“You let us know, we can find you a bush or something,” Gelek said over his shoulder from the front seat, “restrooms on the way are not so clean and can charge one or two yuan.”
“Oh, lovely, thank you,” I muttered, looking out from the window of our van at the vast dry open terrain stretching out as far as the eye can see. Farms along the outskirts of Lhasa gave way to long stretches of barren land dotted here and there with rugged brown mountains.
On the way, I notice painted rocks on the sides of mountains and roads every few miles. Gelek tells me that the color white is especially holy to Tibetans, as it means purity and reminds one to be kind – a sentiment which I love. Gelek also shares the fact that snow only falls on mountains with an elevation over 6,000 meters, and all the ones we could see are just shy at around 4-5 meters. Therefore, the villagers like to paint rocks white in order to see more of the color (this is also reflected in their choice of white-painted houses and even pylons!).
Gelek laments that there has been no first snow yet, explaining that we need to snow to fall before next week’s Losar (the Tibetan Lunar New Year) to ensure a good harvest for farmers. He then frowns, stating that this year has been super strange as each year before they’ve had snow…
We first drive past the Kitri River, which eventually connects to Jordan. We then follow along the winding Brahmaputra (Tsangpo in Tibetan) River that flows down to India. Gelek tells me that many Hindus will come to holy Mt. Kailash, where the Brahmaputra begins, and they will bathe in the Brahmaputra’s waters to wash away their sins. Tibet’s glacial runoffs also form the start of many other highly important rivers such as the Mekong River, the Nu/Salween River and the Yangtze River.
Khari Holy Bridge
We stop at the scenic Khari Holy Bridge coated in prayer flags and white and orange khata scarves located about halfway to Shigatse. I lean over the edge to gaze down at the Brahmaputra River. Its water is a beautiful turquoise and sapphire with a surprisingly strong current. White sprays of foam are visible wherever large rocks try to sway its course. I ask Gelek, who has followed me, if people ever go white water rafting here. He says that people used to go rafting here all the time, but the Chinese government forbade it eight years ago. In the summer, however, people are allowed to come here and picnic on the shores and swim when the water level rises.
During Losar, the Tibetan Lunar New Year that falls next week on the same time as the Chinese Lunar New Year, locals will come to the bridge to remove the old worn prayer flags and put up new ones. Losar is, after the birth-and death-days for Buddha, the largest event of the year. Prayer flags are strung up in particularly windy areas, as Tibetan Buddhists believe that each wave of the flag symbolizes a prayer made. The colors of the flags are the five colors important to Tibetan Buddhism: Yellow for earth, Green for water, Red for fire, Blue for sky, and White for clouds. These are strung in ascending order.
Gelek also shares that the Brahmaputra River has fish, and even though Tibetans generally do not eat fish, some locals do go fishing and eat their catch. I have read that Tibetans don’t eat fish for a variety of reasons, so this is surprising. Among the reasons I’ve encountered are that burials used to happen in water – in which bodies, seen as vessels and without souls are deemed insignificant, wrapped in white and tossed into bodies of water. Another is that some Tibetans believe fish to be the embodiment of their ancestor’s souls, and, therefore, cannot eat them.
At this point, what I had been dreading had come to pass. Literally. I really needed to use the bathroom as Gelek kept pushing me to drink bottled waters on our drive to help with my nosebleeds. Thankfully, I was slowly acclimatizing. I could walk around without getting a headache now, but still couldn’t move at full speed yet. Up till now, I had not wanted for them to “find me a bush or something” as what scraggly bushes there were in the landscape offered little to no privacy. I felt if I did so, I might as well have just gone out in the open – and sure enough, we did drive by a guy along the way who just dropped his pants and squatted by roaside plain as day.
Luckily, near the bridge was a few houses with an outhouse at the very far corner. I ask Gelek if it’s okay if I go, already reaching for the tissues and hand sanitizer in my bag. He asks me if I’m sure I want to try it, and I reply that I think I can manage. I pass by some locals conversing outside, each of them stopping mid-sentence to stare at me. No one stops me, however, probably sensing the urgency in my steps. The facilities were…rustic, to say the least. There were three smelly squatty pits in a small shed with no door, a long ditch connecting them in the middle, with little partitions that only went up to about my waist…it wasn’t pleasant, but I managed.
The rest of the drive went fairly smoothly. At one point the wind did push the car strongly and we had a fun swerve. Thank goodness no one was on the other side of the road, and our driver was able to return to the right side, chuckling to himself. I was a bit disappointed at the lack of animal life. Some houses had skinny-looking cows, but no yaks as of yet. There were, however, loads of animal patty pyramids made from cow, yak, and horse dung all mixed together for fuel.
We continue on and pass by some old roads and ruins. Once in a while a small village or tiny monastery would pop up- all lacking plumbing and running water, I’m told. We drive by a few solar power farms used to power two to three villages. According to Gelek, since the 1990s, the Chinese government has focused more on hydro power rather than solar. There were a surprising amount of new houses built or currently under construction that we passed in pretty remote areas. I learn that the government gives a little money (very little) for housing out here. Surprisingly, Gelek tells me that the larger houses still follow the tradition of sharing a husband and wife.
Often, siblings will share a husband or wife between each other as, according to Gelek, they don’t want to split the family up. So there could be two brothers sharing a wife or three sisters sharing a husband. These polygamous and polyandrous marriages are not required to have a formal marriage certificate, and many don’t. There is also no limit to having children for native Tibetans, so most families will have about three to four kids or more.
For about the first three hours of the drive, we listen to the same two Tibetan folk songs over and over on the driver’s mini DVD player. They sound awfully similar to Bollywood love songs, but without the technical dancing. I was slightly afraid that was all we had to listen to, but after the bridge, the driver decided to put something on that would, I assume, amuse me since he didn’t speak English. They put on a DVD of Charlie Chaplin’s movie “In Modern Times;” the one in which Charlie plays a down on his luck factory worker and a poor motherless girl tries to support her family. Sadly the movie had issues playing for it paused every time we hit a bump, which was every few minutes or so.
On Losar and Tibetan Dining Etiquette
We stop for lunch at one of the mountain villages along the way. The meal is similar to yesterday’s lunch of rice, potatoes and meat, but a bit waterier and curry-spiced. The first room we sit in was pretty dark, so we move into another room with better sunlight. Most local Tibetan restaurants I have seen do not turn on their power until after sunset, utilizing the sun’s light to illuminate their rooms.
While waiting for our food, I comment on a poster on the wall showing a table laden with food and drink offerings. Gelek explains that during Losar, each family, no matter
how big or small, must make all these tedious dishes for the new year. According to him, it’s a huge pain. Losar has two names, like the Chinese New Year, one of an animal and the other an element. I guess correctly that it is also their year of the “Earth Dog.” I garner much of the dishes are remnants of old animist practices since Gelek says me that back in the old times, offerings of animal parts used to be made, but now, they recreate these body parts using foods like bread and barely since Buddhism doesn’t allow them to kill.
Tibetan food etiquette is a bit different from mainland China. For one, They also use chopsticks, but we don’t do family style plates that I am accustomed to. On the other hand, in the mainland, if you’re younger, it’s respectful to refill the drinks, and sometimes plates, of those older or higher ranking. I observe that Tibetan culture also has the cup-refilling-thing, but that they take pains to finish all the food on their plate. I remark on this to Gelek who flatly states to me that it is bad karma to leave food and mutters that the Chinese waste too much (which, I also feel is true, having been to parties and banquets where they literally pile plates of food on top of one another.) It is the direct opposite in the mainland, for if you don’t leave a bit of food and drink, it is assumed that you’re still hungry and that the host isn’t taking care of you and will give you more- if there is food and drink left, it shows that you have had your fill. Another note on leftovers, I hear, unlike the mainland, Tibetans usually don’t keep pigs, and thus they don’t have a way to practically dispose of leftover food.
Gelek continues to solemnly tell me, while spooning hot pickled peppers (they taste like a spicier form of banana peppers) onto his plate, that yak meat is becoming more expensive because the locals are only allowed to have five cows. Before, Tibetan farmers could have as many as they want, but now the government officials regulate this. He also tells me that more people prefer the yak/cow hybrid (pronounced “Zoh”) to actual yaks because they are much easier to handle and don’t need to roam in the mountains at the end of the day. The hybrids, like cows, can be herded and locked in for the night.
The three of us load back up into the car after the gentlemen have a smoke break. I observe, for the first time, monks wearing the red, blue and yellow of the Bon religion passing us on the road. We continue to drive for about three more hours, passing more farmland, desert, scattered villages, a bunch of army trucks heading back to the mainland, an army base, Shigatse’s small airport, and a border patrol where I have to show my passport and visitor’s permit before we finally arrive in Shigatse.
I was ecstatic when we finally reached Shigatse! Seven hours in a car, and I was ready to do about anything else. We first checked in to our rooms at the Gesar Hotel and took a small break before registering me at the local police station.
Shigatse is Tibet’s second largest city and headquarters of the Gelugpa (yellow hat) sect’s second in command, “Tashi” or Panchen Lama. The main draw for visitor’s to Shigatse is Tashi Lhunpo monastery which houses a gigantic Maitreya (Future Buddha) statue containing 614 lbs of gold and 330,000 lb of copper and brass. Built about six hundred years ago at the foothills of Nima mountain by the first Dalai Lama, Tashi Lhunpo is one of the six great Gelugpa monasteries. It also houses the first Dalai Lama’s remains along with those of past Panchen Lamas.
Tashi Lhunpo Monastery
We start, like with all Buddhist temples in Tibet, walking in a clockwise rotation through various prayer halls. About 2/3 of the complex was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but thankfully most of it was monk’s residences. Each hall contained photos of the ninth, tenth and eleventh Panchen lamas. Much of the relics and statues present were saved by locals when the Red Guards forced people to break statues and scriptures, throwing much of them into the river.
Gelek continues to teach me more about Tibetan Buddhism here. I learn that eight auspicious symbols that are very important to the religion. Gelek explains to me about the importance of animals and of maintaining compassion. I am introduced to the green-skinned Buddha, Tara, who offers sanctity and graces many of the frescoes adorning the walls.
In one of the halls, we come face to face with many fierce-looking Dharma-Protectors. Some of which have their faces covered by cloth or scarves. Gelek explains to me that it is very important to know their faces, for when we die, we come face to face with them and should not run away. Many of them are scary-looking indeed, with fangs and skulls rounding their faces. They are meant to take us along the right path, but if we run, we will end up in the pits of fire. Shaking his head, he tells me that many ignorant people seek to cover their faces, thinking them demons, and not understanding their importance. In one of the passages near the Protectors, we find barrels of barley wine and a hanging dead wolf. Gelek explains that although Buddha doesn’t accept offerings of wine or such things, that the Protectors are different and can ride various animals.
We draw a small crowd outside as Gelek explains a mural with the six stages of the reincarnation mandala. The first three sound dandy, but the last three stages (when one does more evil then good) were pretty terrifying. These were the animal stage – in which one returns to earth as an animal, the fiery life stage – where one has to live in pits of fire, and the hungry ghost stage – where one is always hungry with a distended belly and small neck. Some kids approached us and said, “Hello!” which was awfully cute. Their grandmas following after them waved and said, “Drashi Delek” to me, and I think were tickled when I was able to say it back.
A note on the number six – it amuses me greatly that the number six and eight are considered lucky here. Many restaurants will have some variant of 8’s and 6’s in their wifi passwords. One hotel I stayed in had 8 figures of 8 as their password. In restaurants and apartments, having an eight or a six is highly desirable in the room number. Furthermore, a popular cheer to encourage people in China is “666!” Unlike in the West, for obvious reasons.
On our way out, Gelek tells me of a dark new animist religion that many Tibetans have been joining. Apparently many join hoping it will help them get rich quick, but they go through an apparent personality change once they join. Sending a shiver down my spine, he warns me that they use animal parts and some have even killed master Buddhists believing it will help them.
In the courtyard, we witness many monks carrying large black sacks. Gelek says that when someone dies, their clothes are often donated to the monastery to be sold for cheap to the poor and needy. In this way, the dead person is still able to do good, as their family cannot keep their clothes, and donations help both the poor and the monastery.
Outside Tashi Lhunpo we encounter an outdoor market and a People’s Square (a large outdoor public space found in almost every town). Families sit in circles all over the square, sharing cups of barley wine and gossiping. I was shocked when Gelek told me that the people of Shigatse are very different in that men, women and children drink barley wine. Apparently, unlike adults, children only drink when they are thirsty, not to get drunk.
After trying my luck at bargaining and failing (Shigatse townies are stubborn!) we have dinner at a local Chinese noodle place our driver likes. There, I get some comments about looking Chinese. I shockingly discover that Gelek can’t really read Chinese characters, so the driver and I help him with the menu. We all end up ordering off things that have pictures, anyway, though. I’m happy to have some sort of vegetables, and the Roujiamo (meat in steamed buns) here is the best that I’ve had in a month.
Once back in the hotel, I collapse into the softness of the awesomely fluffy bed. Mainland Chinese beds are incredibly stiff, and it feels amazing to have a bed with not only a soft down comforter, but also a mattress that isn’t rock solid.
Tomorrow’s set to be another long road trip up to Yamdrok Lake, the Karola Glacier which feeds the lake, Pelkor Chode Monastery, Kumbum Stupa, the Kamala Pass, then back to Lhasa!