Monday, 21 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: And Then There Were 4

The morning started off with some bad news, John ("dad") had been surprisingly struggling with the altitude since arriving in Lhasa. Yesterday he went to the hospital to get checked out. His blood oxygen was 70 (they like it to be no lower than 85) and it wasn't something more Diamox was going to fix. Sounded like a touch of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) if I were a guessing person. We were scheduled to leave today with only higher altitudes ahead during an 7-8hr drive to the drive to Gyantse. It had been agreed that it was in his best interest to fly to Kathmandu and meet us all there at the end of the week. So now just 4 of us continue our trek across Tibet.

When I've told people I was heading to Tibet, I suspect most people pictured snowy ranges, icy-bearded mountaineers and hardy locals wrapped in yak hides. That’s probably with good reason; generally the higher you go, the colder it gets, and Tibet is high. Still, thus far I've only seen one out of those three.

Tibet isn’t called the Roof of the World for nothing. The Tibetan Plateau is the highest and largest plateau in the world with an average altitude of 14,800 ft (4,500 m). Only a meagre 36 countries have a mountain that reaches that height. The ride to Gyantse is a spectacular one. The views were quite literally breathtaking. There's something about the air up here that is magical.

We crossed three passes Khambala (16,404 ft / 5000 m), Korula (16,437 ft / 5010 m) and Simila (14,206 ft / 4330m) as well as skirted the shores of the beautiful turquoise lake, known locally as Yamdrok Tso. The lake is one of the most sacred in Tibet. I also got photo bombed by.... A yak. It has to be one of my best photos of the trip so far!  

Interestingly, there were check points along the way where you get time stamped by the Chinese police. It is apparently a 100¥ for every minute that you are too fast so you will often see vehicles pulled over just waiting until they can set off again. It's kind of ironic that you're traveling along a road called the Friendship Highway.

Once of major importance as a wool trading centre on the routes between India, Sikkim, Bhutan, Tibet and China, Gyantse retains the feel of old Tibet. It was historically considered the third largest and most prominent town in Tibet although that is no longer the case. It was nearly destroyed by flooding in 1954. After rioting in 1959, local industries were dismantled and artisans fled while others were placed in workcamps. All a bit tragic really.

The imposing hill fortress, Gyantse Dzong, dominates views of the town although it is currently closed to tourists. This fortress was taken by the British in 1904 during their invasion of Tibet. Apparently there's an "Anti-British Imperialism Museum" which gives the Chinese version of the 1904 British Invasion. Sounds almost comedic.

The high red-walled compound of Pelkhor Chode monastery, founded in 1418, once encircled 15 monasteries from three different orders of Tibetan Buddhism. The surviving assembly hall (straight ahead as you enter) has some fine murals, statues and the now to-be-expected butter-lamp-lit atmosphere. Just beside the assembly hall is the Gyantse Kumbum (meaning 100,000 images) which forms a 3-dimensional mandala containing a seemingly endless series of tiny chapels full of Buddhist images – Buddhas, demons, protectors and saints.

This seemed like the perfect place to buy some blessed prayer beads from a monk.

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