This account of my travels is undertaken in the same spirit with which I undertook the travels that it documents - enjoyment and personal growth. I hope to have a bit a fun and learn something.

It started as a blog (web log), but when I tried to use the blogging tools freely available on the web, I became frustrated. I took a different path and it became a web page (besides, it is time that Jill and I had a home page anyway). While chronological, it was written after the completion of the trip.

The contents are the images and observations that come from a month of traveling in Kathmandu and Tibet from September 2 until October 4, 2006.

It had been a few years since my last getaway, so with Jill’s encouragement, and with a leave of absence from my job, I decided to make Tibet my destination.

I had missed out on going to Tibet during the time that I spent in Asia in 1983-4. Tibet was closed to Westerners during the time that I was in China. Or so I thought.

I was in far western China (Kashkar) and traveled overland back to Beijing and on to Hong Kong, then flew to Bangkok, Burma, and on to Kathmandu - only to meet people who had just arrived from Lhasa. China had unexpectedly (and unbeknownst to me) opened Tibet. Bugger.

I didn't go from Kathmandu to Tibet then as I had this whole wonderful adventure in Nepal planned, but I have always wanted to catch up on that missed opportunity.

Another factor in the decision to visit Tibet was that in recent years I have undertaken some study, research and reading on Buddhist philosophy. There is no place in the world more Buddhist than Tibet. Tibet is the destination for many Buddhist pilgrims. In some ways I was one too.

One of the frustrating aspects of traveling is the inability to communicate with the people you meet. I did some study before arrival. One of the first Tibetan phrases I learned was “Ha ko ma song” which means “I don’t understand”.

This was to become my mantra (after all, every pilgrim needs a mantra). It was especially useful when exploring the countryside. In Tibet exploring inevitably means climbing at high altitudes. When climbing, one gets into a rhythm. For me this was “ha ko” inhaling as the left leg steps forward, “ma song” exhaling  while the right leg steps forward (try it, you’ll like it).

A mantra is meant to assist in the search for enlightenment. I know that there are those who would think “Om mani padme hum” (hail to the jewel in the lotus) more poetic, but, I like “ha ko ma song”. It tickles my twisted fancy to attempt enlightenment by endlessly chanting “I don’t understand”.

There were several times each day when Ha ko ma song was the only possible response. Not just when anyone said anything, but also when seeing some odd behavior, or when trying to understand why things came to be the way that things are. I will try to share Ha ko ma song moments with you as this account develops. These won’t always be things that are not understood. Sometimes they will be simply a traveler’s observations (think of Ho ko ma song not just as “I don’t understand” but also as “go figure” or “can you believe it” (I am sure that any editorial attention to this account would eliminate the parenthetical comments of which I am so fond (and sometimes nest), but I like them, so get used to it).

This account turned out to be a Lot (with a capital L) longer than I expected. You have been warned.

You can click on any picture for an enlargement (but even the enlargements are not full resolution, so, if for some reason you want the real thing, let me know). I have included some links to video clips that I captured along the way. These are big files, so if (like me) you have a slow connection, be prepared to be patient, or just don't go there. In the cases where the video was taken mostly to capture the sounds, I have included a link to the (much smaller) audio file.

Day 1

begins with an airplane breakfast served before landing in Bangkok (sea level), and continues with an airplane lunch served on the way to Kathmandu ((1300 m (4000 ft)) I scored a right side window seat – but the Himalayas were never visible.

Clearing customs was slow, but I was met and whisked into a waiting taxi (I think that I only paid 4 people to help me carry my bags). The ride into town was a shocker. I wasn’t expecting Kathmandu. It was pure chaos. The taxi ride from the airport was indescribable. Kathmandu was indescribable (not that that will stop me trying). I have never been so culture shocked in all my travels. Never.

It is hot and humid. It is filthy. The buildings are in ruins. The infrastructure barely works. The sidewalks are market stalls as people spread their wares. The streets are a constant jumble of taxis, rickshaws, motorbikes, pedestrians, cows, hand carts, beggars and Tiger Balm salesmen.

Kathmandu Beauty Parlor.JPG (286619 bytes)    Kathmandu street scene.JPG (286061 bytes)

Ha ko ma song – Why Tiger Balm? There are street vendors prowling the tourist districts. The most common products are daggers, wooden flutes, and Tiger Balm. I get the first 2, but Tiger Balm is available in every little grocery shop in town for a very small sum. Why pick it? (maybe it has really high margins?) Ha ko ma song.

The people are clean, friendly, and stylishly dressed.  Their environment seems to have no impact on them.  Everyone I dealt with was great. English is spoken everywhere, so you can talk and joke with people.

Kathmandu shop incense.JPG (269004 bytes)    Kathmandu flower shop.JPG (174068 bytes)

I did a walking tour of the city in the afternoon. More culture shock. Found the major temple district and my tour company’s office. Met Pradib, of whom more later.

Day 2

was one of exploring the city and doing a bit of shopping (including 2 pairs of black drawstring pants that came in handy all trip).

Kathmandu brass shop.JPG (291421 bytes)    Kathmandu Ladieswear shop.JPG (263939 bytes)

I contracted a guide for the tour of the temples in Durbar Square. The Kumari festival was just kicking off. Kumari is the living goddess. A 6 year old girl is selected by a panel that, according to the guide, makes measurements of every part of her body. She then lives in a palace and is tended by numerous servants. She is allowed to look out of veiled windows, but no outsider is allowed to see her. Except at the Kumari festival, during which she rides in a specially constructed carriage and is saluted by song, dance and the King of Nepal. All this was to take place the day after I left.

When Kumari begins to menstruate, she is out and the search for the perfect 6 year old begins anew. The old Kumari reverts to her former life and gets no other special attention or assistance. She is the ex-living goddess (poor thing).

Kathmandu kumari temple.JPG (292046 bytes)    Kathmandu kumari temple detail.JPG (412436 bytes)

Ha ko ma song - The Hindus don’t mess around when it comes to sexual imagery in their ceremonies. For the Kumari festival they had prepared a lingam (the penis of Shiva) that was as long as two telephone poles. They were preparing to erect it into a hole which was carefully fashioned to resemble a vagina. Next door is the Kama Sutra temple which is covered with erotic carvings so explicit that the nearby statue of Hanuman (the monkey god) wears a permanent mask so that he can’t see them (really). All this in a culture in which kissing can’t be shown in the movies, and is known for its conservative views on sex. Ha ko ma song.

Kathmandu kumari lingham.JPG (289693 bytes)    Kathmandu beatification.JPG (274610 bytes)

No story of my 3 days in Kathmandu would be complete without a few words about Pradip. He is a local 14 year old I met on my first waking tour. I was just getting fairly good at brushing off the Tiger Balm salesmen, when he asked “Where are you from” and I told him. I was slightly lost, and he helped me find my way to the tour company office. He was a likeable kid, so I asked him to guide me to the Durbar Square. As we chatted he told me that his favorite subject in school was Geography (“just ask me the capital of any country”), and that he wanted to be a computer engineer. In the end he guided me for a couple of hours, so, when we finished, I tried to give him some money. He wouldn’t take it. He told me that “Money makes you crazy”. At his suggestion I bought some milk powder (New Zealand milk powder, thank you) and sent it home to Mum and the little sisters. I also arranged for him to give me another tour the next day after school.

After school turned out to be 6pm or something. He suggested dinner at a restaurant in which a local dance exhibition was included. So, now I am out to dinner with a 14 year old boy on my second day in Asia. Not a good look. But, the dance show was pretty fun, and it was interesting chatting to the restaurant owner about the troubles in Nepal (as the place was mostly empty he had lots of time). Pradip is an interesting kid and I wish him well. After dinner I gave him taxi fare. He wanted my email address. I declined. I’m sure that he wasn’t out to fleece or spam me or anyone, but I didn’t want to get picked up for pedophilia (and I don’t like long goodbyes).

Day 3

included an excursion to 2 large stupas in Kathmandu valley. The first, Swayambhunath (the monkey temple), is on top of a hill walking distance from my hotel. The views are nice, the monkeys surprising polite, and the stupa, temple and prayer flags all in fine form. The vibe is slightly spoiled by the holy men trampling each other to bestow a tika (floral forehead smudge) and blessing upon the new arrivals (in exchange for an offering of course).

Kathmandu monkey temple 2.JPG (254996 bytes)    Kathmandu swayambunath.JPG (282915 bytes)

The second, Bodhath, is on the flat a taxi ride away. It is the home of a Tibetan community in exile, and a very pleasant place. On my flight to Lhasa the next day was a group of Tibetans who had just made a visit there to see friends and family.

Kathmandu buddha eyes.JPG (252755 bytes)    Kathmandu prayer flags.JPG (267769 bytes)

Here are some links to videos clips I took in Kathmandu. They were actually taken on my return to Kathmandu after visiting Tibet. I include them here as they may give you some inkling the aspects of Kathmandu that caused my culture shock (I will talk about the Dashain festival later, but note the festival dress and party atmosphere).

This one was taken by standing in a square and looking in all directions:

Tibet_videos_embedded/KathmanduSquare1.wmv (16 megabytes)

Then I went around the corner and perched on a kerb. It as like I was invisible:

Tibet_videos_embedded/KathmanduStreetShopping.wmv (11 megabytes)

Then on to the next square for another full circle - watch out for the sacred cow:

Tibet_videos_embedded/KathmanduSquare2.wmv (11 megabytes)

The highlight of

Day 4

was the flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa (3600 m (12000 ft)). I was assigned a left hand window seat without even asking, and had magnificent views of the Himalaya as we flew past (after all, at 30,000 ft the mountains are only a few thousand feet below).  We flew along the range until we passed Everest and then turned left around it to get a good look at the other side.

Everest from plane.JPG (258442 bytes)    Potala and me.JPG (238746 bytes)

My hotel is, 3 Star, Chinese run, and perfectly adequate. My own bathroom, Chinese TV (including the English language channel – CTV 9), 2 beds and a desk.  Scales are provided (during my stay I had 2 rooms and so 2 scales. The first always read 62kg. The second varied 3 kg either way as I leant forward and back. Who needs a diet. ).

I went out to the free dinner put on by the tour company (yak stew), and had a quick look around. The hotel is about 3 blocks from the Potala and an equal distance to the Jokhang temple and the center of the Tibetan quarter.

At the departure gates in Kathmandu there was a duty free shop with  a pretty good deal on a bottle of Scotch. I had just exactly enough remaining Nepali rupees to buy it. But as part of the planning for this trip I had thought that it might be good to have a more monk-like regimen (after all, when in Lhasa…). I could live clean and truly seek the enlightenment that Tibet promises. Or I could enjoy my travels in the usual decadent western way.

I had a wee dram after dinner.

Day 5

is the first full day in Lhasa. Chinese breakfast is provided. Most mornings this is 2 boiled eggs, white bread with marmalade, some nameless green veg from the warming tray, and a few cups of instant coffee with yaks’ milk.  The first morning I accidentally tried a duck’s egg (very salty and hard to peel).

Then down the road to the Potala (past the Chinese department store staff doing their group exercises before work). It is magnificent. The park across the street is large and mostly pleasant.  There is the huge plaza with the war memorial and flagpoles, but the rest is gardens, walkways and ponds.

Potala and chortens.JPG (227347 bytes)    Potala and reflection.JPG (227743 bytes)

Ha ko ma song – On the walk to the Potala I was accosted by a nicely dressed young Chinese girl. She had little English, but squeezed my arm, explained to me that she was a woman,  and mentioned 300 yuan ($US35). I said Ho ko ma song.  On the way back,  I was approached by a different girl. She had a lovely parasol and spoke pretty good English. After the usual first minute’s chit-chat (“Where are you from”), she told me that we should go to her apartment because she loved me. She mentioned 50 yuan ($US6). Maybe Lhasa is the city of love. All this before 11am on the main street on Wednesday morning. I should note that when I told this story to locals and other travelers, they were very surprised. In the 3 weeks I spent in Lhasa following this, I walked this short stretch many times and never saw even hint of this behavior again. So why me on my first morning? Ha ko ma song.

I was up early on

Day 6

to head down to the Jokhang gompa (gompa is Tibetan for temple) as morning is the time when it is most active. It was a wonderful scene as a mob of pilgrims made the clockwise walk through the streets around the temple (called a kora – all temples and monasteries have several concentric clockwise paths around them for the faithful to follow), and incense burners filled the air with sweet fragrant smoke.  The doorway of the Jokhang is jammed with people polishing the already smooth stones as they prostrate themselves and pray.

Jokhang smoke.JPG (248042 bytes)    Jokhang smoke closeup.JPG (222858 bytes)

Jokhang kora.JPG (239610 bytes)    Jokhang postrations.JPG (256398 bytes)

Tourists pay a 700 yuan ($US9) entry fee to the temple. This allows us direct entry to the inner chapels, while the Tibetans wait in long lines.

Ha ko ma song – The entry ticket that you get back for your 700 yuan is a little plastic card – like a credit card. It is actually a CD that can be played on a computer to shows scenes and information about the gompa in several languages. I have never seen anything like it anywhere. Not at museums, or shows, or anywhere in our modern hi-tech world. The place in the world with the highest tech tickets is the oldest, holiest temple in Lhasa. Ha ko ma song.

And what’s the deal with charging people to get into the temple and then giving them preferential treatment when they pay. Even such an unspiritual person as I think that you shouldn’t have to pay to enter a place of worship, and the doors should be equally open to all.

The Jokhang is fascinating. Very ornate and with many richly ornamented chapels. There are excellent views of Lhasa from the roof. The monks’ quarters are tidy and welcoming (with window sills crowded with flowers).

Jokhang chapel.JPG (352394 bytes)    Jokhang butter lamp.JPG (286393 bytes)

       Jokhang roof monks.JPG (247640 bytes)                 Jokhang roof ornament.JPG (233882 bytes)

Back out into the incense perfumed air for my kora. The Jokhang’s main kora is called the Barkhor circuit. It turns through a constant stream of shops and stalls selling everything the pilgrim or tourist could want or need (and a lot more besides). I stop half way for a Tibetan lesson  in exchange for lunch.

Barkhor shops bead jewelry.JPG (293840 bytes)    Barkhor shops knick knacks.JPG (303510 bytes)

Barkhor shops beads and boots.JPG (294494 bytes)    Barkhor shops rugs.JPG (306650 bytes)

I am starting to learn the logistics of getting around Tibet. You need to form or join a group of 3-4 travelers to hire a Landrover and driver. This is the only way to get the permits required. So, I post notices on the notice boards at a few local hotels with a proposed itinerary and dates.

Here is a video clip of the Barkhor pilgrims walking the kora (I see in this clip that many people are wearing surgical masks over their mouths to keep out the dust and grit. This wasn't uncommon, but wasn't as common as it appears to be from in clip).

Tibet_videos_embedded/BarkhorKora.wmv (11 megabytes)

Here is a short clip of pilgrims prostrating in front of the Jokhang

Tibet_videos_embedded/BarkhorProstrating.wmv (4 megabytes)

I made another early start on

Day 7.

It was off to the Potala to try to get on a tour. At 8:30 the tours for that day were sold out (it turns out that all tickets are sold the previous day). I was made to understand that I was to come back at 11:30am and sit in seat number 46 (with 46 written on my hand) of the long, fenced off bench that hugged the long wall leading up to the ticket office.

While waiting I walked the kora around the Potala, which winds through Lhasa city streets for the most part, but includes a nice stretch along a hillside with prayer flags and mani stones, and a cliff-side temple covered with carved and painted Buddhas and other icons.

Potala kora golden yak.JPG (245660 bytes)    Potala kora monks.JPG (259455 bytes)

Potala kora carvings.JPG (284243 bytes)    Potala kora mani stone.JPG (287461 bytes)

At 11:30 I was in seat 46 and after lots of confusion about whose seat was whose, the ticket office opened. I thought I was going to buy my ticket, but really I was just getting a reservation for a tour at a certain time tomorrow. So, with my ticket to get a ticket at 10:30 tomorrow I went to lunch.

Lunch was normally purchased in the Chinese supermarket next to the hotel and consumed in the room while watching the World News on CTV 9. Often it consisted of a deep fried chicken leg, a ripe mango, a packet of crackers and a Lhasa beer.

Ha ko ma song – Mangoes? I can’t figure out how they sell fresh, juicy, ripe mangoes in the supermarket for about 100 yuan ($US 1.20). The nearest mango tree is a very long way away. But they are there and they are tasty.  I’m not complaining. Ha ko ma song.

Visited the internet café to catch up on email. I wanted to connect with Jill and also check for responses to my notices.  There were some and I set up meetings. The computers at the café are a challenge for me as the keyboards have seen so much use that the keys are wiped clean. All of the keys for common letters are blank. The ‘z’ and the ‘q’ are fine, but the ‘etaoin” are gone. You would think I wouldn’t notice, but, sadly, I notice.

 Day 8

starts rainy, but no matter as I can sleep in until the Potala tour. The Potala Palace is magnificent. What we saw of the interior is what you would likely expect of a Tibetan Palace. It is very richly appointed, with old ornate chapels, very fine workmanship in the murals and statues, thrones and bedrooms of the Dalai Lama, and tombs of former Dalai Lamas. These tombs are solid gold stupas (one with 3700 kgs of gold) encrusted with jewels (including the “very rare pearl from the brain of an elephant” (really)). It is all a bit dark and a bit dingy, but it quite likely was that way when the Dalai Lama lived there too.

Potala tour stairs.JPG (246654 bytes)    Potala tour flowers.JPG (293489 bytes)

Ha ko ma song – Tombs of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is a reincarnated lineage. The Buddhists believe that nothing has essence and normally place no value on the body. But they have these fabulous tombs to former Dalai Lamas. Or, actually, to the former bodies of the Dalai Lama. Ho ko ma song.

The meetings with the proposed tour party have gone well and we plan to leave in a few days. Rob is Irish living in London, Mick is Australian living in Perth, WA, and Marny is a Kiwi living in Townsville, Qld. We will go for 5 days / 4 nights on the trip yet to be described. The cost for the car and driver will be 700 yuan ($US 90) each. This was all pretty easy to organize.

At lunch I had my first yak butter tea. This is the Tibetan staple and the guidebooks warn that it is awful (“brewed old socks and sump oil”). It wasn’t so bad (but not my cup of tea). A bit oily, but not awful. Nonetheless I will stick to sweet milk tea or Lhasa beer.

While opening the hotel windows I discovered I have a Potala view room (and I only need to lean out the window a little). Yakpo do (Tibetan for good).

I close my eyes early, and

Day 9

starts with a sleep in as I get about 12 hours sleep. This was a fairly common pattern with many long, deep sleeps. Not sure if this was altitude related, or just part of having busy days with quiet nights (and a wee dram). This is day 5 in Lhasa and I have suffered very little in the way of altitude effects.

I made an excursion to Drepung Monastery, about 10 km outside of Lhasa. This is a huge place that was home to about 10,000 monks in 1951 at the time of the Chinese takeover.  It now has perhaps 800, but is a nice place with a beautiful kora past rock carvings and a fresh water spring nestled into a quiet glen. There I met a lovely old Tibetan couple brewing their cuppa. The monastery itself is only partially reconstructed and I was able to find several chapels that still showed the damage done during the Cultural Revolution.

Drepung thousand buddhas.JPG (270340 bytes)    Drepung monks.JPG (270476 bytes)

       Drepung buddha.JPG (207035 bytes)               Drepung cuppa.JPG (263351 bytes)

Drepung monks closeup.JPG (207102 bytes)    Drepung pilgrims.JPG (270096 bytes)

Drepung distruction external.JPG (274738 bytes)    Drepung distruction.JPG (209174 bytes)

My lunch in the monastery restaurant was a nice noodle soup and a Lhasa beer.

thukpa.JPG (314825 bytes)    Drepung solar boiler.JPG (263660 bytes)

The pilgrim bus on the way back to town was jammed – and a significant number of the Tibetans were listening to their MP3 players and talking on their cell phones. Why not.

Ha ko ma song – Meat and beer. Every monastery that I visited had a restaurant and a shop. Every restaurant served meat. Every shop sold beer. These were not just for the guests, but also for the monks. I didn’t expect that a Buddhist monk would eat meat or drink  alcohol, but I was wrong. Ha ko ma song.

Ha ko ma song – Prayer flags. My experience is that some things simply demand to be photographed. They can not be resisted. Every sighting looks different and somehow more photogenic than the ones previously captured. I’m sure for some people this includes their first born child (but not necessarily the second or subsequent). Rod claimed that for him it was fruit and vegetables. For me subjects in this category include penguins and prayer flags. I have many photos of prayer flags, including several dozen from Drepung. Ok, they are colorful and fun, but why can’t I accept that I have enough photos of them? Ha ko ma song.

Drepung kora.JPG (361201 bytes)    potala kora prayer flags.JPG (299892 bytes)

Day 10

is spent getting organized for the departure of the Landrover trip the next day. This includes burning CDs as my camera memory cards are full (again), buying food and other supplies, and a photo tour of the local markets (including lots of photos of fruits and veggies!).

Lhasa market butter.JPG (338784 bytes)    Lhasa market sweets.JPG (338976 bytes)

Lhasa market view.JPG (349200 bytes)    Lhasa market veg.JPG (354497 bytes)

Lhasa market hardware.JPG (301510 bytes)    Lhasa market quilts.JPG (348972 bytes)

I also visited a hospital pharmacy in an attempt to buy some antibiotics (I had awakened with a minor sore throat and was trying to be prepared in case it got worse or developed into an ear infection (to which I am prone)). What a mission. But, in the end, the outstanding friendliness and patience of a number of the Chinese staff at the clinic led to success. I never took any, as my throat was fine when I awoke for the early start to

Day 11.

We met our driver/guide and set out for Ganden, a one hour drive from Lhasa.  Ganden is the home monastery of the main sect of Tibetan Buddhism (the one that includes the Dalai Lama). It was founded 700 years ago and sits in the cleft of a ridge in a rural area. The kora is a big climb into the hills along the ridge above the monastery. This was my first chance to walk in the Tibetan countryside. Also the first chance to do significant climbing (Ha ko – ma song). The climb was made much longer due to the road work that forced our Landrover to stop well below Ganden itself. Never mind, the climb was well worthwhile. Hard and slow, but worthwhile.

Ganden view.JPG (314824 bytes)    Ganden kora view.JPG (257420 bytes)

After this visit we carried on to Drigung monastery, our overnight destination.

Ha ko ma song – Buddhist philosophy vs. Buddhist religion. Along the way, perhaps 60 km from Lhasa, we passed a pilgrim prostrating himself along the main road. He was stretching out full length, then getting up, taking a few steps and repeating the process. He was clearly headed for the Potala and Jokhang.  The practice of Tibetan Buddhism is full of this sort of ritual (though this fellow had obviously taken it to the extreme). The temples are crowded with statues and icons to which the faithful pray and leave offerings. This is in direct contrast with my understanding of Buddhist philosophy. The philosophy would say that good karma comes from good works and that enlightenment can be achieved by following the eight-fold path. It wouldn’t indicate that the veneration of imagery or the practice of self-mortification was useful. Tibetan Buddhism has all the trappings of any other religion, full of ritual and symbolism. I knew this before going to Tibet, but I still find it very disappointing. I suppose I should know better. But the philosophy of Buddhism appeals to me, and I am disappointed to see it dragged down by religious practice that obscures and diminishes the teachings of the Buddha. Ha ko ma song.

Drigung is set on a hillside at 4200 m (almost 14000 ft), a few hours drive through the countryside from Ganden. The fields are full of ripe barley, and people harvesting it. We arrive fairly late, and immediately become the center of attention. Drigung clearly doesn’t get many western visitors as we acquire a crowd of watchers (who sometimes become touchers when they can’t resist the chance to prove that the hair on my arm is real). This is where the inability to communicate with people becomes most frustrating. We try to share photos and ask and answer questions with hand waving, but it doesn’t really work.

Marny greets me at sunrise on

Day 12

with the news that “It’s snowing”. About 2 inches of wet slushy snow has accumulated overnight, and big flakes are still drifting down.  We wander around the grounds through the fog and snow which give an eerie feeling to the still morning.

Drigung snow.JPG (240301 bytes)    Drigung snow dog.JPG (221787 bytes)

Drigung village.JPG (286636 bytes)    Drigung pool.JPG (301383 bytes)

When we return the monks are chanting over the bodies of several people who are being prepared for sky burial. Drigung is one of the holiest sky burial sites in Tibet. Sky burial is a Tibetan ritual in which the bodies of the deceased are chopped into pieces and the bones crushed and placed out for vultures to eat.

Ha ko ma song – Sky burial. I confess to a morbid fascination with sky burial. I know that I am not alone in this as signs prohibit visits to the sky burial sites (I ignored them), and the guidebooks warn against inappropriate intrusion into these ceremonies. We saw the bags and boxes holding the bodies and the monks chanting the final ritual prayers. They were then taken off to be placed on the sites were the birds expect to find them. Would I go and watch if I could? Something about this manner of dealing with the leftover meat is attractive and repulsive at the same time, when really it should be neither. As it happened, I saw the sky burial site, and a few vultures circling nearby. I never did fully resolve my feelings. Ha ko ma song.

Drigung sky burial 1.JPG (233768 bytes)    Drigung sky burial 2.JPG (233355 bytes)

Once the snow stopped and the day cleared, the accumulated snow melted quickly. We made an excursion to the nearby village of Tidrum, set in a narrow stream valley and built around a hot spring. Pilgrims come long distances to soak in the spring for its reputed curative properties. To me it was just a lovely hot soak on a cool afternoon.

Tidrum bath.JPG (260028 bytes)    Tidrum flowers.JPG (263703 bytes)

As Tibet is known as “The Land of Snows”, it was nice to have the snow this morning, and even better that the morning of

Day 13

saw a repeat performance. We had a long drive ahead of us to get to Reting, our next stop. We loaded up the car in the snow, and when the key was turned and nothing happened, we were a bit worried. Investigation showed that the battery cable had corroded completely through. A jury rigged bit of metalized chewing gum wrapper, wire and adhesive tape had us back on the road in a few minutes. This is completely typical of Tibetan (and most third world) travel. The standard of maintenance is low, but the ability to jury rig some solution is high.

The road to Reting hardly deserves the name (the picture below is of a good bit). It was mostly a vague track following the river valley. It was not shown on any map of Tibet. It was bone jarring and slow. But it did go through some attractive countryside, and past more local people out harvesting the barley crop. This was hard labor bent over with a hand sickle. Despite this, when we stopped to chat, they were friendly and joking with us, our driver and each other.  They laughed (deservedly) at our attempts to cut the grain. What a jolly crew.

Harvest workers with sheaves.JPG (362588 bytes)    Harvest sheaves.JPG (283778 bytes)

Harvest portrait of girl 1.JPG (354019 bytes)    Harvest portrait of woman 1.JPG (334299 bytes)

Harvest portrait of boy.JPG (310563 bytes)    Harvest portrait of man.JPG (336320 bytes)

Harvest protrait of girl 2.JPG (254642 bytes)    Harvest road.JPG (215424 bytes)

We stopped along the way for lunch. It is so helpful that the signs have pictures of food on them so you can pick the restaurants, otherwise it would be hopeless. Ordering means going into the kitchen and pointing (except for beer, we all know the word for beer).

Reting is even more remote than Drigung (and more primitive). We are concerned that the howling dog chained in the courtyard might be rabid. And more concerned when it is let loose (keep some rocks and a stick handy). Reting is in the trees. This is rare and striking in Tibet where most of the country is open and treeless. This is a beautiful forest of gnarled old spruces (yakpo du).

The villages here are busy with harvest too. The children are out helping, but also busy playing with toys, including compact disks (CDs), which are shiny and fun to throw and sail.

Reting rainbow.JPG (191019 bytes)    Reting monastery view.JPG (279805 bytes)

Ha ko ma song - Western culture is everywhere. Reting is very remote. We attracted quite a crowd. But the kids wore their baseball caps sideways and played up for the camera with the same gestures we use in the west. How do they get exposed to this stuff, and why is it so damned appealing? Ha ko ma song.

Reting boys.JPG (228546 bytes)    Reting family.JPG (219545 bytes)

Ha ko ma song - I rested on a chorten to watch the evening. A number of people began arriving at the clearing in front of the monastery on motorbikes – mostly couples.  Eventually 20-25 people assembled, chatting and visiting. Then, the women separated and walked down the road to the nunnery about a mile away. So, I am certain that a group of women staying at the nunnery (and dressed suspiciously like nuns) was dropped off by men on motorbikes at sunset. Passed that I cannot say. Ha ko ma song.

The destination for

Day 14

is Nam Tso. Tso is Tibetan for Lake and Nam Lake is the second largest and the second holiest in Tibet (the largest lake is not the holiest).

Nam Tso lake view.JPG (207193 bytes)    Nam Tso yak horns.JPG (235632 bytes)

Getting there is more really rough road until we finally emerge onto the Qinghai - Tibet Highway. Then a smooth ride from there as we parallel the tracks for the new Beijing-Lhasa train, eat a nice lunch, climb the highest pass yet climbed (Largen-la (la is Tibetan for pass) (5150 m (17000 ft))), and descend through the nomad encampments to the tent city on the lakeshore (4700 m (15500 ft)). The stop at the pass is a confusion of buses, Chinese tourists, Chinese tourists getting photographed with picture postcard yaks, incredible views and prayers flags.

Mick says that the Chinese are the Americans of Asia. His view has merit. For one thing the Chinese tourists are stereotypically loud, pushy, and insensitive – the Ugly Chinese. Hopefully as more Chinese see more of the world, this will fade away (as it has for the Ugly American to some extent).

I knew that Tibet is in China, but I didn’t expect to feel so much like I was in China. There were the Chinese tourists and locals. And, by watching CTV 9, I saw the broadcast view of China that the Chinese want to visitors to see. It is an interesting mix of defensive and smug.

The lake is backed by cliffs that are riddled with caves and clefts. Over the years hermits have come and built meditation caves (I just accidentally typed meditation cafés – an interesting market niche perhaps?) in the cliff.

Nam Tso meditation cave interior.JPG (368769 bytes)    Nam Tso meditation cave exterior.JPG (295266 bytes)

There aren’t many people about, perhaps because the weather is brooding and cold. On one side the sun shines while from the other side a huge stormfront approaches across the lake. We reach our comfortable tent just as the hail hits.

Nam Tso dorm room.JPG (348373 bytes)    Nam Tso prayer flags.JPG (252657 bytes)

I have a restless night. This is normal for the first night at altitude (many people find it hard to sleep when they are high).  We awake to a foggy snowy start to

Day 15.

The menu at breakfast is classic Chinglish. I order “the tomato fries the egg”.

Ha ko ma song – Chinglish. The Chinese seem to think that any English is good English. Surely it can’t be that hard to get it right. Misspelling is one thing, but some signs and packaging are just gibberish. Ha ko ma song.

We are headed back to Lhasa via Tsurphu Monastery (nice murals and the worst road yet). Along the way we visit a working flour mill (powered by a diverted creek).  We did 800 km total. Hot shower. A wee dram. Start to think that I might write a blog.

Tsurphu protector.JPG (366814 bytes)    Tsurphu wheel of life.JPG (365063 bytes)

Days 16 and 17

were rest days in Lhasa, the first 2 of 5 days in Lhasa before heading out on the overland trip to the Nepal border. I took my dirty clothes to the local laundry. It came back 2 pairs of socks short. I was told that they would be coming in the next load and I should come back tomorrow. I did. No socks (“Come back later”). It got to be a bit of a game. The laundry was on the way to/from town, so I called in daily. The lady would hide when she saw me. Eventually she took me to see her manager. I suggested 20 yuan for the socks. She insisted on giving me 30 ($US 4).

The weather is beautiful and settled. I spend the days exploring the city and enjoying being on holiday. On

Day 18

I visited Sera Monastery, only 5 km from the hotel on the hillside above Lhasa. This was my favorite monastery visit. Sera has a nice kora with great views of the city and river valley. It is very active with many monks in residence,  chanting in the morning and debating in the afternoon. The murals and iconography are new but well done.

Sera detail with bird.JPG (280483 bytes)    Sera detail circle.JPG (286769 bytes)

Sera potala view.JPG (183627 bytes)    Sera buddha.JPG (372591 bytes)

Sera horns.JPG (381332 bytes)    Sera mural detail.JPG (447346 bytes)

The debating was attended by several busloads of tourists who arrived late in the afternoon as it started. I definitely got the impression that the monks were putting on a bit of a show for the crowds (and why not). But, I later (at Sakya) saw other debates for which I was the only spectator. They were identical.

Here are video and audio clips of the monks chanting at morning assembly:

Tibet_videos_embedded/SeraChanting.wmv (video - 18 megabytes)

Tibet_videos_embedded/SeraChanting.wma (audio 380 kilobytes)

Here is a video of the afternoon debating:

Tibet_videos_embedded/SeraDebating.wmv (17 megabytes)

Days 19 and 20

Were my last 2 days in Lhasa. More exploring, resting and shopping. I burned 2 more CDs from my full camera memory cards. My budget for memory use was way off, but luckily I was able to get CDs burned and then clear and reuse the cards. This is my first trip with a digital camera. Overall I am pleased with the results. I brought back 5 or 6 times as many photos as I would have with film, and I’ll bet I deleted on the camera a third to a half of all the ones I took.

At dinner an Asian fellow walked into the restaurant. All the tables were full, so we asked him to sit with us. He was a Korean-American from Framingham, Massachusetts, who just graduated from CalTech (Page House mathematician). This is an odd coincidence, but not why I mention him. It was striking to see how differently he was treated by the Tibetan staff of the restaurant. They had laughed and joked with us, but were quite short with him. Until they found out that he wasn’t Chinese. Then it all changed to smiles.

It is clear that the Tibetan people resent the rule of China. I can see why. Tibet is effectively a colony of China, and Tibetans are suffering the ills common to many colonized people.

Knowing about changes since the Chinese takeover, I went to Tibet expecting to be very anti-Chinese. My attitude softened initially as I saw the positive side of modernization, and also saw religious freedom, lots of building and rebuilding, and mostly happy people. Besides, a theocracy (even one led by the Dalai Lama) doesn’t sound the perfect alternative. Tibet suffered in The Great Leap Forward (millions starved) and the Cultural Revolution (widespread destruction and desecration), but all of China suffered in these. Worse is that in the last few years there has been mass migration of Chinese to Tibet. Lhasa, Shigatse and some provincial centers are now growing Chinese cities with old Tibetan quarters. All of the jobs created by the economic growth are filled by the new arrivals. Getting tickets on the train to Beijing from Lhasa is easy, while there is a waiting list coming the other way as immigrants move in. The opportunity for local people is severely limited. I was told by my guide that there was a growing problem with crime and drunkenness (though I saw no hint of either). Times will be hard for some time I fear. About the only ray of sunshine I can suggest is that I consider it to be likely (or at least possible) that as China grows up in the world, it will moderate its tight controls on Tibet (as it does the same on the Chinese people).

Potala flag.JPG (439152 bytes)    Lhasa signs.JPG (426974 bytes)

I revisited my favorite haunts, wandered again around the Barkhor, and hung out. I was especially pleased when an old woman sat down next to me and stuck her tongue out at me. The guidebook had mentioned that this is a sign of respect, so I stuck my tongue out at her, and we both smiled.

Day 21

was the first of an 11 day Landrover trip to the Nepal border. I had my very own Landrover, a driver (Yunden (33 years old)) and a guide (Tseden (22)). Tseden was useless as a guide (I asked him a few questions for which I knew the answer, and he got them wrong). But at least his English was passable so I could use him to translate (and learn more Tibetan myself). Yunden was great, understanding much more than he let on I’m sure. I hadn’t expected to get both a driver and a guide. Let the expedition begin.

First stop was Mindroling, an ordinary gompa but quite a nice village. Then onto a ferry across the Bramhaputra river (Yarlung Tsampo in Tibetan, a huge river than runs eastward on the north side of the Himalaya before dropping through gorges to empty into Bangladesh.) 

Mindroling boy with butter lamps.JPG (245287 bytes)    Mindroling pigs.JPG (283395 bytes)

     Mindroling woman winnowing.JPG (269681 bytes)                 Mindroling village courtyard.JPG (238057 bytes)

Ha ko ma song – sheep dogs. Tibet has many sheep and many dogs, but no sheep dogs. Often I saw people herding sheep (and goats, and cows, and more…) by hand. I know from experience that a good dog makes this much easier (my experience is from the dog’s point of view when Jill calls “Get in behind”).  The dogs in Tibet mostly seem to lie about during the day and scrap during the night. They are guard dogs (I guess), but why not have sheepdogs too? By the way, Tseden and Yunden assured me that they knew all about sheep dogs, after all, they had both seen the movie Babe. Ha ko ma song.

The ferry dropped us on the opposite shore where an uncomfortable half hour in the back of a truck got us to Samye.

Ferry across Brahmaputra.JPG (319450 bytes)    Ferry boatman snooze.JPG (317753 bytes)

Samye is the oldest monastery in Tibet, built in 700AD by Guru Rimpoche, the man who brought Buddhism to Tibet. When he started to build it, every night the demons came and knocked it down. A nearby hill, Hepo-ri (ri is hill in Tibetan), was the site of the great battle in which he destroyed the demons and thus allowed the gompas to be built. It is a very holy place to Buddhists. While there, I met pilgrims from Bhutan and from Nagchu (on the high plateau of northern Tibet).

Samye view.JPG (371965 bytes)    Samye monk flowers.JPG (387479 bytes)

Samye protector.JPG (381096 bytes)    Samye kitchen.JPG (382920 bytes)

I spent the evening atop Hepo-ri and the various pilgrim groups all joined together for chanting and prayers. They had brought 2 inch square colored paper sheets printed with prayers (called “wind horses” by the Tibetans). They are like prayer confetti and scatter when thrown off the ridges in the wind. I enjoyed the show. Ningimo du (Tibetan for beautiful).

Samye butanese group.JPG (388335 bytes)    Samye incense.JPG (333151 bytes)

I had 2 nights at Samye, so

Day 22

was spent there. The monastery is big and busy the town is just outside the gate, so there is plenty to see and do.

Ha ko ma song – the black door. In a corner of Samye is a temple that had been the home of the oracle. There is a similarity to most monasteries and temples, but I never saw another like this one. There was a monkey on a leash in the courtyard (remember that the nearest wild monkeys are 1000 miles away). The side doors were decorated with skulls and skeletons, the main door small and black. It was locked, but had a small slit. You could see nothing through the slit. From behind the door came chanting, gongs and drums. The whole scene was very eerie, even in daylight.  On the door were pasted photographs. The photos looked like people’s graduation and holiday snapshots, all smiles (really). They looked like they belonged on someone’s refrigerator. What they were doing on the door to the demon temple? Ha ko ma song.

Samye demon doors.JPG (380129 bytes)    Samye mud roof workers.JPG (343626 bytes)

The monastery and the entire surrounding village were under construction (exploring, you might imagine that local wealth is measured by the size of the pile of rocks in the front yard). The construction is manual labor. I watched a group putting a roof on a new building. The roof was packed mud, so 1 person used a hose to turn dirt into mud, 2 people shoveled the mud into flour sacks used by 2 teams of 2 people per sack as slings, they tossed the mud up to roof level where 3 or 4 people caught (some of) it, spread it, and packed it down with long square bottomed poles used as stampers.

We ride the ferry back to the waiting car to start

Day 23.

The day is spent in the Yarlung valley, which is the home of the castles and tombs of the first kings of Tibet. These date from before 700AD when Tibetan kings ruled a large area of central Asia, including most of western China (as far east as Xian).

The tombs and the reconstructed “oldest building in Tibet” were vaguely interesting, but the best part of the day was the time spent climbing (Ha ko – ma song) around the gompa, ruins and village across the valley. One of my great pleasures in Tibet was the time taken to climb around the hillsides when walking koras or exploring ruins. This walk was above and through Chongye village, which was hard at work bringing in the harvest.

        Yarlung prayer flags.JPG (380287 bytes)                        Wind horses.JPG (252125 bytes)

Yarlung Chongye view.JPG (307899 bytes)    Yarlung field view.JPG (253741 bytes)

Yarlung monastery from ruins.JPG (243792 bytes)    Yarlung dzong runis.JPG (222071 bytes)

Ha ko ma song – I was hungry after the walk as it was well after noon. I suggested a likely looking local restaurant. I was told that we couldn’t eat there, or at any other restaurant in the area. We could only eat in the hotel restaurant (15 km away). I thought this was crazy as we had been eating in local restaurants everywhere. I was told that in this area people might try to poison us. Poison us, why? Because they think that if they poison us they will get rich (really). I never got a reason why they believed this. But, we drove back to the hotel for lunch (which was relatively pricey but quite nice). Ha ko ma song.

We stayed that night in the provincial center of Tsedang, which didn’t feel at all Tibetan. The hotel was in the Chinese part of the city and I saw few Tibetans. Still it was fun exploring the area. The Chinese live on the street. Shop fronts are rollup garage doors which seem to be open all hours. The people play ma jong, cards, and Chinese chess (I never saw a game of Chinese checkers). There is a buzz and energy as people go about their business. Ten shops in a row might include a restaurant (probably 2), a pharmacy, a beauty parlor, a motorbike repair shop, a grocery, a watch shop, a dentist, a pet shop and a brothel. Everything is all mashed together and wandering the streets is a full-on sensory assault.

While driving on

Day 24

Tseden told me that he had received a visit from the tourist police the previous night.  They wanted to know why he had let me wander alone around the hillside (he had tried to stop me at the time, but I wouldn’t be stopped). He told them that he was sorry, that he was a new guide, and that he would try to do better. What nonsense.

This was a very full day of driving as we detoured to the top of the Kampa-la. This 5000 m pass would have been our normal route to Gyantse, our destination, but the next pass (Kong-la also 5000 m) was closed for roadwork. Yunden and Tseden grumbled a bit, but I forced them to take me to the top of Kampa-la for the views of Yamdrok Tso. This was a huge climb up a new road. Along the way we passed a group of mountain bikers. Good on them. The road climbs more than  1400 m in 25 km – starting from 3600 m. I’ll take the Landrover, thanks.

Yamdrok Tso.JPG (236221 bytes)    Yak.JPG (386593 bytes)

We went back down and around and over the Yung-la (also about 5000 m) on a rough dirt track to Gyantse.

Ha ko ma song – Yaks. Yaks do everything in Tibet. They get ridden, pull plows, get milked, get eaten, and provide fuel for the fire. Can it be a coincidence that the Tibetan world for good is yakpo – which sounds a lot like yak poo? Ha ko ma song.

A large dzong (dzong is Tibetan for fort) dominates Gyantse from the top of the hill in the center of town. The views from the top show the new Chinese city taking over. In the dzong is a really tacky museum showing the treatment of the oppressed serfs by the Tibetan lords before they were freed by the glorious Motherland.

Ha ko ma song – this museum. If the Chinese want us to believe this propaganda, they could at least be slightly subtle and they could also spend more than $10 on the displays. As it is, they can’t really think that anyone takes it seriously, so why bother. Ha ko ma song.

Gyantse dzong.JPG (262659 bytes)    Gyantse Museum.JPG (408567 bytes)

The evening exploring the town and surrounding fields was especially enjoyable.

Gyantse shop.JPG (415082 bytes)    Gyantse schoolboys.JPG (332673 bytes)

Gyantse threshing with ponies.JPG (260577 bytes)    Gyantse threshing with rakes.JPG (343372 bytes)

Gyantse portrait of man.JPG (255270 bytes)    Gyantse portrait of woman.JPG (258137 bytes)

I would have liked to spend more time here, but after breakfast on

Day 25

and a quick tour of the gompa and chorten, Tseden told me that Cham dancing was happening at Shigatse, our next stop. So, we left Gyantse earlier than planned to make the most of this chance.

Gyantse chorten from dzong.JPG (285721 bytes)    Gyantse flowers by gompa.JPG (446808 bytes)

Gyantse flowers by chorten.JPG (410745 bytes)    Gyantse buddha eyes.JPG (386634 bytes)

Yak Herders on road.JPG (236505 bytes)    Yak Herders portrait.JPG (233340 bytes)

Cham dancing is performed over several days at various festivals. It is highly ritualized, featuring colorful costumes and masked dancers. I discovered that it is also dead boring. The pace is glacial. I stood for hours to try to get a decent view (space was limited as the locals had arrived early and were seated all around the courtyard). The dancing occurred in short skits, some of which had a few costumed dancers. All of them featured long speeches and lots of standing around. That, combined with long gaps between skits, left lots of time for people watching.

The locals were out in force and seemed to be enjoying the party. They had come well prepared with seats and picnics, and chatted and chewed the fat (actually they both chewed and drank the fat as the main snacks were the Tibetan staples of tsampa and yak butter tea. Tsampa is barley flour mixed with yak butter and hot water into a kind of dough that is eaten in little balls. I tried some. Not my cup of gruel).

Cham snow leopards.JPG (352275 bytes)    Cham masked dancers.JPG (382452 bytes)

Cham monks on stage.JPG (368042 bytes)    Cham monks by door.JPG (394183 bytes)

Cham crowd.JPG (429884 bytes)    Tibetan.JPG (214082 bytes)

Here is a short video clip of the Cham dancing:

Tibet_videos_embedded/ChamDancing.wmv (5 megabytes)

The 2 days in Shigatse were not a highlight. The Cham was ordinary, as was Tashilhumpo, the main monastery. This is the traditional home of the Panchen Lama, (second in holiness to the Dalai Lama. The current Panchen Lama is a 12 year old kept by the Chinese in Beijing). The city itself lacked interest, too. Perhaps my attitude was colored by the fact that the night before

Day 26

was really crappy. Literally. So crappy that in the morning I called into a pharmacy/clinic to see if I had a temperature. I didn’t. But since I was there (and with the assistance of a friendly English speaking waiter from the restaurant next-door) I decided to see what medicines might be on offer. I declined the offer of an injection and purchased some capsules. I took them and improved rapidly (to standard traveling crappiness). Whether this was because of the capsules, despite them, or independent of them, I’m not sure.

I had more CDs burned. While waiting I finished the 1.5 liter water bottle I had purchased. I felt guilty, but discarded the empty plastic bottle on the sidewalk. I needn’t have worried as within 30 seconds it had been spotted and re-cycled by a local.

Day 27

started with a quick trip down the road to Sakya, the home of one of the 5 sects of Tibetan Buddhism. In this sect the monks are allowed to marry, and the succession from Lama to Lama is not by reincarnation, but by heredity. Tseden told me that all Sakya Lamas have only sons (really).  There were big crews working on restoration of the gompa. We heard them singing as we toured the place. Tseden says that Tibetan tradition has it that if you don’t sing while working, the finished result will be poor. Whistle while you work.

Sakya courtyard.JPG (418127 bytes)    Sakya monk.JPG (264188 bytes)

        Sakya lama family.JPG (354858 bytes)                        Sakya portrait of girl.JPG (293013 bytes)

Here is a video clip of the people singing while they work:

Tibet_videos_embedded/SakyaPeopleWorking.wmv (5 megabytes)

On the hillside across the river are ruins and gompas to explore. Good fun. Then back to the hotel roof for the sunset.

Sakya chortens.JPG (278906 bytes)    Sakya sunset.JPG (166889 bytes)

Ha ko ma song – rooftops. Most of the hotels had easy access to the roof, and nice views, but never chairs. It wasn’t possible to relax in the sun and read or write or just enjoy the view. OK, chairs were not common anywhere in Tibet as the locals often sit cross-legged on pillows or benches. But even these were absent on roofs. It was concrete walls or nothing. Ha ko ma song.

Here are video and audio clips taken in a nunnery on this hillside of the nuns chanting. The video shows the major statue in the assembly hall as it was too dark to capture the nuns:

Tibet_videos_embedded/SakyaNunsChanting.wmv (video - 5 megabytes)

Tibet_videos_embedded/SakyaNunsChanting.wma (audio - 100 kilobytes)

Here is another debating video clip:

Tibet_videos_embedded/SakyaDebating.wmv (12 megabytes)

I had been anticipating

Day 28

since the start of organizing the trip, as it ended at Rongphu Monastery, 8 km from Everest base camp. Getting there was a full day drive over 2 5000+ m passes. The views just kept getting better and better.  The view from Rongphu was spectacular. The north face of Everest (Chomolangma in Tibetan) rises at the end of the valley. We are at 5200 m (17000 ft), but the summit is more than 3600 m (12000 ft) above us and the wall that is the north face drops almost that full height. The scale is stupendous.

Everest approaching.JPG (193350 bytes)    Everest sign.JPG (282767 bytes)

Rongphu chorten.JPG (267069 bytes)    Rongphu north face.JPG (216990 bytes)

Rongphu north face sunset.JPG (239166 bytes)    Rongphu and me.JPG (389979 bytes)

Rongphu is the end of the line for the Landrover, so a pony cart ride to base camp itself starts

Day 29.

We stop along the way at a small gompa. There are 2 monks in residence here and another group’s guide has brought an offering (he was guiding a group of Portuguese with whom I became friendly. We met in several cities as it seemed that we were on the same itinerary).

Rongphu pony carts.JPG (386482 bytes)    Rongphu north face closeup.JPG (221092 bytes)

Rongphu gompa.JPG (255902 bytes)    Rongphu guru rimpoche.JPG (396439 bytes)

Rongphu meditation caves.JPG (388489 bytes)    Rongphu blue sheep.JPG (224664 bytes)

We are shown into a small chapel with a trapdoor in the floor. Through this entry is a small meditation cave. Guru Rimpoche (the man who brought Buddhism to Tibet) once spent 30 days and nights here.

Ha ko ma song – meditation caves at Rongphu. In the vicinity of this gompa were ruins of many meditation cells. These are stone rooms in which hermits came to be sealed inside. Only a slit was left so that their supporters could pass them food. Sealing oneself in a small cell for years at a time seems sufficient preparation for deep thinking.  I don’t get why it helps for the cell to be in full view of Chomolangma in the cold thin air of 5200 m. Ha ko ma song.

The commercial base camp is a row of dormitory tents and restaurants. There are various monuments to climbers who never returned, and tourist police patrolling to insure that no one goes too far. From here it is relatively easy walking (albeit on the glacier) to advance base camps up to almost 6000 m. But, you must have permits costing $US200/day to venture further. I saw no sign of any climbers.

Chomolangma was clear most of the time I spent here. Exploring the ruins and countryside was tough due to the altitude (Ha ko – ma song), but every rest stop was rewarded with the ever changing face of the highest peak on earth. I stumbled across a herd of antelope (blue sheep to the Tibetans), which were the only wild animals I saw in all my travels.

Day 30

is the last full day in Tibet, and one of the most remarkable traveling days of this, or any other, trip. We make an early start from Rongphu. The first 75 km to Tingri (on the Friendship Highway) takes all morning.

Flat tire.JPG (387342 bytes)    Tingri nomad tent.JPG (242883 bytes)

This route follows a trek that I had originally planned to walk. It is 4 days walk from Tingri to Rongphu. While planning this trip I changed my mind and cancelled the trekking, deciding to concentrate on day walks instead. I think I made the right choice (though the couple I met who had done the walk loved it). The countryside is big open valleys. The passes are high (over 5000 m), but the climbs are shallow as the track sidles along. The terrain is tundra, and empty except for the occasional yak herd and nomad encampment.  I was sitting in the Landrover thinking how glad I was not to be walking when we had a flat tire. This gave me a half an hour walking along the trekking route. It was very pleasant – wild, fresh, remote and dramatic in its own way. It made me think that trekking might have been a good option too. But, while 30 minutes was too little, I think 4 days would have been too much.

Tingri is a real wild west town. We stopped to get the tire fixed, and I watched the nomadic people selling the sheep that they have brought to the butchers in town (pony carts everywhere). Ten minutes down the road was lunch and a wash in a hot spring (yakpo do).

Tingri sheep.JPG (431961 bytes)    Tingri butcher.JPG (456702 bytes)

The afternoon drive takes us over the last high pass (Tong-la with an excellent panorama of the Himalaya), and into a river gorge that drops and drops and drops. It is such a shocking contrast to be hemmed into this narrow gorge with trees (real rainforest green trees) and waterfalls. It is a most un-Tibetan end to the trip. The road continues to switchback down and down. We end at the town of Zhangmu (2300 m (7500 ft)) a drop from the start of the day of 2900 m (9500 ft.).

TongLa.JPG (215470 bytes)    Gorge.JPG (351343 bytes)

Zhangmu is the town on the edge. It is on the edge between the Tibetan plateau and the lowlands of India, on the edge (border)  between China and Nepal, on the edge between the Hindu and the Buddhist, and just “on the edge” in terms of attitude and civilization.

Zhangmu town view.JPG (396305 bytes)    Zhangmu valley view.JPG (246183 bytes)

The un-Tibetan end to my stay in Tibet continued when my Portuguese friends and I were taken by their guides to the hottest nightclub in town. This place was a hoot. The first impression was of a normal western club – a small dance floor ringed by booths and a DJ spinning discs beside the small stage at the front.  But the impression changed when a closer look revealed the mural of the Potala and Himalaya behind the stage, the colored flashing lights forming lotus blossoms, the imitation butter lamps and yak skull lamps, Om mani padme hum posters, and prayer flags. The waitresses served our Lhasa beer in small glasses that were never allowed to be less than completely full. Every sip was followed by a visit to refill the glass. Occasionally acts were performed on stage. In the first, two girls came out and danced in quasi-traditional Tibetan costumes. Later the same 2 girls came out dressed in red cowboy hats and leopard skin mini-skirts. As far as I could tell the music and the dancing was the same both times. We had a lot of fun, as did the crowd of locals.

Days like this are what makes traveling the kaleidoscope of experiences that it is, so you would think that

Day 31

would be a letdown. It wasn’t. The start was a boring hour-plus wait to clear customs to leave China, but at least I was very near the head of a very long line. Then down the road to the Friendship Bridge, goodbye to Yunden and Tseden, through Nepal customs where I was met by Basu, my driver for the 4 hour trip to Kathmandu.

Along the road from the border we passed several military checkpoints of sandbags and barbed wire. Men in military uniforms with guns waved us through (You may be aware of the political unrest in Nepal with Maoist guerillas battling the monarchy).  About 5 km after one of these my driver stopped and pointed to a red fag and sign by the road explaining that I needed to pay to pass through this Maoist controlled area. I was worried until I saw the smiling young man who came out to greet me. He took my 500 rupees ($US 7)  and gave me a receipt. I asked Basu, and he translated it as something like “ to greater glory of Marx, Lenin and Mao, the Peoples Committee of that region confirms my payment for safe passage”. Basu also told me that I should have bargained for a lower fee (though it is my policy not to bargain with guerillas, armed or not, for amounts under $US 10). Perhaps I should have picked up a few photos of the Great Helmsman in China. About 5 km down the road we passed another military checkpoint with more sandbags and guns.

Nepal Maoist.JPG (378172 bytes)    Nepal Maoist Receipt.JPG (358913 bytes)

It transpired that I had arrived on the festival of Dashain, the biggest festival in Nepal. Everyone was off work and planning big parties and family gatherings for that evening (think of it as Hindu Christmas Eve). Everyone was dressed in their festival best, which for the women meant saris in every possible hue. The busses were overflowing, inside and on the roof too.

Kathmandu Dashain girls.JPG (338387 bytes)    Kathmandu Dashain boy.JPG (337308 bytes)

We were back in Kathmandu by early afternoon. I struggled to find an open restaurant, but eventually had a nice lunch fun afternoon walking the streets and taking photos of the festival goers. Everyone was in a good mood and there were groups performing unknown rituals at several temples. Burned more CDs.

Ha ko ma song – Hindu festivals. The Hindus seems to always be having some festival or another. Perhaps this is why everyone is so happy when the place is falling apart? Ha ko ma song.

Day 32

was the last full day of the trip. I packed and shopped. I also wandered the streets of Kathmandu not seeing any of the negatives that had so put me off on the first day. I ate wonderful meals for both lunch and dinner – vegetable korma curry and lamb rogan josh (no doubt made more flavorful by the relative blandness of my diet in Tibet). My culture shock was completely gone. It may have helped that the festival was underway, but clearly it was me that had changed and not Kathmandu. What before had seemed chaos, I now found it easy to deal with and alive with sights, smells and tastes. I regret telling several people in Lhasa that they should avoid Kathmandu. There is great shopping, great eating and non-stop entertainment.

Still, I don’t stay up late as

Day 33

has an early taxi ride to the airport to catch the flight to Melbourne and then home.


Well done for sticking it out. I hope you enjoyed it.

I have now been home for several weeks. The prayer flags that I bought in Lhasa are strung on our back roof. After the first southerly they are faded and tattered. I have been told by our friend Robyn that they must now stay up until they disintegrate. It looks like that might be next weekend. Kay chinka maray (Tibetan for "no problem").

I was ambivalent about making the effort to write all this down. I went into the exercise knowing that any attempt to describe a trip like this is (to some extent) doomed to failure. You just had to be there, and you weren’t there.

But, I always enjoy other people’s trip reports. It is good karma for me to write one, as what goes around comes around. I hope that you have enjoyed some of the stories (besides the photos are rather barren when left to tell the stories on their own).

If you have questions, please get in touch.



  Travels in Tibet