I last left you in Lhasa, about to take a trip to see some monasteries with my new travelling companions – the Buddhist monk from Viet Nam (Xiun), his translator and friend, Huong as well as Carl and Heather from the USA. Xiun had wanted visit Tsurphu Monastery a few hours north-west of Lhasa as he had a friend who lived there and so the 5 of us decided to hire a Land Cruiser and combine it with a trip to Reting Monastery in the North-east and Nam Tso Lake – in between them both. Nam Tso Lake is 4800m above sea level and is the world’s highest salt water lake and with the backdrop of 7500m peaks, is a sacred place in Tibetan culture.
We hired the LC and driver from a place called FIT travel in Lhasa – through the Banak Shol hostel. If you’re ever in Lhasa and brave enough to book through these guys, keep your wits about you. They did the usual of showing us one sparkling car, taking our money and then calling to say the new car was broken down so we’d have to go in an older one. The car itself was okay, it just felt a bit underhand. However, the driver was the rudest bloke I’ve ever met – shouting, screaming and waving his fists at Huong (the only fluent Mandarin speaker in our group) when he said he knew nothing about spending a night at Reting monastery – he demanded we cut our trip short and said he would take us to the police if we didn’t pay his money upfront – before we got back to Lhasa. (Although it listed all the places and dates in his contract and stated that he’d get his money once back in Lhasa). So in the end we called his bluff – said we’d be happy to chat to the police about it and he ended up taking us straight to the hostel where of course we paid him the full amount.
Anyway, back to the monasteries! We left Lhasa in driving snow – the temperature had dropped significantly since leaving Lhasa and it snowed for the 3 hour drive up to the monastery as we rocked and rolled our way along the rough dirt track, past herds of yak who looked like the only ones able to cope with the weather in their long hair coats. We followed a river for some of the way, stopping for an impromptu snowball fight – Huong and Xiun hadn’t seen much snow before so we all made the most of it before continuing on our way to the monastery.
We arrived at Tsurphu to see a sight that reminded me of the James Hilton book, “Lost Horizon”. Tucked in this small valley was a beautiful white and golden monstery – standing proud amidst the snow, with prayer flags fluttering in the strong, cold breeze. Up above the monstery were small huts – one housed a nun who lived alone in the mountains and another, way up at the peak of the mountain – maybe another 750m higher, was a meditation retreat. Monks would stay here for up to 3 months at a time, visited only by other monks bringing them food and water. The only sound up there would have been the fluttering prayer flags which stretched from peak to peak, and the eagles and vultures that inhabit these parts and flew above us as we looked up.
We walked up some steep steps and into a large courtyard – facing the main monastery building, flanked by smaller outbuildings on either side. Monks dressed in red robes milled around and we were soon joined by a small group as Xiun and Huong tried to find their friend. It was soon made clear that although their friend wasn’t at the monastery, we were to be made extremely welcome and the trip became one that I never imagined could happen – one of those one-off travelling experiences. We were taken to a receiving room where we could leave our bags – this was to be our room for the night. We’d read in the Lonely Planet that there is a hostel there, with cold, damp concrete floors on which to sleep so we’d come prepared with thick sleeping bags. The receiving room couldn’t have been more different – richly decorated in the red and golds that are so common in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, the lucky symbols adorned the walls – 2 fish pointing upwards, the wheel, 2 deer and the knot, amongst others. We were told this was where honoured guests are first brought and we were given a plentiful supply of sweets and hot water as well as tea. The courtyard had seemed a refuge from the cold weather and this room was even more so – there was no heating but the decoration and visiting monks made it feel a warm place.
We were then taken for some food – supplied by the villagers who live nearby, rice and yak meat which became a staple diet for us whilst in Tibet. Afterwards we were given a tour of the monastery into rooms that are normally firmly closed to tourists, we all felt extremely privileged to be allowed into this otherwise “closed world”. Soom rooms housed a single monk, chanting mantras from slips of paper, a thin slit of sunlight pointing towards where he sat in an otherwise dark room providing an almost mystical air to the place. 3 Buddhas would be sat at the far wall, covered in beautiful gold and yellow. On the opposite side would be a cabinet containing hundreds of individual Buddhas, some sitting in different poses depending on what they represented (peace, compassion, etc.). In one room the monk chanted in time to a small drum that he gently thumped. We moved from here to a room quite different to what I’d seen before – although it had a large Buddha sat against the wall, dressed in colourful scarves and headresses, it was flanked by 2 wrathful deities. These have scary, contorted faces and are sometimes shown treading on evil spirits. It is the role of the wrathful deity to protect the monastery and the paintings on the walls outside emphasised what was inside. Attached to the columns supporting the ceiling were what I took to be conventional ways at protecting yourself against evil foes – ancient rifles and handguns, looking like they dated from the 1800s. Coupled with this were 2 tiger heads, mouths open as if in mid-roar. This room felt strange as it was full of these non-peaceful images, but with the monk’s gentle chanting and the sunlight it felt anything but.
In each room, the monk who was showing us around stood back to allow us time to look around and explained things where necessary. We were then taken to a larger room where the monks were sat on thin cushions on the floor and chanting as one. The sound was amazing – with the occasional small bell being rung to break the rhythm. We stood at the doorway watching, not wishing to intrude but were invited to sit with the monks and join them for milky tea as they prayed. Leaving our shoes at the doorway, we were met with lots of smiles and nods as we sat silently. They sat in 2 rows, facing each other and at the opposite end to the doorway was the Buddha shrine, looking down on them all.
We sat for a short while listening until we were led away to allow the monks to continue with their prayers. We were led into a another room in which the Compassion mantra was playing on a loop from a small speaker hidden somewhere in the room and where sat a very old monk. We were asked to kneel (as I’m not Buddhist I hung back, but the monk seemed to know what I was thinking and smiled and asked me forward) to where we touched our forehead on a small table housing a shrine and then had to bring our head up to touch some religious “trinkets” hung by some string, with the back of our head. After doing this, we were given a long silver, silk scarf which we had to wear whilst in the monastery. At the same time, we were presented with a piece of red string to wear around our necks and and small envelope containing some herbs to bring us good luck, which you have to take first thing in the morning. The final room into which we were led was larger and some money was wedged in various places around the shrines. The monk who was sat here raised a box about 1m long and gently tapped the top of our heads with it – which should bring you longevity in life.
After being led around all day, we left the monks to explore the area surrounding the monastery. Carl and Heather decided to do the Kora – the circuit of the monastery that takes around 2-3 hours whilst Huong, Xiun and I decided to follow the river to see what we could find. It was a truely beautiful, stark and remote area – no sound apart from the prayer flags in the wind and the occasional yak walking past. We crossed a wide stream, hopping from stone to stone, after finding out the hard way that the water was just a bit deeper than my boots (and freezing cold!) and I sat on a rock, realising just how lucky I was to be having this experience. The sun had come out now and melted the snow around us – although it still remained on the higher peaks. On the walk back to the monastery we passed some Tibetan nomads who beckoned us over. We made our way to their black tent, made of yak wool and were invited in. We entered a spacious tent, with a metal burner in the middle of the room and some rugs lying in a small area of the floor. The nomad pointed to the right side where we were to sit and he quickly presented us with some china cups. He gave Xiun and I some milky tea whilst Huong was given yak butter tea. We’d been wondering what this tasted like but now were faced with having to make sure we didn’t offend anyone if we didn’t like it! Huong tried some and politely “asked” 🙂 me to help her out with it – maybe it was the bits of yak hair floating in it that put her off! The nomad spoke some Chinese and told Huong that he and his family were nomadic builders – travelling the countryside constructing wooden buildings for local families. His wife and one of his 5 children came and sat with us – their rosy red cheeks and muddy skin (they were all working outside) gave way to huge smiles. Our cups were then taken away and thinking that this was the signal to leave, I started to say a farewell, upon which he poured us all some fresh yak yoghurt. Left to sit in the corner of the tent for sometime, the milky/yoghurt drink tasted lovely – very fresh and cold with a creamy top. We must have looked like we liked it – as we were given 3 cupfuls!
Whilst we were drinking, the nomad (we never learnt his name) put more yak dung into the burner and it quickly heated the rest of the tent, the chimney rising through a gap in the tent roof. After 20 minutes or so, we left them to continue working, saying our goodbyes and giving gifts in thanks. As we walked down the hill, we came across a group of 3 nomadic women with their babies – who also beckoned us to join them for tea. They were sat in the open air chatting and although they spoke no Chinese (and we didn’t know any Tibetan apart from the greeting of “Terche Delek”), we exchanged smiles and waved at their toddlers (who I managed to petrify by simply smiling – one little boy ran and hid behind his Mum when he saw me!). This was another moment when you really appreciate moments in life – everyone was so happy and content – they were sat chatting the same as in any other place in the world and we were priviliged to be invited to sit with them.
That evening we ate more yak and rice and I went for a walk on my own. I found a spot in the monastery courtyard and wrote my diary, joined by passing monks who sit and watch me write. As it got dark it became very cold and from the roof came the sound of horns being blown. As I looked up, a monk waved and called me up tot he roof where I stood with the 4 monks as they blew in horns – 2 long and 2 short. It felt like I was in a National Geographic film! The long horn was about 2m long and I’m only glad that they didn’t ask me to join in as I was out of breath just climbing the stairs at this altitude!
That night we slept in the receiving room (along with a family of mice) and the next day Xiun was asked to join the monks for prayers alone, so the rest of us went for another walk along the river, watching the prayer flags that were tied to anything tall, flutter in the breeze. The sun warmed us as we sat on rocks and looked up at the stepped area where a 25m long thanka (silk painting of the Buddha) would be placed at certain festivals.
It was with regret that we left Tsurphu. We had been treated so well – the monks had greeted us with open arms and looked after us very well and I know how lucky I was to have met Xiun who helped open so many doors to these experiences.
We then headed off to Nam Tso Lake – the sacred lake 4800m above sea level – the highest salt water lake in the world. It was somewhere I definitely had wanted to see and I wasn’t disappointed. We’d heard of another Land Cruiser that had turned back the day before due to snow but we were lucky and got across the 5000m pass to be faced with a huge inland sea, the backdrop of which were 7500m snowy mountains. Behind us were more prayer flags draped over the rocks. I walked along the beach, kicking the snowy-sandy mixture as I walked and made some snowballs for later!
That night we drove to Damxung, a small town across the pass as the accommodation at the lake had closed for the winter. We were dropped at the “only” hotel in town which Huong managed to negotiate the price down, to be faced with a woman lying down being given oxygen. We were still pretty high and on every corridor were large oxygen bottles – just in case! Early the next morning we headed off to Reting Monastery to visit some people that Carl had met on a previous visit. It was on the way here that he driver went mad, but we arrived – eventually!
Reting is set amongst an area of beautiful, gnarled cypress trees in an area of dramatic hills. A village below serves the monastery with goods that they can’t produce themselves although there were plenty of yak everywhere. It was here that I realised how grateful I was for the ubiquitous Chinese noodles! In the monastery kitchen, the food that had been gently sizzling away had been left to congeal for a while whilst dogs sniffed around a bird pecked it’s way through the nearby bread – so we asked for plain and smiple hot water to make our own! We stayed for the day at Reting, enjoying the scenery – it had a different air to it than at Tsurphu – the latter receives funding from a foundation in Hawaii whilst Reting receives none, although both were severely damaged during the Cultural Revolution.
The drive back to Lhasa took us on some of the highest passes I have ever travelled – 5300m across a rough, unsurfaced road in the pitch black, my heart sank when it began to snow. I wasn’t sure if I felt easier not seeing just how far up were were or whether ignorance is bliss and go with it – by the time I’d decided, we were already arriving in Lhasa!
The following day, Huong, Xiun and I arranged our train tickets and headed out, back to Chengdu. Unfortunately for viewers of CCTV (Chinese Central TV) and Tibetan TV, I was interviewed by a camera crew who were lurking on the train (I was singled out as being a foreigner!), asking me what I thought of the train service to Lhasa. I hope I never see it being aired, as I actually looked like I needed shower after 40 hours on the train – hair all over the place and then I was asked to a very cheesy thumbs up and say thank you to an imaginery person, for their good service!
As we left Tibet, a part of me wanted to stay longer, but a bigger part knew that I’d been so privileged to have experienced Tibet in this way that I was just happy to leave with some great memories. I hope that I will return one day to travel to other parts as I barely touched the surface, but in other ways I got to see parts of Tibet that are normally very difficult to see.
I’m now in Vientiane, Laos having had more adventures on the way here, via western Sichuan, Yunnan Province and Tiger Leaping Gorge in China to get here with a very good friend I met in Hanoi! I’ll hopefully be able to do the blog covering those areas in the next couple of days. In the meantime, keep in touch and I hope the weather in Blighty isn’t too cold (it’s a sultry 25C here)! Bye for now.