After a much better night’s rest in Shigatse, we headed over to its Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, built by the 1st Dalai Llama in 1447 and home to 10 iterations of the Panchen Llama (the 11th is sequestered in Beijing, not voluntarily, I’d imagine). This gorgeously built monastery holds five burial stupas of Panchen Llamas, as well as a staggering 3 storey high golden “future Buddha”. Seeing maroon-clad monks walk centuries-old cobblestone paths between orange, black, and white stucco buildings with mountains rising behind was a very peaceful, beautiful experience.
Within the shrines were large golden statues of past Llamas with walls painted with a acid trip’s kaleidoscope of many brightly-hued, stone-faced deities and nightmarish 10,000 limbed and eyed demons. I also had an interesting conversation about burial practices with Phuntsok and Kong. In Bangladesh, the body is cremated in while the family watches or attends, much like the Indian ghats, although the ashes are not put in the river afterwards. Like Christianity (and Tibetan Buddhism), the body is just a vessel for the soul, and naught but meaningless flesh and bone after its passing. The Tibetans take this idea much further, as after mourning and prayers, the body is cut up and fed to vultures. Another interesting facet of the temple visit was the music, which was heavy on drums and chanting and reminded me of Native American music more than anything.
From there we started our long drive to Namtso Lake, where we would spend the next night. Along the way, we stopped at a small, nameless stream in a green carpeted valley with sheep grazing nearby. It turned out that this was a natural hot spring, so we took our shoes off and bathed out feet in the alternating lukewarm and quite hot water. After we drove through a few small towns in a nearby valley. It was so peaceful, with people stacking hay, traditional stone houses with fall-yellowed trees interspersed with them, and that crisp, clear air. I could get used to living in a place like that.
From there, we went through a narrow canyon with a bubbling, rocky stream up to another high pass. Beyond that, it was all vast steppe ringed by snow-covered mountains with a small blue lake in its center. There were many yak and sheep herds and in the distance, dotting the foothills, we saw the bright blue yak tents of the nomadic Dropa herdsmen.
We arrived at Namtso Lake at dusk. The overcast sky dulled the scenery a bit, but the blue, salty expanse was still pretty. There was a small community of single-storey, aluminum-sided blockhouses there, which with the intermittent snow and fog reminded me of films of remote Alaskan outposts. For dinner, we ate white stewed mushrooms, rice, a Chinese hot sauce consisting of red pepper and aged soybeans that was spectacular, and a dish I’d smelled when passing another table and requested, apparently off the menu. I believe it was thin strips of crisp, partially boiled potato sauteed with green onions in incredibly rich and flavorful yak butter. Whatever it was, it was excellent. Speaking of yak butter, the Tibetans also adore butter tea, which is exactly what it sounds like- yak butter dissolved in hot water with tea. It tasted like… melted butter. A cup of melted butter. Too rich for my taste.
The next morning, we walked a bit around the lake, revered by Tibetan Buddhists. It was even more overcast, and the snowfall increased, but didn’t accumulate. There was not much to see besides clear blue water and some prayer flag-bedecked rocky outcroppings riddled with small caves. On a clear day you can see small snowy peaks across the water. Walking back, we passed some meandering white yak, meant for tourist pictures but unattended with tourists in short supply. They really are beautiful creatures.
Heading to Lhasa, we passed through our last 5,000 m point, the pass leading to the lake. It was very foggy and snowy , with some less fortunate yak searching for grazing material underneath the snow cover. Driving into Lhasa was exciting- the city is much larger than any other in Tibet, although it’s only 200,000 people (of the 450,000 total population of the region). It boasts very clean, wide boulevards with obviously planned structures facing them (the alleyways and smaller streets of the old city wind through and behind them). Apparently even 20 years ago Lhasa was a small hamlet with lots of barley fields and Potala Palace rising over them in the distance (Potala is now in the dead center of town).
Han Chinese now outnumber native Tibetans with more coming all the while, posing problems for locals as more educated foreigners snap up all the jobs (including guide jobs). Still, almost every night we went to Potala Square, facing the palace (with a conspicuous Chinese flagpole and Chinese fountains and monument) and one night saw Hans, Tibetans, tourists, and even rural tribesmen line dancing to piped-in loudspeaker music, both Chinese and Tibetan. This was the most powerful argument for a Chinese Tibet I’ve seen. Although, obvious CCTV propaganda and our guide’s obvious discomfort discussing anything 1959 or Dalai Llama related provide a potent counterpoint as well.