In spite of being mindful of the fact that we were now in China time zone, which was two hours and thirty minutes ahead of the Indian Standard Time (IST); stubbornly, my body was still not adjusted to cope with it. My android-enabled phone had already shifted to the latest time zone. I woke up much earlier than my usual rising time. It was seven in the morning as per the China Standard Time (CST). The previous evening, I had slept well past midnight according to the IST. In fact, to be honest, there was a certain degree of uncertainty about time for the entire journey right from day one. Up there, the clock and day seemed meaningless. Appreciation of the value of time on this journey to the Sacred Space was completely nonessential and counterproductive.
I felt refreshed even though I had slept very briefly. We had only covered 200 km out of more than 1500 km we needed to reach the Kailash Mansarovar region located westwards from the Indo-Tibetan border at Nathu La in Sikkim. Our next night halt was at Lazi, also known as Lhatse, located 295 km in central Tibet from our current location at Kangma, better known as Kangmar. The variance in culturally and administratively adopted nomenclature of towns or cities appeared a bit confusing initially. In Tibet, almost every town is known by multiple names ranging from Tibetan to Chinese, Roman and even Mongolian name. Common sense prevailed later.
As the group gathered in the dining hall for breakfast, a few announcements pertaining to the day’s routine were made by the Tibetan guide. “No photography”, the language translator mumbled. Grabbing a quick bite, I headed towards our truck where the group’s luggage was being collected. Being the younger most, I had volunteered myself to help with the group’s luggage. A few snap-records followed and we were on our way to Lhatse through the provincial highway number 204. The highway follows the age-old wood and wool trade route to reach Gyantse after which it becomes a part of the Southern Friendship Highway between Lhasa and Kathmandu. Ahead it merges with the highway number 318 at Shigatse. Both Kangmar and Lhatse are part of the traditional Tsang province, which is one of the most popular as well as prosperous regions of Tibet. Apart from a richer agriculture than elsewhere on the plateau, this province has the popular adventure-rich Everest region, Friendship Highway, Gyantse Kumbum, and many of the country’s most important monasteries.
Travelling by the Nyang Chu in its greener valley, soon we were at the historical town of Gyantse, famed for the fourteenth century Gyantse Kumbum, the largest chorten in Tibet and the Gyantse Dzong that dominates the local skyline. The fifteenth century compound of red-walled Pelkhor Chode monastery next to the dzong overlooks the town on a high hill. Once an important trade centre between India and Tibet, Gyantse was yet another site of a major battle between the confused Tibetan warriors and the organised troops of Younghusband. Carrying on the advance from Jelep La in Sikkim, the British spent nearly two months on the outskirts of Gyantse before seizing the dzong in just a day. The next misfortune came when a considerable number of structures of the dzong and nearby monasteries were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. As a repercussion of which, seeking freedom from Chinese, today, wishing for the lesser devil many Tibetan communities have marked the Younghusband’s Lhasa mission with red letter. Recollecting my thoughts from the previous evening I mused on the fact that we had retraced a major part of the route of 1904-Younghusband’s march to Lhasa from Sikkim.
With its red-white coloured buildings surrounded by green fields that are outlined by tall poplars, the settlement of Gyantse (3950 m) radiates the traditional charm of Tibet when viewed from the highway. Built atop a hillock, the dzong towers above the valley; and would sure command an extensive view from its top. Just a few kilometres ahead, another historical wonder – a ruined fortress – towers above the monastery of village Tsechen. The fortress is said to have been built in the fourteenth century and was even used as a shelter by the British during their 1904 military mission. Half an hour later our caravan stopped near Panam by the highway at a memorial built to commemorate the traditional dance Xie of Tibet. The memorial had a small museum-cum-craft shop.
Almost 90 km ahead from Gyantse lays the traditional capital of Tsang and Tibet’s second-largest as well as culturally, administratively and commercially important town Shigatse (3850 m), also known as Rikaze. As we entered the Shigatse city, we could not help but wonder if we were still in Tibet at all! There were tall multi-storey buildings and apartments all around. A modern railway track enters the city from its north-eastern side. Our caravan crossed the railway-track overbridge as we hurriedly bypassed the city. Wide planned streets, large glass-windowed grocery stores, restaurants, shops, offices dotted both sides of the street. The traffic smoothly managed itself with the help of traffic lights. The modern city gave just a little hint of the traditional Tibetan lifestyle. Spread near the confluence of Nyang Chu and the Tsangpo, the city nevertheless continues to be a hotbed of Panchen Lama and Chinese politics; taking shape from the monastic complex of Tashilhunpo, destroyed and rebuilt.
Inside the bus, yatris were equally thrilled to see Shigatse-locals waving at them. The opening of the Nathu La for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra was surely welcomed by the Tibetans. Lhatse (or Lazi), a popular pit-stop or overnight halting point for both Everest or Nepal and Kailash Mansarovar bound travellers, was still over 150 km from Shigatse market. Driving across central Tibet, somewhere between Qumig and Gangchen, we approached the crest of a lower pass, Tra La roughly 4,000 m above sea level. The terrain opened up as it became devoid of wide green fields. Far in the distance a low canopy of clouds dissolved into rain. The rainfall looked to be highly focused on just a small stretch. It was a rare moment of precipitation in this arid landscape. Our fleet of vehicles halted for lunch at a prearranged stretch near Shab Geding by the highway. A series of small yet modern Tibetan tents were pitched to accommodate the travellers as well as the support staff. We all routinely carried our packed meals with us. Usually, a few group members would volunteer to assist with everything from serving food to bussing tables as well as handing out utensils or fruits.
In less than an hour we were again on the Friendship Highway. Moving ahead, after a few stone crushing sites by the highway, the landscape became even more chocolatey and barren. During the bus ride post lunch, most of the passengers dozed off in their seats as I found myself engaged in the changing landscape. Emerging from the green Chumbi valley, the rolling hills that seemed green quickly changed to colourless but as we travelled over the Tibetan highland, changing landscape presented a range of mineral hues in the alluvial soil; from rust to ochre, amber and gold as well as the whiteness of salt. Deposited soil was aglow like polished copper. Carrying the testament of natural changes, in the form of bruises and dents, the barren hillocks as well as surrounding ridges changed from varying hues of purple and brown with the shifting sunlight. Taking energy from moisture in the soil, wherever it existed, shrubbery and succulents popped up within the valleys on the plateau.
Without knowing much about the destinations, I kept taking notes from whatever I could observe to be noteworthy. The bus began a smooth climb to the Lagpa La at 4465m. Such was the beauty of the road infrastructure that even a 20 wheeled loaded truck climbed such passes without showing any signs of trouble. From the slopes of the pass, I made a few snap records of the landscape we had just travelled through. A green patch of a settlement appeared like an icing on the enormously vast barren highland. The visible human intervention on the plateau, right or wrong, appeared very small in the vastness and grandiosity of the mountainscape. Even though fully aware that the survival of human life depended entirely on the temper of weather as well as availability of food, fuel and water; I felt the sense of freedom and spiritual independence deeper than possible elsewhere.
On the other side of the pass, the road descending from its slopes made its way through a desolate valley devoid of any vegetation. Far in the distance, a green patch encircled a few settlements on the valley floor. The reflection of light on the road in the rain-washed cloudy valley gave a silvery effect to the highway. Around here, with vegetation reduced to a minimum, the terrain seems like an expression of primeval forces of nature. Bare rounded ridges bear witness to the continuous action of wind, water and weather. Climbing down in loops and curves, I imagined the legendary pandit explorers on a barren terrain like this trying to get their things together. I would rate Nain Singh Rawat to be among the topmost adventurers of the entire Himalayan region. Disguising themselves as Ladakhi traders, the maps they produced and the information they collated were later found to be remarkably accurate.
An hour later, passing through the territory of ancient Sakya kingdom we reached Lhatse 4050 m. The township of Lazi is an affair of not more than a few streets. The Friendship Highway now bypasses the town to reach Kathmandu. We checked into a multi-storeyed accommodation which had all the features of a business hotel. Even though, the disco lights fixed inside the rooms were absolutely not expected, I was particularly delighted to find wi-fi service. Most of the signboards including on the temperature control unit were either in Tibetan script or Chinese. The only issue being that to regulate the room temperature or even to turn that thing off, we had to call up the helpdesk and involve the language translators. The issue at hand was that most of us realised the need to get in touch with the helpdesk well past midnight.
Having arranged our stuff in the rooms allotted to each one of us, we headed towards the market to take a stroll. Shops selling veggies, basic necessities, garments, restaurants, costumes, groceries, etcetera dotted both sides of the main street. Traffic lights beamed on the main junction. A dark cover of clouds stretched till horizon on the northern side of the town. As I position myself in the middle of the street to make a photo record, I notice a rainbow. The street passed directly beneath this otherworldly arch of primary colours hanging like strings of prayer flags; as if a gateway built to celebrate our arrival. Rainbow has a special mention in the Tibetan mythology. The folklore explains that rainbows represent the teachings and traits of saints who have passed away; calling it a doorway that leads to the Promised Land. Only the blessed ones can have an access to such unseen gateways that lead us into the idyllic country comprising buried treasures.
On the face of it, I do not believe in mythological expressions but there is a part of me that is forever curious to dig up such mysteries and question their authenticity. I slept quite early that evening only to awake in the night. I called up the helpdesk! 🙂