Pilgrims, Priests and Prayer Flags – Buddhist Monasteries on the Tibetan Plateau
“I am confident I will set foot again in Tibet in my lifetime.”
– 14th Dalai Lama
Despite the altitude, it is stiflingly hot and we have to get out of the city. One week in Lhasa is enough time to see its highlights and the outlying temples accessible as day trips. Most tour operators offer excursions of varying lengths to sites farther afield. So, we hire a 4X4 and driver for a few days to visit several monasteries and other pilgrim pit-stops that most tourists miss. We team up with a Dutch couple to share the cost of the trip. They are the only “” we will see for the next four days.
We leave Lhasa first thing in the morning and head west. Climbing over 500m through the Dowo Lung valley, the dirt road passes through the countryside of the Tibetan Plateau. It is stark, rugged and beautiful. In the late afternoon, we arrive at Tsurphu Monastery and the place is nearly deserted. We set up camp by the riverside and explore the gompa and its kora – monastery and its pilgrimage circuit.
When we return to our camp, a young woman and her three children – one strapped to her back in a sarong – are waiting for us. They examine our tents, the vehicle and us. Once we have met their approval, the two older boys challenge us to a game of soccer. The match ends in a tie, and the young family leaves. It is interactions like this with local people, as unexciting as the encounter might be, that are among the most rewarding experiences of traveling.
Nam Tso and the Tibetan Plateau
The next day, we pack up and head to Largen-La. At 5190m, it is one of Tibet’s highest mountain passes. Our destination for the day is the Tashi Do monastery of the southeastern shore of Nam Tso, nearly 500m below. It is the world’s highest salt lake, and towards the top of the list for Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimages. Next to the monastery is a holy rock, draped in prayer flags and flanked by a procession of muttering devotees.
In our travels, we thought that we had seen all manner of toilet. Squat toilets all over Asia, bidets in Europe and seat-less toilet bowls in . But, never had we seen what we were required to use at Nam Tso. A series of open-pit concrete pools about four feet deep make up the toilet area, and across the pits lie pairs of wooden planks approximately 8 inches wide and shoulder-width apart. The trick is to squat on the planks without losing your balance. But, when you gotta go, you gotta go. We spend the night in a guesthouse not far from the lake, with ordinary squat toilets in shared bathrooms.
In the morning, we leave for our final stop – Reting Monastery. Unlike Tsurphu, the place is packed. Reting is, like everywhere else on the Tibetan Plateau it seems, another pilgrimage stop. But this time it looks like we’ve hit the jackpot, as some sort of festival appears to be underway.
Hundreds of tents are set up, and thousands of Tibetans clad in traditional costumes mill about. Many of the men are dressed in leopard skin-fringed cloaks with daggers dangling from their sides.
Their hair is braided and plaited with red and black tassels, and their faces are covered by large aviator sunglasses. The rosy-cheeked women wear long colorful dresses, with their hair wrapped in wool scarves, and at least a kilo of silver jewellery hanging around their necks.
Alone in the Crowd
Among the throngs of people, we are the only foreigners. We watch pilgrims prostrating around the temple’s kora, lamas (priests) performing cham (mask) dances, and yaks being butchered with pick-axes. The people are as curious as they are friendly.
Many of them stop by our tents, peer inside, wonder how two people could possibly fit inside, and sit down for a while, just to look at us. It is interactions like this with the local culture, as exciting and different as the event might be, that are among the most rewarding experiences of traveling.
We return to Lhasa the next day, refreshed by our rural and somewhat private adventure on the Tibetan Plateau. We thank and tip our driver, and promise to keep in touch with our new Dutch friends. The city remains unchanged. Lhasa is still just as we left it a few days ago – busy, noisy, crowded, and stiflingly hot.