Our ride eventually arrived at 10 a.m., an hour late. As our previous driver had been involved in a little collision on the way to our hotel and was delayed by police enquiries, a new vehicle and driver had to be found..
We had a long journey ahead, all the way from Lhasa to Shigatse (284 km), Tibet’s second largest city and another must-see destination on every Tibet itinerary. Expecting at least a six hour journey, followed by a visit to another monastery before the fall of darkness, time was tight and opportunities to take pictures of the unfolding scenery scarce. We traversed through agricultural areas, green patches brightened by the yellow blooms of brassica; the brown hues of barren mountains towering in the distance. On occasions, we passed small villages. Streets were lined with houses not only displaying prayer poles, but also Chinese flags… Nowhere else in China are Chinese flags so ubiquitous as in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. A display of loyalty to China, or compulsory? A question we never asked our guide; some things are taboo and remain unsaid. You can never be sure of the eyes…
Our drive shadowed the course of the Yellow River, named for the colour of the silts that are carried downstream in its flow. Along its banks, strings of prayer flags flapped in the wind and we briefly made a stop – not at the most scenic part unfortunately – to allow us to take some snaps. But apart from that, and a short break for lunch, we carried on relentlessly to make sure we reached Shigatse in time before the local police office closed. As foreign visitors to the town, our presence in the city needed to be officially registered and our permit for Tibet inspected. Whereas Chinese tourists have free access to Tibet and travel unchecked, foreigners have to obtain prior permission for a visit and their movements are closely monitored.
As the whole of China adheres to the same time zone, evenings in Tibet remain much lighter for longer compared to the Eastern side of the country. So although we did not arrive in Shigatse until early evening, we still managed to explore the Tashilhunpo Monastery before the onset of dusk made photography more challenging, or impossible even. We walked around the ancient buildings, again watching Buddhist locals making kora and wondered about the little heaps of random pebbles piled on the steps, yet another means for worshippers to keep track of the number of times they circled around the stupas. We were too late to witness the great monk debates or the chance to ask questions about their life; we just watched them wandering down the street towards their homes at the end of the day.
Our last whole day was reserved for the awe-inspiring landscapes of Tibet: majestic snow topped mountain peaks, enormous Alpine lakes and impressive glaciers. As we steadily climbed from Shigatse towards the Kharola Pass at an elevation of just over 5000m, spectacular scenery unfolded at each bend in the road. An emerald green lake, streaked and flecked with brown stripes and patches was festooned with endless strings of gently fluttering prayer flags. Just like many mountains are considered sacred, lakes are equally revered and prayer flags often hem lakes and rivers as well as brighten up the sides of holy mountains.
Near the top of the mountain pass, we were enthralled by the spectacular Kharola Glacier. We did not stop at the most touristy site, but our driver slowed down enough for us to get a few shots, before parking the vehicle just around the corner. Away from the throng of too many tourists, we hiked up closer to the densely packed snow clinging to the cliff, a massive ice tongue covering the top of the Kharola Mountain. We huffed and puffed our way up, definitely struggling to catch our breath in the thin air. At moments like this, I am always pleased to see I am not the only one affected and the younger ones amongst the group also needed plenty of rest breaks to cover maybe one hundred meters in total… Of course, even at the spots with fewer tourists, local Tibetans did not miss the opportunity to supplement their income with posing for photographs and selling Tibetan prayer flags.
We ended our list of must-see attractions between Shigatse and Lhasa with the famous Yamdrok Lake. This enormous freshwater lake is one of four particularly sacred lakes in Tibet and everyone, including the Dalai Lama, makes pilgrimages there. Along the shores, small towers of rocks possibly tally the number of times devotees walked around the lake. Not a mean feat as each circumambulation on foot (making a full circle) takes around seven days. Yamdrok Lake derives its name from its perfect turquoise colour and is surrounded by all-year-round snow capped mountains making it a popular location for wedding photography, as well as attracting numerous tourists and Buddhist devotees. No wonder that on each outcrop and stretch of usable land near the lake, locals are trying to encourage visitors to have their picture taken with a yak or Tibetan mastiff . Stalls and tables hem the path to the viewing points and it is hard to resist buying at least some small souvenir from the locals.
So, I did not go to Everest Base Camp… A pity. But maybe on another trip back to Tibet or Nepal… who knows…