19: Seven Days in Tibet
18 July 2002
We’ve had a tiring, but incredible seven days experiencing Tibetan villages, monasteries, spectacular scenery, and of course Everest. It’s been great to see the much-decreased Chinese influence outside of Lhasa, although this will change as soon as better roads and infrastructure are built to the more remote areas.
Driving up towards the city of Shigatse, we could see the golden rooftops of the Panchen Lama’s Tashilhunpo Monastery from many kilometers away. This is the largest functioning monastic institution in Tibet. The Panchen Lama’s situation is yet another sad Tibetan tale.
Upon the death of the 10th Panchen Lama in 1995, the Dalai Lama identified a young boy with traits of the reincarnated Panchen Lama. He was immediately put under Chinese house arrest, and remains there to this day. The Chinese government chose a second boy (the son of Communist Party members) as the “true” Panchen Lama. He is currently in China being educated by Chinese advisors, groomed to take on a future leadership role in Tibet. But despite all this, the monastery is timeless and beautiful, like much else in Tibet.
My favorite chapel contains the 26 meter-tall statue of Maitreya, the Future Buddha. You pass through a dingy entry wall painted with murals into the dark main room that’s lit only by candles. You peer around, trying to figure out what the heck you’re supposed to be looking at, until eventually you look up and see the beautiful blue-haired Buddha image serenely gazing down at you. Maitreya is sculpted with 300 kg of gold and studded with precious stones. His eyes are fierce, but he has a serene expression and delightfully chubby cheeks.
The other major sight of Tashilhunpo Monastery is the main assembly hall. When we arrived, it was bustling with life with approximately 150 monks going through a quite bizarre ritual. They were divided into three groups. In each group, two lines of monks sat facing each other. In the front of the two lines, one solitary monk sat there being alternately berated, shoved, and hit by another monk standing up between the two seated lines. Every so often, the two lines would unite in a jeering cry directed at the seated monk. We’re still not sure exactly what the deal is, but conjecture that the seated monk is being tempted by the others and he has to maintain his meditative cool. Anyway, it was exciting to watch and everyone (except the solitary seated monk) seemed to be having a great time, smiling and laughing their way through the ritual.
Each different monastery we visited had a distinctly different feel. In Sakya, a brutal bumpy drive off the main road, the Sakya Monastery looked like a forbidding fortress. Its main assembly hall was spectacular, with the walls lined by immense Buddhas. There is no electricity, so we peered through the darkness, trying to light up the images with a failing flashlight. It was deserted and we felt like explorers, making the first discovery of some ancient treasure trove. The other interesting chapel was Sakya’s Protector Chapel. We couldn’t persuade any of the monks to let us inside, but the outside door had a scary picture of the deity who decides if you are good or bad when you die. Above the doorway are hung dead stuffed bodies of various animals with vicious looks on their faces – wolves, wild dogs, owls, eagles. Perhaps it was best that we couldn’t go inside.
The last major monastery complex we visited was in Gyantse, which I think is my favorite Tibetan town. It’s quite small with dirt roads running through, but is set in a spectacular setting surrounded by a rushing river and fields of golden barley flowers. Towering over the town are two hills – one of which contains the walls of the monastery complex and the other the Gyantse Dzong (fort). Inside the monastery complex is a strange structure known as the Gyantse Kumbum. It is a circular chorten (stupa) building which rises up to six stories. Its 77 chapels are spread out over each floor and have exquisite murals and statues of deities and Buddhas in them. The roof rises into a gold coronet that shades 4 pairs of Buddha eyes that look out to the four directions. No one else was there when we were visiting, and it was extremely peaceful to wander through each chapel while admiring the view of Gyantse from the top of the Kumbum. Incidentally, “kumbum” means “10,000 images”.
All through these seven days, our home away from home has been a decrepit 18-year-old Land Cruiser that we’re sharing with Andrew and Dani, students of Chinese in Beijing. We’ve spent 5-8 hours each day driving to reach the various destinations along the Friendship Highway that links Lhasa to Kathmandu.
The road is barely there – a dirt track at best. Most of the ride is immensely bumpy, hot, and agonizingly dusty. And we had the slowest driver in the world. Every single vehicle except for horse-drawn wagons and tractors zoomed by us. But the scenery more than made up for the discomfort (or at least I say that now in retrospect). In the “lowlands” of 3,800 meters we could see golden barley fields stretching out to the horizon. We passed a beautiful turquoise lake that looked to be straight out of some Mediterranean land. As we climbed mountain passes higher and higher up towards Everest, the landscape became a stark moonscape. We were far above the tree line, so all we could see were dry mountain ranges chiseled out by the wind, some covered with tenuous lichen. Stark snow-covered peaks loom close and far as we drive along. The tops of many mountains are studded with ruined dzongs (forts), yet another remnant of the Chinese wars.
But it was all worth it as we headed towards Everest. We were somewhat nervous since we’d heard rumors of the road being washed out. When we reached the trouble spot, our jeep had to creep by a dirt cliff edge being worn away by a gushing river – we made it with inches to spare. As we drove up towards Everest Base Camp, it started to snow and fog enveloped the entire area.
Base Camp itself is nothing special – a couple of huge tents for sleeping and cooking. Right now it’s deserted because it’s too rainy for any of the “real” expeditions to climb, but for us, just existing in the 5,200 meter (17,000 feet) altitude was a feat in itself. We eagerly waited for the fog to clear, but never really got a good glimpse of Everest until the sun set and we could see her glowing white against the starscape. The next day, we woke at dawn to more disappointing mist. It was several hours later before we could finally view Everest (or “Qomolangma” as the locals call it) in her full glory. It was a beautiful day – bright blue sky with wispy white clouds. All I can say is that it was an incredible sight to see the craggy north face where so many had died. It looked like just a hop and a skip away to the top. I climbed a small hill covered with prayer flags and sat and stared at the mountain for hours. That brief exertion left me nauseous and panting, but Josh, ambitious as always, set off for a strenuous and spectacular hike for the next higher base camp and the Everest glacier. I was just content to sit and stare in awe at the highest mountain in the world. Even though Everest couldn’t care less about me, it feels like a truly significant experience to have seen her.
We’re back in Lhasa now. Unfortunately, we’re soon to leave the friendly Tibetans to venture back into China. We’ll fly on to Xi’an and the Terracotta Stone Soldiers next.