhead I had followed the majestic bird instead of keeping my eyes on the track. I only recovered by jamming my trekking pole into a spiny bush and clinging on. I only just managed to scramble back onto the path as my pack, which had nearly pulled me to my death, was still weighing me down. I then noticed a spectator further along the path who must have witnessed the whole embarrassing episode. I would meet this person again the next day. It was getting dark as I trudged into Hepu.

I managed to avoid the attention of a huge Mastiff dog that was luckily prevented from mauling me by a long metal chain attached to the wall of a low stone building. The chain seemed to hum with the tension produced as the animal, snarling, bared its teeth, spraying saliva in an attempt to get at my throat. Later that night, having been bedded down in that house that the dog had been protecting, I looked out under a full moon. I could see an icy landscape made more spectral by the moonlight. Everything was frozen and I realized that I would have to sleep outside the next night at a higher altitude further along the trail.

I left some money before heading up an adjoining valley before daybreak the following morning. I had recovered from my dizziness probably because I had slept at a lower altitude than that over which I had passed the previous afternoon. Ideally one should do this for every day one is trekking, and not make a net gain of 300m daily, if one is to maintain an absence of altitude sickness. Because I had not observed this formula I had suffered when travelling to Ganden, having also not spent enough time initially acclimatising in Lhasa. As day broke I noticed the same figure who had watched my near demise the previous day. Were they following or leading? I had enough problems keeping my footing over the increasingly frozen ground for it seemed that the trail followed a stream uphill to Shegar La, a pass at 5200m and the stream had frozen over which I was travelling. By the time I had reached some meadows well beyond the pass it seemed churlish to ignore my shadow. As I made camp, preparing for one of the coldest nights of my life, my companion produced one of the largest aluminium kettles I had ever seen from within a large woven nylon sack they had been carrying by means of a thong strapped, Sherpa-like, from their forehead. He, for by now I assumed this short, long-haired Tibetan to be a man, then collected up large amounts of yak dung with which he made a fire upon which to boil his kettle. I had not taken any water whilst staying at Hepu owing to the manifest lack of sanitation in the village where I witnessed my host using a stream outside both as a toilet and a source of washing water! I therefore was relying on purification tablets with which to sanitize my drinking water which, now above any permanent settlement, I had been taking from snow melt. I was therefore excited by the prospect of drinking something other than the chlorinated liquid I had concocted. It was quickly apparent that my presumption that the tea produced by my shadow would be a welcome change was a false one. Although I have met other Westerners who enjoy Yak Butter Tea, I am not one of them. I did however partake in some Tsampa gruel which was offered along with the tea. If I slept at all that night I do not remember but dozing as I did in my miniscule Chinese trekking tent I was minded to keep my white astrakhan hat on lest my head might freeze in the dramatically sub-zero temperatures both within and without my shelter. The Chinese sleeping bag I had recently purchased barely did the job requiring me to keep on undergarments and waterproofs through the night inside. In the morning my shadow was up early, brewing another stinking, greasy sacrament. Soon we were off again and the weather seemed set fair. He was now actively guiding me over frozen ponds and puddles where I would have had to use my trekking pole to test the way before me without his assistance. He seemed to know which course to take although I am certain he had never been that way before or would go again, for this was a pilgrim route to the Samye Monastery, a beautiful spectacle to behold from high in the hills on a clear sunny day.

However, before I was to spy the golden roofs of Samye, we had to get down from the mountains. My guide, for that was what my shadow had become, seemed ever more animated the further we went. Without speaking Tibetan I had to rely on crude sign language punctuated by the occasional spoken “ta shee day lay” or hello, which is in fact a blessing on all around, not only on who you are addressing. As we came down from a second pass of 5100m the landscape began to change and we finally entered a forest populated by numerous species of tree and shrub including rhododendrons. Being suddenly enclosed after having views of vast vistas for days was spooky so you can imagine how I felt when we suddenly came upon what appeared to be a group of giant brigands, all wielding what appeared to be huge knives! Because I had no idea of the etiquette of such a gathering I allowed my guide to approach these gigantic men bedecked in red head sashes and of a ruddy complexion. As they talked I sat to one side and notice some of them sharpening their blades against what appeared to be smooth round river stones. After a while I approached the group gingerly and offered them my small, in comparison, French ‘Opinal’ knife which they took from me with great interest. I had deduced that this item represented something we had in common. As they inspected the blade, some by using their mouths, they laughed out loud then proceeded to sharpen the inox blade on a stone. Soon it was returned to me with proud smiles on behalf of the sharpeners for it had been quite blunt and was now like a razor blade. I later discovered that these men were itinerant ethnic Khampas, natives of the region of Kham ( ) straddling Eastern Tibet and Western Sichuan and Yunan in China. They were busy cutting wood and this was a well known haunt for such nomads to inhabit, if I had only done some research. I never had to sharpen the blade again, despite regular use, for many years afterwards.

My guide started to gesticulate later that evening just when I was anticipating a late arrival at Samye. I had no idea what he had in mind, even when we started up a steep track that had been cut into the valley wall and which finally led to Yamalung Hermitage. At the top we found various buildings and rough mediation platforms dotted about where nuns apparently spent their time in retreat. It was afternoon and the only other male present seemed to be an abbot who didn’t seem to mind me playing football with some of the nuns, shaven headed and red robed.

Come nightfall it was clear that we were spending the night and I was led into a room blazing with yak butter lamps and a golden altar. I was so tired that I soon dropped off to sleep only to be woken in the middle of the night by an angry abbot waving golden papers in my face and shouting in Tibetan. I pleaded exhausted ignorance and soon found myself locked in the room Until morning. Apparently I wasn’t the only visitor around this time for here is a photograph of the very room in which I was incarcerated taken a year or so after I passed through!

(Later, whilst rummaging amongst artefacts in Lhasa’s antique shops, I realised the Abbot had been waving antique Tibetan money at me!) The next day we arrived at Samye and I bade my guide farewell. Here is a photo I took of him standing with a nun at Yamalung hermitage in 2003. Behind them is the valley from whence we had come, from the north.

After another night in a pilgrim’s hostel at Samye I managed to smuggle myself on to a tourist bus which headed back to Lhasa at 4.00am the next morning.

I had no permit for this route and later discovered I’d had a very good chance of being arrested by Chinese guards at the various checkpoints along the way. Luckily my greasy white astrakhan hat made me look just like any other pilgrim wearing animal skins as I slid down into my seat over the bouncing back axel where no sane pilgrim would have chosen to ride for such a long journey. In this way I managed to avoid the perfunctory glances from lazy Chinese guards who momentarily gazed in my direction from the doorway beside the driver at the front when we were stopped at checkpoints along the way. I finally got back to Lhasa illegally but undetected.

Before I left Lhasa for the last time I concluded a three day haggle with a street vendor for this monastery meditation mat fragment:


The price I originally offered three days earlier was the price I finally paid after visiting the seller one last time. He was sitting on this rolled up relic in the street surrounded by spectacularly beautiful ancient metal horse tack, including stirrups, helmets and other artefacts strewn on the ground in the Tibetan part of town known as the Barkhor. He finally acquiesced when I told him I was on my way to the airport! He dropped his price from more then five times that of my offer.

Dominic Orr copyright 2017