Archive for November, 2010

Lhasa to Shigatse: Mountains, Passes, Lakes & Glaciers

China > Tibet

Monday, 4th October 2010


After three days of high altitude acclimatisation in Lhasa (3,700m or 12,000ft), today we embark on our first leg to Everest Base Camp, some 700km away. This part of the journey is a 300km road-trip, with 2 mountain passes close to 5,000m high to cross near Nagarze and Gyantse. The plan is to overnight in Shigatse, the 2nd largest city in Tibet.

For orientation, please see MAP HERE.


We depart downtown Lhasa as devotees return from their routine morning prayers around the Potala Palace. I have never seen a city (Lhasa has half-million peopl) with so many religious denizens. They are everywhere here, spinning their portable prayer wheels and thumbing their 108-bead rosaries.

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We head westwards out of central Lhasa, underneath a huge billboard. Note how prominent the Chinese script is compared to Tibetan.

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But first a fuel stop to ensure we have enough juice to last till Shigatse, some 300km away. Outside major towns, fuel is hard to come by. Diesel at ¥6.74 per litre is about double the price in Malaysia (thanks to government subsidy).

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Cruising past beautiful country scenery where the golden autumn leaves make a stunning contrast against the barren mountains.

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A toilet stop in a woody area on the northern side of Lhasa River.

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I spot a Tibetan innovation along the way. Plentiful sunshine here atop the Roof of the World, and what better way to exploit free solar energy.

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A fork in the highway and we are taking left, towards Gyantse (Yangze), 196km away. Straight takes us to Shigatse (also known as Rigaze) quicker, but the route is not as interesting, as we shall find out.

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This is Lhasa River, which passes to the south of Lhasa City. In eastern Tibet, the river abruptly veers southwards to enter India, then Bangladesh, where it’s known as the famed Brahmaputra River.

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We cross to the southern side of Lhasa River …

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… and make a brief stop at a sacred ‘water burial’ site (which has since been closed due to nosey tourists dropping by). In Tibetan Buddhism, the normal way of disposing a dead body is by ‘sky burial’ where the body is dismembered and left at the ‘sky burial’ site for vultures to feed on. If the body is diseased, then the vultures may not eat it (or flesh may harm them), so the option is use either ‘water burial’ or ‘fire burial’ or ‘ground burial’. In ‘water burial’ the dismembered body is thrown into the river.

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After a blast of some macabre Tibetan culture we press on into the mountains along the Lhasa River. This is beginning to look like South Island, New Zealand.

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Up the Kambala Pass, which will eventually reach 4,800m (15,700ft).

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Regardless of the road condition, this is one very important thoroughfare – it’s part of the Lhasa-Kathmandu Friendship Highway. Anything goes here, so just drive extremely carefully …

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… and don’t bother to look right (or left depending on the case).

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It’s a pretty harrowing drive along this pass. The drop can be hundreds of metres!

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There’s always the odd crazy (foreign) guy doing it the hard way. Steep uphill cycle with just 60% oxygen you get at sea level?

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Tailing a fellow dirty traveller. Just the red-white concrete blocks between us and … ummm … certain death?

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Approaching the peak of the pass, …

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… and we hit 4,758m. That’s the highest I’ve been in my life so far (previous record 4,095m – Low’s Peak of Mt Kinabalu, August 2007).

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Past the crest of the mountain, an amazing sight greets – the turquoise glacial Yamdrok Lake, the 2nd holiest lake in Tibetan Buddhism. The turquoise hue is caused by certain minerals leached by glaciers which feed the lake. There are similar lakes in South Island of New Zealand (see HERE).

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At 4,500m, this lake is definitely one of the highest in the world.

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There’s a look-out point offering a splendid view of Yamdrok Lake and year-round snow-capped Mt Noijin Kangsang at 7,200m (23,600ft). This mountain is not yet in the Himalayas, which are still further to the south.

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The highway skirts the northern shore of Yamdrok with the lake to our left, as we seemingly head for Mt Noijin Kangsang.

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A rest area, a scenic spot and it’s a hive of activities.

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Looking east towards where we came from.

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On the lake shore, a well-dressed yak is ready for photos, for a small fee of course, hopefully a well-behaved one. The rock at the back says altitude is 4,442m (14,600ft), that’s taller than Mt Kinabalu by 350m!

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A beautiful view of Mt Noijin Kangsang (7,200m) with year-round snow. It was first climbed in 1986 by a Chinese-Tibetan team.

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A common sight in this area, flocks of sheep and yaks being herded around. And we have to give way.

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Lunchtime finds us at Nagartse. It’s a one-street town, from what I see. Bright blue sky and cold, not helping my mountain sickness headache!

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Very apt name, for they serve basically yak body parts. In his book ‘Himalaya’, Michael Palin says, “Though the herders seem not the slightest bit sentimental about their furry charges, theirs is one of the most one-sidedly symbiotic relationships between man and beast. In return for some grass the yaks give their owners milk, cheese, butter, meat, fuel, building materials, clothes and transport.”  Hahaha!

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The interior, with the white bowls bottom left serving yak stew, fried yak meat, yak soup, yak sausages, yak liver, some vegies, and of course rice. Near the wall, there’s a black stove fueled by dried yak poo – to warm the place up and to boil water. All in all, pretty decent place, with a clean toilet too, all for ¥40 (inclusive of a can of Coke). Great deal.

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Lunch done and we push further west, and another pass beckons. This glacial valley is very similar to the ones in South Island, NZ (see my stories HERE).

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This time we climb and head for the glaciers of Mt Noijin Kangsang.

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And soon we are at 5,000m, under the ‘hanging’ Kharola Glacier which goes all the way up to 5,560m.

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An over the valley, Mt Noijin Kangsang itself up close, at 7,200m high.

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The face of Khorala Glacier, which hangs just above us.

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This spot is the highest part of the Khorala Pass, and it is virtually a commercial centre, lined with stalls selling local tidbits and stuff.

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You can even pose with these nice traditionally-costumed ladies, for a small fee, or be a cheapskate like me and shoot from afar with a zoom lens.

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There you go, we are at about 5,000m (16,400ft) and it’s friggin’ cold.

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Nothing stops this road gang, using rudimentary tools to work with. The Lhasa-Kathmandu Friendship Highway is quite decent, though broken at certain spots.

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Time to descend the mountains and the road makes humongous U-turns.

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Back on the plain, and traffic builds up. To discourage speeding, the police installs checkpoints as the highway starts for vehicles to ‘check-in’ and to get their trip chit time-stamped. At the end of the highway, another checkpoint for check-out time-stamping. For buses, the max speed allowed is 70km/h, so if the check-in/out time difference is too low, then the driver is assumed to have sped and is fined a few hundred yuans.

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This is a major agricultural area of Tibet, the barley fields east of the town of Gyantse. Rain is so scarce, only barley can be grown, and only sheep reared.

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We enter the town of Gyantse, 260km southwest of Lhasa, with a population of just 8,000. It’s almost 4,000m high, and that’s like the top of Mt Kinabalu.

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Gyantse is famous for this 14th century Dzong (fort). Here in 1903-04, the Tibetans fought the British invaders who overwhelmed them and marched on to Lhasa. There’s an ‘anti-British’ museum up there, if you are willing to climb.

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But the main attraction in Gyantse is the 15th century Palcho Monastery, built on a hill at the end of the main road. It belongs to the Yellow Hats sect.

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Main hall of the Baiju Temple fronts the monastery complex, with the usual sacred Buddhism icons.

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Monks’ quarters and at the back, the monastery fortification.

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The main structure here is the Kumbum,  Tibet’s largest stupa, comprising 9 layers of the mandala, the sacred Hindu/Buddhist geometric pattern that is supposed to represent the cosmos. The whole structure signifies a 3D path to cosmic enlightenment by Buddha. It also contains 77 chapels. Very much Nepal-influenced, I’m told.

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Intricate sacred decorations at the Kumbum. Looks like a blue-faced Protector to me.

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People watching in the Kumbum compound is also interesting. The contrast of two cultures.

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Part of the fortification of the monastery atop the hill.

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And of course, the ubiquitous prayer wheels, with rows of yak butter lamps left by pilgrims. The lamps are very sacred here because, in Tibetan Buddism, you go to hell by default. Then with the aid of a butter lamp, can you only find your way to paradise, via a dark tunnel, and your karma determines how well you do that. Surreal stuff.

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Along the road just outside Gyantse, a family is on the move. This is a truly agrarian society and everybody helps out.

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Barley is a the main crop, and in an antiquated mill, barley flour is produced the traditional way. Barley flour is the Tibetan staple food and is called ‘tsampa’.

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FLASHBACK: A couple of days ago, my attempt to have a traditional Tibetan breakfast with tsampa (barley flour) mixed with yak butter tea … I could only muster two spoonfuls before giving up. I just couldn’t swallow it.

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Finally, we are in the streets of Shigatse, after a day-long drive from Lhasa.  It’s the 2nd largest city in Tibet with  80,000 ppl and about 300km west of Lhasa, via Gyantse. Altitude 3,850m (12,600ft).

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For some reason, after checking in, we are feted by the hotel owner, and there is much revelry in the dining room, and more yak body parts to be consumed. Not helping my headache at all, but the dumplings, vegies and fruits save my day.

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The waitresses cum housekeepers come over to serenade us with a traditional Tibetan song, as Lotse looks on, but she has to answer cellphone first.

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And yes, the dinner ends with a traditional dance, performed by the multitasking young ladies and a karaoke set. Thanks a lot, gals!

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Long, tiring, eventful day, and I’m very glad to finally retire to my nice traditional Tibetan-style room, which I find a tad too ornamental. Nevertheless the mattress is cosy, and soon I fall asleep nursing my slight headache.

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