Paul Kan’s Asia Journal #19: July 5-17, Nepal & Tibet, Part III – Nepal and Tibet

July 5-17
Nepal & Tibet, Part III

A view from the Friendship Highway: Xegar ensconced in the Tibetan mountains.

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The Friendship Highway

The Friendship Highway
After three days in Lhasa acclimating to the altitude, we set off to cross the Himalayas on our way back to Kathmandu. Leaving Lhasa, the architecture, bikes, cars, traffic police, and highway signs gradually thinned out, replaced by peasant workers in green cultivated fields, tractors loaded with families, empty streams and river beds, and long stretches of dusty roads under deep blue skies. Gradually, the presence of imposed Chinese-styled order ceded to the vastness of the Tibetan landscape.

Over the next five days we drove over a predominantly barren landscape – vast fields of green dotted with yellow flowers, arrays of rugged mountains, dirt roads snaking up and down the sides of rocky ridges, damaged roads on manmade berms beside steep drop-offs (where parts of the road had fallen away leaving empty holes below), and sporadic road crews reinforcing those erosion and rockslide damaged areas. Most of the time, at least there was a road. But sometimes there were no real roads, just relatively negotiable and apropos paths with a minimum of scattered rocks.

Unlike other groups we saw, we were lucky that we only had one breakdown on our long trip, and an early one at that – a leak in one of the coolant hoses. So our first day, we sat around awhile until the engine cooled down and an impromptu fix had been made. It gave our behinds a nice break from the bumpy ride. Although most of the roads were relatively flat, all the little rocks and holes made my muscles sore from being generally battered about, and tired from bracing from all the bumps. Then there were the rockslides, the roads washed out by streams and waterfalls, and heavy Chinese government blue trucks barreling toward us around tight and curvy mountain passes. And this was summer. I could just imagine how things would be like during the winter, or in the spring thereafter.

At most of the mountain passes we crossed, we encountered groups of pilgrims in dusty worn clothing, their few belongings strapped onto shaggy thick-furred yaks. It was strange to see many of the pilgrims wearing suit-styled jackets, dusty from the rugged landscape, and looking (to me at least) thoroughly impractical. They would sit in big circles taking a break from their journeys with hot tea in big Chinese-styled thermoses. In the background, streamers full of frayed and colorful prayer flags hung from makeshift posts, looking like the remains of some used car lot. Mendicants and children would run to the windows of passing tourist buses, their weather worn, red sun-scarred faces turned upwards in plaintive supplication. Our driver smartly opted to stop just before such routine spots to be spared the inundations which plagued the large tourist buses.

Locals surround a tourist bus in the vicinity of the Karo-La Pass.

Every now and then, in the middle of vast stretches of green fields, barren landscapes, and rocky ridges, a little village would appear seemingly out of nowhere, and we would stop for lunch. Thankfully, the hotels along our route (the “friendship highway” across Tibet) were surprisingly comfortable, even in the middle of nowhere. In Gyantse, the hotel we stayed in had a mini-spa with pedicures and foot massages for the weary traveller – that was me. At least it was not too cold. In Zhongdian, when I had last been close to the Tibetan border, the heat was not working in our hotel, and there was limited hot water.

Occasionally along our journey we would stop to visit the local monastery. Visiting monasteries outside Lhasa was much more interesting than visiting tired yet popular Tibetan symbols like the Potala palace. The monasteries we visited were often like small enclosed villages of monks. And although their numbers had precipitously declined over the last half-century, they still had a vibrant and authentic feel – the purposeful swarms of monks and initiates piling out of an assembly hall, studying and meditating alone in quiet corners, using the neon colored China Telecom pay phones, and sometimes playing and teasing each other. In Drepung, I even saw one young initiate lost in concentration playing with a Chinese-styled electronic Gameboy. With the relatively modest current populations of the monasteries we visited, it was sometimes hard to imagine what some of these centers had been like at their peak – even Drepung, a small monastery just outside Lhasa, had once been home to over 10,000 monks.

Inside and outside the monasteries, pilgrims prostrated themselves in front of altars, lit yak butter candles, and quietly meditated. Each time I saw another pilgrim hard at prayer, or in the process of repeated prostration, I wondered what was going through their minds at that moment, what paths their lives had taken, and what lay before them now. Also, with all those pilgrims pouring yak butter into large ever-burning candles, it didn’t take too long to feel sick of the smell of yak butter. Our shoes became coated with layers of the stuff. And it was sometimes very slippery and a little precarious moving about and climbing rickety wooden stairs with all that wax on our shoes.

Also inside the monasteries, along darkened passageways or inside assembly halls, were often fascinating murals. One of the most interesting that I could see close up was a portrayal of the “wheel of life” in the Cave of Milarepa symbolizing the endlessly repeated cycles (samsara) of birth, misery, and death caused by karma, pictorially represented by six realms of rebirth (gods, demigods, humans, ghosts, hell, and animals) all held in the mouth of Yama, the Hindu God of Death. It strangely reminded me of Michaelangelo’s “Last Judgement” from the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.

A monk using the pay phone in front of the Tashilhunpo Monastery.

Nearing the end of our journey, and just after the turnoff for Everest base camp, the main group of Himalayas came into view. The beauty of the landscape there was breathtaking – vast green and yellow fields under purple snow capped mountains and the clearest deep blue skies. I wondered if the peasant farmers there were able to fully appreciate the beauty of their environs, while subjected and juxtaposed to the physical realities of their (no doubt) exhausting survival-based existence.

My only regrets were that (1) I wish we could have gone to Everest base camp (even though it would have taken a good 5 hours each way and there was not that much there anyway); and (2) I wish we could have had more time (perhaps a picnic?) in the shadows of the main Himalayan range to really soak in the beauty.

As it was, after a good 30 minutes of taking pictures and walking back and forth on the road to try and get better frames, the rest of my small group became anxious to get on our way. So after a few more shots, and an aching pain in my chest from the beauty of the moment, I ran back down the road to our Land Rover. In the rear window as we drove away, I kept my eyes fixed on the snow capped peaks for a small eternity, until we passed the next ridge of mountains, and proceeded toward the Tibet/Nepal border.

Other Travellers in Nepal & Tibet:

For tons more pictures of Paul’s time in Nepal and Tibet, and the rest of his Asia Journal, go to his web site.

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