Journey to the Roof of the World

Day Two - Gyantse to Shigatse

Early the next morning, Drujal led us on a short walk through Gyantse, past an abandoned hilltop Buddhist fort that dominates the town and through an intricate network of old residential streets - complete with cows in the road and people washing around the water pump. It's an age old cliché, but it really did feel like looking back into the past. Prayer flags, roughly knotted onto gnarled boughs, fluttered soulfully whilst wild dogs bark and chase each other down empty streets and dusty children peek out from shuttered windows before darting back inside if you manage to make eye contact with them. The hidden vibrancy that obviously bubbles away behind the plain, well maintained façades - combined with the steely blue light of early morning - made the complete scene memorable in a way that my photos wholly fail to capture. Beautiful. 

The monastery that we were walking to was made all the paler in comparison to the route we had taken to get there. Whilst there were certainly moments of beauty, the chalky handprints made on the upper terraces of the monastery's signature temple for one, it's hard not to feel fatigued when seeing the same elements over and over, albeit in different configurations. Sad to say, but true. The flower garden was lovely though, and unique in the religious buildings we'd seen thus far. 

The final stop before Shigatse was a stop we hadn't intended to make. The late morning sun had soared and, as we dropped into the yellowing fields of the valley flatlands, I could feel the heat through the coach windows. Small buildings were beginning to spring up, dotted over the landscape and possessing a decidedly rustic character; many of the structures, and the rough walls that surrounded them, seemed to be made of rammed earth or even a wattle and daube style mixture - upon closer inspection, the material was actually row upon row of cow pats (or yak pats to be more precise) pinned out to dry in the sun. Used as fuel for fires, stoves and boilers, this excremental veneer certainly gave the buildings a unique texture, both visually and nasally. 

As we neared a cluster of houses, slightly larger than some of the others we had passed, we pulled off the road and Dewjal sauntered out and into the nearby shop to have a discussion with the locals. He then beckoned to us to follow him into the sunshine. We all got off and, slightly confused, wandered through the narrow passages created by walls of surprisingly height that marked the boundaries between what we now knew to be farm buildings. To be honest, I had guessed they were agricultural quite a while back, not due to the keen application of my years of architectural training, but because there aren't many office or factory buildings with façades of yak droppings and cows tied up outside. 

As we made our way through the silent and empty gaps between the compounds, Drujal occasionally disappearing into one for a few seconds before waving us on to the next one and we managed to pick up a trio of local children. They didn't say much, even when I tried my best 'Me Tarzan, you Jane' impression, but they seemed happy enough to follow us around, sometimes sniggering at our funny clothes and strange voices. 

Drujal, deciding we were slowing him down in whatever quest he'd set himself, told us to wait on the corner of a larger farm building and then vanished around a wall. We wandered out into a nearby field, although that seems an inappropriate choice of words given the scale of the place, and happily watched a yak chewing on rapidly drying hay. The view of the mountains surrounding the lush valley floor was lovely and I just relaxed in the warmth of the morning, waiting for Drujal to reappear. 

When he finally did, he led us through a small gate and into the garden of one of the farm houses. We were suddenly, and surprisingly, in the middle of a vivid tableau of rural Tibetan life; a gang of men were taking a tractor to pieces in an oily heap, a pair of small boys swung happily on the handles of a cart, two cows barged each other to get at a pile of hay and there, in the centre of it all, was a beaming matriarch watching over the scene proudly. 

Quick and confused introductions followed, and we followed the grandmother of the family up a flight of rickety stairs made out of roughly finished logs and came out onto a raised courtyard space that was enclosed by individual rooms. Yak cheese hung in little, flat baskets on lines beside drying laundry, yet more children were talking and playing and small benches, plants and kittens were scattered around liberally. The courtyard is used for both practical and social functions, and has the kind of welcoming, lived-in character - defining it as the centre of the home - equatable to kitchens in western Europe.

It was a charming experience, as our hosts were welcoming and keen for us to explore, although our entry had obviously been paid for by Drujal, but for me it was tinged with the easy guilt of the well-off visiting the poor. It felt like we'd come to simply smile, take pictures of their lives and leave again, which is pretty much what we did, and I wondered how many tour groups traipsing through your home it would take to buy a new tractor. Still, despite the feeling that we could have done a lot more for them before disappearing into the ether, it was a fascinating diversion and full of the richness that only people can bring to seeing new places.

We drove on, arriving in the surprisingly modern city of Shigatse. Long concrete boulevards shone in the bright afternoon sunshine and we pulled into the courtyard of a nice, if slightly characterless, hotel before Drujal explained the afternoon's activities. Most of the group had decided to visit the City's nunnery, famed for it's carpet weaving, but Ria - perhaps still smarting from having missed the last hike - was keen to give her walking boots a workout. Sander and I agreed to join her and as the rest of the gang headed in the direction of the prayer wheels, we set off up the near vertical approach to the mountain that towers over the city. 

We'd been assured that we were allowed to walk up this mountain (as the Chinese military restricts access to a lot of the peaks), but it still came as somewhat of a shock to see what I can only describe as a platoon of Chinese soldiers at the top of the first peak. Their age suggested that they might have been cadets, but still, seeing so many red stars on camouflage got my heart racing a little faster. 

We carried on up, playing the standard mountain game of 'Oh there's the top... No wait, there's another one behind it'. Each peak gave us ever more spectacular views over the surrounding landscape, a collection of valleys and mountain ranges that resembled a swathe of baize, rucked up and roughly folded in places. The climb was heavy going at some points, with some heart pounding moments of climbing and scrambling exaggerated by Sander's cries for help when he got his (hand)bag stuck. The verticality made for some exciting photo opportunities as we leaned out over 200 metre vertical drops. 

As we reached the top, the light beginning to ebb away, we toasted the nearby prayer flags with some of Ria's secret gut rot that she'd hidden in her bag for the occasion, and basked in our victory and the wonderful views. 

We hurried back down, as the evening closed in around us, and reached the hotel in time for a celebratory bowl of chips and a beer or two. The sunset was a beautiful purple pink and it felt like a great ending to one of the best days I'd had whilst traveling so far. 

Tomorrow we're off to Sakya, home to the 'Grey' sect of Tibetan Buddhism, so more to follow.