Monday 4th to Saturday 9th May, 2015
The earthquake has changed our itinerary considerably and plans have had to be fluid, but we have packed so much in that the start of the trip seems like a life time away.
Following our two nights at Terdom Hot Springs we head back to Lhasa for a night.
In the time we spend back there we meet other tourists who have been told not to head West as roads (and sometimes entire areas) were closed due to earthquake relief.
We also saw the hoards of climbers and their gear who had been evacuated from the Mount Everest region (on the Tibetan side). Everest, we were told, was shut for the season. This put paid to our Base Camp visit as well as a planned three day trek to Shishipangma base camp.
Colin was working on hard on contingency plans, should we find we were blocked from going West entirely.
Eventually we got word that we would be able to head West, through Gyantse, at least as far as Shigatse. Most tourists were informed that Shigatse was the farthest they could go but we had whisper that, as we already had permits secured for our Mount Kailash trek, we may be able to proceed further.
The six of us loaded up and headed to Gyantse, with a stop at the dazzlingly turquoise Yandrok Lake. Yandrok, at 72km long, is one of Tibets four sacred lakes and, judging by the numbers of Chinese tourists, a popular place to visit. We all had the obligatory ‘here we are, with a yak, in front of a lake’ photographs and headed on.
The Lhasa to Shigatse route is popular with Western tourists – although Western tourism is incredibly small scale in Tibet – and so our paths crossed with others a few times in the following couple of days. There was the group of German bikers, some American ladies in their sixties, two Dutch ladies and, of course, the Australian lady who warned us away from the poor toilets at the nunnery days before.
In Gyantse we visited the Dzong – a fort built in the 13th/14th century to guard approaches to Lhasa and the surrounding area. The fort was attacked in 1904 in a British attack led by Younghusband. Looking at the magnificent Dzong I could see early inspiration for the design of the daleks!
A stroll through Old Gyantse town revealed attractive homes looking out to the mountains, each with their own cow tied up outside. It also led us to the discovery of a rather mysterious 1970’s disco boot, discarded at the back of the houses.
We moved on to Shigatse and to the first (and only) hotel of the trip to combine comfortable beds, hot running water (which ran in the right direction and didn’t shoot straight out of the tap onto the opposite wall), heating and wifi.
We also found a lovely restaurant, where Ralph and Dad were able to sample the local Chang – barley wine – a taste which Ralph took to and Dad did not.
We we’re glad of a good meal together as tonight signalled the end of the holiday as a group of six. From Shigatse Dad and Eileen were to travel back to Lhasa for two nights and then fly home. I couldn’t let Dad leave without one last attempt to beat him at cards. So, armed with a bottle of the local red wine, we headed back to the hotel. Inevitably Dad went home the victor at two games to one and a fair amount of the interesting wine was poured down the sink.
It had been wonderful to spend two weeks travelling with Dad and getting to know Eileen but now we were a band of four.
And a very lucky band we were too. For we were granted passage on to Mount Kailash. One of only two groups to have gained permission so far this year!
Mount Kailash is a mountain sacred to Hindus, Bon and Buddhists. Most Tibetans try to travel to do the kora at least once in their lifetime. It usually takes three to four days to complete but some hardy souls do it in one and others, even hardier, prostrate themselves all the way round. The mountain has never been climbed, due to it’s religious significance. Very few Westerners ever travel to do the kora.
From Shigatse accommodation goes downhill fast and we know we are getting into serious adventure travel territory. Don’t get me wrong, the standards of living and accommodation for us are high compared to that of the locals, but they provide a stark contrast to our expectations back in England. I am now used to using long drops (never long enough) and storm drains as toilets, having no running water (a bucket of cold and a flask of hot are usually provided) and layering thermals with multiple duvets to keep warm on freezing nights, with no heating.
Two long days of travelling at least reassure us that we will reach the village of Darchen, at the foot of Kailash. Many checkpoints of both the police and the PSB (Public Security Bereau) have to be passed through. Each time our papers are checked and we are allowed to move on we breathe a collective sigh of relief. Our final potential stumbling block was the check point into Darchen. Our guide was out of the van for a long time before coming back; “The police want to see you all” he announced. We dutifully filed out of the vehicle for closer inspection, only to discovery that the main reason our presence was required was to sign a disclaimer. There had been a lot of snow on the high pass of the trail and the authorities did not want any broken legs on their conscience.
Darchen was far from inviting, a rather depressing row of modern but tatty shops and restaurants concealed most of the old town. The regulation dogs roamed the streets, waiting for their midnight chorus.
Despite this there was beauty surrounding us. Mount Kailash, with its distinctive domed peak, loomed high and the flat plains of Tibet gave way to the Indian Himalayas in the distance.
We were planning on a rest day in Darchen before starting the three day kora but the weather looked good for the following day, so the decision was made to take advantage and get it done.
We were debating whether to hire yaks or porters when our guide explained that yaks were prone to leg it off up the mountain, losing your baggage in the process. We chose porters.
We were working on a minimum of everything – the only clothes changes for the next three days would be underwear (sleep in whatever you walk in). However we also needed to carry sleeping bags and food for three days, hence the presence of our two lady porters.
Guides and porters always have the ability to put you to shame with their strength and lack of ‘gear’ but their big advantage is being used to the altitude. We have been at altitude for around nine days now. Starting from a low point in Lhasa, of around 3650m and moving up and down as we crossed the country. Darchen is approx. 4575m above sea level. Although we have acclimatised well it is still a breathless experience if walking fast or going uphill. The other main side effect of altitude is a lack of sleep. We all check in with each other in the morning; “How did you sleep?”, “I got two full hours, then was awake for three and went into deep sleep an hour before the alarm.” is the standard conversation. Plus most of us have suffered with a Cheyne-Stokes reaction (I will let you look it up) at some point, which wakes you gasping for air.
Altitude or no, we have walking poles extended, factor 50 on our faces and fully charged cameras. We are off on the kora!
As we travel through the uniquely barren and yet beautiful scenery of Tibet I sometimes zone out and listen to my music. Occasionally a song comes on which sums up the moment. Here is one which I feel suits our journey: https://youtu.be/H7Gr6HBMDu0
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