Friday, June 08, 2018

Tibet Journals IV: The Road Back



There is a guest house near the shores of Lake Mansarovar, long and low.  It reminds me of Baghdad Cafe, or the forlorn motels I'd seen during an earlier trip around the Salton Sea.  The romantic in me wanted to spend the night here, just reading and napping and watching the water fowl come to a confused landing on the ice that still defined the surface of the lake.  But the pragmatic in me ( sadly getting the upper hand more and more these days) recognized that we'd gained a day in our itinerary, and points further on showed more promise.   

A line of women performed full-length prostrations along the shoreline.  The lake is also sacred to Hindus (nearby Kailash thought to be the abode of Shiva), and some of Gandhi's ashes were spread here.  We climbed up to Chiu Monaster, prayer flags draped across the rocky face of the hill.  Just below is perhaps the world's finest 'loo with a view,'  a mere hole atop a stone platform, with an incredible 360 degree vista of the lake and the sacred mountains.  (Of course everyone within that 360 degrees would get a pretty good look at you too.) We banged on a door to rouse the caretaker, to show us around the temple, and its inner caves.  The main hall looked pretty new, with a bright and incredible statue of Guru Rimpoche, who spent the final days of his life here.  Asking the caretaker, he imposed a quota of a single photograph.


 We stopped for one last look at the lake, from a hillock topped by mani stones and yak skulls.  Then we turned our vehicle around and retraced the 600km back to Saga.  I passed most the ride in a book, but the dramatic landscape frequently pulled me out.  The eyes inevitably would go to some bizarre shape of a mountain, and sure enough, there by the roadside would be the tell-tale prayer flags.  I am most used to this in the ropes and zig-zag papers of Shintō, but of course the sacred in nature.  During one pee break I lingered awhile outside the vehicle relishing the emptiness both geographic and sonic. It was the purest silence I ever 'heard.'  Inspired perhaps by my time spent at the abode of Shiva, I felt the need to destroy it, and let out a long trilling bellow.     

We stooped again at the tasty Muslin restaurant.  A couple of smart and casually dressed Chinese men ate at an adjoining table.  They belonged to the pair of Land Cruisers out front, with the Beijing plates.  As my food cooked, I sat in the sun out front.  Two other Chinese men, not nearly as well off, were making a circuitous approach, gathering the courage to talk to me.  I used up my few sentences in Mandarin to answer a few questions, then needed to call LYL to translate. These men were part of a crew building a new road, and one of them had a crushing altitude-induced headache.  I gave him most of my remaining Paracetamol. This has happened to me numerous times during my travels, were a western face is often accompanied by pretty strong meds.     


We pulled out of Saga in a low lying mist.  It had snowed the night before, traces still coating the sides of the road.  There was a long delay at the top of the pass, as the road works there blocked traffic for awhile.  I got out and walked around, looking down at the row of trucks heaping upon itself.  Then we were through and cutting through the desert, the snow thicker here, and reflected with light that created mirages of lakes out in the distance.  Again, it had a beauty that can only be described as quiet. We left the road for awhile as we had a few days before, only this time with the snow we couldn't find our way back on.  A diagonal sort of triangulation brought the wheels back to tarmac.


 This too was unreliable as the snow requisitioned as we wound through hairpins to our final pass.  It was slick at the top, the drops big.  Large trucks moved slowly and cautiously, but D sped past.  He had an odd habit of braking or swerving suddenly, caused either by inattention or bad eyesight.  Over this surface I didn't find it so endearing.  The view from the pass was of a white world gradually giving way to brown.  The Himalaya was a wall directly to the front of us.  Then we would down and down, much farther than the climb up. A large group of foreign bicyclists was struggling on theirway up, but it would be nothing compared with what they'd face up top. 


 Down below all was tropical.  We followed a river out, on a road paved but barely. The drive reminded me of one I'd done through the Rockies of south Colorado, one right at home in a photograph of old model-T's creaking along in front of some stunning landscape.  Milarepa's birthplace was up a side canyon, but the road in was near impassible and filled with large rocks. A monastery presented the goal of an hour-long walk up a long twisty set of steps.  Now and again we'd dodge a car coming from the opposite direction.  Indians, G told us.  The fatality rate of Indian drivers was quite high, as they tend to drive much more aggressively than the Tibetans, who do indeed potter along.         

Huge snow-capped monsters rose up, and we found ourselves in the alpine setting of Kyirong.  According to Heinrich Harrer, “The name Kyirong means “the village of happiness,” and it really deserves the name. I shall never cease thinking of this place with yearning, and if I can choose where to pass the evening of my life, it will be in Kyirong."  It was this quote that made me forego the night at the Lake, and at first glance, I knew I'd made the right choice.  Perhaps a year from now, I'd be disappointed.  The classic route to Nepal used be the Friendship Highway through Zhongmu, but the earthquake had sealed it indefinitely.  This road had previously only be opened to traders, but had open to tourists six months before.  The flurry of building here was a study in optimism.  


We passed a couple of quiet days here, mainly reading and dozing in the corner room, snug beneath the massive peaks just beyond the glass. We did take a stroll before lunch, covering every inch of the town's modest grid of streets in less than an hour.  The town temple could have been in Crestone, set beneath the pines.  The shopkeepers were pretty relaxed, happy to smile and joke as we poked around the general stores.  Travel in China often requires an occasional time-out, and these settings of natural beautiful and mellow locals always work their magic. 


G had been called away on some sort of tourist emergency, so it was left to D to take us the final hour to the border.  The first check point wasn't open at the early hour, so we sat awhile in the cool of morning, waiting for the cops and the dogs to awake.  Thus through, the road dropped and dropped, down a deep cut gorge to an unbelievable 100 meters above sea-level. Damage from the earthquake across the border took the form of massive boulders at the edge of the road, and even one truck partially crushed by a landslide.  The queue of trucks began a kilometer or so before the immigration gate, but we slipped past and arrived not long before it opened.  A light rain began, and the clouds overhead added a lid to this narrow valley, bringing an oddly claustrophobic counterpoint to our entry 12 days before, sailing in through a wide and open pairing of desert and sky.  


On the turntable: Jeff Beck, "Wired"           
On the nighttable:  Paul Theroux,  "The Pillars of Hercules"

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