Well the free day that was promised in the itinerary has become a lot less free and I'm actually quite glad. We'd already been to most of the major points of interest within Lhasa's immediate vicinity with the group, and I was sure our budget wouldn't stretch to hiring taxis to drive us around and about the Tibetan countryside, so when Drujal suggested some optional activities he could arrange we leapt at the chance. It seems all of the group, bar three, were also looking for something to do, so eleven of us jumped in our bus and headed off to another monastery quite some distance from the capital.
As the bus edged it's way up the mountains that surround Lhasa like the edges of a bowl, I could see what appeared to be a great tangle of brightly coloured cloth draped over the pass in front of us. What it actually turned out to be was a great tangle of brightly coloured cloth, prayer flags to be precise, spun out over the rocks in massive swathes. It looked as though a spider had exploded after eating a barrel of Skittles. The prayer flags I'd seen in pictures always seemed to be solitary, almost lonely, strings of colour artistically lining a snowy mountain path - the reality seems to be that the Tibetans go in for quantity over quality. We stopped to take pictures and admire the view. The ground was littered with hundreds of tiny stupas, a kind of monument to prayer, all made out of tiny stones, like a lilliputian graveyard. I had a go at building my own, quite successfully, until the bus driver's 8 year old daughter showed me up by making a more elegant and much sturdier stupa right by mine.
We carried on along the valley on the other side of the pass, taking a steep turn into another, much narrower valley. As we neared the Monastery, I realised that the mountains behind were covered in an incomprehensible array of yet more prayer flags, this time in strings that spanned mountain peaks. The side of the mountain looking down the valley was literally covered by them, and my mind reeled at how they got there or, more importantly, who had the unfortunate job of putting them so far up a mountain.
We alighted from the coach and made our way up the hill upon which the monastery buildings are built. It was much quieter here than at yesterday's monastery, with less tourists, and the compound was understandably more spread out, nestled into the hillside and connected by rugged paths. It was quite hard work moving around, as we'd come up quite a way from Lhasa, but I'd avoided Great Wall-esque tunnel vision thus far. Given that I was finding it tough going, it was a little demoralising to get near the top of the complex and find a 10-year old girl with her brother, who looked a little too old to be carried, uncomfortably strapped to her back. I hope he remembers her kindness when he grows up.
The buildings, mostly chapels and temples carved into the rock, were interesting (the highlight being a cave, dark but shallow, with a shrine at one end and an arm-length hole in the rock face at the other - I could help but think of Flash Gordon as I gingerly put my hand in) but far more noteworthy were the people. The monks here were much more friendly, smiling and saying hello, and welcomed their photographs being taken. The whole place felt more casual than the last monastery, and it made it a good place to walk around as a visitor. And yes, that is a real goat in the photo.
As we neared the top of the complex, Drujal told us that those that wanted to could strike out for the top of the mountain that stood behind the monastery. He also said that the climb wasn't that hard, and here's where the alarms should have sounded, although he'd never reached the top himself. Drujal's ever nonchalant manner implied that he'd just given up out of boredom rather than the challenge of the terrain, so, suitably inspired and looking for adventure, Kate, Sander, Rosa and myself set out on the little mountain track that led gently up from the monastery. Upon rounding the first corner though, it was quickly apparent that the way was going to get harder and that my first real attempt at exercise at altitude was going to be a struggle. My legs almost immediately turned to lead and every ten metres of ascent was like one hundred at normal altitudes. The going wasn't actually too bad, like a moderately steep trek in the Lakes, but the height and the lack of real exercise conspired against me. There were pretty little mountain flowers scattered about, an the view down the valley was impressive, so slowly but surely however, and with more breaks than I'd care to admit, we carried on towards the peak. Well... A peak. The prayer flags were starting to make an appearance so we knew we must be near the top. A last second burst of adrenaline pushed me upwards, over the edge of a ridge, and to one of the most extraordinary views of the trip thus far...
...A sixty year old monk sat crossed legged and looking right at me, with an expression of slight bemusement. I was so shocked I almost missed the two nuns (both 50+) and the two young lads carrying a 10ft steel post behind him. As Sander, Kate and I clambered up to the ridge, the real peak being about three miles away, the monk stood up, reached for a little wicker chest sitting nearby, opened it and offered us all a sweet from inside. It was an awesome moment. We tried talking, without much luck, but the young helpers had better English and explained that they were up here to erect a new anchor post for the prayer flags. As they set about digging a hole (after a climb that had left me exhausted) we took another sweet proffered by the monk and admired the view. It was beautiful, but the real joy of the walk had been the chance encounter, which left me smiling for the rest of the day. Kate climbed back down to collect Rosa, who'd decided to stop a little way behind us, as Sander and I took our photos and marvelled at the scenery.
As we started down (with a final sweet from the monk) we noticed a collection of large birds circling the mountain, and waited for them to wheel back over. Two groups, one set of eagles, the other vultures, swung low over us so we stopped and just watched them ride the thermals.
Just as we could start to see the monastery again, we heard a loud shriek and, looking up, saw a solitary figure on the edge of a ridge, howling down the valley. We howled back and after a wordless (but noisy) back and forth with this wild man of the mountains, we set off back after Kate and Rosa.
By the time we'd caught back up with the them, we were almost at the bottom and decided to head back to the bus to meet up with the group, but not before taking a picture with some young monks, only too keen to pose for us (in a surprisingly 'gangsta rap' way for monks), and not before being overtaken by the same wild man we'd shouted at not twenty minutes ago. Given that it had taken us about forty five minutes to descend to this point, and he was a good 400m above us when we saw him, he either must have jumped off or been some kind of Tibetan Superman. Or both.
We headed back to the coach, full of the bubbly excitement you get from doing something you've truly enjoyed. The ride back was spent swapping stories and photos with the group, who'd also enjoyed themselves from the sounds of it, and staring out at the landscape as it flashed by.
Another group dinner, and yet more nourishing yak meat, before hurried packing and another early night. I'm tired and tomorrow we set out on the long bus ride that marks the start of our journey towards our next destination: Everest Base Camp.