The second half of our journey through Tibet was as amazing as the first. We drove to Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city. A new highway had recently been completed linking the two cities. Though deemed modern by Tibetan standards it reminded me of a seldom used county road in Central Oregon, winding and twisting through canyons along the river, large cracks and potholes gouged into its surface from falling rocks.
The scenery was absolutely beautiful. We first stopped along the Lhasa River to see where the water burials took place. Water burials are generally reserved for the children and the very poor. As opposed to a sky burial, where the dried-out body of the deceased is cut up and fed to the vultures, the water burial is relatively simple. The body is simply thrown (whole or dismembered) into the river where it will be devoured by the fishes. During our “minority culture” course while studying abroad in Beijing we were forced to watch an hour long video depicting the sky burial from beginning to end. I had to turn away as the undertakers hacked, chopped, and mashed. But in the end seeing the peace and beauty of the landscape the practice didn’t seem so bad. It is simply a return to nature and the endless cycle of life. Sorry to sound so morbid, but it is interesting.
En route to Shigatse we also visited Lake Yamdrok, one of Tibet’s largest holy lakes. The elevation of the Gampta pass, leading to the lake, is not far from that of the Everest base camp. It was a stunning view, surrounded by snow capped mountains the water was a marvelous shade of bright blue. Not difficult to see why it is considered holy. We had a “picnic” huddled next to the van since the wind was blowing so hard. Everything, including our food, seemed to be covered in a thick layer of dust. At one point a herd of yaks sped around us, kicking up a cloud of even more dust as they circled the lake, their young herder pelting behind.
Yaks, in some form, are everywhere in Tibet. It would be impossible to write about Tibet and not mention yaks. During our drive over the Gampta pass they dotted the hillsides, balancing precariously on the steep inclines. During our week-long stay I drank cup after cup of thick, salty yak butter tea. Not because I liked it, but because it was forced upon us everywhere by our well intentioned hosts and as not to be rude I choked it down, grimacing and smiling, and as soon as I had taken a grudging sip my cup was instantly refilled to the brim. Actually, the stuff kind of grew on me. Supposedly, it helps with the altitude and if nothing else it certainly warms you up. We also ate yak daily-sometimes thick chunks on with potatoes, other times cut in strips and served Chinese style with rice and vegetables.
We eventually arrived in Shigatse, and the next day went on a trip to the Gyantse to visit the Pelkor Monastery. The Monastery is perhaps the most famous for its Kumbum stupa, commissioned in 1427. Pelkor Monastery was largely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The main hall was miraculously saved when the monks told the Red Guards that it was only used for storage. One of the most fascinating aspects of this building was the ancient murals, many of them darkened nearly beyond recognition with the passage of time. On one wall was painted a giant “Wheel of Life” depicting the Buddhist cycle of reincarnation, held tenuously clenched between the fierce jaws of the God of Death.
Our visit coincided with the Tibetan New Year, and monks were busy sculpting and decorating giant wax candles that are changed only once per year. Next, we walked around the inside the six-floor stupa, admiring the many chambers filled with gorgeous sculptures, carvings, and murals.
The monastery courtyard was filled with stray dogs that are regularly fed by the monks. Most of them were peacefully slumbering in the afternoon sun, but right as we were leaving two mangy males got into a vicious fight. We thought they were going to kill each other until one of the monks came out and gave them a thorough walloping with a large stick. Not what I would expect from a monk, but then again these things must be dealt with!
We headed back to our hotel in Shigatse for dinner (more yak). One of the hotel workers, who were already quite drunk, brought us all two complimentary cans of beer to celebrate the Tibetan New Year. “Because today is the Tibetan news festival!” He slurred. We ended up exchanging them for soda (alcohol makes the altitude sickness worse) but were extremely grateful nonetheless.