Monday 5 January 2015

Day 197: Gyantse - Eating yak stroganoff and grandma

Gyantse monastery
I have travelled on many mountain roads, but none like the ones in Tibet.  In the Kali Gandaki Valley, in Nepal, collapsing bridges struggle to prop up overloaded vehicles and the road slumps under the onslaught of rockfall.  Around Manali, we drove in a bus without a windscreen, while a vertiginous drop waited to catch us if we skidded to one side.  There were no barriers, no paving, nothing approaching a smooth surface on any of these roads.  But in China things are done differently.

Every drop is protected by a solid barrier.  Every inch of road is metalled.  Where embankments, cuttings, any type of engineering at all, are needed, they are built.  The Friendship Highway means business.

The view of Yamdrok Yutso
We drove out of Lhasa towards the Gampa La pass, stopping at a viewpoint where a dog resembling a brown lion, mane and all, awaited our cameras.  This, presumably, is the Tibetan version of busking; you offer the world's woolliest dog for tourists to photograph in return for money.  One girl had only a goat (like busking with only a penny whistle?) but it looked feeble beside the dogs and nobody paid her any attention.

We climbed through thick fog to the pass but the views across the Yamdrok Yutso lake on the far side were clear and beautiful.  A Tibetan village huddled on the far bank.  None of the buildings stood more than two stories high and all were entirely white save for a black stripe under the flat roof.  The windows too hogged the top of the house with their brightly painted frames.  (I would like Tibetan windows in my London flat!)  We will see many more such villages over the next few days.

Grandma anyone?
Lunchtime brought us to our first restaurant without the luxuries of Indian food.  The menu was interesting to say the least, the most amusing option being 'grandma'.  (I wonder how she is served?)  Other delicacies included the lungs of various animals and several types of 'rotting' meat.  We settled on what we suspected would be the first vegetable noodle soup of many.

Afterwards, Gyantse monastery shook our notion that we were monasteried-out.  The walls of a fortress enclosed a small temple surrounded by empty space where buildings destroyed in the cultural revolution once stood.  Those that survived had been used as storerooms and so they were spared the flames.  We looked around rooms where the blur of red and gold merges with the scent of incense and the sound of chanting: 'Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum'.  Buddhist monasteries bring a form of synaesthesia.  Will I ever see gold again, I wonder, without hearing that tune?  Will I ever smell incense without seeing a thangka hanging from a wall or watching the world turn saffron?

We climbed a blue and white monument, like a giant chorten, filled with shrines (more many-armed, many-headed monsters; more turbulent scenes) to a viewpoint across the walls of the fort and the mountains beyond.  Then we returned to the vehicle for the long drive to Shigatse.

Once we had crossed the next high mountain pass, the remains of the afternoon dispelled my idea of Tibet as a bleak mountain kingdom.  It may lie close to the chilly sky but its valleys are wide and its hills rolling.  It is a world of gradual if continuous ascents, not rugged crags or sheer escarpments.  We watched Tibetans harvest fields of grain in the flat valley bottoms as we drove to our destination.  They used machinery where the Tibetans of Dolpo threshed by hand.  Maybe Dolpo resembles an older, pre-mechanised Tibet.  In Tibet itself, the world of work looks more benign, less arduous, and the valleys appear golden - a prosperous place.

Our resting place was certainly prosperous - a swish Chinese hotel in Shigatse, the second largest city of Tibet.  Alas, the food was also Chinese so we campaigned successfully for a visit to one of the only Nepali / Indian restaurants in town.  As everywhere, there was no shortage of yak-based options on the menu, alongside the curries and biryanis.  In most eateries you can obtain a yak steak, yak momos, or a yak burger; such options go without saying.  But I had not adequately considered the prospect of yak stroganoff before reaching Tibet.  Nor had I realised that yak pizza was an Italian speciality (why else would it be listed in the 'Italian specials' section of the menu?).  I would love to walk into a restaurant in Naples and demand a yak pizza, then ask the chef why his selection is so poor that he cannot even cook Italy's chief culinary specialities!

Susan and Chris at the pass
A brief snow flurry at the lake
It wasn't uncommon to find a Lhasa taxi turned into a tourist car for the day
Mountain views from our second pass of the day
Prayer wheels at Gyantse
More yak butter candles
Multi-armed buddha
More books
The library at Gyantse
Colourful books
Mega thanka wall
Shrine at Gyantse
Future buddha at a Gyantse shrine
Water mill grinding roasted barley into tsampa

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