Top of Tibet

Adventures from the roof of the world

By: Gary Bowerman

In the darkened corner of a Tibetan monastery, four elderly monks wearing sandstone robes sit cross-legged, chanting rhythmically. Candles provide the only lighting, the only heat. One monk catches my eye and smiles.

“Tashi delay [hello],” I whisper.

His smile becomes a grin. “Tashi delay,” he responds, clasping his hands to his forehead and bowing gently. “Welcome to Tibet.”

It is one of the stand-out moments of my nine-day journey through this extraordinary land often called the “roof of the world.”

A Scenic Mix

It is early morning on day six and I am at Zhashenlunbu, one of Tibet’s most-historic Buddhist monasteries, founded in 1447. Located at the edge of Tibet’s second city, Shigatse, it is a labyrinthine complex of temples, stupas, chapels, courtyards and traditional Tibetan houses. Monks with shaved heads, young and old, drift around in burgundy robes, and the occasional sheep wanders across a courtyard. I look around at the white-washed adobe walls, breathe in the juniper incense and exhale a genuine sense of privilege to be here.

Tibet is like that. From the moment I arrive in the capital, Lhasa, I have been awestruck. Part of this disorientation may be due to the altitude (Lhasa is 13,000 feet above sea level), but Tibet is also just stunningly different. The extraordinary mountain scenery blends the Peruvian Andes with Swiss Alpine valleys and throws in some Bolivian desert, Midwestern prairies and African sand dunes for good measure. And a deeply ingrained Bud- dhist faith pervades every aspect of life. Scores of worshippers repeatedly prostrate themselves in front Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple and pilgrims wearing weather-beaten traditional dress and spinning handheld prayer wheels follow a circular route around the ancient Barkhor district. During my two days of acclimatization in Lhasa, I observed both these rituals of faith several times and was mesmerized and deeply humbled.

Overlooking Lhasa is the hillside Potala Palace home and final resting place to several Dalai Lamas. Built in the 7th century, it incorporates the Red and White palaces and is filled with national treasures. Backed by a clear blue sky, this must be one of the most magnificent man-made buildings in the world. Behind the palace, waist-high prayer wheels line the meandering perimeter wall, chanting pilgrims methodically spin each one on their slow walk around this holy site.

Leaving Lhasa in a rented four-wheel-drive LandCruiser, we headed along a tarmac road to the town of Zadang. There is little of interest to tourists here, but it’s a base for visiting the remote Samye Temple. To reach it, you must veer off road and rumble along a bumpy 30-mile track that winds through a photogenic river basin. Hundreds of black-coated yaks drink at the water’s edge, framed by jagged snow-capped peaks. A little farther, though, and the immediate scenery magically morphs into a series of virgin sand dunes. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

“There’ll be a sand-boarding center here in a few years,” comments one member of our group.

I bet she’s right, too.

Our timing is impeccable. As we enter Samye’s grand hall, the monks are gathering at low benches for afternoon prayer. They chant hypnotically from tablet prayer sheets for several minutes before ornate headdresses are handed out to the senior monks and white silk scarves to the young apprentices. As the monks redress and begin chanting once more, Tibet seems a million miles from anywhere I had ever previously visited.

Reaching the Remote

Dawn had yet to break as we left Zadang on day five. We head off-road through small villages of square, white-washed mud-brick houses, each with small roof turrets on the corners and prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. Buddhist swastikas and scorpions are painted on the walls, and a yak skull and horns is placed above the doorway. Piles of yak dung sit in the walled courtyards, used both for fuel and housing insulation.

We ascend from a dry river valley into the hills via a backside-breaking stony track, which soon becomes a narrow mountain pass with vertiginous drops on either side. The barren landscape is enlivened by small villages clinging to the sides of snow-dressed mountains. A harsher, more remote living environment is hard to imagine. We reach the summit at over 15,000 feet above sea level, and below us in the adjoining valley are the minty green waters of sacred Yamdrok Lake. Many believe that if it should ever run dry, Tibet would cease to exist.

The next day, after visiting the Zhashenlunbu monastery, we brace ourselves for a daylong, cross- country drive to Namtso Lake. Rain begins falling, and our spirits sag a little until we enter a steep fertile valley, where the fields are being ploughed by pairs of yaks wearing ceremonial red ear tassels and facial adornments. It is a picture you couldn’t paint, it would seem too surreal. After sitting in a mountainside traffic jam for a couple of hours a delivery truck had wedged itself firmly in the mud we arrive at Namtso after dark, shiver ourselves to sleep and hope for better weather tomorrow.

Opening the door of our lakeside cabin the next morning is an unforgettable traveling moment. A rich blue sky is punctuated by a myriad of jutting, snowy mountains. Best of all, the frozen Namtso Lake is a giant icy wasteland with narrow veins of thawing water channels. The sunlight bouncing off the thick, brilliant white ice rendered these channels a deep azure a camera filter lens couldn’t improve the color tone. We clamber across compacted ice and throw stones at icy targets with a young nomad boy.

As we eat an al fresco breakfast and stare across the dreamy landscape, one thought is shared by all: The roof of the world really must be seen to be believed.


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San Francisco-based Imperial Tours offers private luxury trips to Lhasa.

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Sample Itinerary from My Trip

Day 1 Shanghai-Chengdu-Lhasa (by air)
Days 2-3 Lhasa (Jokhang Temple, Barkhor)
Day 4 Lhasa-Zadang (Sa-mye Monastery, Yumbu Lhakang Temple)
Day 5 Zadang-Shigatse (Yamdrok Lake, Kambala Pass, Gyantse Castle)
Day 6 Shigatse-Namtso Lake (Zhashenlunbu Temple)
Day 7 Namtso Lake-Lhasa (half-day at Namtso Lake)
Day 8 Lhasa (Potala Pal-ace, Sera and Ramoche monas-teries)
Day 9 Lhasa-Chengdu-Shanghai (by air)