Driving south from Lhasa, it is no question that Tibet is devastatingly pretty. It’s also very empty particularly coming from China where everything was crowded together, and there’s a definite frontier feel to the whole place.
Plus, of course, some very lovely scenic spots to check out!
You encounter Yamdrok Lake when you crest over the first pass exceeding 15,000 feet from Lhasa (just shy of 5,000m), and it’s kind of hard to miss because it’s the largest freshwater lake in Tibet. All lakes in Tibet are sacred (you’re not supposed to go to the bathroom by water else “bad spirits” will get you, which I found quite sensible) but Yamdrok is a particularly holy lake which serves as a talisman- Tibetans believe that when the lake runs dry Tibet will no longer be habitable.
So needless to say, the fact that the Chinese built a hydroelectric plant here in 1996 and the lake is slowly draining away is incredibly controversial. Doubly so when you realize the water and power is going to Chinese business interests in Lhasa… And we won’t even talk about what will happen to the local ecosystem as a result of all this. Unfortunately this is an incredibly common sort of thing to come across in Tibet.
Coming across a bunch of prayer flags at the top of a pass. Prayer flags are everywhere in Tibet especially in high mountain passes and the like because it’s believed that the prayers written on them will have the peace and compassion of the prayers spread out into the surrounding area as the wind flaps (I always thought it was sending the prayers to the gods, but it turns out this isn’t the case). Combined with the “omanipame” simple mantra chant written in stones on the surrounding countryside, driving around Tibet is rather steeped in religion and spirituality really.
(At this point I should mention that Patrick and I appear to have been the only tourists who visited Tibet who weren’t hippies. I base this off the fact s that we know how to dress like normal people, think communism sucks, don’t do pretentious things like look down on people who shower regularly, and we were unusual for being Westerners who weren’t vegetarian.)
Carrying on with the spirituality theme, there are a lot of beautiful monasteries and stupas in Tibet as well. It’s just so decidedly deliciously different…
I’ve also learned quite a bit about Buddhism from wandering around all these Tibetan monasteries, as hey it was rather inevitable. This is a pictoral representation of the six worlds in Buddhism- we humans are lucky to be in one of the upper half worlds (along with the immortals and demigods respectively) as the bottom half is the animal world, the starving ghost world, and a fire and ice world which is rather akin to the Christian hell. Everything you do in life counts as a good or bad thing and determines which world your spirit will return to after you die, unless of course you reach nirvana instead and can break out of the cycle.
I found this rather fascinating and it was interesting to hear about what sort of effects it has on Tibetan culture. Butchers, for example, are the most reviled class of work in Tibet and it’s very hard for them to find wives even though they get paid well to kill livestock because no one wants to kill a potential relative in a past life, sort of akin to how Jewish bankers did a reviled but necessary task in Christianity for many years. I find it interesting that it’s ok to eat your potentially former relative though, just not kill him yourself- doesn’t that sound like bad karma?
Moving on down south from the monastery where reincarnation was pondered, this was at the top of our first 5,000+ meter pass! Namely a giant glacier flowing down the mountainside almost to the road itself, very lovely but so spectacularly bright in the afternoon sun I couldn’t get a decent photo as the contrast was so great.
This glacier by the way is melting at an accelerated pace in recent years ever since the road was built here- the increased reflection of light off the road has been enough to make the glacier melt much more quickly than it normally would. (That and unfortunately the great majority of glaciers in the Himalayas are melting due to global warming.) A great pity because there are few things that catch my breath more than a glacier, unless it’s a glacier located at 15,600 feet of course.
So those are the typical scenes from the Tibetan countryside- though the scenery will change quite a bit as we go higher and higher on the way to Mount Everest!