Seven days in Tibet

Getting to Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash from Kathmandu requires a comprehensive equipment check, at least two days of arduous travel and a remote border crossing so we were expecting a full briefing back at the hotel on the night before we were due to set off. Thankfully, Miss Kitty would not be coming with us and we were told to expect an experienced Sherpa team to meet us at the border but in the meantime, practical information was in short supply. Mr In-Charge-of-Kathmandu-Operations started off by leading us around the hotel conference area in a search for a free meeting room and then asking to borrow my copy of the itinerary so that he and his assistants could conduct the briefing.

Things didn’t get a lot better as he spouted vague platitudes about “spiritual preparedness” and “the importance of having the right attitude”. The latter was probably aimed at me since I had refused him my itinerary on the grounds that I might need to make notes on it. Various equipment such as holdalls, backpacks and down jackets were distributed but the necessary information about what to do with them had to be painfully extracted piece by piece. At times I was left to pick out the odd word of English from a conversation that kept veering back to Gugarati and I became particularly frustrated when it emerged, almost as an accidental aside, that no electronic devices would be allowed over the border. To find out the night before leaving that a mobile phone, which for many people nowadays serves as timekeeper, alarm, torch and back-up camera, could not be taken into Tibet and that all memory cards must be completely blank, was particularly unhelpful, especially as a mistake on the part of just one person would have denied all of us access into Chinese territories. By this stage, I was starting to believe that the organisers stood to be more injurious to my blood pressure than the altitude.

So, in accordance with the devotional aspects of our preparation, we set off next morning (DAY ZERO) to the extra holy Pashupatinath Temple on the banks of the Bagmati River for a series of spiritual offerings. The current buildings on this huge, sprawling site date back about five hundred years but it has been sacred to the Hindu religion since at least 500 BC. I was unable to see much of it since the interior is forbidden to non-Hindus but at least the private environment chosen for our ceremony was well away from the funfair which I’d seen on the way from the airport. A small fire was built in the centre of a homemade altar, intricate patterns made of coloured powder (Rangoli) had been specially laid out and we passed flowers, water and handfuls of rice grains around to the melodic chant of our priest and his two assistants. The smell of incense blended soothingly with wood smoke and I could pick out enough words to know that we were calling down the protection of the Hindu pantheon for our forthcoming pilgrimage. It was all quite reverential and concluded with the gift of saffron scarves and beads to take with us to the holy lake. Unlikely to keep you alive at 5,700 meters, I know, but at least you would be spiritually prepared for the worst.

After lunch we had to go back to the airport for a flight to one of the stops along our way; the aptly named town of Nepalgunj. Actually lower than Kathmandu, this is a hot, humid place which may or may not have other things to recommend it than a last encounter with air conditioning or hot water but I have none to report. A huge, wall-mounted Smart TV in the airport lounge boasted “voice activation and facial recognition” or at least it would have done if the centre screen had not been removed and replaced by a hand written sign apologising for “your inconvenience”.

DAY 1 begun with and early breakfast and return to the airport for our transfer to Simikot, a remote mountain town close to the border. If I thought that the Twin Otter we had taken earlier in this trip was small, then I was unprepared for the row of tiny aircraft being readied for the next leg of our journey. Passengers were divided up into small queues by each plane and flimsy, bench-type seats were removed to load up the luggage, engines were started up and, at the sound of a siren indicating a break in the cloud cover, we were all loaded aboard to take off in rapid succession. Spitfire style. Our pilot thoughtfully wiped the windscreen with a grubby hanky and we were airborne. Just fix your eyes on the mountains and pray hard.

After forty minutes we landed on a minute runway surrounded by breath-taking mountain scenery, our baggage was bundled out and onto the scales for the next stage when we would be split up into two parties for the helicopter ride to the border. Four people were almost buried under holdalls and backpacks in the back seat and I was squeezed into the front passenger seat. The teenage pilot nudged me and the bundles aside so that he could get to the controls and as we swung up into the air, I saw that somewhere between his woolly balaclava and sunglasses, he sported a skimpy, hospital-style breathing tube, the oxygen bottle slung nonchalantly over the back of his seat. I tried to concentrate on the view, this was my first ever helicopter flight, after all.

We were dropped off at a place called Hilsa, actually little more than a few huts and a ring of stones marking out the landing pad, and served tea while we awaited the remainder of our party so that we could cross the Friendship Bridge into China. At 3,640 meters it was best not to make too many sudden movements but, if altitude sickness was going to strike, it had so far not made much of an appearance and it was here that we were introduced to our expedition leader and Sherpa crew. Despite all the dire warnings (issued we found out later because some Americans had been caught taking in literature about the Dalai Lama) the border formalities turned out to be equally desultory on either side and we found ourselves in the equally treeless and unprepossessing landscape of Tibet. However, things improved with some stunning mountains views on the drive to Taklakot (aka Burang) where we would be spending the next twenty four hours acclimatising.

DAY 2 found us hanging around in an official Chinese guesthouse (no soap, no towels, no toilet paper and absolutely no hot water) in this officially sanctioned  town which has been comprehensively “Easternised” by the Chinese authorities. If there were ever any ethnic Tibetans living here they have long been moved out to make way for a main street of red and gold dragon-infested hoardings and shops selling mass-produced winter clothing and plastic, neon-coloured household implements. The backdoor smell of traditional Chinese eating establishments, so familiar from midnight perambulations around London’s Soho (for professional reasons – I hasten to add), was everywhere. I could detect five-spice and stale chicken carcass and, goodness me, could that actually be the putrescent odour of durian fruit? Someone must have opened a can over on the other side of town.

With my one book already finished, what was I to do with myself in this uninspiring place between meals and health checks? A blinding headache was quickly dismissed by the consumption of an extra two litres of water, a gentle one hour walk felt like a steep four hour trek and most of my companions seemed contented to rest. When I found out that there would be shrines along the way where pilgrims routinely left personal mementos or items of clothing I hit upon the idea of making my very only prayer flag. With the use of my nail scissors, a hastily borrowed needle and thread and the draw string out of my laundry bag I set to with a will. The five colours of the traditional prayer flag are: yellow (earth), green (vegetation), red (fire), white (sky) and blue (rain) and, cutting all the epaulettes and sleeve tags off my linen shirts, I managed a fair approximation. Worn on the back of my rucksack, it later proved just too attractive a memento to leave behind and I’m afraid the sky gods eventually had to make do with a couple of old t-shirts.

On DAY 3 we set off by bus for Lake Mansarovar, the sacred waters of forgiveness for three religions, where the sins of even a hundred lifetimes are washed away and a free pass is issued to the realm of the Gods. Well, I hope my more modest aspiration in seeking absolution from my occasionally short-tempered treatment of the tour organising staff back in Kathmandu was granted. While the rest of the ladies (did I mention we were an all-female group?) took their holy ablutions I busied myself helping the Sherpa boys to collect up rubbish from the lakeshore. The air was clean and crisp and away on the horizon, across the still blue waters, the divine staircase up the side of Mount Kailash was clearly visible. I counted more than fifty band-new underwear labels with price tags still attached, presumably this season’s pilgrims had come ready prepared with fresh clothing for putting on after their dip. A few had also left their old underwear behind but I drew the line at picking that up. I found only one devotional offering: a passport sized photograph of an elderly man, which I left tucked securely under a stone at the water’s edge.

The night was spent in a crude, single story guest house with all the rooms opening inwards in a manner rather reminiscent of a Wild West Fort. We huddled in dormitories under thick bedclothes while the Sherpa boys brought us sweet tea and Diamox tablets, then registered our blood pressure and blood/oxygen levels. I commented on how privileged I felt to have a selection of young men sitting on the edge of my bed but quickly overcame any potential for embarrassment by telling them that what I really needed was a lazy old pussy cat to keep my feet warm. The altitude and the tablets did their work and everyone had to leave the comfort of their blankets several times during the night for a wee. I have never seen such stars before in my life but “don’t go out of the compound”, we had been told, “the wild dogs may look harmless during the day but they know the taste of human flesh”.

We were now at an altitude of 4,600 meters and DAY 4 began with a visit to the remote Tarboche Shrine where I left a scan-picture of my newest grandchild alongside piles of engraved stones topped off with painted yak skulls and fluttering streamers of prayer flags against the backdrop of a wild and empty landscape. A few miles further on we came to the pony station which is situated at the entrance to a steep sided valley with a small monastery clinging to the hillside above. I saw that a few intrepid trekkers were making their way up its steep approach to but it did not seem to be an important destination for the increasing number of “real Tibetans” making their way into the valley on foot and presumably headed in the same direction as we were.

None of our group were undertaking the 36 kilometer trek around Mount Kailash, the Parikrama, on foot but some of us hoped to be able to alternate between pony riding and walking so as to be able to best enjoy the landscape. I found that I could walk very comfortably on the flat for about half an hour but then I’d begin to slow up and, since the pony boys and the Sherpas wanted to keep everyone together, I’d be urged to mount up again. All the time we were passing and being passed by people in traditional, colourful Tibetan dress, nearly all going in the same direction along the only path, which sometimes ran parallel to the river and sometimes crossed over it as it meandered down the stony valley floor. Where were they all going? Some with heavy bundles, some with babies and some with plastic aprons over their clothes and sandals attached to their hands so that they could fully prostrate themselves every few yards along the way. The only destination for them along this road, other than servicing one of the few rest stations along the route, was up over the Dolma Pass, which at 5,630 meters was a daunting challenge even in good weather.

Our journey to the first night’s stopping place was comfortable enough but we had been warned that this was the easy bit. At 3am on DAY 5 a group of European trekkers ventured out of the sleeping huts into the chill wind to start stage two of the Parikrama. I know how cold it was because I’d had to go out for the usual bathroom breaks and, by the way, also seen the totally inadequate army tents inhabited by our pony boys. We were woken with the luxury of hot, sweet tea at a more civilised hour and told that conditions were now becoming icy. The decision as to whether to continue or turn back was left to us but somewhat nudged along by the story of a Swiss woman who had suffered a broken arm the week before when her pony had slipped on the ice. She had apparently been air-lifted all the way to Lhasa (at eye watering expense) and no-one even mentioned what had happened to the poor pony. Well, it wasn’t much of a decision really, was it? The thought of waiting for evacuation like that, cold and anxious and probably without pain relief, all the while knowing that the rest of the party had all been put at risk and an animal was quite likely to be destroyed – it dawned on me that I hadn’t actually signed up for quite such a raw experience so I spoke up first. No-one disagreed and, later in the day when we found out that the early-hours trekkers had had to turn back too we agreed that we had made the right choice.

The ride/walk back was really pleasant, with the weather improving as we approached the valley mouth while the flow of genuine Tibetan pilgrims, now travelling in the opposite direction from us, never seemed to slow. I wonder what they thought of us. The early return gave me the opportunity to explore the little town of Darchen where we would be spending the night. It turned out to be a raggedy way-station with carpet-covered doorways advertising such delights as a “Traditional Wind Horse Prayer Flag Shop”, the “Tibet Paradise Theme Post Office” and the “Chonging Big Restaurant” but, alas, the “Tibetan Antique Shop” appeared to be selling only bundles of firewood and green plastic jugs. In a few incongruous nods to modernity, the street lights each had their own little solar panels, a bunch of local youths played snooker on outside tables and one of the traditionally dressed ladies had topped off her outfit with a salmon coloured chiffon hat more in keeping with a wedding in the Home Counties. I took in the wonderful, distant mountain panorama and drank tea while bargaining gently for a couple of souvenirs, then I walked back to our rooms at the partially-built “official” hotel where half the plumbing fittings were still stacked up in the yard outside and our own cook had to labour outside in a hastily erected tent to produce a hot meal.

DAY 6 took us back to the border town of Taklakot where we found out that, despite all of our pleas, there was no way we were going to be able to use the time gained by not completing the pilgrimage to get back to Kathmandu any earlier than originally planned. A couple of us rebelled and insisted on some local sightseeing whereupon a little expedition to Simbiling Monastery was organised for us. Separated from the Chinese part of town by a river and a military encampment, were the remains of the Tibetan village, where rows of ghost houses crumbled down the edge of a cliff face peppered with what looked like ancient shrines. The rock is so friable here that it is difficult to tell how long the temple has been falling down the mountainside but part of it has been re-opened since the 1980’s. We climbed up to the entrance and found a couple of attendants relaxing with their cat and a cup of tea on a carpet-strewn bed frame which had been set out to catch the sun. Steep ladders took us into three of the interconnected shrines, where rickety shelves were stacked high with ancient looking concertina-books of holy sutras. Everything in the caves: the gilded wooden Buddha, the faded silk wall hangings, the patinated brass dishes, looked a lot older than thirty five years. Perhaps the local devotees had been able to conceal some of it and return it to its rightful place after the worst of the depredations of the Cultural Revolution were over. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know but, anyway, it seemed like an appropriate place to leave another picture of Grandbaby number 5: resting in the crook of the Buddha’s arm.

DAY 7 had us up early and retracing our steps out of Tibet to travel to Hilsa on the other side of the Nepali border. I experienced a brief moment of blinding terror when I suddenly realised that the painted and engraved stone (Om Mani Padme Hum in Tibetan script) which I had bought in Darchen might be mistaken by the border guards for a stolen cultural artefact but, in the event, they scarcely awoke from their morning doze. The weather permitted us our return helicopter flights to Simikot but soon made it plain that we were going no further today. Rooms were arranged for us at the only guest house in town and a couple of us set out to explore what turned out to be one of the poorest villages I have ever visited (and that’s including parts of Africa). I have only ever seen dirt actually engraved into human skin amongst alcoholic vagrant types after years of living on the streets but here it was unmistakable. Filth ran down the centre of the street, animals lived with their owners in the wooden shacks that they called home, the houses accessed by ladders and layered in terraces to make best use of the available sunlight. Despite the fact that every item of clothing looked to be not second but at least fifth-hand, the people in this mountain village didn’t seem at all ill-contented, in fact we had arrived on a very special day: The TV talent show people had arrived. The local school had been taken over by a film crew and Nepal’s equivalent of the celebrity scouts that nowadays hoover up hopefuls the world over were in town. Despite the fact that very few of these people have access to a television a remarkable number of them seem to have i-phones and these were all on display. We caught the performances of a few of the singing contestants as we passed and all I can say was that I desperately hope that the producers were not here just to look for people to ridicule in forthcoming shows.

On DAY 7+1 we watched some of the village women gather at the airfield to earn a few rupees carrying huge loads of supplies back into the village, the bundles strapped to their backs by means of forehead harnesses and carried up a steep slope. Their once-colourful shawls, nose rings and heavy, gilded earrings were not so much a proud piece of local heritage as the pathetic uniform of the poorest of the poor. Our connecting flights began to arrive over the mountains by late morning and I sat up front for a peek into the cockpit. Ok, so there was a bit of gaffer tape on the control column and some of the dials had their faded labels over-written in marker pen but, despite their shabby trainers and knock-off sunglasses, these boys could sport the shit-kicking grins of some of the finest pilots in the world.







Categories: China, Far East


  • Chris says:

    Well, did you meet Brad Pitt then?

  • nicola ainsworth says:

    The Sherpa boys were quite attractive enough for me, thank you (just looking, of course). I’ve never seen the movie “Seven Years in Tibet”, apparently it got terrible reviews. I wonder if the stars ever made it to the high altitudes? I gather some of the Tibetan footage was smuggled out of the country so perhaps they never went there at all. Anyway, at least the local children were spared being picked over as adoption prospects! I don’t know much about Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian mountaineer who wrote the book on which the film should have been based. Apparently, I wouldn’t find out much more by watching it.

Leave a Reply