Our journey to Gyangtse took us along a branch of the famous ‘Friendship Highway’ which joins Lhasa with Kathmandu. This has to be one of the world’s most spectacular roads and I only wish I was doing it on a motorbike (I’ve done many of the big alpine passes, the Stelvio, the Gavia and the Col d’Iseran and feel that riding on two-wheels is truly the best way to appreciate these incredible vistas. You do become part of the landscape when biking).
However, we did have frequent stops on our little bus and enjoyed the rarefied mountain air and breath-taking views to the full.
The actual road is 920 kilometres long and reaches heights of above 5000 metres (well over 16,000 feet). It was built in the nineteen sixties to cut the journey time between Nepal and Tibet from almost two months to just a handful of days. Very often it is closed sometimes due to political reasons but largely because of landslides.
The first part of our journey took us past some rocks with ladders painted on them.What was the meaning of them I wondered? The best version I heard was as follows: the ladders are painted to represent a divine bond between Tibetans and the Gods. These are spiritual ladders which allow one’s spirit to ascend to the heights more easily or, alternatively allow the Gods to descend upon the earth and sanctify it with their blessing.
On our journey to Gyangtse we crossed three mountain passes. The first one was Gampa La pass, height 15,748 feet, which is a little less than thirty feet lower than Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc (15,777 feet high).
An extraordinary sight greeted us from the top of this pass, so richly decorated with prayer flags. It was the view of one of Tibet’s’ four sacred lakes, Yamdrok-So. (The other three sacred lakes are Lhamo La-tso, Namtso and Manasarovar).
The intensity of the lake’s turquoise colour pitted against the highly sculptural barrenness of the mountains surrounding it and with a distant view of a snow-capped peak was stunning.
The lake is over forty-five miles long and twists and turns like an undisciplined snake across quasi-lunar landscape. It’s sacred to the Tibetans as it is regarded as the transformation of the goddess Dorje Gegkyi Tso.
For lakes, like mountains, are sanctified by Tibetans as they are the abodes of protecting gods. We were not just driving through some of the most spectacular scenery we’d ever come across, reaching heights we’ve never attempted before on Earth but we were also performing a pilgrimage which so many Tibetans undertake. Yamdrok-So is the largest lake in south Tibet and it’s said that if its waters run dry then Tibet will no longer be a habitable area – a severe warning indeed!
The lake also has associations with Padmadambhava, the second Buddha, who introduced Buddhism to Tibet. We did not have time to detour to Samding monastery which was a real pity as it’s the only male Tibetan monastery to be headed by a female incarnation – a Dalai Lamaess, in fact. I couldn’t verify this as I couldn’t verify that the monastery has been rebuilt since it was one of the thousands destroyed during the disastrous Cultural Revolution.
If you’re interested in more of the history of Tibetan Goddess reincarnations then there’s a book by Hildegard Diemberger (2007) called When a Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty: The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet. You can get it on Kindle at https://www.amazon.co.uk/When-Woman-Becomes-Religious-Dynasty-ebook/dp/B0092X8WHE/re . Definitely a Christmas book for some!
The lake has good fishing and I noticed quite a few yaks grazing on its shores. Yaks are happy at these altitudes. It would be very cruel to bring them lower down.
Our second pass, the Karo La, was the highest at 16,551 feet. It passes the foot of Noijin Kangsang mountain with its glacier. We stopped here too and looked at the local stalls filled with trinkets set up by villagers .
There was an outstation here and I can definitely vouch that the toilets here are not to be highly recommended.
However, we should be grateful for small mercies. With the lack of trees it’s difficult to find any sort of privacy. Perhaps women travellers should wear long Tibetan skirts to do their business by crouching without embarrassment.
Noijin Kangsang is 23,641 feet high and was first climbed in 1986 by a Chinese expedition. I realised it was this snow-capped mountain that we saw from a distance over the turquoise waters of lake Yamdrok-So. I’ve heard that it’s not too difficult to climb so it could be an economic way of grabbing a Himalayan peak for the first time. Next visit?
You’ll notice from the photographs that Tibet seems largely barren. The mountains aren’t prettily dotted with extensive forests as the Alps or the Apennines are. There are few opportunities for refuge from sun or the rare snowfalls and strangely the snow line only seems to start above 20,000 feet. If you want pretty mountain landscape go to the Austrian Alps. If you prefer powerful natural sculptures and vast areas of impressively desolate purity then Tibet is the place.
There was a third pass to negotiate at only just over 14,000 feet before we descended to follow the fertile Nyang Chu valley which would lead us to Gyangtse.
This was truly a breath-taking ride in all senses of that word. ‘Mozzafiato’ as one would say in Italian. I have only praise for the driver of our little bus!