At 2800m in Shangrila, northern Yunnan, we are halfway up to Tibet. We feel it in the mild altitude sickness, and in the people, a mixture of Han Chinese and Tibetan ethnic groups. Once called Zhongdian, it’s name changed by the government for reasons of grandeur and to foster tourism.
Rapid change has swept this town, and, as it looms over Tibet, Buddhist Shangrila serves as reminder that half of the Tibetan plateau cultural region was already fully incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan over fifty years ago.
Shangrila feels very touristy, and the outsiders have done to the old town what they did to Lijiang, and turned it turned it into a bit of a souvenir mall, but there is magic here still. I bump into an old man and his deaf older friend heading up the steps of Bǎijī temple and join them as they spin the giant prayer wheel at the top. They are locals making a pilgrimage, a dying breed perhaps, among swarms of tourists from all over China, come to view, and invest, and change, a place whose cultural fragility is wavering under the weight of modern economics and politics.
Now we are above the clouds, flying into Lhasa as foreigners can’t travel legally by land into the Tibet region. Only a little below us, great peaks poke through frothy cloud, joining us at 18, 19, 20,000 feet. We are heading up onto the rooftop of the world. I have always wanted to go, since I first had an interest in Buddhism. Finally, I am going to Tibet. Ten days is short, some might say too short, but I hope long enough to discover what draws me there so.
We arrive at the airport and immediately fighter jets parked on standby ready to scramble remind us of the strategic importance of Tibet to China. A middle aged man is throwing up in the toilet, poor guy. Some people are more prone to it than others. We are at around 3,600 metres above sea level here, which is 11,000 feet, well above the threshold which causes symptoms of low oxygen content in the air. How much lower? Around 40% less than at sea level. Not a picnic for any body not yet acclimatised.
Outside we catch a first glimpse of our tour guide for the next ten days, Tsomo. She is short, pretty, and stands waving at us to follow her. She drapes Tibetan white scarves around our necks, a traditional Tibetan sign of welcome and mutual respect. Tsomo is bubbly and chatty as we travel back to Lhasa.
We are driving to Lhasa. There are police checks everywhere. The military is clearly visible. An ominous looking camera sits on the dashboard facing its occupants. The sky is so deep blue, and baron hills roll upwards from a flat valley floor, the river weaving and threading between them.
Drepung Monestary sits in the hills a little outside of Lhasa. As we walk up, beggars scurry away from militarised police patrolling the entrance. There is a metal detector and rigorous security check for locals visiting. At its height Drepung had around 10,000 monks. Today there are a few hundred.
We walk around inside. Countless chambers dedicated to Kings, High Lamas and Buddhas are intricately decorated with spectacular works of art; statues, paintings, drapings. The ambiance a relaxing smell of insense. Pilgrims add hot melted butter to lamps as offerings. It is difficult to distinguish between rooms for my naive western eye, yet from that day until leaving Tibet I would not tire of wandering the great Monestarys and breathing a magic unique to this place.
At Sera Monestary we witness spectacular scenes of debate between the monks. There is a real authenticity in their performances, and most barely blink at the hordes of tourists surrounding the enclosure. It is a joy to watch. But a thought must be spared for whatever truths about what life is really like for monks behind the closed doors of the monestories we visited. We can only imagine, but all evidence by those monks who have spoken up points to an ongoing eroding of freedom of thought in Tibetan Buddhism.
Jokhang looms above the square in central Lhasa, the most famous and holy of all religious sites in Tibet. The view from its ramparts is stunning. Hills surround Lhasa, the Potala palace stands solid on its rock. And always this deep, piercing blue of the sky, broken only by light, fluffy clouds.
The magnificent Potala palace is as the Dalai Lama says, merely a museum, stripped of its symbolic importance by the authorities. Or is it? Droves of locals tour with the foreigners, paying their respects in each of the endless chambers. The atmosphere still holds a magic no rules can disrupt. Tsomo explains the Kings, Buddhas and Lamas that each chamber is associated with. With each passing of the central icon, a little cupping of hands and bow of her head, a prayer whispered, and we move on. The paintings, the smells, the mysticism, so poignant and other worldly yet reassuringly familiar. These are holy places. There is a joy in my heart to be here that I can’t explain. It is as constant as my curiosity in all that we seeing.
We are driving to Shannan. The river bends and splits, ribbons of silver threading a wide, flat valley, the other side of which is barely visible. Stark rock, baron, pure hills, and the blue. Silence, but for the buzzing of insects on the high plain.
We walk slowly up the steep slope to Yumbulagang, the first palace in Tibet, built by her first king. This too, is a holy place, visited by pilgrims from afar. It is small inside, just as magical as the Jokhang.
Outside an old woman with a weathered but disarmingly cheerful face dashes up the hill ahead of Alice to help put up our prayer flags. A boy is standing on the ramparts of the palace, watching the valley below. He climbs the hill, and a short while after, Alice and I follow. Suddenly, he drops his coke bottle by accident and it tumbles down the steep, rocky hillside out of site. I climb down and fetch it for him. He is local, wants to be a driver one day. We don’t speak much, but when we leave to head back down from the palace, he follows, a short distance behind. We get into our car, and he is out of sight. Driving out of the car park, he suddenly appears on his bike, following our car. We round a bend, surely the last glimpse of him, but no, he is still behind, peddling hard after us. Finally, the jeep outpaces his bike, and he is gone. Who was this boy?
At Samye Monastery, the oldest in Tibet, there is a ceremony in honour of one of the protector deities in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. At the top, there is a statue that catches my eye. A Bodhisvatta sits in the normal posture, cross legged, but sitting on him, facing him, is a female figure. Their faces are close and intimate, but not touching. Her arms are around him. The statue is suggestive, but also calmly spiritual. It is a celebration of a truth that most religious art I’ve seen never admits.
We are standing watching the ceremony. Monks are lined up behind a lama who is performing various rituals around a fire in front of him. The monks all have pieces of grain behind their ears. They are chanting together in Tibetan. There is a build up of sound. It begins with faster chanting, then louder, then a high pitched instruments start, a clanging of some percussion, then blasting horns, deep drums. As if the elevating the prayers to a higher place, the music reaches a crescendo. Finally the deep, powerful horns sound, blasting through our consciousness, vibrating our very souls. It is a symphony. Then it dies down, and the chanting continues. Over and over this cycle repeats, chanting giving way to a moving musical crescendo. My words are useless to describe it. It is a unique and enchanting experience. We stand and watch for a long time.
We are driving North from Lhasa towards a 5000m high pass, beyond which is Namcuo Lake. NianQing TangGu looms out of the mountain range ahead. Over 7000 metres, it is a domed top perfect white in the morning sun. The sky, ever such deep blue that it is as if there is no sky between ourselves and space itself. It is just empty.
Namcuo Lake is a crystal clear symphony of blue and grey. The lake reflects the sky’s blue, almost perfectly but with its own character. Pure gradients from grey rock to pure turquoise rise from the banks to distant water, just as the sky’s light blue deepens and intensifies as one looks further from the horizon into the nothingness of space above.
Everywhere prayer flags, offerings. Children begging intensively for money. The yak keepers hang around, all want business from our photos. The purity of nature and relgious offerings broken sharply by a reminder of the have and have nots, a desperate need and desire for money, a change, perhaps, happening all over Tibet.
Alice and I wander a little further and the shore is deserted, but for remarkably huge piles of ice and snow. They stand in contrast to the blue water by her banks, as if place there by accident. Where did it come from?
We are in Shigatse, at one of the biggest Monasteries in Tibet. It is hotter here. There are memorials to the previous Dalai lama, and the government sponsored current Panchen Lama. Photos of the Dalai Lama used to be allowed, but not any more. Much has been cracked down upon since the 2008 riots. Now a mention, or a photo of the Tibetans most holy figure might mean imprisonment, which means interrogation and possible torture. Now, monks are watched over and live in fear. Now, some even feel they must prematurely end this life, to seek freedom in the next. It is again a sad time for Tibet, but the joy of their magnificent land and people sings to me louder than the oppression. I only hope the same is true for ordinary Tibetans. We didn’t feel secure talking to many. Next time I come here, I must go much deeper. There is much I have to learn about this place.
To Everest. Embarrassingly unprepared, I don’t even know what it looks like. Do you? The tallest mountain on our little planet. I supposed it was just another peak in the magnificent eastern himalayan range.
Our land-rover gets a dramatic puncture 5km along a 100km dirt track towards the north base camp. We are already running late, because the policeman in Shigatse who is meant to authorise papers to come here was out of the office all morning. Another big bump, only this one followed by a loud bang then a violent hiss lasting only the time it took to stop and open our doors. The tyre is completely flat in seconds. Will we make it to the peak before sunset? A nagging desire in my mind. *Please can we get there in time, please!*.
Tyre replaced with the help of a fellow tour group, of which there seem to be hundreds, we are at our last 5000m pass. The magnificent himalayan range stands before us. The last geographical barrier between ourselves and India, our destination. I barely have time to reflect. We are about to make the journey through these ancient walls that divide India and China, the two largest nations on earth, my home for the last four years. Everest stands in the middle, pyramid like and grand, its peak completely masked by cloud. We linger not long. The sun is setting. There is a long way to go. We are nervous, and excited. Everywhere dust, dust thrown up by endless passing groups. We are not alone.
It must be less than thirty minutes to sunset. We are through our last checkpoint, a police station placed in a village not far from the valley leading up to the camp and peak. We caught a glimpse of it about half an hour ago, and since then it has been obscured by the hills all around us.
We bump along the valley floor, hardly a track, just a way. It cant be long now. We are at the mouth of the valley that will soon straightens up and leads right to the mountain.
Suddenly, we round a corner, and there she is. Beautifully lit like a beacon in the evening sun, standing 8,848m above the sea, Mount Everest is in front of us, far, but towering over the landscape, framed by dark hills on both sides. The Tibetans and Chinese call her the great mother of the world. This is not just another mountain in the Himalayan range.
We park to take photos, and I dash up a nearby hill, unperturbed by the 5000m altitude. I lay my camera aside for a second, standing, watching the sun illuminate the awesome sight. Tears. Now it hits me… I begin to understand.
I am standing in a temple. The roof is the dark, deep blue space above. Barron rock and stone pillars line the walls on both sides. I stand before an immovable Buddha, magnificent and lit by none other than the source of life itself, our sun. I stand before God. I stand before life itself. Rejoining Alice, we stand together, both in awe, in a perspective that reflects reality. It is in the end true, we are so small.
That night we slept in a tent in the camp. It was comfortable, but our bodies weren’t. Although we’ve been over 3,500m for more than a week now, the step up again to 5000m is a big one. Alice didn’t sleep. My head felt like it would crack. The canned oxygen we bought with us didnt help much. Morning again, with its different light on the mountain, and crisp, cool air, came as a blessing. As did Richard’s Neurofen.
We are driving through the desert plains towards the mountains. Lone horseman walk slowly in the distance, specs on the endless horizon. Nothing is here. Why are they here?
We drive over our final high pass, and finally begin our descent which will take us back down to the tree line, and eventually Nepal. The high, dry, mountain air finally relents, as moisture reaches our lungs. 4500, 4000, 3500 metres. I am watching my GPS. Winding roads and endless hills. Greenery appears. Now the air feels humid. The temperature begins to rise. 3000, 2500 metres. Sky burial sites in the ancient valleys. Abandoned settlements. Waterfalls. Luscious greenery. Behind us, Tibet, ahead, the plains of India. Before that, we enter Nepal.
At 1800m we stop at the border town for the night. Our amazing guide, Tsomo, suffers low altitude sickness. We eat. We are quiet. Relieved to be somewhere our bodies are more comfortable, but quietly sad to be leaving Tibet. But it is not the end. A seed has been planted. We have seen. We have felt. Beyond our physical experience, we sense, there is more. Tibet always gives, gives gives. Leaving her she asks for nothing back. Only, perhaps, that we don’t forget, lest her gift go to waste. Leaving Tibet, for me, is not an end. It is a beginning.