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Trekking Tibet

Trekking Tibet: Day 1 Take 1

Perched high in the mountain region of Eastern Tibet, 3,600m above sea level with a scattering of lifeless Tibetan plains below, Ganden Monastery is one of the most important Buddhist monasteries of Tibet. Built in 1409 by Lama Tsongkhapa, Ganden is the founding monastery of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism (the sect of which the Dali Lamas officially belong to). Our four day trek through the unknown Tibetan wilderness would start here and end at another important Buddhist Monastery, Samye; the first ever Buddhist monastery to be built in Tibet.

We were supposed to spend the night in Ganden monastery but this wasn’t to be. Under Chinese occupation it is now common in Tibet for foreigners to be refused permission to stay in monasteries or places that may be politically sensitive. This is a consequence of Chinese communist rule and seemed to clash robustly with the accommodating attitude of the Tibetan people of which we had experienced thus far. The monks of Ganden would have been pleased to see us stay and to practice their English, but unfortunately the resident monastery police have the last word. The monastery itself was beautiful; constructed in a small village layout with colourful Tibetan artwork being repainted on the walls and Buddhist scripts being printed with thick wooden blocks. Ganden had been completely destroyed in the Chinese “cultural revolution” and work was still going on to restore it to its original demur. The one major change in structure was the over-bearing police station being built into the monastery compounds.

As we were not allowed to stay at the monastery guest house we decided to camp outside. Carl and I would share a tent, Erik and Jo would have a single one each, and Tenzin, our guide would sleep in the cooking tent. It soon became apparent that no-one had checked the tents before we departed. The “cooking tent” was more like a child’s play tent with no room to cook, no ventilation and a plastic floor. Erik’s tent was missing some essential parts, and Carl and I were given a pink summer tent with a hole in the roof. Although we were pleased with the colour we doubted whether this or any of the tents would stand even a spot of rain.

Our theory was soon put to the test. At around 6pm, after a clear and sunny day, the thunder clouds began to appear. I was in the cooking tent with Tenzin preparing vegetables when the rain started. And it wasn’t just a spot of rain, it was hard monsoon rain that shook the tent and started to seep in through the floor and the ceiling. Tenzin and I abandoned dinner and planned to go to another tent to keep dry. I opened our pink tent and there was Carl sitting in his red condom like poncho attempting to cover his camera with plastic bags. Our stuff was thoroughly soaked. “Get me out of here” he shouted, “there’s a f**king hole in the roof”. As I rescued Carl from the clutches of the pink tent, the rain turned to huge pounding hail that made us dance around as if stepping on hot stones. Joe and Erik were in similar positions. We all ran around in the thundering hail trying to find the driest place to sit. After realising that this dry place we were searching for did not exist, we decided to retreat to the Nomad tent camped about 100 meters below us and hope that they’d take us in.

Being the friendly folk that they are, the Nomads not only invited us all into their strong dry(ish) yak hair tent but also gave us plenty of tea, hearty food and a fire to huddle around. They offered us blankets and continually filled up our cups and plates, laughing slightly at our failed attempt to camp in the Tibetan plateau; to them this was simply life. Tenzin called the tour company we had booked the tents through (Windhorse tours – don’t use them) and demanded that someone pick us up and take us back to Lhasa where we could get some proper tents. We had to wait hours to be picked up but were glad to be going somewhere where we could get hot showers. We waited in the Nomad tent with the Nomads who were only too happy to talk to us through Tenzin, although the conversation was rather ‘more tea’ heavy. That was until what can only be described as a hybrid Tiger-Cat emerged from under a big pile of blankets. It was definitely a cat but the size of a Tiger cub with some Tiger like markings. Our fascination with the Tiger-Cat entertained the Nomads and Tenzin, especially when we asked its name and found out that the cat was as old as Joe (18). Turns out they don’t name their pets in Tibet.

Day 1 Take 2

After a night in a dorm room at the Yak hotel and purchasing some high fashion water proof trousers, we set off again for our trek well equipped with better, storm proof tents. At the start of our trek we met our Yak man Taqwo, his son Basansirin and his four pack yaks that would accompany us on our trek. We set off from Ganden Monastery around midday and climbed high into the grassy hills. Stupidly Carl and I had packed our waterproof trousers and of course it started to rain again. Once again we got drenched, but Carl’s spirit was given a boost when he found a fully intact Snickers bar on the floor. He nobly asked if anyone had dropped it, holding it out in front of him. We all shook our heads and he smiled with glee, but the young yak boy  held his hand out thinking that Carl had just offered him the chocolate bar. Carl tried to explain to Basansirin that he was not offering the chocolate, but the boy spoke no English and just laughed along with the rest of us at Carl’s attempt to keep chocolate from a child. Finally he had to give in, he handed over the chocolate, raised his fists to the sky and cursed his lack of Tibetan.

As we approached the camp the rain subsided and the warm sun shone down on us. We had ascended to 4,600 meters and were all a little light headed. Our new tents were much better, ours even had a porch and the cooking tent was huge. Tenzin and I once again started to prepare the vegetables for dinner. Everyone pitched in and we made a vegetable chilly and rice that went down well. That night we saw people being carried down past our camp on horses; they were trekkers forced to come down due to altitude sickness. Tenzin was worried as Carl was feeling a little altitude sick himself but luckily by the morning it had subsided.

Day 2

After a cold night at camp we packed up our things and set off early for the 5,300m pass. As Carl was still feeling a little dodgy Taqwo offered to carry his backpack. As we climbed higher and higher the grass dispersed into patches and the terrain turned to rock. Close to the pass we stopped for a lunch of Tibetan bread, jam and peanut butter. Turning around we could see right down into the green valleys and the small Tibetan villages far below. This made us all feel a little dizzy so we were glad when a cloud came along to obscure the vista. From the spot where we stopped for lunch it was a steep one hour climb up to the rocky pass. I managed somehow to keep up with the Tibetans which prompted Taqwo to keep squeezing my muscles really hard (too hard) and saying ‘good, good’. He then pointed to the boys below us and said a Tibetan word which I decided to translate as ‘gay’.

At the top of the pass there was a small Buddhist monument decorated with the colourful and enchanting Tibetan prayer flags. Over the pass sat a picturesque valley composed of rocks above, greenery below and a turquoise fresh water lake in the distance. It was a long slow descent which took us over another pass and down to the fresh grass where we would camp at 4,800m, next to a serene stream and in the chilling shadows of the dominating mountains. As we set up our tent I started to feel dizzy and very nauseous, like I’d drunk a litre of vodka (again). I put this brief spell of altitude sickness down to my foolish thinking that I could keep up with Tibetans, who are accustomed to the high altitudes. Two hours later the second stage of the hangover kicked in as I very suddenly regained what little colour I had and found myself very hungry. I started to suspect that I had in fact been drunk. We piled into the cooking tent and ate a feast of instant noodles.

That night Carl and I awoke thinking that it was morning already as a faint light appeared through our blue tent. It was actually 3am. We both got out of the tent to go to the toilet and we noticed the light was coming from the stars. The sky was completely clear and the bright rocks above created a misty sea of moonlight that engulfed our surroundings. It was the best toilet trip ever.

Day 3

We woke from an extremely cold night to find our tents covered with a thin layer of ice, but the clear sky from the night remained. As we cooked breakfast the shadows of the mountains retracted and the approaching sun melted away the ice. The trek started off with another climb to another high pass. Once again the Yak man cheerfully donned Carl’s backpack and off we went. We were joined by a group of Chinese trekkers who had camped near us the night before. Despite the obvious tensions between Tibet and China, the Tibetans were as friendly with them as they were with us and when we stopped to take in the scenic mountain lakes we all shared snacks with each other.

Todays trek took us through an unimaginable variety of expansive terrains. We travelled down through the rocky mountains into valleys full of serene lakes and small clear water rivers . We travelled down further to lower altitudes where plants flourished and trees began to dominate the mountainous landscape. Tenzin had informed us the previous night that we would today pass through a small forest where brown bears resided. He told us the story of young Tibetan boy who had sadly been killed by a bear approximately a year ago, and about the more recent event of a man whose face was violently ripped off by a bear, both in this area. Surprisingly the man had escaped with his life and was currently recovering in hospital. The Tibetan explanation is thus; when a bear spots a human it gets embarrassed about being a bear in front of a superior human. To save their embarrassment the bears therefore must remove the human’s face. All embarrassment will then subside. Phew. Tenzin assured us that the brown bears only came out at night but this didn’t really settle my nerves, especially when Carl insisted on stopping to photograph a yak fight.

We were given two choices, we could either camp in the forest area (with the bears) or walk a further hour to the Yarlung Valley where we may be able to purchase chocolates from a local shop. We decided to take the latter option. The scenery changed again as we emerged from the trees and found ourselves on a small dirt track passing a scattering of traditional Tibetan houses along the way. Our campsite for the night was just outside the small village of Yarlung which was once the epicentre of Tibetan life before the government moved to Lhasa. Now all that existed was a village of about ten houses with a small temple set high up in the surrounding mountains. I set up camp while Carl paddled in the nearby river. When he returned I ventured out behind a bush for a wee. There was a horse in the way and as I tried to navigate around it I fell into some stinking sinking mud. I dramatically struggled free, much to the amusement of the horse, but was unable to retrieve my flip-flop from the mud’s grasp. I returned looking more than a little dirty, with only one shoe on and I still needed a wee. Inexplicably, Carl found this incredibly funny and along with Erik he conducted a ceremony for me to dispose of my other favourite flip-flop.

Day 4

We wanted to trek all the way to Samye Monastery but the night before Tenzin had informed us that the Taqwo, Basansirin and the yaks had to go back, and a truck was coming to pick up us and all our equipment and drive us the two hours or so to Samye. This had all previously been arranged by the tour company (Windhorse tours – don’t use them) and Tenzin was surprised that we hadn’t been informed about it.

I awoke in the morning to find that in the night Carl had produced a Carl pat inexplicably close to our tent. Although we could have attributed it to a nearby grazing animal I thought it best he cover it with a rock. After we’d packed away our things a tractor with a trailer arrived to pick us up. We piled our stuff and ourselves into the trailer and off we went. It was a bumpy but scenic ride down a small dirt road and through numerous Tibetan villages. The local people would call out ‘Tashi Dele’ and wave frantically at the sight of Westerners. After a while the landscape turned golden with sand covered mountains and dunes to each side of the road. In the distance the golden roof of Samye Monastery appeared bathed in sunlight. As we drew closer the dirt road turned to concrete and small shops and restaurants started to form roads around us. We knew we were back in civilisation when on our way into Samye village we were approached by Tibetan salesmen attempting to sell us carpets, bracelets, daggers and more.

Samye village looked like a small town set up for tourists with Samye Monastery as the main and only attraction. There was just one problem, and that was the distinct lack of tourists. Many shops and restaurants were boarded up and the streets were rife with stray dogs. The Samye Monastery compound was bigger than the town itself. Inside were many small residencies, numerous small temples and four colourful stupas whose buddha eyes crept up over the trees. The centre piece was a large temple composed of three stories; one level was decorated in Chinese style Buddhist architecture, another the colourful Tibetan style and another in the Indian style. It was here that in the year 791 a great debate took place that would determine the course of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibet at this time housed both the Chinese Hvashang Buddhist tradition and the Indian Mahayana/Vajrayana tradition. The Indian tradition prevailed and Mahayana Buddhism is still the dominant type of Buddhism in Tibet today. As we were repeatedly told by Tenzin throughout the trip, compassion and kindness are the two most important aspects of Mahayana Buddhism. We’d experienced this first hand on our trek; the nomads who took us in and fed us, Taqwo who carried Carl’s backpack everyday and Tenzin who’d share all he had with us, cook with us and help us to put up and dismantle our tents. The Tibetan landscapes and important monasteries are fascinating, but it’s the Tibetan people who will stay vivid in our memories for their various acts of kindness and the compassion they demonstrate in their daily lives.

  1. Uncle G.
    September 16, 2010 at 6:07 am

    Hey there, me again. Another great read. Particularly enjoyed the reference to the Carl pat and how you actually looked like you maybe even like Carl in the photos.

    What a fantastic voyage you are both having.

    Uncle G.

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